Folio — From the July 2016 issue

My Holy Land Vacation

Touring Israel with 450 Christian Zionists

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ii. the israel test

Months later, in November, we step out of the elevator and into the lobby of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Ashdod, Israel, to catch Prager’s tour-opening lecture. We want good seats. But when we arrive, forty-five minutes before go time, we find none. Everybody is already here. The majority of our fellow Stand with Israelites are sixty years of age and older. There are somehow around 450 of us, from a dozen American cities. There are too many Stand with Israelites for one hotel, so our cohort has been spread throughout Ashdod, a coastal city twenty miles north of Gaza and a frequent target of Hamas’s rockets in the 2014 Gaza war. I watch our tour group’s few latecomers step off their buses, all of them marveling, as I had, at the huge banner draped across the front of the hotel: welcome to the land of the bible.

Around me a lot of “Hey you!” reunions are happening, with people remembering faces but not necessarily names from previous Prager tours. (He’s done them for more than a decade, leading his listeners everywhere from Israel to Albania to Nova Scotia.) Platters of cookies are attacked. Jugs of mint-flavored water are drained. Everyone wears a lanyard with a laminated name tag attached to it, all branded genesis tours, the faith-based travel company that’s been squiring Christians around Israel since 1990.

by Matthew RichardsonWe finally find two seats. Trisha starts chatting with the older woman sitting next to her, one of the seventy-eight conservatives from southern California. I hear Trisha tell the woman what she does for a living (actor) and where she lives (the Hollywood Hills), which triggers some intrigued follow-up questions.

Trisha has just violated the cover story we agreed to use while standing with Israel: Trisha would say that she is a stay-at-home mom, which is true, and I would say that I work in the video-game industry, which is also true. We wouldn’t disclose our politics or other jobs unless asked — we agreed not to lie — and we would never argue with anyone. We’d listen and observe and try to understand. I’m open to making friends here, and hope I do. A good way not to do that, however, is to be identified as a crypto-liberal during our first interaction on our first night in Israel. Trisha blames her slip on jet lag.

The presentation begins. Prager is introduced by a bald, fit, velvet-voiced Israeli named Reuven Doron, the man on the ground for Genesis Tours. “We are here for one purpose,” Doron tells us. “We came to stand with Israel.” This extracts a few vaguely amenish sounds from the audience. Doron goes on: “You are our strength, and our encouragement, and a joy to our hearts.”

Eventually Prager himself ambles over to the mic. He is a big man, around six foot four, with fine white corn-silk hair. In his khaki slacks and open-collar blue-striped shirt, he could be the provost of a university. (He is, kind of. Prager University — “Free courses for free minds” — offers a catalogue of five-minute online videos covering a variety of subjects, from anger management to electric cars.) There’s a collective titter from the ladies as Prager gets ready to speak. He has a lot of female admirers here, including his third wife, a six-foot blond amazon standing in the back. Trisha will later tell me that she gets why women like Prager, pointing out that when he smiles his dimpled face adorably resembles that of “a really wise Muppet.”

Prager begins by talking about something he calls the Israel Test. What is the Israel Test? The Israel Test involves seeing “how people react to Israel,” which is, he says, “about as quick a way you have to understand their judgment.” Meaning, essentially, that if you ever find fault with Israel, you’re horrible. President Obama fails the Israel Test, even though, in 2012, he sent the single largest military-aid package America has provided the country to date. John Kerry is an even worse Israel Test failure, Prager tells us, because he often takes a “middle position” on the Israel–Palestine contretemps, “as if there really wasn’t a dark and a light.”

Prager continues, “You can’t imagine how proud I am of you. I’m very serious. It means the world to me. To be honest, when there were these attacks that started a month ago” — more than a dozen Israelis had been stabbed in the street by Palestinian assailants — “we really didn’t know how many people would cancel. And the answer is almost nobody.” I’d written an email to Genesis Tours when the stabbing frequency got bad, wanting to know if the threat of violence had at all altered our itinerary. The “Dear friend” form letter I received in return assured me, “These incidents of Islamic-driven violence are isolated, and thanks to our alert security forces and citizens, they are contained within seconds.”

Prager emphasizes that he’s not getting paid to be here with us. He also believes that American parents — Christians and Jews alike — should send their children to Israel between high school and college. Why? “The moral compass of the world,” he says, “is upside down. If your child can spend time in Israel, and then become clear as to how upside down the world is, they will return to the university already immunized against the most morally upside down of all Western institutions, the university.”

I listen to Prager’s speech with these preconceived views: Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself. Palestinians have been collectively wronged — by Israel, by their leaders, and often by their own actions. The growing religious fundamentalism within Palestinian society, which was once more secular than most of the Arab world, scares the hell out of me. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the plight of average Palestinians — most of whom are not violently “Islamic-driven” en masse, like those referred to by Genesis Tours. I’m equally sympathetic to the plight of average Israelis — who, contra other accounts, are not mindless bigots. And I realize that, in the past twenty years, there have been at least seventeen full-fledged failures of the peace process, for which there is a surfeit of blame to go around.

Too often, the subject of Israel becomes just another way for Americans to refract their own views of America. Liberals tend to assume that right-wing evangelicals support Israel because of how it fits into their imagined apocalypse: only when God’s Chosen People reoccupy the entirety of their biblical territory will the Final Dispensation, the rise of the Antichrist, the Tribulation, the eventual return of Jesus Christ, and his Last Judgment commence. In many ways, the founding of Israel in 1948 was the Woodstock of fundamentalist Christianity. A recent Pew study of Christian fundamentalism found that 63 percent of white evangelicals believe that the creation of a Jewish state in modern times fulfills the supposed biblical prophecy of Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet not one evangelical Christian I will meet on tour seems interested in any of that. Rather, the conservative Christian love of Israel that I will encounter, over and over again, seems bound up in a notion of God the Father, who has two children: Israel and the United States. This Israel — not a nation but a wayward brother — lies beyond history, beyond the deaths and wars that made it, beyond the United Nations, beyond the Oslo Accords, beyond any conventional morality. Understand that and you have passed the Israel Test.

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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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