November 22, 2023 : By Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Liberty University has a longstanding history of supporting the nation of Israel and offering cultural enrichment opportunities for faculty and students to learn more about the country and its people.
Liberty regularly sponsors short-term and study abroad trips to Israel as well as trips to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Students have heard from Israeli speakers in Convocation and at other special events. Liberty has also collaborated on research projects with Israeli universities.
When the challenges and forces opposing God’s chosen people are at their worst, Liberty has stood with the nation of Israel. On Nov. 15, hundreds of students gathered with Liberty leadership at a prayer vigil in support of Israel. On Nov. 8, Liberty welcomed two survivors of the Hamas attacks who shared emotional testimonies of the evil acts carried out in their neighborhood. Since October, in the days following those events, Liberty lit the Freedom Tower in the colors of the Israeli flag to raise continued awareness. This semester, Liberty released a statement on its continued support of Israel. “Since our founding in 1971 by Dr. Jerry Falwell,” it reads, “Liberty has always had a close, special relationship with the nation of Israel. As a part of our biblical commitment and spiritual emphasis, we have strived to teach our students about the historical and theological significance of Israel as part of our academic programming. For the past five decades, we have hosted dozens of student trips to the state of Israel, providing life-changing opportunities for our students to be connected to the Holy Land.”
Connecting with the Jewish people and learning about the Holy Land has been a priority for Liberty since the beginning. When Dr. Jerry Falwell, Liberty’s founder, was traveling and broadcasting around the country to encourage students to enroll in the university’s first class in 1971, he made a vow to prospective students that he would take them to Israel for free — and he made true on that promise in February 1972 when he took 90 of the 154 original students to Jesus’ tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Dead Sea, and other sites. One of those students was Paula (Oldham) Johnson. After taking a boat from Crete that stopped in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the group crossed into Israel, making them possibly the first sizable group of American citizens to enter the country since the end of the “Six-Day War” in 1967.
“To be able to walk around in the Holy Land, I thought that was a tremendous experience, and to have it be for free was incredible,” Johnson said. “I’ve always felt that the biggest education I received was through traveling like that and seeing other cultures. Back in those days, kids didn’t travel as much as they do now. It was a tremendous gift to the student body, and many of them that I know have not been able to go back since.”
Johnson added that with each time she has visited Israel since then, she has witnessed its beauty and the hand of God watching over His people, even in the midst of war and unrest like there is today.
“Israel has bloomed like a rose, just like the Bible said it would,” she said. “When you’re able to go and witness Israel for yourself, it gives you a sense of how important it is for a place like Israel to exist, a place for the Jewish people. They are the apple of God’s eye and He has protected them through so much, and now with the war going on, I’ve been constantly praying that He will work miracles for the people of Israel. You can’t go there and not appreciate that fact. And I think Dr. Falwell knew the importance of showing that to the students, to impress upon them the importance of the nation of Israel.”
Falwell frequently emphasized the integral role that Israel has played in evangelical history. In 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin awarded Falwell the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal, an Israeli government award given to Americans who had performed distinguished service to the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
In 1999, Falwell once again offered a free trip to Israel as an incentive, this time only for members of the freshman class who kept above a certain GPA and stayed below a number of reprimands. According to the yearbook that year, approximately 1,500 Liberty students traveled alongside members of Thomas Road Baptist Church for a 10-day trip in January over Christmas Break. One of the leaders of the trip was Lew Weider, who has led Liberty’s Christian Community Service (CSER) program since 1985 and is now the executive director of LU Serve in addition to being a professor in the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity. Weider remembers how the group from Liberty and TRBC “took over” many of the major hotels where they stayed in Israel.
“There were buses upon buses upon buses, they were going to different locations at different times, and I was one of the faculty responsible for a bus,” Weider said. “It was an incredible experience to see the students have the Bible come alive for them, to remember that the book they’ve read is not just a place far away, but that it was a place they could walk for themselves. They learned things that they couldn’t have learned anywhere else because it was personal, intimate, and tangible there.”
On trips, students often took the time to serve the people of Israel. In 2017, students spent time at The Joseph Project, an organization with the goal to “bring hope and relief to Israel’s neediest populations,” packing kits with toys and activities for children to use while their family is sheltering from attacks. Other examples include students’ 2018 participation in the Beautiful Land Initiative, which sought to clean up the land surrounding the Sea of Galilee, and time spent with local Holocaust survivors to let them know that they would not be forgotten.
Weider encouraged Christians to make the effort to visit Israel, not as a pilgrimage, but as a time to grow in their faith in God and present knowledge of the nation of Israel.
“People considering visiting Israel should not live in fear; when the opportunity becomes available to travel to Israel safely, take advantage of it,” Weider said. “When you go, the Bible will come alive for you and you’ll read it in a completely different fashion. It’s an opportunity to see where our faith began and the places that held some of the greatest events in religious history. You’re also able to get a better understanding of the conflict between the two groups of people, why it’s happening, what it looks like. It makes it more personal when we’re asked to pray for the nation of Israel.”
In total, Falwell visited Israel 15 times in his lifetime, often bringing Liberty students with him.
In 2012, 12 students in the School of Law and families traveled to Israel for a two-week study trip, where they were taught by Liberty and Israeli academic and political experts. The trip included a chance to meet with the spokesman and advisor from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, visit with an Israel Supreme Court justice, and tour an Israeli Air Force base in the valley of Jezreel, which civilians rarely get a chance to witness. That summer, three of Liberty’s law students who participated in the trip remained in Israel for eight-week externships at separate locations.
As part of multiple Liberty trips, students have visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center that tells the story of the Holocaust through the survivors. On a 2019 trip, which also consisted of members of Thomas Road Baptist Church, the group participated in a remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem, placing a “Liberty University” wreath on a stone above the ashes of Holocaust victims, reading from Psalm 121, and singing a rendition of Psalm 21 in Hebrew. Liberty students have also completed service projects for the museum archives.
In 2017, a team of six faculty members and students assisted in discovering evidence in 2017 that shows Dead Sea Scrolls were stored on the cliffs west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. While no physical scrolls were found, fragments of storage jars, scroll wrappings, string, and a piece of worked leather that was a part of a scroll were all found inside of the cave. This marked the first discovery related to the Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years. The dig was the first discovery by the Operation Scroll team, a joint effort by Hebrew University, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, to protect historical artifacts from thieves.
Beginning in the Spring 2021, law and government students collaborated with their counterparts at Ariel University, an Israeli institution, to conduct research and submit database entries for Ariel University’s Center for the Research and Study of Genocide. Researching remotely, the law students analyzed different cases of genocide from an international legal perspective, and the government students focused on the policy and historical implications of genocide.
Four Liberty University professors representing School of Law, Helms School of Government, and Department of History participated in a timely conversation on that same topic during a three-day conference at Ariel University last November. The inaugural conference brought together university faculty from the United States, Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, and other countries to discuss how crimes against humanity on a global scale can be prevented.
Students in the Helms School of Government, School of Law, and Stand with Israel Club have made multiple day trips to Washington, D.C., to visit the Israeli Embassy in recent years, speaking with officials about the ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in Israel, the relationship between Israel and the United States, and other related topics. At the end of each visit, Liberty has gifted the embassy with a symbol of support, such as a framed picture of the Israeli flag and the American flag flying in unison with Genesis 12:3 engraved at the bottom, or a framed photo of a lighthouse standing firm while being struck by a giant wave — a metaphor for the nation of Israel’s unwavering stance amid the opposing forces that seek to decimate it — with an inscription below of an abridged version of Jeremiah 31:35-37. A group of students and faculty had plans to return to the embassy in October, but the visit was cancelled due to the ongoing war.
Liberty has welcomed many special guests to both inform and inspire students to engage with Israel.
Last year, the Helms School of Government and School of Business hosted three ambassadors to assess peace in the Middle East and the effectiveness of the Abraham Accords peace agreements that had been signed about a year and a half earlier. The discussion featured Robert Greenway, an architect of the Abraham Accords and moderator for the panel; Gilad Erdan, Israel Ambassador to the United Nations; Abdulla Khalifa, Bahrain Ambassador to the United States; and Yousef Al Otaiba, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ambassador to the United States.
Multiple Convocation speakers have shared about the history and culture of Israel and the Jewish population around the world. Holocaust survivor Irving Roth spoke to students in 2014 about his life in the former state of Czechoslovakia, memories of his time under Nazi oppression, and the necessity for American students to support the nation of Israel and battle anti-Semitism. In 2017, after a performance entirely in Hebrew by Israeli worship band Miqedem, students heard from Wayne Hilsden, co-founder of the King of Kings Community in Jerusalem, a congregation that seeks to unify the faith-based community in Israel. Hilsden spoke strongly about the need for Christians and Jews alike to come together to fight against the secularization of the world and to speak out against those who persecute believers of their faith.
Liberty also hosted Israel’s Ambassador to the United States at the time, Ron Dermer, for a 2016 Convocation, and the university announced a financial investment in leading-edge development projects in the technology, medical, and defense industries in Israel later that year.
John W. Rawlings School of Divinity Dean Troy Temple was one of the leaders on Liberty’s most recent trip to Israel in January, joining 56 students and four faculty members. He said it’s important for Liberty to continue to offer engagement opportunities and show support for the nation of Israel.
“(Students) get to walk on that same ground that Jesus did,” he said. “Inevitably, it enflames the heart with a passion for the Gospel and a passion to see God’s truth and promises brought to fruition because God is faithful.
“Historically, Israel has always been a chosen people, and that stems from Genesis 12 when God made a covenant with Abraham and said, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed,’” Temple added. “It was upon this covenant that the nation of Israel was established and Jesus, the Messiah, was foretold. Through the commitment and covenant that was made, as members of a body of Christ, we lean heavily into the promises given to Abraham — and we know that those who come against Israel will be cursed and face great opposition.”