When Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee wrapped up a visit to Israel on Nov. 15 with 40 pastors in tow, he sought out the places where Jesus walked, preached and prayed some 2,000 years ago.
But there was another meeting on the itinerary that was a must-not-miss event for Hagee and his host: a sit-down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The fact that Netanyahu — knee-deep in contentious talks with Palestinians over a freeze on Israeli settlement construction — found time to meet Hagee’s contingent speaks volumes about the ties between Israeli officials and evangelical Christians.
Christian Zionist support for Israel is at an all-time high, observers say, and Israelis, American Jews, and Palestinians are all taking notice — some favorable, some not.
While Israel has long courted financial and political support from evangelicals, many Jewish American leaders have viewed the alliance with suspicion, leery about potential proselytizing and uncomfortable with evangelicals’ domestic agenda at home.
Recently, though, the American Jewish community has found a new appreciation for evangelical support at a time of mounting international criticism of Israeli policy and financial hardships for many prominent Jewish groups.
Hit hard by the economic downturn and the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme that decimated Jewish charities, American Jewish groups are sending less money to Israel. Dozens of evangelical groups “have definitely stepped in to fill some of the void,” said Dan Brown, creator of the Web site e-jewishphilanthropy.com.
One of those groups is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), a Chicago-based evangelical group that has gived as much as $70 million to Israel in 2009 alone, and another $30 million to Jewish causes in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Five years ago, Hadassah magazine, a mainstream Jewish women’s magazine, rejected an ad from Eckstein’s group. But this year, after a large donation to a Hadassah-affiliated hospital in Jerusalem, Hadassah honored Eckstein’s group at its annual gala.
“We still haven’t been embraced by the establishment Jewish organizations, but I do think there’s a growing admiration because we’ve been able to grow by leaps and bounds over the past three years while the Jewish federation system and other sources of Jewish philanthropy have suffered declines,” said founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
Evangelical leaders say their reliance on thousands of small donors — rather than a few mega-givers — has helped them weather the recession and actually increase their funding to Israel. No one knows how much Christian Zionists give Israel in total, but the amount is substantial.
The organizations, including many based in the U.S., support Israeli hospitals, schools, and social welfare programs. A few pay for bomb shelters and ambulances, and assist elderly Holocaust survivors and victims of terror attacks. Hagee’s San Antonio-based group has gived more than $50 million since 2006, including $8.5 million this year.
Monetary support, however, is just part of the equation.
For the past four years, another Hagee group, Christians United for Israel, has held an annual Washington summit to push Israeli concerns on U.S. lawmakers. Christian Zionist groups sponsor letter-writing campaigns and are active on college campuses.
Joshua Reinstein, director of the seven-year-old Knesset Christian Allies Caucus in the Israeli parliament, said there has been “an explosion of support” from evangelical political leaders. The group now has pro-Israel “legislators of faith” caucuses in 18 countries, including the U.S.
Palestinian Christians, who have successfully cultivated their own powerful and wealthy allies in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, are vocally opposed to Christian Zionism. Many of their church allies are active in the so-called Global BDS movement — boycotts, divestment and sanctions of Israeli goods and citizens.
Christian Zionism is “a heretical and false interpretation of Christian theology” that “justifies violence and oppression in the name of God,” said Jonathan Kuttab, chairman of the West Bank’s Bethlehem Bible College.
Ari Morgenstern, a spokesman for Christian United for Israel, reads the Bible differently.
“The biblical mandate for Christian Zionism is Genesis 12:3,” he said, referring to a verse where God promises to bless those who bless Israel, and curse her foes. “As Pastor Hagee has said, Christians should support Israel because it is simply the right thing to do.”
Ironically, just as American Jewish groups have warmed to Christian Zionist partners, several prominent ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis have forbidden their followers from accepting funds or services from organizations funded — even in part — by evangelicals.
David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said hard-line rabbis pressured Israeli dignitaries not to attend the recent opening of a home for Holocaust victims that was partially funded by Parsons’ group.
“It’s a real shame they tried to spoil the event,” Parsons said. “We don’t missionize, and the focus should have been on the needs of destitute Holocaust survivors.”
Shimon Sebag, whose charitable group Yad Ezer L’Haver runs the home, said it “never crossed my mind” to refuse the Embassy’s assistance. Sebag said the 55 elderly residents now have “a warm home, meals and medical care.”
“The Talmud says, `When you save one life, you save a world,”' Sebag said. “The Embassy saved 55 worlds.”