The much-publicized controversy over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" might give the impression that Jews and evangelical Christians have little in common, theologically or otherwise. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While some evangelical and Jewish leaders sparred publicly for months over the film's depiction of Jesus' last hours, especially its potential to incite anti-Semitism, thousands of evangelicals were donating millions of dollars to support the state of Israel and its people. And Jews, most notably the Israeli government, welcomed their contributions.
"We get 2,000 to 2,500 pieces of mail a day, most of them with checks," said Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, founded 21 years ago to foster better relations between the two religions. Since then, Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, has broadened the organization's mission and in the last decade has collected more than $100 million in financial support for Israel. Last year, the fellowship contributed $20 million from a donor base of 365,000 individuals and groups, most -- if not all -- of them evangelical Christians, Eckstein said. About half of the money was used to help Jews relocate to Israel from different parts of the world; the remainder provided food, medical care and other assistance to poor and elderly Jews in Israel, the former Soviet Union and other countries.
On March 22, the fellowship announced a campaign to raise $7.2 million to provide security for the 1,000 highest-risk public bus routes in Israel, including bomb-detection devices and equipment for screening passengers and baggage, and sent a $2 million check to begin the process.
The fellowship, the largest and one of the oldest evangelical organizations providing support for Israel, has been joined in recent years by at least a half-dozen others with such names as Bridges for Peace, Christians for Israel, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and Chosen People Ministries. Although no one tracks all evangelical contributions to Israel, Eckstein believes the figure could exceed $25 million annually.
Evangelical support for Israel dates to the 19th century, when Christian Zionists called for the return of Jewish exiles to Palestine to fulfill biblical prophecies. If the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 seemed the answer to the Christian Zionists' prayers -- not to mention those of the Jewish people -- the extraordinary victory of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War seemed to them a sure sign of divine will.
Evangelical leaders such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell began lobbying for greater political support of Israel from the U.S. government and urging financial support from the rapidly growing evangelical movement. And the relationship between evangelical leaders and the Israeli government began to flower, slowly at first because many Israeli leaders hesitated to accept money from people who might want to convert them.
The 1977 election of Likud Party leader Menachem Begin as prime minister marked a new era in evangelical-Israeli relations. Begin was so pleased with Falwell's pro-Israel activities that in 1979 he gave the evangelical leader a Lear jet.
Today, the connection is even stronger. Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has met with evangelical leaders on numerous occasions, most recently in Jerusalem in February to ask their help in countering a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and other parts of the world.
In January, the Israeli parliament created a Christian Allies Caucus to coordinate activities with its Christian friends. About the same time, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Israeli minister to the Diaspora and for Jerusalem affairs, met with evangelical leaders at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., to thank them for their "steadfast support for the state of Israel."
Those in attendance included John Hagee, pastor of the 17,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio; Adrian Rogers, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Edward McAteer, friend of President Bush and chairman of the Religious Roundtable, a coalition of religious, military and civic leaders committed to infusing Christian principles in public policy.
On Feb. 15, Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon honored Pat Robertson at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Charlotte, N.C. He praised Robertson's leadership of a movement that has "saved Israel's tourism from bankruptcy" by promoting pilgrimages to the Holy Land despite U.S. government travel warnings after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and renewed hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians.
Elon, who estimated that 400,000 evangelicals traveled to Israel last year and contributed millions of dollars to its economy, addressed a conference Sunday at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colo., a Denver suburb. Each year, the church contributes $100,000 to welfare projects in Israel, with most of the money going to a center for children with disabilities in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Faith Bible Chapel's association with Ariel is one of numerous partnerships promoted by Christian Friends for Israeli Communities, founded in 1995 after Israel transferred territories to the Palestinian Authority as a result of the Oslo Accords.
Sondra Oster Baras, an Orthodox Jew from Cleveland who heads the group's Israeli office, said the organization funds programs in one-third of the 150 or so Jewish settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank.
About 2,000 donors make contributions "in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars" annually for medical equipment, school computers, playgrounds and subsistence for unemployed families, Baras said. Christian Friends also assists thousands of Christian tourists, helping them plan trips to biblical sites on bullet-proof buses.
"These are deeply religious people who read the Bible, take it literally and enjoy seeing the Bible coming alive," Baras said by phone from the northern West Bank (Samarian) settlement of Karnei Shomron. "They are very connected to prophecy and understand events happening today in fulfillment of prophecy."
Baras said none of the Christian support organizations she knows in Israel allows donors or workers to evangelize -- despite that those who come are the most ardent believers in end-time prophecies predicating the second coming of Jesus on the return of Jews to Israel. Because of their massive and increasing support for Israel, many evangelicals were confused by Jewish concerns that "The Passion" would provoke violent acts of anti-Semitism.
"The churches in the past have helped to foster an image of Jews as the sole enemies of Christ, which has contributed to anti-Semitism in the secular world," Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in a statement last month at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum in Los Angeles. "We are proud that in the last 50 years, churches have done much to change these attitudes, and to loudly proclaim a message of love and tolerance."
Jews appreciate such religious sensitivity, but they also are well aware that Christian proclamations of love include a hope that Jews eventually will accept Jesus as the Messiah, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
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