A MARRIAGE MADE
After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth....One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed...."These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb."
ne month after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, published The Jewish State (1896), he received a visit from a man with the long grey beard of a prophet who would become one of his most enthusiastic supporters--the Rev. William H. Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. Herzl's plan for creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine offered the Christian minister tangible proof for his own reading of Bible prophecy: that the Jews were about to be "restored" to the Holy Land to help usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Hechler drew his inspiration from the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a British clergyman who had popularized the belief that Christ would soon return to earth, defeat the anti-Christ in the battle of Armageddon, and establish God's thousand-year reign.
The rationalist Herzl was not immediately impressed with the man who placed his faith in Bible prophecy, viewing him as a "naive enthusiast" who also exhibited a "touch of antisemitism"; occasionally Hechler attempted to convert Herzl. But ultimately Hechler proved himself to be tirelessly devoted to the Zionist cause, and the men developed a deep bond. Herzl became especially indebted to his Christian friend who, as tutor to the son of the Grand Duke of Baden, used his access to European nobility to help Herzl win audiences with such dignitaries as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although the German emperor never publicly endorsed Zionism, privately he helped Herzl gain much-needed credibility among influential European leaders, as well as among his fellow Jews. The friendship between Herzl and Hechler remained strong until Herzl's untimely death in 1904 at the age of 44. Beckoning his Christian friend to his bedside, a weakened Herzl asked Hechler to carry a personal message to the Zionist movement: "Give my regards to all of them and tell them that I gave my heart's blood to my people."
Today, more than half a century after the realization of Herzl's dream of a Jewish state, evangelical Christians are still among Israel's most fervent supporters. As theological descendants of Darby, "the father of dispensational theology," many of today's "Christian Zionists" are deeply moved by apocalyptic visions of the End Times. According to this view, history unfolds in a series of distinct preordained periods or "dispensations" and the return of the Jews to Israel will not only bring about Christ's return, but also their destruction. The handful that survives will convert to Christianity. Dispensationalist theology has been popularized in America by Rev. Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, whose books about the much-anticipated Apocalypse have sold more than 50 million copies. In Are We in the End Times? they wrote: "Over five decades have passed since Israel became a nation, and it still rejects Christ as Messiah....[O]ne of these days, Israel is going to have a fresh visitation of the Holy Spirit, when a mighty revival sweeps the land...[and] the Jews [will] call upon the Messiah they rejected in A.D. 30."
This apocalyptic vision is widely accepted among evangelical or "born again" Christians, who, according to a December 2002 Gallop poll, constitute 46 percent of the American population. While the number of Christians that self-identify as supporters of the "religious right" is considerably smaller, the movement still constitutes a potent political force that stands in opposition to most American Jews on critical social issues such as church-state separation, reproductive rights, gay rights, anti-discrimination laws, equality for women, and gun control. A 1996 American Jewish Committee survey found that 52 million adults say they support the religious right, 44.1 percent "admire" Pat Robertson, and 28.2 percent "admire" Jerry Falwell. Almost half (48.7%) say they believe the world will end in the battle of Armageddon between Jesus and Satan, and almost a third (30.9%) favor passage of a constitutional amendment declaring the United States to be a "Christian Nation." And yet, for the sake of Israel, the American Jewish establishment has welcomed the support of Hechler's ideological descendants.
Relations between the Christian Right and American Jewry gained momentum in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. At a time when some leaders of America's mainline Protestant denominations appeared to turn against the Jewish state, the religious right hailed Israel's stunning military victory as a prophetic sign that the End of Days was drawing near. Not since the establishment of Israel in 1948--which LaHaye described as "the most significant of the end-time signs, even the 'super sign'"--had the messianic fervor among fundamentalist Christians reached such intensity. The heightened anti-Israel climate following the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism also prompted Jews to seek out new allies, including, for the first time, conservative Christians. And the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter--the first self-proclaimed "born again" Christian to become president--gave the Jewish community new impetus to reach out to the evangelical community.
Evangelical-Jewish ties deepened in the late 1970s and 1980s as Jews worked closely with staunchly anti-Communist conservative Christians in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. "We found that if we wanted support for Soviet Jewry or Israel, we had to go to the evangelical community," says Rabbi A. James Rudin, the former director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. In addition to joining marches and signing petitions on behalf of Soviet Jews, supporters of the religious right threw their weight behind the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which limited U.S. trade with the Soviet Union because of its failure to allow open emigration. By 1982, these developments prompted ADL national director Nathan Perlmutter and his wife Ruth to co-author The Real Anti-Semitism in America, in which they made the case for a strong evangelical-Jewish alliance, arguing that anti-Israel sentiment posed the greatest threat to American Jewry. That same year, the Likud Party in Israel sought closer ties with leaders of the American Christian Right who publicly supported its expansionist settlement policies in the territories and enthusiastically endorsed Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Jewish-evangelical relations had become so close by the early '80s that, immediately after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin telephoned Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell before calling President Ronald Reagan to ask Falwell to "explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing" (Newsweek, December 23, 2002). That same year, Falwell received Israel's 1981 Jabotinsky Award for his support of the Jewish state.
Today, America's leading religious-right activists portray themselves as Israel's and American Jewry's closest friends--but are they really? In a 1985 interview with Merrill Simon, author of Jerry Falwell and the Jews, the Baptist minister billed himself as "the most outspoken (Christian) supporter of Israel and the Jewish people the world over." Yet five years earlier, in his book Listen America!, Falwell had accused Jews of being "spiritually blind and desperately in need of their Messiah and Savior." And citing scripture to Merrill Simon, Falwell had also predicted the End Times conversion of world Jewry: "God will again appear to the Jewish people in a special way. From the Book of the Revelation, chapters 6-19, we perceive that 12,000 Jews from each of the 12 tribes of Israel--144,000 in totality--will again preach the Gospel of the Kingdom [Christianity] to all the earth....Rather than the end of Judaism...it will be the most dramatic and glorious event ever...." More recently, in 1999, Falwell told participants at an evangelism conference in Kingsport, Tennessee that the anti-Christ was alive and likely to make his appearance in the next decade, "and of course, he'll be Jewish." He later apologized. It was a familiar pattern: Falwell makes an antisemitic statement before an approving audience of fundamentalist evangelicals who share his belief that America is a Christian nation; once his remarks are rebroadcast to a mainstream audience, he offers a mea culpa in order to regain his political credibility.
Televangelist Pat Robertson, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, is another high-profile American evangelical who considers himself a friend of Israel. The Zionist Organization of America agrees. Last July its Chicago chapter conferred upon him its "State of Israel Friendship Award." Yet, on his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)--which reaches some 59 million homes--Robertson preaches that world Jewry will either be destroyed or converted in the End Times. And, according to writer and intellectual Michael Lind's review in The New York Review of Books, Robertson's 1991 bestseller The New World Order relies heavily on classic antisemitic texts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Robertson's theories about Jewish bankers and Jewish revolutionaries," Lind wrote, "are central to his conspiracy theory....Not since [the antisemitic radio priest] Father Coughlin or Henry Ford has a prominent white American so boldly and unapologetically blamed the disasters of modern world history on the machinations of international high finance in general and on a few influential Jews in particular."
The theology of the Christian Right and its purported love of Israel worry the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a group dedicated to promoting religious tolerance and separation of church and state. "The religious right's literalistic interpretation of prophecy calls for a cataclysmic resolution of the conflict in the Middle East in order for Christ to return," he says. "This is not a point of view supportive of Israel. It is a point of view supportive of the conversion of Jews who live in Israel. The religious right envisions a situation in which Jerusalem is not the international capital of Judaism; it is the center for realizing the sovereignty of Christ."
From the start, most Christian Zionists have regarded Jews as players--or, worse yet, as mere scenery placed on the stage by God, the director, says Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. "An audience will give its greatest love for the actors who make the play progress toward its desired climax....If the State of Israel is exciting [to Christian Zionists], all the more so are right-wing [Israeli] politicians who want to hold on to every inch of land that Israel has captured, and West Bank settlers who have staked their claim at places with Old Testament names...."
Liberal Jewish leaders fear that religious right support of Israel strengthens the hand of Likud and other right-wing parties that oppose any land-for-peace compromise to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1998, for example, Jerry Falwell promised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he would mobilize millions of Americans to oppose any call to trade land for peace. More recently, in April 2002, when President George Bush demanded that Israel withdraw its tanks from the West Bank, the White House reportedly received as many as 100,000 angry e-mails from Christian conservatives spurred by Falwell and others. The same month, U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas)--who had once told a Christian Coalition audience that the "Constitution of the United States was written by the founding fathers as a model of the Bible, and comes directly out of the Bible"--addressed an American Israel Public Affairs Council policy conference, referring to the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria" and criticizing the media for calling the land "occupied territories." And last October, Knesset member Rabbi Benny Elon of Israel's far-right Moledet Party, which favors the forcible transfer of Palestinians to Arab lands, addressed 10,000 supporters of the Christian Coalition at a pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., declaring: "Let's turn to the Bible, which says very clearly...we have to resettle them, to relocate them, and to have a Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean." Elon was cheered by thousands of evangelical Christians waving tiny Israeli flags.
"If, as a reflection of their End Times theology, the message of the Christian Right to U.S. policymakers is 'don't be involved in getting the parties to the negotiating table,' then they certainly are going to be an impediment to the peace process, and that isn't helpful," says Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
Jewish leaders also worry that evangelicals are exploiting their support of Israel for the purpose of proselytizing. One New Jersey-based evangelical group called "Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry" organizes four annual trips to Israel for Christians and offers a course in "Jewish Evangelism" to its 250,000-member mailing list. The group also sells books, such as David M. Levy's What Every Jewish Person Should Ask, geared toward converting Jews. Of even greater concern is the drive by powerful Christian denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to target Jews for conversion.
While many Jewish leaders are offended by the Christian Right's belief that Jews will cease to exist in a climactic End Times scenario, they are constrained by pragmatism. "Yes, it is upsetting to find yourself in somebody else's theological script in which we're either going to die in a conflagration or be converted," says Rudin. But, he explains, Jewish leaders are prepared to set aside their misgivings--as did Theodor Herzl a century ago--because of Israel's isolation and growing vulnerability in the wake of the latest Intifada and the events of 9/11. "At this point in history, when those same evangelicals come out in support of Israel, many Jews are happy to conclude, 'we'll take our chances on the Apocalypse.'" Rabbi Saperstein puts it more bluntly. "They're entitled to their eschatological (End Times) vision, just as we feel certain that their eschatological vision is wrong."
Despite theological differences with the religious right, Saperstein points out that the Jewish community has had some success working with Christian conservatives on a number of issues, such as combating sex trafficking and prison rape, and promoting third-world debt relief. "It is hard to say that leaders of the Christian Right, who represent millions of people, should not be made part of a coalitional effort on behalf of Israel or any other issue that the Jewish community supports, just because we disagree with them on other matters," he says. "There has been a lot more cooperation than people might think." But, he cautions, "if the end result of working with the religious right is to legitimize and strengthen a political movement that is anathema to the vast majority of the Jewish community, then this is problematic. Many of those Christian conservatives who have been most outspoken in support of Israel, like [former Christian Coalition executive director] Ralph Reed, clearly have a political agenda: to move the country further to the right." And Jewish organizations, he says, need to proceed very carefully when extending recognition of support to religious right leaders. Awards and celebratory dinners honoring spokesmen such as Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are unwise. In fact, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations protested the Israeli government's presentation of the Jabotinsky Award to Falwell in 1981. On each issue, Saperstein says, Jews must assess the practical value of evangelical support. "Groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition have been best on symbolic issues, like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and, increasingly, on supporting the Israeli economy with tourism. But foreign aid--the central way Congress demonstrates its support for Israel--is still not really on their agenda."
On issues of domestic and social policy as well, the positions taken by the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, and other leading Christian right-wing groups stand in sharp contrast to those held by the vast majority of Jewish organizations, from gun control and reproductive rights to church-state separation and gay rights. "It is almost across the board on the domestic agenda that we have differences with the religious right," explains Jeffrey Sinensky, the American Jewish Committee's director of Domestic Policy and Legal Affairs. "The important thing is that there are never any quid pro quos. If they want to support Israel, fine, but none of the issues on our domestic agenda are being put on the table."
Even a limited alliance with the Christian Right is taboo for some Jews. An anonymous group calling itself Jewish Women Watching recently launched a campaign called "Strange Bedfellows," making their point by claiming to have mailed condoms to "about 4,000 members of the Jewish Establishment," including Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman, and asking the Jewish community to practice "abstinence from [the] strange bedfellows of the Christian Right Wing." Foxman responded via the Reuters news service: "The Jewish community has not been bought, has not given in, has not stepped back. We have challenged the Pat Robertsons and the Jerry Falwells...and we will continue to do so."
Back in 1994, when the ADL published The Religious Right: An Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, no one would have accused the organization of being in bed with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The ADL's accusation that Robertson and other religious leaders were "trafficking with bigots and conspiracists" sparked a full-scale public relations war. Defending the Christian Right, on August 2, 1994, seventy-five Jewish neo-conservatives signed a full-page ad in The New York Times accusing the ADL of "engaging in defamation of its own." Seeking to calm the storm, Foxman, Saperstein, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews met with Falwell, then Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, and other high-ranking religious right figures. Extensive shuttle diplomacy followed until April 3, 1995, when Reed delivered a conciliatory speech before delegates at the ADL's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. "The Christian Coalition," he asserted, "believes in a nation...where the separation of Church and State is inviolable. In the past, some religious conservatives have been insensitive and have lacked understanding of the horrors that you as a people have experienced. We will do all in our power to ensure that Jews are never again the target of hatred and discrimination." Foxman praised Reed's remarks as "courageous" and declared a "new beginning."
But it was not to be. Continued negative publicity surrounding The New World Order and subsequent pronouncements by Pat Robertson attacking both Islam and the ADL reopened the wounds. Immediately following 9/11, Robertson and Falwell declared on The 700 Club that God had allowed the attacks to occur as punishment because the nation had embraced secular humanism, abortion, feminism, gay rights and other "sins." And in 2002, after Foxman sent a letter to Robertson protesting the Christian Broadcasting Network's display of an antisemitic Easter cartoon "saturated with sinister caricatures of Jews," the televangelist exploded, denouncing Foxman as the Democratic Party's "principal secret agent" whose "focus is not the defense of worldwide Jewry, but the domestic political agenda of the Democratic Party." The Christian Coalition founder also drew widespread criticism when he told Fox Television News last September that the prophet Mohammed was a "killer...an absolute wild-eyed fanatic...a robber and a brigand," and that Islam was "a monumental scam." Such statements have jeopardized Robertson's standing as an ally in the eyes of the ADL.
Nevertheless, Foxman's connection to Republican strategist Ralph Reed remains strong. Reed is highly influential in religious right circles and now exerts considerable clout as a paid consultant to Republican candidates as the GOP gears up for the 2004 presidential elections. The ADL recently purchased advertising in The New York Times to trumpet Reed's pro-Israel message and persuade Jews to overcome their fear of evangelicals.
While most mainstream Jewish leaders are ambivalent about whether Christian evangelicals are "good or bad for the Jews," Orthodox Rabbi Eckstein is not. The founder of the 20-year-old International Fellowship of Christians and Jews calls for closer ties with the Christian Right. In 1994, he appeared on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson and then launched an infomercial titled "On Wings of Eagles" to solicit evangelical support. It worked. According to Eckstein, his budget and staff grew from half-a-million dollars a year and three people (with most support advanced by fewer than 1,000 Jewish donors) to a staff of more than sixty with 300,000 donors, "roughly 99 percent of whom are Christian." In 2002, the Fellowship pulled in some $35 million a year; of that amount, $20 million was disbursed for three programs: funding aliyah from Russia, Argentina, and other countries (including the U.S.); supporting impoverished Jews in the former Soviet Union; and bolstering community projects in Israel, including soup kitchens and programs for at-risk youth.
Eckstein's solicitations describe his efforts as "a modern-day fulfillment of Biblical prophecy," but critics worry that the group is appealing to the anti-Jewish theology of the Christian Right. "Eckstein is selling the dignity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel by pandering to Christians for money," says Abe Foxman; Eckstein responds that Foxman is just "envious of our work." His Fellowship's fundraising appeals are, he says, based on a reading of Genesis and other Hebrew scriptures, not the eschatology found in the Book of Revelation. Eckstein does acknowledge, however, that the Fellowship is not discouraging End Times interpretations in its televised solicitations, which are replete with references to Bible prophecy designed to reach as wide an evangelical audience as possible.
Whereas Eckstein asserts that his organization does not take positions on domestic social issues, the opposite is true of Toward Tradition, a neo-conservative group led by Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin based in Washington State. In a Toward Tradition news release dated June 20, 2002, Lapin called on Jews to defend the Christian Right and cease "to support Jewish organizations that make a habit of attacking Christians, policing Christian prayer, belief, and political activity for hints of 'intolerance.'" Lapin also encouraged Jews to reject their "habit of swearing loyalty to every item on the Democratic Party platform." Behind such statements is a longstanding and more calculated neo-conservative goal: to shift as much as possible of the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish vote to the Republican column. Through a well-funded public relations campaign bolstered by support from powerful Washington insiders like former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams and prominent neo-conservatives such as Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, and others, Lapin tries to convince Jews that the Christian Right is not antisemitic. In 1994, for example, Toward Tradition funded a series of full-page advertisements in The New York Times. One, signed by Abrams, Decter, and more than seventy others, defended the Christian Right from criticism by Jewish groups and sought to persuade Jews to overcome their suspicions about Christian conservatives associated with the GOP. Another, designed to attract Jewish support for the Republican Party--also signed by Abrams--wished mazel tov to House speaker and Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich to celebrate the GOP's 1994 electoral sweep of the House of Representatives and to signal Jewish support for Gingrich's "Contract with America."
In order for neo-conservatives and their non-Jewish Republican allies to succeed in splitting the historic alliance between Jews and the Democratic Party, they will have to reverse a twenty-year trend. Ever since Ronald Reagan won 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, Jewish support for Republican presidential candidates has been falling steadily, with President George W. Bush winning only 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000. Nevertheless, according to a number of recent polls, the president currently enjoys uncharacteristic popularity in the Jewish community, and it remains possible that by 2004 more Jews may vote for the GOP. Even if neo-conservative dreams of a basic realignment of the Jewish vote are not realized in the next presidential election, a small change in the Jewish vote could tip the electoral balance in the GOP's favor in such key states as Florida and New York (where Jews comprised 14 percent of all voters in 2000)--hence the continued efforts by Jewish neo-conservatives to deflect criticism of the Christian Right.
For the past twenty-five years, Israel's Likud leadership has also cultivated a special relationship with the religious right. Last September former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert joined with Pat Robertson and evangelist Mike Evans to launch a "Prayer for Jerusalem" campaign designed to recruit one million Christians to "pray daily for the peace of Jerusalem." A month later, Olmert stood next to Rep. Tom Delay at the Christian Coalition-sponsored "Christian Solidarity with Israel" rally in Washington, D.C. With congressional elections drawing near, Delay told the crowd of thousands: "This is the week you put people in office who stand for everything we believe in and stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ." Olmert responded: "God is with us; you are with us."
Israeli officials have raised no objections to such "Christian-only" statements. Embattled Israelis and most Jewish leaders are thankful for whatever political and financial support Israel receives from any and all sources. The precipitous decline in tourism has impelled the Israeli government to launch a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign to encourage the evangelical community to visit the Holy Land. Nevertheless, some Israeli commentators have spoken out against their government's encouragement of evangelical support, warning of serious negative consequences. "God save us from these people," Israeli political analyst and Mossad veteran Yossi Alpher told 60 Minutes. "By encouraging Israel and the U.S. Administration to ignore the Palestinians, or kick them out and expand the settlements, these people are leading us into a scenario of out-and-out disaster."
More than a century after William Hechler paid his first visit to Theodor Herzl in Vienna, Christian Zionists are still zealous supporters of Israel. The stakes of this evangelical-Jewish alliance are high, as Christians who want to hasten the Apocalypse have mobilized to support policies that are likely to exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the point of possibly bringing Jews and Arabs closer to a smaller-scale version of Armageddon. And while the American Jewish establishment has not wavered in opposing the religious right on domestic issues, its embrace of Christian Zionists, however reluctant, may strengthen the hand of conservatives in the next election and beyond. But regardless of whether or not more Jews can be persuaded to vote for the GOP, one thing is certain: Christian conservatives certainly will be better prepared to deflect charges of antisemitism with Israeli leaders like Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Olmert standing at their side.
Daniel Levitas is the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002). For nearly twenty years, he has researched and written about hate group activity and testified as an expert witness in American and Canadian courts.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations