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."
That ad might have raised eyebrows and hackles among other groups of Christians living under Israeli rule, including the ancient communities that have traditionally been guardians of Christian holy places like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and tend to support the Palestinian cause. But it has helped win over the affections of increasing numbers of Jewish West Bank settlers who believe their government is selling out the most cherished ideas of historic Zionism. "There is no question in my mind that the presence of God is here, with us," Garry Cooperberg, another ardent Hebron settler, told the Convention Center audience to more applause. "I certainly have been following the work of the Christian Embassy with much admiration and respect and pleasure."
Other West Bank settlers, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups, have taken to wandering into the organization's Jerusalem headquarters for a moral boost. There is even a Christian organization called Adopt-a-Settlement, which tries to encourage Christian churches and groups to visit settlements and even provide financial support to them.
"For Christians who want to support the right of Jews to this land, Hebron is a very important city, because it is the city of the patriarchs," explains ICEJ director Luckhoff. "We are not talking about excluding the Arabs. The embassy takes the view that there is room for both Jews and Arabs." How that co-existence is to be kept peaceful, much less policed on a day-to-day basis, is another question. Most settlers are flatly unwilling to recognize any Palestinian political or police authority over them. Rabbi Waldman told his Christian listeners: "We have always declared openly that we Jews living in Judea and Samaria will not accept any authority that is not Jewish authority."
Meanwhile, other pro-settler Christians cite Israel's founding premier David Ben-Gurion, not at all a religious Jew, who reportedly regarded extensive Jewish settlement in and around Hebron (in the pre-1948era) as absolutely vital because the city was "the neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem." Israel's King David established Jerusalem as his country's capital after conquering it from the Jebusites 3,000 years ago this year, according to a well-publicized Israeli anniversary campaign. Before that, King David used Hebron as Israel's capital for seven years.
But the pro-settler Christian sentiment in Israel is not just a theological predilection. Last month the PLO's religious affairs chief, Hassan Tahboub, categorically declared that, once Jewish and religious sites in the West Bank like the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron or Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem came under Palestinian rule, Jews would be forbidden to pray there. According to many pro-Israeli Christians, what's bad for the Jews in the West Bank is unlikely to be good for Arab Christians. In fact, the Christian Embassy says that it has encountered several Christian Arabs who express a fear that, once the Palestinian authority is established in Bethlehem in December, Christian Arabs' freedom to practice their faith, and perhaps even their personal security, may be at risk.
To underline these concerns and continue the drumbeat of attention to the possibly alarming consequences of Israeli West Bank withdrawal, the Christian Embassy recently organized under tight security an unprecedented half-hour visit by hundreds of foreign Christians to Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem to hear speeches calling on the Rabin government not to proceed further with West Bank withdrawals. "Bethlehem Will Be Jewish Forever," declared a banner they carried. In other displays of Christian-settler solidarity, smaller-scale visits were arranged to the heavily guarded Jewish settlement headquarters in Hebron.
If the Christian Embassy has its way, the process of "Oslo II," as the detailed agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is dubbed here, will either grind to a halt or be reversed after Israel's next election, before the end of 1996. In that case, the political beneficiary of the pro- settler move by Christians will be opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. After speaking to the assembled Christians at the Feast of Tabernacles early this month, Netanyahu described the Christian-Jewish political alliance for Zionism as "a partnership that has endured for more than a century and, if anything, is growing stronger."
That idea may well seem nettlesome to the sorely beset Prime Minister Rabin, who is almost as uncomfortable with zealous evangelical Christian pronouncements about "the land of Israel" as he is with the religious Zionist rhetoric of Israeli settlers on the West Bank. Before the Christian Feast of Tabernacles crowd, Rabin got a polite round of applause, while Netanyahu, the following day, garnered a standing ovation. There is an intricate irony here. When local Israeli military authorities at first ruled out the Christian demonstration at Rachel's Tomb, it was Rabin who overruled them and insisted it be allowed to proceed. He had been buttonholed during the Feast of Tabernacles by the Christian Embassy.
David Aikrnan is a former foreign affairs correspondent for Time.