Israel, a Pentecostal Blind Eye

There is a sweet spot in a Pentecostal-Evangelical emotional regime for Israel and things related to the topic. The site of biblical events, religious sentiments and future hopes are often linked with the current state of Israel. News, opinions and speculations concerning Israel and Palestine trigger emotional reactions and fierce responses by many. In 2016 two statements specifically caused uproar in Pentecostal-Evangelical world. First, the UNESCO decision on the governance of and policies on haram-al-sharif stirred their universe. Second, the United Nations security council (UNSC) resolution on Israel and its settlements increased the fury.

The UNSC resolution was deemed in CharismaNews as “fundamentally flawed and historically inaccurate”. The resolution called for two-state solution and mutual negotiations for drawing borders, condemning one-sided actions to divide the land. However, critics said it restricted Israel solely to pre-1967-borders, and dismissed terrorist threat and Palestine government’s refusal to negotiations. The UNESCO decision was understood as delegitimizing Jewish history, not the least since it applied the name used by Muslims. Instead of accepting the Arabic name as merely one of the historical names applied to the hill, Pentecostal-Evangelical Israel supporters saw it as another example of rewriting history and erasing truth.

The two resolutions in 2016 caused an emotional Pentecostal-Evangelical uproar throughout the world. On the level of religious institutions, public official statements are usually a polite version of these sentiments, and in some cases the issue is dealt only when confronted by members of congregation. However, the official responses are surpassed by rhetorics of numerous ordinary people. Social media has been filled with concern, and even hate, towards the resolutions and the parties who have accepted them. Not all Pentecostals are vocal or even willing to discuss the topic. However, the loud voices are evident, and demonstrate the blind spot Israel has for Pentecostals.

In USA these sentiments were in part combined with criticism for president Obama. Some saw his administrations actions as a prove that Obama is a Muslim. More moderate opponents settled for judging the government actions as anti-semitic or at least pro-Palestine. Although the idea is not new, there is a growing trend in Pentecostal-Evangelical discourses that view all actions criticizing the state of Israel as anti-semitic. This includes the constant tale that there are much more passed resolutions on Israel/Palestine than Syria, for example, dismissing facts that many resolutions condemn also Palestinian violence, and that the ease of passing resolution is telling of the long enduring problem in one hand and the complexity of world politics in the other hand. Israeli supporters, however, concentrate usually on one side, and many don’t even bother to read the whole text. Following, support for Israel in all levels is strong.

An interesting aspect of this topic is the “I’m with Bibi” phenomenon, which has got also some Pentecostals excited. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanjahu, has created and invited a strong propaganda movement on his side. Currently (January-February 2017) he is being investigated on corruption charges, dealing also with the propaganda done on his behalf. Besides Israeli media, Facebook groups have been launched to praise his leadership and politics. Moreover, the same Pentecostals who admire “Bibi”, also share “IDF, I’m standing with you”, or simply “Israel, I’m standing with you”, Facebook and blog posts and images. These “likes” and “shares” portrait an interesting and sometimes disturbing picture of the worldview some Pentecostals are presenting of themselves. People who love peace, forgiveness and mercy, share pictures of war-machines and soldiers, without considering messages they are sending or further connections of the things they “like”, sometimes randomly by an instinct.

In this blog post I concentrate on Pentecostals, whom I have studied in my research, although many of the same could be said also from non-Pentecostal Evangelicals (apart from the charismatic aspects). Israel presents a special blind eye for many Christians, obstructing many to view the world objectively, and as they would describe a Christian would. In the following I have listed four major factors influencing the very subjective approach, and the consequences of this blind corner in the Pentecostal eyesight, These four factors include millenarian-apocalyptical worldview, nostalgia over biblical tales, an urge to “bless Israel”, and personal pilgrimages or hope of it to biblical land.

An important characteristic of Pentecostalism is the belief that the end is near. For them a charismatic Church is one of the signs that this is true. Another sign for the end-times for them is the recreation of the state of Israel. According to this belief, the current state of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecies (e.g. Daniel, chapters 8&12; Joel chapter 3). The millenarian-apocalyptical importance of the existence of the state of Israel is huge in this worldview. It is not an indispensable part of millenarian worldview, but has grown into one crucial chapter of Pentecostal discourse of end-times. Three chapters in this discourse are above others: charismatic Church, evangelization of the whole world, and Israel. When these three are included, the coming of the Christ is thought to be possible, and moreover imminent.

Countdown for the coming of the Christ is one interesting theme in apocalyptic speculations. Although not practiced by all, over the years some have counted 25, 40, or 70 years either from the founding of Israel (1948) or capturing the old city of Jerusalem (1967). Needless to say, some predictions failed.

There are numerous speculations on what will happen in the future. One of the thousands is a vision that the end-times will begin when two-state solution is realized, and final seven years before the coming of the Christ will start when Palestine is declared an independent country; allegedly preparations for the new Jewish temple are on the way, and the temple would be built within three years of the solution. However, also popular is the view that there will be only one state, Israel, which in some scenarios would stretch its borders beyond current ones (e.g including Damascus etc.).

One key enforcer of the millenarian beliefs is the criticism for Israel. In apocalyptic prophecies and speculations, an important belief is that in the end-days the whole world turns against Israel. Therefore any criticism can be explained, if needed, as a proof that we now live the final days before the coming of the Christ. This approach also pre-accepts that things won’t get better in the Middle East. If looked from this wider perspective, smaller details might go unnoticed or are surpassed as a mere glitches in the important narrative.

The Pentecostal-Evangelical religiosity emphasizes the role and use of the Bible. In Pentecostal religiosity the tales of biblical figures circulate from the childhood and are used in sermons, Sunday school tales, daily devotions and so on. These shared stories become part of cultural capital of a Pentecostal, immerse them into a world with superhero-like realm, and connects to a believer on emotional level. Stories and details of landscape make the Middle-Eastern land feel almost like a homeland, emotionally close, connected with their identity and personal history. Although Pentecostals reject the idea of worshiping holy places and saints, the nostalgia they attach to the biblical lands and events there constructs a world where these are honored and appreciated, in other words sanctified and separated as a holy realm. This realm is not necessarily concretely linked to empirical reality. Rather, it is an imagined realm, shared with an imagined community, as a part of imaginary play (see e.g.: Tanya M. Luhrmann 2012 When God Talks Back) which enforces and attributes to the actuality and reality of God they believe in. Because Pentecostals believe in divine inspiration of the Bible and in the guidance of God in these stories, the sanctifier of these stories, and the land, is God, making the realm worth of defending for.

Since Pentecostals believe in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, the words written there have strong influence over their actions. In here important is the exhortation to “bless Israel” (Numbers 4: 23-26; Ps 115:12), and the idea of a covenant that a remnant of the ancient Israel will return in the last days (Jer 31:31-33; Rom 11:24-27). According to this logic, Christians are supposed to bless “Israel”, since they will once again be saved and brought home. Following this widely spread and accepted view (although debated what is the “Israel” in question), it can be hazardous for a Pentecostal to condemn the nation of Israel, as this could be seen as defying God itself. Therefore the action to bless Israel can be understood as a Christian duty, an obligation to follow God’s word and commandments. There is, however, an ongoing debate whether it is an ethnic or “spiritual” Israel that these teachings and Bible verses refer to, and technically it does not refer to the current nation. Even though some prefer to understand that Christianity has replaced the ethnic Israel, Jewish people, as “God’s nation/people”, there is a strong opinion that ethnic Jews and the contemporary state of Israel both play active roles in this puzzle. Moreover, the confusion of the whole picture may just strengthen the urge to bless Israel (meaning the current state), since not doing so would be a bad gamble. Therefore, there is an inherent bias to think or hope for the best for Israel and Israeli actions, through a survival strategy of risk management.

The previous three factors (millenarianism, nostalgic biblical stories, Christian duty to bless) are not new nor are they surprising to many. However, the fourth factor has not always gained such attention as the previous ones. Tourism and travelling to Israel (and Palestine in a limited way) has increased noticeably since the 1970’s and does not show any signs to decrease. Religious group trips have been organized for example from Finland by Toiviomatkat travel agency since 1976; they claim to have organized trips for 170 000 travelers to Israel since.

For a Pentecostal traveller, the journey is basically always a pilgrimage, a journey to land of the Bible and to the sites where Christianity had its origins. The personal connection to the land makes the experience a part of an embodied Christian and Pentecostal identity and habitus. The most devoted pilgrims commemorate their steps in a “land where Jesus walked”. All good Pentecostal travellers appreciate their personal link, even not that enthusiastically, not the least since it connects them in a larger social narrative, and therefore the “community of believers”.

However, the common pilgrim only receives a partial view of the land. They are rushed from one holy site to another, mind filled with thoughts linked to the prescripted narrative and religious aspects of the trip. And of those who have worked there, only few have lived with Palestinians, limiting their view on the complex situation. Those who have worked on both sides, do report another perspective, and perhaps a pessimistic one.

Also, the past kibbutz experience of some, especially in the 1970s and 1980’s might distort the picture, due to the limited access to the society while in a kibbutz, and since the world has changed substantially since those days, even in Israel/Palestine. There are also active kibbutz visiting programs, but their appeal has since been narrowed to certain groups mainly in the North America, and single individuals, although there are currently more people living in kibbutz than ever before. Other forms of volunteering are nowadays more popular for Christians interested in Israel. Some of these programs can distort the view from the beginning, since they guide people to work for institutions under ministries of a country that is relatively rich and competitive in GDP. This kind of program exposes the volunteer not only to a subjective tie but also to biased news and discourses. Other volunteering positions include most of all religiously motivated jobs, including humanitarian work.

I have named this blog post as “a blind eye”, with which I refer to the (usually) unintended consequences of supporting and idealizing Israel for many Pentecostals. When they support Israel, it obstructs their view and reaction on many issues relevant. Above I have stated few major reasons causing this blind eye view. These factors cause them to concentrate an ideal Israel, not necessarily the Israel/Palestine where actual people are living, in the globalized and intertwined world.

For one, the millenarian-emotional approach to Israel produces a blind eye to world politics realities. It is sometimes astonishing how easily some talk about stretching borders, which would affect lives of millions of people. For example, Christians in Damascus might be of different mind when it comes if the city should be part of Israel. However, these are not the things a strong believer in millenarian dreams is pondering about. Especially if the apocalyptic interpretation and narrative is steadfast and meticulously followed, a strong believer understands the world from this alternative millenarian view. Following, s/he accommodates actions and events to the narrative, possibly without even considering that interpretations and the whole approach would be wrong. By simply opening their eyes to different Pentecostal millenarianisms and interpretations of the end-times, they could perhaps see something lurking in the blind spot.

A prime example of this is how meticulously some Pentecostals follow the narrative of greater Israel beyond its current borders, which in turn favors one-state solution and Jewish state. However, basically all signs show that this would be a disaster, not the least to the Palestinians. When US secretary of state John Kerry said that there can be either Jewish state or democratic state of Israel, not both, it draw criticism from Pentecostal-Evangelical Israel supporters. Most of them interpreted this statement accusing Israel being non-democratic state. Although Israel follows many democratic practices and principles, declaring the state only Jewish would be a fatal blow to democracy. Already arabic Israeli citizens are blocked from certain positions. Many Pentecostals have not thought that in a Jewish state also Christians would be second-class citizens. Moreover, the one-state solution would mean that in coming years non-Jewish citizens would form the majority, which still might be suppressed.

Partly related to the previous, supporting Israel produces a blind eye to undemocratic practices in Israel. The supporters emphasize the right of Israel to defend itself and its citizens from violence and terrorism. Doing so, they sometimes fall for victims of Israeli propaganda, and don’t see the failed politics of terrorism prevention. A democratic state should defend peace with actions in accord with democracy and human rights, not by building fences and checkposts that block farmers to move freely to their fields. The blockade of Gaza and cattle-like herding of Palestinians in checkpoints have caused more harm than positive results. It is fair to say that at the moment the violent Israeli settlers pose a serious threat to Palestinians in the West Bank, but nobody seems to notice Israeli terrorists, only Palestinians. One reason for this is the acceptance of the story that Palestinians only want the destruction of Israel, without exeptions. And since this story has been learned, it is easily linked with the larger narrative of end-times where everybody will turn against Israel.

This leads us to another aspect of the blind eye view, namely a failure to distinct fantasy fiction of future from other possible, and perhaps more plausible, futures. In the most serious case this could lead into blurred grasp of reality. Although, at the same time one has to notice the wide variety of Pentecostal approaches, of which some are more grounded in empirical reality. However, when speaking of the extreme cases where end-times are almost (or really) an obsession, this blurring border between fiction and reality can be a serious problem and even a threat to mental health. Even the more usual interpretation play with apocalypse, where an interested person entertains him/herself with fictional cases, can still cause a blind eye when discussing the conteporary Middle East.

Naturally, the scene is complex and there are varieties in scope and approaches. For example, some Pentecostals do try to make a difference between the state of Israel and Jewish people, and known present and unknown apocalypse. In many cases these stay silent, and are not keen to actively defend any parties of the problem. However, there are leak-overs, spills to contemporary politics, since they have an emotional connection to the biblical side of the story, and therefore some kind of Israel, or Jewish/Christian Palestine, even though imagined. Therefore it is challenging for a Pentecostal to be objective to issues relating to the topic. Emotions tend to be subjective and difficult to mend, even when they try to reason otherwise.

Some Pentecostals try to excuse their actions by stating that they “do not accept everything Israel does”, but usually this does not lead into actions when they notice these wrongdoings. They, fairly so, criticize the violence of Palestinians, and the reluctance of Palestinian leaders to accept offered peace solutions or sometimes even peace talks. However, they forget to mention that Israeli leaders have consistently resisted some Palestinian demands in these peace talks (such as return of the Palestinian refugees). Many of them also don’t seem to comprehend the damage what building settlements does for any future peace negotiations. The violence of Israeli soldiers is downplayed as self-defense (and sometimes it is), and the violence of the settlers is usually absent from the discussion. Moreover, by legitimizing their support for Israel with an argument that “it is the only democratic country in the Middle East”, the defense can forget that this means that more is expected from Israel than Palestine, especially since Israel basically has a monopoly of power.

By defending actions of the state of Israel, Pentecostal Israel supporters are foremost defending their belief of the millenarian future and their own emotional realm of being a Pentecostal, in the end their identity. Even though their defense has actual consequences in contemporary politics and human rights issues, those are not the reasons for their defense. The actual reality and complexity of the situation, the knowledge about it, can easily stay in the blind spot of view for Pentecostal Christians. By opening their eyes, or turning their heads to see what is in the blind spot, they might actually challenge their emotional connection to the “land of Jesus”, an imagined reality over empirical reality. Moreover, they might start to realize that instead of propagating for the state of Israel, a more suitable position for a Christian could actually be to defend any human and their rights as humans, regardless of their background. After all, Jesus did not say “hate your enemies”, quite the contrary.