Die-hard Republicans’ zeal for Israel boosts party’s appeal with unlikely voting block
When Ed McAteer, a retired toothpaste sales executive, gathers the faithful to pray for Israel on Tuesday, the main division between the Christians and Jews in attendance will be the menu — bacon and eggs vs. bagels and smoked salmon.
McAteer, 77, a founding father of the religious right and a Republican Party matchmaker, is pulling seemingly unlikely allies from as far away as Jerusalem and Washington to his hometown of Memphis to show their solidarity with the Jewish homeland.
To McAteer and other Christian Zionists, Israel’s importance stretches from the Old Testament days of Abraham to Jesus’ eventual return. God gave the nation of Israel its land — “every grain of sand” — McAteer says.
He attributes America’s prosperity to God’s promise in the book of Genesis to bless those who bless Israel.
McAteer’s love affair with the biblical land has won the hearts of Jewish leaders such as Knesset member Avraham Hirschson, who will speak at the breakfast along with former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost his job for refusing to obey a court’s order to remove a Ten Commandments memorial from the state’s Judicial Building.
Conservative Christians have become “the best friends Israel has around the world,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who raises “tens of millions of dollars” from conservative Christians through his International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The growing alliance may have implications for the November presidential election; the influence of McAteer and others could pull more Jewish voters into the Republican column.
The relationship between Jews and Christian Zionists is the strongest it’s ever been, Eckstein said. “The Jewish community feels today that Israel’s survival is at risk,” said Eckstein, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s liaison with the international Christian community. “Who’s standing up for us? It’s these folks.”
It hasn’t always been so. For years Jews were suspicious of evangelical Christians because of their commitment to proselytize. Through the efforts of people such as McAteer and Eckstein, bonds formed despite continued efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.
As conservative Christians — among the steadiest Republican voters — have expressed support for Israel, the GOP has become hard-line in its support for Israel, embracing conservative Israeli leader Sharon and his Likud Party, said Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
“One can make a strong case that the shift is a direct response to the power of the religious right in the Republican Party,” Zunes said.
McAteer, a former Colgate-Palmolive sales executive, helped tie the knot between Christian conservatives and the GOP. In 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan told a crowd of 20,000 at a McAteer-sponsored event, “I know you can’t endorse me. But I am here to endorse you.”
McAteer’s ties to Israel go back further. He first realized the significance of Israel as the promised land designated by God and the birthplace of Jesus “way back yonder in the 1950s” after his wife-to-be interested him in the Bible.
Since then he has made numerous trips to the Holy Land and met with three Israeli prime ministers, all known as hard-liners: Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharon. He campaigned for appointment as President Bush’s ambassador to Israel but was passed over for Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
In his support for Israel, McAteer is one among many Christians, including the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. A list of Christian Zionists reads like a schedule of preacher shows: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee and Pentecostal faith healer Benny Hinn, a native of Israel.
Not everyone approves of uncompromising allegiance to Israel. “God is more than a cosmic real estate agent,” said Zunes, who just returned from a conference in Jerusalem that drew 600 supporters of the establishment of a Palestinian state. “He’s a God of justice.”
For some Christians, Israel is much more than a plot of land. They see events such as the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 and the reclamation of Jerusalem in 1967 as major steps toward the fulfillment of a New Testament prophecy that will culminate in Jesus’ triumphant return to earth.
Millions have been exposed to a version of that theology in the mega-selling fiction series “Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. LaHaye, whose wife, Beverly, founded the powerful conservative group Concerned Women for America, says the books follow a literal reading of the New Testament’s apocalyptic book of Revelation. “We’re seeing the fulfilment of prophecy in the regathering of Israel back into the homeland,” LaHaye said. “That’s one thing that makes us convinced we’re living in the last days.”
Some Christian Zionists criticized Bush recently for endorsing a Sharon plan to keep parts of the West Bank while shutting down settlements in what they see as the God-given land of the Gaza Strip. Sharon’s own Likud Party rejected the plan last week.
Louder objections came from supporters of Palestinians. The supporters thought Bush should have insisted that Israel also give up the West Bank.
But Democratic presidential contender John Kerry also approved the plan. Asked by interviewer Tim Russert recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he agreed with Bush, Kerry said simply, “Yes.”
“Completely?” Russert asked.
“Yes,” replied the candidate, not generally known for brevity.
Though Israel is important to conservative Christians, it is not likely to determine their choice of a candidate in November, political observers say. Seven in 10 white evangelical Christians supported Bush in 2000, largely because of social issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
But some Jewish voters regard Israel as a ballot breaker, and their relationship with Christian Zionists may draw some of them into Bush’s camp in November, said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Although the American Jewish population is relatively small at 5 million, Jewish votes could be critical in some important states such as Florida, California and Pennsylvania. In 2000, Jewish voters went almost 4-1 for Al Gore.
Democrats have tried to steer Jews away from the Republican Party by instilling a fear of the party’s conservative Christian base on issues such as church-state separation, Brooks says. But the fear factor, he predicts, will be less effective than in the past.
“It’s going to be difficult for Democrats to demonize the evangelical community and make them an enemy, because they’re such good friends,” Brooks said.
A poll of Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee late last year confirmed a shift in Bush’s favor. Almost one-third said they would vote for Bush in a Bush-Kerry matchup. That would represent the largest Jewish vote for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan, who was perceived as especially pro-Israel.
Politics aside, some Jews are uncomfortable with a relationship with conservative Christians who emphasize the Second Coming.
Those Christians, reading the Bible literally, believe the world will undergo a tremendous battle between good and evil known as Armageddon; that humans will endure a period of turmoil known as the tribulation; that Jesus will return, as the Apostles’ Creed says, “to judge the quick and the dead”; that there will be 1,000 years of peace; and that God’s kingdom on earth will be realized at last.
Although Christian sects disagree over the sequence of those events, the constant is that the climactic end of the world occurs in Israel. In a 2002 poll for Time magazine, 36 percent of Americans who supported Israel said they did so because of biblical prophecies.
That’s not necessarily good news for the Jews, who, in the Christian end times scenario, will be destroyed or converted to Christianity.
“For me, as a Jew, this is not a great choice,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and co-chair of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
Some Jewish leaders urge their fellow Jews to accept Christian support without examining motivation too closely. Jews don’t believe in the Second Coming, they say, so why worry about it?
Evangelicals are spreading the word about Israel in a way “no amount of public relations and advertising budgets could buy,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, wrote in an essay.
As for critics, McAteer sees them as part of God’s plan.
“It’s predictable that the world will scoff at the truth,” he said. “It makes my heart rejoice.”