Evangelical Christians’ support for Israel: Cause for celebration or concern?


Just a month after a tenuous cease-fire was declared last year in Israel’s 34-day war in Lebanon, conservative Christians from throughout Missouri gathered in Clayton to pay homage to the Jewish State.

Billed as “an expression of solidarity between Christians and Jews,” the September 2006 event featured several rabbis, prominent members of the Jewish community and remarks by an Israeli diplomat and a Holocaust survivor. But the crowd was dominated by some 250 Christians gathered to support Israel.

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“It was a different kind of evening, a room filled with a few hundred evangelical Christians and a handful of yarmulkes,” one Jewish observer said with a chuckle.

Christian ministers reminded the audience of God’s promise in Genesis that Jews were his chosen people and that God would bless nations that bless Israel. They said the evening, called “A Night to Honor Israel,” was a chance to show the love that evangelical Christians have for the Jewish people.

Audience members dug into their pockets and contributed $23,700 to the Israel Emergency Campaign for humanitarian programs in northern Israel, which had suffered under a barrage of nearly 4,000 rockets during the fighting.

Jewish officials called the event a momentous occasion and a new beginning in Jewish-Christian relations in the St. Louis region.

But many others aren’t so sure.

Jews from across the spectrum of Judaism and at both the national and local level expressed wariness at evangelical efforts to insinuate themselves into the Jewish community. While Jewish groups have worked for years with Presbyterians and other mainstream Christian denominations, evangelicals are a different breed with a different set of values, several Jewish leaders said.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin, of B’nai El Congregation in Frontenac, said many conservative Christians support Israel only to advance their own agenda. Many of their policies, such as opposing the pullout from Gaza, simply antagonize Israel’s Arab neighbors, he said.

“Their support is for their own worldview, which requires a strong Israel,” Plotkin said. “But that worldview is not in the best interests of the Jewish people or of Israel.”

The very notion of working closely with conservative Christians evokes sometimes uncomfortable questions about priorities, motives, anti-Semitism, Israeli policy, and what it means to be Jewish in America early in the 21st Century.

“This is an issue remarkable for its propensity to create divisiveness within the Jewish community and between Jews and evangelicals,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Jewish leaders point out that evangelical Christians’ conservative social agenda doesn’t fit with the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, healing the world. They differ with many Jews on abortion rights, poverty programs, government health care programs and stem cell research.

They often endorse policies that blur the line between church and state by imposing their religious views on all of society. Many Jews also question evangelical Christians’ motives, noting that support for Israel fits with an end-of-days theology that calls for Jews to convert to Christianity or endure eternal suffering.

But resentment over those issues is tempered by the recent growth of so-called Christian Zionists, whose financial support for the Israeli people and political support for Israel’s right to defend itself are attractive lures to Jews weary of efforts to label Israel the bad guy in Middle East conflicts.

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason, of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion congregation in University City, captured the ambivalence of many Jews. Israel, he said, is sacred.

It faces threats from all quarters, as Iran tries to build nuclear weapons and Syria arms Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. Therefore, he was pleased by the Christian show of moral and financial support to Israel in its time of need.

“If the evangelical community supports us, we should accept that friendship and that support,” Smason said. “We should be grateful and express gratitude for that help by honoring them. But we should be suspicious. We have a 2,000-year history questioning their motivation.”

Evangelical Christian groups concede that history is replete with examples of Christian persecution of Jews. But they insist that their support of Israel and the Jewish people is sincere and based on a modern and more enlightened understanding of Scripture.

Theresa Garcia, a longtime member of Life Christian Church in Sunset Hills and an organizer of last year’s Night to Honor Israel in Clayton, said the Bible commands her to support Israel and love the Jewish people.

“When you know the Biblical truths, you stand with the Jews or you’re not Christian,” Garcia said. “You can see the hand of God” in the Christian Zionist movement, she said, “moving God’s covenant people — Jews and Christians — together.”

David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, which helped sponsor the Night to Honor Israel, said the Jewish community is understandably skeptical after 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism. The group recently completed its 62nd such fundraiser and there is “always some controversy in the Jewish community about what to do with us,” he said.

Brog, who is Jewish and refers to himself as “Conservadox,” said such ambivalence is the result of a misunderstanding of Christianity and a less-than-subtle stereotyping of evangelical Christians.

“Given the history of prejudice against Jews largely based on wrong assumptions, Jews are the last group that should assume things about other religions,” Brog said.

Brog, whose brother lives in the St. Louis area, acknowledged that many conservative evangelical Christians differ with most of the Jewish community on social issues. He agreed that Christians have sometimes overstepped their welcome by using interfaith activities to try to convert Jews to Christianity. And he conceded that evangelical Christians believe that Jews returning to Israel is a precursor to the second coming of Christ.

But Brog said none of those things is relevant to Jews and Christians working together today. And they don’t apply to evangelical Christians’ support for Israel.

“These Christians are very sincere with no evil motive,” Brog said. “They simply want to stand up and bless the Jewish people. There is plenty to be afraid of in this world. But Christians who want to stand with us are not one of them.”

A coalition for Israel

Christians United for Israel is the brainchild of John Hagee, the controversial leader of Cornerstone Church, an 18,000-member fundamentalist congregation in San Antonio, Texas. He also is a televangelist who claims to reach 99 million homes worldwide and is an author of 10 books, mostly focusing on Israel’s role at the end of time, with names like Final Dawn over Jerusalem, From Daniel to Doomsday and Battle for Jerusalem.

But he is perhaps best known for his staunch support of Israel. His John Hagee Ministries claims to have raised $8.5 million to help Jews emigrate from the former Soviet Union and resettle in Israel. And he formed Christians United for Israel in early 2006 as an umbrella group for evangelical churches to lobby on behalf of Israel and to raise money for humanitarian causes there.

Brog became the group’s executive director after authoring the book Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State. Brog, who is based in Washington, spent seven years working for the U.S. Senate, including stints as chief of staff to Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Brog said Hagee’s affection and support for Israel stem from God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 — “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”

Later in the same chapter, God promises to give the land of Israel to Abraham’s descendants.

“Those promises in Genesis, modern Jewish history and the justness of Israel’s cause” combine to form a kind of imperative to support Israel, Brog said. “After the shame and horror of the silence of Christians during the Holocaust, there is a deep-seated responsibility not to let it happen again.”

In St. Louis, Life Christian Church Senior Pastor Rick Shelton told last year’s gathering at A Night to Honor Israel that it marked the beginning of a relationship honoring the Jewish community and “standing together with them as our friends.”

But his office referred questions to Garcia, a 16-year member of his church who serves as the St. Louis organizer for Christians United.

Garcia said God’s promise to Abraham forms the foundation of her support for Israel and the basis for the group’s opposition to trading land for peace. The land belongs to Israel, and the United States inflicts a great injustice by pressuring Israelis to give up territory, she said. Arabs will simply attack Israel from any land given up, she said.

“They have a mentality driven by an ideology that they ought to rule the world,” Garcia said of Arab nations. “The answer is for Jews to keep the land.”

Such unqualified support for Israel and for the Jewish people is rare and ought to be embraced by Jews, Brog said. Political differences on abortion rights and gay marriage shouldn’t stand in the way.

“I worked on Capitol Hill for seven years and saw thousands of coalitions come and go,” Brog said. “The thing that coalitions have in common is not that they agree on every issue, but that they agree on one issue.”

Jews, he said, need a more mature approach to working in a coalition. They overlook potential allies by wanting to work only with groups that match their broader view of the world.

“Reasonable people can disagree on abortion,” Brog said. “But refusing to work with those people is failing to recognize the humanity and decency of people with different views.”

Assessing the terms

For many Jews, Brog’s pitch oversimplifies a complex subject and sets up an awkward choice. On one side is the desire to seek allies for Israel. On the other are a desire to stay true to progressive ideals and recognition of the realities of Jewish history.

Gary Greenebaum, a Los Angeles rabbi and U.S. director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said Jews should work with people of other faiths when it makes sense. But Jews must determine the terms of the alliance and decide whether they are comfortable with them.

No single position will represent the entire Jewish community, he said. Some Jews, particularly the Orthodox community, prefer to work with lobby groups to the right of center than those to the left. Others are more comfortable working with Presbyterians and more progressive mainstream Protestant denominations, he said.

Greenebaum said Jews needed to recognize differences among Christian denominations and among individual congregations. He offered the flip side of Brog’s case.

“Just because we agree on one point, that doesn’t mean we need to form a vast coalition,” Greenebaum said.

Several St. Louis Jewish leaders echoed those thoughts. They also questioned whether the terms offered by groups like Christians United for Israel are good for Jews or even good for Israel. And they questioned whether the result of the discussion means that American Jews give domestic issues a higher priority than the future of Israel.

But they acknowledge that even the discussion of a coalition between Jews and Christians shows how far relations between the two faiths have come in the last half century.

The traditional relationship was evoked in a scene in the Broadway hit Spamalot, a spoof on King Arthur’s search for the cup Jesus used at the last supper. Arthur is told he needs more Jews among his knights if he hopes to find the Holy Grail. After searching fruitlessly, Arthur’s squire hesitantly announces that he is Jewish.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Arthur responds with surprise.

“It’s not something one says around a heavily armed Christian,” his squire replies.

Smason, of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, said that even 40 years ago, the tension between Jews and Christians was palpable. The main interaction involved Christians’ attempts to convert Jews because they believed the only way to salvation was through Jesus.

Relations — and anti-Semitic rhetoric — improved after the Catholic Church adopted the reforms commonly referred to as Vatican II in the mid-1960s.

“They stopped saying Jews were the killers of Christ,” Smason said.

Greenebaum said many Christians see Jews in a positive light. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was widely recognized as an Orthodox Jew, was nearly elected vice president of the United States seven years ago, he noted.

He said there are political movements dangerous to Jews, but that’s the nature the American system.

“America is the grand circus,” Greenebaum said. “It’s a process. We have the most vibrant and diverse religious culture in the world. It causes so much grief because people can take extreme positions.”

Rabbi Mordecai Miller, of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights, agreed that the Jewish-Christian relationship is much improved. In August, he gave a presentation at an evangelical church at the invitation of the church’s youth minister, who was interested in what Judaism could explain to him about his own faith.

Many Jews, however, are uncomfortable with evangelicals’ tendency to try to blur the line between church and state, Miller said. But so do Orthodox Jews, especially on state support for religious-affiliated schools, he said.

“It’s not a simple issue,” Miller said. “We can’t expect people to leave their religious beliefs behind because your religion defines what you value.”

Smason agreed that evangelical Christians are politically closer to Orthodox views than the rest of Judaism. But even there, the nuances of the Orthodox faith differ from conservative Christians. Orthodox Jews, for example, put a greater emphasis on good works to benefit society, Smason said.

Miller and Smason agreed that the Jewish-Christian relationship has improved with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It has given the two faiths a common cause, Smason said.

In Missouri, Jewish and Christian groups lobbied together to pass the 2003 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibited government interference in the free exercise of religion.

“But on other issues — stem cells, poverty programs, health care — it’s just not going to happen,” said Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League.

A mixed blessing

On Israel, however, the emotions run deeper and the issues are more complicated. Many Jews are concerned more with questions of motivation and consequences of working with Christian groups than with immediate short-term benefits for Israel.

“We have to question,” Smason said, “whether it is solely support for Israel or do they have some theological agenda?”

Greenebaum said Christian Zionists see the return of Jews to Israel as necessary for the end of time and the rapture of Christian believers into heaven. That end-of-days theology, Aroesty said, is a motivating factor behind their support for Israel.

“In their vision of the future, the Jewish community doesn’t fare so well,” Aroesty said. “Unless you find salvation in Christ, you burn in the eternal fires of hell.”

Miller agreed that evangelicals’ support for Israel offers a mixed benefit for Jews.

“It’s based on a reading of the Book of Revelations,” Miller said. “The Messiah can’t come and rapture the Christians until the Jews have returned to Israel. There is the question of whether Jews will accept Jesus as the Messiah at that time. There is some sting to that issue.”

Greenebaum noted that inherent in the term ‘evangelical’ is the desire to convert others to your faith. Smason, who once worked in counter-missionary work in Israel, said he saw a basis for concern about evangelical Christians using their zeal for Israel as a way to proselytize among Jews.

The Israeli government accepted a large payment from a Christian missionary group in exchange for a prime location for their work, Smason said. And some of them believe that converting Jews ushers in the messianic time.

“This is offensive to Jews,” Smason said. “They are not doing this out of unconditional love.”

Many also question whether the support of Christian Zionists benefits Israel.

Hagee and Christians United for Israel are the last believers in a greater Israel, Greenebaum said. They lobbied Congress to keep Israel from pulling out of Gaza and have argued against any swap of land for peace.

“That position makes right-wing Christians to the right of American Jews and to the right of most Israeli Jews,” Greenebaum said. “But they raise millions for humanitarian causes in Israel. That is hard to turn down.”

Plotkin, the rabbi of B’nai El, questioned whether Christians United or other conservative Christian groups would support Israel if a left-wing government were elected.

“Evangelical Christians are not necessarily supportive of Israel,” Plotkin said. “They are supportive of Israel’s right wing.”

That support might advance their agenda, but it tends to be counterproductive for Israel, he said.

“They support doing whatever they can to antagonize Israel’s Arab neighbors,” Plotkin said. “They make it look as if all Jews support that. All that does is create further rifts between Jews and Arab-Americans.”

This brand of Christianity, Greenebaum said, is more concerned with fulfilling religious imperatives as prophesied in the Bible than with how American Jews and Israelis function in society.

“They note God’s statement to Abraham that the Jews are blessed,” Greenebaum said. “But it’s a bit bemusing. What took 2,000 years to recognize that?”

A clash of values

While claiming to honor Jews, evangelical efforts to allow prayer in schools and public displays of Christianity, to adopt resolutions declaring the United States a Christian nation and repeated attempts to block medical research are seen as attempts to impose their religion on all of society.

When you strip away the veneer of support for Israel, many Jews say, you’re left with a right-wing group backed by people with a far-right social agenda.

“We need to work with other progressive groups, people for whom science and theology don’t conflict, people who believe that church and government should be separate,” Plotkin said.

Jews tend not to be one-issue voters, several leaders said. And they tend to oppose the social conservatives who have become the base of the Republican Party.

Greenebaum said Jews tend to belong to the Democratic Party because its priorities fit with Jewish culture and liberal tradition. Immigration issues are significant because Jewish experience shows the importance of being able to migrate to a free country.

“Our traditions dictate how we treat a stranger, how we deal with poverty and equality,” Greenebaum said. “Liberal politics makes room for us. The old joke is that Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

In addition, younger American Jews are not as concerned about Israel as their parents were, Greenebaum said.

Miller and Smason agreed that Israel is one of many issues that Jewish voters consider.

“If someone were virulently anti-Israel, it would raise questions about whether he were anti-Semitic,” Miller said. “But I vote for the person that will help the United States the most. That is my responsibility as an American citizen. To use Israel as the (only) deal maker, that’s a mistake.”

Plotkin agreed.

“We need to be concerned with our place as Jews in this country,” Plotkin said. “Ultimately, Israel is secondary because we are not Israelis. We are Americans and we can influence America. We need to work with groups that keep America pluralistic so we can be free to be Jews.”

A different kind of Christian?

Where conservative Christians can help Israel, Jewish leaders said, is by reminding American leaders of Israel’s place in the world.

“Christian Zionists can help with the narrative, telling the story of the historical Jewish homeland, that we belong there and are not colonizers there to oppress the population,” Aroesty said.

Brog said explaining the Jewish story to American policymakers is a major goal of Christians United for Israel. But the organization is also concerned with looming dangers, such as Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Urging Americans to divest from Iran is the group’s top priority, he said.

“We want to exert economic and diplomatic pressure to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Brog said. “Our slogan is, ‘It’s Iran, not the land.'”

Brog said many of the criticisms of his group are overblown or mistaken. Many evangelical Christians, for example, have programs to help the poor. Even if some denominations oppose activist government programs to fight poverty, that doesn’t mean the church isn’t involved, he said.

The Jewish view, he said, shows a remarkable intolerance for Christians. Jews have to realize that Christians who support Israel are not asking anything of the Jewish community in return.

“There is no quid pro quo,” Brog said. “Christians don’t want to change the Jewish community’s views on social issues. It’s Jews who want Christians to change. It’s a failure to understand that reasonable people can disagree.”

Garcia acknowledged that evangelical Christians tend to be more conservative than most Jews. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a relationship between the two faiths, she said.

“We overcome that by saying we are not here to talk about abortion, we’re here to talk about Israel,” Garcia said. “We are not going to agree on all social issues or on theological issues, but we’re going to agree on Israel.”

Brog said the end-of-times theology of some Christian groups doesn’t apply to Christians United for Israel or to most fundamentalist Christians. Christian Scriptures teach that only God knows the time of the second coming of Jesus and man can do nothing to hasten the event.

“There are people who believe they can speed the coming of the Messiah,” Brog said. “Those people are called Jews. Christian theology holds that there is nothing that will change God’s timetable.”

Jewish critics point to Christian books that say the Jews returning to Israel is a sign that the rapture is near. Brog said such criticism confuses belief with motive. While Christians believe that the return of Jews to their homeland is a sign of the end times, they know nothing they do will change the time of the rapture, he said.

Brog acknowledged that evangelical Christians are more sympathetic to the conservative Likud Party than to the more liberal Labor Party. Part of the reason, he said, was that for many years right-wing Jews were the only Jews who would talk to Christian supporters of Israel.

That is reason for moderate and liberal Jews to work with evangelical Christians and share a different perspective, Brog said.

“If you’re worried about partnering with Christians because they are too conservative, you should engage them,” Brog said. “This is a Jewish shortcoming, not a Christian one.”

Brog denied that Christians United for Israel represents only a far right perspective on Israeli policy. The group steadfastly avoids getting involved in internal Israeli politics, he said. Rather, the group exerts pressure on the U.S. government to leave Israel alone, he said.

Some Christians were disappointed by Israel’s pullout from Gaza, Brog said. But Christians United for Israel’s only job is to assure Israel that it has friends in America besides the administration.

“It is not for people sitting in Washington to decide issues for the elected Israeli government,” Brog said. “It’s not a right-wing agenda to tell my government to back off if it is telling Israel to trade land for peace.”

Garcia said it was “absolutely true” that her group’s agenda fits with the conservative side of Israeli politics. The current situation in the Middle East, she said, is a spiritual war with Islam.

“How much do Jews have to suffer?” Garcia said. “You can’t compromise with them. This is 1938 and (Iranian President) Ahmadinejad is Hitler. Peaceful co-existence is impossible.”

Jews have no reason to fear that Christians United for Israel will use its work to try to convert Jews to Christianity, Brog said. Hagee, the group’s founder, prohibits such activity, he said.

Hagee has been criticized by other Christian groups for espousing something akin to the idea of a “dual covenant,” which holds that Jews already have a covenant with God and therefore can find salvation without Jesus. And Hagee has several times dismissed evangelism among Jews as useless.

Garcia agreed with the dual covenant doctrine, which makes evangelism among Jews a pointless exercise. At the end of time, Garcia said, both Christians and Jews will be saved because both have a covenant with God.

“It’s true we’re not trusted (in the Jewish community),” Garcia said. “It’s because of what Christians have done in the name of Christianity. Our job now is to educate.”

Brog said Jews are one of the few religious groups who are offended when Christians try to introduce them to “the good news” of salvation through Jesus. Other groups just tell them to go away.

“Jews get offended because Christians tried for 2,000 years to convert us at the point of a sword, so it’s still a raw nerve,” Brog said. “But Christians who support Israel are aware of how offensive we find it.”

The path ahead

Should Jews welcome Christian support of Israel or push it away?

“The answer is yes,” Smason said with a chuckle.

Jews can honor and respect the Christian work, but can also suspect their motives, he said.

“Let’s focus on what we have in common and can accomplish working together,” Smason said. “There will always be things that divide people. The question is what should we focus on.”

Miller said Jews should be willing to listen to evangelical Christians and not pre-judge them. And it would be good to work with them on common goals if Jewish groups have the time and resources available.

Greenebaum sounded a similar theme. Differences on social issues don’t preclude working together on issues pertaining to Israel.

“If it makes sense to work with this or that group, we should, but we need to go forward with knowledge,” Greenebaum said. “I’ve never had a Christian say that if you support Israel you have to oppose abortion or gay marriage.”

But Plotkin said Jews should keep evangelicals at arm’s length. If they donate money for programs in Israel, Jews should express thanks, but be wary, he said.

“We should not support these ‘Nights to Honor Israel,'” Plotkin said. “It really is a rally in support of the very right wing of Israeli policy.”

Brog said it would be unfortunate for Christians and Jews, who draw inspiration from many of the same scriptures, not to find more common ground. The only significant disagreement, he said, is the identity of the Messiah.

“There is no reason we can’t disagree on that one issue and work together on others,” Brog said. “It was only a problem when Christians used it as justification for persecuting us. Now that Christians no longer do that, are we going to let it stand in the way of working with Christians? Or are we going to focus on everything we share, including our support for Israel?”