Monday, August 17, 2009
Evangelicals: An appreciation
August 17, 2009
A prominent American Jewish leader recently told me that the passionate standing ovation he received after addressing 4,000 participants at John Hagee's Christians United for Israel rally in Washington was reminiscent of the fervent Zionist gatherings he attended as a youngster. The two-day Evangelical Christian parley was designed to express support for Israel, receive updates on the current challenges facing the Jewish state and lobby congressmen in support of Israel. They heard addresses from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu via satellite, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Ambassador Michael Oren, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents' Conference and others.
At a time when much of global public opinion views Israel through the distorted lenses of Arab and anti-Semitic defamation, millions of Evangelicals have emerged as our most devoted supporters.
The evolution of this relationship is extraordinary and defies logic. It is only over the past three decades that support for Israel assumed such a high priority among this Christian denomination, which is rapidly expanding at a time when other churches are in dramatic decline.
Until recently, most Jews regarded Evangelicals as zealots obsessed with a desire to convert everyone. They also believed that their philo-Semitism was not "genuine" because it was based on an eschatology which predicted that the second coming of the messiah would only come after the Jewish people had returned to Israel and brought about the end of days.
In addition, the strongly liberal American Jewish community, obsessed with separation of church and state, gay rights and abortion, regarded Evangelicals as dangerous right-wing extremists and until recently were complaining that politicians like Netanyahu, who addressed their gatherings, embarrassed them.
YET DESPITE this hostility, the Evangelicals continued to upgrade support for Israel, to the point where it is now a central feature of their world outlook.
As though divine providence had intervened, the change took place precisely when liberals, the traditional supporters of the Jews, embraced postmodernism and began turning against Israel, which was no longer an underdog. Alas, today, many liberals engage in campaigns demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state.
Evangelical support for Israel is not matched by other Christian denominations. Many Protestant churches have in fact transformed their antipathy toward Israel into hatred. The Catholic Church made enormous progress identifying the evil of anti-Semitism, but due to a combination of realpolitik and an unwillingness to swallow the bitter theological pill of recognizing Jewish statehood, it is still far from evenhanded in relation to the Arab-Israel conflict.
The truth is that Evangelicals are no more monolithic than Jews. They do include fringe groups who are fanatics, believers in the apocalyptic end of the Jewish people, missionaries and even anti-Semites. But the vast majority are God-fearing people who pray for the welfare of Israel and share an unconditional love for Jews as God's chosen people.
The principal reason for Evangelical support is that unlike other Christian groups, they reject replacement theology, which teaches that God forsook the Jews for having rejected Jesus. They respect Judaism as the foundation of Christianity and believe that the Jews will always remain God's chosen people. They believe that the Jewish claim to Israel is based on the biblical promise from God. That may embarrass secular Jews, but for traditional Jews it remains the core of their relationship with the Holy Land.
Evangelicals also believe that when God told Abraham that those who bless the "Children of Israel" will also be blessed (Genesis 12:3) this meant that God would bless Christians who love the Jewish people and support the State of Israel. They also believe that the ingathering of the Jews will precede the return of the messiah, and quote Isaiah 60:14 saying: "The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you" as a prophecy that righteous gentiles can partake in this process.
These feelings nurtured the early 19th century Christian Zionists and subsequently motivated people like Lord Balfour, who authored the Balfour Declaration; Orde Wingate, who helped create the Hagana; Rev John Stanley Grauel, the hero on board the Exodus, who disclosed what happened in a firsthand report which had a crucial impact on the UN Special Committee on Palestine; writers like Pierre van Paassen, who promoted the Zionist cause; and many others.
EVANGELICALS' SUPPORT for the Jewish state today manifests itself primarily by advocacy for Israel. However, they insist that they will never publicly "pressure or oppose policies adopted by Israel's democratically elected government."
Evangelical political clout with the Democratic administration is considerably weaker than it was under president George W. Bush. Nevertheless, with more than 60 million adherents, they still represent one of the most powerful political forces in the United States. They recently formed a Christian counterpart to AIPAC to lobby congressmen and canvass against legislation hostile to Israel.
Many rank-and-file church-goers donate generously to projects designed to strengthen Israel. For example, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews initiated by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein today represents the largest single donor to the Jewish Agency and was among those who contributed seed money to launch Nefesh B'Nefesh.
The 50 dedicated representatives of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has branches in 80 nations, spearhead the noble Christian Zionist presence in the Holy Land. They publish and broadcast information about Israel to the world. From generous contributions from members, they fund substantial social programs including assistance to integrate immigrants and support for former Gush Katif residents. They actively promote missions to Israel and host major pilgrim tours. They now represent one of the most dynamic sources of Israeli tourism.
Although most Israelis and Jews now appreciate the enormous value of Evangelical support, some liberal Jews continue to criticize the relationship, and ill-informed Orthodox Jews persist in mistakenly perceiving all Evangelicals as missionaries. It is axiomatic that we differ with Evangelicals over theology. But an alliance based on specific goals does not oblige both parties to adopt each other's approach on broader issues.
On Israel-related issues, a pragmatic cooperation is not a matter of creed but of political common sense. Besides, Evangelical support has never been conditional on a quid pro quo. It is thus surely unbecoming for us to remain passive while misguided Jews behave in a churlish manner to our greatest supporters.
On a personal level, I am proud to be associated with Evangelicals on various projects to promote Israel. I also enjoy being able to discuss political issues with people who still recognize the existence of good and evil instead of dealing with mind-numbing postmodernism and the moral equivalency that one continuously encounters with confused liberals.
The alliance with the Evangelicals represents one of the few bright lights in an otherwise dismal political environment. Indeed, were there more Evangelicals in Protestant/Catholic Europe, the prevailing hostility against Israel in that region might yet be substantially modified.
As an observant Jew, I appreciate their support and hope that they will be blessed for their friendship.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post