There’s a stunning moment at the end of “’Til Kingdom Come,” Maya Zinshtein’s new documentary about evangelical Christian support for Israel, right-wing Israeli Jews and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
I won’t spoil it for you, except to say it’s a monologue by a pastor that hits on all the themes of this smart and unsettling film, but especially this one: Can someone love the Jews just a little too much?
I spoke last week to Zinshtein from her home in Tel Aviv. She has been doing a round of interviews about a film that consumed three years of her life, beginning shortly after the election of Donald Trump.
In order to understand the relationship between evangelicals and Israel, she focuses on three pillars of what has become a solid political/humanitarian bloc: The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Jewish-led powerhouse that serves as a conduit for evangelical fundraising for Israel; a Kentucky church that stands in for all the many churches that dig deep to support the Jewish state; and the Israeli settler movement, which has come to rely on evangelicals for the kind of backing they are not getting from liberal American Jews.
It’s a story I am familiar with, about the political influence of evangelicals on the pro-Israel agenda, and how, for example, John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel has come to rival AIPAC as a pro-Israel lobby. The Jewish media have long reported on American Jewish and Israeli ambivalence about the evangelical embrace of Israel, which is both deeply sincere and often predicated on an ominous end-times theology in which Jews ultimately do not fare well, to put it mildly.
In their support for the settlements and opposition to a Palestinian state, evangelicals represent a pro-Israel agenda that is far to the right of the American Jewish majority – and, at least during the Trump years, far more influential. Zinshtein’s film includes the dedication of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and shows the bleachers and speakers’ list for the ceremony dominated by Christian leaders.
But even if you think you know everything there is to know about this relationship, Zinshtein’s film is immediate and visceral, especially in her revealing portraits of two key players: Yael Eckstein, the president of the IFCJ, and the Kentucky pastor Boyd Bingham IV. Both are disciples and heirs-apparent to fathers they revere. In Eckstein’s case, her dad, IFCJ founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, died during the filming of the documentary, not long after he named her president of the organization. Bingham has chosen to stay on as assistant pastor to his father, whose church is adorned with an Israeli flag and, above the altar, a huge star of David that nearly obscures the cross hanging behind it.
As Zinshtein toggles among her protagonists, you see the compromises and challenges – what a less charitable observer might call hypocrisy – that animates these mutually reinforcing relationships. Is Eckstein in it for the humanitarian aid, the political clout, both, or neither? Are the Binghams committed to the actual people of Israel or their own apocalyptic vision for the Holy Land?
To her credit, Zinshtein doesn’t press hard on any one agenda: She is clearly alarmed about the evangelicals’ right-wing influence on Israeli and American politics (her previous film was about the anti-Arab extremists who support the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team), but she gives all her subjects room to make their case and confront their critics.
Again and again, evangelicals tell Zinshtein they are motivated by Genesis 12:3, when God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” “Motivated” is an understatement: The Binghams’ church, in Kentucky’s poorest county, donates tens of thousands of dollars through the IFCJ.
I asked Zinshtein what she, as a Jew and an Israeli, felt about this particular kind of love — the tender yin to end-times Christianity’s apocalyptic yang.
“You’re just speechless. It’s very strange,” she said. “Every time you go to Christian evangelicals as an Israeli, as Jewish, the first thing you hear is ‘we love you.’ And at some point you begin to ask what it means to love someone that you don’t know. It’s objectifying. Luckily I met one guy that was honest enough to tell me, ‘Listen, you need to understand that when they tell you that they love you, they mean that they love Jesus, and you are the key part of our story. We cannot make it without you.'”
Zinshtein apologized for what she said was a long answer to my question, but said the film was intended to tease out some of these complex feelings behind a relationship that the Israeli media often treats superficially — either “They love us, they give us money, what’s not to like?” or “They hate us. They want us to convert. Their politics are scary and their money is tainted.”
“I’m not going to spend three years of my life on being cynical,” she said. “And you won’t make a good film because it won’t be honest and it won’t be complicated.”
The film was shown on public television in Israel a few nights before the U.S. presidential election. Zinshtein called that the right place and the right time. “It’s not by accident that the film is told in a way that I think allows everyone to watch it. It doesn’t matter if you’re left wing or right wing. Many settlers wrote me and they said to me, ‘Yeah, it’s complicated, but [the evangelical support] was still needed.’” Most of all, she said, the film stated a conversation in Israel. “That’s the reason why I made it,” she said.
You can join the conversation: The film is available for viewing as a Home Cinema Release; go here for a list of participating theaters and streams. The film also premieres on PBS on March 29, as part of the “Independent Lens” series.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.