"FIree soup's on us!" That was the invitation David Suissa's Los Angeles-based charity Meals 4 Israel extended to all 5,000 participants of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Charlotte, N.C. last month -- and it was pastors and ministers who made their way to the booth to sample some soup and learn more about the charity.
Suissa started Meals 4 Israel after reading an October 2003 Ha'aretz article that said that one in five Israelis live below the poverty line. He decided he could let the soup kitchens concentrate on making soup while he raised money for them.
And he turned to the Christian community to do it.
"We really want help from anyone," Suissa said. "But we felt that the Christian community was a huge group with a visceral connection to Israel and a special, biblical affinity to problems like hunger."
So Suissa teamed up with the Christian Coalition of America, a lobbying group affiliated with thousands of evangelical churches, to harness the fundraising potential of the Christian community. Meals 4 Israel went down to North Carolina to set up a booth at Feb. 13-18 event to capitalize on Christian love for Israel and raise more money for needy Israelis in the process.
Meals 4 Israel was only one of several Jewish or Israeli related booths at the convention, which brought together more than 250 publishers, radio and television stations, programs and ministries from across North America. But the largest booth was not a Christian one: it was Israel's Ministry of Tourism.
The preponderance of Jewish- or Israel-related booths appearing among those featuring crosses and the Jesus paraphernalia made it clear that there is a dichotomy in the alliance Israel has with the American Christian community. While Christians attending the conference are ready to invest millions of tourist dollars in Israel and support Israel-related charities, they are also eager to evangelize Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
The Israel Ministry for Tourism sponsored both the Israel booth and a breakfast for about 1,000 convention participants, at a cost of almost $200,000.
"We view the evangelical Christian market as a powerful mechanism to increase tourism in the land of Israel," Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon said. "Evangelicals are visiting Israel in tremendous numbers, and we want to continue to increase tourism to the land of the Bible."
Other booths capitalized on Christian love for Israel. Holy Land Gifts sold Christian-friendly products made in Israel, such as shofars and tallises used in some evangelical services, while Mount of Olives Treasures, a Jewish-owned company, sold biblical teas and biblical oils that contain fragrances mentioned in the scriptures.
For all the goodwill toward Israel, there was an evangelical counterbalance. Jews for Jesus had a small booth but a big presence at the convention, with many people walking around carrying their distinctive red-and-white bags. Chosen People Ministries sought to attract young evangelists with a snappy brochure titled, "Jewish Evangelism -- Who, Me?," featuring cute coeds. The brochure promised "exciting outreach" opportunities: "Our short-term Missions Department can show your church group the needs of the Jewish community through outreach, cultural understanding and prayer. Our experienced missionary staff will train and lead you in outreach to the different Jewish communities of New York."
Bible Voice Broadcasting, lead by a "spirit- filled believer," Rabbi Moshe Laurie, announced its inaugural Hebrew broadcast to Israel. The Messianic Prophecy Bible sought sponsors to create a Jew-friendly Bible that would "emphasize the messianic prophecies and explain how Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled those prophecies" and would help save the "14 million unsaved Jewish people worldwide."
Herschel W. Gulley of the Gulley Foundation, who has traveled to Israel dozens of times, told The Journal, "I get a little flutter in my heart every time I hear about Israel."
Gulley has plans for Israel: By the end of the year, he wants to set up free ultrasound clinics in Israel to stop abortions -- "No woman who has ever seen her baby has aborted it," he said -- and then go into poor communities and give residents presents, like free computers. "Then, they will say, 'Tell us about this God of yours,' and then we will tell them about Jesus," he said.
Also disturbing was the response that "The Passion of the Christ" got when it was screened at the NRB Media Awards. In what was possibly a veiled reference to the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a spokesperson from the Alliance Defense Fund, who spoke prior to the film, railed against "the groups who have done everything in their power to keep this film from ever being seen. [These ] groups would like to silence all of us."
Paul Lancer, the film's public relations director, introduced the film saying, "This movie has been operating on a God level. [This film] is a work of God."
The sobbing and heaving of the 5,000 people attending the screening augmented its soundtrack. Afterward, various clerics and others told The Journal that the portrayal of the Jews was not negative per se, but "historically accurate."
"In the scourging scene, every time the whip dug into his skin, I was thinking, 'That was for me; that was for me,'" said Sharon Hodde of the Proverbs 31 Ministry in Matthews, N.C. "The Jews are not portrayed positively in the film, but that was historical."
Nevertheless, evangelism and "Passion" fervor are not the main issues facing the Jewish community.
"The real unholy alliance," said Elon, the Israeli tourism minister "is the one between the radical leftists who sit in Hyde Park and the Jew-haters who look to destroy the state, instead of the alliance between people who love the land of Israel and love the land of the Bible."