Questioning the Covenant

Christian Zionism is at the height of its powers, but evangelical critics of Israel are finding their voice.

Arianna Skibell
June 17, 2020
The steeple of a Franciscan convent in the Aida refugee camp, near the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

IN 2009, Reverend Mae Elise Cannon, on her first trip to the Holy Land, stood on the Allenby Bridge waiting to cross into Jericho from Jordan, where she and her church group had just explored Petra. The evangelical pastor approached the Israeli border patrol agent, who asked if she intended to travel into the West Bank. Cannon was flummoxed. She knew she was headed to Bethlehem, where Jesus lived and ministered. But the West Bank? 

“I said ‘no,’ because I didn’t even know what it was,” Cannon recalled. 

Cannon was raised in a politically conservative Christian home, where she was taught to love Israel and the Jewish people. After all, in Genesis 12:3, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” She read Jewish books like Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and watched Zionist films like Exodus with Paul Newman. When she got the chance to make a pilgrimage to Israel with members of her church, she was thrilled. 

“Not only is Israel the land of Jesus, but it’s the land of the Jewish people, who have a special place in God’s heart,” she said. “Going to Israel had been a dream for my entire life.”

But Cannon’s utopian understanding of Israel began to crumble when she saw people protesting in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinians continue to fight evictions and home demolitions. The protestors held signs that read, “Free Palestine!” 

At the time, Cannon was working on her PhD and was anticipating the release of her book, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, about global justice issues, but she didn’t know anything about Palestinians. 

“I literally thought Palestine was just a map in the back of the Bible,” Cannon said. “I knew nothing about the contemporary geopolitics.” 

According to LifeWay Research, an evangelical data firm, some 80% of evangelical Christians believe that God promised the Holy Land of Israel to the Jews and that his promise, known as the first covenant, is eternal. They believe the “rebirth” of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of God’s promise, and that Christ will return only if Israel is maintained as a Jewish nation-state. This belief has led white evangelicals to play an outsized role in lobbying US foreign policy in Israel’s favor—and under the Trump administration, they have gained unprecedented access and influence. It was at the urging of his evangelical base that Trump relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. Two evangelical pastors offered opening prayers at the celebration: prominent televangelist John Hagee—the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the country—and Trump’s leading evangelical advisor Pastor Robert Jeffress, who is also a Fox News contributor. And early this year, when Trump unveiled his “deal of the century,” an alleged solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, key evangelical leaders were among the honored guests.   

But within the American evangelical community, dissenting voices are growing louder; in the wake of the Second Intifada, which ended in 2005, and the construction of Israel’s massive security barrier in the years following, greater numbers of millennial and progressive evangelicals have begun to tiptoe over the pro-Israel fault line, raising questions about the broad effects of their support. These questions have led to a slow rise in multi-narrative Holy Land tours, which, over the last 15 years, have exposed growing numbers of religious pilgrims to the reality of occupation on the ground. Meanwhile, some evangelicals—as well as Palestinian Christians—are offering alternative theologies of the land and preaching Christian solidarity over Christian Zionism. These efforts are complicating old narratives—and slowly destabilizing a once-monolithic base of American evangelical support for Israel.  

While there are few exclusively evangelical groups dedicated to fighting the occupation, pockets of dissenters are now finding a voice, often through partnerships with other denominations and religious groups. Indeed, the LifeWay Research survey found that while support for Israel among older evangelicals sits at around 80%, among evangelicals age 18 to 34, that number drops to around 58%, mirroring similar shifts among millennial Jews.

Over the last decade, progressive Jewish groups like J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, and IfNotNow have organized their communities to challenge hawkish pro-Israel sentiments and policies. Fighting even larger numerical odds, evangelical activists are now mobilizing to take on the political powerhouse that is the conservative evangelical machine. 

A Christian activist in the West Bank, March 2014. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

IN THE LATE 1970s, a new movement of white, socially conservative evangelicals awoke to their political power. In 1979, the influential televangelist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political action group that was hostile to gay rights and abortion. The following year, the socially liberal President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for reelection to Republican Ronald Reagan, who secured support from two-thirds of white evangelical voters. By the time George W. Bush took office in 2001, evangelicals had emerged as a powerful interest group. They have since mobilized through highly organized church networks, right-wing think tanks, and philanthropic organizations all geared toward winning state legislatures and reshaping the judiciary. Evangelicals now account for 16% of the total population, but they continue to punch well above their weight at the polls, making up as much as 26% of voters.

As a result, evangelicals, by numbers alone, represent the most formidable constituency in the pro-Israel political landscape. CUFI, for instance, boasts 8 million members, while AIPAC claims only about 100,000. Founded in 2006, CUFI’s annual conference attracts up to 5,000 activists to Washington, where they lobby members of both parties on Capitol Hill. In addition to leading “the charge to have the US recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol [sic],” CUFI says it has led or bolstered legislation “advancing the US–Israel relationship, confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, standing up to radical Islamic terrorism, opposing the anti-Semitic BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement, and standing up for persecuted Middle Eastern Christians.” The group says that since its founding, it has educated hundreds of thousands of Christians through 3,100 pro-Israel events in all 50 states. It has recruited thousands of “biblically and politically savvy Christian student leaders” on nearly 350 college campuses. The group takes hundreds of pastors, students, donors, and millennial leaders to Israel on over a dozen trips each year, pushing the narrative that Israel is the Jewish homeland and should be protected from those who seek to destroy it. Perhaps most notably, the group has championed legislation that the Trump administration has pushed through Congress, such as last year’s Taylor Force Act, which cut US aid to the Palestinian Authority. (A spokesperson for CUFI declined to speak on the record for this article.) 

With Vice President Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical, in the Trump White House, Christian Zionists have secured a new level of power in the United States. Pence became the first sitting vice president to address CUFI in July 2017. (Sen. John McCain refused the endorsement of CUFI founder Hagee in 2008 after audio leaked in which Hagee said Adolf Hitler was fulfilling God’s will by using the Holocaust to get Jews to Israel. Hagee later said he has “always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust.”) In January, Trump became the first president to appear in person at the annual anti-abortion March for Life, seeking to shore up evangelical support.

This support, however, is not absolute. While 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, that number does not account for nonwhite evangelicals. Many evangelical Christians interviewed for this article noted that number likewise does not account for people (often millennials) who no longer feel comfortable identifying as evangelical for political reasons. 

Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, a New Testament scholar who taught at the evangelical Wheaton College for 25 years, said the word “evangelical” has been politicized and compromised. “I have friends who want to take it back,” he said. “But that ship has sailed. I’m in this whole community who live on the margins now.”

This growing rift garnered national attention late last year when the editor of Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine, endorsed President Trump’s removal from office following the House impeachment. In a widely circulated editorial, editor-in-chief Mark Galli wrote that pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival, one of the acts for which Trump was impeached, was not only unconstitutional, but also “profoundly immoral.” 

The article immediately drew ire from Trump himself and from his evangelical supporters, but many in that community regarded the piece as a breath of fresh air. In a response published the next week, the president and CEO of Christianity Today, Timothy Dalrymple, wrote: “We have received countless notes of encouragement from readers who were profoundly moved. They no longer feel alone.” 

While fundamentalists make up the majority of evangelicals today, there has long been a progressive voice within the community. In the 1960s and ’70s, progressive evangelicals printed protest literature and attended marches in support of the anti-war and civil rights movements, while upholding fidelity to religious doctrine. And they had national representation. In 1973, prominent evangelical Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon—who secretly wore a Eugene McCarthy pin under his lapel, and who opposed the draft—addressed Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and other conservatives at the National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by Congress and organized by a Christian group called the Fellowship Foundation. His remarks were taken from text written by rebel theologian Jim Wallis, who argues that the evangelical “pro-life” position should include an anti-war and anti-poverty stance. Hatfield’s remarks earned him uproarious applause. 

In 2007, Tony Campolo, who served as spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton, co-founded Red Letter Christians, a progressive movement that says it seeks to “live out [the] radical, counter-cultural teachings” of Jesus, connecting members with Christian groups taking nonviolent action on issues like criminal justice reform and wealth inequality, or participating in peacemaking efforts in conflict zones. 

The tension between fundamentalist evangelicals and more progressive factions boiled over in May 2018, when the Trump administration relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; protests that day that left 52 Palestinians dead and thousands more wounded. 

While Jeffress and Hagee offered prayers of gratitude, members of Mae Elise Cannon’s group, Christians for Middle East Peace (CMEP), organized a prayer vigil outside the White House, lamenting the move and its subsequent death toll. (Following her pilgrimage in 2009, Cannon shifted the focus of her PhD to write about historic engagement of American Protestants in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.)

Richard Mouw, an evangelical theologian and philosopher, penned a fiery condemnation in the progressive evangelical publication Sojourners (founded and edited by Wallis) entitled “To My Fellow Evangelicals: What You’re Cheering in Jerusalem is Shameful.” 

“Do I fear being cursed by God for saying that it was a shameful thing for these two pastors to join in the celebration at the opening of the Jerusalem embassy?” Mouw wrote. “No . . . [the] prophets never called for an uncritical acceptance of whatever happened to be the current policies and practices of Israel’s leaders.”

Graffiti on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, December 2010. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

FOR EVANGELICALS, as for many Jews, making a religious pilgrimage to Israel is often a lifelong dream, and most churches offer resources to provide their parishioners the opportunity to walk where Jesus walked. While many of these tours either offer an exclusively Zionist narrative or avoid contemporary politics altogether, some have started offering multi-narrative approaches. 

The Telos Group has emerged as arguably the most organized and influential tour group aiming to change how American evangelicals engage with Israel/Palestine. Since its establishment in 2009, Telos has taken over 1,500 Christians on tours of Israel and the West Bank, facilitating encounters with an array of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, including human rights activists, settlers, security experts, politicians, and parents who have lost children to the violence. While participants’ names are kept confidential, Telos has gained a reputation for catering to people of influence, including political operatives and megachurch leadership, some of whom later speak publicly about their experiences. In 2014, Cameron Strang, then publisher and CEO of Relevant magazine—a Christian pop culture magazine with a millennial readership—ran a cover story about his trip titled “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” in which he details the stories of Palestinians working for peace. Lynne Hybels, the co-founder of the megachurch Willow Creek, which draws an average of 20,000 worshippers a week, contributed reporting to the piece. Hybels has since taken over 100 staff members and top Willow Creek leaders on Telos tours.

Telos was co-founded by Greg Khalil, a lawyer of Palestinian descent who advised Palestinian leadership during peace negotiations throughout the mid-2000s, and Todd Deatherage, a former top staffer in George W. Bush’s State Department. Deatherage, a Christian reared in the Bible Belt, began to question his default pro-Israel theology while on assignment in the Middle East. His faith taught him that the modern state of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but the more time he spent there, the more nuanced his perspective became. 

“As someone who’s trying to live out a deeper Christian faith, it was a basic way of trying to follow Jesus,” he said. “Everyone is made in the image of God and has inherent dignity as a result of that.” 

Deatherage ultimately rejected what he calls the “binary approach” of pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. “It’s a little too complicated to be reduced to all the good guys are on one side and the bad guys are on the other,” he said. “What I came to believe very much is there’s no good future for one people there without a good future for the other.” 

Deatherage said that after participants learn how hard daily life is for Palestinians under occupation and begin to see the 47,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the ones continuing Jesus’s “legacy of the Christian presence in the Holy Land for the last 2,000 years,” it’s “easy to almost flip people” from a predisposed sympathy for Israelis to having only Palestinian sympathies. Melani McAlister, author of The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals, says that there is potential for narratives about Palestinian Christians to feed a broader phenomenon of “victim identification” among evangelicals. “The focus on Christian persecution globally has dominated the evangelical narrative for the past 30 years,” she said.

Deatherage is careful to avoid this mode. “As a Christian, I don’t think we should just care about a situation because there are Christians involved. I want people to care about Jews and Muslims too,” he said. 

For some Telos tour participants, the trip represents an opportunity to reevaluate a worldview that has long gone unquestioned. Katie Kallam, 29, said that growing up the daughter of a pastor in an evangelical community in Birmingham, Alabama, pro-Israel messaging was mostly in the background; she knew it was a plus when a political candidate supported Israel. But, she said, “no one ever sat me down and explained why.” Kallam decided to participate in a Telos tour in the spring of 2017 in part because Trump’s 2016 election had politicized her. “There were issues I wasn’t dealing with because I didn’t have to, because of my privilege,” she said. “It wasn’t okay for me to not be knowledgeable anymore.” When her Telos group visited the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, Kallam was confronted with a mural featuring the names of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army. Missiles pointed down at the names. The missiles displayed Stars of David, but also the word “USA.” 

“I didn’t realize how much of our defense budget goes to Israel,” she said. “It was jarring to learn how complicit I am as an American.” When she returned to New York, where she now works as a recruiter at a tech start-up, she and her roommate, who was also on the tour, started hosting dinners for their friends—mostly young Christians from church—to share what they had experienced on the trip. “We didn’t all agree,” she said, “but doing that opened up people’s perspectives in a way they hadn’t been before.” 

Telos has received its share of criticism from fundamentalist pundits who charge the group with being anti-Israel. “This is not your parents’ anti-Israel group,” former CUFI director David Brog said during an interview with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. “These guys are savvy.” 

For his part, Deatherage cautions against the political weaponization of faith. “It’s impossible not to see the way in which Christianity was weaponized against black people. American people created theologies to baptize the institution of slavery and later to baptize Jim Crow as the right order of things,” he said. “As we live out our theologies, we have to be careful we’re living them out in the way Jesus taught . . . You can go down these theological rabbit holes and make any argument, but if it brings harm to people, it needs to be rethought.”

Take the verse from Genesis, Deatherage said, in which God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” 

“I’m all about blessing the people of the land, Jews and Arabs,” he said. “But you best bless them by helping them find ways to live in harmony, equity, security; you bless the Israelis by blessing the Palestinians, and you bless the Palestinians by blessing the Israelis.” 

DEATHERAGE IS NOT ALONE in searching for more expansive readings of scripture to ground a shifting politic. Some religious leaders are focusing their efforts on theological interpretation as a means of complicating evangelicals’ political views on Israel/Palestine, which have long been rooted in traditionalist currents in Christian doctrine.

The theology behind the belief that Jews must move to Israel to catalyze the Second Coming of Christ is called dispensationalism. Adherents to this belief system, advanced in the 19th century by a preacher named John Nelson Darby, believe that human history is divided into seven “dispensations,” or periods, and that God handles humanity differently in each one. According to dispensationalists, in the seventh and final dispensation, the imminent Millennium, all Jews will return to the land of Israel, where a brutal battle will ensue between Christians and non-believers. Those who accept Jesus as the Lord will triumph, those who do not will perish, and God will bestow an earthly paradise. Interpretations of the actual fate of nonbelievers vary; some evangelicals believe they will be annihilated gruesomely, while others have adopted more metaphorical interpretations, in which they are estranged from God’s grace.

Christian dispensationalists were early champions of a Jewish state. In 1878, famed dispensationalist William Blackstone authored the book Jesus Is Coming, which called for a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1891, Blackstone launched a petition lobbying President Benjamin Harrison to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine—five years before Theodor Herzl called for a Jewish state in his pamphlet Der Judenstaat, and six years before the first Zionist Congress. (Blackstone’s legacy is commemorated in the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, a hi-tech, five-story exhibit dedicated to honoring the history of Christian Zionism.) 

Though dispensationalist theology was never widely adopted among mainline Protestants, it has been espoused by leading Christian fundamentalist figures like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, and has made its way into the belief systems of many US evangelicals, via the pulpit and through pop culture. “The average evangelical layperson might not even recognize the term ‘dispensationalism,’” said Meghan O’Gieblyn, an essayist who often writes about religion, including her own evangelical upbringing. Still, she said, it would be “difficult to overstress how central dispensationalist theology has been to evangelical support of Israel.” O’Gieblyn said that growing up in the church in the ’90s and early 2000s, “the need to support Israel was almost always justified by appeals to end-times prophecy and the role that Israel is supposed to play in these major eschatological events.” 

Evangelical pastor Rob Dalrymple was raised in a theologically fundamentalist community with a dispensational bent. But his understanding of Israel began to change over the course of a number of visits in the early 2000s, before and after the erection of the security barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. “I’m realizing the people of Bethlehem can’t go out to farm their own fields because they’re on the other side of the wall and that’s causing economic harm and unemployment,” he said. “And I’m thinking this isn’t right, this isn’t making sense.” (Dalrymple began consulting for Telos in 2009. He plans to lead his first tour this summer.)

In his 2015 book These Brothers of Mine: A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism, Dalrymple wrestles with the notion that God has brought the Jewish people back to the land in a fulfillment of prophecy. Instead, he puts forth another interpretation, which decenters the Land of Israel and the Israelites—whom, he argues, relinquished their right to God’s grace through sins like the construction of the Golden Calf—and re-centers Jesus and believing Christians, anywhere in the world that they reside. “Jesus was faithful and never disobedient. Through him, God’s promise is fulfilled, and all who believe in Jesus are the true Israelites,” he said. 

The idea that Jesus’s relationship to God “supersedes” God’s covenant with Abraham is known as supersessionism—the belief that the Christian church has succeeded the Jews as the definitive people of God—which provides an alternative to the dispensationalist view that Jews remain a chosen people with a special role to play in the end times. Some scholars have linked supersessionism to historic expressions of antisemitism—like medieval violence against Jews and, later, pogroms in Eastern Europe—and many Christian denominations formally repudiated it after the Holocaust. (Citing nuanced theological distinctions, Dalrymple himself doesn’t identify as a supersessionist, especially because of this historical association.) Supersessionist sentiment has, however, remained prevalent in mainline Protestant denominations and retains some currency among evangelicals; according to the LifeWay poll, 28% agree that the Christian church has fulfilled or replaced the nation of Israel in God’s plan, while 32% are not sure. 

While supersessionism has served as a useful framework for some evangelicals in the process of rethinking their community’s relationship with Israel, many Palestinian Christians have been engaging with scripture through the lens of liberation theology. Popularized in the 1960s by Latin American thinkers like Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru and Leonardo Boff in Brazil, liberation theology combines Christian theology with socioeconomic analysis, emphasizing concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed people. Palestinian priest and activist Naim Ateek draws on this tradition in his 1989 book Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, in which he identifies what he calls “texts of terror” in the Hebrew Bible, which sanction ethnic cleansing and violent revenge. Ateek argues that Jesus himself never quoted from these texts, and that his followers should therefore focus on the tradition of loving God and one’s neighbor. 

“What became very important for me when I was reflecting on the life and ministry of Jesus is that he was born under occupation, the Roman occupation,” Ateek said. “He lived his whole life under occupation. And he was killed by occupation forces.”

Ateek was born in 1937 in the small town of Beisan, now Beit She’an, in the north of Israel. He recalls being driven from his home in 1948 at gunpoint and fleeing to Nazareth, where he grew up. He studied theology and served in the Episcopal Church in Palestine and Israel for many years. Then the First Intifada broke out. 

“It brought me back to the 1948 eviction,” he said. “I started reflecting on ministry and liberation and our responsibility as people of faith to resist evil, to resist the occupation.”

In December 2009, a group of Palestinian and international Christians came together to compile the Kairos Palestine document, which calls on Christians around the world to end the occupation. (The name “Kairos” comes from a 1985 theological statement, authored by a group of mostly black South Africans, decrying the church’s inaction on apartheid.) The document outlines facets of the occupation, including the impact of the separation barrier, settlements, and checkpoints. It draws a connection between faith and justice through the words of Jesus, and counters claims of Jewish ownership of the land with text emphasizing God’s ownership: “God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God’s land: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it’ (Ps. 24:1).”

The Kairos Palestine document caused a swirl of controversy within both Jewish and Christian communities; some critics argued that it is antisemitic and that it ignores Jewish claims to the land. It was never officially adopted by the World Council of Churches, an influential network of hundreds of Christian churches. Abraham Foxman, then the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the doctrine a “prime example of an effort to undercut the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.” The Presbyterian Church of the United States, however, endorsed the Kairos document, and the United Church of Christ praised it as “powerful.”

Palestinian Christians, emboldened by Palestinian liberation theology, have mobilized through a number of organizations and efforts. In 1998, longtime activist Sami Awad established Holy Land Trust, which offers Palestinian-led tours and models the skills of nonviolent resistance. In 2010, Reverend Alex Awad, Sami’s uncle and the Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, launched a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint as a way to introduce Palestinian liberation theology to evangelicals from around the world, while giving them the opportunity to witness the occupation of the West Bank firsthand. “We have developed a Palestinian theology of the land that’s not racist, that doesn’t favor one people over another,” Alex Awad said. 

Alex Awad (right) speaks at the 2012 Christ at the Checkpoint conference. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Christ at the Checkpoint, which takes place every other year, and often draws as many as 500 attendees, has been labeled anti-Zionist and antisemitic by both evangelicals and Jews. Still, the conference does not shy away from engaging its opposition; in 2018, for instance, the organizers invited Michael Brown—a prominent self-identified “Messianic Jew of evangelical Christian persuasion,” who previously called the conference “a deadly anti-Israel theological error.” In an article for the American Family Association describing his experience at Christ at the Checkpoint, Brown accuses the conference of being “Palestinian with a capital P and Christian with a small c,” and refutes dominant Palestinian narratives about the Nakba and the Great March of Return. And yet, by the end of the article, he is extolling the value of “look[ing] into someone’s eyes and [hearing] their own words” about their experiences. “I will do my best to challenge the leadership of Israel to treat their Palestinian neighbors with dignity, equality, and respect,” Brown writes.

Alex Awad said the conference is often attended by people who walk in with an exclusively pro-Israel mindset and leave “totally changed.” “People get on fire to try to share the truth of what’s happening in the Holy Land to their friends and parishioners,” he said.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2019, over 100 protestors—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—gathered outside CUFI’s national conference in Washington, DC, chanting “We will not be silent,” and holding banners that read “WWJD? Free Palestine!” and “Rise Against Racism: Counter CUFI!” 

The #CounterCUFI protest was spearheaded by an organization called Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), an outgrowth of a Jerusalem-based Christian liberation theology group founded by Ateek in the 1990s called Sabeel. As Vice President Pence addressed conference attendees inside, protestors shut down an entrance outside. A handful of activists managed to enter the conference and disrupt the event with chants and posters, before they were escorted out by security. Four guards carried Tarek Abuata, director of FOSNA, by his limbs as he shouted, “People of God, wake up! Protect the Palestinian people!”

Before last summer, FOSNA had never facilitated a direct action. Abuata, who was born in Bethlehem but moved to the US when he was 12, said the group decided to wade into the fray in part because Christian Zionism has now outpaced Jewish Zionism as a political force.  

“As paralleled in the Jewish community,” he said, “there is a new motto coming up [for Christians] of ‘Not in My Name,’ and a claiming of that liberative truth.”

Protesters with Friends of Sabeel North America block a Washington, DC, intersection as part of their #CounterCUFI action, July 8th, 2019. Photo: @fosnalive on Twitter

Daniel Dixon, a 27-year-old evangelical activist, helped to organize the CUFI action with FOSNA. Now a student at the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, Dixon is the son of evangelical Christian missionaries, and spent a chunk of his childhood in Nairobi, Kenya. He described his upbringing as “very evangelical” and continues to consider himself religious. 

Growing up in the church, Dixon said he was an “accidental Christian Zionist.” “I would have never used that phrase to describe myself, but if you were to ask me, ‘Does God still bless people depending on how they act towards Israel?’ I would be like ‘well yeah, of course,’” he said.

The totalizing nature of this narrative was destabilized when Dixon’s sister returned from a semester abroad in Jerusalem with a very different story—one that included Palestinians and, in particular, Palestinian Christians. 

“It wasn’t that I disagreed with her, it was just, I had never heard that perspective,” he said. “I didn’t even know there were Christians in Palestine.”

In 2015, Dixon spent time in Jordan, where he learned about the Nakba and began to understand how dominant Christian narratives about the conflict had played a role in erasing that story.

Dixon, whose personal story is evocative of millennial Jewish narratives around waking up to the reality of the occupation (IfNotNow’s #YouNeverToldMe campaign features similar stories of coming to consciousness despite community obfuscation), said the goal of the #CounterCUFI protest was to mobilize and equip people to take interfaith action against Christian Zionism. “We wanted to name that Christian Zionism is a powerful political tool that’s used to justify support for Israel, and we wanted to pull the legs out from underneath that,” he said. 

Buoyed by the turnout at the CUFI action, FOSNA is planning another action for this coming summer. Organizers are in the initial planning stages, but have already had dozens of signups. Abuata is hoping to bring more literature to hand out to CUFI attendees, whom he believes are persuadable. “Christian Zionists mostly don’t understand the harm of the theologies they are espousing,” he said. “[Though] I think the leaders do.”  

Still, a bulk of the activism is taking place behind closed doors through private conversations, both informally and in small study groups. Many evangelicals trying to educate their fellow Christians about the political and lived reality for Palestinians through these small gatherings did not want to speak on the record about their experiences in these talks in order to protect the privacy of participants who may fear social consequences. 

Abuata said that since the action, he has been invited to speak at a number of conferences, both by Christian and multifaith institutions, to educate constituents about Israel/Palestine. “That has been one of our goals,” he said, “to wake up the moderate church that they cannot stand on the sidelines. Neutrality is standing with the oppressor.” 

The problem, Rob Dalrymple said, is that right-wing groups like CUFI crowd out the air space. “And that’s a shame, because I think most evangelicals are rational, reasonable, they just don’t know,” he said. “And they don’t know because the only ones speaking into their ears are the far-right voices, and it’s hard for others to get any information out there.” 

Politically conservative evangelicals have only been emboldened by the election and policies of Trump, and supporting Israel is just one piece of their ambitious legislative agenda. For Christian activists, educating millions of evangelicals about the reality of the occupation is, in and of itself, an uphill battle. Translating that education into political action is even more difficult. Still, as unconditional support for Israel continues to wane among millennials, it’s conceivable that a new generation of evangelicals could contribute significant numbers to a US-based multifaith anti-occupation effort.

Dr. Andrea Smith, a board member of Cannon’s CMEP, and an author on race and evangelicalism, said that sometimes creating a space for dialogue is half the battle. “It’s about being strategic and thoughtful on how we provide information,” she said. “I had a speaker come and she literally changed everyone’s mind in an hour.”

This article has been updated to accurately reflect Rob Dalrymple's theological orientation.

Arianna Skibell is a journalist based in Durham, NC. She currently writes about climate change for Politico.