The New Republic, March 25, 2019
Last Thursday, Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, a radical shift in foreign policy, saying it was time to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied territory of Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1981. As international headlines quickly pointed out, the tweet contradicted both international law and a UN resolution; seemed a transparent gift to embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just weeks before he faces re-election amid a corruption scandal; and cheered Israeli conservatives hoping to have Israeli control of the West Bank recognized as well. Upon hearing the news, NBC reported, Netanyahu hugged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Israel as part of a five-day tour of the Middle East. Less discussed was the way in which the tweet capped off a week showcasing the Trump administration’s favored relationship with American evangelicals.
The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), among Pompeo’s traveling press team, sat down with the secretary in Jerusalem, and breathlessly reported something quite different from the mainstream press’s legalistic coverage: that Trump might just be “a modern-day Esther, poised to defend Israel and save the Jewish people.”
To convince U.S. evangelicals to overlook Trump’s personal failings, the president has previously been compared to Persian King Cyrus, a nonbeliever in the Bible who nonetheless became an instrument for fulfilling God’s will, conquering Babylon and allowing Jews to return to Israel. The comparison has also resonated elsewhere: Last March, an Israeli organization minted a coin pairing images of Cyrus and Trump, while Netanyahu underscored the comparison in a Washington, D.C., speech thanking Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Pompeo’s statement elevated the stakes, referring to the biblical story of Queen Esther, who used her beauty and wiles to prevent a massacre of Persian Jews—a feat commemorated in the annual Jewish holiday of Purim, also celebrated last Thursday. Netanyahu, too, declared Trump’s tweet “a miracle of Purim.”
Republicans have ventured the comparison before, with both Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. The story of Esther, journalist Sarah Posner has observed, has long been used by Christian Zionists—evangelicals who believe the return of Christ depends on an apocalyptic scenario in which Jews return to Israel, and convert to Christianity—to argue for an invasion of Iran.
For Trump, it’s a particularly audacious comparison. “Esther’s story is that of a young Jewish woman in the ‘harem’ of the Persian king, and through her wit, grace, and charm ends up as queen—and able to avert the bloodlust of an antisemitic minister,” Steven Gardiner, an anthropologist and senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, wrote to me via email. “In other words, Esther was a woman placed in the terrifying and untenable position of sexual servitude, but nonetheless managed to save her people. No one less resembles that position than Donald Trump.”
Much ink has already been spilled over the bargain Christian leaders in the United States made regarding Trump, backing a candidate with a highly questionable personal life in exchange for Supreme Court seats. Less noticed is how the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to foreign policy under the deeply religious supervision of Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, continually pitches itself to the Christian Right. ...
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