Gary Pearce: Like GOP, Helms evolved on Israel

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 29, 2021

By Gary Pearce

Conservative evangelical Christians in America haven’t always been all-out supporters of Israel. They once were downright hostile.

That changed in 1984 when North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms ran for re-election against Gov. Jim Hunt. Helms’ flip-flop on Israel had nothing to do with religion. It was about campaign contributions.

During his first two terms in the Senate, 1972-1984, Helms was a staunch foe of Israel. He proposed a resolution demanding that Israel return the West Bank to Jordan. He said Palestinian Arabs deserved a “just settlement of their grievances.” He called for breaking diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Challenged on his views, he said, “Let me remind you that Menachem Begin (then prime minister of Israel) does not believe in Jesus Christ.”

Then politics intervened. I saw it first-hand working in Hunt’s campaign against Helms.

Arthur Cassell, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist from Greensboro, offered to help Hunt. Cassell said the Jewish community across the country viewed Helms as Israel’s No. 1 enemy in the Senate.

There was a rich vein of financial support waiting to be tapped for Helms’s opponent.

Tap it we did.

Cassell lined up fundraising events across the country. We sent a blizzard of fundraising letters. One reporter wrote later, “Pro-Israel political action committees poured an astonishing $222,342” into Hunt’s campaign, big money then. That was only a fraction of the total raised.

Hunt, sadly, didn’t win. But Helms got the message. When he returned to the Senate in 1985, he suddenly proclaimed himself Israel’s best friend. One account reported:

“The senator gathered together as many of his North Carolina Jewish constituents as he could, and together they set out on a pilgrimage to Israel. There he had himself photographed wearing a yarmulke and kissing the Western Wall. Upon his return, the reborn Jesse Helms bombarded the media with a series of pro-Israel statements.”

The website of the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University features photographs from that trip.

Until he retired from the Senate in 2002, including as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (1995-2001), Helms couldn’t do enough for Israel. He even exempted the nation from his fervent opposition to foreign aid.

Helms’ switch coincided with evangelicals’ new-found devotion to Israel — and the Republican Party’s conversion. An analysis published by Vox said, “Two fundamental forces combined to transform the GOP into the hardcore pro-Israel party we know today. First, the rise of the religious right, which sees hardline support for Israel as a religious obligation. Second, the neoconservative movement successfully convinced most Republican leaders that being pro-Israel should be a core conservative value.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, put it this way: “God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, forever. And that God blesses those who bless the Jews, and God curses those who curse the Jews. And if we want God to bless us and God wants us to bless America, we’ve got to bless the Jews.”

Today, evangelicals are closely allied with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing, recently unseated prime minister. Netanyahu was a key supporter of and close to former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump obliged by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.

Netanyahu was ousted by a shaky, slender and unlikely coalition of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and even Arab parties. They are united only by their opposition to Netanyahu, who faces criminal corruption charges.

Friends of Israel worry that close association with right-wing evangelicals will weaken support for Israel among Democrats. That would put at risk a long history of bipartisan support for Israel.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Gov. Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at