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As U.S. Jews Cool To Israel, Evangelicals Flock There As Tourists

Sharon Litton of Shreveport, La., is baptized by immersion in the Jordan River, where Jesus is said to have been baptized. Such baptisms are a staple of evangelical tours of Israel.
Courtesy of Randy Litton
Sharon Litton of Shreveport, La., is baptized by immersion in the Jordan River, where Jesus is said to have been baptized. Such baptisms are a staple of evangelical tours of Israel.

President Trump's evident desire to identify who's most "loyal" to Israel has a clear winner: U.S. evangelicals.

Not only do they outpace U.S. Jews in their support for policies that favor the Israeli government, but U.S. evangelicals have also become the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market. The developments may even be related.

"I'd say close to 100% of our travelers come back extremely pro-Israel in their political views," says Andy Cook, a pastor who leads evangelical tours of the Holy Land twice a year.

Back to its roots

Tourist travel to Israel is growing about 10% a year, according to Eyal Carlin, the incoming North America director of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, with evangelical Christians a growing share of U.S. visitors.

"More and more companies are entering each year with faith-based or evangelical packages," Carlin says. "The evangelical world is going back to its roots."

The trend coincides with growing evangelical support for Trump's embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line policies, even as U.S. Jews have grown more critical.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 42% of U.S. Jews say Trump "favors the Israelis too much," while just 15% of U.S. evangelicals agreed with that statement.

Evangelical leaders of the Christian Zionism movement, from Jerry Falwell Sr. to John Hagee, have attributed their fervent support for the state of Israel to their own Holy Land travel, according to Daniel Hummel, author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations.

"They say visiting Israel was a key part of their political awakening," Hummel says, "and this goes down to the rank-and-file people in their organizations."

Pilgrims gather on the banks of the Jordan River at Galilee for baptisms. Israeli authorities are eager to accommodate tourists' interest in ancient Israel, according to author Daniel Hummel.
Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images
Getty Images
Pilgrims gather on the banks of the Jordan River at Galilee for baptisms. Israeli authorities are eager to accommodate tourists' interest in ancient Israel, according to author Daniel Hummel.

A prime Israeli selling point for evangelical tourism is the opportunity "to walk where Jesus walked." The highlight for Robert Bowman, who visited Israel on an evangelical tour in 2017, was a visit to the dungeons in Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have been imprisoned while he awaited crucifixion.

"We saw the rooms where he was flogged, and it was very emotional for us," Bowman says. "We were all in tears, thinking about what the Lord Jesus went through and seeing the actual place where this happened."

Bowman, who pastors a small church in Riverside, Calif., said the trip made the Bible come newly alive for him. "I read about it all my life, and then I go there and it's, 'Oh, this is what it means!' " he says. "You can see it, which you can't do when you just read it, except in your imagination."

For Sharon Litton of Shreveport, La., the most memorable moment of her 2018 tour was the opportunity to be rebaptized by immersion in the Jordan River, where Jesus himself is said to have been baptized.

"When that was offered to us, something inside of me said, 'You got to go,' " she says. "It was just so dear to me, to be able to get in the water and be baptized, in the same water that Jesus was. It was incredible."

Controlled and curated

The Holy Land tours may have the effect of deepening the visitors' Christian faith, according to evangelical-tour leader Cook, who says he has taken 22 trips to Israel.

"The location of all those Bible stories is always right where they're supposed to be," he says. "When people come home, they want to read more of their Bible. They've seen the locations, and they see the stories in the Bible as what they are, as history."

It's not just the New Testament stories that come alive for the evangelical visitors. Many want to see the places mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and tour packages that are custom designed for evangelicals now include a larger share of those sites.

Israeli authorities are especially eager to accommodate this interest in ancient Israel, according to Hummel, knowing that it supports their territorial claims.

"Most of these tours are very highly controlled and curated to convey a particular sense of Israel," Hummel says, "and that's to emphasize the Jewishness of the land, that this is the homeland of the Jewish people, that the history that matters is the history that's in the Bible."

Hummel, who spent a year in Israel researching his book and now teaches in the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the tours designed for evangelicals generally have minimal contact with Palestinians, even with Palestinian Christians. Most tours include a stop in Bethlehem, which is in Palestinian-controlled territory, but it's only a day trip.

The tours that Cook leads also include a stop in Jericho, also in a Palestinian area, but Cook acknowledges that outreach to Arab Christians is not a high priority

"You may be talking about Orthodox Christians, or Catholics, or Christians for whom it's a national identity," he says. "It's so, so different. At times it does not even appear to be the Christianity we would recognize at home."

Not surprisingly, many evangelical tourists return to the United States with greater sympathy for Israelis in their conflict with Palestinians.

"I tend not to trumpet the political part of the trip. That's not our purpose," Cook says. "But it's invariable that people are going to come away feeling something. When you're in the land and you hear the stories, it's hard not to admire the fact that this country has survived, surrounded by so many people that would not like them to survive."

Only a small percentage of U.S. evangelicals have traveled to Israel, but the views of those who make the trip apparently resonate with evangelicals at large. A 2017 surveyof evangelicals by LifeWay Research found that 80% believe that "God's promise [of land] to Abraham and his descendants was for all time." By a 46% to 19% margin, the surveyed evangelicals disagreed with the notion that Palestinians have any such "historic right."

Notably, LifeWay found that 80% of the surveyed evangelicals believe that the modern rebirth of Israel and the return of millions of Jews to that land are a fulfillment of Bible prophecy and show "we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ." Some evangelicals say that prophecy includes a belief in a final battle of Armageddon that concludes with Jews accepting Jesus Christ as their savior.

Notwithstanding such apocalyptic evangelical visions, Israeli authorities have welcomed evangelical tourism.

"There is definitely an understanding on the Israeli government side that tourism is a key way to connect with American evangelicals," says Hummel, "and a lot of the pro-Israel groups in the United States see tourism as a key way to shape evangelical attitudes toward Israel."

As evangelical attitudes toward Israel grow increasingly positive, the views of U.S. Jews are cooling. Recent surveys by the American Jewish Committee showed a decline in the share of U.S. Jews who say that "caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew," down from 70% in 2018 to 62% in 2019.

Trump may argue that U.S. Jews are "disloyal" to Israel because more than 70% generally vote for Democrats and rate his presidency unfavorably in spite of his strong pro-Israel policies, but he can count on support for those policies among evangelical voters.

Christians United for Israel, an evangelical group, now claims to have 7 million members. That's about the size of the entire U.S. Jewish population.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.