What is it about Evangelical Christians and their support for Israel that really gets to me? I understand what makes some Jews — especially liberal Jews — nervous about this group: their conservative values (on issues such as abortion and separation of church and state); an uncompromising stance on the Middle East peace process; the theological slant to their support for Israel; and a propensity among some of them to proselytize to Jews.
Still, I couldn’t help but be moved last Saturday night as I listened to Pat Boone talk about his deep and emotional connection to Israel. Boone was speaking at the home of Howard and Elayne Levkowitz with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and guest scholar-in-residence at Young Israel of Century City.
At his talk earlier that morning in synagogue, Eckstein was passionate but walking on eggshells. This is a highly “unorthodox” Orthodox rabbi who for the past 35 years has spent most of his time with Evangelical Christians, drumming up support for Israel and raising tens of millions of dollars for the Zionist cause. He might be a graduate of Yeshiva University who can easily quote Soloveitchik, but he’s equally at ease quoting Paul and the Gospels. (He was so sensitive to his surroundings that he said “J” instead of Jesus.)
Eckstein’s message was twofold: One, Israel supporters must value the support of millions of Evangelical “ambassadors” for Israel throughout the world; and two, Jews need to strengthen their faith in God. We must remember, Eckstein said, that our first covenant with God was through Abraham, and it was based on faith. To strengthen our identity as Jews, we must incorporate this covenant with the subsequent covenant at Sinai, thereby enriching and deepening our Torah observance and connection with Israel.
Faith certainly permeated the discussion Saturday night between Boone and Eckstein. In front of a packed house, Eckstein talked about his epiphany almost 40 years ago, when he roomed with an 86-year-old black Baptist pastor on an organized trip to Israel. As a newly ordained 26-year-old rabbi from New York, Eckstein couldn’t understand the pastor’s passion for the Holy Land. That is, until the pastor told him: “Moses got to see the Promised Land; I get to walk on it.”
Boone talked about one of his first encounters with rabbis, one of whom was highly skeptical and said to him: “If you really love us, then just leave us alone,” to which Boone replied: “But I can’t — you’re God’s people.”
This is how the evening went: love for Israel on top of love for Israel and love for Jews on top of love for Jews. There was something almost non-Jewish about it. Jews don’t talk a lot about love. It’s not something that turns us on. We’re more into debate, argument, challenge and outrage.
Christians love to love. We love to kvetch.
It’s this unconditional love for Israel that unsettles me. Why do we find so little expression of it among Jews? Is it because we confuse love with support for policy? That is, if we disagree with Israel’s policies, do we find it difficult — even impossible — to express unconditional love for Israel? And how many Israel supporters who disagree with Israel’s policies can honestly say that their love for Israel is, in fact, unconditional?
Can you imagine, for example, a group that calls itself pro-Israel, like J Street, ever doing a “Love for Israel” event where they just celebrate Israel? Can you even imagine them leading their followers in “Hatikvah” at the beginning of their next convention?
A lot of this made more sense to me when I reflected on a conversation I had last week with my friend Gary Judis and some of his Zionist friends. The subject was the worldwide movement to delegitimize the State of Israel, and the consensus among this group of businessmen was the following: Enemies of Israel are not looking for a debate. Their aim is not to engage but to undermine. Their opposition is not open to reason.
In short, their hatred is unconditional.
So, as I left the discussion last Saturday night, I started to put two and two together. Why am I so moved by the Evangelicals’ unconditional love toward Israel? Well, maybe simply because it is unconditional.
How better to fight unconditional hatred than with unconditional love? What better weapon against the forces working to delegitimize Israel than a force that unequivocally loves Israel? Of course, we should never stop doing what we do best: argue, debate, challenge and rebuke.
But we can’t love the process more than we love Israel itself. For Israel supporters, unconditional love is the emotion that ought to trump all others; the emotion that fuels and gives meaning to our actions. I can challenge my child and rebuke him, but I can never forget to show him unconditional love.
Our debates over Israel have become coarse and divisive. One reason is that in our zeal to express tough love, we have forgotten about pure love.
We don’t have to agree with the theology or politics of an Evangelical like Pat Boone, but by expressing his unconditional love for Israel last Saturday night, he gave a group of Jews his version of tough love.