A prominent Messianic Jewish evangelist says he has raised more than $100,000 for the Jewish National Fund.
But the JNF doesn’t want it.
The JNF is trying to distance itself from Zola Levitt and his fellow evangelists, who focus their efforts on converting the Jewish people to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
The move came soon after the JNF dropped plans to plant a forest of about 10,000 trees, worth about $50,000, on behalf of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.
The JNF is in the process of developing a policy that will address the question of donations from Messianic Jewish groups, said JNF spokesman Mark Cohen.
Messianic groups are waging an ongoing quest to blend into the mainstream of the Jewish community by participating in organizations such as the JNF.
The implied imprimatur of mainstream Jewish groups lends the missionaries the credibility with Jews that they desperately seek.
Levitt is a Jew-turned-evangelical Christian who has built a career capitalizing on the Jewishness he was born with to try to proselytize the Jewish people.
He hosts a weekly television show on which he has had as guests several high- level Israeli Likud officials, including Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon; former Labor member of Knesset and Third Way leader Avigdor Kahalani; and David Bar-Ilan, the editor of the Jerusalem Post.
He interviewed Netanyahu at the Knesset for a show that was first broadcast in early 1995.
Levitt’s show is carried by independent and cable network television stations across the country, and is seen by about 1 million people a week, according to his producer.
Since the late 1970s, he has also led several annual tours to Israel, and estimates that he has brought between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists to the Holy Land.
Some of the people traveling with him are gentiles, others are what he calls “believing Jews” and other are “unbelieving Jews.”
He also has an impressive Web site on the Internet. It was on “Zola’s Bulletin Board” that someone in the JNF’s Pittsburgh office saw that he had urged his followers to plant trees in Israel through the JNF.
In a message on his site, titled “Trees for the Kingdom,” Levitt wrote: “Thanks to the blood of Christ, the sacrificial lamb of God, our firstborn are safe. He died so that we could live. And what a covenant He gave us, that didn’t necessitate blood on our doorposts this Passover!
“How can we ever repay him? Answer: We can’t. If only there were some tangible way we could give life to something He loves, as a small token.
“There is: Contribute to the reforestation of the Holy Land.”
It then goes on to list the cost of trees, the address of the JNF’s Houston office and its tree-order phone number.
Shortly after being made aware of Levitt’s marketing of the Jewish group, JNF Executive Vice President Samuel Cohen sent him a letter telling him to stop.
The May 29 letter asked Levitt “to desist from referring to the Jewish National Fund or JNF in connection with any proselytizing” he does.
The bearded missionary is not happy about the missive and described it as “a threat from the Jewish National Fund.”
“We’ve given tens of thousands of dollars, over $100,000” to the JNF, he said in a telephone interview from his Dallas home.
“It’s so offensive, it’s so discriminatory” that they do not want our money, he said.
Cohen said, “Using our name in a context like this crosses a line that is really reprehensible to us.”
“His ends are inimical to us and to everything we believe,” Cohen said. “We will not permit it.”
He said there was no way for the JNF to determine whether Levitt’s followers had contributed as much as the missionary claims, because people often order trees in their own name.
The JNF’s sensitivity to being used by Messianic missionaries targeting Jews is a recent development.
In August 1995, the organization accepted a $5,000 donation from Baltimore’s Messianic congregation, Rosh Pina.
In the case of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, the JNF originally negotiated with the group to plant a forest with a plaque with only the group’s initials.
But when news reports publicized the JNF’s plans, its lay leaders forced the Jewish group to return the money.
JNF policy, Cohen said, will be to reject contributions when the organization is aware that it from missionizing organizations.
But the JNF may not always be able to know the true identity of the donor, especially in the case of a Messianic Jewish congregation that has a legitimate-sounding name.