American evangelicals, Israeli settlers and a skeptical filmmaker
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American evangelicals, Israeli settlers and a skeptical filmmaker
The documentary filmmaker Maya Zinshtein in Tel Aviv on Feb. 23, 2021. Her new film, "'Til Kingdom Come," illuminates what the director calls an "unholy alliance" that sharply altered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Trump administration. (Amit Elkayam/The New York Times.

by David M. Halbfinger

TEL AVIV (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The bear hug between former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their governments was a partnership like no other the two countries had seen. For four years, Israel was Washington’s favorite foreign policy arena and Jerusalem its best friend, and the brash new U.S. approach to the Middle East dominated Israel’s national security discourse and its politics.

Far less understood was one of the key underpinnings of that relationship: the intricate symbiosis between evangelical Christians in the United States and religious Jewish settlers in the West Bank. In a new documentary, “’Til Kingdom Come,” Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein delves into this “unholy alliance,” as she calls it, showing how the settlers reap enormous political support and raise money from evangelicals, who, she argues, directly and indirectly subsidize the settlers’ steady takeover of the West Bank, which the Palestinians want for a future state. In return, evangelicals edge closer to fulfilling the prophecy many adhere to that the second coming of Christ cannot happen without the return of diaspora Jews to the Holy Land.

That vision doesn’t end well for the Jews: They must accept Jesus or be massacred and condemned to hell. But the film shows Christian Zionists and right-wing Israelis agreeing to disagree about the End of Days while cooperating, and even exploiting one another, in the here and now — and making the conflict between Israel and Palestinians more difficult to resolve.

The film is being released in the United States on Friday. When it was broadcast in Israel in the fall, it led to a wave of guilt and soul-searching, in part for revealing how families in an impoverished Kentucky community are cajoled by their pastor into donating to an Israeli charity despite the country’s wealth, with a tech sector that routinely mints billionaires.

But the film is just as likely to teach Christian and Jewish audiences in the United States a great deal about subjects they may have thought they already understood — including how U.S. politics really work.

Zinshtein, 39, a Russian-born Israeli, said she was a classic immigrant, with an outsider viewpoint and an ambition to make a mark in her adopted homeland. Here are edited excerpts from an interview with her conducted at her home in Tel Aviv and by phone.

Q: You plunged into your project beginning in mid-2017, months before President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the first big display of the power of the relationship. What drew you in?

A: When you live in Israel, you’ve heard about the evangelicals, but no more. People talk about “these Christians that love us.” But they don’t get what that love means. It’s this force beneath the surface, which has an agenda, and people just don’t understand it. But I want to know who is influencing my life.

Q: What did you expect to witness?

A: It was clear that promises had been made to the evangelicals during the 2016 campaign. But no one expected things to happen so fast. I remember a meeting with one evangelical leader who’d told me, “Be patient, maybe by late 2019 or early 2020, Trump will recognize Jerusalem as the capital.” He did it three months later, and he moved the embassy six months after that. In my plan, the embassy was supposed to be the third act! I was terrified: What do I do now?

Q: What’s wrong with the agree-to-disagree collaboration between American evangelicals and Israeli settlers?

A: We have our democracy, and the settlers are a certain percentage of the country. But they have a much bigger influence than their share of the population. And when you have this enormous political power entering our conversation, it changes the balance.

Remember the number of Jews in the world and the number of evangelicals. It’s not an equal relationship, and we are not the stronger partner.

My brother’s in the reserves. He’ll get called up in the next war. And there will always be a war here — it’s when, not if. The evangelicals don’t want people to get killed, but they believe war is a sign. In whose name will we fight these wars?

Plus, these people have a very specific set of beliefs that drives them. In the film, for example, you see them celebrating the ban on transgender [members of] the American military. You’re signing on with their whole agenda. You cannot take just one part.

Q: There’s so much attention paid in the film to Christians’ love for Israel. Do you accept that it’s really a form of love?

A: When you start questioning that, Israelis say, “Wait a minute, Maya. Don’t we have enough people who hate us? Finally, someone loves us. Let’s just take it.” But when someone loves you just for being Jewish, there will always be someone who will hate you just for being Jewish.

Someone told me, “When they say they love you, they mean they love Jesus. You are just part of the story. You are the key, and you know what happens with the key after the door is open, right? You don’t need it anymore.”

Q: Love is really just another word for support, no?

A: But nobody asked, what did this support actually mean? It’s not “support of Israel.” It’s support of a right-wing agenda that many people here wouldn’t agree with.

Evangelicals are the only significant power outside Israel that is openly supporting the settlements. No one else does. But the dangerous thing is that they’re turning that into support for Israel. Pastor John Hagee, when he started Christians United for Israel, was all about the settlements. Today you won’t find him talking about the settlements at all. Just “Israel.”

Q: The film shows a religious settler telling visiting Christians that they are bit players in a movie in which Jews are the stars.

A: The amazing thing in this relationship is each side thinks the other one is stupid. Each side is trying to trick the other.

Q: The access you won was extraordinary. You didn’t just get an entire Kentucky church and its pastors to open up to you and your crew. You filmed inside the powerful Republican Study Committee and at a gala of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, at Mar-a-Lago.

A: It was mind-blowing. You saw all these wealthy Christians and Jews sitting together, saw Christians give testimony about how “before I started to donate to Israel, I had a small shop in Cleveland, and today I have a huge chain of stores, just because I started to donate to Israel.” They think it helps them in their lives.

Q: How did you gain that access?

A: The fact that we were Israelis played a crucial role, because we can’t immediately be put in a certain box. If I were a Jew from New York, I’d never have been able to make this film. American Jews are recognized as the other side. We are not. We are part of this bond.

The bond is with Israel.

Q: You follow the money, showing an elderly Israeli woman who survived a terrorist attack and now gets free food and shoes. If Israel is so wealthy, why does it need foreigners’ help to feed and clothe her?

A: It’s embarrassing. But Israel invests so much in the settlements. Christian money is filling needs created by the settlements. Maybe instead of, I don’t know, building roads in the settlements, we need to take care of our poor. It exposes a much bigger question of priorities.

Q: The donors include people in one of America’s poorest counties.

A: I cried so badly. It’s freezing, and you’re in a coat and you see kids in a house with no windows coming out with no shoes. Kids with rat bites on their legs. Some Israelis who saw the film asked if they could send money.

Q: What do you want the takeaway to be for evangelical viewers?

A: That [Israelis are] not just a Bible, we’re people with a present and a near future. That Israelis and Palestinians want to live in peace. Just because your faith says that God said to Abraham that all this land belongs to the Jewish people — they are not going to suffer the consequences. We are the ones who’ll suffer the consequences, in real life, not just in the afterlife.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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