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A Match Made in Heaven
By Zev Chafets
240 pages; $24.95.
Last year I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of evangelical supporters of Israel at the annual convention of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) in Washington. While there I bumped into the noted American-Israeli journalist Zev Chafets, my old editor at The Jerusalem Report, who in this crowd of largely southern and Middle-American WASPs looked about as inconspicuous (to paraphrase Raymond Chandler) as a shmear of shmaltz on a slice of Christmas fruitcake.
Zev told me he was there doing research for a book about what some see as the unlikely and potentially problematic pro-Israel convergence between evangelical Christians and the largely liberal American Jewish community.
As it is, I end up making a brief appearance in the finished product: "A consultant for a Washington-based Jewish advocacy outfit called The Israel Project, Ben-David opened the conference with a sophisticated PowerPoint presentation on how to counter Arab arguments and influence the mainstream media. His presentation left the audience cold. The people at the Marriot already supported Israel because the Bible told them to; they didn't understand why they needed additional ammunition."
Oh well, you win some, you lose some - or maybe not. As it is, I welcome A Match Made in Heaven as a useful and largely correct addition to the public discussion within the Jewish community about how to relate to evangelical support of Israel. But while getting the big picture right, Chafets is somewhat less sharp on the nuances of a relationship he dubs "the weird and wonderful Judeo-Evangelical alliance."
A Match Made in Heaven, as with his previous books Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit and Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men, is a highly personal journalistic account that, while lacking scholarly rigor (to say the least), more than makes up for it with the author's refreshingly open-minded and often original insights, and his always entertaining and frequently irreverent prose style.
The book is also a polemic of sorts, and as the title suggests, one that comes out firmly in favor of Jews warmly welcoming without reservation evangelical support for Israel.
It's a conclusion the author seems personally predisposed to accept, given an early affinity for Christian preachers in his hometown of Detroit ("Michigan in those days was a great place for a kid with an eye for exotic religious practitioners. I became a devotee of Prophet Jones, the ecstatic black spiritualist preacher who wore a crown and an ermine robe and spoke directly to Jesus on a disconnected telephone during Sunday night services"); his years in Israel working for the government of Menachem Begin ("Begin liked evangelicals from the start. They believed, as he did, that the Bible gave Israel a deed to the Holy Land."); and his later marriage to a non-Jewish American whose father is "a born-again Pentacostal who once spoke in tongues on Jim Bakker's Praise the Lord television show."
But perhaps more to the point, Chafets, who spent three decades in Israel before returning to America, still views this situation largely through Israeli eyes. After confronting a left-wing American-Jewish journalist who decries the "alliance between Christian Zionists and the most fanatical Israeli settlers," he helpfully reminds the reader that "The evangelical-Israel alliance is not a pact between Christian and Israeli religious nuts. It is a long-established relationship between the leaders of evangelical American Christianity and mainstream Israel. Every prime minister since Begin has relied on the support of the Christian Right... the dislike and contempt for evangelical Christians that is so integral to American Jewish cultural and political thinking is almost wholly absent in Israel."
Still, Chafets doesn't shy away from confronting some of the central objections of those more wary of evangelical support for Israel, especially concerns that it is largely motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrine that sees Israel as having a special role in Armageddon, the final Earthly battle in the End of Days during which most Jews are wiped out and the rest embrace Jesus. It is such views that led many in the media to over-hype the dangers posed by supposed Christian extremists in the run-up to the millennium, one of the biggest non-stories of 2000.
After talking with such Zionistic evangelical leaders as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and John Hagee, as well as traveling on a Holyland pilgrimage tour with a group of fundamentalist Protestants, Chafets justifiably concludes that these eschatological views play far less of a role among Christian Zionists than just a simple identification with the Biblical promise by God to award the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. And anyway, as he notes, "Evangelical Christians do not believe they are called upon to play a role in making Armageddon come to pass. That's God's job... Either the evangelicals are right or wrong about the end-times. If they are wrong, what difference does it make?"
But Chafets seems on slightly less firm footing when he takes an equally dismissive attitude toward Jewish concerns over the very active missionizing by the evangelical community. While he may be right that "the American Jewish community faces problems, but mass conversion to evangelical Christianity isn't one of them," that doesn't mean this outlook doesn't pose some real obstacles to the Jewish-evangelical alliance. Chafets himself details some of these in a chapter about the work of Yehiel Eckstein, the Orthodox rabbi who pioneered this field with the founding of the IFCJ. Though Eckstein has made a real effort to ensure that IFCJ's charitable efforts steer well clear of any attempts at proselytizing, he finds himself being introduced at an evangelical rally as a "born-again Christian," and later finds one of his senior staff members telling Chafets: "You know, the truth is, the Christians do want to convert Jews... We love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us." (Not surprisingly, she was fired from IFCJ shortly thereafter.)
In an attempt to perhaps shift some of the onus onto the Jewish side, Chafets spends a few pages irrelevantly discussing Israel's Orthodox monopoly on conversion and marriage, a favorite target of his writing over the years. More useful would have been to simply point out that despite popular conception, missionizing is entirely legal in Israel as long as it doesn't involve material inducement, so it would be hypocritical to expect evangelicals to completely abandon a major tenet of their faith as some kind of admission ticket to the pro-Israel camp.
After taking issue with Jewish leaders, such as the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who have been strongly critical of the evangelicals' domestic US agenda, Chafets writes: "I looked hard for evidence that the evangelicals are insincere, cynical, or devious in their attitude toward Israel and the Jews, and I didn't find it. They may love Jews too much. They may love Jews for the wrong reasons. But for now, the evangelical Christians of America are not the enemy. They are the enemy of the enemy and they want to be accepted and appreciated."
As indeed they should be. But perhaps Chafets goes too far in adding: "In return they are offering a wartime alliance and a free partnership in a Judeo-Christian America. It is an offer the Jews of America should accept while it is still on the table."
This strikes me as a little patronizing of his fellow Jews, and condescending toward Christian Zionists.
Earlier in the book Chafets does indeed try to suggest that evangelical support for Israel is waning somewhat as a result of their disagreements with the largely liberal American-Jewish social agenda, a position even more strongly argued by the likes of such prominent conservative Jews as columnist Dennis Prager, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the Toward Tradition organization (neither of whom, somewhat surprisingly, have a say in these pages). But the only evangelical leader that Chafets found during last summer's Lebanon War to back this position even somewhat turns out ironically (or perhaps fittingly) to be none other than Reverend Ted Haggard, whose own subsequent fall from grace due to his misadventures with a gay masseur will presumably be noted in later editions of A Match Made in Heaven.
My own experience with evangelicals is that their bond with Zion is far sturdier than a "wartime alliance," and acceptance and appreciation needn't entail signing on to a Judeo-Christian covenant that contradicts basic constitutional values. What it does entail is mutual respect and honest engagement, something I certainly tried to do in my own speech at the IFCJ conference (received a little more warmly than Chafets suggests).
It is also an approach documented quite well in this book when the author recounts the circumstances behind a speech that leading Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie bravely gave to the student body of Falwell's Liberty University.
When one come down to it, is the Jewish-evangelical alliance on Israel any more "weird" than say, the current coalition to stop the Darfur genocide which has united right-wing Christian activists with left-wing human rights supporters? It is certainly less bizarre than the support some so-called liberal Christian groups have given to radical Islamic extremists as part of a knee-jerk anti-Israel response found too often in such circles.
But on one point, and easily the most important, Chafets gets it exactly right; given the alternatives, the evangelical support of the Jewish State is indeed some kind of wonderful.
The writer is the director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.