Folio — From the July 2016 issue

My Holy Land Vacation

Touring Israel with 450 Christian Zionists

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i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.

The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson. Source photographs of Dennis Prager and tour buses courtesy the author.

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson. Source photographs of Dennis Prager and tour buses courtesy the author.

Prager’s audience is largely Christian; Prager is a Jew. Over the years I’ve heard numerous friendly callers tell him, often in thick Southern accents, that he’s the first Jew they’ve ever spoken to. One day last summer, Prager mentioned that he would be heading up something called the Stand with Israel Tour. For a little under $5,000, you could join Prager, and his most devoted listeners, on an all-inclusive guided jaunt across the world’s holiest, most contested land. The goal, he said, was to remind Israel of its devoted friends in the United States.

America’s religious right hasn’t always been enamored of Israel, much less of Jews. Quite a few of the originators of the American Christian fundamentalist movement were unabashed anti-Semites. In 1933, the radio preacher Charles Fuller told his listeners that Jews represented “a wicked and willful rebellion against God”; other early fundamentalist leaders eagerly circulated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Israel had no friendly harbor in American conservatism for decades; its first real champion in the Oval Office was John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.

In 1981, the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, publicly embraced evangelical Christians, whose stated determination to convert Jews to Christianity had long spooked Israelis. While evangelical religious tourism, and the millions of dollars it injected into Israel’s economy, had always been welcome, evangelicals were kept at arm’s length politically. Begin was the first to recognize that the Israeli right and American evangelicals shared many common beliefs, from forbidding abortion to maintaining a general suspicion toward the Muslim world. The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by the broadcast Baptist Pat Robertson, became invested in the Zionist cause, and by 2002, Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the House of Representatives, commended the group for “standing up for Jews and Jesus.” Robertson dwelled darkly on the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his “gang of thugs” as the political emergence of Christian Zionism fused with right-wing Israeli goals. In the early fifth century, St. Jerome resisted the acceptance of Jews with faith in Christ, warning Augustine that “they will not become Christians, but they will make us Jews.” Sixteen hundred years later, American evangelicals have become de facto Israelis.

I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel, so I asked my beloved partner, Trisha, if she would accompany me on Prager’s tour. This would necessitate leaving our sixteen-month-old daughter with her grandparents for ten days. Trisha was okay with a vacation from parental obligations, but she had some questions: “Will people care I’m not a Republican?” I told her I wasn’t sure. “Do I have to pretend to be religious?” Not if you don’t want to, I said. “Will I have to get baptized?” I doubted it.

Trisha was in.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of nine books. His most recent, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, was published in March by Pantheon.

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