As Withdrawal Nears, Evangelicals and Jews Mount a Protest Mission

A Jewish-evangelical protest mission to Israel represents one of the latest acts of opposition to Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal plan — and an uncommon step for members of both groups. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind is coordinating the trip, which leaves New York on Sunday, to support the Jews of Gaza.

Hikind is part of a vocal minority staging demonstrations against the withdrawal plan, which has broad backing from Israelis, American Jewry and the Israeli and U.S. governments.

Some have opposed the withdrawal on religious grounds, stressing that Gaza has a long Jewish history and belongs under Jewish control.

But Hikind thinks it’s just bad policy: He takes issue with Israel’s move because it’s a unilateral decision; in return for uprooting some 8,000 Jews, Israel won’t receive any corresponding concessions from the Palestinians.

“How do you take these people and throw them out of their homes? For what?” Hikind said. “What is Israel getting in return?”

“Palestinians are doing zero, zilch, nothing,” he said, suggesting that the withdrawal would elate Palestinian terrorist groups, who have yet to be disarmed and who view Israel’s withdrawal as a surrender to violence.

Hikind helped organize a May 22 rally opposing the plan when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in New York to address Jewish leaders.

Hikind also will speak at an anti-withdrawal rally the evening his mission departs for Israel. That rally, in Manhattan’s Central Park, will follow New York’s annual Salute to Israel Parade, the country’s largest pro-Israel event, where tens of thousands of synagogues, schools and Jewish groups march along Fifth Avenue.

The upcoming mission will draw on the pro-Israel sentiment among evangelical Christians, many of whom oppose the Gaza withdrawal.

That includes James Vineyard, a pastor from Oklahoma City. Vineyard has raised more than $600,000 and spent more than $750,000 to protest the withdrawal plan, taking pastors to Israel, coordinating lectures and rallies and taking out full-page ads in the Washington Times.

For Vineyard, the mandate is biblical and dates from Genesis, where God told Abraham that he would bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

The withdrawal plan puts a curse on the Jews of Gush Katif, Vineyard said, referring to a bloc of Jewish communities in Gaza.

“The judgment of God will fall on America if this goes through,” he said predicting another catastrophe like the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.

Vineyard has written daily letters to President Bush on the matter, but doesn’t have the president’s ear.

Even in the world of Jewish-evangelical relations, Hikind’s mission represents a departure.

Neither “we as an organization nor me as an individual, who works with the evangelical community, endorses or would participate in such a move,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

“When you have a situation here where the president of the United States and the prime minister agree on this, then we are not protesting it” — despite the fact that many of the group’s 40,000 evangelical financial supporters disagree with the plan, said Eckstein, whose group has met with high-level Israeli and U.S. officials, including Sharon.

The mission could exacerbate tensions between Jews and mainline Protestants, who reject the Christian Zionist theology of the evangelicals and often are harshly critical of Israel.

“One of the things we keep hearing from our mainline Protestant friends is their concern about the alliances with the evangelical community,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith relations for the Anti-Defamation League.

When asked about Protestant churches considering divesting from companies that do business with Israel, Granatoor said “divestment was, if anything, an outgrowth of the work we had left to do.”

Unlike the longstanding dialogue with the Protestant community, “we have not done our homework enough in learning about the evangelical community. That is the new frontier for us in interfaith dialogue,” Granatoor said. He added that he was worried the relationship was merely a political one and that each side is being used.

Eckstein, who has worked in evangelical-Jewish relations for more than 25 years, disagrees.

He concedes that the relationship isn’t a full-fledged dialogue yet, but said, “I wouldn’t discredit it by saying, ‘Oh, that’s just a political relationship.’ “

“They’re an important and very influential and numerous group here in America, and increasingly around the world, and the Jewish community has an obligation, which it hasn’t met yet for the most part, to work with them, just as they should continue to work as they have for decades with Protestants and Catholics,” Eckstein said. “There are lots of groups out there, and the Jewish community needs to work with all of them.”

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