Behind the Headlines: Evangelicals Present Paradox for Jews by Supporting Israel and Missionizing

Pat Boone, wearing a Western-stitched sports jacket and an engaging smile on his still-boyish face, is looking into the television camera and quoting Scripture to convince telethon viewers to donate money to the United Jewish Appeal’s Operation Exodus drive.

"We need godly men and women to say, ‘Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,’ he exhorts. "Send in your sacrificial gift of $100 or $600 or whatever you can afford."

And his viewers have responded.

In addition to the $100,000 that Pat Robertson donated last year, evangelical Christians have contributed more than $100,000 to Operation Exodus through the telethon, which is called "While the Door Is Still Open." It has run on dozens of Christian cable stations since it debuted in the beginning of 1992.

Viewers’ average gift is $90, says the telethon’s producer, an Orthodox rabbi named Yechiel Eckstein, three times more than the typical average gift brought in by telethons.

Eckstein is executive director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization he created in 1983 to help corral support for Jewish issues in evangelical circles and encourage understanding between the two faith communities.

But not everyone in the Jewish community waxes enthusiastic about working closely with evangelicals. According to some interreligious affairs professionals and observers, evangelicals’ mission to convert people to belief in Jesus must be weighed carefully against the value of their support for Israel.

BOONE EMBODIES PARADOX

Boone himself seems to embody the paradox presented by the evangelicals’ relationship to the Jewish community: The man hired by the Israeli government to be its tourism ambassador to born-again Christians also supports Hebrew-Christian groups like Jews for Jesus.

Still, the evangelical community’s potential benefit to the Jewish community is not easily dismissed.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans — an estimated 68 million people — call themselves "born-again," or evangelical Christians, according to the Princeton Religion Research Center.

And to Eckstein, these Christians are a well of support for Israel just waiting to be tapped by the Jewish community. They feel called upon to be a blessing to the Jewish community," he says.

But Jews have an unnuanced view of evangelicals, says Eckstein, They tend to equate the entire community with the right-wing, most vocal segment, which he says accounts for no more than one-third of the whole.

The more moderate center, which accounts for about two-thirds of the movement, is growing in importance, Eckstein says.

"And by and large, the Jewish community is not working with them," he says. "Fear, suspicion and an inability to talk to them is ubiquitous among Jewish leadership."

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interreligious affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, agrees that it would be a mistake for Jewish organizations to ignore evangelicals.

"We haven’t paid enough attention to the evangelical movement Working with them allows us to eliminate anti-Jewish feeling," said Klenicki.

The cornerstone of evangelicals’ commitment to Jews is a verse in Genesis, where God tells Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you." They see their support of Israel as cooperation with God in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

But, say Jewish observers, some evangelicals consider Jews "religiously incomplete" and in need of conversion.

"It’s dangerous to take the support of Israel and not look at the other side of the coin," says Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "They may be supportive of Israel, but they have another equally important agenda: conversion."

SOURCE OF TOURIST DOLLARS

But besides their political support for Israel, evangelicals will remain attractive to Jews as long as they are a source of tourist dollars spent in Israel. And the Israeli government is working hard to make the most of their interest in the Holy Land.

The Government Tourist Office hired Boone last year to be its "official ambassador" to the born-again community.

And in October, El Al will begin running flights between Dallas — the heart of the Bible Belt — and Tel Aviv, three times a week, expressly to accommodate evangelical tourists.

Roughly 55 percent of Israel’s visitors from the United States are Christian, according to Rafael Farber, Israel’s commissioner of tourism in North America.

Eighty percent of them are Protestant — mostly evangelicals, rather than liberal Protestants — and 20 percent are Catholic, Farber says.

Forty percent of his $2 million annual marketing budget targets Christians through television commercials and Christian magazine ads.

"Our goal is to bring half a million Americans to Israel a year within two years. And statistically, our people are very few. We have many more Christians. In terms of marketing, we can’t put our heads in the sand," says Farber.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary group, believes that Israel’s outreach to evangelicals is misplaced because of their proselytizing among Jews here and in Israel.

‘NOT TRYING TO BE DECEPTIVE’

Kravitz estimates that 150,000 adult Jews have converted to Christianity as a conscious decision, rather than passively through intermarriage, and attributes most of the conversions to the efforts of Christian evangelists.

Boone is a poor choice of a spokesman on behalf of Israel, Kravitz says, because he has been supportive of the Hebrew Christians and "Messianic Jews" who target Jews for conversion.

Boone, who wears a Star of David and "chai" around his neck, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that understands "why rabbis and others are confused or suspicious."

But he sees no contradiction between his support of Israel and his acknowledged support of Hebrew-Christian groups. The groups "are not trying to be deceptive," he said. "It is simply part of their identity" to maintain that they are Jewish while they follow the teachings of Christianity.

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