.

Friday, December 03, 2004

A pro-Israel group teaches us a lesson about Evangelicals and ourselves

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Can a group number as many as 70 million individuals fly under the radar? Outside of the context of politics, Christian evangelicals are virtually invisible in American culture, except to be laughed at or feared.

Just as the image of the Jew can be a dangerously misleading generalization, the same is true for the image of the evangelical.

Listen to many Jews talk about conservative Christians and you'd think they're discussing the Taliban.

This disconnect between image and reality is of no small importance in the aftermath of a presidential election in which evangelicals and "moral values" voters are said to have provided the margin of victory for President Bush.

As much as many Jews like to think of themselves as open-minded (i.e., liberal), there is more to the divide between Jews and evangelicals than disagreements about church-state separation or abortion.

Some of the same people who are most fearful of the Christian right are also quick to dismiss the support that many of them demonstrate for Israel. They tend to put it down to millenarian beliefs based in a fundamentalist worldview that values Jews only to the extent that they help bring on an end-of-days Messianic return of Jesus.

All of which should prompt us -- no matter where are votes went earlier this month -- to ask: Who really are these evangelical moralists?

CHRISTIANS WHO GIVE
In searching for the answer to that question, one group whose contributors are almost all evangelicals ought to give pause to those most convinced of the Christian right's perfidy.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (www.ifcj.org) has been around for two decades, operating on the margins of the Jewish world but deeply embedded in the hearts of evangelicals.

Founded by Chicago-based Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, and intended to be a partnership between Jews and non-Jews, some 98 percent to 99 percent of its money now comes from the Christian right.

Where does the money go? To the same sort of programs that dollars raised by local Jewish federations across the country: to aid in the immigration and absorption of Jews to Israel, and to help care for needy Jews and endangered Jewish communities in places like the former Soviet Union, much of it via the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

According to George Mamo, a Philadelphia-born evangelical who serves as chief operating officer of the group, the fellowship raises around $45 million per year for these purposes, most of it coming in small gifts from more than 350,000 American Christians.

Most of the money comes in as a result of infomercials on Christian TV stations, but it winds up funding projects such as the $500,00 the group recently gave to provide security for Turkish synagogues previously targeted by Islamic terrorists.

Mamo says the group's database shows that most of those who give to the fellowship are "giving sacrificially."

Some, he told me, even tithe to this cause out of their Social Security checks.

Do they do it because they think this will bring on Armageddon? Surveys conducted by the group reveal that this is the belief of only a tiny percentage. Instead, says Mamo, most of it is based on a reading of scripture that the Lord will bless those "who bless the seed of Abraham."

Eckstein has written that these Bible-based beliefs blend in a love for the Jewish people with a need for contrition for millennia of Christian persecution of Jews, as well as a sense of Israel as a fellow democracy. All of this is in direct contrast with the drift toward anti-Zionism among liberal Protestant sects of late.

Mamo answers those who view evangelical Zionism with distaste by responding that "most of us recognize that without Judaism, there would be no Christianity."

Nor do most of them anticipate any mass conversion, as Jewish critics contend. "We believe G-d is sovereign," says Mamo. "There is no magic number of Jews [who make aliyah] that will bring about a transformation of the world. Nobody believes that."

He tells stories of various small contributors who may not know any Jews in their own communities, but who believe Jews "are the apple of G-d's eye" -- and are thus owed support.

Nobody is saying that Jews who disagree with evangelicals on a host of domestic issues should stop advocating for what they believe to be right.

Nor should we lower our guard on the separation of religion and state. Even those of us who are less extreme on separation issues (such as supporters of much-needed school-choice initiatives) cannot share the blithe dismissal of separation that is often heard on the right.

DEBATE WITH RESPECT
But what we should be doing is debating these issues fairly. We should not allow disparaging stereotypes about evangelicals to characterize our interaction with them. And we should reprove those who use such hateful words just as we would hope our Christian neighbors would react similarly to anti-Semitic comments.

Nor should we accept wild and wholly inaccurate charges about a supposed conservative drive to undo the Bill of Rights.

And, most of all, we should stop questioning their loyalty to Israel. On that point, evangelicals have established their bona fides. If they do indeed have more clout, you can bet they will use some of it to back up the Israelis if a new diplomatic process puts them in a corner.

Will many Jews do as much?

And, as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has shown, many of them are willing to put their money where their mouths are -- to help Jews in need and to aid Israel.

We ought to be touched by the story of what this group has accomplished, as well as moved by the willingness of so many of its contributors to give to Jewish causes.

Disagree all you want with the evangelicals, but give them their due. They have earned our respect. As Yechiel Eckstein and George Mamo have proved, they have given as much to us.