September 25, 2003
Solidarity Makes for Strange Bedfellows
"Anybody who supports Israel will be my friend, even though they may be Christian fundamentalists." -- Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air
As Israel enters the third year of the Al-Aksa Intifada, L.A. Jews are reaching out to pro-Israel Christians to express solidarity for Israel.
On Oct. 2, an estimated 1,500 Jews and Christians are expected to attend an evening "solidarity gathering" of The Israel-Christian Nexus, a Jewish community-supported outreach to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
"I never thought there would be a time when I'd see Christians and Jews hugging each other," said the Rev. George Otis of the Assembly of God in Simi Valley and a longtime Christian broadcaster in the Middle East. "That's what motivates me -- the opportunity to help people in real trouble."
Otis' Kingworld Ministries is one of 21 Christian ministry sponsors of the Oct. 2 event, which will feature speeches plus music from a combined Jewish/Christian choir.
Long known as a bulwark of Israel's religious tourism industry, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have, in the past three years, become stalwart political allies supporting the besieged nation.
Though politics makes strange bedfellows, and there are those in the Jewish community opposed to the alliance with the Christian right, calling it shortsighted and exploitive, given that these groups ultimately believe that Jews will have to convert in the End of Days.
The last alliance between Jews and Christians in the 1960s was forged from common social goals, when Jews, Catholics and Protestants marched arm in arm during the civil rights movement. But today's coalition starkly differs, because the very evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that pro-Israel Jews are reaching out to often have very different social values; this is particularly true with Reform Jews who are political opponents of the Christian right when it comes to social issues such as gay rights or affirmative action.
"Jewish coalitions in the United States are formed with other communities on specific issues," said Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple. "People that we work with on social issues are liberal Christians. The people that we work with on Israel issues are fundamentalist Christians. And in these times, when even American Jews don't visit Israel as tourists, the fundamentalist Christians do, so more power to them."
The Israel-Christian Nexus is being coordinated by two Jewish groups -- the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and retired Israel Gen. Shimon Erem's Promoting Israel Publicity and Education Fund -- which currently share a 2002 $50,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. That money is being used to reach out to Southern California's large but largely unnoticed evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities, according to Lewis Groner, the foundation's marketing and communications director.
The 28 Jewish sponsors of the gathering include all facets of local Jewish life including 10 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, The Jewish Federation, plus Persian, Russian, Democratic and Republican Jewish groups, the American Jewish Congress and UCLA's Bruins for Israel. At Thursday's event, the Rev. Jack Hayford will speak as will Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis such as Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe, plus Ambassador Yuval Rotem of the Israel Consul-General in Los Angeles.
Beyond this gathering, the $50,000 grant for the "nexus" work supports a pro-Israel speakers bureau and educational materials about Israel for churches, schools and media. About 20 local, private evangelical and fundamentalist schools will have workshops on Zionist history and the Middle East conflict. The foundation this year also is funding the Holy Land Democracy project, brining awareness of Israel to Catholic high school students and speakers.
"We need to build coalitions where the opportunities present themselves," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
But to Steven Jacobs of Reform Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the danger of any gathering to create unabashed support for Israel stems partly from how Jews view their new Christian allies.
"There's a patronizing attitude toward us as God's children that they [Christians] stand up for us," he said.
To some conservative, pro-Israel Christians, Jacobs said, "Nothing that Israel does is wrong -- they're entitled to do anything they want. There's a difference between an anti-Semite and a philo-Semite. A philo-Semite is one who loves Jews categorically, and that's dangerous to me."
Erem, who also has met with Lutheran congregations in Minnesota and Michigan, spoke at pro-Israel evening rallies in Sacramento on Sept. 18-19, supported by Christians and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"We reached the conclusion that it has to be done on a broader base and it cannot rely on a once-in-a-blue-moon appearing in a church," said Erem, who lives in Beverly Hills. "I found out that once the meeting is on a one-to-one basis with pastors and priests, you break the ice and mobilize friendships."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "promised that when he comes again to Los Angeles, he'll find the time to meet again with Christian pastors," Erem said.
Outreach also is occurring with some Mormons and Eastern Orthodox churches, but Erem said that because the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal continues to "occupy their attention, for the time I don't think it would be beneficial to get in touch with them."
But are Jewish members of this alliance being shortsighted, as critics both here and in Israel have claimed? How do they justify the fact that evangelical and fundamentalist support for Israel is based on Christians' deep hope that a Book of Revelations-predicted, end-of-times future will bring forth a Christianized Israel, with some Jews there, but mostly Christians witnessing the return of Jesus?
"I couldn't care less what are the ulterior motives of the evangelical community," Erem said. "For the time being, they are a meaningful supporter for the State of Israel."
Many Christians downplay their eschatological plans. Otis, of Kingsworld Ministries, said Christian end-of-time views or even some Christian desires to convert non-Christians, including Jews, are not central to current support for Israel.
"It doesn't have that as its bullseye -- the conversion of Jews but rather the helping of Jews, and Israel, in this hour."
Fishel said he likes his new Christian allies because, "They've been very strong advocates on behalf of the State of Israel. They have a very strong sentiment for our Jewish State.... One does not necessarily have to agree with all of their ideological beliefs to work together."
And despite Jacobs' wariness of Christians who gush over Israel, he has a natural, less politically driven relationship with Church on the Way in Van Nuys -- an Israel-Christian Nexus event sponsor.
"We hold High Holiday services at Church on the Way," said Jacobs, who noted he has been traveling recently and was not alerted to the Oct. 2 event. "Had I been asked, I probably would have joined because of my respect for the people at the Church on the Way."
Erem said this will not be the first odd couple sitting together for Israel. He noted that in 1947, "I went to Czechoslovakia for arms. They had probably their own motives, why to provide the arms, but I couldn't care less because it saved us, it absolutely saved us. We did not look what are the motives of those who supported us. We should not look at what are the motives of those who support us now."