Forgive me for conforming to the rabbinic stereotype of answering a question with a question, but when you ask “…good for the Jews?” which Jews do you mean? I often tell my audiences that if you gathered together, into a colossal stadium, every self-identifying American Jew, the only thing you could get us all to agree on is that Hitler was a very bad man.
Evangelical support is good for those Jews who see modernday Israel as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. The nexus of American support for Israel is not Foggy Bottom. The State Department has long leaned Arab. The United States was not the first country to recognize Israel in May 1948; the Soviet Union was. But since 1948, Christian evangelical strength in America has skyrocketed and paralleling it, so has American support for the Jewish state. America’s Bible Belt has become Israel’s safety belt.
For Jews who would rather see slightly less wholehearted support for Israel and who would prefer a nuanced vision for the Middle East in which Jew and Arab are seen as equivalent partners with congruent understandings of peace, well, evangelical support is not so good.
Should we criticize evangelical support for being self-serving? Though most evangelicals dispute this, undoubtedly some Christians support Israel to accelerate messianic days. Jewish law mandates that we owe a debt of gratitude even to someone wishing us harm but who unintentionally does us good. At the very least, we ought to gratefully welcome the support of those who wish us only good.
In today’s post-Christian Europe, Jewish men can no longer walk the streets of Paris, Manchester, Cologne, or Stockholm while wearing a kippah. Evangelical philo-Semitism indirectly helps protect kippah-wearing men in America. I, for one, welcome their support and express a heartfelt thank you.
In the period between WWI and WWII, evangelical Christians circulated wild conspiracy theories about Jews fomenting socialist revolutions and controlling international banking cartels. Since the late 1960s, evangelicals have mostly abandoned these theories and have become some of Israel’s strongest supporters in the United States. As a historian, I’m prone to wonder: What caused this shift?
The answer is two-fold. First, evangelicals, like most Americans, repudiated the Holocaust and became Zionists. Evangelical Zionism was fueled by an end-times theology that viewed the re-establishment of Israel as a necessary part of salvation history. Evangelicals endorsed the establishment of an Israeli state, and their support strengthened as Israel fought off successive Arab attacks. Second, white evangelicals also came to view Jews more sympathetically as Jews became “mainstream” in the mid-20th century. Historians and sociologists have demonstrated the malleability of racial categories in the US, and this malleability led to Jews being widely accepted as “white” by the 1950s. This whitening of American Jews facilitated evangelicals’ growing appreciation for the group.
This history suggests a nuanced answer to the question: is evangelical support good for the Jews? Evangelical support is good for Zionists. The US has advanced the cause of Israel, but that support is a two-edged sword. Because evangelicals believe that Jesus is the messiah, their theology renders Jews as misguided. In this view, Zionist Jews are helping to advance a divine plan that they don’t understand.
More broadly, because evangelical support for Jews depended on Jews becoming “white,” it depends partly on a system of racial exclusion that ultimately depraves our culture. Since the 1960s, evangelicals have increasingly viewed Judaism as a “mainstream” American religion. But the term mainstream encodes a system of bias and exclusion that has deep roots in American history.