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This is how the Republican Party became so strongly pro-Israel

A crowd of mostly Evangelical Christians waves U.S. and Israeli flags during the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) "Night to Honor Israel" event during the CUFI Summit 2023 on July 17, 2023, in Arlington, Va.
Jacquelyn Martin
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AP
A crowd of mostly Evangelical Christians waves U.S. and Israeli flags during the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) "Night to Honor Israel" event during the CUFI Summit 2023 on July 17, 2023, in Arlington, Va.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel, Republican presidential candidates have been sniping at each other. The goal: to prove to Republican voters that they support Israel more strongly than their rivals.

Former Vice President Mike Pence declared on CNN, "this is what happens when we have leading voices like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis signaling retreat from America's role as leader of the free world."

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott likewise slammed Ramaswamy for, at one point, saying he hoped the U.S. could eventually reduce aid to Israel.

Former President Trump, meanwhile, took aim at Democrats at a recent campaign rally, drawing a direct line between protecting Israel, being an evangelical Christian and voting Republican.

"I can't imagine how anybody who's Jewish or anybody who loves Israel — and frankly, the evangelicals just love Israel — I can't imagine anybody voting Democrat," he said bluntly.

To be clear, people of both parties widely expressed horror at Hamas's attack on Israel. But there is a divide on public opinion toward the ongoing conflict and the history behind it, with Republicans being particularly pro-Israel.

That divide didn't always exist; in the late 1990s, the Pew Research Center found that just over half of Republicans said they sympathize with Israel more than the Palestinians. By 2018, 8 in 10 Republicans said Israel. (Pew has since stopped asking that exact question, but more recent polling still shows a wide partisan gap in attitudes.)

And as Trump said, evangelicals are a big part of that shift.

The biblical connection to Israel

Conservative news sources can offer a glimpse of the biblical link between Israel and evangelical Christians. Baptist preacher and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress recently told the network about what he sees as connections between current war and biblical descriptions of the end times.

"The Bible predicts the final world conflict will happen on the plain of Megiddo in Israel when the superpowers assemble together to do battle," he explained. "Well, I think we can see now how a regional conflict could quickly escalate into a worldwide conflict. And that is going to happen one day."

Many Christians, particularly Pentecostals and fundamentalists, believe that end times scenario to be real.

In addition, many evangelicals believe in what is called the "Abrahamic Covenant" — the idea that God promised land that is now Israel and the Palestinian territories to Abraham and his descendants.

According to one 2017 survey from Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay, 8 in 10 evangelicals believe that "God's promise to Abraham and his descendants was for all time," and 7 in 10 agreed that "Jewish people have a historic right to the land of Israel."

Evangelist Billy Graham stands by the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 17, 1960. Graham went on an 18,000-mile preaching tour of Africa and the Middle East and this trip to Israel largely signaled a shift for evangelicals in their views of the country.
Leila Wynn / AP
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ASSOCIATED PRESS
Evangelist Billy Graham stands by the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 17, 1960. Graham went on an 18,000-mile preaching tour of Africa and the Middle East and this trip to Israel largely signaled a shift for evangelicals in their views of the country.

Starting in the 1960s, Christian leaders like Billy Graham began to emphasize — and politicize — this connection.

"Graham first visited Israel in 1960. And it's a really big deal," said Daniel Hummel, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Not only did Graham preach in Israel, but he met with then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: "He really makes a point to articulate a Christian Zionist view that the nation of Israel is a fulfillment of God's plans for the Jewish people and that it has a great future ahead of it," explained Hummel.

In the 1980s the conservative Christian organization Moral Majority grew more involved in high-level Republican politics. That organization also considered Israel one of its key issues, and founder Rev. Jerry Falwell also had access to Israeli prime ministers.

At the same time as all this, the parties continued to sort demographically, with white evangelicals over time shifting to become a massive part of the Republican base — which they still are today.

President Trump understood that, and played to evangelical sensibilities when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, then moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the the holy city of Jerusalem — which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. In a 2020 campaign speech, Trump was blunt about why he did it:

"We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That's for the evangelicals," he said.

He added: "You know, it's amazing with that: the evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people." (Jewish voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and as of 2021, only 4 in 10 U.S. Jews rated Trump's handling of U.S.-Israeli policy as "excellent" or "good.")

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as then-President Donald Trump looks on, on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 15, 2020. Trump still touts his ties to Israel and its leadership on the campaign trail as he seeks another term.
Alex Brandon / AP
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AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as then-President Donald Trump looks on, on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 15, 2020. Trump still touts his ties to Israel and its leadership on the campaign trail as he seeks another term.

Politics beyond religion

All of this said, partisan divides over Israel and the Palestinian territories are about more than religion. For example, U.S. conservative elites may have felt some affinity with similarly conservative Israeli leadership.

"Since [former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin's victory in 1977, Israel has mostly had right of center governments. It does now, until the formation of a national unity government," said Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served in three Republican administrations, including Trump's.

Moreover, the presence of a strong democracy in the Middle East was part of what made Israel important to neoconservatives, who were ascendant in the Republican Party in the 1970s and beyond.

"Most of them see a very strong strategic alignment between the U.S. and Israel. They're also gaining prominence in the GOP in the 1970s and really displacing any type of paleoconservative or isolationist-type tendency," said Hummel, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"And so there's a sort of happy alignment of evangelicals becoming interested in this issue and the GOP outside of evangelicals also becoming more accommodating and even in some cases promoting a very strong pro-Israel policy," he explained.

At the same time some Americans developed an admiration for Israel.

"Israel takes on this much broader meaning in American culture, that it's an effective military, it seems to sort of not have nearly as much internal dissension as the U.S. does, and it's a democracy in a tough neighborhood," he added.

While partisanship is one huge divide in American opinions on Israel and Palestine, experts also noted a sharp age divide in the U.S.: Young Americans tend to be less pro-Israel than their elders. That age divide includes young Republicans and even young evangelicals. So even though the Republican Party and Israel are intertwined today, it won't necessarily always be that way.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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