Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) sparked outrage this weekend when, in response to criticism she’s received based on her outspoken views about Israel, she implied on Twitter that money was behind the strong support the country receives from American politicians. When her detractors accused her of feeding into anti-Semitic propaganda that imagines a nefarious Jewish conspiracy driving world events, Omar responded by saying she specifically had in mind AIPAC, an American pro-Israel lobbying group.
This explanation didn’t satisfy her critics, and Omar eventually apologized Monday as the pressure grew, saying that while she still sees AIPAC’s lobbying as problematic, she did not mean to offend her Jewish constituents by promoting bigoted tropes.
It’s true that there are vicious stereotypes about untoward Jewish influence and corrupt — and it’s also true that AIPAC and other groups do try to use money to influence politics in Israel’s favor, just like any lobbyist group does for its interests. But many of Omar’s critics rightly pointed out that the implication that lobbying money is a sole or even a major driver of American policy toward Israel is implausible — there are many other forces at work as well.
One of the most powerful and disturbing of these forces pushing American policy in a pro-Israel direction is, bizarrely, one that has at its base its own form of anti-Semitism: the evangelical Christian belief in the end times.
Politics professor Elizabeth Oldmixon explained in an interview with Vox the strange thread of Christianity that fosters an apocalyptic vision the inspires much of the right-wing support for Israel.
“These are the folks who believe that there will be a millennium in the future, a golden age, where Christ reigns on Earth, [and] they believe that before Christ will return, there will be a tribulation where Christ defeats evil,” she said. “There will be natural disasters and wars, and perhaps an Antichrist, as the book of Revelations notes. Then at the end of that period, the people of the Mosaic covenant, including the Jews, will convert. Then after their conversion, the great millennium starts.”
She continued: “You have this group of people looking around for signs of the end time, and in the 20th century when Israel was founded, this was seen as a major sign. This was electrifying for that community because the gathering of all the Jews in exile to the Holy Land is a prerequisite for all of these events unfolding. So for the subset of evangelicals in the 20th century, support for Israel became a really, really important political position.”
And as evangelical Christianity grew into a central part of the GOP’s coalition, pro-Israel policies became cemented in the party’s ideology.
The alliance between the evangelicals and pro-Israeli Jews, though, is a peculiar partnership. The Christians enter into the bargain with the assumption that, when they reach their goal of the apocalypse, any Jews will either become Christians or go to hell. But their pro-Israel allies don’t seem to mind this much, perhaps because they don’t believe this version of the apocalypse will ever actually come to be — and as long as it is just a fantasy, their interests and those of evangelicals remain aligned.
It’s not the entire evangelical community that feels this way, of course. As Oldmixon noted, there are many “cultural evangelicals” that may not have the same literal beliefs as do the more devout among their peers.
But according to a poll from Lifeway published in December 2017, 80 percent of evangelicals view Israel’s origin as a new state in 1948 as a key part of the prophecy of the second coming of Jesus Christ. And 52 percent say that the country’s role in fulfilling the end times prophecy is a reason behind their support for Israel. With around 25 percent of people in the United States identifying as evangelical Christians, this portion of the population represents a massive interest group in national politics.
One influential figure who may share these beliefs is Vice President Mike Pence. Authors Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner wrote in a biography of Pence that his friends view his aim in politics as the promotion of “Christian Dominionism” — the idea that the government should enforce biblical law. And The Guardian has noted that, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pence sees “evangelical theology as a powerful motivating force” in his life.
After Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, one of his favorite Fox News hosts, Jeanine Pirro, clearly put this act in the context of Christian prophecy. She declared, “Donald Trump recognized history. He, like King Cyrus before him, fulfilled the biblical prophecy of the Gods worshipped by Jews, Christians, and yes, Muslims, that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state and that the Jewish people, finally, deserve a righteous, free and sovereign Israel.”
Writing for CNN, a religion scholar Diana Butler Bass noted that Trump’s decision to move the embassy was a particular high point for evangelical Christians precisely because of their apocalyptic beliefs:
When I was young, our pastor insisted that Jerusalem had an important role to play in these end-times events. When the Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah, he explained, God chose the church to accomplish his mission. Soon this “church age” would end with the rapture of true believers.
But God still loved the Jews, he told us, and wanted to redeem them. Thus, absent the church, the Jews would experience a great religious rebirth and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. This would spark a series of cataclysmic events that would culminate in the Battle of Armageddon, the last war of humanity. But it would also cause the Jews to finally accept Jesus as their savior. After all this occurred, Jesus would return in glory and God’s kingdom — a thousand-year reign of peace. And it would begin in Jerusalem.
And given that Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, he has a strong incentive to deliver for them.
“I may not believe it — anymore, at least,” wrote Bass. “You may not believe it. Donald Trump might not even truly believe it. But millions do. That matters. Not only for American politics, of course. For the peace of Jerusalem. And for peace for the rest of us as well.”