Israeli cabinet minister Binyamin Elon was in New York several weeks ago to wrap up a hectic swing through the Southeast that included stops in Memphis, Atlanta, and several other cities. It was a muggy afternoon, and Elon, a soft-spoken bear of a man who has a full beard, looked a little weary as he filled a chair at the Israeli Consulate on Second Avenue.
A potent political figure back home, Elon wears two hats (in addition to his knitted kippa): He is Israel’s Tourism minister and the head of Moledet, one of the small right-wing parties that help keep Ariel Sharon in power. On his visit here, he was working both portfolios pretty hard, often with the same people. In private meetings with political activists, as well as in speeches before religious groups, Elon pushed the importance of visiting Israel now.
Since the second Palestinian intifada began three years ago, the number of visitors to Israel has plummeted from more than 3 million a year to barely 1 million. In the days just before the war in Iraq, Elon was actually giving out gas masks to visitors. “I was,” he says sardonically, “probably the world’s only minister of tourism who was able to personally meet each of his country’s tourists.”
Solidarity with the Holy Land is the current sales strategy. Elon hopes that, at least among the believers, religious faith will outweigh fear: “For obvious reasons, we are not trying to compete with the Virgin Islands as a family-vacation spot.”
When he slipped on his Moledet hat, Elon went from pitching tourism to practicing politics. His agenda was simple: to instigate and solidify opposition to the Bush road map.
An Orthodox rabbi who lives in the West Bank, Elon favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in his version, Israel keeps the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians get to become citizens of Jordan, which, he says, is already a de facto Palestinian state. He argues with alacrity that the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—which he says would never be economically or geographically viable anyway—would actually be a three-state solution.
Wherever Elon went, he was warmly received. Which may not be surprising, since he was clearly preaching to the choir. What is surprising, however, is that it was the Christian choir he was preaching to, not the Jewish one. During his five-day trip, Elon spent virtually none of his time among Jews.
Instead, he spoke at the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis and lunched there with a group of pastors. He met with Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. He spent time with Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and author of Beyond Iraq: The Next Move, a book that depicts Islam as evil and finds biblical harbingers of the end of time in the current global crisis.
“The Evangelicals may now be seen as even more important allies than American Jews.”
He talked to former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, now head of American Values, a conservative Christian group. And he beamed with pride in snapshots taken when Ed McAteer, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, brought him to see a billboard in downtown Memphis that loudly displayed a passage from Genesis: AND THE LORD SAID TO JACOB . . . “UNTO THY OFFSPRING WILL I GIVE THIS LAND.”
At every stop and at every meeting, Elon was signaling the importance that the Jewish community, and especially Israeli politicians on the right, places on its relationship with America’s swelling Evangelical Christian community. And while this alliance between the Evangelicals and the Jews is not new, it has suddenly taken on a sense of urgency and an intensity that haven’t been seen before.
AIPAC, the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington, chose Gary Bauer to speak at its most recent annual dinner. The Zionist Organization of America honored televangelist and onetime presidential candidate Pat Robertson with its State of Israel Friendship Award.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews twenty years ago, was named the third-most-important Jew in America by The Forward. The reason? He spent years as a kind of outcast among his peers for his efforts to foster better relations between Jews and Evangelicals; now the Jewish community has begun to see things his way.
And when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the conservative, born-again former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, addresses the Knesset, as he did several weeks ago, and says, “I stand before you today, in solidarity, as an Israeli of the heart,” you know something’s going on.
Indeed, the world—and not just that part of it between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—is a very different place from what it was in 1980, when Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin outraged much of the Jewish community by presenting the Jabotinsky Centennial medal to the Reverend Jerry Falwell for his work on behalf of Israel.
In the two decades that followed, the relationship between American Jews and Evangelicals was at best lukewarm. Though the Evangelicals periodically offered support, their overtures to the Jewish community were generally met with skepticism. Many Jews believed that what the Christians really wanted was to convert them. Or to persuade all of them to move to Israel as part of some devious plan to hasten the coming of the end of days as laid out in the New Testament.
But much of that queasy reluctance has been overcome, or at least pushed aside, as Israel’s situation has worsened. As the violence gets more horrific and more relentless, and the overall outlook more bleak, Israel seems to have fewer and fewer friends. Support from the Evangelicals, however, hasn’t wavered. In fact, the more beleaguered Israel seems to be, the more passionate its Christian friends have become. “I have always said,” Jerry Falwell told me recently, “that America’s Bible Belt is Israel’s safety belt.”
Three critical developments have deepened the alliance. One is the stunning rise in anti-Semitism around the world and the feelings of insecurity it has stirred among Jews. The second is 9/11, and the third is George W. Bush. The president is a born-again, Scripture-loving Christian who sees the world in stark, almost biblical, terms (“You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”). He is also surrounded by a coterie of advisers who similarly see the war on terrorism and the current conflict as a clash of civilizations, a battle between the East and the West.
“Conservatives generally and Christian conservatives specifically see our foreign policy in moral terms,” says Bauer. “And they see Israel as the good guy, a democracy, a nation much like ours. And they see Israel’s opponents as a collection of thugs, dictators, and self-appointed kings.”