The Changing Face of American Zionism

Everyone is talking about Peter Beinart’s new piece in the New York Review of Books, in which the former New Republic editor excoriates the American Jewish establishment for stifling criticism of Israel and warns of plummeting levels of support for Israel in the U.S. Jewish community. And deservedly so — it’s an important piece, as much for the identity of the author as for the content. I’m not going to discuss Beinart’s argument in full at the moment, as I’m currently working on a longer piece that will address some of the same issues. But I did want to comment on one issue that has been widely remarked upon in the debate over Beinart’s article: namely, the shift in the demographic makeup of Israel’s supporters in the U.S., as liberal Jews peel off while evangelical Christian Zionists sign on. The result is that U.S. support for Israel may soon become far more of a conservative Christian than a liberal Jewish phenomenon.

The question is, will this make a difference? Some, like Walter Russell Mead, say no, insisting that the special relationship has always been primarily due to Gentile rather than Jewish support. Others, like Matthew Yglesias, recognize the centrality of the American Jewish community to the special relationship in the past, but suggest that the influx of Christian Zionists supporters means that the collapse of Jewish support will ultimately matter very little. And it’s true that in terms of raw numbers, the number of potential evangelical Christian supporters of Israel will always dwarf the number of potential Jewish supporters.

But I think that both supporters of Christian Zionism like Mead and critics like Yglesias underestimate just how crucial support within the educated and affluent liberal mainstream of American Jewry has been in sustaining the special relationship; as a result, they overestimate the extent to which growing Christian Zionist support can unproblematically substitute for dwindling Jewish support. This is a case where merely looking at crude poll numbers, as Mead is fond of doing, can mislead us. For one thing, they show only breadth of support, not depth. It may be that large numbers of Christians are willing to answer “yes” to the poll question “do you support Israel?”, but this tells us very little about levels of actual commitment translating into political action. Some, like John Hagee and his followers, are no doubt exceptionally committed to the Greater Israel project, but they are by all indications a minority even among conservative evangelicals.

But more importantly, poll numbers fail to indicate influence. U.S. support for Israel has never been about the raw number of Israel’s supporters, but rather the fact that these supporters tended to make up an enormous part of the American political, intellectual, and economic elite. It was this influence, not raw numbers, that helped the Jewish community spearhead what Alan Dershowitz called “perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy.” This influence was manifested not only in support among actual Jews, but among the Gentile elites who lived in the same suburbs, went to the same colleges, and worked in the same offices as Jewish supporters of Israel. And it was manifested not only in obvious measures like campaign contributions, but in subtler ways of shaping media discourse and setting the political agenda.

Thus, even if Israel does manage to replace every lost Jewish supporter with a Christian Zionist supporter, there is every reason to believe that this demographic shift would still have enormous ramifications for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. In terms of concrete impact on policy, gaining ten less-affluent and less-educated evangelical supporters in Texas or Alabama does not make up for the defection of a single Peter Beinart or Haim Saban. (I don’t intend to sound snobbish here; in fact, I think that the ways in which the American political system limits the influence of its poorer and less-connected citizens is one of its least attractive aspects. I am simply stating brute facts.)

But this means that supporters of the old special relationship should not get too sanguine about the possibility of replacing the old liberal Jewish base with an influx of Christian Zionists. Even if this influx continued — which is far from inevitable, since Christians are watching the same political developments in Israel/Palestine as Jews are, and could very well become similarly disillusioned — it is unlikely that the special relationship can survive without its traditional base of liberal Jewish support.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. This is a very important point, but I’m not sure I agree with you. There’s no question that elite support has been crucial to Israel. But we are moving inexorably into an era of dumbed-down political discourse (no, we aren’t all the way there yet), with elites becoming less influential, possibly even marginalized. Only if the Boston-Washington Axis pulls off an economic and fiscal miracle will the Superclass regain its master of the universe reputation, and with it a deciding influence over public opinion.

    I would not underestimate the importance of conservative Christian support for Israel. Few things motivate people more than the prospect of Paradise. Belief in Israel’s “mission” is very, very strong in conservative Christian circles. They believe that the existence of Israel prefigures the Rapture. As they will be waiting indefinitely for that blessed event (which they nevertheless are certain will take place), their support for Israel will be ongoing and passionate. Fanaticism is a more than adequete replacement for elite opinion, especially in a “late” historical epoch.

  2. There is another important point that is being overlooked. As liberal Jews are being replaced by Christian Zionists, the motivation and activism changes dramatically. Not only do Christian Zionists support Israel because of the role it is to play in their end times drama, but that narrative has changed significantly in recent years moving away from the 150-year old fundamentalist timeline of dispensational premillennialism.

    John Hagee’s CUFI is a good example of this. Hagee has long preached a somewhat convoluted version of dispensational theology in which the church is to be raptured prior to the wars of the seven years of Tribulation. This timeline is mapped out in his Prophecy Study Bible and numerous books and sermons.

    Some CUFI directors and supporters, as well as other Christian Zionist leaders, have abandoned dispensational theology and embraced a narrative in which Christians are not raptured prior to the Tribulation but remain to fight the anti-Christ and evil in the end times. This shift in theology is the source of some of the currently militancy that we are seeing in the extreme sectors of the Religious Right, since this means they will have to become the warriors of the end times. I have written about this shift in theology at “The Public Eye” in an article titled “The New Christian ZIonism and the Jews” and also online at ZEEK, associated with the Daily Forward. (See “Saving Jews from John Hagee.”)

    Walter Russell Mead gave rave reviews to Stephen Spector’s book “Evangelicals and Israel” which interpreted this shift as a move away from end times motivations as the impetus for Christian Zionist activists. This is demonstrably false! The end times narratives have changed to allow for increased human participation in moving the hands of the prophetic clock. In this shift in narratives, unconverted ethnic Jews and the existence of Judaism become the major obstacles to the Christian Millennium – a utopia for which many of these Christian Zionists are dedicating their careers and their lives to advance as rapidly as possible.

  3. RE: “The result is that U.S. support for Israel may soon become far more of a conservative Christian than a liberal Jewish phenomenon. The question is, will this make a difference?”
    MY COMMENT: The implications for a “runaway train effect” are enormous!
    SEE: “A Serial Obstructionist”, By Rachel Tabachnick, ZEEK, March 2010
    (EXCERPTS)…Shortly after Vice President Joe Biden’s arrival in Israel, Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat were the headliners at Pastor John Hagee’s two-hour Christians United for Israel (CUFI) extravaganza at the Jerusalem Convention Center….
    …Monday’s CUFI production was based on the concept of “biblical Zionism,” or the belief that God mandates nonnegotiable borders of Israel, and any leader or nation who thwarts this divine plan will be cursed. Before introducing Netanyahu, Hagee stated, “World leaders do not have the authority to tell Israel and the Jewish people what they can and can not do in Jerusalem.” He added, “Israel does not exist because of a decree of the United Nations in 1948. Israel exists because of a covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…The settlements are not the problem.”
    In his books and sermons Hagee has promoted a “greater Israel,” that will reclaim all of Israel’s former biblical territory, stating “In modern terms, Israel rightfully owns all of present-day Israel, all of Lebanon, half of Syria, two-thirds of Jordan, all of Iraq, and the northern portion of Saudi Arabia.”
    At the Jerusalem CUFI event Hagee described Ahmadinejad as the Hitler of the Middle East who could turn the world upside down in 24 hours, words similar to those he made when lobbying for the attack on Iraq…
    …During a performance by singer Dudu Fisher, the God TV camera panned to the audience and centered on Joel Bell, leader of Worldwide Biblical Zionists. WBZ is currently building a center in Sha’ar Benjamin for “facilitating absorption” of Christian Zionists into the West Bank. It was established after a joint meetingheld in Texas of the Board of Governors of World Likud led by Danny Danon, and World Evangelical Zionists led by Joel Bell. Speakers included ZOA’s Morton Klein….

  4. If there is (fairly soon) a MASSIVE shift in EXPRESSED Jewish opinion, say revulsion, at Israel’s current practices, it might finally get through to the BIG-MONEY-BOYS (maybe their grandchildren will explain matters to them), and there may be some change within AIPAC, or a falling-off from AIPAC.

    Failing that you’ve got votes (Jewish in NY, CA, FL) and Evangelical (south) and money (AIPAC). Just as unbeatable as ever.

    Some people (maybe Chomsky) think that US policy has been developed for reasons independent of AIPAC and that AIPAC is merely a reinforcer which, upon a change in fundamental policy, could be discarded, even perhaps blamed (with anti-Semitic consequences).

    A bit hard to see.

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