JERUSALEM—Growing up in evangelical Christian churches, Caleb Fitzpatrick learned quickly to be a steadfast supporter of Israel. From a young age, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, he was taught that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, “was a hero” and that “Christians are supposed to back Israel on everything.”
But the Tampa, Fla., native, who just finished his junior year at Liberty University, an evangelical school, has become critical of Israel for what he says is its mistreatment of Palestinians.
“Human rights is a core issue to me,” Mr. Fitzpatrick, 21, said. “It’s less important to me who has dominion over the northern part of historical Israel.”
A generational divide is opening up among evangelical Christians in the U.S. over an issue that had long been an article of faith: unwavering support for the state of Israel. The shift is part of a wider split within the evangelical movement, as younger evangelicals are also more likely to support same-sex marriage, tougher environmental laws and other positions their parents spent a lifetime opposing.
U.S. evangelical Christians march in the Sukkot holiday parade in Jerusalem on Oct. 20, 2016. Photo: abir sultan/European Pressphoto Agency
Older evangelicals have long played a powerful role in pushing the U.S. to support the Israeli government. Just last month, two evangelical pastors spoke at the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a sign of the role evangelicals played in pushing President Donald Trump to make the move.
Millennial evangelicals, however, are less supportive of Israel and of the U.S.’s involvement in the conflict with the Palestinians. Only 58% of evangelicals ages 18 to 34 hold positive views of Israel, compared with 76% of evangelicals over 65, according to a December survey of more than 2,000 people from LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling organization.
Though the drop is modest—a majority still view Israel positively—it has caught the eye of Christian megachurch pastors, private groups in the U.S. and the Israeli government, all of which have begun working to win over young evangelicals.
Gary Burge, a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary and former professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, said the younger generation is less likely to quote Bible passages about Jerusalem, and more concerned with ethics and treatment of the downtrodden.
“There’s a real sea change from what we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
While many American Jews are critical of the Israeli government, evangelicals—a far larger voting bloc, making up roughly a quarter of U.S. adults—have kept pressure on conservative American politicians to side with Israel in conflicts with the Palestinians and Middle Eastern countries.
Some younger evangelicals joined liberal Jewish groups in criticizing the U.S. embassy move and Israel’s fatal shooting of protesters who approached the border fence in Gaza the same day. Israeli officials said the tactics were necessary to defend its borders.
Mr. Netanyahu has referred to evangelical Christians as the best friends Israel has. In February, when he met privately with evangelical leaders who are close to Mr. Trump, the group briefly discussed efforts to make younger evangelicals advocates for Israel as well, according to people who were present.
Some conservative Christians questioned the LifeWay poll showing dropping levels of support for Israel among younger evangelicals.
Johnnie Moore, a member of Mr. Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory group, said that while it would be a “mistake to think that younger evangelicals are like older evangelicals…they will be friends of Israel.”
Still, the Israeli government is already grappling with the shift.
“The depth of the crisis…hit us three years ago,” Uri Steinberg, the Israeli tourism commissioner for North America, said referring to young evangelicals. “We realized we had to act now if we want to continue this bond with the faith-based community in the U.S.”
Two years ago, the ministry of tourism began funding trips for Christian musicians and influential young evangelical pastors to visit Israel. Videos of the performances, with iconic images of Israel strategically positioned in the background, are shared across social media back home.
Megachurch pastors and private Christian organizations in the U.S. are also leading trips to the Holy Land, with the hope that the first-hand experience will make young evangelicals more sympathetic to Israel. One group, Passages, funded in part by the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., recruits college students for $600, 10-day trips to Israel, which include Christian bible study and trips to Gaza along with chats with Israeli soldiers.
Increasingly, though, critics of Israel are also courting young evangelicals.
Jackie Westeren, who just completed her junior year at Wheaton College, knew little about Israel before she went there during the summer of 2016 on a trip with a Palestinian nonprofit called Holy Land Trust.
That summer, she stayed for two months with a Palestinian Christian family in the West Bank. She saw the economic challenges in Bethlehem, she said, and the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel’s territory.
By the time she returned to Wheaton, she was an advocate for Palestinian rights, and sharply critical of Israel and of Christians who cited the Bible to support the U.S.’s current policies.
“The New Testament, I think, would be in favor of human rights,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli ,” Mr. Fitzpatrick, 21, said. “It’s less important to me who has dominion over the northern part of historical Israel.”government has also begun looking elsewhere to countries with growing evangelical populations. Guatemala, where an evangelical Christian is president, is already moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
,” Mr. Fitzpatrick, 21, said. “It’s less important to me who has dominion over the northern part of historical Israel.”Josh Reinstein, director of the Christian Allies Caucus in the Israeli Knesset, said there were “behind-the-scenes discussions” going on with about 10 additional countries about moving their embassies to Jerusalem. All of those countries, he added, are places with “strong evangelical populations.”
Write to Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com