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Trump’s move on Jerusalem appeals more to his evangelical base than to Israelis

The US President's decision to recognise Israel's capital is strongly motivated by his domestic support base

    Donald Trump, with vice-president Mike Pence and evangelical leaders, bows his head in prayer
    Donald Trump, with vice-president Mike Pence and evangelical leaders, bows his head in prayer Photo: Getty Images

    In recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump is reflecting Jewish emotional and spiritual yearning for Jerusalem.

    In doing so, he is appealing to many outside of the far Right and the strictly orthodox in American Jewry who make up his usual supporters.

    82 per cent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump — far more than for George W. Bush or any previous Republican candidate.

    The dispensationalist Christianity of the evangelicals owes its origins to the teachings of John Nelson Darby in England and Ireland during the early 19th century.

    Darby’s theology crossed the Atlantic, where it was promoted by William E. Blackstone, a Chicago dispensationalist who organised a petition calling for “Palestine for the Jews”. This was known as the Blackstone Memorial and was presented to President Harrison in March 1891.

    Blackstone taught dispensationalists that they could understand the unfolding of events and their own place in them by considering the Jews to be “God’s sundial”.

    However, the anti-Christ, in Blackstone’s estimation, was likely to be Jewish as well. Jewish participation in universalist rather than in particularist movements was viewed as diversionary and counter-productive.

    Thus, Jewish revolutionaries in Russia, such as Trotsky, could be understood as satanic figures. In the aftermath of the October revolution, Blackstone’s options for the Jews were to convert to Christianity, assimilate, or become Zionists.

    Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and its conquest of Jerusalem propelled the Israeli right-wing on the road to power, but it also had dispensationalist implications in the progression towards the “end times”. The year 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected, was also dubbed “The Year of the Evangelical” by Newsweek.

    The developing alliance between the Israeli Right, the Republican Party and the evangelicals in the 1980s was a source of great unease among many American Jews who perceived themselves as liberal, mainstream and lifelong Democrats. In 2015, Ted Cruz, a contender for the Republican nomination, remarked on “New York values”, which some interpreted as a subterranean comment on the intertwining of Jewishness, secularism and liberalism.

    Jerry Falwell shows his colours in 1999
    Jerry Falwell shows his colours in 1999 Photo: Getty Images

    There was a sense that evangelicals differentiated between the Jews of Israel, who were an instrument in bringing about the second coming, and the Jews of the United States, who were seen as liberals and dissenters. This disdain occasionally tipped over into unsavoury commentary.

    As Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority Christian right-wing political movement, told his audience in September 1979: “I know a few of you here today don’t like Jews and I know why. He can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose… still [the Jews] were the apple of God’s eye.”

    Like Falwell, Pat Robertson, a fellow “televangelist” and founder of the Christian Coalition, held similar views on the importance of retaining the West Bank and was happy to quote from the works of Nesta Webster — required reading for British Fascists before the Second World War.

    Like other prime ministers before him, Benjamin Netanyahu further cultivated evangelical support for Israel. At a mass meeting in January 1998, Netanyahu’s presence on the eve of the Lewinsky affair became a symbolic rallying point of opposition to the Clinton administration.

    Following Netanyahu’s speech, the crowd of evangelical Christians chanted “not one inch”, urging the Israeli Prime Minister not to return territory in exchange for peace. (Indeed, many evangelicals have strongly supported the settlements on the West Bank and raised funds for them.)

    This rally evoked an unusually open criticism from Jewish leaders in the United States — that it was undermining Jewish communal opposition to the Christian right and “poking a finger in the [Clinton] administration’s eye”.

    The insistence on biblical borders even led to criticism of Begin when he returned Sinai to the Egyptians: “The Bible does not say you will receive half the land of Canaan. We are better Zionists than you Israelis. You don’t fully believe in your cause.”

    Many are celebrating Trump’s decision and applaud his courage. But the “angels’ fear to tread” may be more in tune with Jewish wisdom.

    Colin Shindler’s latest book is ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’

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