How America's Evangelicals are shaping the Middle East
Votes in the U.S. presidential election are still being counted. Meanwhile, Donald Trump stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the results of his country's democratic electoral process. That Trump trails in the count is certainly not the fault of one particular group of voters, American Evangelicals.
In her new documentary, Israeli director Maya Zinshtein provides an eye-opening insight into the way Evangelicals were able to shape President Trump's agenda during his time in office and highlights the massive influence they exerted on America's Middle East policy.
There is certainly no shortage of books and films on this subject, but what makes Zinshtein's documentary really worth watching is the fact that Zinshtein uses her role as an Israeli filmmaker to gain unique access to the people who feature in it. It is patently obvious that she was only granted this access because she is an Israeli Jew who comes from what the people she is interviewing see as the "Promised Land", people who act in accordance with the Biblical motto "I will bless those who bless you [Israel]".
Zinshtein is evidently irritated by this unqualified love for her country. Yet the leaders of the Evangelical movement who feature in the film don't seem the slightest bit interested in her critical distance to Israel, which she makes absolutely no effort to hide at any point during the film.
Zinshtein's research begins in Binghamtown, a run-down town in a former mining region of Kentucky, where Pastor Boyd Bingham IV takes his rapid fire rifle and talks about the burden of the Obama years. Later he gives a lecture to children and young people and explains: "Israel and their people, the Jews, are better than all of us. For it is important, as he says himself, to begin "indoctrination" as early as possible.
Growing base with huge influence
What may look like an abstruse cult from the outside is, in fact, mainstream here: up to 25 percent of Americans are Evangelical in the broadest sense and can identify with the theological and religious policy principles of the movement.
What's more, the Evangelicals are steadily gaining influence in largely rural, lower middle-class white America – the America that has been "left behind". The documentary captures in impressive images the dreariness of this part of America, which provided Trump with his all-important voter base not only in 2016, but also in 2020.
Evangelical leaders who feature in the film are proud to point out that key members of the Trump administration hail from their ranks, including Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who frequently brought eschatological reflections into foreign policy discussions. For his part, Trump repeatedly appeared with Evangelical leaders – even if his relationship with them was in all likelihood purely opportunistic.
The Evangelical agenda – which is peppered with racist, misogynist, anti-LGBTI and not least also anti-Semitic attitudes – has over the last four years been pushed by a specially founded Evangelical Advisory Board, which has exclusive access to the White House.
In this way in particular, the Evangelicals were in a position to shape Trump's Middle East policy almost entirely according to their own wishes, which meant unconditional support for Netanyahu and the settler movement.
Zinshtein focuses on the most important lobby groups and their leaders to show how their influence is organised. One of these organisations is the "International Fellowship for Christians and Jews", which was founded in the 1980s by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein as a small charitable organisation and is continued today by his daughter Yael. It collects millions of dollars in donations every year. This money is invested in humanitarian projects in Israel, but also in Israeli settlements and the Israeli army.
Among other things, Zinshtein filmed during a gala dinner where money was being raised for the IDF. The dinner was attended by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has supported both Netanyahu and Trump with huge sums of money. On that evening, Eckstein told Adelson that Jewish communities around the world are not growing, but that evangelical communities are.
The message is crystal clear: pro-Israeli Christians – some of whom refer to themselves as "Zionist Christians" – are much more important allies for Israel's nationalists than Jewish communities around the world, most of which are liberal and are more critical of this one-sided support than all other religious communities in the USA.