What’s behind evangelicals’ love of Israel?
Millions of born-again Christians have found common cause with the Jewish state. Is it a matter of faith, or is there a darker agenda?
Christians who love Israel: is it good for the Jews?
While many Jews whole-heartedly embrace Christian Zionism – after all, Israel needs friends – others suspect that behind it lurks a theology that loves Jews but hates Judaism.
Millions of evangelical Christians – often referred to as “born again” and who believe the Bible is inerrant – have reasons for supporting Israel, whether because it’s biblically mandated or because they, like Israel’s current leadership, are conservative and feel a political kinship, or because it’s a way of atoning for past mistreatment of Jews. Perhaps it’s for all of those reasons. Travellers to Israel cannot help but notice that the country routinely brims with Christian pilgrims. Christian Zionism has also helped to shape the United States’ strong support for Israel. And former prime minister Stephen Harper, a fervid supporter of Israel, was a member of the Christian
and Missionary Alliance in Canada, an evangelical denomination.
Even the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was said to be influenced by a Christian Zionist. William Hechler was the chaplain of the British embassy in Vienna and was instrumental in aiding Herzl with his diplomatic activities. Hechler has been called the founder of modern Christian Zionism.
But other Christian Zionists have what might be called a darker agenda: they believe that universal redemption and the return of the Christian messiah can happen only when all the Jews have been gathered in their homeland, “where they will finally give up their obsolete and erroneous beliefs and accept Jesus Christ as their saviour,” as Toronto’s Rabbi Dow Marmur once put it.
Christian Zionists have been encouraged by biblical prophesies that have indeed come true, notably, that the Jews would have their own land; that it would be attacked repeatedly; that exiled Jews would return to it one day; and that the modern State of Israel would be created. These and many others are regarded as prerequisites for the second coming of Jesus.
In Canada, home to about four million evangelicals, there’s no shortage of Christian Zionist ministries. But given their names – Christians United for Israel, Christian Friends of Israel, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (Canada), the Jewish Christian Alliance, Christians for Israel Canada, and the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry – one can hardly tell those that are out to convert Jews from the ones that simply wish Israel well.
So are Jews caught between liberal, mainline Protestant denominations that are sometimes strongly critical of Israel and support boycotts, and conservative evangelicals who express love for the Jewish state, even as some of them pray to hasten the end of Judaism?
Not all evangelicals support Israel, and Christian Zionists fall along “a spectrum of interests, motivations and goals,” said Rabbi Michael Skobac, director of education and counselling for Jews for Judaism Canada, the counter-missionary group. “They’re not monolithic.”
Christian Zionists’ primary motivation for supporting Israel and Jews is the Bible, Rabbi Skobac said.
“For them, the Bible is the word of God. Most evangelicals are supportive of the right of the Jewish People to have a homeland in Israel simply because God promised this land to the People of Israel.”
That doesn’t mean these Christians don’t have beliefs about the end times, “but that’s not their primary motivation.”
Also, there are “some” Christian Zionist groups “for whom support of Israel is a way of lubricating the conversion process,” Rabbi Skobac said.
Christians who support Israel do so “because we know that we owe everything we have to the Jewish People,” Rev. Charles Mcvety, a conservative activist and president of the Canada Christian College in Toronto, told The CJN. “It’s irrational to say that you love the God of Israel, but then hate Israel,” he went on. “It’s irrational to say ‘I commit my life to Jesus, a Jew, an Israelite,’ then hate Israel and the Jewish People. It’s irrational to study the writings of Jews every morning and night, then hate the Jews who wrote them. It makes no sense.”
Bible-believing Christians “are all predisposed to supporting Israel and the Jewish People,” Mcvety said.
As for those who support Israel because they embrace a theology about the apocalypse, “it’s such a minority view that I virtually never come across it,” Mcvety said. “Christians loving Jews so they will become Christians, it’s very, very rare.”
Perhaps not, at least according to Timothy P. Weber, author of On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend. While he writes that “most” evangelicals have a soft spot for Israel because of the Bible and see that the story of Jesus grows out of the story of Israel, Weber estimates that about one-third
are really interested in Israel because of biblical prophesy. These are the “dispensationalists” who see Israel as significant today “because it will play a central role in events leading up to the second coming of Christ.”
Indeed, Rabbi Skobac cited studies that also showed about 30 per cent of evangelical support for Israel is driven mainly by eschatology – how the world will end.
Other factors motivating Christian Zionists include politics. Evangelicals “tend to be conservative politically,” Rabbi Skobac observed. “They see Israel as [being] at the front lines of fighting terrorism.”
For other Christians, support for Israel “is an expression of remorse for past anti-semitism and what they see as the failure of churches to stand up for Jews during the Holocaust.”
And while relations between Jews and mainline Protestant churches in Canada have seen ups and downs – the United and Anglican churches have generally supported Jews and denounced anti-semitism, even as they attacked Israel – ties with evangelicals are becoming stronger.
Last month, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) signed a “declaration of dialogue and partnership” with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), which describes itself as “a fellowship of evangelical churches in Canada seeking to influence discussion on national issues.”
The declaration notes that although evangelicals and Jews “have distinct theological perspectives,” the two communities “share many foundational values, interests and concerns that afford an opportunity for joint advocacy initiatives.”
The common issues – alleviating poverty, supporting the people of Israel, advancing religious freedom – show that Jews and evangelical Canadians “are longstanding natural allies.”
Asked about making common cause with some Christians who may not have Jews’ long-term interests at heart, CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel replied: “The evangelical community is not monolithic when it comes to support for Israel or theology as it pertains to the Jewish People. While many evangelicals support Israel and have an affinity for the Jewish community, they hold these views for a myriad of reasons.
“I can say that our interactions with the EFC have only been marked by professionalism and mutual respect. Our shared primary focus is on public policy advocacy.”
The “biggest problem” facing Christian Zionists are fellow Christians who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, said Christine Williams, a spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (Icej-canada).
As for Jewish concerns about evangelicals’ motives, “it is expected that Jews [would] be suspicious given the history of Christian persecution and abandonment, not to mention the overzealousness of some evangelical Christian Zionists to proselytize aggressively without respect or knowledge of Jewish culture,” she added.
The ICEJ has attempted to set the record straight. In an online posting, the group acknowledges Jews’ “constant concern” that Christian Zionists have a hidden missionary agenda. Quoting the book of Isaiah – “Comfort, yes, comfort My people! says your God” – the group has issued guidelines on why Jews have nothing to fear. Among the points:
Christian Zionist are Bible-believing Christians “who adhere to all aspects of their biblical truth just as Jews do.” restoration is not a coincidence but the fulfillment of God’s word and promise to Abraham 4,000 years ago; [thus], Christian Zionists do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel.”
for the atrocities, through the centuries, that have been heaped upon the Jews in the name of Christ.”
Should Jews welcome this support, regardless of what motivates it?
“I think we should be thankful,” said Rabbi Skobac. “Part of being a Jew is expressing gratitude, and I think to be an ingrate is a horrible thing. So I think we should be thankful for those groups that are positively helping Israel, without using it as a tactic simply to lubricate a conversion agenda.”
But if it’s part of an insidious agenda, “I would be much less likely [to welcome the support],” he said.
Rabbi Phillip Scheim of Toronto’s Beth David Synagogue and president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, who accompanied Harper on his 2014 trip to Israel, said he too welcomes Christian Zionists’ support.
“I welcome all who support Israel,” he said. “Their belief in a ‘second coming’ doesn’t keep me awake at night, because, while theology may be interesting, it is action that can make a true difference in the world.”
Their belief in a ‘second coming’ doesn’t keep me awake at night Rabbi Phillip Scheim
There are many reasons why evangelicals support Israel.