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What to do about young evangelicals’ waning support for Israel

Young evangelicals' values may not be the problem.

The Israeli flag flies in Jerusalem. Photo by Taylor Brandon/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Last week Peter Wehner, former GOP presidential speechwriter, recovering neocon and anti-Trump evangelical pundit, wrung his hands over the drift of young evangelicals away from support of Israel.

According to surveys by Mordechai Inbari and Kirill Bumin, both professors at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, support for Israel among 18- to 29-year-olds plunged from 69% to 33.4% between 2018 and 2021. This finding echoes polls by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami showing a drop in the proportion of young evangelicals saying the U.S. should lean toward Israel from 40% to 21% between 2015 and 2018 — alongside a growth in support for the Palestinians.

Wrote Wehner: “For those of us who consider Israel a democratic beacon in the region, who for strategic and moral reasons place high value on the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state, who appreciate the variety of threats it faces, and who — while acknowledging its failings and imperfections — believe that on the whole Israel is a force for good in the world, what can be done to fortify support for Israel among Millennial and Gen Z evangelicals?”

If the rising generation of evangelicals is indeed turning away from Israel, that’s a big deal. At roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, white evangelicals have in recent years constituted the largest demographic base of support for the Jewish state — Jews themselves make up barely 2% of the population.  

Before turning to Wehner’s question, however, let’s take a look at the same-age cohort of Jewish Americans. As it happens, there is excellent data on that, compiled by Pew in large studies of the American Jewish community done in 2013 and 2020.

In 2013, 19% of Jewish 18- to 29-year-olds said that caring about Israel was not an important part of what being Jewish meant to them. In 2020, 27% said so. Similarly, the proportion who said the U.S. is too supportive of Israel grew from 25% to 37%. And in 2020, just 11% of young Jewish Americans thought Benjamin Netanyahu was doing an excellent job as Israeli prime minister, as opposed to 37% who consider his job performance poor. 

Throughout this period there was a Jewish generation gap: the older the cohort, the more pro-Israel. But it’s telling that among those older than 65, the proportion that said the U.S. was too supportive of Israel tripled, from 5% to 16%, while the number who said Israel was not important to their Jewish identity increased by just a single percentage point, from 7% to 8%. 

It’s fair to conclude that current events — not least the late, unlamented Netanyahu government’s embrace of the Republican Party and Donald Trump — had a significant impact on the pro-Israel views of younger Jews. Less so for older Jews, whose views have been shaped by the Holocaust and memories of Israel’s formerly beleaguered situation.

To return to the younger evangelicals: For some time they’ve been to the left of their older co-religionists on same-sex marriage, climate change, immigration, government spending — just about every hot-button issue but abortion. They also are less committed to the premillennialist belief that the End Times depends on the return of the Jews to the Holy Land.

But it was during the Trump years that their support for Israel cratered. That’s something for the older generation of evangelicals to ponder.

“How,” Wehner asks, “can supporters of Israel convince more (young evangelicals) if not to fully embrace the Jewish state, then to at least have a less hostile and more understanding view of it? Among the most urgent tasks is to show why by their own standards — human rights, social justice, the advancement of human flourishing, a government that is accountable and based on the rule of law — Israel warrants their support.”

I’d say the only ones really capable of convincing them that Israel warrants their support are the Israelis themselves. And the only way they can do that is by deeds as well as words.

By including a Muslim political party in its governing coalition in a way that has led to unprecedented material support for the country’s Arab citizens, the new Israeli government is pursuing social justice and advancing human flourishing. By failing to dismantle an illegal settlement on the West Bank, it is undermining the rule of law.

The best way for Wehner and Co. to get the next evangelical generation on board is to make their Israeli friends understand that on this one the ball’s in their court.