JERUSALEM – Who supports Israel more: American Jews or American Evangelical Christians?
It is not even close, says Ron Dermer, who spent the last seven years serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Evangelical Christians in the U.S. are vastly more passionate about their support for the Jewish state than American Jews.
Dermer called Evangelicals the “backbone” of political support for Israel in the U.S. and urged the future Israeli government to invest far more time courting and cultivating this vital strategic relationship.
“Israel does not spend enough time engaging with the Evangelical community in the United States,” Dermer said.
He uttered these news-making remarks in an interview with Israeli journalist Amit Segal at a conference organized by Makor Rishon, a news outlet affiliated with Israel’s national religious Orthodox Jewish community.
Dermer’s comments are stirring controversy here because some journalists interpreted his remarks as dismissing outreach to American Jews.
Israel Should Focus on Evangelicals, Not U.S. Jews, Former Envoy Dermer Says, read the headline of the left-wing newspaper Haaretz.
The Times of Israel’s headline announced: Dermer suggests Israel should prioritize support of evangelicals over US Jews.
But this entirely misses Dermer’s point.
The ambassador, the closest and most trusted advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not argue that Israel should abandon outreach to American and other diaspora Jews.
To the contrary, Dermer said that is one of the bedrock missions of Israeli diplomacy: it’s “raison d’etre.”
That said, Dermer believes Israel should expand and accelerate outreach to Evangelical followers of Jesus because there are so many and they love Israel so deeply.
“People have to understand the backbone of Israel's support in the United States is the Evangelical Christians – that's the backbone,” he said. “And it's true because of numbers, and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.”
Dermer noted that the largest Christian organization in the U.S. that supports Israel – Christians United for Israel, run by Pastor John Hagee – has “more members than there are Jews in America. Okay? More members than there are Jews in America.”
He also pointed out that “it's very rare to see Evangelical Christians leading criticism of Israel.”
By contrast, he noted, “some of the fiercest criticism of Israel comes from American Jews.”
Here is a partial transcript of the conversation:
SEGAL: In the past few years, it looks like Israel – and especially the Netanyahu administration – has been focused on the pro-Israel Christian community in the States, rather than the Reform [and] quite liberal Jewish community. Do you get that impression as well?
DERMER: No, I disagree with that. If anything, Israel does not spend enough time engaging with the Evangelical community in the United States.
People have to understand the backbone of Israel's support in the United States is the Evangelical Christians. That's the backbone. And it's true because of numbers, and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.
Look at numbers, about 25% – some people think more – 25% of Americans are Evangelical Christians. Less than 2% of Americans are Jews. You mentioned Reform Jews. I wouldn't necessarily separate them into different groups. But Reform Jews are about a third of American Jews. The largest group of American Jews are those that are not affiliated with any denomination. So if you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to Evangelical Jews – the Evangelical Christians – than you would do to Jews.
But also look at the passionate support. For most Evangelicals in the United States – certainly for many of them – Israel is one of the most important issues to them. For some, it's No. 1. For others, it's maybe No. 2 or No. 3. You have abortion. You have the issue of religion and state, and religious freedom in the United States. But those are really the three big issues for them. So they are passionate supporters of Israel.
For many Jews – there is a group of Jews in the United States – maybe 20%, 30%, 40% – even as high as 50% where Israel could be the top issue – but for many of the Jews, Israel is not the top issue. It's not in the top five or even in the top 10 issues. So if you're going to try to mobilize – you speak about politics – mobilize your base of support who are passionate about something, well, then Evangelical Christians are that.
SEGAL: Well, is it politics or values? Because we heard before that – “I mean, they are not our strategic asset, they are our brothers. But I would like to ask you if you felt that they are brothers.” I mean, I guess many Israelis can't understand why they do not support Israel.
DERMER: Are you talking about Jews or Christians?
SEGAL: No, no – the Jews.
DERMER: So I think it's the second point, which is the unequivocal support of Evangelical Christians. You have some of the greatest champions and defenders of Israel in the United States are Evangelical Christians. That's true in an administration – like (former) Vice President (Mike) Pence and (former Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo, both Evangelical Christians. Look in the [Congress] – look at which senators and which House members are Evangelical Christians and you will see some of our greatest friends.
It is true in the population. The largest Christian organization that supports Israel – CUFI, Christians United for Israel, Pastor [John] Hagee runs that organization – they have more members than there are Jews in America. Okay? More members than there are Jews in America.
Now, it's very rare to see Evangelical Christians leading criticism of Israel.
Now take the Jewish side of the equation. Among Jews, some of our strongest champions and greatest defenders are Jews. Somebody mentioned earlier Sheldon Adelson, who was one of the great defenders of Israel, and [his death was] a huge loss to Israel and to the Jewish people. So you have among the Jews, both who are Republicans and Democrats, some of our greatest champions and they're disproportionate among our champions. But they are also disproportionate among our critics. Some of the fiercest criticism of Israel comes from American Jews.
SEGAL: I’ll put it bluntly – every time I heard that (President Joe) Biden recruits a Jew for his team I became more worried. Was it the case for you, as well?
DERMER: You asked me about, you know, should Israel be spending more time doing outreach to Jews or less time? The truth is, we do outreach to Jews for a different reason, because that's about the DNA of the state, which the earlier speaker spoke about. The raison d'etre of Israel, as the Jewish state, is to build these connections with Jews throughout the diaspora, and certainly American Jews as well. So, we have an obligation and a duty to strengthen that connection. And we do. Despite everything that I said, where the Evangelical community is much bigger than the Jewish community, they're passionate in their support, they're unequivocal. I spent at least as much time doing outreach to Jews as I did with Christians. And I think if you ask consul generals – you know, we have eight consul generals in the United States – and they are responsible for outreach to the different Jewish communities. And that's Boston, New York, Florida, Houston, Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco. I would say that virtually all of them spend more time doing outreach to Jews than they do outreach to Christians.
But the Christian support for Israel – understand the battle that we had to fight the nuclear deal with Iran – that was led by Evangelicals in the United States. The force in states across the United States that are working to fight BDS, to pass legislation in the states – it's now up to, I think, 32 or 33 states; many of those states you can't get a minyan of Jews – that's led by Evangelical Christians. Support for Jerusalem, and the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the embassy, was not controversial in the Evangelical community. They fully supported it. And when Trump went to those rallies during his campaign and afterwards and he spoke about Jerusalem, tens of thousands of people would rally and would applaud him. And he wasn't speaking at the Reform convention of America. He was speaking to Evangelical Christians. So, we should do more outreach to them. And at the same time, we have a special connection and an obligation to continue to strengthen the support of American Jews.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.