Jews have mixed reactions to pro-Israel fervor of 'Christian Zionists'

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

The ongoing Mideast conflict has created an awkward partnership for American Jewish groups, which are finding some of the staunchest pro-Israel support in this nation comes from a vocal group of evangelical Christians.

Activists from both communities say Jews and evangelicals are working together more closely than ever, with conservative Protestant groups raising funds, lobbying Congress and organizing rallies in support of Israel -- including an increasing number of joint Jewish-Christian events.

For instance, the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are among about 1,000 people expected to attend a prayer breakfast for Israel on Feb. 10 during the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville.

Many Jewish leaders welcome such support at a time when fighting in the Mideast has made Jews inside and outside Israel feel vulnerable and isolated. No group outside the Jewish community has been as pro-Israel as evangelicals, they say.

Yet the relationship remains a strange, sometimes strained one.

Some in the Jewish community are uneasy about evangelicals who support Israel but not Judaism. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, one of Israel's biggest backers, has issued statements specifically targeting Jews for evangelism.

''It's kind of like they have placards that say 'Israel - yes' on one side, but 'Judaism - maybe' or 'no' on the other,'' said Rabbi A. James Rudin, inter-religious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee.

The Rev. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' ethics committee, says attempts to share the Gospel are never coercive and are motivated by love, not hostility.

His support for Israel is based on biblical verses such as Genesis 12:3, in which God tells Abraham, ''I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.''

Says Land: ''The same Bible that tells me to bless the Jews commands me to tell people about Jesus. If you don't want me to do that, all you have to do is say, 'No, thank you.'''

Last year, American Christians donated $20 million to help Jews resettle in Israel, according to Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

To boost advocacy for Israel in Washington, Eckstein and Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, formed the group Stand With Israel last June. One of its goals is mobilizing 100,000 churches and 1 million Christians to ''stand in solidarity and prayer'' with Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League, which once issued blistering attacks on evangelical groups, has warmed considerably in its approach to them -- though it also has made it clear that differences remain.

''We welcome their support as long as it doesn't come with conditions,'' said Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director. ''We will continue to disagree on various issues, but we can disagree agreeably.''

Evangelicals, put at 26 percent of U.S. voters in a 2000 University of Akron survey, have traditionally, though not universally, backed Israel.

The reasons vary, but range from a sense of shared spiritual heritage to support for a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust. Some see Israel as a Mideast outpost of democracy. Critics, meanwhile, oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The strongest pro-Israel sentiment comes from a group known as Christian Zionists, a segment of evangelicals who hold to ''dispensationalist'' or ''premillennial'' theology. This system of thought, developed in the 1830s, generally interprets passages in the Bible to mean that Israel will play a key role at the end of the world.

Donald Wagner, a religion professor at North Park University in Chicago and a co-founder of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, estimates that about a quarter of evangelicals hold to this theology, although it has been widely popularized in the ''Left Behind'' novels.

Christian Zionists believe the Jewish people have a divine right to settle the entire Holy Land, based on God's biblical covenant with Abraham. Therefore, many oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

They also see the existence of modern Israel as a precondition for the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is to be preceded by a period of extreme violence and the death of millions, including Jews. Those who survive will embrace Jesus.

Most Christians -- Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, including many evangelicals -- reject such biblical interpretations.

And Land says notions that support for Israel are meant to ''hasten the Lord's return'' are mistaken. ''We can do nothing to hasten or delay God's timetable,'' he says.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, criticizes the Christian Zionists' vision as a ''a triumphalist worldview in which Judaism and all other worldviews are superseded by Christianity. This is not a good basis for a long-term relationship.''

Lerner says Jewish leaders such as Eckstein, who work with Christian Zionists, are ''opportunists of the worst sort.''

Eckstein, who has sought Christian support for Israel for 25 years, says he will not work with groups who target Jews for conversion, like Jews for Jesus. But he has no trouble accepting help from Christians who believe that at the end of time, all people will put their faith in Jesus.

''That's their prerogative,'' he said. ''My faith is strong enough that I'm not dependent on that.''

In his experience, most evangelical support has little to do with such End Times visions and more to do with the desire to ''bless the Jews,'' Eckstein said.

Whatever the motivations of the two sides, some worry that ties between Jews and Christian Zionists will hurt Israel's interests -- and the church's work -- over the long term.

Inflammatory comments about Islam from people like Falwell ''will only make Israel's future harder,'' said Wagner of North Park University.

''Christianity is being portrayed in the Mideast as a pro-Israel, Zionist, fundamentalist religion,'' he said. ''This is horribly damaging to the church and the future of the Jewish people.''

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