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News Analysis: Falwell’s Effort to Influence U.S. Policy Unlikely to Succeed

January 27, 1998
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The Rev. Jerry Falwell is still trying to make his mark.

But whether the once-powerful evangelical Christian leader will succeed in his latest effort to influence Middle East politics is far from certain.

Falwell has announced that he intends to mobilize 200,000 evangelical Christian ministers to lobby Congress in an effort to push the U.S. government not to pressure Israel to cede any more land to the Palestinians.

He made his plans public last week shortly after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Washington for discussions with President Clinton and other senior officials about the Middle East peace process.

In a telephone interview, he outlined his plan. “We pledged to help him from our pulpits and our media ministries, our printed publications and in other ways, that we would do everything we could to mobilize those 70 million evangelicals into lobbying Congress,” Falwell said.

But even taking into consideration the influence of groups like the Christian Coalition, some observers question how effective Falwell — or anyone — can be in getting the vast number of evangelical Christians to convert their biblically based love for Israel into political action.

Some, too, question the wisdom of Netanyahu cozying up to Falwell, who has been a vocal foe of Clinton.

Falwell and other evangelical leaders have long been vocal supporters on behalf of Israel’s interests, from lobbying Congress against the sale of AWACS reconaissance planes to Saudi Arabia more than a decade ago, to speaking out on behalf of oppressed Soviet Jewry.

Most recently, the evangelical community, through the International Fellowship of Christians & Jews, has become the single largest contributor to the Jewish state — through the United Jewish Appeal.

Many Jews have long been uncomfortable or ambivalent about this support.

“Falwell cannot take a stand in the internal political problems of Israel,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti- Defamation League.

“He doesn’t live in Israel. Though we appreciate very much his support for Israel, that doesn’t give him the right to get involved in internal matters.”

Others question the wisdom of Israel’s leader publicly courting support from a community whose domestic political agenda veers sharply from the views of the organized American Jewish community on matters ranging from abortion to school prayer.

Indeed Falwell’s announced intention to work with the Southern Baptist Convention on his initiative angered many Jews. In June 1996, the Southern Baptists passed a resolution stating that their members should single out Jews for evangelization and conversion to belief in Jesus.

The 15.6 million-member denomination’s vote to target Jews for evangelism met with strong opposition from the Jewish community. Some parts of the Christian community said they were deeply offended by the stand as well.

In any event, the Falwell-Southern Baptist Convention alliance on this issue already seems to be showing signs of trouble.

Though the Rev. Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, participated in last week’s meeting with Netanyahu, Chapman and his associates have since said they will not be communicating with their constituents about the matter.

Chapman issued a terse statement last week, saying, “It is well known that Southern Baptists individually form their own assessments of world affairs.”

For his part, William Merrell, director of relations for the group, said in a phone interview, “We do not intend an initiative urging pastors to speak about Israel from the pulpit or to lobby Congress. They will make their own minds up about that.

“Dr. Chapman went to the meeting as an interested party and friend of Israel,” but that is all.

Falwell said he plans to contact each of those 200,000 evangelical pastors himself through direct mail, electronic mail and fax.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship, which in 1997 raised $5.5 million for the United Jewish Appeal from over 90,000 evangelical Christians, strongly opposes Falwell’s initiative and doubts that such a strategy will work.

“Most evangelicals are apolitical, contrary to public perception, and they do not like being used in the political strategies of others,” he said.

“Translating evangelical love for Israel into concrete political action is a step that still hasn’t been made. Translating it into action for a particular policy or point of view is one step further.”

Falwell agrees that mobilizing his followers will be tough, but believes it can happen with the involvement of individual pastors.

“People respond to their pastors as opposed to appeals from politicians and the press. When the pastor says `get involved with something,’ they do it.

“We want them to go to Israel and see the situation, write letters to the editor and lobby their representatives in Congress.

“Our job is to do everything we can to alert and awaken the rank-and-file evangelical Christian,” who doesn’t know how vulnerable Israel is to the Arab states around it, he said.

By his own count Falwell has visited Israel 27 times since the late 1960s, and is planning to take the entire freshman class of his Liberty University, some 3,000 students, to the Holy Land next January.

Israel plays a special role in fundamentalist Christian theology. Evangelicals quote Chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis, in which God tells Abraham that God will make him a “great nation,” and that “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.”

“From the Pharaohs to Hitlers to Stalins and the Soviet Union, history should tell us something about the validity of that covenant,” Falwell said in the telephone interview.

On more pragmatic grounds, he said, American support for Netanyahu should be unwavering because “it’s in America’s best interests to support Israel because Israel is our only true friend.

“If it were not for our financial support for Israel, we’d need a military presence there at much greater cost to protect our interests,” he said.

Despite the Jewish ambivalence about Falwell and other evangelical Christians, Israeli prime ministers have often welcomed them warmly. Falwell’s biography boasts of his having met with premiers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Netanyahu.

Begin awarded him the Jabotinsky Centennial Medal for Friendship to Israel in 1980.

“Under Likud, evangelicals get a much warmer welcome from Israeli governments than they have under Labor,” said Klenicki. “It’s almost a natural partnership.

“I don’t agree with it, but I understand why they did what they did.”

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