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Why has the biblical feast of Sukkot become associated with Evangelical support of Israel?

In a podcast interview with Jerusalem Post editors, Rosenberg explains the Christian connection to the holiday and the ebbs and flows of Evangelical influence regarding the Jewish state

Thousands of Evangelical Christian wave their national flag alongside the Israeli flag as they march in a parade in the center of Jerusalem, marking the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Oct. 1, 2015. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Despite a tumultuous week when American support for Israel was challenged by a small group of radicals in the U.S. Congress, Evangelical support for the Jewish state still remains strong, Joel Rosenberg said in a recent interview during the biblical holiday Sukkot.

During a normal year, thousands of Christians would be in Israel right now celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) along with Israelis, the ALL ISRAEL NEWS editor-in-chief noted in a wide-ranging conversation with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz and the paper’s Diplomatic Correspondent Lahav Harkov on their podcast.

The interview covered various topics including the Abraham Accords, Rosenberg's latest book, "Enemies and Allies" and the new Israeli government's performance so far.

But the conversation began with questions about Christians' interest in the Jewish roots of their faith and the reason behind the Evangelical passion for the State of Israel.

“Evangelicals have looked for ways to support Israel over the years and, to the credit of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, they put together an event basically welcoming Christians – at its peak 4,000-5,000 pre-COVID – Evangelicals from all over the world, not only touring, but having a several-day conference,” Rosenberg said.

“It’s just a great time to celebrate and then to assess what’s coming next, how do we pray for the peace of Jerusalem?” Rosenberg said. “For many years, we didn’t see those prayers answered in terms of peace, but some things are really breaking through now.”

Evangelicals, who believe the biblical prophecies regarding Israel, have consistently displayed unconditional love for Israel, and Rosenberg pointed out that during the Second Intifada, they were the only foreigners coming to Israel in solidarity.

Many of the pro-Israel decisions made by former president Donald Trump, including moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, came at the urging of American Evangelicals who take seriously the biblical command to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

And now, perhaps the most dramatic answer to that prayer has come about: the Abraham Accords, the historic normalization deals between several Muslim states and Israel.

In “Enemies and Allies,” released earlier this month, Rosenberg brings readers the behind-the-scenes story of how the Abraham Accords came about and where they may be headed next.

“The Saudis are actively weighing, is it in their national interest to go full on and make peace with Israel? And, what do they want from Israel with regard to the Palestinians as part of the deal? What do they want from the Biden administration?” Rosenberg said. “This would be the mother of all peace deals. And the Saudis are in the doghouse with (U.S. President Joe) Biden. Imagine them giving Biden a big diplomatic win by effectively seeming to broker this deal.”

That being said, young Evangelicals in the U.S. seem to be cooling to the same form of Zionism that their parents and grandparents have adopted.

“Christian Zionism has mistakenly not shown compassion for Palestinians, and I think that’s showing up in young Evangelicals who feel like it’s a little tilted unfairly,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not saying there isn’t a liberal drift against Israel. I think there is some of that, but I think some of it is just – shouldn’t we be for this underdog also? And I think the answer is yes.”

“God loves Palestinians. There’s nothing in the Bible says that God doesn’t love these people or want a good plan for them,” Rosenberg continued.

However, the church has not been doing a good job teaching Israel to the next generation while also advocating for the civil rights of Palestinians who live in the shadow of a corrupt government in the West Bank and a terrorist organization in Gaza.

Another concern that shook Israel’s reliance on Evangelical support in the past few months was Mike Evans’ tirade against Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in which he used vitriolic and obscene language. The Evangelical leader and founder of the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem had vowed to “work against” the new prime minister.

“What he said was that 100% of Evangelicals would turn against Naftali Bennett,” Rosenberg said. “But what Evans did was force out every Evangelical leader to say, ‘No, our support and our love for Israel is unconditional. It is not based on who’s in power on Balfour Street. It’s based on the Bible.”

In fact, in his first 100 days in office Bennett has navigated Israel’s relationship with the new administration well, Rosenberg assessed, referring to the prime minister’s visit to Washington during America’s disastrous and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

“Bennett did the right thing. He stood with his ally. He gave condolences for the losses of the American soldiers killed in the suicide bombing. And he’s really trying to reinvigorate the bipartisan nature of American support,” Rosenberg said. “And Biden? Let’s be honest, I’m critical about Biden on Iran, on Afghanistan, but he’s the most pro-Israel Democrat that there is in that party.”

It is worth listening to the full podcast here. The interview with Rosenberg begins at the 16:38-minute mark.

Here is a full transcript of the portion with Rosenberg:

YAAKOV KATZ: (16:38) Next, we have an interview with Joel Rosenberg. So just one word about Joel, and this kind of ties into what we're talking about. Joel is one of the Evangelical leaders who actually lives in Israel. He's an American-Israeli. He has a new book out called "Enemies and Allies," which talks about the Abraham Accords and the realignment that's taking place in the Middle East. He's a best-selling author for books, mostly fiction writing, but has also written, occasionally nonfiction. This book is specifically a nonfiction book that's out, and that's new, but we also talked to Joel about Feast of the Tabernacles. The holiday of Sukkot is known as a holiday that brings together Christians and Evangelicals to the State of Israel. And we spoke to most about Evangelical support for Israel, which recent studies have shown might be dropping and is not as profound as it once was. So stay tuned for an interesting interview with Joel Rosenberg. 

KATZ: (17:38) So it's a privilege to have with us, Joel Rosenberg, who's a New York Times best-selling author, a prolific writer of commentary on the State of Israel and the region and the Middle East. We've had the opportunity at The Jerusalem Post to publish a number of op-eds by Joel over the years about his travels throughout the region to different Gulf states – Saudi, the United Arab Emirates. We'll talk a bit about that later with regards to his new book, Enemies and Allies. But first, Joel, we thought we'd kind of tap into you for a moment. We're in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot here in Israel and across the Jewish world, of course. And this is a holiday that in recent years is very much become associated with Christians in Evangelical support for the State of Israel. Well, many of us are familiar with the Feast of Tabernacles that takes place every year under COVID. I'm not sure exactly how that is. – last year, this year. But maybe you could kind of just give us some input into what is it about this holiday that brings the Christians to really express and illustrate their support for Israel? 

JOEL ROSENBERG: Sure. Well, absolutely happy holidays to both. And usually I'm in Israel celebrating Sukkot in our family sukkah. In fact, when we first made aliyah seven years ago, we built our sukkah – we were living in Netanya at the time and we built our sukkah on the balcony, and I couldn't get any of the boys or my wife to sleep in it, but I tried. And then it was so painful being on the concrete, you know, balcony that I reread the scriptures about this. And it said every native born Israeli or Israelite, you know, needs to sleep in the sukkah. And I'm like, that's not me. I'm an immigrant. So I went back to bed in my house. So, you know, I try to take the Bible very literally, so it's good. So look, I think that Evangelicals have looked for ways to support Israel over the years and to the credit of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, they put together an event basically welcoming Christians. At its peak, it was four to five thousand – pre-COVID – Evangelicals from all over the world coming and not only touring, but having a several-day conference, more recently in the basketball arena, just outside of Jerusalem. And I think because it's a beautiful time of year, it's a beautiful time to, you know, it's a holiday time, but it's not the highest holiday from a few days ago with Yom Kippur and stuff. So it sort of made sense for Christians to come and just celebrate – celebrate the fact that the God of Israel has brought Israel as a sovereign nation-state back into existence after more than nineteen hundred years after many people's prayers and after most people who don't believe in God thought it was absolutely ridiculous: God's never going to actually fulfill these prophecies. You know, you're smoking crack if you think that there's really a God and he really is going to, you know, have a resurrection, as it were, of the nation- state of Israel and bring the Jewish people literally back to the land and rebuild the ancient ruins and make the deserts bloom. But, you know, Evangelicals believe this literally. And as do many Jews, though not, you know, not all. And so, it's just a great time to celebrate and then to assess kind of what's coming next. How do we pray for the peace of Jerusalem? And for many years, we didn't see those prayers answered in terms of peace, but some things are really breaking through now.

LAHAV HARKOV: In recent years, I think it's become, I guess, a little more controversial for Christians to be sort of adopting Jewish holidays. I know earlier this year during Passover, there was like a Facebook post that went viral of an Evangelical woman holding a Passover Seder with a challah on her table. I see this sort of increasing resentment over these kinds of things. What do you respond to that?

ROSENBERG: Well, that's interesting. You would know better on this, sort of the inside of the religious Jewish community in Israel and in the United States and elsewhere. Generally, I would say that the brand, as it were, I hate to use that term, but the brand Evangelical has probably its highest and warmest appreciation in Israel in recent years because of just the consistent, unconditional love and standing with Israel through thick and thin, including obviously persuading Trump to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And, you know, recognized the Golan Heights as a sovereign Israeli territory and rip up the Iran nuclear deal and put a maximum pressure campaign on Iran and so on and so forth. Obviously, Evangelicals have been coming to Israel even during the worst moments of bombing and terrorism. The suicide bombings, you know, of the Second Intifada. Evangelicals were some of the few people that would show up and continue to visit. 

HARKOV: What do you think of this practice, though?

ROSENBERG: Well, I think that I think there's a couple of things. First of all, I don't think Jewish people should be worried about Christians discovering and being fascinated with biblical holidays and biblical traditions. I think that's part of this deep love, which unfortunately, you know, I'm not trying to be mean to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but it really wasn't a thing for the last, let's say, eighteen or nineteen hundred years for Roman Catholicism to really teach, much less encourage people to understand where Jews, where Israel fits in the biblical narrative. And when you take out Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and so forth from the whole Christian story, you run the risk of people being very hostile towards Jews or indifferent. Right? I prefer indifferent than hostile, but I prefer warmth and understanding and appreciation and solidarity. So, you find a lot of Christians who just are excited about the Jewish roots of their faith. And of course, the Passover is such an important holiday. I think it's a good thing for Christians to learn about Pesach and to celebrate it. It's certainly for…you know, obviously for followers of Jesus, we believe that, you know, sort of that Jesus, himself, was the Passover lamb in the New Covenant era. But even setting the theological differences aside, it's important for us to understand – just as Jews are supposed to remind each other and our children and grandchildren – why was the Passover so important? What did that show us about God's mercy on us? I think Christians should know that, and celebrating it is a good thing. 

KATZ: Joel, you're one of the more prominent Evangelical figures today, that kind of, I would say, straddles that Israel - U.S. relationship. And I'm curious, there was a study that came out a few months ago back in May, which kind of was surprising because we had always assumed, I guess, here in Israel that to an extent there was all this talk about Evangelical support, especially under the Trump years. And we saw that there was a study back in 2018, which talked about over half of the young Evangelicals support the State of Israel. But then there was this survey that came out, which showed that 700 Evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29. And they were asked where they placed their support in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: 33% said Israel, 24% said the Palestinians. And this was a big break from 2018 when you had about 70% of young Evangelicals who were responding, on the same question, that they side with Israel. So, is there a trend that's changing here? Are the numbers…are they not the right way? I mean, like, how do you understand what's happening? 

ROSENBERG: Sure. Well, it's a good question, Yaakov. I actually was part of the funding of that first study from 2017-2018 that did the initial, sort of, benchmark. Where are we? Because anecdotally, we were hearing that young Evangelicals were turning away from or against Israel. That study, as you're citing accurately, didn't indicate that Evangelical young people were against Israel, but they were moving into the ‘I don't know what I think’ category compared to their parents and grandparents. 

Now what we're finding is, you know, you add four or five more years to that and that trend is continuing. So that's a problem. And it's and it’s a problem for Israel, but it's a problem of Evangelical Christianity, that we're not doing a good enough job educating young people because we're sort of assuming that our team gets it, because so much of the team has gotten it, post-1948 in a way that, you know, the previous nineteen hundred years weren't so good. And so, that's broadly speaking. But so, it's a problem. Now, again, even the recent study isn't showing so much that young Evangelicals are turning against. They're mostly saying, ‘I support Palestinians, too’. And I don't think that's necessarily bad. But let me explain briefly why. You know, I believe that one of the problems in modern Christian Zionism is that it's so pro-Israel – which I'm for that part. But it often doesn't speak at all about Palestinians or speaks very derogatorily or, you know, really denigrates or demeans the Palestinian people. And that's from some of the most prominent Christian Zionist leaders. Now I understand they're sort of rooting for their team and they're sort of rooting against the other team – as if it were, let's say, a soccer match, okay? But the problem is that God loves Palestinians. There's nothing in the Bible says that God doesn't love these people or want a good plan for them.

And I think and a lot of what I do, especially with our new websites, ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS is say, ‘Listen, we Evangelicals should be for the human rights and the civil rights of Palestinians. That doesn't mean that we don't believe that Israel has a right to security and land, but we ought to be more forward-leaning in defending the rights of Palestinians to have a healthy life. You know, liberate Gaza, not from Israel, but from Hamas, right? Liberate the Palestinians in the West Bank – or we would say, Judea and Samaria – but not from not primarily from Israel. Their main problem is from the corrupt Palestinian Authority, who won't make a deal no matter who makes it, what's the offer? what's the terms? They just never say yes. And I think at some point you have to say, I'm not sure that's Israel's problem as much as it is the leadership of the Palestinians. So I think Christian Zionism has mistakenly not shown compassion for Palestinians, and I think that's showing up in young Evangelicals who feel like it's a little tilted unfairly. I'm not saying there isn't a liberal drift against Israel. I think there is some of that. But I think some of it is just how shouldn't we be for this underdog also? And I think the answer is yes.

HARKOV: But don’t you think that it has to do, though, with – honestly, politics on both sides of America, but what's relevant to Evangelicals, is more Republicans sort of drifting in a more isolationist direction, whether it comes to, you know, aid to other countries, but also just involvement in other country’s affairs?

ROSENBERG: I wouldn't characterize it quite that way, Lahav. I think that Republicans generally have been quite engaged in the world, particularly in the Middle East. What we're concerned about right now is Biden's full-on retreat. But to your deeper point, I think, the tribalization of the Republican Party being so pro-Trump and Trump means pro-Israel. And so if you're pro-Israel, you're pro-Trump, and if you're pro-Trump, you're pro-Israel – for young Evangelicals who didn't like Trump and in fact, in many ways, you know, couldn't stand him, then that became a problem because now Israel was tied together with an American political official whom they couldn't stand. Right? And so now you had…And of course, Netanyahu – we would say, bless his heart in Evangelicalism – like, was so pro-Trump and became essentially a Republican Israeli premier rather than bipartisan. It was easy to do. I understand why he did it, but that caused a problem also. 

KATZ: On the point of Netanyahu, Joel, we saw after the new government by Bennett and Lapid was formed, another Evangelical high profile leader, Mike Evans, came out and was extremely critical of the fact that the Israeli people were allowing this new government to come together and that Netanyahu was being ousted from office. He was very much aligned, like you and Lahav were both just saying, with the Republican Party, with the more conservative approach, not just to U.S. politics, but also to Israeli policies. How much of his departure changes now the dynamic of the relationship between Israel and Evangelicals or does not change it at all? 

ROSENBERG: Well, I've always considered myself a friend of Mike Evans, but he had a political meltdown in which he lost Trump as you know, as a leader. He lost Netanyahu, his dear friend of some 40 years, as a leader. And then Facebook took his page down, and I think it didn't go well for him. But his denunciation and in such vitriolic language, even obscene language actually, which we broke the story at ALL ISRAEL NEWS, was completely wrong. It was not Christian. And what he said was that 100% of Evangelicals would turn against Naftali Bennett. That's just crazy talk. That's not true. And what the good thing that came out of that, as you guys reported, we reported, others…was that not only was that not true, but what Evans did was force out every Evangelical leader to say, ‘No. Our support and our love for Israel is unconditional. It's not based on who's in power on Balfour Street. It's based on the Bible. And so we love Netanyahu, his strength. We know he has some weaknesses. But, you know, we'll support Israel whether it’s Bennett or Lapid. We may have policy differences with some of them.’ So, but yes. This is the challenge that, then, Naftali Bennett really, I think, skillfully navigated – I would say to his credit – when he came to Washington a few weeks ago and met with Biden, right? Because you had the whole surrender of Afghanistan and that whole brouhaha, and that was a really difficult moment. I would not have wanted to see Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Oval Office at that moment ‘cause I'm not sure he could have restrained himself from being critical. And there was a lot to criticize Biden, but not by an Israeli prime minister. Bennett did the right thing. He stood with his ally, he gave condolences for the losses of the American soldiers killed in the suicide bombing. And he's really trying to reinvigorate the bipartisan nature of American support. And Biden, let's be honest, I'm critical about Biden on Iran, on Afghanistan, but he's the most pro-Israel Democrat that there is in that party and he should be supported as much as we can and not just thrown under the bus. And I think Bennett and Lapid are actually navigating that reasonably well, trying to repair some damage that has happened in recent years.

HARKOV: So let's talk about your book now. You've had really a lot of, sort of, scoops and the insider views on the Abraham Accords, and your book is all about changes in the Middle East. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

ROSENBERG: Sure. Well, Enemies and Allies is the first book – it's the only book, so far – that tells the inside story of how the Abraham Accords came about, why they're significant and, sort of, where we might be going next. But it's also the only book that takes readers not into a sort of a general analysis of what the dynamic is in the Middle East 20 years after 9/11, but actually, you sit down with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as I talk to him on the record with my Evangelical colleagues. You come into the palace and you meet Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, as he tells us, two years before the Abraham Accords, that he is ready to make peace. We were sitting on a scoop. We were dying to tell the world that that's what he told us. But those ground rules at the time were off the record. 

KATZ: Joel, sorry to interrupt but why would he tell you that, right? Like, what is it about meeting with Evangelicals that…this was, if I recall correctly, this was a delegation of American Evangelical leaders. You actually are also an Israeli citizen who lives in Jerusalem. So why would he share this information with you guys? 

ROSENGERG: It's a great question, Yaakov. I speculate some in the book, but to be honest, it's not entirely clear. We were the first Evangelical delegation ever invited to the UAE. They told us that, he told us that. A few months later, of course, Pope Francis came, and that was a big story. Why did he trust us and why did he trust us and not think we were going to go leak this story? I'm not sure, except that I think because we had been meeting with King Abdullah in Jordan doing the same type of thing, President el-Sissi in Egypt that I led the first ever Evangelical trip there. These had become big stories also. And he could see that we were keeping confidences. Some things that those men had told us, those leaders had told us, were on the record and we talked about them. But a lot of it wasn't. And so, we were protective. But it is fascinating, right? Because he didn't know us. You know, I'm sure his foreign service and intelligence service had Googled us and vetted us, but nevertheless, it was a big deal that he told us that. And true to his word, he did become the first Arab leader in a quarter of a century to make peace. I think the simplest way to put it is – I think there's a growing sense that Evangelicals actually not only love Israel, but we really do love peace. That we're not out there to cause division. It's not a zero sum game. We love both sides. You know, I was pretty outspoken. I think I may have been the only Evangelical leader outspoken against annexation last summer, when many people, many analysts thought, well, that Trump and Netanyahu would do annexation for the Evangelicals. I'm like, ‘No. We'd rather see Israel more secure by doing peace deals with the Arab countries. Now, that’s because I knew it was possible. And that's why I had more confidence. If you’d ask me five years earlier I might have said, ‘Yeah, go grab Judea and Samaria. And someday we'd like to see that happen and we think biblically it will. But I think that also showed that we have nuance in what we're doing and we are interested in building a really healthy cooperation between the Arabs and Israel. I hope so. 

KATZ: So the book tells us stories about your meetings, your travels throughout the region, meeting with MBS, meeting with MBZ and analysis of kind of what direction you see the region going. And so you, kind of, have met and spend time with a lot of the players behind the Abraham Accords. As we wrap up, what's your forecast for what's happening in the future? We just marked a year to the Accords – that peace deal between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and also Sudan normalization. What do you see happening next?

ROSENBERG: Right. Well, I was just at the one-year anniversary celebration in Washington with Jared Kushner and all the different ambassadors that were involved in the Accords. That was a really special moment. And by the way, I will say again as a positive on the Biden side, they're finally beginning to go public with their support of the Abraham Accords. They certainly took their own sweet time. But I will say that, two things. One, the king of Bahrain has invited us to bring a delegation next year. That invitation had come earlier but had been delayed twice by COVID. So that'll be very special to honor him and thank him for joining the Abraham Accords. 

 The place to watch, obviously, is Riyadh, Yaakov and Lahav.I think that the Saudis are actively weighing, ‘is it in their national interest to go full-on and make peace with Israel?’ And what do they want from Israel with regard to the Palestinians as part of the deal? What do they want from the Biden administration? But I think they are warming towards this and I think if you look at the fact that Netanyahu and our Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Secretary Pompeo met secretly, but I talk about that in the book – with MBS in the northwest province of Saudi Arabia, in addition to the overflight rights of Israeli planes over Saudi area and the green light and the warm language of supporting the Abraham Accords out of Riyadh, this is very dramatic and I think it's moving towards a big win. And think about it. This would be the mother of all peace deals. And the Saudis are in the doghouse with Biden. Imagine them giving Biden a big diplomatic win by, you know, effectively seeming to broker this deal. That's a huge story. And right at a moment when Biden doesn't have any foreign policy wins to show over the next year. Is that possible? It's something to watch. Something to be fun to report on. 

 KATZ: Well, that's for sure. Well, Joel, always a pleasure to talk to you. Look out, people, for Joel's new book, Enemies and Allies. You'll be sure to get a good story. 

Joel's mostly known, I think... right? …for your fiction writing. You've written…

ROSENBERG: Right, that’s how King Abdullah first met me. I'd written a novel about people trying to kill him, and he read it and invited me to come see him. 

KATZ: And he invited you, if I remember the story, to come watch some military drill in Jordan, right? 

ROSENBERG: Yeah, my wife and I spent five days with him and his senior national security team and generals. And he was basically showing me what he was doing to make sure my books never come true. 

HARKOV: So, pretty amazing.

ROSENBERG: It's in the book. 

KATZ: Yeah, it's all in the book. So check out Enemies and Allies. Joel Rosenberg, thanks for joining The Jerusalem Post podcast. 

ROSENBERG: My pleasure.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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