Tel Aviv — An accord expanding U.S. Evangelical Christians’ stake in the innermost sanctums of the Zionist movement has produced an undercurrent of unease in Israel and North American Jewish leadership circles.
Under the new "strategic partnership" announced late last week, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) will donate $45 million over three years to the struggling Jewish Agency in return for a spot on the executive board for President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, ICJF’s president and a pioneer fostering the alliance between Christian Zionists and Israel.
Just as telling, however, was the relative indifference of the Israeli press to the news of the partnership and the praise for Rabbi Eckstein — a leader in the much-debated interfaith alliance who has moved from the margins of the Jewish community to the heart of the establishment.
Rabbi Eckstein, who has been on the board of the Jewish Agency for several years and a non-voting member of the 26-member executive committee, told The Jewish Week that he’s not opposed to Evangelicals joining Jewish Agency decision-making bodies, though that’s not included in the current three-year deal.
He said that until now Jewish groups have been happy to accept IFGC funding and now the group is receiving the recognition it deserves.
"It feels like we’re losing control," said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a co-founder of the Web site Jews on First, which criticizes the growing influence of the Christian right and Christian Zionist groups in America. "Those who will be in charge of the Zionist enterprise will not be Jews, but the senior partners with the most money,"
The deal raises concerns that world Jewry’s main policy–making body has merged with Christian denominations that have allegedly tried to convert Jews, oppose peace efforts they consider unbiblical, and hew to a theology that sees the Zionist ingathering in Israel as a sign of the Armageddon that precedes a new messianic era.
Rabbi Beliak called the Evangelicals a potential "fifth column" in the Zionist camp because they will use their new influence to rule territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He said the Jewish Agency will "lose more of its relevance … people will see this not as the fulfillment of Zionism, leading to peace, but the end of Zionism, leading to war."
A longtime American Jewish leader who declined to speak on the record, citing his lack of close involvement with the Jewish Agency, called the agreement "an abomination" that could skew agency policy. But the leader said his colleagues in Jewish leadership are increasingly dazzled by the huge amounts of money raised by the IFCJ and are increasingly reluctant to criticize its involvement.
Labor Knesset Member Colette Avital, the former Israeli consul general for New York who sits on the parliament’s committee on diaspora relations and immigrant absorption, called the accord "appalling."
"This is the Jewish Agency for Israel. Not the Evangelical Agency for Israel. Why not put an Arab on the board as well?" Avital said.
"What do they want from Israel? I don’t think that the mere fact that they’re giving large sums of money entitles them to be part of the one organ that was supposed be a parliament of the Jewish people," Avital continued. "Even though I’m not anti-Christian, I don’t think there’s any room for any Christians on the board of the Jewish agency."
Avital’s critique of the deal stopped short of Rabbi Eckstein. "He may be a wonderful human being. I admire him for the great things he’s doing. I’m not passing any judgments on Yechiel Eckstein."
She said the agency’s accord with the Christian Zionist group — known to most Israelis as simply the "friendship fund" — has yet to draw much attention here, but that she would consider convening a committee discussion of it.
The question of Christian participation in the Jewish Agency underlines a tension between the organization’s roles as a philanthropy and the Zionist glue between Israel and world Jewry, said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of a book on the Christian right entitled "The End of Days."
But fewer Israelis are interested in the debate because of the ever-diminishing prominence of the Jewish Agency in everyday life in Israel, he said. "The agency has registered less and less over the years. Their major projects are philanthropic, and as important as that is, Israel is much more self-supporting these days. The agency is fulfilling fewer government functions in Israel, which makes it less influential."
Evangelicals are "more a curiosity than an issue," Gorenberg said.
Over 25 years, Rabbi Eckstein has burnished his image among Israelis for channeling charity money raised in Christian communities to Jewish immigrants to Israel, social welfare programs in distressed Israeli towns, and elderly Russian Jews. On Tuesday, his organization was thanked once again by Jewish Agency for giving $10,000 stipends to each of the 40 Iranian Jews who had defected in secret this week to Israel.
Though the Evangelicals’ Orthodox emissary has been the target of excommunication attempts and an investigation by a New York rabbinical court, which was unnamed in news reports, he also advised former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Rabbi Eckstein said he views the agreement as a Zionist watershed: after years of stressing self-reliance on Jews, the accord establishes the Evangelicals as a full partner to the Zionist project.
"The Fellowship and the Christians around the world literally have a seat around the table of a historic change between the Jewish Agency: now we sit with the UJC and Keren Hayesod as a full fledged partner," he said, referring to the North American federation umbrella and umbrella group for World Jewry.
"All these years it’s been the Jewish people alone, and we’ve talked about relying only on the Jewish people," he added, referring to the IFCJ as "trusty reliable support" for Israel. "Just as Israel couldn’t make it alone without the United States, I think this is an acknowledgment that the Jewish people can’t do it alone."
Rabbi Eckstein said the pro-Israeli enthusiasm of Christian Zionists fills a "void" among the American Jewish public, which surveys suggest is less and less connected to Israel.
Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman, a longtime critic of Rabbi Eckstein, said he was disturbed by the agreement because "it sends the wrong message. It’s one thing to buy a seat at the table for money; it’s another thing to buy a seat basically for someone else."
Rabbi Eckstein, who began his career with the ADL, has long been unhappy about that group’s lack of support for his close involvement with Christian Zionist groups.
Foxman continued: "I don’t see why the Jewish Agency needs Christians to guide it. We should welcome their financial support, thank them, but not involve them in policy."
The policy part of the equation worries some. Increasingly, some Christian Zionist groups in America and Israel are taking a more active role in opposing Israeli government policy on peace negotiations. Some Jewish leaders worry that elevating Rabbi Eckstein — the bridge to the Evangelical leadership— to a more influential position in the Jewish Agency, gives added legitimacy to groups with a broader political agenda.
Even though American presidents like John Adams and Abraham Lincoln could be called Christian Zionists who spoke of a Jewish state in Palestine before Theodore Herzl, Evangelicals have been historically suspected by the Jewish establishment for missionary activities and their apocalyptic theology. Many worry that their political influence in Israel and the U.S. could hurt a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
Rabbi Eckstein denies such a political agenda. So did Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, who said that the executive board focuses on immigration to Israel and the debate over defining who should be eligible under the Law of Return. The executive committee meets three times annually with members of the Israeli government about the "issues of the day."
"He’s upgraded his status," Jankelowitz said of Rabbi Eckstein. "He is a major player today in Israeli philanthropy."
Once listed as second on Haaretz’s list of Israel philanthropies, ICFJ has contributed to building bomb shelters in northern Israel and partnered with the Education Ministry on hot lunch programs.
The Christian Zionist group has become so mainstream that even politicians in the peace camp have felt compelled to embrace it. Ran Cohen, who is vying to become the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, said he joined the Knesset’s 14-member Christian Allies Caucus to present them with arguments for peace and territorial compromise.
Cohen’s response to the Jewish Agency’s "strategic partnership" revealed some of the cognitive dissonance among Israeli politicians regarding the involvement of U.S. Evangelicals. While he rejected the notion of Evangelicals taking up an "integral" role in the Jewish Agency, he wasn’t troubled by Rabbi Eckstein playing a role. "He’s a Jew, no?" asked Cohen. "He converted."
In a similar vein, Arieh Eldad of the rightist National Union party said he wouldn’t want to see any non-Jews in the Jewish Agency, but said he admired Rabbi Eckstein. He rejected the suggestion that Eckstein’s position on the executive committee represented a quid pro quo for increased contributions, and said he doesn’t consider his role in the Jewish Agency committee as the representative of Christian Zionists.
But Nina Penton, a Jerusalem municipal council member from the National Religious Party was unequivocal about the agreement. "This is a national disaster," she said, calling Eckstein a "servant" of the Christian right and the accord a "trap."
"I call this the money crusade. They can’t come and kill us. It won’t work. They realized the weakness of humanity: Jews are in distress from the economy, the Gaza disengagement, the elderly, single mothers. This is the soft underbelly, and they go to these people in need and try and take their souls."
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.