From the September 29, 2003 issue of New York Magazine

Feature

Israel's Christian Soldiers
Citing Scripture, Evangelical Christians have taken up the cause of preserving Israel with a passion -- no matter how many liberal Jews find their unlikely devotion unsettling.

Israeli cabinet minister Binyamin Elon was in New York several weeks ago to wrap up a hectic swing through the Southeast that included stops in Memphis, Atlanta, and several other cities. It was a muggy afternoon, and Elon, a soft-spoken bear of a man who has a full beard, looked a little weary as he filled a chair at the Israeli Consulate on Second Avenue.

A potent political figure back home, Elon wears two hats (in addition to his knitted kippa): He is Israel's Tourism minister and the head of Moledet, one of the small right-wing parties that help keep Ariel Sharon in power. On his visit here, he was working both portfolios pretty hard, often with the same people. In private meetings with political activists, as well as in speeches before religious groups, Elon pushed the importance of visiting Israel now.

Since the second Palestinian intifada began three years ago, the number of visitors to Israel has plummeted from more than 3 million a year to barely 1 million. In the days just before the war in Iraq, Elon was actually giving out gas masks to visitors. "I was," he says sardonically, "probably the world's only minister of tourism who was able to personally meet each of his country's tourists."

Solidarity with the Holy Land is the current sales strategy. Elon hopes that, at least among the believers, religious faith will outweigh fear: "For obvious reasons, we are not trying to compete with the Virgin Islands as a family-vacation spot."

When he slipped on his Moledet hat, Elon went from pitching tourism to practicing politics. His agenda was simple: to instigate and solidify opposition to the Bush road map.

An Orthodox rabbi who lives in the West Bank, Elon favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in his version, Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians get to become citizens of Jordan, which, he says, is already a de facto Palestinian state. He argues with alacrity that the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- which he says would never be economically or geographically viable anyway -- would actually be a three-state solution.

Wherever Elon went, he was warmly received. Which may not be surprising, since he was clearly preaching to the choir. What is surprising, however, is that it was the Christian choir he was preaching to, not the Jewish one. During his five-day trip, Elon spent virtually none of his time among Jews.

Instead, he spoke at the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis and lunched there with a group of pastors. He met with Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. He spent time with Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and author of Beyond Iraq: The Next Move, a book that depicts Islam as evil and finds biblical harbingers of the end of time in the current global crisis.

"The Evangelicals may now be seen as even more important allies than American Jews."

He talked to former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, now head of American Values, a conservative Christian group. And he beamed with pride in snapshots taken when Ed McAteer, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, brought him to see a billboard in downtown Memphis that loudly displayed a passage from Genesis: AND THE LORD SAID TO JACOB . . . "UNTO THY OFFSPRING WILL I GIVE THIS LAND."

At every stop and at every meeting, Elon was signaling the importance that the Jewish community, and especially Israeli politicians on the right, places on its relationship with America's swelling Evangelical Christian community. And while this alliance between the Evangelicals and the Jews is not new, it has suddenly taken on a sense of urgency and an intensity that haven't been seen before.

AIPAC, the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington, chose Gary Bauer to speak at its most recent annual dinner. The Zionist Organization of America honored televangelist and onetime presidential candidate Pat Robertson with its State of Israel Friendship Award.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews twenty years ago, was named the third-most-important Jew in America by The Forward. The reason? He spent years as a kind of outcast among his peers for his efforts to foster better relations between Jews and Evangelicals; now the Jewish community has begun to see things his way.

And when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the conservative, born-again former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, addresses the Knesset, as he did several weeks ago, and says, "I stand before you today, in solidarity, as an Israeli of the heart," you know something's going on.

Indeed, the world -- and not just that part of it between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River -- is a very different place from what it was in 1980, when Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin outraged much of the Jewish community by presenting the Jabotinsky Centennial medal to the Reverend Jerry Falwell for his work on behalf of Israel.

In the two decades that followed, the relationship between American Jews and Evangelicals was at best lukewarm. Though the Evangelicals periodically offered support, their overtures to the Jewish community were generally met with skepticism. Many Jews believed that what the Christians really wanted was to convert them. Or to persuade all of them to move to Israel as part of some devious plan to hasten the coming of the end of days as laid out in the New Testament.

But much of that queasy reluctance has been overcome, or at least pushed aside, as Israel's situation has worsened. As the violence gets more horrific and more relentless, and the overall outlook more bleak, Israel seems to have fewer and fewer friends. Support from the Evangelicals, however, hasn't wavered. In fact, the more beleaguered Israel seems to be, the more passionate its Christian friends have become. "I have always said," Jerry Falwell told me recently, "that America's Bible Belt is Israel's safety belt."

Three critical developments have deepened the alliance. One is the stunning rise in anti-Semitism around the world and the feelings of insecurity it has stirred among Jews. The second is 9/11, and the third is George W. Bush. The president is a born-again, Scripture-loving Christian who sees the world in stark, almost biblical, terms ("You're either with us or you're with the terrorists"). He is also surrounded by a coterie of advisers who similarly see the war on terrorism and the current conflict as a clash of civilizations, a battle between the East and the West.

"Conservatives generally and Christian conservatives specifically see our foreign policy in moral terms," says Bauer. "And they see Israel as the good guy, a democracy, a nation much like ours. And they see Israel's opponents as a collection of thugs, dictators, and self-appointed kings."

Bauer believes Israel and America are fighting essentially the same battle, the battle against Islamic terrorism. "The only solution is to completely defeat the enemy and then figure out what a just peace is."

But for the Christians, this blossoming relationship is about much more than politics. Evangelical Christians' support for a safe and secure Israel with borders stretching perhaps from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and their oft-expressed love for the Jewish people ("the apple of God's eye"), are rooted in deeply held religious beliefs.

They believe God promised Israel to the Jews. It is the Holy Land. The land where Jesus lived and died. The land where Jesus will return to save the world. "When you add this belief that Israel is their spiritual homeland," says Rabbi Eckstein, "to their belief that we are in a global battle against terrorism, it is a powerful mix."

It is the kind of support rarely offered to Jews -- especially these days. "Let's be honest," says Rabbi A. James Rudin, who was director of inter-religious affairs during his more than 30 years with the American Jewish Committee. "It's hard to ignore their support even, as my father used to say, if they're doing the right thing for the wrong reasons."

Further adding to their appeal as suitors, Evangelicals have considerable political muscle. A recent Gallup poll reported that 41 percent of voting-age Americans are born-again or Evangelical Christians. Most, of course, are active, committed Republicans, and they have been the catalyst for the shift in political power from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest.

"Israelis have known for a long time that Evangelicals are about the strongest supporters Israel has," says Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "It's been a shock to Jews in America, but I think it is beginning to catch on now."

It is not a shock to Eckstein, who for years was the lone Jewish voice in the wilderness working to build bridges between the two groups. "More and more Jews see the Evangelical community as a strategic ally for Israel," he says. "In fact, the Evangelicals may now be seen as even more important allies than the American Jewish community itself. But are Jews willing to have a beer with them? I'm not so sure."

At first glance, this alliance looks like a very bizarre mixed marriage. Jews are mainly urban, educated, liberal Democrats. They also tend to be secular. "We take refuge in our ethnicity rather than our spirituality," says Rabbi Gerald Meister, an adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Christian relations. Jews are extremely uncomfortable with God talk, even if it's other Jews doing the talking.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are unabashed in expressing their love for Jesus and their devotion to the Gospel. They tend to be similarly blunt about their social agenda. On nearly every key domestic issue -- abortion, gay rights, school prayer, school vouchers, gun control, separation of church and state, affirmative action -- they hold a different position from that of most Jews.

There are, to be sure, exceptions. On the Jewish side, there's a small but growing group of Republicans that includes Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and the rest of the neocons. In the Christian camp, it's important to note that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Richard Gephardt, and Jimmy Carter are all Southern Baptists.

This yawning gap on so many critical issues, however, continues to keep many Jews from welcoming Christian support. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, believes it is dangerous for Jews to compromise their beliefs. "If the American Jewish community buys the support of the religious right by its acquiescence on domestic policies, that would damage our religious freedom and our tradition of pluralism and tolerance," he says. "It will be a disaster for America and for Jews."

Of course, this match between Evangelicals and Jews may be no less odd than the coming-together of leftists, human-rights activists, atheists, and assorted liberals with Islamic fundamentalists. Though they are ideologically light-years apart on virtually every issue, they demonstrate together because they share a hatred of George W. Bush and the conviction that Israel is an imperialist oppressor.

"America is a nation of millions who believe like me that Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho are part of the biblical heartland," Elon says. "We can argue about the Messiah, when he will come, how he will come, but we agree about the basics. And this is more important than anything else."

The alliance gives Jews a lot more clout when they campaign on behalf of Israel. It is not Jews alone beseeching Congress and the White House on Middle East policy. When Evangelicals speak out, too, it doesn't look as though American foreign policy is being disproportionately shaped by a small minority with a powerful lobby and an insider's knowledge of the system.

"It's not President Bush being blackmailed or pressured by the lobbyists of a minority," Elon says. "It's good for American Jews to understand that they have friends in the White House and on Capitol Hill who will honor the Bible and protect Israel because of their own beliefs."

American Jewish support for Israel is also affected by the reality on the ground in the Middle East. When Israel appears to be too aggressive or too forceful or to be mistreating the Palestinians, liberal American Jews get uncomfortable. Though few would admit it publicly, they are at times embarrassed about Israel among their liberal Christian friends who sympathize with the long-suffering Palestinians and see Israel as some sort of reckless Goliath. The settlements, the fence, the depictions of soldiers shooting at kids, Ariel Sharon's belligerence: All of it causes great angst among secular, liberal Jews.

"We are not supposed to be victors," says Rabbi Gerald Meister. "We are not supposed to survive well."

Binyamin Elon is more brutally blunt: "I'm not going back to Auschwitz to regain anybody's sympathy."

The Evangelicals, however, suffer no doubts about the rightness of the cause. "It would be a terrible mistake to try to create a Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan in the West Bank," Gary Bauer says without a hint of self-consciousness. He believes the land belongs to Israel and economic incentives should be used to "encourage" West Bank Palestinians to go somewhere else.

He is equally unambiguous on the subject of Palestinian suffering: "The suffering of the Palestinian people is due to the actions of their leaders and to the behavior of the other Arab and Muslim states."

Dr. John Hagee is pastor and impresario of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a sprawling, colonnaded, 5,000-seat facility that is so active it has to hold Sunday-morning services in two sessions. With as many as a dozen ministers on staff, its own television programming, and a robust business selling books and videotapes, Cornerstone is typical of the thriving mega-churches throughout the South and Southwest.

Hagee is a passionate supporter of Israel with a long history of involvement in the cause. He recalls sitting in the kitchen of the family home in Channelview, Texas, as a boy, listening to the radio one day in 1948 when the news broke that the U.S. had recognized the state of Israel. Hagee has a vivid memory of his father, a pastor and a Bible scholar, looking across the table at him. "He was a man of few words," Hagee remembers, "and he said to me, "This is the most important biblical event of the twentieth century.' We both cried with joy, and to this day I believe that to be exactly true. Every major prophet in the Old Testament said that the state of Israel would be reborn. Isaiah 66:8 says Israel will be born in a day, and it happened just like the prophets said it would."

Every fall, Cornerstone hosts "A Night to Honor Israel." At last year's event, the church was packed, the program was beamed around the world by satellite, and the keynote speaker was Tom DeLay. There were also video appearances by Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

At one point, enormous American and Israeli flags were unfurled side by side from the ceiling, and the church choir (and many in the congregation) sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Hatikvah." Hagee talked about the importance of Israel for twenty minutes, and before the evening was over, he presented a check for $1.5 million to the president of United Jewish Communities.

This kind of extraordinary Christian support for Israel still comes as something of a shock to most East and West Coast Jews (not to mention most East and West Coast mainline Protestants and Catholics).

When talking about the founding of Israel and its early days as a nation, Hagee sounds as awestruck and full of wonder as the World War II generation of American Jews once did. "The Jewish people came from 66 nations of the world, speaking every conceivable language," he says in sonorous, gravelly, preacherlike tones. "And they started studying Hebrew, and miraculously the Hebrew language was reborn. And a nation that started out draining the swamps and fighting mosquitoes became a powerful, forceful nation in the Middle East. It is an enormous miracle. Israel is the only nation ever created by a sovereign act of God."

Though Hagee may be a little more flamboyant in his presentation than the average pastor, the emotional strength of his feeling about Israel is not unique. He is representative of Christian Evangelicals as a group, whose view of the world, and their place in it, is totally based on theology.

The bedrock of their beliefs is what they call the "inerrancy of the Bible" -- their unflinching certainty that everything in the Bible, as the word of God, is literally true. Their fervent support for Israel and their unexpectedly solicitous feelings for Jews flow from several key passages in the Bible. Foremost among them is God's covenant with Abraham, made in Chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis, which promises the land of Israel to the Jews forever. God, the Evangelicals will tell you, does not break his promises.

And in one simple passage in Genesis 12:3, the Evangelicals' unshakable bond with Jews is sealed: God says to Abraham as he is forming this new nation to be called the Jewish people: "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you."

"It is God's foreign-policy statement," says Hagee.

Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is more explicit. "If we want God to continue to bless America, then we need to bless the Jews," Land says. He offers the twentieth-century fates of Germany, Poland, and Russia as evidence that the divine promise made in Genesis is being kept. "And look at what's happened in the Arab countries," Land says. "Who in America would rather live in any Arab country?"

The most controversial, and the most often talked-about, piece of the Evangelicals' Jewish puzzle is the end-of-days scenario. For skeptical Jews, this is the eschatological equivalent of a gotcha, a piece of evidence that lifts the curtain and reveals what's really going on.

Though specifics are a little sketchy, there is a generally accepted version of events leading up to Judgment Day. First, and this is key, Jews will return to Israel. A wicked world leader -- the Antichrist -- will assume power by deceiving everyone into believing he will bring peace. Soon after, the final battle, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, will be fought.

At its conclusion, Jesus will descend from Heaven. He will come down the Mount of Olives on the east side of Jerusalem, through the Golden Gate, and into the city. (Just in case, Muslims bricked over the Golden Gate when they controlled the Old City.) There will then be a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth.

Jews who are aware of the end-of-days story line note that when these events are set in motion, they will theoretically result in the eradication of the Jewish people. Aside from untold numbers of Jews who will die in the final battle, those who do not convert when Christ returns will die anyway -- as will all nonbelievers.

"Jews are at best divided on accepting the short-term benefits of being players -- or victims -- in someone else's script."

Evangelicals believe in the end of days as much as they believe in everything else in the Bible. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have written a collection of novels called the "Left Behind" series that use the Bible's apocalyptic events as their core. They have sold more than 40 million books.

The American Jewish Committee's James Rudin has led many Christian tour groups in Israel, and one of the places they always want to see is Har Megiddo in the Galilee. Har Megiddo is where the word Armageddon comes from.

"It usually takes about two hours," he says. "They don't just walk the area; they pace it, marking it off and measuring it. This is where Gog and Magog will fight in the final cataclysm. They take this very seriously. It is central to their beliefs and the Second Coming of Christ."

Jews are at best divided on accepting the short-term benefits of being players -- or victims -- in someone else's script. Rabbi David Saperstein in Washington, D.C., sees potentially grave consequences: If Evangelicals resist strategies designed to achieve Middle East peace and instead, backed by Jews, promote extreme policies (like expelling all Palestinians from the West Bank) in order to bring about some huge conflagration, the results could be disastrous.

Every Evangelical I spoke to, however, was emphatic that their position on the End Days has been misrepresented. John Hagee, for example, told me he does believe we are coming to a point in time the Bible calls the last days. But he argues that there is a big difference between believing something is going to happen and believing you can somehow make it happen.

"My grandfather was a pastor," he says, "and some of his congregants became so convinced the End Days were approaching, they didn't plant their crops and they starved to death. God has an exact timetable, and he is going to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it."

Evangelicals are no less candid on the other major problem most Jews have in accepting their outreach at face value: conversion. Richard Land says he knows how Jews feel about this issue but there is little he can do about it: "We have a mandate from Jesus Christ to share the Gospel with all who will listen. And unlike some mainline Protestants, we're not embarrassed about it. What Jews need to understand is, we don't believe in coercion, and we're not treating them any differently than we treat our grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends. We believe the Gospel is for everyone."

The very concept, however, is anathema to many Jews. It resonates with anti-Semitism and echoes many of the worst crimes committed against Jews throughout history.

No one is more familiar with the sensitivity of the conversion issue than Yechiel Eckstein. He will not work with any group that specifically targets Jews for conversion. His organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has 300,000 Christian donors. He gets 2,000 letters and checks a day, and last year he gave $20 million to Jewish charities.

He also donated 45,000 winter coats to Israeli grade-school kids who live below the poverty line. Five Orthodox towns refused the clothing, however, because the money came from Christians. Several Orthodox Israeli rabbis attacked Eckstein, who is also Orthodox, as a Christian missionary.

"Is it possible that all this love and all this money is simply a way to get in the front door and then bring Jesus in through the back door?" Eckstein says. "I suppose. But after twenty years of close relations with the Evangelicals, I strongly doubt it."

Eckstein offers what he believes is proof of the purity of Christian motives. There is a woman in Del City, Oklahoma, who donates 10 percent of her monthly Social Security checks to help an elderly Jew who lives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, buy clothes and heating oil.

"That woman in Uzbekistan is not going anywhere," Eckstein says, "either literally or figuratively. She's not emigrating to Israel, and she's not converting to Christianity. The donation is a genuine act of love, comfort, and solidarity."

After years of refusing to recognize the validity of Eckstein's work, American Jewish leaders are now betting he is right. They acknowledge it's a risk, but one they believe, given the political power of the Evangelicals, is clearly worth taking.

And so, while the sight of Israelis welcoming Tom DeLay like an old friend, or Gary Bauer addressing a major American Jewish organization's annual dinner, might look like strange, desperate acts to some, it is actually calculated, practical politics.

"American Jews may still feel more comfortable with their liberal Protestant and Catholic friends," says Eckstein. "But there's a growing recognition that push has come to shove, and we're now finding out who our real friends are."


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