In an effort to reach beyond the Jewish community to gain traction in the fight against Israel’s Gaza disengagement, a major pullout opponent has signed up a group of Bible Belt Baptist ministers who see the plan as an affront to God’s will to join some 100 American Jews on a sojourn to Israel next week.
The ministers hope to spend three days with the soon-to-be-vacated Jewish settlers in Gaza on a mission organized by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind to depart on June 5.
"The Bible says that land belongs to the Jews," the Rev. James Vineyard of the Windsor Hill Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, said in an interview. "The Lord, God of Israel, is not going to look favorably on the giving-away of one grain of sand.
"Rev. Vineyard last month organized a demonstration in Crawford, Texas, against disengagement when President George W. Bush hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He belongs to a coalition of Jewish and Christian Zionists, Yedidim for Israel (or dear friends of Israel) that opposes all concessions to the Palestinians. Rev. Vineyard said he recently raised more than $50,000 to create a DVD for churches and synagogues explaining opposition to the Gaza plan.
After Hikind invited him to participate in the mission, Rev. Vineyard said he consulted with his friend, Benny Elon, a Knesset member who recently resigned as minister of tourism, and Elon encouraged him to go.
Also participating in the mission are Rev. Vineyard’s son, the Rev. Merle Vineyard, a missionary stationed on Africa’s Ivory Coast, as well as the Rev. Danny Dodson of Center, Texas; Pastor Cecil Ballard of Marion, Iowa; the Rev. Bryan Sharp of Pacific, Mo.; and the Rev. Joseph Buckly Consford.
The ministers’ move comes as thousands of Gaza pullout protesters jammed the streets Sunday around Baruch College on 23rd Street, where Sharon was addressing 1,500 Jewish leaders supporting the disengagement. It was the largest show of force to date by the anti-pullout movement in the United States, much of which is centered here.
Hikind said he was undaunted by the proselytizing activities of the Evangelical ministers, a source of concern to some Jewish organizations that are skeptical about fundamentalist Christian support for Israel.
"As far as I know they are not directly involved in [proselytizing]," Hikind said. "They are coming on this trip to show their support for Gush Katif [the settlers’ bloc in Gaza], and that’s the beginning or the end of the conversations I have had with him."
Rev. Vineyard said that in 28 years at his 3,000-member congregation, he has "never had a Sunday when we haven’t had someone saved and somebody baptized." But he said he had never baptized a Jewish proselyte.
"I don’t go to Israel to win souls," he said. "I go to keep America from going down the tubes."
If America causes Israel to give away Gush Katif, Israel goes down the tubes, and as goes Israel, so goes America."
Rev. Vineyard said he believed that Sharon, about whom he had once spoken enthusiastically, has agreed to give up Gaza as part of a deal with left-wing politicians and judges in order to end an investigation into his campaign finances and business dealings that was aborted last year.
Speaking at Sunday’s protest rally, Hikind expressed frustration that more Jewish leaders had not signed on to his trip.
"It is easier for me to find Baptist ministers than rabbis," he said in a booming voice.
Hikind said Tuesday that he hoped to have an equal amount of rabbis and ministers. In addition to the clergy and members of their congregations, he had also signed up Brooklyn state Sen. John Sampson and several other non-Jewish New Yorkers. Sampson is a candidate for Brooklyn district attorney in September’s Democratic primary.
Twenty-seven Jewish organizations supporting the disengagement expressed themselves Sunday in a full-page newspaper ad calling Sharon "courageous" and the Gaza pullout "possibly the most difficult decision of your political career."
Another ad sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities simply saluted Sharon’s "strong leadership and vision for Israel’s future" without mentioning Gaza.
But opponents of the disengagement here are increasingly ratcheting up the volume. Sharon’s address on Sunday was interrupted sporadically by protesters from among the crowd of invited guests, and police outside hurriedly set up new barricades on both sides of 23rd Street as the protest crowd grew over the course of three hours.
The crowd was fueled largely by Lubavitch chasidim (young yeshiva students and families with small children or babies in strollers) who had been urged by rabbis in their Crown Heights neighborhood to attend, although the Chabad movement itself takes no official stand on the disengagement.
"The [chasidim] believe in the Rebbe’s message of not one inch," said Helen Freedman of Americans for Safe Israel, an organizer of the rally. She was referring to the late Lubavitcher leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "They believe that the voices of young children will reach heaven before anyone else."
Israel Clapman, an 18-year-old yeshiva student, said he believed Sharon was "nuts in the head," and attributed the withdrawal to "American pressure." He said the Lubavitcher rebbe had once encouraged Sharon to stay out of politics.
"When he was in the army he knew what he was doing," Clapman said of Sharon. "Political views are not for him."
Angry chants such as "Sharon is a traitor" and "Shame on you," the latter led by Hikind, reverberated through the crowd, and many were clad in orange, the color designated to show solidarity with the settlers.
Speakers included Elon, Hikind and several area Orthodox rabbis.
"[Even] if it’s kosher, it stinks, and if it’s legal, it’s illegitimate," Elon told the crowd, referring to the disengagement.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, N.J., said Sharon is "abandoning the land of Israel and not defending it [against] terror. He is persecuting Jews and not loving Jews, and that cannot stand."
In the audience with his family, Noah Cohen, a lawyer from Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said that while he didn’t believe the protests would faze Sharon, "it will encourage other people to protest, and that will have an effect."
Another large-scale protest is scheduled for June 5 following the Salute to Israel parade at a concert of Jewish music that has become an annual expression of right-wing opposition to aspects of the peace process.
In addition to Hikind’s trip, Americans for a Safe Israel is planning a 10-day trip to Israel beginning Sunday to protest the disengagement. But it is not clear whether the Israeli army will allow the groups into Gaza after announcing that the area would be closed to non-residents after Passover.
"Whatever the government does, we are prepared for," said Hikind. "Members of Knesset will be joining us as we head for Gush Katif. It makes no sense for them not to let our group in."
Freedman said that if her group is barred, "I’ll be calling the American Consulate and I’ll be very angry."