WASHINGTON (Oct. 3)
Thousands of people will gather in Washington next week in support of Israel, but there won’t be many Jews there.
The participants in the Oct. 11 rally are evangelical Christians, gathering in the nation’s capital as part of a Christian Coalition of America conference.
According to the coalition, the Christian Support for Israel rally will “tell the world that Christians stand firmly behind the Jewish state and are unalterably opposed to trading land for a paper peace.”
Such strong talk is not surprising from a group that, along with other evangelicals, has come out strongly in support of Israel despite growing international condemnation of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and a worldwide spike in anti-Semitism.
The relationship between evangelicals and Jews for years has been an uneasy one, but it appears to be solidifying as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and Israel finds itself increasingly isolated.
Nevertheless, many American Jews and Jewish organizations remain wary of the evangelicals, suspecting their motives and disagreeing with them on domestic policy.
Even many of the groups who accept evangelical support for Israel don’t see the relationship broadening.
“There is no alliance,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The relationship is based on this one, specific issue.”
The ADL took some heat in May when it ran an ad reprinting an open letter from Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, calling for support of Israel.
Rutgers University sociology professor Arlene Stein dismisses the idea that the evangelical community is a natural ally. The alliance with Christian conservatives could alienate large sectors of the Jewish community, she warns.
Foxman counters that the Jewish community ought to appreciate the evangelicals’ support.
The American Jewish community also can see how enthusiastically Israel is accepting evangelical support.
In a recent speech to an international group of Christian pilgrims in Israel for Sukkot, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the evangelicals “friends” and asked for their help.
“I have a message I’d like you to carry home: Send more of yours to come visit Israel,” he said.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert will speak at the Washington rally, which is expected to attract thousands of people. Also expected to attend are former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset member Benny Elon and representatives from Israel’s Tourism and Foreign Affairs ministries.
For years, Israel has welcomed evangelical support. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin once said Israel would welcome evangelical help but “agree to disagree” with them theologically.
“Jews should have enough self-confidence in their own identity not to fear or be intimidated by Christian groups that are supportive of Israel,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
While the Christian Coalition is not as powerful as it once was, it still wields some clout in U.S. politics.
In August, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld doubted the wisdom of giving the Palestinian Authority more territory and accused it of promoting terrorism, the president of the Christian Coalition of America, Roberta Combs, praised him.
“There’s been too much talk of a Palestinian state,” Combs said. “This only encourages the terrorists to keep murdering innocent civilians in hopes of forcing Israel to reach a settlement which would imperil its survival.”
The group also has a petition denouncing Palestinian suicide bombings as genocide and crimes against humanity. The petition gives support “clearly and unequivocally” to the Israeli government’s military moves against terrorism, which have sparked international criticism.
Some Jewish community relations councils have been working with evangelical groups on the local level for years, primarily on interfaith efforts.
The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington sent a notice to the Washington Jewish community about the Oct. 11 rally, but did not sponsor the event. The Christian Coalition wants to hold similar rallies in major cities around the country.
Even those who have been working to foster better relations between Jews and evangelicals, like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, are not anticipating major long-term changes.
But Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says Jewish attitudes toward evangelicals have changed more in the last few months — because of Christian support for Israel — than in the 25 years he has been working on interfaith efforts.
“The Jewish community is starting to get it,” Eckstein told JTA from Holland, where he was traveling to build Christian support for Israel. “Our friends are these Christians.”
The fellowship’s Stand for Israel campaign, an effort to mobilize leadership and grass-roots support in the churches, is organizing a nationwide “Day of Prayer and Solidarity” with Israel on Oct. 20.
Jewish groups are more willing to invite evangelicals to speak at Jewish events and Jews are starting to acknowledge the Christian support. But a wholesale change in attitudes remains unlikely, Eckstein said.
“The barriers of resistance and suspicion are falling down,” he said, “but we’re not there yet.”
Some suspect that the Christian right’s real motivation for supporting Israel is its desire to convert Jews. Eckstein called the argument “hogwash.”
There have indeed been some high-profile instances of evangelical proselytizing. Many, however, are inspired by biblical promises of blessing for those who help the Jews, remorse for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and prophecies that the Jews’ return to Israel is a precursor to messianic times.
In any case, Eckstein said, the reasons for the group’s support become moot when Israel’s survival is at stake.
Other points of discomfort are evangelical figures who in the past have rankled the Jewish community but who now are considered important voices in helping Israel.
Reed works with Eckstein and the Stand for Israel campaign. Gary Bauer, a leading conservative voice and former president of the Family Research Council, is working with both Eckstein and the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, a project of Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
Such developments have one Jewish group up in arms.
The Jewish Women Watching advocacy group started a provocative campaign with a mailing containing a condom, warning Jews not to adopt the Christian right’s conservative domestic agenda. The ad asked why the Jewish community is “in bed” with figures on the Christian right such as the Revs. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Reed.
The group says the Jewish community is forming dangerous ties in exchange for support of Israel. The Christian right is aware that its support for Israel may cause more Jewish voters to support a conservative political agenda, Jewish Women Watching says.
But Foxman maintains the American Jewish community has not “rolled over” on social issues and is not being asked for any trade-offs for the evangelical support.
Others like Lapin, president of the conservative group Toward Tradition, believe that the Jewish community is rethinking its traditional rejection of conservatism and re-examining who its friends really are.
It remains to be seen whether the relationship will deepen, Lapin said. The Christian community’s support is genuine and the Jewish community ought to show its gratitude by voting along more conservative Republican lines, he said.
“I hope and pray we can rise to the occasion,” he said. “It’s time for building friendships.”
Michael Brown, national church liaison for the Christian Coalition, said the group is not seeking any political quid pro quo. Support for Israel is separate from other issues, and the evangelical community does not have ulterior motives for speaking out, he said.
“Israel is under attack,” he said. “If not now, when?”