“There’s one thing better than standing with Israel, and that’s standing in Israel,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer confirmed on May 8, 2015, at the annual Christian Solidarity Event at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC. That night another connection between Israel and US evangelical Christians was born when the Covenant Journey, a new initiative inspired by the popular Taglit-Birthright Israel program, was announced.
“It is critical to bring the next generation of leaders in the Christian community to Israel. If they walk in the places where the patriarchs and the prophets and the kings and that young rabbi from the Galilee walked, then they will stand with Israel here, and they will strengthen their Christian identity.” The description of the Covenant Event was laced with these romanticized connections between biblical Israel and modern-day Israel. All that was missing was Moses parting the Sea for the young evangelicals to walk to their homeland.
After returning from a trial trip to the biblical version of Israel, Erica Tomlin, a 19-year-old sophomore at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the school founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, gushed, “I grew to love Israel by reading my Old Testament, but after visiting Israel, it gave me a push to act for Israel.“ Surely donations began to roll in to the new program, after she added, “It changed my career path. Now I want to work on advocating for Israel.”
The largest Christian donor to the Covenant Journey is fundamentalist Steve Green, an Oklahoma billionaire and the President of the craft chain Hobby Lobby owned by his father, also named Steve Green. The Green family received major public attention last year after challenging President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby successfully argued against the provision requiring employers to include coverage of contraceptives in their health care plan. Green’s landmark Supreme Court victory, and its news coverage and publicity, made him a hero in conservative Christian circles. Once again David had triumphed over Goliath.
The younger Steve Green, chairman of the board for Museum of the Bible and a keynote speaker at the Event, echoed the concept that the students would walk where the people of the Bible walked. He views this program as the beginning of many faithful evangelical Christians living in “biblical Israel,” Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank. The Covenant Journey is an 11-day version of his Bible Museum, each carefully curated part of Israel a living reflection of the biblical narratives and their place within the state of Israel. Evangelical Christian and American Jewish teens are not the only people who fall for the connection. On my first trip to Israel, I felt my heart beat faster when my taxi drove from Ben-Gurion airport to my hotel in East Jerusalem. A Hebrew road sign. Jericho! Another sign in Hebrew: Jerusalem. The next morning, when I saw men praying at the Western Wall, the scene was identical to the cover of my Hebrew grammar book.
“As young adults experience Israel firsthand, their faith is strengthened, their knowledge of the Bible is increased and their understanding of the connection between the Bible and the Land of Israel is put on solid ground. It will create a foundational platform from which they can become goodwill ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people,” Steve Green told the joyful audience that evening at the Israeli embassy. “The Covenant Journey participants will never be the same.”
The Philos Project, a pro-Israel group with a stated mission of promoting “positive Christian engagement in the Middle East,” became involved with the Program more than three years ago when it was only an idea. The Paul E. Singer Foundation is described as a “core funder “ of the Philos Project on the website of the Jewish Funders Network International Conference. Paul Singer, a Jewish hedge-fund billionaire, one of the largest donors to Republican politics, is the largest Jewish funder of the Covenant Project. The Philos group’s board also includes Richard Lang, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary; Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think tank, and Republican Jewish activist Dan Senor, who served as a Bush spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq.
These original organizers wanted a group that would be patterned on Birthright, and would be funded by both Jewish and Christian donors. The Christian Birthright group will not include individuals involved with Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest and most well-known pro-Israel Christian group, founded and headed by Rev. John Hagee. Perhaps because this founder of CUFI has written a book called Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World (2006) in which he argues that Adolf Hitler was a “half-breed Jew” and states that Hitler was sent by God, as a “hunter,” to persecute Europe’s Jews and drive them towards “the only home God ever intended for the Jews to have—(modern-day) Israel” (97). The emphasis of the Philos Project is unlike that of CUFI. Philos emphasizes “reviving an intellectually rigorous Christian approach to foreign policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East,” and educating Christians on the theological, historical, and political issues surrounding Israel and the Jewish people.
What did Erica Tomlin see, and what will the students wandering through Israel this summer see: from a distance and surrounded by Israeli tour guides, they will be piled into an air-conditioned bus and shown Christian holy sites, including Jerusalem; Nazareth; the Sea of Galilee; Mount of the Beatitudes; Tabgha, and Capernaum. In the Old City they also will stand tall at the Western Wall and Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. They will receive hospitality in settlements in Judea and Samaria, among the residents many Americans who have come to live in the land of the Bible. At the southern borders of Israel, participants will hear about the country’s security threats from the terrorist Palestinians of Gaza. In the south, parallel to Gaza, they will visit Sderot, a Jewish settlement with a children’s playground and its adjacent bomb shelters. The set design is even more impressive when the Covenant tourists get to stand in front of a stack of Hamas rockets fired at the Southern town.
The Covenant Journey tourists will not stand in front of the Apartheid Wall, amazed at how small even their tallest friend is compared with the 25-foot high wall, twice as high as the Berlin Wall. They will not meet Palestinians, although their Israeli tour guides might show them the exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located inside the Old City of Jerusalem. The site, central to all Christian faiths, is believed to enclose both the site of the Crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus.
However, nowhere will these Christians on the Covenant Journey consider themselves on a pilgrimage when they visit the most sacred Christian sanctuaries of the Holy Land. In reality the Covenant Journey will be half a Covenant Journey, the half where the Old Testament sites are presented as tangible proof of the Jewish biblical narratives while the Christian Gospels will not be presented by guides who believe in their veracity. They will meet no Palestinians; they will not walk unsupervised in villages surrounded by the Wall. They will see Rachel’s Tomb, but they will not wander at night across Shepherds Field, east of Bethlehem, where the shepherds received the message from an angel one starry night that Jesus had been born.
In the last book of the Christian Bible, Revelation, the author claims that 144,000 (12,000 from each of twelve tribes) Jewish witnesses will be saved as Christians because they have preached the Gospel. This bizarre book ends with the torment and tribulation that indicates that Jews, other than the 144,000 who have been redeemed, will drown in a river of blood or “ be cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone (Rev19:19-21). Nobody associated with the Covenant Journey expects Jews to convert to Christianity or to be slaughtered in an Armageddon worthy of Steven Spielberg. They do expect another scenario altogether. The more young Christians who return to the US dazzled by the land of Israel, the fewer BDS students will win over the student audiences in American colleges and universities to the Palestinian cause. The Covenant students will fight for the land of Israel to remain just that. The partners in this Covenant are those who want to stamp out BDS on American college campuses and those who have the money to fund it.
The young Christians who are brought to Israel this summer to strengthen their biblical faith and encourage them to become goodwill ambassadors for Israel will pay only $500. Ironically the first group of students will be from the Ivy League, hardly an evangelical hotbed. With the emphasis of the Program on intellectual study of the Bible and Jewish history in Israel, the hope is that Covenant Journey alums will empower the church to advocate for real peace in tangible ways.
Clearly Covenant Journey is betting on these students to be the leaders of their generation. There will be evangelical students groups going too, not to be mixed in with the Ivy Leaguers. I suspect that the articulate Ivy group will not be evangelizing for next summer’s Covenant Journey, but rather be the seedbed for turning off the Students for Justice in Palestine at their schools.