Growing pains?

Despite progress in Israel-Evangelical relations, the Christian Allies Caucus still has a long way to go.

malcolm hedding 88 (photo credit: )
malcolm hedding 88
(photo credit: )
The Knesset hall was filled with an array of dignitaries from around the world. There was the finance minister from Uganda; members of parliament from Angola, Brazil, Ecuador, Kenya and Ukraine; the ambassadors from Cameroon and Ivory Coast; and pastors from Egypt, Canada, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Spain, Tunisia and Hong Kong. To a casual observer, this event - like the dozen other previous ones over the past year - might have appeared to be some kind of Foreign Ministry-sponsored international conference. In fact, it was the monthly gathering of the Christian Allies Caucus of the Knesset, the parliamentary lobby dedicated to cultivating Israel's relations with its Christian supporters worldwide. The lobby, which this month is celebrating its second anniversary, includes 14 Knesset members from seven parties across the political spectrum, has come to symbolize Israel's mutual interest in the Christian world, particularly the Evangelical community. "During these times when radical Islam is the enemy," said National Union head Benny Elon, the hawkish rabbi, who, during his term as tourism minister, led the campaign to court Evangelical support, "For Israel not to understand that its strongest friends are the Evangelicals is not politically astute." With the almost immediate success of the caucus and the international recognition it has achieved a mere two years after its establishment, it is ironic to note how long it took for the organization to get off the ground, and how bumpy a road until then. The caucus was the brainchild of MK Yuri Shtern (Yisrael Beitenu), who, together with Shas's Yair Peretz, serves as its co-chairman. Shtern, who immigrated to Israel from Moscow three decades ago, said in an interview this month that for years he had been mulling over a way to set up an Israel-based body that would work with Christian supporters abroad. His work with Israel's predominantly Christian allies in the South Lebanese Army, during his tenure as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, only strengthened his desire to form such a group, he said. After coming to the realization that the best outlet for such a group would a parliamentary caucus, Shtern, who is a secular hawk, looked for religious partners and backing from Jewish and Christian organizations. At first, religious MKs - both modern Orthodox and haredi - gave him the cold shoulder, he said, as they were concerned about Christian missionary activity in Israel. Even groups such as the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, he added, initially voiced disinterest. But then Shtern found an unexpected partner: Shas MK Yair Peretz, whose Sephardic haredi party traditionally had been among the most suspicious of the Christian supporters of Israel. The caucus took off in January 2004. The timing, in the midst of a spate of unprecedented Palestinian violence, may have been coincidental, but it turned out to be auspicious for the caucus, Shtern said. At the height of the suicide bombings, most tourists - among them American Jews - were hesitant to visit Israel. Not so the pro-Israel Christians, whose presence in the otherwise empty streets of Jerusalem was felt warmly. Because of this, Shtern admits, "the criticism I received was much less than it would have been had I created the lobby four or five years earlier." "The establishment of the caucus was not so much a development but a recognition of the work that Christian Zionist organizations had done for Israel over the years," said Malcolm Hedding, the executive director of the International Christian Embassy, which opened its doors in Jerusalem more than 25 years ago, at a time when foreign embassies were leaving the capital en masse for Tel Aviv. THE SPEED with which the caucus took off in the Christian-Zionist world surprised even its most dedicated champions. Caucus director Josh Reinstein said that the budget-less and office-less lobby, which he termed "the personification of the new relationship between Jews and Christians in the 21st century," is consistently having to play "catch-up" to meet the degree of interest it has received. "We hoped to see a wave of support, but we didn't expect it to be so explosive," he said, pointing to the fact that in a mere two years, the caucus - which operates from the offices of different Knesset members on different days of the week - has held conferences in Manila, Seoul, the US and Canada, with future meetings planned for Africa and the Baltic states. Nevertheless, the Caucus has still not managed to gain widespread support among Israeli politicians, nor attention from the mainstream media. The only article about the lobby published in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot was a very recent one headlined "Jesus tours" which detailed the cross-continent travels the Caucus members have made. This is in spite of the fact that the state does not pay their travel expenses. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, too, seems to think that the caucus is simply a vehicle for junkets, said Shtern. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski has repeatedly shunned Christian groups involved in the caucus, due to fears they are missionizing. Moreover, the caucus - which courts the support of predominantly conservative Christians - has been greeted coldly by the predominantly liberal American-Jewish leadership, whose views on issues, such as abortion, separation of church and state and school prayer, are 180 degrees to the left of those held by the Christian right. Indeed, the only two mainstream Jewish organizations that work with the caucus - the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee - "wanted to see it happen but did not want to be involved," Reinstein said, while all the other prominent Jewish organizations have shied away from dealings with the lobby or ignored it altogether. AMONG THE most outspoken critics of this alliance has been the executive director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, who has called the Christian right "a threat to religious pluralism." In a telephone interview, Foxman said that he welcomes the support of the Christian Right for Israel, as long as it is "unconditional." He cited recent comments by prominent Christian Evangelist Pat Robertson [see box] about the massive stroke suffered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon having been "divine retribution" for disengagement. Such statements, Foxman said, were indicative of how "insane and perverted" the support for the Jewish state sometimes is. Foxman said that what is at stake is not just differences of opinion over abortion but "the very future of American Jews, and their future support for the state of Israel." "If they get their way in turning America into a Christian country, then we will not be as effective or assertive in standing up for the Israel," he said. Foxman said that, according to an ADL poll, the Christian right's "great arrogance" - that they are the sole representatives of the absolute truth - has already convinced a majority of Americans that religion in general and Christianity in particular is "under attack." "This could jeopardize our support for the State of Israel," he warned. Shtern says that such thinking smacks of narrow-mindedness, while Elon attributed it to a hubristic "Diaspora mentality." "In certain liberal Jewish circles, if support comes from people who believe in Greater Israel, it is unwelcome," Shtern said. "Most of the opposition to our relations with the Christian world does not come from religious Jewish circles, but from those on the left who hate our political views," said Elon. He argued that it was churlish of liberal American Jewish leaders, such as Foxman, to assume that American Jews, who make up a tiny 2 percent of the population, could alone maintain the basis of the friendship between Israel and the US, and dismiss offhand the support of 70 million Evangelical Christians there. "This is the world view of a Diaspora Jew who thinks only of the imaginary power of the Jewish establishment," Elon said. Reinstein said that, as Israel struggles in a world with oil-rich Arab countries, he can think of no initiative more important than to reach out to those who support the Jewish state. "There are so many people in the world who stand consistently against Israel, and then there are hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who are devoted to supporting Israel and the security of its citizens," he said, adding that while the caucus has been virtually ignored by the international press, it has caught the eye of Al-Jazeera TV. The Qatar-based network, he said, accused Sharon of clandestinely setting up the lobby in an attempt to "destroy" the Arab world. THE caucus's main limitation to date, said Shtern, has been its failure to make major inroads with the Catholic Church and Protestant communities (other than the Evangelicals), some of whom have pressed ahead with divestment campaigns to protest Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians. "I always tell our Evangelical friends that I see it as a handicap that most of our activities are among our friends," Shtern said, voicing the hope that in its next two years the caucus will succeed in branching out to the Christian world at large. Elon predicts nothing less than a "theological earthquake" in Israel's relations with both Protestants and Catholics in the coming years which, he said, will "indelibly shape the future."