Trump’s Jerusalem announcement is really about the Religious Right

It's a lot to risk for a small target audience.

Overlooking Jerusalem in 2015. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)
Overlooking Jerusalem in 2015. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

UPDATE: Since this article was published, President Donald Trump has officially announced the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ordered the U.S. embassy to move.

President Donald Trump is expected to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin an effort to move the U.S. embassy to the city on Wednesday, fulfilling a longstanding campaign promise to focus on what he describes as the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.” The deeply controversial announcement upends decades of precedent and has triggered outcry among Palestinian leaders—something most observers expected. But it is also eliciting a flurry of negative reactions among prominent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim figures in the U.S. and abroad.

The widespread ambivalence suggests that the Trump administration’s decision is directed towards a far more specific audience: namely, a subset of politically conservative Jewish leaders and groups and American “Christian Zionist” evangelicals that have long worked to advocate for such a move.

“…we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,”

The news did not sit well with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish group according to Pew research. He released a statement just after midnight Wednesday morning saying that while he believes Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that the embassy should be moved eventually, the president’s decision is “ill-timed” and “all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.”

“…While we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,” the statement read in part. “Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.”

Jacobs’ sentiments on the embassy shift roughly match the American Jewish Committee’s 2017 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, which found that only 16 percent of American Jews believe the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem “immediately.” Thirty-six percent said they want the embassy moved “at a later date in conjunction with progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks,” and 44 percent said it shouldn’t be moved at all.

Pope Francis also expressed “deep worry” concerning the expected announcement on Jerusalem, which he described as “a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

“I cannot keep quiet about my deep worry about the situation that has been created in the last few days,” he said on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. He also expressed a desire “that everyone respects the status quo of the city” according to U.N. resolutions.

…patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem issued a letter urging the president “to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem,” and that any sudden changes will cause “irreparable harm.”

Major American Muslim groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have openly decried the move, and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem issued a letter urging the president “to continue recognizing the present international status of Jerusalem.” They added that any sudden changes will cause “irreparable harm.”

But even as major American Jewish groups, the pope, Muslim leaders, and Christian churches in Jerusalem speak out, the news is being celebrated by hardline pro-Israel Jewish groups and many prominent evangelical Christian leaders and lawmakers—some of whom say they were consulted on the decision.

Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, a cadre of conservative Christians who counsel the president on a myriad of issues, were quick to applaud the move. Board members Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist megapastor, and Jack Graham, former president of the Southern Baptist convention, both tweeted praise for Trump and his decision.

Their joy may also be somewhat self-congratulatory. Johnnie Moore, a former Vice President of Liberty University who often serves as the de facto spokesman for the board, confirmed to ThinkProgress in an email that members were “consulted” on the move.

Tony Suarez, Vice President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a member of the board, also said members played a role in the decision.

“The advisory board was involved and celebrates the decision by the president,” Suarez told ThinkProgress.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), himself an evangelical Christian who has voiced hardline views on Israel in years past, also voiced praise ahead of the announcement.

“It is long past time that the United States recognize the capital of one of our closest and most cherished allies in the entire world,” Cruz said.

“The advisory board was involved and celebrates the decision by the president.”

Indeed, the announcement is already playing well with conservative evangelical voters, a group that backed Trump en masse in 2016. When former White House adviser Steve Bannon uttered a line about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to a group of voters in Alabama—one of the most evangelical states in the country—on Tuesday, it was reportedly the “biggest cheer” of the night.

But the news is also a triumph for a very specific group of evangelicals—sometimes identified as “Christian Zionists”—who have long advocated hardline support for Israel (alongside some right-wing American Jews) as a matter of faith. Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a largely evangelical Christian group that touts itself as the largest pro-Israel group in the United States with 3.5 million members, has vocally supported efforts to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and expressed disappointment when Trump didn’t do so more quickly upon taking office. The group has spent years pushing mostly Republican candidates to take hardline stances on Israel, and hosted several GOP presidential hopefuls in 2015 including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

CUFI’s chairman, John Hagee, has spent years forging alliances between American evangelicals and hardline pro-Israel donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Jewish groups such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), from whom Hagee and Cruz have received awards (Hagee’s group has also given Adelson and his wife an award). This despite the controversy that often surrounds Hagee, who regularly meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his theology: Hagee once implied in a book that Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves, writing “It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews … that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced in Canaan and continuing to this very day.”

Rev. John Hagee of the U.S. gestures as he speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, Monday, March 8, 2010. Israel and the Palestinians agreed to begin indirect, American-brokered talks, the U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell announced Monday, ending a 14-month deadlock in peacemaking and representing the Obama administration's first substantive diplomatic achievement here. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Rev. John Hagee of the U.S. gestures as he speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, Monday, March 8, 2010. (CREDIT: AP/Dan Balilty)

Adelson was reportedly “furious” that Trump previously waffled on the embassy move, and ZOA has also spent years advocating for the embassy shift; the group’s president Morton Klein told the New York Times on Tuesday “It is high time to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”

The scope of Christian Zionism extends well beyond Jerusalem and embassies, however, and some evangelical groups have taken even more extreme positions. Colorado-based Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC), for instance, has joined some American Jewish groups in helping fund settlements in the West Bank—settlements which international law has declared illegal and the U.S. government contends are illegitimate. The settlements themselves are widely considered to be one of the chief impediments to forging a lasting peace deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but CFOIC leaders insist they are fulfilling a biblical promise in Genesis 12:3, in which God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants.

But as the outcry over the expected embassy move indicates, Trump and his religious allies do not appear to share the same vision for peace as other people of faith—or, as his opponents worry, any vision for lasting peace in the region.