Evangelicals provide deep well of support
WASHINGTON — The portraits of suffering on the television commercials follow the familiar imagery of fundraising appeals after major disasters: video of collapsed buildings, the injured being carried away on stretchers and women wailing for the dead.
But this isn’t a plea for some earthquake-ravaged nation. It’s an appeal on behalf of Israel, a highly industrialized nation emerging from war.
And the pitch goes beyond mere sympathy. The scenes are interspersed with biblical passages that suggest a divine calling to help the cause.
“Israel is under attack, her civilians living their lives in bomb shelters,” intones the narrator, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, leader of a group that seeks to rally support for Israel among Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals. “Stand with Israel in its time of need.”
And as circumstances changed, the organization quickly adapted. By Tuesday, a day after the cease-fire in Lebanon, the ads were rotating with a modified commercial geared toward funding reconstruction: “As the world chooses sides against Israel, will you stand on the sidelines?” Eckstein asks.
The advertising campaign, which began airing July 26 on the Fox News Channel and a few religious television networks, is an unusual convergence of faith, politics, money and media that illustrates the rising importance of the bond between many American evangelicals and Israel.
Conservative evangelicals now form a crucial component of the governing Republican coalition and count among those sympathetic to their beliefs President Bush, who embraced evangelical faith when he stopped drinking two decades ago. Unlike the administration of his father, who sought to play the role of a broker in the Middle East, President Bush has unabashedly supported the Israeli government.
Fox News, with its strong following among conservative evangelicals, has proved to be an especially powerful forum for Eckstein’s campaign to stir greater support for Israel.
As of Monday, Eckstein’s Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews had raised more than $1.4 million directly attributable to the commercials on Fox. On average, the group receives 1,500 phone calls each time a spot airs on the channel, and last week it increased its buy to six to eight showings a day, Eckstein said.
A growing source of support
Jewish groups in the United States have long provided financial and political support for Israel. And in recent years, evangelicals have become an increasingly significant source of support for Israel, frequently fueled by appeals delivered through local churches or religious television programs.
Eckstein’s organization is now reaching out to a broader audience through a secular TV channel popular with many evangelicals and political conservatives.
“The TV campaign is a new wrinkle,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “I think this shows an evolution in the process.”
Green said that both the ad campaign and its placement on Fox News appeared to be a shrewd way to extend and deepen support for Israel among evangelicals at a time when public attention is focused on the conflict with Hezbollah.
The large following that Fox has developed among many evangelicals and the sympathetic coverage that the network has given to Israel in the war creates an audience that is open to the message, Green said. The Bible verses quoted in the ads carry a powerful resonance among evangelicals as scriptural authority for God’s covenant with the Jewish people, which many evangelicals relate to their own covenant with God, he said.
Among the passages quoted is one from the Book of Genesis account of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants: “I will bless those who bless thee.” And there are verses from the Book of Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep quiet,” and “Comfort ye my people.”
Eckstein acknowledged that the ads are intended not merely to raise money but also to rally support for Israel’s cause.
“At times like this, people look for something to do,” Eckstein said. “There is this passion that Bible-believing evangelical Christians have to stand with Israel and the Jewish people at their time of need.”
Bedding and flak jackets
Eckstein’s organization already has provided cities in northern Israel such supplies as food, bedding and fans for bomb shelters, and flak jackets for civil defense workers, according to the organization and Israeli news accounts.
Eckstein said future donations would be used to help repair bomb damage and for purchases of emergency equipment, such as firetrucks. In the past, the organization has contributed funding to Israeli security forces, including money for an elite SWAT unit in the border police, according to The Jerusalem Post.
For legal reasons, the group does not give money directly to government bodies but channels it to Israeli non-profit groups, which in some cases are set up to benefit government agencies, Eckstein said.
Though his organization dates to 1983, donations have grown rapidly in recent years, reflecting rising interest in Israel among evangelicals. Eckstein projects he will raise $70 million to $80 million this year, about 50 percent more than last year.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson flew to Israel to show his support after the conflict with Hezbollah erupted and provoked controversy earlier this year when he suggested that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was divine retribution for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
Texas religious broadcaster John Hagee this year initiated a pro-Israel lobbying summit in Washington that attracted more than 3,400 Christian evangelicals. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, formed a Christian Allies Caucus two years ago.
And Israel appears to be a more frequent topic in sermons delivered by prominent evangelical preachers, said David Brog, author of “Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State.”
Despite the shared interest in Israel, alliances with the evangelical movement can be uncomfortable for many Jewish groups, which have strong cultural differences with Christian conservatives and often are at odds with them on domestic issues.
But evangelical interest in Israel is long-standing and stems in part from differences with mainline Christianity in interpreting the biblical covenant God made with Israel, said Brog, who also is executive director of Christians United For Israel, a pro-Israel lobbying group that primarily draws support from evangelicals. While most mainline Protestants emphasize the Christian church as the successor to Old Testament covenants made with the Jewish people, evangelicals often adhere to a literal interpretation that sees a distinct scriptural basis for Jewish rule over Israel.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Israel has risen as a priority among many evangelicals, Brog said.
“They see the evil in the world as radical Islamic fundamentalism. During the Cold War, it was communism,” he said.
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