The Unlikely Zionists

29 Nov

I was seventeen years old when I first considered the threat to Jewish spirituality. My father returned home one day with grim news.  The minister, who officiated his wedding ceremony to my non-Jewish stepmother mere months before, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and a very short amount of time to live. What I remember more than the shocking news is the way my father revealed the news. He said, “Maiya, this man is so strong in his beliefs that there’s not a doubt in his mind there’s a heaven waiting for him.”  My father paused after declaring this fact, eyes searching as if racking brain for reason.  Then, he started preparing dinner. My father grew up in a traditional, Conservative Jewish household.  Yet, today he’s a self-professed agnostic and secularized Jew. It’s that look that I can’t forget, that eye widening, longing look that hauntingly reflects the spiritual threat to the Jewish people of today. Particularly in North America, there is a strong emphasis on clinging to our small numbers, as Jews. It’s easy to feel threatened by outside groups that have links to evangelism. As a Jew, the state of Israel is something I support. This belief is called Zionism.

September was the first time I heard of Christianity being attached to Zionism. A fellow student raised his hand, announcing he loves Israel, despite not being Jewish. His explanation? He just loves it. I’d never heard of a non-Jew supporting Israel to this extent that they’d publically state it, an act I’m conflicted with. I shied away from asking him about his beliefs. Instead, I began to investigate. Bill Sutter, executive director for Friends of Israel Gospel Ministries later shared that he’s had many young Jewish students approach him, over the years. “There’s a tremendous curiosity,” says Sutter, in his deep voice, rumbling like ocean waves.

My first question was who are these people coining themselves, “Christian Zionists.” I learn that Christian Zionists are Evangelical or Born-Again Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, validating God’s promises in both the Old Testament and New Testament. His pledges to the Jews include entitlement to the land of Israel, territory extending beyond current Israeli geographic boundaries, encompassing the West Back, biblical Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza strip. He also promises, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you,” (Genesis 12:3).[i]

Christian Zionists preach against the prevailing Christian theology, termed replacement or supercessionism, which preaches that Christians replaced Jews as the covenant people. Mainline churches and a small group of Evangelicals subscribe to this belief.

Christian Zionist organizations, particularly the more education-based organizations, dedicate their time and resources to preaching against this theory,. The reason? Christian Zionists believe the roots of anti-Semitism are buried within the confines of the theology. Paul Collins, executive director for the Canadian Christian Friends of Israel (CFI), located in Victoria, BC, says, “With Christian history it’s extremely difficult for the Jews to understand why we’re doing this and why we don’t want anything in return. “

Confirming Collins’ fears, I remained suspicious of his organization and others like it. I think, they want nothing in return? Despite the biblical basis for Christian Zionism, Evangelicals believe that there’s only one way to heaven through the acceptance of Christ. Why wouldn’t they want to convert Jews?

A small group of individuals believe in dual covenant theory, an idea that Jews ascend to Heaven through the practice of Judaism. But these people are often afraid to voice their beliefs as the remainder of the Christian community finds the concept offensive. Pastor John Hagee, head of one of North America’s largest umbrella organizations of Christian Zionist groups, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is also pastor of an 18,000-member church in San Antonio Texas. Hagee came under fire for his rumoured subscription to this theory. Though he denied it, his book, In Defense of Israel, implies that Jesus never presented himself as the Jewish saviour. This section is so controversial that CUFI members confronted Hagee. Dr. Jim Hutchens even parted ways with the organization after voicing his displeasure.

So, if the majority of Christian Evangelicals believe that Jews are condemned to eternal damnation without Christianity, then how do they rectify that with the support of Israel and the Jewish people? Dr. John Howarth, CUFI Canada director in Toronto, had an answer. “Scripture.” It’s the automatic response every Christian Zionist I meet, and I meet at lot of them, pulls out. But does Dr. Howarth have a deeper connection to the Jews?

Dr. Howarth’s eyes twinkle when he talks and he smiles as he remembers his early attempts at defending the Jews, long before his formalized role in CUFI.

He was nine years old when another boy, David, called his friend, Sheldon, a “dirty Jew.” Howarth fought the boy at the track and field sand pit after first verbally accosting him, emerging as the lunch hour victor.  Afterward, Howarth remembers walking to Sheldon’s house before heading to school. “We had just put our coats on and were just about to go back to school when the doorbell rang. And Sheldon opened the door and there’s David standing there, tears pouring down his eyes and he said Sheldon I apologize for being so mean to you. Please forgive me. And Sheldon did.”

Today, Dr. Howarth spends his time mobilizing Christian to support Israel and not using his fists for the job. I ask him if it’s possible to speak to his boss, the chairman of CUFI Canada. He introduces me Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College. Dr. McVety, is a man whose mouth clamps shut so tightly after completing a sentence that his lips whiten. His eyes are probing, boring into me, as if I’m the one with a hidden agenda. I ask him a few short questions under the supervision of Dr. Howarth.

Afterward, he says, “I assume your paper will be sympathetic to Israel. Am I correct in that assumption?” My answer is that my paper will be objective.

Less than twenty-four hours later, I receive an e-mail from Dr. Howarth, attaching press releases, stating in formal tones I’m unaccustomed to considering our friendly past communications, that he would like to have me e-mail him the article before submission, “So, that I can assure Dr. McVety that, both he and I -and our views- are represented accurately.”

I respond, explaining the ethical prohibition on providing him with the article beforehand, and asking about a few other sources. I haven’t heard from him since.

His fear doesn’t shock me at this stage. It’s typical of many media-fearing Christian Zionist organizations. Many work tirelessly to earn the trust of the Jewish community. The International Christian Embassy (ICEJ) is among those organizations, in existence for over thirty years. Canadian executive director, Donna Hollbrook, says the ICEJ wouldn’t be allowed to be there if they were evangelizing.

Hollbrook’s husband provides the organization with the family basement, ICEJ workspace. Donna and I are discussing the organization while husband Richard listens to our interview, banging down dishes on countertops, pausing every few seconds to listen to our conversation. Finally, he interjects, to clarify my intentions.

“Donna you’d be prepared to see something in Al Jazeera? I’m not kidding.”

Donna’s whole body shivers with laughter. “I’m not sure they’d be interested in what I had to say.”

“- Or the Canadian Muslim Association? Anyway, Donna better clarify that. And anything you have said that should be off the record, better clarify that,” he says before abandoning the room to Donna, smile plastered on face.

After listening to the opinions of these Christian Zionists, I wondered how does the Jewish community feel about these organizations?

Orthodox Rabbi Michael Skobac is the education director for Jews for Judaism, an organization dedicated to, ‘keeping Jews Jewish.’ Skobac believes there is often an agenda of conversion even if it isn’t an overt one. “They employ a method of evangelism which uses euphemisms and it uses code words, what they refer to in the Christian world today as lifestyle evangelism.

Skobac got into trouble years ago when he wrote an article about an organization called Shalom International, where he published the letters to fundraisers. “It wasn’t an attack. I was just saying we’re in bed with this guy and it’s important we hear what he says when he’s not assuming we’re listening.” The response from the Jewish community was an outpour of hate mail from various Jews- “prominent Jews,” Skobac corrects me.

I wondered how could the Jewish community become so committed to these people? After I encountered David Nekrutman I no longer questioned this deeply seated attachment.

“I usually don’t do the interviews unless I know the person,” says Nekrutman. “But I’m trusting you.” Nekrutman is the executive director of the Ohr Torah Stone’s centre for Jewish Christian Understanding in Israel, which opened last year and is the first Orthodox Israeli organization entity to actively pursue Jewish-Christian relations. Some orthodox Rabbis have reached out to the Christian community but this is the first one to be mobilized in organizational form.

After asking him a few questions about the proselytizing agenda of these organizations, he’s all riled up. “I’m not trying to be confrontational here but it’s really not fair to focus on that. People make it the issue. It’s not the issue.”

Almost nine years later, Nekrutman recalls walking into a church for “A Night to Honour Israel.” Between four and five hundred Christians greeted him, waving Israeli flags. “I walk into this church and they love me more than in my own community.”

As I listened to Nekrutman recall the ‘love’ he witnessed in that room, I couldn’t help but return to that room with my father. Though I don’t doubt Nekrutman’s commitment to his religion, I couldn’t help but think there was something dangerous in feeling more accepted by another community more than your own.

Ellen Horowitz, an artist, journalist, and an Orthodox Jew, residing in Israel, who severely opposes accepting the help of Christian Zionist organizations. She openly criticizes Rabbi Riskin, founder of the organization Nekrutman works for ties to groups such as Eagle’s Wings, headed by Robert Stearns, who Horowitz discovers, sponsors major conventions that “champion the cause of Messianic Judaism.” According to Horowitz, Stearns devotes prayer services and lectures to the topic of messianic restoration of Israel.

Messianic Jews are another volatile issue in both Israel and North America. Jews that accept Jesus are coined “messianic Jews.” From the Christian Evangelical perspective, they’re still Jews but according to Jewish law, they aren’t. In fact, if they apply for citizenship in Israel under the law of return, they’ll be rejected, as the current law states a Jew is not a Jew if they subscribe to another religion.

Beyond not being accepted as Jewish, the messianic population is a target for harassment in Israel. The 2008 US State Department’s Annual Report on international religious freedom indicates that violent incidents towards the Messianic community have increased from barely a couple a month in early 2007 to eight to nine a month in 2008.[ii]

By this point I don’t even need to ask the question, how can they continue to support Israel. The answer, I understood is automatic- the Bible tells them to.

Most of the Jewish criticisms I’d looked at were Orthodox ones. I needed to know what perspective a more moderate Rabbi would adopt. Rabbi Tanenbaum is the rabbi from Beth Tzedec, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto. He organized a six part speaker series last year, tackling Christian Zionism.  Tanenbaum shrugs his shoulders as he turns my question on its heels.  “Why not develop relationships with these organizations?” he says.

Tanenbaum was the first one to raise the ‘so, what?’ question. If the Jews are concerned about proselytizing, which reflects more about the health of the Jewish community than it does anything else…doesn’t it?

After mulling it over, months after I first began my research, I have adopted what I’ve coined the “Tanenbaum” approach, after the Rabbi of course- so, what? So, what if they try and convert us? We have a duty to have enough inner strength to combat outside spiritual threats.

Though I first dismissed David Nekrutman’s trust as naivety, I learned to understand his inherent desire. I believe these Christians when they tell me, even the openly proselytizing ones like Friends of Israel, that even if there were no chance of conversion, they would still support the state of Israel. I believe them because you can feel it when they talk to you. You can feel the passion emanating from their words, translating to action. As Rabbi Skobac says, “They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk.”

I look back on my memory of 17-year-old me watching my father, searching for meaning, a meaning I continue to hunt for today. I don’t think Christians trying to convert Jews is the problem. I’m still searching for that answer.

 


 

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