US-Israeli relations are a recurring issue in the Republican primaries, even in southern states where there are very few Jewish voters. For many years, the following ritual only affected Democratic primaries, especially in New York (notably in 1980, 1984, 1988). One candidate, or even several, would call for the US embassy in Israel to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, tantamount to recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the whole of the city. Then, when the New York primary was over, both Democratic and Republican presidents would leave the embassy where it was, until the next candidate repeated the performance four years later (1).
Now it’s the Republicans’ turn. A few days before the Iowa vote, Ted Cruz announced that, as president, he would relocate the embassy “on day one”. Why, when Iowa is 0.2% Jewish? The evangelical church is powerful — as it is in all the southern states.
Visiting the First Baptist Church in Opelika, Alabama, the importance of Israel, Jerusalem and Palestine is impossible to miss. Not that anyone there follows developments in the region closely. Neither recent history nor politics dictates judgments and votes, but faith. Sara-Jane Tatum, for one, takes part in a Bible discussion group, which has 40 members, two of whom are black. She belongs to the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), an organisation whose mission is to “stand with Israel in the belief that Jerusalem is the eternal capital.” Tatum is just back from a “teaching tour” in Israel, recommended by her pastor. Her itinerary included a visit to the Knesset, a meeting with two members of Likud (prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s party), and a dinner for several hundred pro-Israel Christians at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. “The American ambassador spoke, as did an Arab Christian standing with Israel.” Tatum also visited the Holocaust museum. But Jericho and Bethlehem, despite their importance to Christianity, were not on the tour, nor anywhere else under Palestinian Authority control.
Tatum’s organisation raises funds “for Jewish people to leave France, Ukraine, and go to Israel. […] I have heard that French Jews were persecuted.” Her study of the Bible has “taught [her] the importance of Israel to [her] faith and what will happen in the future.” Basing her views on scripture, especially the Old Testament, she believes that all of Palestine should be returned to Israel (2); therefore, she supports (and would expand on) Netanyahu’s settlement policy. “One day, we don’t know when, God will protect Israel. God has decided that Jerusalem will be the centre of the world […]. God made a covenant with the Jewish people. This covenant cannot be replaced, cannot be altered, cannot be changed. Because of their disobedience to the Lord, he exiled [the Jews] but the land is theirs.”
While waiting for Armageddon and the Messiah’s return, what fate does she envisage for the Palestinians, a minority of whom are Christian, if they don’t want to live in a Jewish state? “Other Arab countries should accept Palestinians into their countries. In 1967 God protected Israel. Israel won.” Issue settled. “Israel does everything to provide jobs to Palestinians, to make them live in peace. They are treated well. They want more. If they are not happy, they can go elsewhere.”
Deborah Jones, who leads the Bible study group, has been to Israel twice, last time eight years ago. She also thinks “the Israelis are trying so hard to help the Palestinians, but their hatred of the Jews is so strong that they resist their help.” She views Palestinian Christians’ demands for sovereignty as almost heretical: “They harbour this hate for Israel so much that they don’t really accept Christ as their lord. God made a covenant with the Jewish people. God will never allow Israel to be divided again.”
Both agree peace is desirable, but, says Jones, “the Palestinians don’t want peace, they want the land.” Tatum adds: “And they want the Jews dead.”