Rabbis Express Unprecedented Criticism of American Evangelical Support for Israel
JERUSALEM May 10, 2004 — Prominent Israeli rabbis are for the first time speaking out against Israel’s profitable alliance with evangelical Christians in the United States who have funneled tens of millions of dollars to the Jewish state.
The rabbis fear the Christians’ real intent is to convert Jews, their aides said Monday. Others are concerned about the evangelicals’ support for Israel’s extreme right-wing, opposing any compromise with the Palestinians.
The dispute touches on an increasingly sensitive issue in Israel: the country’s dependence, both economically and politically, on conservative American Christians.
Besides contributing tidy sums to projects in Israel, some evangelical Christians have lobbied in support of the Israeli government in Washington.
Troubling to Israelis is the fact that one influential group of evangelicals believes in a final, apocalyptic battle between good and evil in which Jesus returns and Jews either accept him or perish a vision that causes obvious discomfort among Jews.
“I’m worried as a Jew,” said Mina Fenton, a Jerusalem City Council member from an Orthodox Jewish party, who has led opposition to the evangelical groups. “I don’t want my people to be assassinated, sacrificed, killed or slaughtered because of their beliefs.”
The focus of the latest criticism has been the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based group that has raised tens of millions of dollars from Christian supporters of Israel.
Two former chief rabbis of Israel, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, recently approved a religious ruling urging followers not to accept money from the group.
The ruling, issued by Shapira in March and later signed by Eliahu, accused the fellowship of accepting money from groups involved in “missionary activity.”
“I don’t see any permission to receive funds that aid in the infiltration of the work of strangers under the false impression of aid to the needy,” the letter said.
Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, another critic of the fellowship, said he fears the donors are trying to exploit Israel’s most vulnerable people. “Those who don’t have money don’t ask questions,” he said.
“They are spending millions of dollars to make people closer to Christianity,” said Kook, chief rabbi of the city of Rehovot and member of a rabbinical dynasty. “The situation is very serious.”
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, brushed off the criticism as complaints by a tiny minority.
He said the group has raised $100 million, including $20 million last year alone, to assist Israel’s poor, elderly and new immigrants, as well as impoverished Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. The group sponsors projects in 85 Israeli towns and cities, he said.
Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, also noted that he has served as an adviser to Israeli prime ministers and sits on the boards of the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee, influential groups that serve Jewish communities abroad.
Although many of the thousands of donors to his group may hope to convert Jews, Eckstein said, “we just don’t allow any kind of missionary activity.”
He said his donors are motivated by other factors, including the Jews’ connection to the biblical Land of Israel and feelings of guilt over anti-Semitism.
“Judaism does not focus so much on motivations as much as deeds,” he said. “In Judaism, the actions speak louder than words, and certainly louder than motivations.”
He also claimed that Eliahu has received funding from the fellowship in the past and has signaled in recent days that he would continue to allow his supporters to accept the funds.
People close to Eliahu said the rabbi remains opposed to the group. Eliahu’s spokesman did not return repeated messages left Monday.
Maintaining good relations with American evangelicals is important to Israel’s government. Evangelicals make up a powerful base of support for President Bush and enjoy close ties with the White House.
But many evangelical groups have shown a growing interest in Israeli politics, adopting views considered extreme in Israel.
The groups opposed the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan when it was launched last year, because it would lead to Israeli concessions, and they opposed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attempts to uproot Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Hundreds of evangelical churches offer regular donations to Jewish settlements for school equipment, playgrounds, medical supplies and bulletproof buses.
Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs in the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem office, said this political activity is a larger concern than charitable work.
“There’s support for some of the most extreme political positions in Israeli society,” Rosen said. “That I find far more disturbing than any suggestion that there could be missionary activity.”