Twenty years ago, a movement known as Christian Zionism was on the furthest fringes in the land of Israel.
Back then, mainstream theologians — Christian and Jewish alike — dismissed Christian Zionism as a dangerous interpretation of biblical prophecies; the ideology was flawed at best, at its worst, inherently anti-Semitic.
Today, Christian Zionism has gone mainstream, with explosive growth in both fundraising and political power. Its journey is evident in today’s headlines in Israel-Palestine. When the United States announced a relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, many observers believed it was the Trump administration’s way of answering directly not only to the Israeli right but also to the American Christian evangelical base that supports Trump. Christian Zionists view the embassy move as a milestone on a prophetic timeline that aligns with an apocalyptic interpretation of scripture.
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AX (Pastor Pat Robertson) The Bible says that when he comes…
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AX (Pastor Adrian Rogers) The Bible prophecy…
SENNOTT: On any Sunday morning, channel surf across TV programs, and between the news shows you’ll stumble upon televangelists. They’ll tell you about the wages of sin and the possibilities of redemption…
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AX (Pastor Mark Harris)… every tongue shall confess…
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SENNOTT: …but increasingly you’ll also hear an urgent and prophetic vision…
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AX (Pastor Robert Jeffress) when this world is going to end…
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AX (Pastor Robertson) the rapture…
SENNOTT: …an epic battle set in Israel that will usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
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AX (Pastor John HAGEE)… as God supernaturally, once again, defends the Nation of Israel.
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AX (ROGERS) Now, are you ready?
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AX (HAGEE) The King is coming. The King is coming. The King is coming.
SENNOTT: There is a growing movement among American evangelical Christians. A movement that anticipates a prophetic “end time,” or “end of days,” one that these pastors welcome. But the end times, they believe, will only come when Israel expands its current borders. In other words, these pastors say Israel must include all the land originally granted by God as described in the Bible. That biblical geography would completely redraw the modern Middle East.
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AX (HAGEE) The New Jerusalem is going to be 1500 miles, square…move over Iran, move over Saudi Arabia, move over Egypt. The king is here, we’re gonna use this… Mmmm…I love this story.
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SENNOTT: Security analysts agree “this story,” this interpretation, would also be a recipe for the next world war. But for evangelical pastors like John Hagee, it’s prophecy: the fulfillment of Armageddon as told in the Book of Revelation. As Hagee and others see it, Jesus Christ will return for a global judgement of humanity. Those who’ve accepted him as their savior, and who support the nation of Israel will be saved. Those who reject him, or fail to support the Jewish state, will perish.
This is a belief known as Christian Zionism.
Christian Zionism is not merely the belief of televangelists from the Bible Belt. It’s influence has now reached the White House. Beginning with the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, to many Christian Zionists, the Trump Administration is putting their interpretation of prophecy into action. In the process, the movement is redefining America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
Despite all of its political support for Israel, Christian Zionism is deeply controversial in Israel.
In this series we go inside the movement, its potent political alliances, the hundreds of millions of dollars it’s poured into Israel, and a theology that some consider inherently anti-semitic.
SENNOTT: This is The End of Days: How Christian Zionism is transforming US Policy in the Middle East, a special three-part investigation by the GroundTruth Podcast and WGBH News. I’m Charles Sennott.
SENNOTT: I first started reporting on Christian Zionism when I wrote a book on the Christians of the Holy Land, 20 years ago. Back then, the movement was way out on the fringe, and now it’s decidedly mainstream. So I flew to Jerusalem to find out how that happened, and what it means for the region.
SENNOTT: When I landed in Jerusalem, I stepped onto the El-Al jetbridge. There was a billboard. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein was smiling, joyously, and welcoming the passengers under the banner of his organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. 20 years ago when I first started coming to the Middle East, that billboard would never have been there. His fellow Orthodox rabbis rejected Eckstein’s overt solidarity with these evangelical Christians, whose theology they viewed as anti-semitic.
Today, Eckstein’s organization is front and center. In the past 20 years, He’s raised over 1.5 billion dollars through this Fellowship. We’ll hear from Rabbi Eckstein later on.
SENNOTT: I arrived at my hotel and walked through East Jerusalem to the Old City.
SENNOTT: I entered through the Damascus Gate onto a street called Al Wad, or ‘The Valley, ‘ in Arabic.
SENNOTT: The street is paved with stones worn smooth by time. And it was good to be back among the familiar sounds and smells of this market street lined with spice shops, bakeries and butchers.
SENNOTT: It’s a Friday and a unique moment on the calendar when all three Abrahamic faiths are converging on the overlapping sacred space that is Jerusalem.
AMBI : Call to Prayer
SENNOTT: The Friday noon prayer coming from the mosques echos against the stones. With prayer rugs tucked under their arms, Muslims head toward the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam.
It’s also Shabbat for observant Jews preparing for Passover. Orthodox Jews in traditional dress head for prayers at the Western Wall, the remains of the ancient Temple of Judaism.
SENNOTT: And it is Good Friday on the Christian calendar.
SENNOTT: Christians clutching prayer books and rosary beads were making their way to the Via Dolorosa, or The Way of Sorrow, following in what tradition holds are the footsteps of Jesus as he carried the cross.
That path leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher…AMBI <BUBBLE OF CHANT> where many professions of the faith, particularly the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox rites, believe Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb before the Resurrection.
SENNOTT: Christian Zionists are here among the throng of believers, too. On first glance, it’s hard to tell someone’s faith background. But I struck up a conversation right away with a man named Kevin Burnor.
BURNOR: I consider myself a Christian, and a Christian is a Jew, you know, you’re adopted into the family of Christ.
SENNOTT: Burnor had a long white beard and he was wearing a North Face jacket, a bandana and sunglasses.
CHARLIE: There’s a movement here particularly around Christian Zionism and the belief that Christians need to support Israel. It’s a movement gaining strength, I’m wondering if you feel part of that or what your views on that are?
BURNOR: Well, when I was here last fall, God quickened my heart and said, that I had to be supportive of Israel. So, I took that as his word and changed my mind, and I put it all in him.
SENNOTT: Burnor hails from Massachusetts and is a retired pastor. He believes that we are now in the end of days. Burnor and other Christian Zionists believe that Christians must support the nation of Israel, and that Jews must accept Jesus Christ as their savior. As he sees it, this is prophecy.
BURNOR: The people of Israel are God’s chosen people. And we will be blessed because we support Israel. I believe …those that have chosen Jesus are going to be favored, a lot of people are going to come to know him. And those who don’t, the Orthodox Jews and the Secular Jews, just like everybody else, are not gonna be here anymore.
CHARLIE: You mean, They will be killed? They will be left here on earth?
BURNOR: They will go to hell.
SOUND: Fading, leaving Via Dolorosa
SOUND: Fading up museum
SENNOTT: The next day I cut across town to visit a museum dedicated to Christian Zionism.
AMOS: So welcome everyone to the Friends of Zion museum, my name is Amos, I am going to be your guide. …(duck under)
SENNOTT: Since opening in 2015, The Friends of Zion Museum boasts over 45 million supporters, which include donors, visitors, and followers on social media.
NETANYAHU: I don’t believe the Jewish State and modern Zionism would have been possible without Christian Zionism…
SENNOTT: Visitors are greeted by a hologram of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
NETANYAHU: The many Christian supporters of the rebirth of the Jewish State and the ingathering of the Jewish people in the 19th century, made possible the rise of Jewish Zionism.
SENNOTT: The museum was crowded that day with Christians and Jews, tourists and Israelis. Although it’s gone mainstream, Christian Zionism is not new. It traces its roots back to at least the 19th century. But the Friends of Zion museum takes an even broader view. I stepped into the elevator, what the museum calls a time machine. A ride to the top floor transports museum-goers back four thousand years.
AMOS: You may have front row seats if you wish….ducks under
SENNOTT: A seven minute film paints the sweeping history of the Israeli people with the production values of a Hollywood trailer.
FILM: The ancient Hebrew text says, that the eyes of the Lord run to and fro (DUCK HERE) throughout the whole earth…
SENNOTT: By the end of the film, Christian Zionists have been woven into the epic journey of Israel and the Jewish people.
FILM: (fade up) …The Jews found others who believed in the ancient prophecies, who offered their help to see it fulfilled. In their own way, like the patriarchs of old, when their time came, they too would say, here am I, to the promise and the people of the land of Israel.
They would be called Christian Zionists.
SENNOTT: Although the film celebrates the role of Christian Zionists, some within the movement find that term pejorative. Among themselves, they prefer to use the term “believer.”
BOSKEY: I grew up in a believing home,
PRATT : I’ve always been a believer
BOSKEY: my dad is a Jewish believer
HOLLAND: A Jewish man who was also a believer
BOSKEY: Or a believer in Yeshua
PATTON: For us, as believers,
HOLLAND: As evangelical new covenant believers…
PATTON: we are grafted into the vine of the Jewish people
SENNOTT: And among them is a small strain of Jews who’ve converted. They prefer the term Messianic Jews because they identify, first and foremost, as Jewish, yet also believe in Jesus, or Yeshua, in Hebrew
CALEV: when we accept Yeshua as messiah, we stay Jewish, AMEN, he was Jewish, all his disciples were Jewish, the New Testament was written by Jews, He belongs first to us, and then to the rest of the world.
SENNOTT: These men and women are all part of King of Kings. It’s a Christian Zionist network in Israel. Part of their mission is to spread the gospel to Israeli Jews, to bring them into the fold of believers.
MUSIC: “You’re the lord of all creation, still you know my heart…”
SENNOTT: Outside the Old City of Jerusalem there’s a high rise building with a shopping mall on the first few floors. As with so many places in Israel, you have to pass through a metal detector to get in. Inside the mall, among hair salons and electronics stores…are several places of worship and offices for evangelical church organizations — all part of the King of Kings Community.
SENNOTT: Like that billboard in the airport, these churches were not out in the open twenty years ago. Christian Zionists were outliers back then. But now they are openly, and loudly, celebrating their faith. It’s like an indy rock concert in this hall.
SENNOTT: Don Finto takes the stage.
FINTO: Amen, Amen, Hallelujah… (duck under)
SENNOTT: Finto is a pastor from Nashville where he led Belmont Church for 25 years. He describes himself as a radical follower of Jesus.
FINTO: Yes, I’m 88, but there’s more yet and I’m hungry for more. And, I’m not out of here yet. Anyway, I mean, here we are in Jerusalem, and we’re not just a bunch of Christians. We’re Jewish believers and gentiles together in the Lord, it’s an amazing, amazing time in our generation and there’s so much that’s being fulfilled. I mean…
SENNOTT: Finto’s confident as he speaks. He’s enjoying himself, and that connects with the young crowd. Finto delivers a mix of biblical prophecy, modern history, and observations about today — all to prove his case. The Messiah is coming. Jews need to convert. And his job is to evangelize.
FINTO: It is time for Jewish people to come to the Lord today! In our day! I do this crazy stuff from time to time, I remember one time I was in a rent car driving down the heart of Jerusalem, and I was watching these ultra-Orthodox families … and I prophesied to them, with my window rolled up. And I said, you don’t know it yet, but many of you’re going to come to know Yeshua as messiah because it is time for your eyes to be opened.
SENNOTT: Let’s consider this for a second. Here you have an American evangelical in
the middle of an Israeli shopping mall. He’s calling for all Jews to accept Jesus as their messiah, in a warm and welcoming message. Importantly, though, he is not saying anyone is going to hell if they don’t convert.
But for many Israelis, and for many Jews around the world, this relatively gentle invitation represents a disturbing theology, one that is perhaps even anti-Semitic. This faith terrain is complicated. That’s why I went to see Harvey Cox, the Dean Emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School and a Professor of Theology.
COX: In some ways a form of Christian Zionism, although not known by that title, has been part of the American outlook including the foreign policy outlook for a very very long time. I mean going way back before the term was invented.
SENNOTT: For the last 20 years, I have been looking to Professor Cox, who is also a Baptist minister, to help provide the historical and theological context to understand Christian fundamentalism and specifically the Christian Zionist movement. As Professor Cox sees it, they’ve tempered their message.
COX: The brand of Christian Zionism that you will hear much a lot about was America is the friend of Israel, Israel deserves peace. …and I think part of that is that the emergence of this kind of Jewish Christian alliance, the Christians had to really play down some of the more offensive elements of the end time drama which, at the beginning of Christian Zionism, included the eventual conversion of very large numbers of Jews once the land was re-established and re-claimed and the Jewish people started back. So it’s interesting how a theologically motivated movement like that can find its way into policy and then the theological basis can be a little bit, muted, or at least not in the forefront. But the policies continue. …So I think all of that has contributed to making it more palatable to wider ranges of people. And it certainly has.
SENNOTT: Those wider ranges of people, however, do not include their fellow Christians in the region. Palestinian Christians are part of a 2000 year living presence of the faith. That’s what makes it so puzzling that they are largely invisible to the Christian Zionists.
SOUND: Bells, Walking
SENNOTT: On my way out of the Old City I passed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, The Latin, or Roman Catholic Patriarchate, and then the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. It’s difficult to ignore the presence and legacy of the many Christian denominations planted in the Holy Land since the faith began.
SOUND: Via D Christians
SENNOTT: I headed back to my hotel where I was meeting Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian and a Lutheran pastor. Raheb wears a clerical collar and has the warm demeanor of a preacher. A lot of the Christian tourists in the Holy Land don’t realize that he and other Palestinians are, indeed, Christian.
RAHEB: Most of them, they have no clue and they ask me when did you convert to Christianity, assuming that maybe I used to be heathen or Muslim and I was converted by a missionary from the Midwest. And I tell them remember, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine not Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And the Bible did not originate in the Bible Belt, the Bible is a product of Palestine. So it all started here and we are the descendants of the first Christian communities and we remained faithful to that old faith that we received from our forefathers. We didn’t convert to Islam, we didn’t leave the country, we wanted to stay here and to make sure that that message that Jesus Christ brought here will continue to resonate in the land where it all started, Palestine.
CHARLIE: Do you think Americans understand the influence of the Christian Zionists and Christian Evangelical movement and the way it’s working in Israel and how it’s viewed by Palestinian people?
RAHEB: …the majority I don’t think they realize what kind of crazy Christians these Christian Zionists are. And actually how dangerous they are. They want to bring all the Jews here so that 1/3 will be killed by the sword, another 1/3 by the fire and 1/3 will convert to Christianity. So they are actually calling for the annihilation of Judaism. This is anti-semitism.
SENNOTT: We will hear more from other Palestinian Christians who say that it’s the Christian Zionists’ extreme interpretation of the Bible that renders them ignorant of their fellow Christians.
According to Harvey Cox, Christian Zionists also ignore the context of the Bible, and mistakenly attribute contemporary events to biblical prophecy.
COX: There’s a kind of a vacuum in the this whole historical process, attached to that is .. the fundamental mistake a lot of mainly Protestant Christians, but not entirely, to read the prophets in the Old Testament and other places, referring to now, what’s happening now and what will happen. I just think that’s a fundamental misreading. And you sometimes get ammunition, like the founding of the state of Israel. Ah, look! We’ve been predicting this for centuries now it’s happening. So there you go. That’s Bible prophecy is fulfilled. And I think it’s a desperately mistaken reading and it has to do with not seeing the context in which these writers were working, to whom they were writing, what they were writing about, what they were promising. It’s just a de-historicizing of the whole story which weakens it and takes away its real power.
It’s very hard to talk to let’s say Christian Zionists and try to persuade them with historical or theological arguments that their reading of the Bible is fundamentally flawed because of seeing it as America in 2019.
HOLLAND: I think as believers we can all agree to a few basic things that the end of the age will look like.
SENNOTT: Chad Holland is the Senior Pastor to the King of Kings Community.
HOLLAND: There are signs that God has put on the roadmap. For instance the fall of Jerusalem back in the first century was a road marker. The return of the exiles has been a road marker, the modern Jewish state being established to me is a major road marker, as well as Jerusalem coming back under the control of the Jewish people, that’s a road marker. But I also think that the rise of Islam is also an indicator of where we are on the prophetic timeline when the nations rise against Israel. And she runs out of friends. This might be the thing that propels her to look for the Messiah.
SENNOTT: Both Christian Zionists and Israel’s political right see themselves as having a common enemy. There’s a stridently Islamophobic tone that is woven into their relationship and binds them together in the geopolitics of the region. As Holland sees it, nations, specifically Muslim nations, rising against Israel is part of an inevitable global war.
HOLLAND: I think it’s one of those things that history is going to push us toward. …As believers, I think we can vote, I think we can put believers into politics. When a strong, Bible-believing person is in charge, there’s a great blessing and peace that falls over that nation. … So for me I want to see believers at the highest level possible of influence.
SENNOTT: According to Holland, when believers take power, the prophetic timeline moves forward. As evidence, He points to another sign on his roadmap.
HOLLAND: And then even more recently the move of the embassy, the U.S. embassy, at least, and other embassies that will follow to the capital city of Jerusalem.
PENCE: Shalom Israel Republicans, I’m Governor Mike Pence. It’s a great honor for Donald Trump and I to stand together with you tonight (fade under)
SENNOTT: October 26, 2016. Two weeks before the Presidential election in the US. Via satellite, Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence addressed a rally of Israeli-American Republican supporters in Jerusalem.
PENCE: Let the word go forth, from Jerusalem, the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, that Donald Trump and I are proud to stand with Israel.
SENNOTT: Vice President Pence has described himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic.” But he is claimed as a believer by Christian Zionists, and his words speak to those who are part of the movement.
PENCE (CUFI CONF): …my fellow Believers and friends, it is humbling for me to be here before you today, to join you at the 12th Annual Summit of the largest Pro-Israel organization in the United States of America, Christians United For Israel! (APPLAUSE)
SENNOTT: Since taking office, Pence and the Trump administration have turned Christian Zionist beliefs into policy.
PENCE: And I promise you that the day will come when President Trump moves the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is not a question of if, it is only when. [applause]
SENNOTT: Fast forward one year. Trump and Pence made good on that promise to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
SENNOTT: The new American embassy opened May 14, 2018, on the 70th anniversary of Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948. In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations voted in favor of granting a homeland to the Jewish people.
Arab nations, however, rejected the UN resolution, and the first Arab-Israeli war erupted the next day, May 15. The war ended with an estimated 700,000 displaced Palestinians, and modern Israel in control of 78 percent of historic Palestine. For Palestinians, May 15 marks the Nakba or ‘the catastrophe,’ in Arabic.
In 1967, war broke out again between Israel and her Arab neighbors. By the end of what is known as the Six Day War, Israel emerged victorious once more, this time capturing East Jerusalem, and the Old City, which Israel would annex in 1980. Since then, Jerusalem has been a disputed capital, and would ultimately become a centerpiece of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’s why the US and nearly every other country in the world have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv. The official sovereignty over Jerusalem was to be determined in the final status agreements of the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process.
That was the status quo, until the Trump Administration changed Washington’s position and moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
NETANYAHU: Dear friends, what a glorious day, remember this moment!
SENNOTT: News reports captured the simultaneous, dueling narratives: the tightly controlled embassy ceremony, set against the desperate chaos and deadly protests in Gaza.
NEWS: Another deadly day on the Gaza border with Israel
NEWS: they were protesting the opening of the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem
SENNOTT: Ivanka Trump and Senior White House Advisor, Jared Kushner applauded as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the international delegations.
NETANYAHU: Jerusalem has been, and will always be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state.
SENNOTT: Netanyahu’s words were matched by protesters in Gaza.
PALESTINIAN PROTESTER: Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, not the capital of Israel. No, no Israel, but Palestine
SENNOTT: Outside the embassy, Israeli police violently dispersed the protestors.
SENNOTT: American Evangelical Preachers, Robert Jeffress and John Hagee were invited to bless the new embassy.
HAGEE: We pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all its inhabitants, let the name of the lord (ducks under).
JEFFRESS: And we pray this in the name and the spirit of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, our Lord, Amen.
HAGEE: …can we all shout, Hallelujah? Hallelujah, Amen
SENNOTT: Meanwhile, deadly clashes erupted along the barbed-wire fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.
NEWS: 25 Palestinians have died
NEWS: Israel’s military has killed at least 43 people, and wounded 1600…
NEWS: 52 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire…
NEWS: Ambulances raced to pick up the wounded….
NEWS: Nobody we saw being carried off, had appeared to be armed…
SENNOTT: Ivanka Trump, dressed in white, gracefully presented the plaque in front of the new embassy.
IVANKA: On behalf of the 45th President of the United States on America [sic], we welcome you, officially, and for the first time, to the embassy of the United States here in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Thank you
AMBI: Clashes (fading under the following)
SENNOTT: For Palestinians, the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem was the point at which the long-faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process effectively collapsed.
For Christian Zionists, the decision to move the embassy and the violence it provoked was a welcoming sign of prophecy set in motion toward what they hoped and believed was the prophetic, Biblical time known as The End of Days.
In the next episode of GroundTruth we meet our reporter Micah Danney, who set out on a journey inside the Christian Zionist movement, and it began with a healing practice known as the laying on of hands:
MICAH: Well the first thing I noticed was people’s were kinda warm, and that felt strange. One guy had both of his hands on both of my feet. There’s just a lot of skin-to-skin contact, with sources. I mean, these were people that I’m trying to get to know in a professional context.
SENNOTT: On our website, thegroundtruthproject.org, we’re featuring profiles of some of the people featured in this series. There’s also a gallery of photos from Jerusalem during Holy Week and Sukkot.
Our GroundTruth reporting fellow for this project is Micah Danney.
This piece was produced by Mitch Hanley, with help from Rob Rosenthal.
Tell us what you think of this episode and give us a rating. Tell your friends they can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, NPR-One, or wherever they listen.
If this is your first engagement with the GroundTruth Project, join our Facebook group. There you will find all of our reporting, including GroundTruth Films and Report for America.
Thanks to Nina Porzucki, Phil Redo, Bob Kempf, John Ryan, and Doug Shugarts at WGBH. Funding for this episode comes from WGBH News, The Luce Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
I’m Charles Sennott, executive producer of the podcast, and founder of The GroundTruth Project, which supports a new generation of journalists to do on-the-ground reporting in undercovered corners of the world.