This past spring I attended the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference (CATC), a biennial event organized by Bethlehem Bible College, an outpost of Christian anti-Zionism located in Beit Jala. The conference gives Palestinian Christians in the West Bank an opportunity to demonstrate their value to the corrupt tyrants who control Palestinian society (and protect Christians from jihadist violence) by demonizing Israel to Evangelicals from North America and Europe. The message offered at these conferences, which have taken place every even-numbered year since 2010, is that Evangelical support for Israel hinders the ability of Christians in the Middle East to live in peace and share their faith in Muslim-majority countries in the region. Speakers also seek to elicit feelings of guilt from the Western Christians while downplaying the problem of Arab and Muslim supremacism and Jew-hatred. With this narrative, Westerners are encouraged to expiate their guilt over Western colonialism by embracing a narrative that portrays Jews and their homeland as an obstacle to all that is good in the Muslim and Arab Middle East.
A few hours before the first night session of the conference, organizers escorted twenty or so attendees from the Orient Hotel, the conference venue, to the nearby “Walled Off Hotel” where they were exposed to anti-Zionist propaganda produced by Bansky, a charlatan who has turned anti-Israel contempt into a consumable art form that privileged young Westerners can purchase to demonstrate their authenticity and solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world.
The walls of the hotel’s piano bar are covered with paintings and sculpture that portray Israel’s security barrier as something out of a horror movie. One painting, for example, showed a dozen children sitting in swings circulating around an Israeli-built guard tower. On another wall hung a particularly gruesome sculpture of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross with scythe-like blades extending from the horizontal bar of the cross and a stretch of rope (a noose?) hanging from beneath Christ’s feet.
There are no images of hooked-nose Jews with long, serpentine hands trying to seduce white women from Europe on the walls of the piano bar, but there may as well be. The stuff on the walls is creepy, scary and edgy enough to give viewers something to pretend to think about as they wander around. The overall effect of the art on display at the Walled Off Hotel is to leave visitors with the feeling that Israel is a very bad, bad country and that visitors are part of the elect capable of seeing just how bad the country is.
It seems to work on this crowd. CATC attendees, well-to-do Evangelicals from the United States and Europe, looked at the exhibits with admiring eyes, as if they were young, naïve children at a haunted house on Halloween, with the unseen Jew as the monster. These Christians feast their eyes on the imagery, nod approvingly and ask laudatory questions of the hotel staffers, oblivious to the fact that they were being exposed to demonizing propaganda intended to incite base emotions of hate and fear against the Jewish state, whose citizens have been subjected to terrible acts of Arab and Muslim violence over the past several decades, which of course is not highlighted on the walls of the piano bar. The hotel is a sick place and the authenticity-seeking Evangelicals who visit bought its blasphemous and demonizing message hook, line and sinker. They like the hotel, which for them is a cool place to hang out. They like the vibe.
As attendees walked back toward the conference venue past the security barrier, where a graffiti artist with bad hand writing has spray-painted “F**k Jews,” I strike up a conversation with a woman whose husband is a pastor at a church back in the States. She had spent some time in the West Bank while her husband studied Arabic and had learned all about how terribly Israel mistreated the Palestinians during her time there.
In light of what she had learned while listening to her Palestinian friends — who all told her the same story — she concluded it was her job to convince all of her Trump-loving, Israel-supporting friends that not every Palestinian is a Muslim, not every Muslim is a terrorist, that there are Palestinian Christians and that these Christians are brothers in Christ, but Jews are not.
When I told her that I was a Zionist but didn’t support Israel for religious reasons, she was mystified and asked how someone could support Israel without invoking spiritual or religious belief. I told her that the Jews were a people, and that European and Middle East history demonstrated that Jews could not live safely as a minority in either location and that Israel was a legitimate expression of the Jewish right to self-determination.
At this point, my conversation partner told me that the Israelis use the Holocaust to justify their mistreatment of the Palestinians. I struggled not to lose my temper as I walked her through the peace offer Arafat turned down at Camp David and also his refusal to accept the Clinton Parameters, both of which would have given the Palestinians a state. When she realized that she didn’t know as much about the conflict as she thought she did, she said, “Well, it’s complicated.”
Well, that’s a start, I said to myself.
The episode was appalling, but instructive, reminding me once again that the same techniques used to turn mainline Protestants against Israel over the past few decades are being deployed against Evangelicals in America with troubling effectiveness.
There has always been a small number of people in the Evangelical community in the States who regard the Jewish state and its inhabitants with contempt, but overall, since the 1967 Six-Day War, American Evangelicals have been regarded, with good reason, as solid allies of the Jewish state. Every once in a while an Evangelical leader will say something ugly about Jews, like G-d not listening to their prayers, but when it comes time for Israeli soldiers to arm themselves and do battle with their enemies, Evangelicals support them.
The reasons for this support are rooted in a number of factors, none of which are mutually exclusive and most of which are mutually reinforcing. Some Evangelicals, for example, think Israel will play a role in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Others support Israel because they think God’s promises endure forever and do not want to worship a deity who changes his mind about the blessings He confers on humanity. Some Evangelicals worry about the threat of jihad on the rights of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, and think Israel is a model of how to promote human rights in the Middle East. Remorse over the role Christianity played in laying the ground for the Holocaust in Europe is also a factor.
Mainline, or liberal Protestants, who struggle with Evangelicals for hegemonic status in American civil society, do not typically support Israel. In fact, their churches assail Israel at nearly every opportunity. They make a great show of respecting the religious sensibilities of diaspora Jews in the United States, but freak out whenever an Israeli Jew picks up a gun or builds a wall to defend his home and family. They ignore Muslim and Arab Jew-hatred, but are always on the lookout for right-wing antisemitism. Pointing out that Israel does a better job protecting the rights of women and gays than any other country in the Middle East does not generate much sympathy from mainline Protestants, and even antagonizes some of them into hating Israel even more, justifying their contempt with charges of “pink-washing.”
Ominously enough, it appears that growing numbers of Evangelical Protestants are starting to embrace the mainline progressive narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Under this narrative, Israeli efforts to protect Jewish life and property are blameworthy while Arab and Muslim efforts to kill and terrorize Jews are not. Given that Evangelicals represent about 30 percent of the American population, and that most of them believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, a decline in support for Israel represents a strategic threat to Israel and to the Jewish people throughout the world.
Anti-Zionism is an attractive agenda for some Evangelicals, millenials especially, because it allows them to demonstrate to their peers — many of whom regard conservative Christians with contempt — that they are not the retrograde troglodytes that they have been portrayed as for the past 100 years.
In the aftermath of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, which pitted bible-believing conservative Christians who were opposed to the teaching of evolution in schools against progressive Christians and secularists, conservative Christians have been what scholar Susan Harding calls the “repugnant other” that their adversaries can inveigh against to demonstrate that they are on the side of modernity. For a few decades after the trial, conservative Christians who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible lived in a self-imposed exile in American society, having very little to do with wider American culture.
In the 1980s, conservative Christians under the leadership of Jerry Falwell came roaring out of their ghetto, formed the Christian Right and helped Ronald Reagan get elected president in 1980. Not everyone in the Evangelical community wants to be associated with the Christian Right, which is regarded as a horror by progressive Christians and secularists. Some Evangelicals, millenials especially, have internalized the contempt directed at the conservative wing of their community by growing numbers of non-Evangelical Americans. One way progressive and young Evangelicals can demonstrate that they are not like the followers of Jerry Falwell — who was a staunch supporter of Israel — is to come to the West Bank, hang out at the Walled Off Hotel and listen to Palestinian Christians blame Israel for their suffering while lauding the crooks in the Palestinian Authority. And sadly enough, that’s what a growing number of Evangelicals are doing, including the woman walking next to me in Bethlehem.
As I part company with my conversation partner on our way into the Orient Hotel where the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference is taking place, I suggest that maybe she should read Yossi Klein Halevi’s recent book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor to learn some more about the Israeli perspective of the conflict. It seems like a weak counter to all of the hateful imagery broadcast at the Walled Off Hotel and the distorted narrative that she will be subjected to over the next few days, but it’s the best I can do.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.