Jerusalem — Lynda Prince, a Native American from British Columbia, Canada, received more than a few curious stares last week when she explored the Israeli capital in Indian authentic garb.
Prince, who was in Israel to attend an annual evangelical Christian conference called the Feast of Tabernacles, wore a 30-pound deer-skin wedding dress and brightly colored feathered headdress during much of her visit, despite the sizzling autumn heat.
“I wanted to show Israelis that First Nation peoples [the term refers to indigenous people: Native Americans, the Maoris in New Zealand, the Zulus in South Africa] love Israel and the Jewish people,” said Prince, just before the opening of the weeklong feast. “Like us, the Jewish nation is a First Nation, and God created all First Nations.”
Like most of her fellow conference participants — more than 5,000 in all, from such diverse places as Sudan, Tahiti, Algeria and Samoa — Prince’s respect and love for Jews is an integral part of her evangelical, or “born again,” Christian faith.
Believing that Jews are the Lord’s Chosen People, and that their return to the Land of Israel is part of divine prophesy, hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians have warmly embraced Jews and the Jewish state during the past decade. Although some clearly have an ulterior motive (a minority believe that the Jews must be ingathered and converted to Christianity to usher in the Messianic era), a large number of born again Christians support Israel unconditionally.
This support has manifested itself in a variety of ways, some of them well publicized, others not at all.
Among the best-known evangelical groups is the Jerusalem-based International Christian Embassy, the organization that organizes the annual Feast of Tabernacles and numerous other activities on behalf of Israel. Unashamedly pro-Israel, the organization brings almost 10,000 Christian pilgrims to Israel every year and organizes pro-Israel prayer vigils in places like Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. It also gives assistance to needy Jews and Christian Arabs.
Bridges for Peace, another evangelical organization that operates from predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, runs the only food bank in the capital. Thanks to a network of volunteers, who come to Israel at their own expense, Bridges distributes more than a ton of food every day to needy Israelis (and some Christian Arabs in the Bethlehem area), most of them immigrants and the elderly. About 10 percent of the produce the group distributes is harvested from the fields of kibbutzim and moshavim, where volunteers literally “glean” the fields in accordance with the Biblical commandment.
Bridges also runs a “repairers” program in Israel, which sends out teams of volunteers to repair dilapidated homes of the poor and elderly, many of them Holocaust survivors. To date, more than 200 homes have been refurbished.
In recognition of its efforts, the Jerusalem Municipality has twice awarded the organization the Mayor’s Prize for Non-Profit Organizations.
Clarence H. Wagner Jr., the organization’s international director, said in an interview that Bridges has several goals: to promote Christian understanding of Israel, to engender love for the Jewish people; and to redress past wrongs committed by Christians against Jews.”
While the majority of American Jews are at odds with the ultra-conservative views espoused by Bible Belt Christians, particularly when it comes to issues like school prayer and abortion, there is no denying that American evangelicals are among Israel’s best friends in Washington.
On Capitol Hill, evangelical legislators have been instrumental in ensuring a strong foreign-aid package for Israel, and have consistently voted against arms deals that would give a military advantage to Israel’s allies.
Bobby Brown, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s adviser on diaspora affairs, acknowledges that “overwhelmingly, evangelical Christians in Congress and in public life have shown clear support for Israel. They’ve made a substantial difference.”
This bond was severely tested two years ago, and again a few months ago, when religious Knesset members introduced two successive anti-missionary bills that, Christian groups claimed, would limit their ability to practice their religion.
Although the majority of churches and Christian organizations in Israel do not actively seek out converts, and some, like Bridges for Peace, strictly forbid missionizing, local Messianic Jews and a handful of evangelical groups have no such scruples. They distribute their literature freely, in Hebrew and Arabic, at rock concerts, public toilets, and on street corners.
The first bill, which has been superseded by the second, was drafted after an American evangelical group reportedly sent half a million copies of the New Testament — in Hebrew — to Israeli households.
The bill would have imposed a year’s imprisonment on anyone distributing or possessing missionary materials. In angry letters to the prime minister and Knesset members, tens of thousands of Christians from around the world expressed the fear that merely bringing a New Testament through Israeli customs could be grounds for imprisonment.
After a coalition of Christian groups assured the government that they would not missionize, Netanyahu vowed to vote against the bill and the case appeared closed.
For this reason, Netanyahu’s decision to vote in favor of the second, farther-reaching bill during its preliminary reading, came as a blow to Christian leaders. This second bill, which passed the first of four mandatory readings earlier this year but which is now bogged down in committee, would impose a $14,000 fine and a three-year prison term on anyone found guilty of “preaching with the intent of causing another person to change his religion.”
During a musical performance at the Feast, Dave Parsons, public relations officer for the International Christian Embassy, said that his organization will monitor the bill’s status once the Knesset goes back to work after the holidays.
“A lot of Christians overseas have been alarmed by it,” Parsons said. “Passing such a bill would be a mistake and we’ve come out clearly against it. It’s a censorship provision that goes against Israel’s democratic values and freedom of speech. We understand the concerns of some segments of Israeli society — the suspicions and wounds Christians in the past caused the Jewish people — be we don’t think the issue should be dealt with in this way.”
Evidently, the Israeli government has come to the same conclusion. As opposition to the bill continues to mount, there are growing indications that the legislation will never make it to a second reading. Coalition whip Meir Sheetrit, who opposed bringing it to a vote, has said that “this bill will be buried in committee like similar bills before it. … There is no way this bill will become a law.”
And if an anti-missonary law does become a reality?
“We don’t condition our support of Israel on the right to proselytize because we don’t proselytize,” Parsons said, “but sharing our pro-Israel message with Christians will be harder than before.”
Bill or no bill, Parsons said, “our relationship is based on the Biblical principle that Christians should bless the seed for Abraham. The Bible leaves little room for us to be anti-Zionist. Or neutral.”