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Cross Purposes

Mike Johnson Is Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Christian Zionist

The House speaker has an apocalyptic fervor for Israel—but it’s not what it seems.

House Speaker Mike Johnson at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas
Ronda Churchill/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas on October 28

On October 28, in his first public appearance since being elected House speaker, Representative Mike Johnson told a crowd of Jewish Republicans, “God is not done with Israel.” He boasted that his first act as speaker was passing a pro-Israel resolution in spite of “no” votes from Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar—which he chalked up to an “alarming trend of antisemitism” enabled by “academia and the mainstream media, and fringe government figures.” As noted by the Jewish outlet Haaretz, Johnson then went on to adoringly quote G.K. Chesterton, failing to mention the British writer and philosopher’s well-documented antisemitism, including his prescription that Jews be made to wear distinctive clothing. 

Only a few days before, the right-wing lobby group Christians United for Israel hosted “A Night to Honor Israel,” during which the founder, Pastor John Hagee, dismissed the prospect of a two-state solution on the basis that “Radical Islam worships death. The Jewish people adore life.” In his words, there was only a one-state solution: “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.” 

Johnson and Hagee appear to be run-of-the-mill Christian Zionists, fueled by fantasies of a cataclysmic war in the Middle East that brings about the Second Coming of Christ, wherein all Muslims—and Jews, for that matter—either convert or face eternal damnation. It would be easy to dismiss these evangelicals and their apocalyptic fervor, but that would be a mistake, as their conceptualizations of Judaism and Israel are shared by many who are not so overtly eschatological, nor even Christian. In recent days, narratives of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism have proliferated, as conservatives frame Hamas’s October 7 massacre as a blow, more fundamentally, to the West. These narratives go to show, rather paradoxically, the extent to which Jews remain an alien “other” in the minds of those working so assiduously to retro-fit them into their story of “Judeo-Christian” civilization.

Philosemitism, or Judeophilia, goes way back, but is thought to have infused Western culture not immediately after Holocaust—when “Christianity was on trial,” in the words of historian Magda Teter—but in the 1960s, when nations began to officially memorialize the Shoah. Many of us who grew up in the Catholic charismatic renewal of the 1970s and ’80s can certainly remember how it permeated that movement. As children, we called Jesus “Yeshua,” attended Christian seders, and were told that adults’ tongue-speaking was “ancient Hebrew.” Such gestures surely helped to deflect against charges of theological antisemitism, to which the Second Vatican Council had given some credence. But leaders offered a quite different reason for our needing to embrace our religion’s Jewish roots: We had to fight the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” including Islam. 

The weaponizing of Judaism against Islam was long a trademark of televangelists like Pat Robertson, who once claimed the entire world shook from the struggle between Israelis worshiping the “one true God” and Arabs worshiping Allah. It’s now a trademark of those white Christians who are now working to justify Israel’s obliteration of Gaza. Consider “pro-life” activist Lila Rose, who swiftly utilized her platform to justify Israeli air strikes, seeming to tell Palestinians, “Not your lives.” On October 11, Rose, who has a history of invoking antisemitic tropes, hosted Robert Nicholson, founder of the Philos Project, on the Lila Rose Podcast to frame the Israel-Gaza conflict as a battle between good and evil.   

Nicholson broadly described Arab Muslims—not Hamas terrorists—as anti-democratic, suggesting that the Bush administration, which worked to establish free elections in Palestine, was naïve for thinking there was “an inner Thomas Jefferson waiting to come out.” By contrast, he portrayed “the Jews” as desiring peace, extending “olive branch after olive branch” to the people who “kill for [their] beliefs.” 

Rose did not rein in her guest, but instead inferred that Christians are the true target of Islamic fury and its secular ally, the academy. “So you’re saying it’s not just antisemitism,” she said, “it’s actually anti anything that’s a western ideal…a Judeo and ultimately Christian value or principle” (Emphasis hers.) When Harvard students protested against Israel, she went on, they were essentially protesting against “our basic values and ideals about humans having human rights and humans having religious liberty.” They were revolting against the idea that “there’s a God, who’s a creator.”

Such comments ignore the facts that Muslims are theists and Israel’s academic critics include many people of faith, including Jews. According to Joshua Stein, a philosopher who studies antisemitism, it is all too common for Christian Zionists to write off Jews in their supposed name. He told The New Republic, “They have particular subgroups of Jews they like and regard as ‘staying true to Jewish practice,’ with a typical favoritism towards explicitly Zionist Hasidic and orthodox (including modern orthodox) movements. Jews who don’t align with their image of ‘traditional’ Judaism are excluded.” This is despite the fact that the latter constitute the majority of America’s Jews. 

In a separate interview with The New Republic, Mia Brett, a Jewish scholar of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, and antisemitism, agreed that actual Jews are not of real concern for conservative Christians, whether they are claiming antisemitism to “shut down Palestinian activism” or to villainize some other progressive project, such CRT or the Black Lives Matter movement. In her mind, these actors only undercut efforts to fight antisemitism, which thrives across the political spectrum. 

None other than former President Trump tacitly acknowledged this bait-and-switch whereby the Christian Right advances its own causes under the mantle of saving Jews. After moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2020, he said, “That’s for the evangelicals.” Indeed, the evangelicals were enthralled, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress going so far as to say, “We’re seeing prophecy unfold. I don’t know when the Lord is coming back, but I know today it got a little bit closer.”

This is not to say that no Jews push narratives of Israeli or Jewish exceptionalism. Many readily do so in order to authorize military aggression or combat antisemitism. At the recent “Night to Honor Israel,” Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan told crowds that his country is “the vanguard of civilization.” It is “fighting in defense not only of itself but of the entire free world.” Ben Lorber, a Jewish scholar at Political Research Associates, commented on X, “This is Erdan rallying the troops.” 

Back in 2020, Elan Carr, the Trump State Department’s anti-Semitism monitor, proposed an initiative to explicitly promote “philosemitism” at home and abroad. On a press call during Jewish American Heritage Month, he suggested illuminating Jewish high-achievers like scientists Jonas Salk and Albert Einstein, and Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo. 

The trouble with treating Jews as special, according to Stein, is that well-meaning tropes feed into antisemitic ones. “The image of religious Jews strictly adhering to halakha is treated as an extension of the stereotype of Jews as legalistic ... The idea that Jews are collectively enterprising and industrious slips quickly into stereotypes about Jews and money.”

Samuel Goldman, a political scientist at George Washington University and the author of God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America, addressed the tendency to treat Israel “as a kind of theater set for the great drama of history” and Jews as actors with prefigured roles. “If God wills certain outcomes,” he told The New Republic, “it can be difficult to engage in the negotiation and compromise that are often necessary to achieve a reasonable measure of peace and security here on earth.” 

However, he added, abstraction is hardly unique to Christian Zionism. Israeli leftist Ksenia Svetlova made a similar point in this publication when she decried Western liberals who insist on reading Hamas militants as “freedom fighters.” One might also consider the way that many on the left code Israelis as white European when so many are of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Or the way, with its revised 2017 charter, Hamas was able to ditch blatantly antisemitic conspiracies for an anti-Zionist framework doing the same work. There is power in grand narratives—in the case of the revised charter, that people in support of the world’s only Jewish state are bloodthirsty racists, part of a nefarious plot with global proportions, and responsible for their own persecution.  

Citing the threats that Israel currently faces “from both religious and secular sources,” as well as the long history of Christian antisemitism, Goldman believes Christian Zionism to be a net gain for Jewish people. Brett and Stein disagree, Stein indicating that, while all non-Jewish political movements in America have some antisemitic figures and elements, antisemitism is particularly pronounced within Christian Zionism. 

But it hardly matters to many gentiles what Jews think when their own feelings are so very strong. And philosemitism almost always manifests as a feeling—a feeling, in the words of one critic, “that they alone have discovered the unique suffering or genius of ‘the Jew,’ and must zealously spread this revelation like a gospel.” There are reportedly now Jews fearfully removing mezuzahs from their doors, while Christians put them on their own, in some cases, engraved with Jesus fish. There’s also Glenn Beck, a long-time promoter of George Soros conspiracies, imploring Israeli leaders for citizenship and wondering on his radio program if his life’s purpose is to “stand with the Jew.”

Many Jews, for their part, prefer to stand with the people in Palestine. They realize that their struggles are interlocking, and that they can support safety and liberation for both. Brett recently posted on X, “Our solidarity gives me hope.”