Christian Zionists: Evangelicals a new lifeline for Israelis

Led by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed

By Craig Nelson

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 25 December 2003


Herzliya, Israel --- As they say in the preaching business, Pat Robertson had them in the palm of his hand.

No matter that his audience wasn't predominantly Christian, let alone American. They drank up every word. And when the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network wrapped up his give-no-ground speech to the elite of Israel's political and military establishment with the ringing declaration "Be strong! Be strong!" many of his listeners jumped to their feet to give him a boisterous round of applause.

The rapturous response to Robertson last week in Herzliya is just one example of how a large and growing group of conservative American Christians has entered Israel's political scene with startling vigor, even as the Holy Land's indigenous Christian communities wither as the result of war and a dying economy.

Calling themselves Christian Zionists, the evangelicals are increasingly viewed as a political lifeline by influential Israelis who are eager for allies to fight what they see as a rising global tide of hate aimed at Jews and Israel.

The strategic alliance with "groups that are friends and specialallies" --- including 70 million U.S. evangelicals and 600 million worldwide, according to estimates by the movement's leaders --- comes at an opportune time, according to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

"This is a war, a war of images that reverberate throughout the world," Eckstein said last week in this seaside town. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the cusp of becoming, God forbid, a worldwide conflict between Jews and Muslims."

High-profile events in recent months underscore the blossoming ties. In October, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon addressed 3,000 visiting evangelical Christians from 80 countries, including about 450 Americans.

"We love you!" Sharon told the gathering. In a march through the streets of Jerusalem, they returned the affection, waving signs such as "Oklahoma Loves Israel" and shouting "Hallelujah to the God of Israel!"

The same month, several thousand evangelical Christians flocked to Washington to participate in a "Christian Solidarity for Israel" rally sponsored by the Christian Coalition.

Just days later, about 16,000 U.S. churches, many of them in the South, participated in a one-day "Stand for Israel" prayer campaign co-chaired by Ralph Reed, who formerly headed the Christian Coalition and is now the Atlanta-based head of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in the South.

The swelling support of evangelical Christians has paid political dividends for Israel --- so much so that creation of a special parliamentary committee to steer Israel's relationship with them is under consideration.

In a campaign orchestrated by Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and leading Christian Zionist Gary Bauer, hundreds of thousands of e-mails and letters poured into the White House last year after President Bush, in a Rose Garden speech, appeared to equate the Israeli army's actions in the West Bank with Palestinian terrorism.

In April, Bush's call on Israel to remove its tanks from Palestinian territories in the West Bank triggered a similar flood.

Earlier this year, when Bush was rumored to be preparing to pressure Sharon to make concessions in the interest of the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, Bauer and other evangelical leaders warned Bush in a letter that any attempt to be "evenhanded" between the Israelis and Palestinians would be "morally reprehensible."

Israel receives more than political support from the movement. Eckstein's Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is Israel's largest private philanthropy, according to a survey conducted this month by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Last year, the organization and its 250,000 evangelical donors gave $20 million to various Israeli causes.

To make up for the shortfall in tourism caused by the war and suicide bombings, Israel's Tourism Ministry earlier this year began targeting evangelical Christians with appeals based on theology and politics. It is buying time on Christian radio stations in the United States and deploying representatives to evangelical churches across America to air its pitch: Show your support for Israel in its travails by vacationing there.

By all accounts, Israeli tourism officials say, the campaign hasbeen a resounding success, despite a State Department travel advisory issued Oct. 20 warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Israel due to violence.

Not all Israelis are knowledgeable about, let alone comfortable with, the support they are receiving from Christian Zionists. In a primer on the movement for the Herzliya gathering last week, Eckstein tried to debunk what he described as myths about it.

"Contrary to the impression --- I would say the stereotype, even the prejudice --- that many of us have, [Christian Zionists] are not Southern rednecks. They are educated, they are well-to-do and they are committed to Judeo-Christian values."

Eckstein accused the media of propagating the notion that Christian Zionists support Israel only as a prelude to the second coming of Christ, when, according to a literal interpretation of the Bible, all Jews will be converted to Christianity or wiped out in Armageddon. "It is incorrect," he told the Israeli audience. "The real reason [Christian Zionists] support Israel is because of the Bible: 'God will bless those who bless Israel, curse those who curse Israel.' "

Apocalypse, however, was not far from Robertson's mind.

"The entire world is being convulsed in a religious struggle --- the struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah, God of the Bible, is supreme," the televangelist and former Republican presidential candidate told his Israeli listeners.

Robertson also delighted many when, in remarks to local reporters, he called for "elimination" of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and warned that any attempt by Bush to force Israel to cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as a capital would cost the president "an enormous amount of support among the evangelical votes in the U.S."

Robertson, of course, is no stranger to controversy. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he agreed when Falwell, whom he was interviewing on his TV show, said feminists and homosexuals were partly responsible for the Sept. 11 atrocities because they had angered God. Falwell later apologized for his statement, and Robertson demurred that he had been confused during his lengthy discussion with Falwell.

Ironically, Robertson also has been accused of anti-Semitism. His 1992 book, "The New World Order," expounded conspiracy theories about all-powerful Jewish bankers. Robertson later apologized.

But his contentious past has not dogged him in Israel, said Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. Most Israelis are ot familiar with the controversies and they do not care, he said. "Even if they did, it wouldn't make any difference. The past three years have elicited reminders of the historical traumas of the Jewish people. Israelis say, 'We can't be too picky or discriminating about our friends when there is such hostility toward us.' "