STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the debate over President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran shows something about politics in the United States. Israel has fiercely criticized the agreement. Republican presidential candidates have, if anything, criticized it more fiercely. Mike Huckabee said this about President Obama.
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PRES CAND MIKE HUCKABEE: He's so naive. He would trust the Iranians and he would take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.
INSKEEP: Huckabee has stood by that Holocaust reference, even though it bothered many people. Huckabee is a frequent visitor to Israel. And as a former Baptist pastor, he's part of the coalition of Christian evangelicals and the Majority Jewish State. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team reports on that sometimes awkward relationship.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Former Gov. Mike Huckabee took a more subdued tone when he defended his remarks in an interview with Katie Couric of Yahoo! News on Tuesday. But he stood by his language evoking the Holocaust.
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HUCKABEE: It represents what I feel having been to Auschwitz three times. And every time I've been, it's been such a gut punch, but also a very powerful reminder that this happened.
STARR: The Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, is one of many Jewish organizations that strongly criticized Huckabee's remarks. Michael Salberg is director of international affairs at ADL.
MICHAEL SALBERG: It was both offensive and counterproductive.
STARR: But he does not question that Huckabee, like many of the evangelical voters who back him, sees himself as a staunch ally of Israel.
SALBERG: There's no question that Gov. Huckabee feels that he is a lifelong committed supporter of Israel.
STARR: Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, says many evangelicals believe the creation of Israel was the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
RANDALL BALMER: And also a necessary precondition for the return of Jesus to Earth.
STARR: What many evangelicals believe comes next is a source of controversy.
BALMER: The typical evangelical understanding would be that anyone who does not ultimately convert to Christianity will be consigned to hell.
STARR: This makes some Jews ambivalent about the Jewish-Evangelical alliance. But as Salberg of the Anti-Defamation League points out, with Jews comprising just 2 percent of the U.S. population, evangelical Zionism helps sustain the U.S. commitment to Israel.
SALBERG: We don't always agree on the reasons for the support. But certainly, we welcome the support.
STARR: Michael Oren is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. He served as the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. He frequently met with leaders from the evangelical community.
MICHAEL OREN: I would only say to them, well, what would happen if Jesus does come back, but he comes back as an Orthodox Jew? And they would always say, well, the important thing is that he comes back.
STARR: As Ambassador Oren saw firsthand the strength of evangelical support for Israel. When he lobbied on Capitol Hill, Oren says that on more than one occasion, the congressman would have a Bible open on his desk.
OREN: And he'd point to the passage in Genesis, where, you know, it said God says I will bless those who bless my people. The congressman would point to that passage, look up to me and say OK, I believe in this.
STARR: Many of these congressmen came of age during the 1960s and '70s. That's also the era when evangelicals became Zionist in greater numbers. But Oren has heard from evangelical leaders that younger followers may not support Israel to the same extent as the previous generation.
OREN: There are evangelicals who are influenced by progressive politics, and sometimes that finds expression in distancing from Israel.
STARR: Oren says one way to shore up support in that community is to replicate a program designed for young Jews. It offers free 10-day trips to Israel. There's a pilot program in the works to provide a similar opportunity to young evangelicals. Alexandra Starr, NPR News.
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