On Jerusalem Day in 2014, I attended an event in an evangelical church in South Carolina with Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Yes, on Yom Yerushalayim, the Israeli diplomat dubbed, “Bibi’s Brain” was in the Bible Belt. Dermer was giving the keynote at an event put on by Christians United For Israel, the pro-Israel lobby second only to AIPAC in its know-how and zeal and first in membership numbers. He didn’t disappoint.
“To be a realist in Israel is to believe in miracles,” he said, quoting David Ben-Gurion and priming the crowd for his follow-up question: “How many people here believe in miracles?” Every hand shot up. “Israel is the greatest miracle of the 20th century.” Applause.
Evangelicals are all, to some degree or another, Biblical literalists. A 2017 WayLife poll found that 80 percent believe that “God promised the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants for all time” and that the “rebirth of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”
So when Trump announced that he would move the American Embassy to Jerusalem of course there was rejoicing. The embassy, when and if it is relocated, would join the only other building to bill itself as an embassy in the city, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). The ICEJ is an NGO (not an official embassy) that organizes a massive festival every year for evangelicals from around the world. Its spokesperson described it as “a pre-celebration before Moshiach [Hebrew for messiah] comes.”
Trump’s announcement is a hard signal to evangelicals, a group that stood by him – even through the “grab-them-by-the-p***y” moment — that he is delivering on his promises. According to Reuters, it was a group called American Christian Leaders for Israel who made the “intense and sustained” push to get the president moving on the issue.
No one should be surprised that one of these American Christian Leaders for Israel, Gary Baur, is a personal friend of Mike Pence. His son is a senior aide to the Vice-President. Baur himself runs CUFI’s Action Fund efforts and has been in the move-the-embassy game since at least 1999.
The theological reasons for evangelical support of right-wing policy on Israel are well known. They have to do with how they see end times playing out. Many Christian Zionists believe that in order for Christ to return and reign the Earth, the Jewish people must be sovereign in the whole land of Israel, control all of Jerusalem, and rebuild the Third Temple. And while while most will say they can’t “move the hands of the clock” on this, when someone like Trump does, they’re understandably ecstatic. The notion of a “united Jerusalem,” is a fiction, but it’s a fiction evangelicals have been praying for.
In some ways Trump pulled a fast one on this religious constituency. Yes, he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and directed the State Department to move the embassy from Tel Aviv. But conspicuously absent from the announcement was any language on a “united” or “unified” Jerusalem.
Dermer did the same thing in a conversation with Politico last week, when he talked about the subject without ever using words “united Jerusalem.” “I just think the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not prejudge negotiations between the parties on any of the issues that we face,” Dermer said.
Trump clearly thought this was what he was doing. On Wednesday, he affirmed “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”
He thought he could have his cake and eat it too. The president thought could make a pronouncement about Jerusalem that would please evangelicals but would be construed by the Arab world as not pre-determining the outcome of negotiations. Needless to say, it didn’t work. And what’s more, evangelicals likely didn’t hear this nuance. They heard good tidings for the future of Jewish sovereignty in the holy land. They heard a miracle.
On Jerusalem Day with CUFI in 2014, Dermer ended his speech with a call to the pastor: “I want you to lead your congregation to Israel,” he said. “Maybe on Jerusalem Day next year.” As for me, it’d be just as well if they stayed home.