When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Israel next week, he will be sure to get the royal treatment from government leaders.
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It’s no secret, after all, that U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was, at least in part, payback to the evangelical Christian community for supporting him during his presidential election. Neither is it a secret that Pence, the former Indiana governor with strong ties to the religious right, played a key role in bringing out that evangelical vote.
Pence – whose planned three-day visit was postponed by several days due to a reported crisis in Trump’s Mideast peace initiative – may want to add an additional stop and visit a place that does a great job of capturing the zeitgeist: a new museum dedicated to Christians who helped Jews fulfill the biblical promise of returning to their ancient homeland and establishing Jerusalem as their capital once again.
Founded two years ago, the Friends of Zion Museum in downtown Jerusalem is essentially a shrine to those evangelicals – specifically the Christian Zionists among them – who have successfully used their clout to influence world opinion about Israel and the Jews.
It is that rare place where Christians can come out feeling good about their history with the Jews. Indeed, even the special exhibit on the Holocaust spotlights only those Christians who saved Jews – not the many others, far greater in number, who participated, often enthusiastically, in the Nazis’ Final Solution.
This week, a 40-foot (12-meter) banner was hung on the front exterior wall of the museum, thanking a man who will no doubt one day be commemorated inside, presumably with Pence right behind him: “God bless Trump,” it proclaims, “from Jerusalem D.C. (David’s Capital) to Washington D.C.”
It was one of 60 such banners hung around the city in recent days as part of a special thanksgiving campaign financed by Dr. Mike Evans, the museum’s founder and chairman.
This is not the first time Evans has adorned the city with posters alluding to Trump’s famous campaign promises to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Ahead of the U.S. president’s trip to Israel last May, Evans had billboards plastered in hard-to-miss locations around Jerusalem, proclaiming that “Trump is a Friend of Zion” and requesting that “Trump Make Israel Great.”
In a statement at the time, Evans – among the first evangelicals to come out publicly in support of Trump during his presidential run – said its purpose was to remind the president he had yet to fulfill his promises.
“Donald Trump won the election because of a historic evangelical voter turnout – the largest in American history,” the statement said. “Evangelicals tend not to be monolithic except on two issues – the Supreme Court and Israel. President Trump promised us he would recognize Jerusalem and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. We wholeheartedly believe that this promise is nonnegotiable and will happen while he is president.”
Unsurprisingly, Evans – a frequent traveler to Israel – is expected to accompany the U.S. vice president on his visit next week. And it will not be Pence’s first trip to the Holy Land, either. In 2014, he headed a high-level business delegation from Indiana. The trip, it later emerged, was paid for by the well-known televangelist John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel.
Coincidentally or not, Hagee has exerted considerable pressure on Trump over the past year to make good on his Jerusalem campaign promises.
Evans, who claims among his close friends the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a fierce opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has written 42 books, most of them self-published, and is the founder of Jerusalem Prayer Team, a U.S.-based nonprofit whose goal, per its website, is “to enlist 10 million people in America and around the world to pray daily and 250,000 houses of worship praying weekly for the peace of Jerusalem.” The organization’s Facebook page has more than 30 million followers.
On Monday, Evans presented Trump with the Friends of Zion Award, which, he explained, recognizes global leaders “with the courage to stand with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people.” The award was presented at a special White House ceremony attended by Pence and leaders of the evangelical community.
“We believe that no American president in history has done more to defend the Jewish people in the United Nations, globally, and the recognition of Jerusalem we believe is a strategic step that will bring peace,” Evans told participants. “We believe it’s the soul of the heart of the Jewish people, and this president has stood up with courage and integrity, and we are honored to recognize him for his support.”
A visit earlier this week suggests the Friends of Zion Museum caters primarily to foreign visitors, mainly evangelical Christian groups. Aside from the tour guides and other museum staff, no Israelis were around. All visitors are required to sign up in advance for guided tours, provided in 16 different languages.
Participating in the late afternoon tour were several dozen visitors from Hong Kong – members of the Recover All Ministries Church. Written on the back of the black T-shirts they wore, identifying their affiliation, was a biblical verse highlighting the importance of prayer in Jerusalem.
The hour-long tour, which includes various interactive exhibits, begins as visitors take in stunning aerial views of Israel projected onto a giant wall-to-wall screen.
In one of the final clips, shot in the Negev desert the ancient Israelites were believed to have traversed 3,000 years earlier on their way to the Land of Israel, Evans emerges on the screen to pay tribute to the “remarkable group of men and women, non-Jews, who helped the People of the Promise return to the land of their birthright.”
This is followed by the museum’s big message: “For them, it was a ‘Here I am’ moment,” Evans says, referring to the response Abraham gave God, as recorded in the Bible, when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. “May you be inspired by their stories, and may you too say ‘Here I am.’ Hineni.”
From there, visitors are escorted into the “Time Elevator” for a brief sound-and-light show, which is meant to transport them back 4,000 years in time, before entering the “Founder’s Theater,” where they are presented with an animated version of the main biblical stories and prophecies on a wide, wraparound screen.
The next stop on the tour is the “Hall of Dreamers,” where they learn about the early Christian Zionists who, even before Theodor Herzl had envisioned a Jewish state, believed that the Jews scattered in exile around the world would ultimately return to their homeland. Next they move onto the “Hall of Visionaries,” with its interactive mural presenting the biographies of some of the earliest supporters of a Jewish homeland – among them Britons Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria and Lord Arthur James Balfour, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
In the “Lights in the Darkness” exhibition, they hear the stories of Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, including Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
“Hall of the Brave,” the next stop, spotlights those Christians who played a key role in the establishment of the modern State of Israel, most prominent among them being U.S. President Harry Truman. And on the final stop, visitors are provided with 3-D glasses for a wrap-up film in which Netanyahu proclaims: “I don’t believe the Jewish state would have been possible without Christian Zionism.”
According to a Friends of Zion spokeswoman, “tens of millions of dollars” were invested in the museum, which has attracted some 150,000 visitors since its opening.
David Katz, the operations manager of Sar-El Tours, which specializes in Christian groups, says the museum has become commonplace on many itineraries for companies like his. “We find it’s a great way to wrap up a trip to Israel for these groups, especially after a visit to Yad Vashem,” he says, referring to the national Holocaust remembrance museum.
The fact that evangelicals have been widely credited with the historic U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he adds, should make the museum an even bigger draw. “It will most certainly add to its appeal,” he says.
On their way out of the museum, visitors are encouraged to make a $25 donation by purchasing one of Evans’ books, on sale in the gift shop. The books are on prominent display at the entrance, right under a poster featuring Evans and Trump conversing in the Oval Office. These visitors don’t appear to need much convincing, judging from the line at the cash register.