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February 17, 2020

8/6/2015 10:25:00 AM
Michael G. Roskin: How the GOP Embraced Israel
by Michael G. Roskin

Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee's fuming denunciation of the Iran nuclear deal as marching Israel to the oven's door - to many, an offensive misuse of the Holocaust - raises the question of how one of the more anti-Semitic sectors of the American polity became fanatically pro-Israel. It's complicated, part natural evolution and part political calculation. Whereas anti-Semites are automatically anti-Israel, pro-Israel does not necessarily mean philo-Semitic. Many U.S. fundamentalist supporters of Israel still want Jews to convert and affirm the Judeo-Christian progression. When, by the way, did "Judeo-Christian" become standard vernacular? When I was young, it was an awkward academic construct.

The pro-Israel shift is fairly recent. Through the 1950s, mainstream Christians ignored the Holocaust and Israel's struggles while fundamentalists were hostile to Jews. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles, hopeful of swaying Arab countries to our side of the Cold War (it didn't work), were cool if not chilly to Israel. Few Republican politicians challenged that. Back then, chiefly Democrats supported Israel. The last open Republican anti-Semitism - voiced by Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul - ended in the late 20th century.

When and why did alignments change? I would look first inside Protestant fundamentalism over the last 50 years (one source: sermons over time). One student, a fundamentalist, in the late 1970s eagerly took my courses, especially those related to war and the Middle East. He said my discussions and worries confirmed predictions from the Book of Revelation that the Apocalypse was really coming and he wanted to be ready for the Rapture.

Great Awakenings reoccur in U.S. history, and the 1967 Six Day War, which seemed to be a biblical miracle, contributed to another awakening. The Israeli government reinforced this by encouraging American Christian tours of the Holy Land. Rev. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist, has a lucrative business conducting them. The approaching millennium, unsurprisingly, encouraged millenarian interpretations of Scripture. (Remember the near-panic of Y2K?) The "Left Behind" novels, published from 1995 to 2007, were huge sellers.

American fundamentalist pilgrims to Israel get especially excited at Megiddo in northern Israel, site of an ancient battle that the Greek bible rendered as Armageddon. The Israeli guides note that Megiddo was fought in the 15th century B.C., but the pilgrims take Armageddon as a prediction of the final battle at the soon-to-come end of days. Some proclaim the huge 1973 Israel-Syria tank battle on the Golan Heights a curtain-raiser. Look, here in Revelation, the forces of darkness descend from the north. . . .

Jewish organizations cultivated Christian support for Israel, which, by the 1970s, showed considerable success. They organize Israel tours to emphasize common biblical roots and defend democracy. By the mid-1970s, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) consolidated its political and financial clout and - hotly denied - tilted to the Republicans and conservative Likud in Israel.

Republicans under Nixon reached out to Jewish voters much as they did to southern voters. Their message to both: We are really on the same side on just about everything. Jewish neoconservatives, initially Democrats, worried that the abandonment of Vietnam signaled abandonment of Israel and joined Republican administrations. The Republican Jewish Coalition formed in 1985, supported by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (R-Macau). There have long been Jewish Republicans - German Jews who arrived before the Civil War - but impecunious East European Jews of the great immigration around 1900 went overwhelmingly Democrat. Like most ethnic groups, as they climbed the socio-economic ladder, Jews increasingly accepted Republican entrepreneurial values. Conservative Jewish opinion writers used to be rare; now they are common, for example, at the Washington Post.

Under Republican administrations, Washington and Jerusalem moved closer, first in opposing Soviet power in the Mideast and more recently against terrorism. U.S. airlifts during the October 1973 war - which Nixon took as a showdown with the Soviets - cemented ties with both Israel and with Jewish voters. Although the U.S. and Israel never signed a treaty of alliance, we are close allies. Republicans now accuse Democratic administrations of indifference to Israel, something that didn't bother Ike.

Thus at least three trends reinforced each other: some Jews turned conservative, many Christians turned pro-Israel and Republicans reached out to Jewish voters and donors. It worked: Since 1976, with ups and downs, around a third of the Jewish vote has gone Republican (31 percent for Romney in 2012) - a remarkable change. Most Jews, however, are still liberals and Democrats, and a greater percentage favor the Iran nuclear deal than do Americans as a whole.

Some predictions: Democrats will lose more of the Jewish vote. Republicans will enmesh too closely with Israel, letting it influence their Mideast policy positions, especially on the question of another war. Israel will push its access on Capitol Hill too hard and create a backlash. When days don't end, some Christians will turn from the Book of Revelation to the Book of Jobs (pun intended), that is, to this-worldly concerns. And Jewish Americans will worry that the fundamentalist/Republican shift to Israel is reversible.

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