An about face: US White Protestants and Israel

A most remarkable change has occurred within the US White Protestant community in its attitude towards Israel. Throughout the Zionist struggle to establish the State and through it’s early years the traditional White Protestant community was not supportive and at times outright hostile. Now Israel can count on the majority of this community to be a backbone of it’s support both in the US Congress and in public discourse. The attitudes of this community toward Jewish issues used to be led by the elitist WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) segment, but now it is being driven by the more mainstream Conservative Evangelicals.

I don’t mean in this outline of  US Protestant anti-Jewish and anti-Israel action to imply that these actions were because of their religious affiliation, or to imply that only this group was capable of having these positions. There were many prominent Catholics who shared many of the same attitudes such as Father Charles Coughlin and even Jews such as Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Publisher of the NY Times, were allies to the Protestant elites in their anti-immigrant and anti-Zionist fervor.

In 1919 when the victors of WWI met to decide what will become of the land of Palestine, two of the most celebrated Protestant Church leaders of the time, Henry Sloane Coffin and Harry Emerson Fosdick went to Paris to argue against the Zionist cause. It was not just Zionist causes that many White Protestants were against. They were also instrumental in leading the charge to change US Immigration Policy which brought about the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 that had the effect of drastically limiting the entrance of Jews and others into the US.

The State Department, which was led by mostly Protestant elites during and immediately after the World Wars, was stridently anti-Zionist and anti-immigrant. Under the supervision of Breckenridge Long, the US consulates in  Europe received this instruction in how to handle the deluge of visa applications from Jews after the rise of Hitler; “We could do this,” he wrote, “by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

After WWII, in the political battle for statehood the US State Department led by George Marshall was consistently anti-Zionist. The battle behind the scene for President Truman to recognize the State of Israel upon the proclamation of statehood by Ben-Gurion was well documented by Richard Holbrooke in an op-ed in the Washington Post. He wrote, “Beneath the surface lay unspoken but real anti-Semitism on the part of some (but not all) policymakers. The position of those opposing recognition was simple — oil, numbers and history. “There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other,”

FDR, long identified as a member of the Protestant elite was extremely popular with Jewish Americans. That popularity has not stood the test of history and now his image amongst Jews has been severely tarnished. Truman was never considered part of this elite. Ron Radosh, in his book, “Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel” argues, “had FDR lived and Truman not become President, Israel most likely would not exist today.”

White Protestant antagonism against Israel continued in the State Department during Israel’s first years. John Foster Dulles came down very hard against Israel during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. Until after the Six Day War the US was not a major supplier to Israel of military equipment. Many US Jews felt the anti-Semitic diatribes that were heard from President Nixon with the release of his White House tapes, were typical of how the Protestant establishment felt about them.

The Bush family is one of the aristocratic American Protestant families. In her essay The Bushes and the Jews, Anne Kornblut describes how family elder Senator Prescott Bush’s attitudes, “went beyond the disdain for Jews and discriminatory practices that were characteristic of New England WASP culture in his day. Prescott Bush was a director of a New York bank where rich Germans who supported the Nazis stashed millions in personal wealth.”

When Prescott’s son, George H.W. Bush was President he appointed James Baker III as Secretary of State. Baker is from a very prominent Texas Protestant family. Baker’s most memorable interaction regarding Israel is his infamous, “F*ck the Jews. They don’t vote for us” remark in response to Israel’s request for housing loan guarantees.

The very same James Baker III was called upon to handle the Florida recount mess for Prescott’s grandson after the 2000 Presidential election. By the time George W. Bush became President mainstream White Protestant’s position vis-a-vis Israel by and large changed 180 degrees. How did this come about and why?

President George W. Bush at the Western Wall
Candidate George W. Bush at the Western Wall

I believe a lot has to do with tele-evangelism and the growth of the popular ministries that these preachers practice. Ministers such as Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson and Patrick Hagee pounded the airways with what they called the Biblical commandment to possess a love of Israel. Many are skeptical of this love. Some say that their true purpose is to convert Jews. Others say that they are supporting the return of the Jews to Israel to bring about the battle of Armageddon. Whatever the reasons may be, there is no doubt that this movement has changed many minds. The members of these Churches are enthusiastically pro-Israel. The one Protestant Church to buck this trend is the Methodist Church. Although the United Methodist Church voted against supporting the BDS movement, many of their stated policy positions on Israel have displayed an anti-Israel bias.

An event that also brought about profound change is 9/11. For the first time Americans felt what it was like to be an Israeli and live under the constant threat of terrorism. The evangelical Protestant movement exhibited much anti-Muslim sentiment. The march to war in Afghanistan and Iraq whipped up a patriotic frenzy and who was American’s leading ally in this war against Jihadic Islam? Israel of course.

A leading cause of mainstream White Protestant America’s embrace of Israel in this century is the emergence of Fox News as the place to go for Conservative America to get its news. Both in its news division and in its opinion shows a pro-Israel bias is displayed. It is considered against the Conservative doctrine that Fox supports to speak against Israel. Right wing talk radio, in most regards reinforces these attitudes. Republican politicians, with their great fear of going against Fox and the right wing media stars, toe the party line.

The effect of this White Protestant-Israel love affair is evident in polls. In a poll taken in December 2012 Pew asked, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?” According to Pew, “Conservative Republicans maintain strong support for Israel with fully 75% saying they sympathize with Israel compared with just 2% who sympathize with the Palestinians.” That is an amazing statistic that I would argue is the polar opposite of what I believe that this same group would have said during the pre-State era or the early years of Israel. There is no exact figure of sentiment during those years because the first poll of Americans attitudes toward Israel was conducted by Gallup in 1988. What makes this 2012 poll even more startling is that this is the sement of the political spectrum that has the least number of Jews.

American Jews while happy with the additional love for Israel are very uncomfortable with Evangelicals. On nearly every social issue the majority of the American Jewish community and the Evangelicals disagree. In electoral battles they are most of the time on opposite sides. There is a large segment of the Democratic Party that is not considered friendly to Israel as evidenced by the voice vote in the last Democratic convention on a pro-Israel plank in the party platform. Many American Jews feel very torn by this, though they still turn out in large numbers to favor Democratic candidates.

So what does this all mean? There is no question having support of the mainstream solidly on its side helps Israel both in public relations and in dealing with the US government. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups seeking to influence policy are much stronger because of this support. However, there is a danger within this support. Because of the polarity of the American electorate, the near unanimous support of one side of the spectrum causes the weakening of support on the other. In addition, on many issues mainstream Protestant supporters try to outdo themselves in their pro-Israel rhetoric and stake out positions to the right of the Israeli mainstream and sometimes even to the right of Israeli rightest political parties. This can only serve to encourage extremism in Israel and that is certainly not a good thing.

About the Author
Dr. Steven S.Turner is a practicing dentist in Howard Beach, NY. He was educated in the NYC public schools, Queens College, and the NYU College of Dentistry. He spent a summer studying in the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus in 1971.
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