The Magazine

BRETHREN IN THE HOLY LAND

Nov 6, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 08 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Hebron has always been a Jewish city, is a Jewish city, and will forever remain a Jewish city. And no amount of human effort will change the facts of God." That statement, made in Jerusalem's International Convention Center in mid-October by U.S.-born Eliezer Waldman, a leader of the 450 or so devout Jewish activists determined to defy the tide of Israeli land concessions to the new Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, was not in itself unusual. Jewish settlers on the West Bank -- or "Judea and Samaria," as they invariably term it -- are quoted almost daily making similar statements. What was striking was his audience. Whenever Waldman mentioned the Bible or Israel's right to settle within its biblical borders, hundreds of foreign evangelical Christians applauded or chimed in with loud "amens."


In one of the most fascinating political-religious alignments affecting the Middle East, there are clear signs of a rising determination among many American and other foreign Protestant Christians to provide both moral and material support to the estimated 130,000 Israeli settlers who live outside of Israel's pre-1967 borders.


Evangelical Christian support for Israel is certainly not new. Ever since 1948 there has been a strong conviction among grass-roots born-again Americans that the re-creation of the state of Israel was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and that the Second Coming of Christ might well take place soon after this event. The best-selling non-fiction book in America during the entire 1970s was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth. An exponent of the "dispensationalist," prophecy-focused theology of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lindsey sketched out his own "end-times" scenario in the Middle East, with Israel as the hero-nation and a variety of others in supporting roles (he thought the Russians would be the biblical Gog and Magog invading Israel). Meanwhile, tour groups to Israel organized by U.S. and European evangelical churches have continued to arrive in the country despite the fear of terrorism. Israeli officials report that in 1994 some 61 percent of tourist arrivals were Christian groups. In the mid-1980s that figure was less than half.


Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the first Israeli leader to appreciate the political, economic, and perhaps moral value of evangelical Christian support for Israel. He actually bestowed awards on leaders like Jerry Falwell, who otherwise would have been shunned by much of the American Jewish community.


Begin also realized that Moral Majority-type Christians were more sympathetic to biblical rhetoric than to the secularist formulations of Israel's Labor party leadership, and he cannily encouraged a strong evangelical but non-proselytizing Christian presence in Jerusalem itself. One result: the establishment in 1981 of the non-profit foundation called the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), led by South African Johann Luckhoff and staffed by more than 50 people from a dozen countries.


Since 1981, the ICEJ has alerted evangelicals around the world to the latest worries of Israelis who fear the results of the ruling Labor party's decision to sacrifice the occupied territories. Its tools for spreading this message have been its leaders' speeches in sympathetic churches around the world, a well-written and politically conservative newsletter called Middle East Intelligence Digest, and a glittery, week-long annual pageant, the Christian Festival of the Feast of Tabernacles, held in October at the time of the Jewish feast.


In the years since Begin's premiership, Israeli political leaders of all stripes have recognized the value of almost uncritical foreign support for Israel by showing up regularly to give well-applauded speeches to the 4,000 or so people who attend. What has changed in the past two years, though, has been the political intensity of the visitors' opposition to each new stage of the Rabin-Arafat peace process and their growing sympathy for the Likud. Ever since the full extent of eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank became clear, the ICEJ and its overseas supporters have reacted with increasing outspokenness to the process itself. Last spring, the organization ran an advertisement in the Jerusalem Post calling on the government not to withdraw from Bethlehem and turn that city into "a second Damur," a Christian town in South Lebanon that was badly treated under PLO rule in 1982. The ad expressed concern "lest the Labor government hand over the city of Bethlehem to the murderous PLO and its Hamas allies."