Friends in Need
Understanding the alliance of Zionists and Christian Zionists.
Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
A Match Made in Heaven
Why did Israeli-American journalist Zev Chafets write a book about Jews and evangelicals? Two words: Alan Dershowitz. The Harvard law professor has spent the better part of the last three years crusading for the need to support Israel. He's given lectures and interviews, written books and opinion pieces on the strategic and moral importance of standing with Israel. Now, Dershowitz has a new book coming out titled Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence. Rather than advocating once again for the Jewish state, he's chosen a seemingly unrelated topic: Attacking evangelicals and their supposed efforts to "Christianize America."
Except, as Chafets points out in his study of relations between Jewish Zionists and Christian Zionists, Dershowitz's new book is very related. Indeed, Dershowitz perfectly represents the dilemma that Chafets is trying to unlock: Why Jews can't seem to tolerate, let alone embrace, the fastest-growing Christian movement in America, a movement that views support for Israel as central to its mission.
Chafets is not a great polemicist; he's a terrific journalist. He's at his best when he's telling human stories, giving readers a real sense of people and places. He spent years in Israel, working as head of the government press office, writing books and helping to found The Jerusalem Report. In Israel, he was a moderate Liberal, supporting the idea of land for peace with the Palestinians while remaining ever mindful of Israel's security needs. When he moved back to the United States, Chafets discovered that, especially after 9/11, he was out of sync with the mainstream of American Jewry. He voted for George W. Bush, agrees with the aims of the war on terror, and got curious about the vocal and passionate Christian voices he heard speaking out in support of Israel.
Just how out of sync was he? One Jewish guest at a birthday party told Chafets that "A Jew who voted for Bush is a Jew for Jesus." A Match Made in Heaven is his effort to get to know Christian Zionists, understand why they are so supportive of Israel, and educate American Jews that they should reconsider their negative attitude. "Evangelical Christians," Chafets writes, "are, in an unprecedented way, extending a hand of friendship and wartime alliance to Jews; and the ancient tribal instinct to slap that hand away is a dangerous one."
The part of the book devoted to "discovering" evangelicals is more light-hearted. Here is Chafets with Jerry Falwell at Liberty University; join Chafets touring Israel with a colorful cast of evangelical pilgrims; watch as Chafets handily rebuffs the conversion efforts of a Baptist church secretary on the phone from Pontiac, Michigan. He writes about evangelicals with genuine interest and curiosity, but also skepticism. He is forever asking his interviewees whether they think he's going to hell or whether they want to convert him. One subject finally turns the tables, demanding of Chafets--and Jews generally--"why not judge us by our fruits?" It's a legitimate question that gets a halfhearted response.
When Chafets shifts his attention to Jews, he gets more serious and drops the skepticism. Chafets meets with Yechiel Eckstein, the Orthodox rabbi turned televangelist, who is raising millions from Zionist Christians to help Israel. But he spends more time describing Jews who are openly fighting Zionist Christians. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, for example, has been campaigning against what he describes as the Religious Right's efforts to "Christianize America." But as Chafets discovers, religion or religious coercion aren't really the problem: Politics is the problem. Most Jews aren't really worried about proselytizing evangelicals, or even Christian Zionists' belief in Armageddon. What Jews hate are Republicans and the conservative agenda, even if that agenda is much more pro-Israel.
Chafets has a conversation with Shira Dicker. She's a public relations consultant, a mainstream liberal Jew, and very pro-Israel. Chafets even met her while she was doing PR for Yechiel Eckstein's annual evangelical-Israel lovefest. When he interviewed Dicker after the conference, she admitted she couldn't abide evangelicals. Dicker was angry that a prayer had been said, even though it was delivered by a Jew.
"I wasn't comfortable," she told him. "I've come to see that their leaders are corrupt, horrible people. People in cahoots with Bush. If we cede power to right-wing Christians, we'll be marginalized. We'll have a Christian America. To me it's a moral issue."
But, asks Chafets, are her objections moral or political? "I guess the issue is more that they are Republicans than they are evangelicals," she replies. Shira Dicker isn't really worried about America becoming more Christian; she hates that the country is more Republican.
For the fact is that Dicker, like Alan Dershowitz, and like most American Jews, is more committed to the liberal Democratic political agenda than she is to Israel. Unlike evangelicals, these Jews didn't see Israel's security trumping everything else. They can't bring themselves to make common cause with conservative Zionist Christians because they hate the conservative agenda more than they love Israel.
Chafets has a warning for Dicker, Dershowitz, and the rest: The hand of friendship is being offered in good faith, and for a limited time. "Jews and evangelicals are major stakeholders is opposing parties," he writes. "But the Judeo-Christian bargain doesn't require Jews to become Republicans, much less Christians. It simply requires a change in attitude and tone."
He is putting the case simplistically in order not to offend the very Jews he wants to attract, and that is where his book falters. Jews have a lot more work to do than just changing their tone.
Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.