For Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora, the past two years have been a horrific nightmare with little end in sight. The ongoing war of terror in the Holy Land has seen unbearable human casualties and crippling economic fallout. This crisis has rippled throughout the world with a frightening rise in anti-Jewish sentiment, intimidation and even outbreaks of violence. The widespread indifference and hostility of governments, media, academia and public opinion has resulted in Jews around the world feeling a deepening sense of isolation.
At the same time, a growing movement of solidarity and support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people has emerged from within the ranks of Evangelical Christianity. Historically, the Jewish community has not had a totally comfortable relationship with this group; however, there is now a growing consensus that we must accept any outstretched hand. This article provides some necessary background, puts the thorny subject into perspective, and discusses some rising concerns.
There are approximately two billion Christians in the world today. While it is difficult to neatly shuffle this huge group with pinpoint accuracy, Evangelicals may account for 20%-30%, with some estimates of around 75 million in North America. Aside from their stridently pro-Israel stance, what distinguishes these conservative Christians from their Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant co-religionists is a passionate commitment to evangelism.
For Evangelicals, the bottom-line that must be constantly stressed and never underestimated is “soul-winning.” They see the world as divided between those who are lost and those who are saved, with Jesus being the only ticket out of hell and into heaven. With hearts burdened for a world they see as perishing, Evangelicals are driven to share this “good news” with all non-Christians. Moreover, an extremely large number of Evangelicals strongly believe that there is a unique priority to convert Jews. Even though Muslims dwarf the Jewish population by a hundred-fold, the number of missionaries working in the Jewish community is 30 times higher than in the Islamic world. Evangelicals have many reasons for this special obsession, such as the notion that the Jews are G-d’s chosen people, a feeling of gratitude for all they received from the Jewish people, a specific mandate in their scriptures to take the Gospel “to the Jew first” and the belief, among some, that the “second coming” of Jesus will not take place until most Jews first accept him.
There are also many reasons for Evangelical support of Israel, such as the principled conviction that in the Bible G-d promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and G-d promised that He would bless those who bless the Jewish people (Genesis 12:3). Some are also motivated by remorseful repentance over Christianity’s long history of mistreating Jews. For many on the so-called “Christian right”, loyalty to the Jewish state is rooted in political considerations. Israel is the only free democracy in the Middle East and a vital ally in today’s war against terrorism. A recent survey revealed that for about one third of Evangelicals, their interest in Israel hinged on their beliefs concerning the “end times” and expectations relating to the return of Jesus. These apocalyptic scenarios cause uneasiness among Jews because they envision the wholesale conversion or slaughter of the Jewish people.
Evangelical solidarity with Israel is not just sentimental - they also walk the walk - and because of their reliability, Israeli governments have been actively courting their leaders as well as their rank and file. Evangelical Christians have become a potent force of political advocacy on behalf of Israel, as well as a wellspring of financial support and tourism.
However, Christian support for Israel is not absolute. After recent editorials in Charisma magazine calling on Christian support for Israel, an undercurrent of negativity emerged in reader mail. “Calling Christians to support Israel today in light of its own failings - politically for sure, but especially spiritually - is not right. As Christians, we should support Israel by praying that it accepts G-d’s plan for Israel through Jesus.” A special article appearing in the October 2002 edition of Moody magazine raised a number of reservations about “unquestioned” support for Israel. One pastor felt that a serious negative result would be the undermining of their ability to effectively share the gospel with the world’s one billion Muslims.
Nonetheless, the default position of most Evangelicals is squarely behind Israel. Planeloads of Christian Zionists continue to arrive, despite the almost daily violence. They hold massive prayer rallies for Israel, contribute substantial amounts of money to aid immigrants and immigration, and are not shy about letting their governments know exactly how they feel.
Yet when the Evangelical’s love for Israel converges with his passion for Jews to embrace Jesus, we have to tread very cautiously. Even Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the most enthusiastic advocate for developing closer ties with the Christian Right, draws the line with any group involved with proselytizing Jews. Several years ago, a huge celebration was organized by a pro-Israel Christian group in Orlando, Florida to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary. The entire Jewish community was invited, with rabbis and community leaders slated to be part of the program. Only later was it discovered that the programs’ co-sponsors, as well as and many of the official participants, were leading “Hebrew Christian” missionaries. Virtually all members of the organized Jewish community backed out of the event. This past summer, a large church in California hosted a $1000/plate fund-raising dinner to aid victims of terror and to “put the Word of G-d up in Israel.” As the dual agenda of the dinner became clear, the Jewish Federation and community rabbis quickly distanced themselves from the program.
Obviously, not all missionaries wear “Jews for Jesus” t-shirts, distribute religious tracts or wave the New Testament. Most evangelism is far more subtle. Many groups seeking to missionize Jews will insist that they have no such agenda, and instead they choose a more indirect route. Two guiding principles drive their evangelism. Firstly, they assume that Jewish people resist the Christian message because Jews have been turned off as the result of 2000 years of hostility by many of Jesus’ followers. If only these Evangelicals could get us to realize that “real” Christians love Jewish people, we’d find the Gospel irresistible. Secondly, they sense that a great number of Jews have a very weak connection to Judaism, and that those who do affiliate with Judaism are expressing their culture or ethnicity, but possess little spiritual depth. They sense that many Jews may recite prayers out of a book during services, but will probably never speak to G-d in their own words once they leave the synagogue. Deeply spiritual Christians feel that if Jewish people are exposed to their profoundly personal relationship with G-d, they will certainly, in the words of the New Testament, be “provoked to jealousy” and ultimately convert (Romans 11:11-15).
Occasionally, missionaries of this school let their guard down and expose themselves for all to see. In an unusually frank interview with the National Courier, Joe Dean, founder of an American Christian Zionist group, tipped his hand. “By standing with the Jewish people in love and support, we can provoke them to jealousy, as the apostle Paul said, so as to win them to Christ. Not by cramming the Gospel down their throats, but by showing that our faith produces faithful works. I have told the Jewish agencies that we are not an evangelical group as such, and this is true. We are not actively trying to win Jews over to Christ - but by taking this stand, the Jewish people don’t run away from us, and we are able to witness to them indirectly.”
However, our Christian Zionist “friends” will only speak bluntly “in-house”, when they assume we are out of earshot. Frank Eiklor, head of Shalom International, works tirelessly fighting anti-Semitism and drumming up support for Israel. He bristles at any suggestion that he has a hidden agenda. Needless to say, fund- raising letters to his supporters tell another story. “I want to see Christians wake up and stand up for the Jewish people. Only then will Jews be impressed and one day want Jesus as their Messiah! …The key to Jewish hearts is unconditional love. More Jewish people are loving Jesus today than at any time in history, and we’re told that our ministry is a big reason for that happening.”
While the pro-Israel advocacy efforts of these groups are laudable, their insistence that they have no hidden agenda rings hollow. Because many of them are genuinely sincere about their love for the Jewish people, they convince themselves that they have no ulterior motives. However, we wonder if they really believe the double-talk they employ to placate an often-skeptical Jewish community. Jan Willem van der Hoeven, of the Jerusalem-based International Christian Embassy, has insisted that converting Jews is anti-Christian. “Jesus and the apostles didn’t seek to make their fellow Jews ‘Christians’, but to make them ‘better Jews.’” In an interview with the New York Times, van der Hoeven explained that those Jews who were converted under his group’s influence “remained faithful to their roots and to Israel.”
How does he square converting to Christianity with faithfulness to Judaism?
In Canada, Christians for Israel is one of about a half-dozen similar pro-Israel organizations. They seek to educate Christians about two vital issues. Firstly, the importance of the return of Jewish people to Israel is a major sign pointing to the “end times”, and secondly that Christians must oppose anti-Semitism around the world, and work to support Israel and Jewish people everywhere materially and spiritually. One of their major efforts has been to partner with the Exobus Project to assist Jews in the Ukraine in immigrating to Israel. Is there an agenda behind their admirable projects? Their publication, Christians for Israel Today, constantly speaks about how these good works will “provoke the Jews to jealousy.” For Jews, this is a troubling refrain, especially in light of its New Testament implications.
Not long ago, I attended a Christians for Israel program at a large church in Brampton. Rev. Willem Glashouwer gushed as he described how Christian volunteers for the Exobus Project “shared the love of Jesus” with homebound Jews. Paul Wilbur, a “Hebrew Christian” recording artist, exulted as he described how “one of my dear friends is in Haifa today, to establish a Russian speaking congregation to receive these immigrants. They’re clothing these immigrants with a ministry called “Tents of Mercy” and they’re bringing them into the salvation knowledge of Yeshua… In Odessa in the Ukraine, three years ago in just three days, we saw over 30,000 Jewish people come to know Jesus! They’re getting on the Christians for Israel buses and coming back to the land of Israel. The word of G-d says, ‘How can they believe unless someone preaches, and how can he preach unless he is sent?’ We can’t send ourselves, but you can send us.” Leading “Messianic rabbis” were also featured guests on a Christians for Israel cruise. The magazine, Christians for Israel Today included a full-page ad for the “Hebrew Christian” missionary program to honour the 50th anniversary of Israel that took place in Orlando. I met recently with Rev. John Tweedie, Vice-President of Christians for Israel International. He assured me that his organization will no longer include “Hebrew Christian” leaders in their programs.
Was this a principled decision based upon their opposition to such groups, or simply a tactical move to appease the Jewish community?
Should we be concerned about the motivations of Evangelicals who extend themselves on behalf of Israel and Jewish people? If we don’t place any stock in the multitude of Christian speculations about various apocalyptic developments, who cares if they believe that their support of Israel will hasten the Rapture or the Battle of Armageddon? However, if we suspect that they are “making nice” in order to lubricate the conversion process, why should we play along? We can appreciate their prayer rallies on behalf of Israel, but should we be encouraging our communities to attend? Today, too many Jews lack strong spiritual immune systems, as well as the vital knowledge necessary to penetrate the Christian Zionists’ rhetoric and “unconditional love.”
Is it prudent to risk their being “provoked to jealousy” and their possible conversion to Christianity?
Living in our precarious, unpredictable world entails taking necessary risks and appropriate precautions. For example, we rely on our cars every day, even though the possibility of a fatal accident does exist. How do we reduce the risk? We demand that all drivers keep their automobiles in excellent condition, take educational courses and pass a rigorous driver’s test.
Similarly, when it comes to the risks posed by interacting with well-meaning, but spiritually alluring Christians, we can’t ignore the vulnerability of many Jews. We cannot tolerate mediocrity when it comes to ensuring the “road-readiness” of our community. Our schools, synagogues, homes and communities must become bastions of a joyous and spiritually nourishing Judaism. Jews with a sophisticated level of Jewish knowledge (we don’t expect less when it comes to secular education) and a passionate commitment to living a Jewish life are not likely to be “provoked to jealousy”.
These are very trying times. An Evangelical embrace may well be a double-edged embrace. However, if we substantially enhance our spiritual health, there’s less of a chance of getting nicked.