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Why It Matters That Support for Israel Among Young Evangelicals Is Falling

And what American supporters of the Jewish state can do about it.
January 25, 2022
Why It Matters That Support for Israel Among Young Evangelicals Is Falling
Thousands of pro-Israel demonstrators took to the streets while protesting outside the Los Angeles Federal Building in Westwood during pro-Israel/pro-USA rally, April 7, 2002 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.)

Since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, American evangelical Protestants have been among its strongest and most loyal supporters. But support for Israel among younger evangelicals now appears to be declining. That trend is worth watching and understanding, not only because of what it might signal about the future of American evangelicalism but also because of what it could portend for American politics and international relations more broadly.

Evangelicals’ affinity for Israel can be traced back to intertwined theological, historical, and political roots. First and foremost, evangelicals believe that God has an eternal covenant with the Jewish people and gave the land of Israel to them. A significant number of evangelicals also believe the Jewish state’s modern rebirth is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy; it is also seen as an event leading to the second coming of Christ.

There is also a historical affinity between Christians and Israel. There are obviously significant theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, most especially on the divinity of Jesus, but there are also deep, common ties rooted in faith, religious text, and land. Christians and Jews are, in a sense, spiritual and religious cousins.

Because of Christianity’s own awful complicity in anti-Semitism over the millennia—“people bearing the name of Christ had spent centuries demonizing the Jewish people and shedding Jewish blood,” in the words of Robert W. Nicholson, president of the Philos Project—for some Christians there has been something redemptive in supporting the modern state of Israel, particularly in the aftermath of the Shoah. (One of the heartening developments in modern history is the enormous progress we’ve seen in vanquishing from many parts of Christianity “the world’s oldest hatred,” anti-Semitism.)

Polls from the last two decades illustrate how these theological, historical, and political concerns are bound together. In various Pew surveys from 2003 to 2006, for example, evangelicals by large margins said that they sympathize with Israel and that U.S. policy should favor Israel, and reported that their beliefs were shaped by their understanding of Biblical prophecy and the conviction that God gave Israel to the Jews.

While evangelicals overall remain supportive of Israel, the last few years have apparently seen a significant loss of support for the Jewish state among younger evangelicals. Two University of North Carolina at Pembroke professors—Mordechai (Motti) Inbari and Kirill Bumin—conducted a poll of evangelicals of all ages in 2018 and another poll in 2021 focusing specifically on evangelicals age 18-29. According to their data, support for Israel among young evangelicals dropped from 69 percent to 34 percent during that three year period.

While commentators have suggested that some of the apparent shift among young evangelicals between the two polls can be explained by differences in the methodology, variations in the wording of the two polls’ questions, and news headlines at the time the polls were taken, it is worth noting that other surveys show similar trends. Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and Brookings Institution senior fellow, told Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) that two polls he conducted between 2015 and 2018 also showed a widening gap between older and younger evangelicals. For example, in the earlier survey, 40 percent of young evangelicals said the United States should lean towards Israel; in 2018, only 21 percent did.

“A generation ago, support for Israel was automatic among most evangelicals in America,” said Robert Stearns in a 2018 interview. Stearns, a Pentecostal bishop and the founder and executive director of Eagles’ Wings Ministries, a pro-Israeli group, continued:

You pretty much couldn’t be an evangelical without supporting Israel. Millennials don’t accept that. They’re suspicious of the demand to be automatically supportive of the country. They don’t want this pushed down their throat. Instead, they are asking questions. They want to know—why should we support Israel?

Stearns said that starting a few years earlier, he noticed that at pro-Israel Christian gatherings “there were usually very few young people. It was increasingly an older and older crowd attending these gatherings, despite the fact that there is a lot of young Christian activism in our country.”

Part of why this matters: “People have to understand that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians,” said former Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer last year. “It’s true because of numbers and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.” Dermer’s remarks were controversial because of his suggestion that Israeli diplomacy ought to focus less on the support of American Jews than on the support of American evangelicals. “If you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to evangelical Christians than you would do to Jews,” he said, noting that upwards of a quarter of Americans identify as evangelicals vs. less than 2 percent of Americans who are Jewish.

There is no single cause that satisfactorily explains the loss of support for Israel among a younger generation of evangelicals; it is a confluence of factors. One of them is theological, having to do with the issue of eschatology and Biblical end times, topics that don’t loom nearly as large for young people today as in the past.

Older evangelicals are more likely to hold premillennialist views. This perspective believes that Jews will return to their ancient homeland, portending the second coming of Christ, which will itself be a fulfillment of prophecy. Amillennialism—the denial that an earthly millennium of universal righteousness and peace will either precede or follow the second coming of Christ—doesn’t believe that Jews have a role to play in how the end times unfold.

Professors Inbari and Bumin told JNS that there has been a significant erosion in support for premillennialism among younger evangelicals. Younger pastors are more amillennial than older ones, there’s less focus by the newer generation of pastors on the end times, and less attention paid to Israel within that context. To put it another way, premillennial theology has been weakened, and that bears on how some Christians view the Jewish state. A Biblical scholar who teaches at a Christian liberal arts school told me that “eschatology is simply not a big deal for my students.”

To be sure, many Christian Zionists support Israel based not on eschatology but on covenant—that is, on what they believe are the promises of God made to the Jewish people which are irrevocable—and because they believe standing with the Jewish state is the right place for Christians to be, both biblically and historically, including given the terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Another explanation tentatively put forward by Inbari and Bumin is that the changing demographics among younger evangelical voters has led to a softening of support for Israel. (The population that is most supportive of Israel tends to be white evangelicals.)

But the most important reason support for Israel is cratering among younger Christians is that many of them have come to believe that Israel is an oppressor nation, a lawless state, squarely on the wrong side of human rights and social justice.

Israel is now viewed as the villain in a story the media has decided to make primarily about Israel and the Palestinians, with the Palestinians portrayed as mistreated, powerless, victims.

The images of Israel that dominate the thinking of many young people are vivid and almost unrelentingly negative: hundreds of Palestinian homes bulldozed and Palestinian buildings blown up. They see reports from various human rights groups of the excessive use of force by Israeli police and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops; it is said that Israel is committing “crimes of apartheid and persecution” and imposing “institutionalized discrimination.” They see pictures and videos of bloodied children. These images are often, although not always, devoid of context and therefore misleading and sometimes even propagandistic. But they are powerful images nonetheless, and they contribute to the younger evangelicals’ sense that Israel is the Goliath punching down on the Palestinian David, whereas older generations of evangelicals saw Israel as the plucky David squaring off against the vast Goliath of the surrounding Arab countries.

This attitude was embodied in a tweet sent out last year by Democratic Rep. Cori Bush, a member of the Squad, the young, progressive lawmakers who are fiercely and unremittingly critical of the Jewish state:

“For many young evangelicals, Israel is no longer the embattled democratic ally,” according to Robert Beschel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. Beschel, who is quite familiar with evangelical culture, told me, “the Israel that they have grown up with is in some dimensions viewed as an oppressive force.” He added, “The occupation of the West Bank proceeds indefinitely, settlement construction pushes ever higher and the blockage of Gaza exerts a significant humanitarian toll. Not surprisingly, Israel cuts a much less sympathetic picture generationally than it used to.”

Over the past year, I have informally been asking Christians in their twenties about their opinion on modern-day Israel. What is clear is that many Christians of that generation see Israel largely through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians—“a struggle between the desperately weak and the unimaginably powerful,” as one person who attended a leading evangelical college told me. “And Palestinians, unmistakably, are on the side of the weak.”

“Protecting the weak against the powerful has revealed itself as at the root of most of our social causes,” this individual said, “and the plight of the Palestinians stands as another story exposing the harmful use of power by wealthy, white America.” This corresponds with an observation Matti Friedman made in the Atlantic last year: Many younger Americans associate the Palestinian situation with the problems of race in America, even though they are fundamentally dissimilar. “Although Israel, like America, is deeply messed up,” Friedman wrote, “it’s messed up in completely different ways.”

One other element worth mentioning: the prominence on American campuses of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israel. As the twentysomething I quoted above put it to me, the BDS movement “was very present in our discussions and was very much seen as a tangible way that Americans can support the Palestinian cause.”

For those of us who consider Israel a democratic beacon in the region, who for strategic and moral reasons place high value on the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state, who appreciate the variety of threats it faces, and who—while acknowledging its failings and imperfections—believe that on the whole Israel is a force for good in the world, what can be done to fortify support for Israel among Millennial and Gen Z evangelicals? How can supporters of Israel convince more of them to, if not to fully embrace the Jewish state, then to at least have a less hostile and more understanding view of it?

Among the most urgent tasks is to show why by their own standards—human rights, social justice, the advancement of human flourishing, a government that is accountable and based on the rule of law—Israel warrants their support.

This case needs to be made in a much more intentional way than it generally has been made. Young evangelicals need to be engaged in a respectful and mature manner, not berated, and that engagement must have at its core a morally compelling appeal. This needs to be done in different ways, including evocative storytelling involving captivating narratives. Right now the critics of Israel are offering a narrative and imagery that are more compelling than are the supporters of Israel, at least when it comes to the younger generation of Christians. But it doesn’t have to be that way: No people have a more gripping and enthralling story to tell than the Jewish people, and that story needs to be retold in ways that capture the imagination of younger Christians.

However those conversations take place, however those stories are told, they need to clear away some misguided beliefs. One of them is the assumption that weakness is a synonym for virtue and power is a synonym for iniquity. Sometimes powerful nations are instruments of justice and sometimes weak nations are crippled because of corruption and very bad choices.

When it comes to the Palestinian leadership, any fair-minded account would show a staggering degree of misconduct, dishonesty, and double-dealing. Palestinian leaders have abused, repressed, and stolen from the very people for whom they have had responsibility; from the very people whom young evangelicals understandably sympathize with and long to liberate.

This has been true for decades. In a meticulous 2005 Atlantic essay on longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, David Samuels wrote:

The amounts of money stolen from the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people through the corrupt practices of Arafat’s inner circle are so staggeringly large that they may exceed one half of the total of $7 billion in foreign aid contributed to the Palestinian Authority. The biggest thief was Arafat himself. The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs.

Things are hardly better under the man who succeeded Arafat after his death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas. Under his rule, the Palestinian Authority remains rife with corruption; a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 84 percent of Palestinians believe the PA is tainted with corruption, including mismanagement and nepotism. As Freedom House noted in its annual report last year, “official corruption remains a major problem” in the Palestinian Authority and “government transparency is generally lacking.”

President Abbas is also increasingly cracking down on dissent and judicial independence. Last year, hundreds of Palestinians protested after Palestinian security forces reportedly beat to death Nizar Banat, an anti-corruption activist. It has been well documented, including by organizations critical of Israel, that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza “routinely arrest and torture peaceful critics and opponents.”

“It is clear that we live under a corrupt system that is waging war against anyone who criticizes it,” said Ammar Banat, a cousin of Nizar Banat. “Suffice it to say that we are not only living under an Israeli occupation but a Palestinian one, too.”

Abbas is deeply unpopular and when he feels threatened his “tolerance for dissent becomes less and less,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told the New York Times.

“We are not yet Hafez al-Assad’s Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” he said. “But from the separation of powers to free speech to a pluralistic society, all of this has come under attack.”

There have been no national elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006; the Palestinian Legislative Council has not functioned since 2007; and Abbas has remained in office despite the expiration of his four-year term in 2009.

So if solidarity with the Palestinian people is an authentic concern for young Americans, then outrage at decades of corrupt and cruel Palestinian leadership ought to be a major area of focus. Young evangelicals whose understanding of Israel is dominated by a narrative of Israeli misdeeds ought to be told the story of Palestinian misconduct, ethical transgressions, authoritarian rule, and horrifying anti-Semitism—and told it in a way that increases the chances they will hear it. Many of them should be stirred to action. For those who aren’t, then perhaps something other than solidarity with the Palestinian people is at play.

But that is hardly the only story that evangelicals in their twenties and thirties need to be told. They also ought to become acquainted with the true history of Israel and the Arab world, and especially Palestine, over the last three-quarters of a century—learning or being reminded of such facts as these:

  • The Palestinian displacement in 1948 was the result of a war launched by Arab nations aimed at destroying Israel at its birth.
  • The wars of 1948 and 1967 took place before Israel controlled the West Bank and Gaza—in other words, hostility toward Israel took place even before the disputed territories and settlements became an issue.
  • Israel’s offer to return all the land it captured in the 1967 war in return for peace and normal relations was summarily rejected by Arab nations in Khartoum (the “three no’s”).
  • Palestinians were never offered a homeland when the West Bank and Gaza were under the control of Arab nations.
  • Palestinians were brutally treated by Arab nations like Jordan under King Hussein who, fearing the growing influence of Palestinian nationalists, cracked down on them in 1971, killing over 3,000 Palestinians while 20,000 fled Jordan. (Few people realize that the Palestinian terrorist group that killed 11 Israelis in the 1972 Munich Olympics was named Black September in order to memorialize the 1970 Hashemite-Palestinian conflict during which thousands of Palestinians were either killed or expelled and the PLO was driven out of Jordan.)
  • Since 2000 Israel has made generous offers for a peace deal with the Palestinians, including granting Palestinian statehood, return of the West Bank and Gaza, and dividing Jerusalem. These offers were not only rejected; they were met with violent uprisings (intifadas), cross-border attacks, and rocket attacks.
  • Israel returned land without peace in Southern Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005). What happened as a result is that Israel was fired upon from both locations.
  • Israel, when it finds a willing Arab partner, has signed peace treaties—with Egypt in 1979, with Jordan in 1994, and in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.
  • Israel has returned to Arab nations nearly 90 percent of the land it captured during its 1967 war for survival.

The point is not to engage in an abstract history lesson for its own sake. Rather, the point is to put the Israel-Palestinian conflict within its proper historical context so that it can be understood within its proper moral context.

The tensions that exist today didn’t appear out of nowhere, after all, and those who seek to criticize Israel within a social justice frame have a special obligation to acquaint themselves with the events and the actors that led up to this moment.

We know enough about human psychology to know that people won’t change their mind on an issue they have a deep investment in if they’re bombarded with facts that challenge their passionately held assumptions and they feel they’re being prosecuted in order to break them. Gen Z and Millennial Christians aren’t going to give up on their commitment to justice, nor should they; what needs to happen is that they better understand what true justice—justice for the Palestinians and for the Jewish people—looks like.

The better approach with younger evangelicals—better because it’s more effective and because it reflects the realities and complexities of the issue—is to acknowledge that the Palestinian people have suffered terribly for generations; that as image-bearers of God they deserve far better than what they have experienced; and they deserve a homeland.

But the obstacle to a homeland lies not so much with Israel but with a militant Palestinian leadership that has created a malignant political culture. As the late Charles Krauthammer put it, “Palestinian dispossession is a direct result of the Arab rejectionism, then and now, of a Jewish state of any size on any part of the vast lands the Arabs claim as their exclusive patrimony.” Since Krauthammer wrote those words in 2008, we’ve seen movement away from “rejectionism” among some Arab nations—but not yet among the Palestinians themselves. Therein lies the problem.

It is not uncommon at BDS movement rallies to see signs being carried that have the face of Nelson Mandela on them, with this quote from him: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” That sentiment is admirable but incomplete. Freedom for the Palestinians depends largely on them, and the best thing those who align themselves with the Palestinian cause could do is to apply pressure to the Palestinians to change their ways, to appeal to them to set aside deeply ingrained and self-destructive attitudes, to make their inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state.

In all of this, it would help if supporters of Israel would acknowledge that the intentions of many younger evangelicals are good; they have made the dignity and well-being of the Palestinian people a cause close to their hearts. No one should ask them to give that up, and those who care for the good of Israel shouldn’t treat them as implacable enemies. Rather, defenders of Israel should enter with good faith into the very dialogue they insist they long for.

But part of that dialogue requires grounding opinions in truth, which will set us free; and in this case, the truth doesn’t align with a view of history in which Israel is a lawless oppressor nation without redeeming qualities—or with a view of history in which the Palestinians are basically blameless, mere victims of oppression.

A Christian who is sympathetic to Israel told me that as far as the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the key is creating more context.

Historically, he said, young evangelicals need to understand this is not a question of an imperialist oppressor and the indigenous oppressed. It is rather a situation where two peoples with their own historical, religious, and legal claims to the land have not yet reached a settlement of competing claims.

To understand the case for Israel, he said, they need to understand the Jewish connection to the land, the Jewish claim to the land, the implacable hostility Israel has faced from its Arab neighbors, long before taking control of the West Bank and Gaza, and its efforts to resolve those hostilities, which, as I mentioned above, have led to peace treaties between Israel and numerous Arab states—but not yet the Palestinians.

If they truly understand the case for Israel, they may still criticize it for particular policies, but they are more likely to understand and support the right to exist of a Jewish, democratic state in the region. One day they may even celebrate it.

It is this basic right to exist that has been consistently challenged by Israel’s enemies, beginning with the entire Arab world and still including much of the Arab world—and, most violently, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas today. That has shaped Israel’s view of its threats, not the question of how to establish a separate state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. So understanding this issue with more historical context can help a great deal.

Engaging in good-faith dialogue also means not shying away from speaking truths that that may be unsettling, and in this case, it means naming the fact that the Palestinian leadership, which has betrayed the Palestinian people at almost every turn, has made anti-Semitism a central, organizing principle of Palestine life—more central, even, than Palestinian statehood.

In addition, in a region composed of nations with long habits of oppression—in which on a regular basis human dignity is assaulted and human rights are denied—Israel is a thriving liberal democracy, one that is pluralistic, a protector of civil rights and liberties, including full equality for women (the only country in the Middle East that does so), respectful of minority rights, multiethnic, vibrant, and self-critical. It is the one nation in the region where Jews, Christians and Muslims—or people of no faith at all—can vote, be citizens and serve in parliament. And it has achieved all of this while having to operate on a war footing for its entire history, not because it chose this fate but because others have imposed it upon them. Other nations, not facing anything close to the threat of extinction, have acted much worse. (One person put it to me this way: “If you grade on a curve, Israel is way ahead of any country in the region and even most of the developed world.”)

Take the issue of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank as an example. For critics of Israel, they are portrayed as “a stark symbol of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and a constant source of humiliation for ordinary Palestinians.” Almost never is it pointed out that the checkpoints were instituted because Israel had legitimate concerns for security, including preventing suicide bombings from those who are determined to kill Israelis. Are innocent Palestinians forced to suffer hardships because of the checkpoints? The answer is yes. Is that a tragic manifestation of the conflict? It is. But would other nations do similar things to what Israel has done to protect the lives of their citizens from terrorist attacks? Absolutely. Has Israel made renovations to the checkpoints to make life easier and better for innocent Palestinians? It has. And would most other nations, in a situation similar to Israel’s, treat the Palestinians far worse than Israel does? Yes, they would. So context and perspective matter.

This needs to be said as well: Israel has also shown a greater willingness to surrender land for genuine peace agreements—and even absent genuine peace agreements (like Gaza in 2005)—than any nation on earth.

Despite all that, the issue many younger Christians focus almost exclusively on is the disputed territories on the West Bank, which they consider “occupied territory.”

Of particular concern for the Gen Z and Millennial generation is the establishment of outposts—settlements—they claim are not only an obstacle to peace but illegal and illegitimate, including a violation of Israel’s own rule of law. Then there are the hardships imposed on Palestinians, from forced evictions to housing demolitions to roadblocks and checkpoints manned by the Israeli security forces.

This topic is far too complicated to comprehensively deal with in this essay, but a few things need to be said that might clarify things a bit, starting with the fact that there is a vigorous dispute—including within Israel—over whether the settlements are illegal under international law. Yet even some of the supporters of Israel who believe settlements are legal also argue they are unwise. (Among the many bedeviling issues is which settlements we’re talking about, as distinctions could be drawn between those that are quite close to Israel’s 1967 border and those that are farther away.)

Let’s assume, though, that one believes Israel’s conduct in the disputed territories is problematic and even indefensible, a violation of international and Israeli law. There are plenty of people who live in Israel who hold that view and speak quite openly and critically of specific Israeli policies and Israeli leaders without allowing themselves to be consumed by unremitting hostility, bitterness and distorted judgments about Israel itself. Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is one of them. He explores with honesty and heartfelt emotion the complex feelings he has as a Jew living in Israel.

“One of the main obstacles to peace is an inability to hear the other side’s story,” writes Halevi.

For older Christians, this means understanding that there is a Palestinian narrative that deserves to be heard, acknowledging that they are a traumatized people and that their lives are often difficult and feel hopeless, that they long to be treated with dignity and given opportunity.

And to my co-religionists who are critical of Israel’s conduct, I would say this: Don’t let your anger about settlements blind you to the extraordinary achievements of Israel or the catalogue of wrongs committed by the Palestinians. Don’t become so invested in a narrative that you disfigure reality and airbrush history to sustain it. You can’t be committed to justice without being committed to truth, and there are truths about the conduct of Palestinians that integrity requires you to acknowledge, to wrestle with. You need to see this conflict in light of those truths—truths about Israel, yes, but truths about the Palestinians, too.

It was Barack Obama, hardly the American president who has been most sympathetic to Israel, who framed the issue quite well. Palestinian sovereignty and Israel security are “the core issue,” according to Obama. “If we solve those two problems,” he said in 2013, “the settlement problem will be solved.”

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories, they are not the cause of the conflict; they are but one manifestation of it.

Which brings us back to what is the fundamental obstacle to an authentic peace between the Palestinians and Israel, which is what Bret Stephens has called “the fanatical irredentism that still lies at the heart of the Palestinian movement.”

The greatest gift young Christians who feel solidarity with the Palestinian people could give to their Palestinian brothers and sisters would be to challenge—in the name of justice—the corruption of Palestinian leadership and the culture of hate it has produced. American supporters of the Palestinian people need not be silent in the face of what they perceive to be Israeli injustices; but they ought, as a matter of intellectual seriousness, to show moral discernment and balance. They need to stand for truth instead of distorted narratives, even—especially—distorted narratives that confirm everything they already believe, everything they want to believe.

If evangelicals, when talking about the Middle East, find themselves focusing only on the sins of Israel and looking away from the sins of the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world—if they believe the main or the only obstacle to peace are the settlements; if they never acknowledge the sacrifices Israel has made for peace; if they don’t mention the endemic corruption and the brutality being directed against the Palestinian people by Palestinian leaders; if they constantly downplay the anti-Semitism and incitements to violence among Palestinians, the intifadas, the 20,000 rockets fired at the Jewish state since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005—they are not peacemakers; they have become, even unwittingly, partisans. They are being used to undermine what they so desperately want to achieve.

Defenders of Israel cannot give up on persuasion and reason when it comes to Israel’s critics. And Israel’s critics should not give up on the Jewish state. Israel is imperfect, like all nations in this fallen world, but it is an incredibly impressive and estimable nation. Christians of every age should find themselves broadly sympathetic to and supportive of Israel—not in spite of their commitment to social justice but because of it.

Peter Wehner

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum. Twitter: @Peter_Wehner.