As ‘capital of the Bible Belt,’ Atlanta plays role in growing relationship
The small room full of guests at the Israeli consulate general on Spring Street listened attentively as two members of Rosh Ha’ayin Yemenite Mandolin Orchestra played a selection of songs.
Soon, the guest of honor — a top official from the Israeli government — arrived to a warm welcome. Not from members of Atlanta’s Jewish community, but from about half a dozen Christian ministers and the prominent leader of a conservative organization.
Formed in the 1970s, the conservative Likud holds 40 seats in the Knesset. Likud’s platform includes a peace treaty based on “peace for peace,” maintaining the status quo in religion/state issues and reforms in public health, education and welfare. It is headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
• Labor-Meimad coalition
The Labor Party, the dominant left-of-center political party, and Meimad hold 19 seats in the Knesset. Labor is committed to a comprehensive peace with security in the Middle East. It is temporarily headed by Shimon Peres. Meimad was established in 1988 as a spinoff of the National Religious Party. It joined with Labor and the Gesher party in 1999 to create the One Israel party. Meimad is headed by Michael Melchior.
Shinui was formed in 1974. It is in favor of territorial compromise for peace. Shinui holds 15 seats in the Knesset and is headed by Joseph “Tommy” Lapid.
Founded in the early 1970s as an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic alternative to the Agudat Israel party, Shas believes all governmental policies should be based on strict Jewish law. The party, which has 11 seats in the Knesset, supports autonomy for Palestinians but opposes a Palestinian state. It is headed by Eli Yishai, but spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yossef plays a key role.
(National Religious Party)
Established in 1956, the party stands for strict adherence to religion and traditions. It opposes creation of a Palestinian state and argues for retention of the occupied territories. Headed by Effi Eitam, Mafdal has six seats in the Knesset.
• Ha-ichud Ha-leumi
Ha-ichud Ha-leumi was formed in 1999 and later merged with Israel Beitenu and Moledet. The party, which holds seven seats, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, backs Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and supports the transfer of Palestinians in the territories to other Arab states. It is headed by Avigdor Lieberman.
The party was formed in 1992. It backs Palestinian self-determination, separation of religion from the state, and a halt to settlement in the occupied territories. Meretz holds six seats in the Knesset and is headed by Yossi Sarid.
• Yahadut Hatorah
The party is a coalition of two ultra-Orthodox parties, Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah. It opposes Israeli territorial concessions and the formation of a Palestinian state. The party has five seats in the Knesset and is headed by Meir Porush.
• Am Ehad
The party represents the interests of workers and is affiliated with the Histadrut trade union federation. It has three seats in the Knesset and is headed by Amir Perez.
Formed in 1999, Balad supports cultural autonomy for Arabs, creation of a Palestinian state and the return of Arab refugees. It is headed by Azmi Bishara and has three seats in the Knesset.
The party represents Israeli Arabs. It was one of the first parties to approve contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, call for complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and support the establishment of a Palestinian state. The party has three seats in the Knesset and is led by Mohammad Barakeh.
• United Arab List
Formed in 1996, the party has two seats in the Knesset. It wants all Jewish settlements dismantled and backs a Palestinian state. It is led by Abdulmalek Dehamshe.
Compiled by ALICE WERTHEIM / Staff
The purpose of Israeli Minister of Tourism Binyamin “Benny” Elon’s trip to the Bible Belt last month was twofold: to urge American Jews and Christians to visit Israel, which is trying to recover from a drastic plunge in tourism since the current Palestinian intifada began three years ago, and to thank the Christian right for its support of his homeland.
He said Atlanta was a particularly important stop because it is home to one of the most powerful Jewish communities in the United States and the city itself is the “capital of the Bible Belt.”
Elon said that most of the slight uptick in his country’s tourism industry has come in large part from evangelical Christians and Jews living abroad visiting Israel.
“The Bible is the key,” said Elon, head of the Moledet Party, which is part of the National Union. He is an outspoken critic of the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “.�.�. People in America have to understand that Israel is very, very important to them. It’s not just an abstract concept.”
The links between elements of the Israeli political establishment and some evangelical Christian groups in America are long established. The ties encompass religion — the eschatological elements of the Bible that many evangelicals embrace — as well as politics — the shared belief by certain Jewish and Christian groups in an Israel that includes the Arab territories seized by the Jewish state in the 1967 Mideast war.
But the relationship has gained in importance and priority in recent years as the Christian right’s clout has grown in Washington.
John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said this influence is particularly relevant given the current occupant of the White House.
“George W. Bush understands the evangelical position very well,” said Green, who did take care to point out that not all evangelicals are members of the Christian right or adhere to literal interpretations of biblical prophecy. “He courted them in the election. Saying evangelicals control American foreign policy is an overstatement, but there’s no question they have a great deal of influence on the administration’s policy in the Middle East.”
That has projected Atlanta to prominence in Mideast politics, with the Israeli consulate general here playing a significant role in maintaining the ties between Israelis and the Christian right.
“We try very hard to reach out to the Christian community,” said spokesman Craig Levin. “Next to the Jewish community, the second best friend to Israel is the evangelical community.”
He said the consulate brings in diplomats and professionals with expertise on Israel or the relationship between Israel and the United States to give talks at universities, synagogues, churches and to other audiences.
Green said perhaps as many as 15 million voters — overwhelmingly Republican — adhere to strict interpretations of biblical prophecy regarding Israel. He described them as a small minority, but one with very strong views.
And a big voice.
Pressure and prayers
Elon, the Israeli official, applauded a billboard and bumper sticker campaign by two Tennessee-based groups, the Religious Roundtable and the Apostolic Congress, that urges President Bush to “honor God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and support the Israeli state. Billboards also urge Americans to call the White House and register their opposition to the “road map” that calls for an Israeli state and a Palestinian state in the Holy Land.
And on Oct. 26, organizers of the Stand for Israel project of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews will hold an annual Day of Prayer and Solidarity for Israel.
Stand for Israel, co-chaired by Ralph Reed, the former Georgia Republican Party chairman and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is asking churches across America to devote part of their Sunday sermons to preaching about Israel and offer up prayers for the Jewish state.
Nancy Schaefer, president of Turnerville-based Family Concerns Inc., who was among those who met with Elon here, has a radio show on which she often speaks out in support of Israel.
She said the U.S. government is not doing enough to stand up for Israel. “I feel like we’ve crossed the line,” she said, referring to the proposal to create a Palestinian state by 2005 in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “Israel is not to be divided. I don’t believe Jehovah-God would want Israel to be divided. We are putting not only Israel at risk, but ourselves.”
As for Palestinians in the occupied territories, she said they should go to neighboring Jordan and join others who “are of their own kind.”
Efforts such as these by the Christian right, Elon said, make him “feel a little bit dovish next to them.”
Still the relationship between Israeli politicians and Christian evangelicals is a complex one, filled with theological minefields.
Some Christians believe, for instance, that in the last days, two-thirds of Jews living in Israel will perish while the rest will convert to Christianity.
Sherry Frank, executive director of the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said she disagrees “vehemently with some of the views of evangelicals” but appreciates their support of Israel.
Concerns about relationship
Similarly, Rabbi Stanley M. Davids of Temple Emanu-El in Dunwoody said that while he finds it a bit disconcerting to form alliances with groups who believe that his people will ultimately not fare that well, “Israel needs good, reliable support, and evangelicals have been good and they have been reliable.”
Such backing, he said, comes at a period of rising anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments, particularly in Europe.
But some other American Jews said they are uncomfortable with the close alliance between Israeli politicians and evangelicals.
“Their support fits in with apocalyptic prophecy,” said Adam Levenstein, a Doraville computer programmer and a member of the Atlanta Palestine Solidarity group. “How can anybody not be disturbed by this, especially considering the political clout the Christian right has in this country? It really is a marriage of opportunity.”
Some area Arabs are similarly disconcerted. Samir Moukaddam, an Arab-American activist, said the two sides’ shared position on Israel ignores international laws and justice and human rights for Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
But Akeel Hanano, president of the Georgia chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, has a different perspective. Hanano, who was born in Syria, said he isn’t bothered by “Israeli extremists being in alliance with the right-wing Christians if my rights in the process are not being violated.”
Hanano said that Christian groups that have influence in Israel should urge the government there “to do the right thing. We have to recognize that Israel is one of the major violators of United Nations resolutions. Do what Christianity teaches. Do what Jesus Christ preached — peace that is inclusive, not exclusive.”