Tomas Sandell, the founding director of the pro-Israel lobby European Coalition for Israel, has been advocating for the Jewish state for almost two decades. He works out of the European Parliament, travels frequently to the United Nations and has spoken in several national legislatures around the world.
Yet the passion with which he works did not come from any one trip to the Holy Land or from any one particular meeting he had with a representative of the Chosen People. In fact, growing up in Finland, Sandell only met his first Jewish person when he was an 18-year-old exchange student in Las Vegas.
But as a youth, Sandell remembers his father always bringing home two very important magazines. One was to support persecuted Christians in the then-Soviet Union, and the other was called Friends of Israel. Born in 1963, he also has vague memories from home about the sense of the historic relevance when Jerusalem was reunited during the Six Day War, and of course he remembers how miraculously Israel was preserved in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a family where being a good Christian meant that the Jewish people and Israel were part of the package. It wasn’t anything you could question,” he says. “Israel was always there, it was in the DNA of everything that was important.”
Sandell studied international relations, planning to go into Finland’s foreign service. Life took another direction, however, and when he was studying it was a time of spiritual awakening for him, and he “almost supernaturally” ended up pastoring a church for four years.
Still nothing to do with Israel, he moved to Brussels in 1994, being nominated to represent the Swedish community of Finland in to the EU, and during that seven-year period he was involved in journalism and consultancy.
It was only as he was moving back to Helsinki that it occurred to him that there was nobody in Brussels speaking up for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, despite the Israeli mission. “It seemed very strange,” he recalls.
“And on the contrary, churches that were being represented in Europe would sometimes be even more critical of Israel than the secular opinion-shapers.
“So I just understood that there is something that is really not in place here, and unless we take action and do something, we could go down the same slippery slope as in the past, where everything will be blamed on the Jewish people, everything will be blamed on Israel and antisemitism will again rise out of the soil of Europe.”
It was during that period that Sandell realized that with his background in journalism and in political consultancy, and also as a pastor, he was meant to do something for Israel and the Jewish people. It was time for good Christians to get involved in political issues.
“I wanted to combine this unique combination and say listen, if we are true friends of Israel, we need to have a voice in Europe, we can not be marginalized anymore,” he says.
“Obviously you have a large contingent of Christians who support Israel religiously, by donating money or traveling to Israel, or learning Israeli dances. But I would tell them that at the end of the day, this didn’t change anything in the 1930s. You have to be where the decision-makers are, you have to translate your message in a language that they can understand. And unless what you’re saying doesn’t make sense outside of the four walls of the church, it doesn’t make sense inside. So I confronted many of those people, and I said let’s get real.”
After the organization’s establishment in 2003, during the first phase of the European Coalition for Israel it worked together with some of the most well-known Christian-Zionist organizations. The group’s first major milestone came in 2005, when they had the privilege to initiate and organize the first Holocaust Remembrance Day in the European Parliament, which is today an official EU event and an “institution” of the continental legislature.
“So by taking the right initiative at the right time, you can shape policy and you can shape Europe in that respect.”
By 2008, the ECI and its partners mutually felt that in order for the coalition to be a genuine European voice, it wouldn’t look good if everyone was based in Jerusalem. So they decided that only groups that are based in Europe can have a voice in the European scene.
“Just as we would never meddle in Israeli politics or US politics, in order to be legitimate it was more important that we would clearly be based in Europe,” Sandell says.
Sandell introduces the second chapter of ECI as beginning in 2010, with the group’s rediscovery that some of the most important legal arguments for the State of Israel date back to the San Remo Conference of April 1920.
“The narrative in Europe is still this: the Jews came from somewhere and stole the land and invaded this country ‘Palestine,’ and took it away from them, and that’s why we have all these problems,” Sandell says.
“But what you see in international law is that the right of the Jewish people to be in their ancestral homeland, to recreate, to reconstitute a state, a national home in Palestine, has been confirmed once and for all. And by confirming this, it is also the basis of this 3,000-year period connecting a people with the land, culturally, religiously and politically.”
The group went to San Remo on the 90th anniversary of the resolution, working to bring to the world’s attention what exactly happened there. They made a 15-minute documentary on the legal outcome of the conference, called Give peace a chance, and they took their case to parliaments around the world and to the UN Security Council. And not once did anyone contradict what they were saying. In the European Parliament, Sandell brings as an example, even the Palestinian representative didn’t contradict any of their legal arguments.
“Unless you get the foundation, the historical truths and the legal argument right, you will always end up on the wrong side,” he says. “This was a game-changer for the work that we do, because it appeared for some reason that no one had really paid attention to this, not even the Israeli government. This was something that really sent out a powerful message.”
The San Remo episode may best epitomize the work of the ECI, which stands out among other Christian groups in that it is willing to fight any battle for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. “When we do our homework, when we know the history, when we know the arguments, people will listen to us and we can make a difference. This is something that we have proven,” Sandell says.
“The Lord can give victory through many just as he can through a few. It’s not how many we are. And it’s not just about dancing around in circles and waving a flag. We can only make a difference when we engage, when we dare to go into the lion’s den, by being at the UN, being at the European Parliament in Brussels, or UNESCO in Paris.”
Sandell says part of the European Coalition for Israel’s strength comes from the fact that they are comprised of Europeans with no financial links to any Jewish groups or the State of Israel.
“We do this because we think it’s the right thing to do, and that gives us a moral edge. You don’t get rich, you don’t make many friends by engaging in this type of work, but as long as we feel that this is the right thing to do we’ll continue to do so.”
The feeling of it being the right thing to comes from many different perspectives, he says. “I wouldn’t want to deny the biblical part. We know that this land is the land we are reading about in our Holy Scriptures. And trying to imply that there were never any Jews in the land of Israel, or portraying Jesus and Mary as illegal settlers, that doesn’t really make sense.
“But not only that. Ethically, and in accordance with international law, the Jewish people have the same right as any other people to self-determination. And it’s so clear that Zionism is not exclusivity – it embraces, it blesses, it engages with other nations around it. The Jews come in as a community and bring education, enlightenment, innovation. They bring all these good things.” And Sandell says one need not look too far to see that when a Jewish community has been expelled, the host country quickly takes a downward spiral.
Sandell says the problem of the conflict in the Middle East stems from the general narrative, with the media and the intellectual class to blame. Politicians and journalists just aren’t as well educated as they were in the past, he says.
“When we go back to 1920, you hear people saying ‘why are you going back to 1920? Come on, what does 1920 have to do with anything.’ You would never make that argument on any other issue in the world,” Sandell says.
"When you discuss the problem here, the assumption is that the world was created in 1967. Before 1967, everything was fine. But then Israel did something ‘inexcusable’ – to liberate eastern Jerusalem and the territories.”
The organization head says that if the world says that the problem is the lack of a Palestinian state, why didn’t the international community help them create a state before 1967. “There was a lot of time between 1948 and 1967, so why was this never a case, and is anyone implying that there were no wars from 1949 and 1967?” Sandell asks.
“It doesn’t make sense, people will have to think it over. It’s like in the [Hans Christian Andersen] story of the naked emperor [“The Emperor’s New Clothes”]. Sometimes our role is just to point out these very obvious things that don’t add up.”
Another problem Sandell has seen in his time advocating for the Jewish state is the international community’s desire for a quick-fix solution to the conflict without inconveniencing themselves to think what the repercussions will be.
“People are very intellectually lazy to repeat the mantra of ‘We need a two-state solution’ without bothering to ask the question: What are we really trying to achieve? Is it peace? A better life for the Palestinians? A better economy? More respect for human rights?” Sandell asks.
“Statehood is not automatically the right answer to all those questions. If you ask a Syrian or an Iraqi streaming into Europe ‘is statehood the solution?’ They will say no. The Palestinian people could not be more blessed to have the most dynamic economy and the most innovative people living next door to them. Who could wish for a better neighbor? I’m not saying Israel is perfect but I think engaging the Palestinians in the economy is the way to peace, not by creating another insular Islamic state. The more cooperation the better.
“Ask a Palestinian on the street what’s his choice: ‘Your own state – it will continue to be as terrible as it is today, probably even worse – or you can live the life that the people in the Jewish quarter are living, with full human rights but also a vibrant economy, with job opportunities. Which one do you prefer?’ I think it would go against human nature to choose misery over development. These are relevant points that have to be put on the table.”
Sandell is quick to point out that despite the coalition’s beliefs, it isn’t political in the sense that it wants to impose a solution – that will have to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. “Whatever the democratically elected governments find as a good solution, we will accept that. We aren’t trying to meddle in Israeli politics.”
While they don’t brand themselves specifically as a Christian group, the motivation clearly comes from their faith, Sandell says. When one looks at the last 200 years, the most progressive social reformers who were Christians, starting with William Wilberforce, to founder of the Red Cross Henri Dunant, and all the way to Martin Luther King, Jr., they were all passionate Christian Zionists, he says.
“I would always like to say that I’d like to work in their spirit, looking at this as a social justice issue, and I think that the Jewish state is worthy of the same rights, the same justice as any other people-group in the world.” sign up to our newsletter