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March 13, 2003

Ties That Bind

Education and support of the Jewish State are just some of the goals of the Israel Christian Nexus.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/ties_that_bind_20030314

The Rev. Rick Fish has long hair, a shaggy beard and wears jeans and a flannel shirt. Preacher Rick, as he is called, is the friendly and gregarious leader of The Live Ride, a church in Simi Valley that administers to bikers. Fish also visited Jerusalem last February and fell in love with it.

"At The Jerusalem Post Web site they have a connection where you can look at the Western Wall with a Webcam, and you can watch the events and the bringing in of Shabbat," he said. "I keep that on my computer all the time."

Fish is one of 20 Church leaders and other Christian officials who have gathered -- along with a dozen Jewish leaders -- at the Church of Rocky Peak, a large Evangelical church in Chatsworth, for a kosher dinner and a meeting of the Israel Christian Nexus. The group, which was started in June 2002 by writer Avi Davis and Shimon Erem, a former general in the Israeli army, is one of many organizations (such as the Interfaith Coalition Of StandWithUs and The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews) that is looking to capitalize on the Evangelical Christian communities' overwhelming love for Israel and the Jewish people.

The Nexus, set up with a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, was established to provide the Christian community with pro-Israel educational resources and to help them mobilize Israel action committees. As there are far more Christians than Jews in America (according to some estimates, there are over 70 million Evangelical Christians in America, compared with 6 million Jews), their support for Israel could be crucial in influencing government policy, visiting, and raising funds for the beleaguered Jewish state.

"We have a common cause and a common enemy [radical Islam] and we have a lot of mutually beneficial activities that we can undertake," Davis said. "They are pretty well-funded and they are an enormous power base to current administration. A lot of George Bush's views about Israel were formed by his association with the church, which is why it is important for us to cultivate that group."

The Jewish cultivation of Christians (and vice versa) is a new development in the bloody history of Jews and Christians, which for centuries has been rife with anti-Semitism and the atrocities of the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms and blood libels. However, after World War II, the relationship took a turn, and Christianity softened its stance toward the Jewish people. But it was the evangelical Christians, such as the Baptists and the Pentecostals, who base their practice on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, who found in the Bible reason to love the Jews. They cite, for example, the verse in Genesis 12:3 in which God says to Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you."

They believe that the Bible proves Jewish ownership of the land of Israel, because God gave it to the Jews. The evangelicals also consider the Crusades to be the Catholics' problems, and they attribute their love for the Jewish people to something that they can't quite explain.

"It's supernatural," said George Otis, the founder of Kol Hatikvah, a Christian radio station that broadcasts in Israel and the Middle East. "It's something that God has spoken, and there is no explanation for it. After 2,000 years of us being leery of each other, to suddenly see this love -- and this is not a temporary thing. This is going to last until Moshiach comes."

"Something happens in your heart and you just feel compelled to bless [the Jews]," said the Rev. Todd Hacker, the executive pastor at Hope Chapel in the Valley.

This love has lead Hacker to teach a sermon series on the Middle East, and to invite speakers from the Nexus into his church. He also uses the collection plate to raise money for Israel and joins pro-Israel rallies, though he does not organize any, because he prefers his church to stay out of politics. He is also planning on joining the Nexus in its bid to find ways to solve the water shortage crisis in Israel.

In Fresno, Stuart Weil, a local American Israel Public Affairs Committee leader and member of the Israel Christian Nexus, organized a joint rally with six churches and two synagogues. He also has regular meetings with other church leaders to organize phone campaigns where parishioners call their congressman to ask them to support President Bush, since, according to Weil, Bush is the most pro-Israel president, ever.

At Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila invited the Rev. Ray Bentley from the Maranatha Chapel in San Diego to co-officiate a Friday night service at which Dennis Prager spoke. Bouskila is also planning a Jewish-Christian Yom HaAtzmaut service this year, as well as a possible joint trip to Israel with Bentley.

There are other benefits to the alliance. The Christian community has arranged media appearances on national television and popular radio stations for people like Erem, where they are given a platform to speak about the reasons why Israel should be supported.

Daniel Johnson, a member of the Christian community, is showing his love for Israel by donating his company's new desalination technology to Israel to assist with their water shortage problem.

"We have always had a heart for Israel because of our Judeo-Christian faith," Johnson said. "The Bible commands us to love and honor Israel and to support it in whatever way we can, and whatever we can do to help Israel, we do.

For many Christians, their pro-Israel stance is not grounded in altruism as much as an eschatological belief that sees Israel as part of the fulfillment of an end-of-days prophecy, where all Jews will return to Israel and accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. But many of the Christian groups who join forces with the Jews separate their belief in the prophecy from their current support of Israel.

"The prophecy is not a focus," said Polly Grimes, who is president of Tours Through The Book, a Christian Israel touring company that runs Exodus Limited, an organization that raises funds for underprivileged children in Israel.

"We just think of the needs [of Israelis] and what has been happening," she said. "We can't stand to see the suffering, and it is breaking our heart."

However, the eschatological and the proselytizing component of the evangelical Christian belief system can be problematic. In October 2002, Jewish groups in San Diego boycotted a Mission Valley Christian Fellowship dinner for thenJerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, because the money being raised from the dinner was going to the Nicodemus Project, a church program aimed at spreading the word of God in Israel.

Currently, groups like The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (which is affiliated with 20,000 churches and has more than 300,000 Christian donors) and the Israel Christian Nexus, will not work with churches who proselytize.

"In private conversations with Church leaders it has been made fairly clear to us that they are not interested in doing this or participating with us for the purpose of converting Jews," said Davis, senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles. "Proselytism is a concern, but it is not an issue. The issue is Israel's survival. Until the Messiah comes, we have to live in the present world and focus on our common cause and our common enemy."

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