Reporter's notebook'If we don’t stand with Israel, we stand for chaos'

Devastation of Gaza border towns a ‘gut punch,’ says Huckabee during evangelical tour

Touring Kfar Aza, where Hamas killed dozens on October 7, prominent evangelicals call to eradicate terror group, say American Christians need to be better informed on war

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (C) and Likud MK Danny Danon (R) tour the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border on December 20, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (C) and Likud MK Danny Danon (R) tour the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border on December 20, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Standing outside a row of burned and shattered homes in Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza border, Mike Huckabee declared Wednesday that “if we don’t stand with Israel, we stand for chaos,” during the first day of what the former Arkansas governor said was possibly his most important trip in over fifty years of visits to the Jewish state.

Taking part in an evangelical pre-Christmas solidarity mission, Huckabee described the experience of walking through the kibbutz — where dozens of the residents were murdered during Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7 — as a “gut punch” that reinforced his resolve to express solidarity with the Israeli people.

Some 1,200 people were killed, mostly civilians, by the Hamas terror group on October 7 when it led a devastating onslaught in which some 240 people were kidnapped to Gaza. Israel responded by launching a military campaign in the Gaza Strip to destroy Hamas and release the hostages.

“The evangelical community is, I think, overwhelmingly united in recognizing that Israel has a right to exist and a right to defend itself from those who try to question its existence,” Huckabee told The Times of Israel, adding that he felt he had to see the devastation with his own eyes.

“As governor, I walked through scores of communities that had been hit by tornadoes, ripped apart and leveled to the ground,” he recalled, as artillery and machine gun fire boomed in the distance from Gaza. “And I was used to seeing that kind of destruction, but that’s because a weather system hit and hurt. What I’m seeing here happened because people who claimed to be human beings acted like something other than human beings and did evil.”

“I thought that we need, as Americans, to say with conviction to our Jewish friends in Israel: we stand with you,” he continued. “What you’ve been through is a level of savagery that no human being should experience. And [we need] to say boldly to the people in the US who are parading in the streets, completely misunderstanding what this is about, that there is no moral equivalency.”

Mike Huckabee (left) shakes hands with Moshe Lavi, whose brother-in-law Omri Miran was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, in Tel Aviv on December 20, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Huckabee is a long-time supporter of Israel and frequently takes positions on the right of the Israeli political spectrum, calling the country’s claim to the West Bank stronger than American ties to Manhattan and laying bricks in 2018 as ground was broken on a new housing complex in the settlement of Efrat.

Reframe the hostage crisis

Huckabee was invited to visit, along with other prominent retired American evangelical politicians, by Joel C. Rosenberg, a Jerusalem-based Israeli Christian interfaith activist, and Likud MK Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who took former British and Australia prime ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison on a similar tour.

“We brought a lot of groups of diplomats, leaders and reporters. It’s important. We’re doing it almost every week,” Danon told The Times of Israel.

“When they go back to their countries, they talk about their experiences, and it has a huge impact. I learned from my time at the United Nations that you never know who is the friend of someone else and you have to build a network of supporters. And that’s what we are doing here.”

Daniel Shek, a former Israeli diplomat who works with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, appeared to agree with Danon following a meeting earlier in the day between the delegation and relatives of several of the 129 hostages believed remaining in Gaza — not all of them alive.

While Shek couldn’t quantify how much influence the evangelicals could have on the effort to free the hostages, he said, “When people of goodwill come here and say they want to help, I will do everything in my power to help them help us.”

“I know these people have a serious amount of influence on large audiences in the US, which is wonderful,” he added.

During their meeting, Dafna Sella — three of whose relatives were killed and nine kidnapped in the onslaught — implored the visitors to help “reframe” the hostage crisis as a “multinational humanitarian issue.”

Former US ambassador Ken Blackwell (center) walks through the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza on December 20, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

Likewise, Moshe Lavi, whose brother-in-law Omri Miran was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz, called on them to “continue sharing these stories and advocating for the hostages with your community members.”

“There are a lot of false narratives being advanced and if they are not resisted or contradicted they will take hold,” Ken Blackwell, a former US ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights who worked for Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek in the 1970s, declared as the group drove down to Kfar Aza.

“We have various forums we speak into. We’re commentators on major news programs, we’re radio talk show hosts, we can have an impact and that’s what we must do,” he said.

False narratives

But it remains unclear how much influence they can exert even on members of their own religious communities.

Americans have shown themselves deeply divided on Israel’s ongoing military operations in Gaza, with many young people expressing significantly lower levels of support than their older counterparts.

This trend of decreasing support for Israel among the young also extends to the evangelical community, long seen as one of the most supportive religious streams in the United States. In 2021, a survey of 700 evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 found that only 33.6 percent said that they sided with Israel over the Palestinians.

Blackwell admitted as much, blaming what he said were “major news media who are advancing these false narratives” for changes in evangelical opinion.

For his part, Huckabee claimed that American universities had “indoctrinated” young evangelicals and that it was “up to us to fill those gaps” in education. “These are not informed opinions of people who have any knowledge of Israel or the Middle East,” he said.

A sign memorializes 19-year old Nitzan Libstein outside his home, where he was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Sam Sokol/Times of Israel)

In Kfar Aza, the evangelicals walked through the ruined houses amid the rubble and detritus of lives suddenly interrupted without warning. Skirting a crater, they stepped over downed branches and made their way past a home where someone had scrawled the words “Viva Israel” in the soot.

Photos of the dead and kidnapped were displayed on signs outside of their respective homes, which were pocked with holes from bullets and grenades and charred from the blazes set by Hamas terrorists.

Stunned by the hatred

“I’m stunned,” Sam Brownback, a former Kansas governor who also served as US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said as he stood amid the remains of the kibbutz’s Youth Village.

“I’ve been in Israel many times. I’m stunned at the demonstration of hatred, the depth of hatred, that you see here.”

“It’s like walking through the set of ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” concurred Rosenberg, who runs the All Israel News website and hosts a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, for which he was taping a segment in the kibbutz.

Driving back to Jerusalem Wednesday evening, Skip Heitzig, the pastor of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Calvary megachurch, argued that the solution for falling support for Israeli was doubling down on preaching the Bible.

“Part of the reason that younger Christians have turned their back on Israel is theological. They have a misinformed view of God’s promises to Israel and they have replacement theology,” he said, referring to the doctrine that the church is the new Israel. “So the idea of literal Israel isn’t relevant for them.”

But putting out a different viewpoint can help, he argued, saying that a series of sermons he had delivered on the topics of Israel and antisemitism had been downloaded some two million times in recent months.

“From the pulpit and our radio broadcast and social media, we’ll get the message out,” he said.

Most Popular
read more: