BETHLEHEM — Josiah Cohen first came to Israel last summer through a religious study tour organized by Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Illinois where he studies music education.
An active member of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Cohen, 20, said he “fell in love with the land,” but craved firsthand contact with the people, an element lacking in the for-credit school pilgrimage he joined.
So Cohen began saving money through extra shifts as a college writing consultant, also appealing to family and friends for financial assistance — all so he could attend Christ at the Checkpoint, a biennial conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College for evangelicals from across the world. This year, 650 participants arrived from 15 countries.
“In Wheaton in the Holy Lands I looked at dead stones, at ancient ruins. Now I’m talking to living stones, to people living in their homes and communities,” Cohen told The Times of Israel last week. “I’ve spoken to Palestinian refugees, pastors, Israelis, foreigners living in the land, messianic Jews.”
The evangelical community is typically viewed as the backbone of unmitigated Israel support in the United States. But listening to Cohen and his friends speak of their experiences here is understanding that this may be rapidly changing, especially among the younger generation.
A far cry from the massive pro-Israel rallies of pastor John Hagee, at Christ at the Checkpoint Cohen and his friends can visit an Israeli checkpoint at the crack of dawn, attend a panel discussion on replacement theology (the Christian doctrine whereby the Jewish people was replaced by the Christian church as God’s chosen community) or hear a lecture titled “the Kingdom of God within the impasse of the Israeli and Palestinian Historical Narratives.” In the evening, they can chill out with a dabka dance performance.
“The Jewish narrative really resonates with me and the Palestinian narrative really resonates with me,” Cohen said. “It’s incredibly complex.”
Richard Strick, a young evangelical reverend from Huntington, Indiana, said he came to Bethlehem to “hear from our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as address some peace and justice issues.”
This is also Strick’s second trip to the region. Last summer, he came on a pilgrimage dedicated “one-third to pilgrimage, one-third to history and archaeology, and one-third to peace and justice issues.”
Upon returning to his community in Indiana after his first visit, Strick gave a two-hour presentation on his experiences in the West Bank, including a slideshow dealing with water shortages suffered by Palestinians. He said he was trying to “respectfully and slowly” educate his community on the complex reality he had encountered.
“When you have something that’s very hot and you throw very cold water on it, you often cause it to break because it can be brittle,” he said. “I find that transitions are best led slowly, walking side by side with folks as opposed to way out in the front.”
The younger generation is quicker in “recognizing some of the injustices that have happened here in the land,” Strick said, but even older members of his community were receptive to his message.
“Pain has happened on both sides, the pain of the Holocaust and the pain of the Nakba,” Strick said, using an Arabic term denoting the “catastrophe” created by the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. “Both of those pains need names, both of them need healing. Much of it in my context is informing people that there are Palestinians working toward peace and justice, and Israelis doing the same thing.”
Buzz words such as “justice” and “peace” resonate deeply with young evangelical Christians, said Robert Nicholson, a 32-year-old self-proclaimed Zionist evangelical. Nicholson was speaking on a panel titled “The Effort to Divest Evangelical Christians from Israel: A New Campaign” organized by the B’nai Brith World Center on March 13. A counterbalance to Christ at the Checkpoint, the Jerusalem symposium highlighted the perils of changing evangelical perceptions of Israel.
Nicholson, a research associate at the Paul E. Singer Foundation in New York, said he first learned that a critical evangelical narrative on Israel even existed in 2010, when a Christian movie titled “With God on Our Side” dealing with the suffering of Palestinian Christians hit the silver screen.
“I was in shock,” he said.
Nicholson tried to explain why young evangelicals are growing more critical of Israel.
“Sticking up for the underdog is Christian,” he said. “The Palestinians are viewed as the weaker side, so it’s almost automatic for them to buy into this narrative. [They say:] ‘if your theology doesn’t comport with ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ you have a bad theology.”
Simplistic and shallow, the Christian Zionist position has become “an easy target” for anti-Zionists, Nicholson argued. For the rebellious millenial generation — focusing on “narrative” and tending to decontextualize events — a new paradigm is needed, where young evangelicals are exposed to Israelis and Israeli society as they are in reality, not only in scripture.
“It’s about messaging. The Christian Zionist narrative tends to be anti-peace, anti-Palestinian. It makes us look bad,” he said. “Palestinians are suffering and we need to acknowledge that. We don’t do our homework. We must strengthen our beliefs and find a strategy. Otherwise we don’t stand a chance.”
But Munther Isaac, a lecturer at Bethlehem Bible College and director of Christ at the Checkpoint, said that a more realistic theological position on Israel would be better for Jews as well as Christians.
“In many Christian Zionist circles they promote the idea that Jews must return to the land only to be slaughtered in Armageddon,” he said. “They see the place of Judaism only as it relates to their speculations about the future. I don’t think that’s a healthy way of engaging in Christian-Jewish dialogue.”