With Israel under fire, at least one interest group is remaining steadfast in its support for the Jewish state — the Christian right. The Christian right’s affinity for Israel isn’t new, but it has taken on fresh prominence as Jews feel isolated in the face of increased global support for the Palestinian intifada. Jewish groups now are more likely to publicly acknowledge the evangelicals’ support, showing their appreciation and, perhaps, hoping that other religious groups might follow their lead. Just how much things have changed is illustrated by the Anti-Defamation League’s relationship with the Christian right. In 1994 the ADL published a report called "The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America." The report acknowledged the religious right’s support for Israel, but put the ADL and the Christian right on a collision course. Now the ADL is running an ad that includes an Op-Ed by former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, entitled "We People of Faith Stand Firmly With Israel." In his piece, Reed explains that the Christian right’s support of Israel stems from a humanitarian impulse to help and protect Jews, a shared strategic interest in democracy in the Middle East and a spiritual connection to Israel. The relationship between the Jewish and evangelical communities has changed "dramatically," said Reed, who now is chairman of Georgia’s Republican Party. As little as five years ago, it would have been "unthinkable" for the ADL to use his work in an ad, he said.
For Reed, the Christian right’s support for Israel could usher in a new phase in Jewish-Christian relations. "Now is an historic opportunity to use this moment of crisis and threat to Israel for greater dialogue and understanding," he told JTA.
It’s too early to tell whether others will agree with Reed. Many issues — mainly church-state questions such as prayer in public schools — continue to divide Jews and evangelicals. But the sides now seem more willing to set their differences aside in trying to help the Jewish state. "The differences will continue," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "That doesn’t mean we should reject their support."
Jews should be grateful for the support, Foxman said — especially since the Christian right isn’t demanding any quid pro quo.
On some level, the new alliance may be viewed as just another form of coalition politics. Jews have worked with evangelicals before on religious freedom issues, while disagreeing on other points.
And one group, Toward Tradition, has been focused for years on shared issues between conservative Jews and Christians.
On its Web site, the group, which is headed by a rabbi, calls for American Jews to recognize "Israel’s best friend" — the conservative Christian community.
The group’s Web site is towardtradition.org.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is pleased with the support from the Christian right, says Reva Price, the group’s Washington representative. "But is that going to change our position on school prayer? No," she said. On the local level, there also is a careful acceptance and appreciation of the evangelical support. "I think it’s called pragmatism," said Judy Hellman, special projects coordinator for the Jewish Community Relations Board/American Jewish Committee in Kansas City. The community has not compromised its principles and recognizes that there still are great differences between the groups, she said. "But we can’t ignore the reality that these people are standing up for us," she said. In San Antonio, Jews and evangelical Christians had not worked together before, but at a recent Israel solidarity rally church members made up half of the crowd, said Judy Lackritz, community relations director for the Jewish federation. Jews have never felt entirely comfortable about support from evangelical churches, questioning the Christians’ motivation and worrying that the support was offered only because the Christians wanted to convert Jews. Within the Jewish community, debate about the Christian right’s motivation is continuing — alongside the burgeoning friendship. At the San Antonio rally, for example, people heard from one church minister who said Israel shouldn’t give up any of its land, and denounced Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a terrorist. But the crowd also heard from another minister who said, "Eventually we will all be in Jerusalem as brides of Christ." Christian groups dismiss the conversion issue and deny they have an underlying agenda. "It doesn’t really figure into this," said Michael Brown, national church liaison for the Christian Coalition of America. "We have an appreciation for the Jew and a love of Jewish heritage." But some Jews see conversion as a major issue for evangelical Christians. There are some who feel that what the evangelicals really want is to meet three preconditions in the Bible and Christian theology for the coming of the Messiah: The state of Israel must be restored, Jerusalem must be in Jewish hands and the Temple must be rebuilt.
Reed believes that evangelical support for Israel has little to do with eschatology, and describes the fear about conversion as a "caricature and bogeyman" to scare Jews from cooperating with his community. "The only thing that divides Jews and Christians from working together is fear and suspicion," Reed said. Brown said his group generally has received cooperation and a warm welcome when it reaches out to the Jewish community. The group’s annual conference in October will include a rally in Washington of Jews and Christians in support of Israel. Evangelical groups and churches have been donating money to Jewish federations for years, though the umbrella United Jewish Communities has no hard figures available. For example, an evangelical church in Pensacola, Fla., plans to donate $100,000 to the UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign this week, UJC officials said.
Embracing the Christian right has been smoother for Israeli officials. At a recent event where evangelical leaders gathered in New York for Jerusalem Day, Israel’s consul general described the special relationship between the evangelical community and Israel.
"It is a relationship that has not been twisted or dictated by politics or interests," Alon Pinkas said, but is based on "a very pure and moral bond. We are very thankful for the commitment of the evangelical Christian community, especially in this time of crisis." Thomas Phillips, vice president of the Billy Graham Association, reiterated the community’s support of Israel.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.