JERUSALEM, July 16 (JTA) — If ever there was an issue that merited the scrutiny and attention of the organized American Jewish community, it is the support of Israel and the Jewish people by evangelical Christians.
Yet, if ever there was an item conspicuously absent from the Jewish communal agenda, it is this one.
As the only Jew who has been involved in the field of evangelical Christian-Jewish relations for the past 25 years, I can personally attest to the Jewish community’s selective avoidance of fairly scrutinizing this issue.
The result is that despite the proactive involvement of the Christian right over the past two decades, there is still a reflexive rejection of this important friendship by many Jews.
The rejection is rooted in cynicism, ignorance, fear and simplistic, stereotypical thinking about evangelical Christians and their motives for supporting Israel. The rejection is founded on the fear that these would-be friends of Israel are out to Christianize America, promote an ultra-right-wing agenda and hasten the “Second Coming” by getting all the Jews to Israel as quickly as possible. Suspicious that the short-term support of Israel by evangelicals would, of necessity, result in long-term tsuris, or trouble, for American Jews, there has been an unwillingness to seriously debate the matter publicly.
But this suspicion is an extreme perversion of the beliefs of most mainstream evangelicals. It is tantamount to prejudice, to the intellectual tarring and feathering of an entire and diverse community.
But it is not individual Jews I hold responsible for this state of affairs. Instead, I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the organized Jewish community, who have sinned by omitting serious discussion and consideration of this matter for the better part of the last 20 years.
As an Orthodox rabbi, it is hardly in my best interest to embrace a community of individuals who are out to convert me from my faith. It would be spiritual suicide for me to pursue a friendship with an individual or group that sees me as but a pawn in the unfolding of their personal destiny. I could not accept the conditional love of those who expect a payback on behalf of my people. I could not embark on a relationship that would compromise my personal integrity and ideals or that of the Jewish community I represent. But having been the first — and most often the only — Jew to build bridges with the right-wing Christian community, I have a view and understanding of their pro-Israel fervor that most people “on the outside” lack.
What is clearly visible to me from my vantage point is that the majority of evangelicals are passionately pro-Israel because it is part of their theology to love and support the Jewish people. Based on their understanding of Scripture, the Jews are indeed the am segula — God’s special people. Yet according to the same Scripture, Christians play an important role in history by blessing the Jewish people. As it says in Genesis 12:3 — “I will bless those who bless you.”
This verse is key to unlocking the mystery of their motivation. What it reveals is that standing for Israel is considered a mitzvah within the evangelical Christian world. Loving the Jewish people is an article of their faith, something in which they are deeply invested.
But this faith is hardly ephemeral; over the past 20 years, it has translated into my organization’s donating more than $60 million to Israel and to support Jews in need around the world. It has gone to build and run soup kitchens in Jerusalem and Bnai Brak, and supply armored school buses for Israeli children. It has fed elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and paid for job training for Ethiopian immigrants. It has underwritten the rescue and aliyah of Jews from Argentina and Ethiopia, and brought over 400 American Jews to Israel just last week — the largest immigration of American Jews to Israel in quite some time.
According to Sallai Meridor, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the support of the evangelical Christian community, through the gifts of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which I serve as president, is responsible for the immigration of more than 200,000 Jews to Israel.
Which brings up the matter of the dissonance between the ready acceptance of Christian support “within” Israel and the suspicious avoidance or attacks of the same from within the American Jewish community. Having made aliyah to Israel, where the International Fellowship is now headquartered, I am in regular contact with the prime minister, with whom I work closely, with the president and with the rabbinic and political leadership of Israel across the spectrum, from Yossi Sarid to Avigdor Lieberman. The work of the International Fellowships has the respect and appreciation of the Israeli government, press and general population.
Moreover, it is a widely accepted fact in Israel that this Christian community — from which I raise support — is a staunch and reliable ally of Israel. While other Christian groups have remained shockingly silent during Israel’s ordeal by terrorism during the past two years, the evangelical community has poured huge amounts of money into terrorism response, condemned it in no uncertain terms and literally taken to the streets throughout the world in support of Israel. In countries where gathering in a public place is an immediate threat to one’s life, the visual and emotional impact of Christians marching for Israel is overwhelming. Even the most resistant of my Israeli Jewish friends have had their anti-evangelical beliefs challenged by this sight.
Being intimate with the true nature of evangelical Christian support of Israel, it is therefore especially disheartening to read diatribes such as the one penned by Arlene Stein. Her one-sided antipathy toward this community is typical and outlandish. They are book banners. They are anti-democracy. They hate Muslims, she writes. Moreover, they are a voracious yet savvy political beast, out to devour America, possibly the world.
True, as Stein rightly points out, the evangelical community is united in the fight against worldwide terrorism, seeing the events of 9/11 within the framework of a clash of civilizations. But while Stein maligns their motivation as being baselessly anti-Muslim, the evangelical community is in fact united with the innumerable people worldwide who bemoan the hijacking of mainstream Islam by its radical wing.
Rather than being anti-democratic, this group has been most savvy in bringing their agenda to the fore in an inherently democratic manner. Their political presence and power is formidable. That some of their views may dissent from those of Ms. Stein’s and mine is an undeniable reality. But that they are our friends — no strings attached — is also undeniable.
Finally, this is a friendship without a quid pro quo. Yet there are boundaries to this friendship, as there are to all. Were there to arise a situation where my Jewish convictions were in danger of compromise, I would speak out loudly — as I have indeed done numerous times in the past. When the need arises to disagree, I disagree though I try to do so agreeably. My life and career over the past 25 years has been built on the following pithy dictum: Cooperate whenever possible/Oppose whenever necessary/Teach and build bridges at all times. This is, I am convinced, a pre-eminently sensible position for the Jewish community to adopt.
After years of building bridges of understanding and cooperation with the evangelical community, I realize these bridges have remained essentially one-way streets. It is time to build a bridge toward the Jewish community. Here is an invitation for Jews to build this bridge. The road is still under construction, but the view is fantastic and the horizon is limitless.
(Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews.)