By Isi Leibler Op-Ed to The Jerusalem Post on 09/21/2015
It is regrettable that on Yom Kippur eve, our chief rabbis have again uttered offensive remarks, this time besmirching one of Israel’s most dedicated allies and ardent supporters.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have issued an extraordinary condemnation against the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), accusing it of missionary activities and calling on Jews to boycott its 36th annual global Succot gathering in Jerusalem. The pro-Israel ICEJ was established in 1980 and is an extension of the Evangelical branch of Christianity.
Over the past half century, we have witnessed an exponential intensification in the Evangelical movement’s attachment to the Jewish people and Israel. This has coincided with the dramatic erosion of support for Israel from the Left and liberal sources.
Needless to say, Evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group and include a small minority whose primary interest in Jews is to proselytize them. Jews cannot countenance any relationship with such groups.
There are also some fringe elements whose philo-Semitism is motivated by premillennial dispensationalism – a belief that the End of Days and the second coming of the messiah can only take place when Jews have returned to the Land of Israel.
However, the majority of Evangelicals are God-fearing Christians who share an unconditional love for the Jews as God’s chosen people, pray for our welfare and passionately support Israel. They regard Judaism as the foundation of Christianity and reject Protestant replacement theology, which says the New Testament supersedes the historical role of the Jews as God’s chosen people. They base their belief on biblical passages such as Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”
Most believe that God always intended Israel as a Jewish homeland and regard support for Israel as a way of honoring God. These feelings nurtured the early 19th century Christian Zionists and subsequently motivated people like Lord Balfour and Orde Wingate – who helped create the Haganah – and many others. These sentiments, rather than proselytism, were the major factors whereby Evangelicals developed into passionate Christian Zionists.
The Christian Embassy has approximately 50 dedicated representatives in Israel who liaise with branches in over 80 countries. It has an impressive record of major charitable contributions to Jewish, principally Israeli, causes. Most of the funds for these projects originate from $50 to $100 donations from churchgoing Christians who consider support for the Jewish people as a righteous cause.
The ICEJ has sponsored the aliya of over 120,000 Jews to Israel and provided seed money for the creation of Nefesh B’Nefesh. It contributes to the integration of immigrants and numerous social welfare projects in Israel, including a home for needy Holocaust survivors in Haifa, support for former Gush Katif residents and the funding of bomb shelters for settlements in the Gaza border region.
In the public arena, it canvasses support for Israel among parliaments throughout the world, and even created a Christian counterpart to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in support of Israel and against anti-Semitism. Passionate Evangelical support contributed substantially toward the surge of popularity for Israel in the United States and the good standing Israel currently enjoys in Congress. In some respects, Evangelical political influence has been as important as that of the pro-Israeli lobby.
The Christian Embassy works closely with the Foreign Ministry, the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish Agency and Yad Vashem. Last year’s Succot celebrations, which took place just after the Gaza war, attracted the largest number of participants in many years (over 5,000).
This year’s expression of solidarity with Israel will again celebrate the “recognition of the hand of God in Israel’s modern-day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing and bless it.”
In stark contrast to the traditional anti-Semitic church doctrine and current anti-Israel hostility manifested by most Protestant churches, the Christian Embassy and its supporters are genuine lovers of Zion. Evangelical support has never been conditional on a quid pro quo.
Yet the Chief Rabbinate shamefully proclaimed that the ICEJ’s objective is to convert “all the inhabitants of the world to Christianity” and, in particular, “to change the religion of Jews from the religion of Israel and to bring them under the wings of Christianity.” The chief rabbis urged Jews not to have any contact with them whatsoever, declaring that Jewish participation was prohibited by the Torah.
There are small groups of Orthodox Jews who remain convinced that all Christians are anti-Semites and their friendly gestures are only a ruse to proselytize us.
Extremist fringe elements like the xenophobic Lehava organization exhibit vile bigotry and poisonous hatred, and a handful are pathological and guilty of despicable acts of vandalism against churches.
But the majority of anti-Evangelical agitators, like Yad L’achim, are naïve and misguided zealots who accuse the Christian Embassy of missionary activity.
They obviously succeeded in convincing the chief rabbis to issue this condemnation without adequately checking the facts.
Over the years I have worked closely with the ICEJ.
It and its staff are indeed genuine friends of the Jewish people, and are righteous gentiles. I attended their Israel Guest Night on Succot and have been invited as a commentator on many of their broadcasts directed toward Christians throughout the world. I never once encountered even the slightest hint of missionary intent and I admire their integrity and innate decency.
I have never engaged in theological dialogue with them and see no merit in discussing our religious differences. I do recognize the common roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which obliges us to reject moral relativism and differentiate between good and evil.
For decades, in its charitable work throughout Israel, the Christian Embassy obliges every Israeli individual or institution that receives any aid from it to sign a statement confirming that there has been no attempt on its part to proselytize.
The week-long Feast of Tabernacles event is essentially a Christian gathering restricted to those who have regularly attended church services for at least six months.
It also holds a parade in Jerusalem where thousands of followers from all corners of the world proclaim their support and solidarity with Israel.
One activity, designated Israeli Guest Night, is open to the Israeli public. The program is extraordinarily sensitive to ensure that there is no missionary content, and it concentrates on expressing solidarity with the Jewish people.
Last year’s Israel Guest Night paid tribute to soldiers and survivors of terrorist attacks, and honored 300 Jewish, Christian and Druse paratroopers who served in Gaza. It was addressed by President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This year, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein will be the keynote speaker.
It is disgraceful that the Chief Rabbinate failed to verify the false allegations made against the Christian Embassy and slandered those who represent Israel’s greatest friends in the world. The chief rabbis’ churlish action shames the Jewish people, and they should apologize and withdraw their scurrilous accusations.
In the meantime, I have every confidence that Israelis will continue to welcome our Christian friends and express appreciation for their support. Succot is traditionally recognized as the festival on which gentiles are invited to Jerusalem, and we should be gratified that during these difficult times, Christians from all over the world will gather here to express their solidarity.
Indeed, we should echo the sentiments expressed by then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren who, in 1981, blessed the Christian Embassy Succot gathering with “Bruchim habaim b’shem Adonai” — “may all of you who have come here be blessed in the name of God.”