Stereotyping evangelicals


During the last election season there was some controversy over the distribution in swing states of the documentary film "Obsession: Radical Islam’s War With the West.” Similarly, reports that Sheldon Adelson loves to distribute the film to Birthright participants have also sparked controversy.

Now, in a 180-degree turn, we have a budding broughaha over a new documentary that critics say unfairly stereotypes and demonizes Evangelical Christians.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, isn’t happy with the film. Nor does he sound to pleased about his paper ending up as a co-sponsor of its showing at a local film festival:

Sitting in the darkened Jacob Burns Theater in Westchester the other night, watching “Waiting For Armageddon,” I had decidedly mixed feelings about what to say about the new documentary — as one of two respondents at a post-film program — when the lights went up.

Well-produced and edited, it is a riveting and provocative production depicting Evangelical Christians who devoutly believe in an imminent religious apocalypse, as described in the New Testament, and in the primary role that Israel and the Jews play in that End of Days scenario.

But the 74-minute film is misleading. And it is particularly worrisome that it is playing in Jewish film festivals around the country, as it did in New York City in January, and in Westchester last week.

That’s because the film leaves the viewer with the impression that all Evangelicals are as zealous as these folks, who hope the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem will be destroyed as soon as possible and who seem to relish the prospect of the monumental bloodbath that will herald the Second Coming.

One irony is that The Jewish Week was a co-sponsor of the evening’s program, along with the American Jewish Committee, whose inter-religious affairs director, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, was my co-respondent, commenting on the film after the screening. Both of us questioned the wisdom of showing this film at Jewish film festivals without providing audiences with sufficient context, like emphasizing that the people shown in the film represent a distinct minority of Evangelicals in the U.S. (Neither of us, or our organizations, were involved in choosing the film as part of the March 12-April 2 Westchester Jewish Film Festival at the Burns Center, a high-quality annual event showcasing 28 films this year.)

Rosenblatt offers what has become the standard reply to those claiming that pro-Israel evangelicals are motivated by the End of Days scenario:

The root of this conviction is the Biblical passage (Genesis, Ch. 12, v. 3), when God tells Abraham that those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed.

Millions of Evangelicals take this literally, showing their love for the Jewish people by visiting the Holy Land, supporting the government of Israel and giving generously to Jews in need, in Israel and in other parts of the world.

The IFCJ is a key partner, for example, with groups like the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee. 

An interesting nugget comes at the end: The film received a $50,000 grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture:

Elise Bernhardt, president and CEO of the foundation, says that such decisions are made by a panel of film experts whose criteria include the professionalism of the artists, the subject matter at hand and the depth and importance of the topic.

“We want to support films that will get out in the world, and will get people talking about the Jewish experience in its complexity,” said Bernhardt, whose group has helped fund such highly praised films as “Trembling Before G-d,” on what it is like to be an Orthodox gay Jew, and “Waltz With Bashir,” the Israeli animated film depicting the psychological trauma of Israeli veterans of the 1982 Lebanon War. It was an Academy Awards finalist this year for Best Foreign Film.

“People may have issues with these films, but we are interested in authentic,” high-quality productions, Bernhardt said.

She added that the foundation plans to produce “field guides” to accompany future films, which would “give people more context” about the subject at hand.

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