On October 26, 2014, the Jerusalem Post carried an article entitled “Bethlehem Bible College – purveyor of anti-Israel propaganda” in their Christian News section. The Rev. Alex Awad, a Baptist minister who works both for Bethlehem Bible College and The United Methodist Church, was personally named as part of “a blatant attempt to demonize Israel.” The article goes on to denounce a video the college produced on the bombing of Gaza. Though not immediately apparent, the writer of the article is on the staff of “Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting,” a controversial US based pro-Israeli organization.
That the Jerusalem Post felt it necessary to publish this frontal attack on a well known Bible college is actually a good sign.
The mainstream Israeli press, and no doubt Israeli policy makers themselves, are now having to deal with the fact that unqualified support for Israel’s territorial expansion can no longer be assumed even among US Evangelical Christians. While it is certainly true that many of the most ardent supporters of the occupation are so-called Christian Zionists, there are growing numbers of theological conservatives, including some who might be included among the “Christian Right,” who are viewing the human rights situation in the Holy Land in a far different light.
Much of this change has to do with a greater variety of trips to the Holy Land, trips that include the West Bank and encounters with an indigenous Palestinian Christian community. Tourists who in years past might have been limited to visiting Holy sites are now returning home with a sense of profound indignation at the way Palestinians have been treated. I am one such tourist myself; I’ve taken sides on this issue whereas before I was quite neutral. I also know my experience is not unique.
There is also increasing opposition among Evangelicals to a Biblical understanding that gives modern day Israel the right to all of historic Palestine. According to Dr. Gary Burge of Wheaton College, such interpretations have trumped the teachings of Christ (PDF): “Christian Zionists believe in Jesus, but I wonder if they are always thinking like Christians in this matter. They have uncritically inherited the territorial world view of Judaism and wed this to prophetic predictions that are unsupportable.” Dr. Burge is one of a growing number of critics of Christian Zionism among moderate and conservative Evangelicals.
I’ve found in my own advocacy work that alliances with self identified conservative Christians are far easier to come by these days, and in Rev. Awad himself I hear one of the truly inspirational voices for our time. He advocates a Christian vision that “does not set any people above or over other people (but) rather expresses God’s unconditional love to both Jews and Gentiles.” At the same time he is indeed a strong critic of Israeli policies, and has spoken out for specific divestment from the occupation in many church settings.
Rev. Awad’s views and mission are being embraced by a growing number of younger Evangelicals, as has been pointed out in a recent article by Dr. Burge in “The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.” He writes, “… this younger generation is more troubled by injustice than they are inspired by prophecy. They want to devote their lives to the common good, and this includes direct participation in ethically troubling contexts such as Israel/Palestine.”
I would ask advocates for a just peace in Israel and Palestine to recognize the possibility of broadening their alliances to include Evangelical Christians, particularly those who are younger, and recognize this parallels other recent developments, such as the surge in awareness and activism by younger Jews in the US. As to the concerns expressed in the Jerusalem Post, supporters of the status quo in Israel and the US should indeed be worried about this challenge to their narrative.