A world of difference

By late 2010, 30 countries will have parliamentary caucuses supporting Israel.

Benny Elon 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benny Elon 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Following a season in which the top stories in the Hebrew press were about the deterioration of relations with key allies, a surprising anniversary was marked in Budapest this spring.
The Knesset Christian Allies Caucus marked six years since its founding by the late Knesset member Yuri Shtern by inaugurating its 16th sister caucus in Hungary. An expansion to 30 such caucuses is expected by 2011.
The parliament members in the caucuses, who come from all faiths, lobby their governments and constituencies to support Israel and Judeo-Christian values, providing a powerful army of allies that can be deployed for public diplomacy.
This year, they will mobilize to urge that Jerusalem remain united under Israeli rule, and to persuade their governments to understand the threat that Iran poses to the Western world. As the number of sister caucuses increases, members of the original Knesset caucus hope their allies abroad can make a difference in top international forums.
“Every country has a finger at the UN,” said Israel Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, who chairs the caucus. “I hope to persuade more and more countries to support us. If there are nearly 200 countries, I hope we will eventually form nearly that many sister caucuses. Iran obviously won’t start supporting us tomorrow, but we can definitely make inroads all over the world.”
Caucus director Josh Reinstein said that when the caucus was first established, its founders were not sure what shape it would take. But now they are shocked at how successful it has been at instituting cooperation with Christian leaders around the world.
The most obvious sister caucus is the one in Congress, led by Jewish Democrat Elliot Engel of New York and Republican Mike Pence of Indiana, which has 15 Democrats and 30 Republicans. It is also unsurprising that there are caucuses in Britain and Canada, which are both led by Conservative MPs, and one in the European Union’s parliament, which is chaired by Hannu Takkula of Finland.
But there are also caucuses in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in South America; Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in Asia; and South Africa, Malawi and Sierra Leone in Africa.
The list of countries set to form a caucus in 2010 includes Nigeria, which has a Muslim majority and Muslim president, and Sweden, whose government has been condemned by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for its anti-Israel agenda.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Switzerland in April, it was the head of the Christian Allies Caucus in that country, then-MP Christian Waber, who led the protests against him. Waber is an Evangelical Christian, but many MPs in the Christian Allied Caucuses come from other streams of Christianity, or other religions.
A caucus will be formed in Italy in April in which the overwhelming majority of members are expected to be Catholic. When a pro-Israel rally was held in Sierra Leone in June 2008, it was organized by Christians, who formed the caucus in the poor, West African country, but 70% of the crowd was made up of Muslim friends of Israel.
The Israeli caucus includes Likud MKs Gila Gamliel, Danny Danon, Ayoub Kara, Yariv Levin and Carmel Shama; Anastasia Michaeli, Faina Kirschenbaum, Robert Ilatov and Alex Miller of Israel Beiteinu; Arye Eldad of the National Union; Orit Noked of Labor; and Nachman Shai, Shlomo Mula, Shai Hermesh, Arieh Bibi and Yoel Hasson of Kadima.
Although there are currently no haredi members, former Shas chairman Yair Peretz was one of the founders. A United Torah Judaism MK said he decided not to join because he was concerned about the motives of the Christians, some of whom support Israel because they think it will help bring back the Christian messiah, but Rotem, who is Orthodox, does not see this as a problem.
“When you appreciate their faith in the Bible, you understand their love of Israel,” he said. “And eventually, as Jeremiah prophesied, everyone will understand and will support Israel.”
Rotem succeeded Benny Elon as head of the caucus when Elon quit politics ahead of the February election last year. But Elon has stayed active in the organization, chairing the International Israel-Allied Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the US that coordinates the many caucuses and raises money for them.
Elon was the keynote speaker at a January rally in India attended by 5,000 Christian pastors from across the country. He said the Christian caucuses provide an important infrastructure of friends of the Jewish state, and that Israel should utilize such important human resources.
“Everyone knows there are anti-Semites, but people don’t realize how many friends we have,” Elon said. “When the prime minister is facing difficult governments in the US and Europe, it’s important that he knows international supporters have his back.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considered a pioneer in reaching out to Christian supporters, going back to his time as ambassador to the UN. As mayor of Jerusalem and then prime minister, Ehud Olmert also furthered the relationship.
Elon became close to the Evangelical Christian community when he was tourism minister, and shifted the focus of marketing from the sandy beaches in Tel Aviv to the biblical holy sites.
MANY Knesset members who joined the caucus said they were impressed by how many Christian tourists kept coming during the Palestinian wave of violence at the beginning of the past decade, when Jewish tourism declined. Reinstein said half the current ministers were once members of the caucus, making this the most friendly government to the international Christian community the country has had.
Malcolm Hedding, head of the International Christian Embassy  Jerusalem, said the most important contribution of the caucus has been that it helped bring to the wider Israeli establishment the understanding that Christians have had a positive impact on the country’s welfare. He said his own organization and others have been involved in that effort for 30 years, but the caucus played a key role in improving the image of Christians among Israelis.
“The caucus is the consequence of a long, hard and controversial journey,” Hedding said. “The establishment of a caucus in the Knesset was proof that Christian support has caught the attention of the highest offices in Israel. We have stood the test of time, weathered the storms and proved our credentials.”
Elon said the caucus still had a long way to go. He said he was aware that there were many anti-Israel Christian groups, but the positive impact of the pro-Israel Christians could not be overstated.
“The caucuses still have to prove themselves,” Elon said. “Right now, they are mostly infrastructure. We are locating Israel supporters and the communities and congregations locally who encourage them. Then we will test their effectiveness on issues like Jerusalem and Iran. Those struggles are still before us. But if we get to all the Christians, that’s more than a billion people to counter the influence of Muslims against Israel.”
One example Reinstein gave of the impact the caucuses have had is thatSaviour Chishimba, a candidate in Zambia’s 2011 presidential elections,cited the caucuses as one of the organizations that influenced him. Ona recent visit to Israel, he said the first thing he would do ifelected is to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
“In some countries we are the only voice in the government, and one ofthe few pro-Israel voices in the country, along with the Christiangrass roots who are the MPs’ constituencies,” Reinstein said. “Byreaching out to Christian friends of Israel who act as bridge builders,we have vibrant, independent, energetic streams of support Israel neverhad before. The bigger we are, the more influential we will be, andwe’re just getting rolling. There is no limit to what we can accomplishby focusing on the spiritual narrative rather than the political one.”