By Alan Mittleman
A group of 34 evangelical leaders recently sent President Bush a letter indicating their support for a Palestinian state. Both sides, they claim, “have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine,” according to an article in the International Herald Tribune (July 29, 2007). Such a declaration would, of course, be unremarkable had it come from a liberal, mainline Protestant body. Coming from the evangelical world, however, makes it noteworthy. The evangelical community has been stalwart in its support for Israel, as well as in its suspicion toward the Palestinians. The signers of this letter, however, claim that the public face of evangelicalism, as a staunchly pro-Israel community, does not do justice to the inner diversity of the community. According to one evangelical leader, Rev. Joel Hunter, most of the community should not be considered Christian Zionists but is “really open” and seeks “justice for both parties.”
The pastors and leaders behind this initiative—who are
identified with the growing progressive wing of the evangelical world—intend
their message to be heard by Muslims, as well. The letter is being translated
into Arabic and sent to Muslims abroad to offset the image of American
evangelicals as lock-step followers of maximalist Zionism.
This display of internal diversity within evangelicalism suggests the healthy dissent of a community come of age. Just as some evangelicals have taken a “liberal” line on the environment, the war in Iraq, or the use of torture, so too here, complicating the public image of the community is not a bad thing. Anyone who supports pluralism and the free exchange of ideas might welcome this intramural dialogue. Although I very much reject their argument—do Palestinian Arabs really have claims reaching back millennia? Millennia? lands of Israel/Palestine?—I recognize their need to make it based on their understanding of the biblical imperative of justice.
Let us be clear, however, this group does not represent a majority. It represents, at best, a vocal minority. Drawing on several surveys of evangelical opinion from 1994-2005, the political scientist John Green finds that in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians 56% of evangelicals sympathized more with Israel as opposed to 6%, who sympathized more with the Palestinians. (38% had no opinion.) Forty one percent of the general public, by comparison, sympathized with Israel; 13% with the Palestinians; 46% had no opinion. Majority evangelical backing for Israel both internally and comparatively is striking. When asked why they sympathized with Israel, 84% said it was because “God gave Israel to the Jews.” It would be hard to read the Bible without coming to this conclusion, especially if one hews to a non-suspicious approach to the text.
These leaders do not speak for the majority. At best, they speak for the 38% who have no opinion and the 6% whose sympathies lie with the Palestinians. Perhaps more probing into the evangelical majority would reveal nuances, hesitations, or gradations of support for Israel. For my part, I am thankful that the majority stands behind Israel. I do not want evangelicals to support Israel naively or credulously; I want them to support Israel —warts and all—intelligently and with full recognition of the fundamental justice of its cause.
Alan Mittleman is Director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and Professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary. His latest book Uneasy Allies? Evangelical and Jewish Relations , co-edited with Byron R. Johnson and Nancy Isserman, will be published by Lexington Books this month.