Religion Corrupting Policy, and Vice Versa
The most jarring takeaway from the ceremony redesignating a U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem as an embassy was the juxtaposition of the self-congratulatory speech making with the killing on the same day, by Israeli forces forty miles away, of sixty people and the injuring of 2,400 more as Palestinian Arabs protested their confinement to the open-air prison known as the Gaza Strip. Also jarring, however, was participation in the ceremony by two American preachers. The first was Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor from Dallas, has said that Jewish people who remain Jews and do not convert to Christianity will go to hell. Jeffress is an equal opportunity bigot who does not pick only on Jews. He has said that “religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism…lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell.” The other Texas preacher who was given a speaking role in the ceremony—televangelist John Hagee—has said that according to the Bible, Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s plan to return Jews to Israel.
The ceremony was at a U.S. diplomatic installation, and presumably the Trump administration put together the program. Perhaps many Israelis are unaware of what Jeffress and Hagee have preached apart from the prayers they were permitted to offer at the ceremony. But other Jewish Israelis surely were aware; one wonders what they were thinking when Hagee and Jeffress appeared at the podium.
Of course, we know what Trump and his political advisers were thinking in putting the two on the program. They were appealing to part of Trump’s domestic base. Specifically, they were appealing to evangelical Christians, who constitute a larger part of that base than do the Jewish Americans who support him. The religious connection between that part of the base and Israel involves dispensationalism, a Christian doctrine in which—in some versions at least—Israel plays the theological role of forerunner to the second coming of the Messiah. (That’s the point in the prophesied story when all the Jews in Israel, or at least those who do not want to go to hell, are expected to convert.) American dispensationalists such as Jeffress brush aside any historical, demographic, or political disconnect between the Israelites of the Bible and the modern state that Benjamin Netanyahu leads. For them, their theology is reason enough to give unqualified support to whoever runs today’s Israel, as a way of keeping God’s pre-programmed story moving in the right direction.
Linking up with such preachers is not the only way the Trump administration has injected theology into its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another example involves David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer whom he appointed ambassador to Israel. Friedman, who has personal ties to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, consistently sounds far more like Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States than like the U.S. ambassador to Israel. In an interview with NPR shortly before the embassy ceremony, Friedman took issue with the interviewer’s reference to events of the 1940s by saying, “Go back another 3,500 years. Go back to the Bible.” He then cited with approval a medieval French rabbi as saying:
The reason that the Bible begins with the creation of the world is to create the chain of title from God directly to the Jewish people for the land of Israel so that if the nations of the world say that the Jewish people don't own the land of Israel, they would point to the fact that God created the world and gave it to them.
It is extraordinary that a U.S. ambassador so zealously embraces one side of a foreign conflict and so persistently parrots the host government’s line. It is even more remarkable that he invokes theology in doing so.
Injecting Religion into Policy
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves domination of one group defined in terms of religion and ethnicity over another group. This means that it is especially prone to injections of sectarianism into policy. But it is not the only such injection by the Trump administration. The Muslim travel ban, for example, is another. Through all the attempts to dress it up as something it isn’t—such as inserting in later versions a token non-Muslim country or two—its true nature has remained fairly obvious. It fulfils another piece of Trump’s xenophobic campaign rhetoric. That the ban is more about religion and religious bias than about countering terrorist threats is reflected in the poor correlation between the countries listed and the actual pattern of where such threats have originated.
Less codified in executive orders but nonetheless discernible in rhetoric and policies in the age of Trump is favoritism that distinguishes between different sects within Islam. Sunnis get looked at more favorably than Shia. This tendency is, of course, an artifact of the Trump administration’s other rigid side-taking and especially the defining of its policy in the Middle East in terms of unrelenting hostility toward Iran, which is a predominantly Shia country. But the sectarian bias itself, along with dread associated with something like a Shia crescent, has partly acquired an independent existence.