How America's Evangelicals are shaping the Middle East

In her documentary "'Til Kingdom Come", Israeli director Maya Zinshtein provides an eye-opening insight into the way Evangelicals shaped President Trump's agenda and highlights the massive influence they exerted on his Middle East policy. By Rene Wildangel

By René Wildangel

Votes in the U.S. presidential election are still being counted. Meanwhile, Donald Trump stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the results of his country's democratic electoral process. That Trump trails in the count is certainly not the fault of one particular group of voters, American Evangelicals.

In her new documentary, Israeli director Maya Zinshtein provides an eye-opening insight into the way Evangelicals were able to shape President Trump's agenda during his time in office and highlights the massive influence they exerted on America's Middle East policy.

There is certainly no shortage of books and films on this subject, but what makes Zinshtein's documentary really worth watching is the fact that Zinshtein uses her role as an Israeli filmmaker to gain unique access to the people who feature in it. It is patently obvious that she was only granted this access because she is an Israeli Jew who comes from what the people she is interviewing see as the "Promised Land", people who act in accordance with the Biblical motto "I will bless those who bless you [Israel]".

Zinshtein is evidently irritated by this unqualified love for her country. Yet the leaders of the Evangelical movement who feature in the film don't seem the slightest bit interested in her critical distance to Israel, which she makes absolutely no effort to hide at any point during the film.

Zinshtein's research begins in Binghamtown, a run-down town in a former mining region of Kentucky, where Pastor Boyd Bingham IV takes his rapid fire rifle and talks about the burden of the Obama years. Later he gives a lecture to children and young people and explains: "Israel and their people, the Jews, are better than all of us. For it is important, as he says himself, to begin "indoctrination" as early as possible.



Growing base with huge influence

What may look like an abstruse cult from the outside is, in fact, mainstream here: up to 25 percent of Americans are Evangelical in the broadest sense and can identify with the theological and religious policy principles of the movement.

What's more, the Evangelicals are steadily gaining influence in largely rural, lower middle-class white America – the America that has been "left behind". The documentary captures in impressive images the dreariness of this part of America, which provided Trump with his all-important voter base not only in 2016, but also in 2020.

Evangelical leaders who feature in the film are proud to point out that key members of the Trump administration hail from their ranks, including Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who frequently brought eschatological reflections into foreign policy discussions. For his part, Trump repeatedly appeared with Evangelical leaders – even if his relationship with them was in all likelihood purely opportunistic.

The Evangelical agenda – which is peppered with racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTI and not least also anti-Semitic attitudes – has over the last four years been pushed by a specially founded Evangelical Advisory Board, which has exclusive access to the White House.

In this way in particular, the Evangelicals were in a position to shape Trump's Middle East policy almost entirely according to their own wishes, which meant unconditional support for Netanyahu and the settler movement.

Zinshtein focuses on the most important lobby groups and their leaders to show how their influence is organised. One of these organisations is the "International Fellowship for Christians and Jews", which was founded in the 1980s by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein as a small charitable organisation and is continued today by his daughter Yael. It collects millions of dollars in donations every year. This money is invested in humanitarian projects in Israel, but also in Israeli settlements and the Israeli army.

Among other things, Zinshtein filmed during a gala dinner where money was being raised for the IDF. The dinner was attended by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has supported both Netanyahu and Trump with huge sums of money. On that evening, Eckstein told Adelson that Jewish communities around the world are not growing, but that evangelical communities are.

The message is crystal clear: pro-Israeli Christians – some of whom refer to themselves as "Zionist Christians" – are much more important allies for Israel's nationalists than Jewish communities around the world, most of which are liberal and are more critical of this one-sided support than all other religious communities in the USA.

Major Evangelical policy goals implemented

In order to make progress on one of the Evangelical pro-Israel lobby's favourite issues – namely to terminate support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – over 5,000 lobbyists were dispatched to Congress in 2018. They succeeded: the U.S. has stopped contributing to the agency.

But it didn't end there: these organisations have had even greater lobbying success during the Trump administration: U.S. withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal: done. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem: done. Political recognition for the settler movement: done. When it came to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Trump turned his back on almost every single international principle that previous administrations had always respected.

Evangelical preachers such as John Hagee, whom Netanyahu has called "Israel's best friend" and who founded a key lobby organisation called "Christians United For Israel" (CUFI), not only attended the celebrations marking the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and the presentation of the "Trump Peace Plan" at the White House, they even played a key role in the stage-managing of these events.

Still from the documentary "‘Til Kingdom Come" (photo: NDR/Met Film Sales/Abraham (Abie) Troen)
„Bereite dich darauf vor, Gott zu begegnen“: Dieser Film erzählt mit erstaunlichen Zugängen die Geschichte, wie verarmte Christen in Kentucky ihren letzten Penny an eine Wohltätigkeitsorganisation in Israel spenden. Sie hängen in ihrer Kirche den Davidstern über das Kreuz, denn sie erwarten, dass in Israel bald der Erlöser kommt und damit die letzten Tage der Menschheit anbrechen. Am Beispiel der kleinen Gemeinde in Kentucky erzählt der Film die Verstrickungen von Politik und Religion. Die preisgekrönte Regisseurin Maya Zinshtein bietet exklusive Einblicke in das Weltbild US-amerikanischer Christen und deren apokalyptische Visionen.

Zinshtein makes no bones about how she feels about all this: she filmed in the occupied territories, showing the catastrophic consequences of this policy for the rights of Palestinians. What the radical Christians celebrated costs lives: on the day the embassy was moved to Jerusalem, 58 Palestinians were killed and 2,771 were injured in protests.

But the situation on the ground, international law and occupation don't seem to matter to the Evangelicals. This becomes grotesquely evident in the filmed encounter between Pastor Bingham IV and Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, a Christian Palestinian pastor, in a church in Bethlehem. When the latter tries to explain to Bingham how difficult the situation for Palestinian Christians is and describes life under occupation, Bingham has only one answer for him: God has promised the land to the people of Israel. Exasperated by what he hears, Isaac compares Bingham's argument to a jihadist quoting the Koran. Bingham remains unmoved.

He and his fellow Evangelicals proactively support the Israeli settler movement, pay visits of solidarity to them through the "Christian Friends of Israeli Communities" and collect donations. This benefits not least Prime Minister Netanyahu, who for years has only been able to cling on to power thanks to the support of the settlers.

Anti-Semitic cliches

The Evangelicals who appear in the film openly share their unvarnished opinions with Zinshtein. They believe that Jesus will only come again when all Jews are united in Israel. They also believe, however, that on the Day of Judgement, the chosen people will be asked to make a fatal choice: either convert to Christianity or perish. When Zinshtein, herself an Israeli, asks Pastor Bingham Senior in an interview what would happen to the Jews in Israel who do not want to convert to Christianity, he doesn't mince his words.

The Evangelicals' relationship to Israel as a Jewish state is, at best, ambivalent: on the one hand, they preach that the Jews are better people and that Israel is the Promised Land. In the same breath, however, they trot out the wildest anti-Semitic cliches.

With Biden as the new U.S. President, the Lobbyists' unique access to America's corridors of power will dwindle, as will their abstruse interpretation of international law with regard to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The influence of the Evangelical associations will, however, remain as strong as ever.

To counter this influence, something more is needed than a new incumbent in the White House, namely the overcoming of the growing social and ideological divisions in the USA.

Rene WIldangel

© 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Rene Wildangel is a historian and writes about the Middle East.