- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 14, 2004

JERUSALEM — Ray Sanders and his wife, Sharon, grew up on farms in the American Midwest, but Israel has long been their home. Their journey began in the 1970s, when they read Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic best seller, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which laid out a scenario for the end of the world according to a literal interpretation of Bible prophecies.

“That awakened our understanding to Israel and its prophetic role in the Last Days,” Mr. Sanders said in his spacious Jerusalem office. “That was a real paradigm shift in our lives.”

That shift spurred the couple to leave their jobs, attend Bible college in Texas and move to Jerusalem, where in 1985 they helped found a biblical Zionist organization called Christian Friends of Israel (CFI).

With a few similar groups here, they are marshaling financial and moral support from evangelical Christians around the world, and particularly in the United States, to fulfill what they see as their role in an unfolding final drama.

Christian Zionists, an evangelical subset whose ranks are estimated at 20 million in the United States, in the past two decades have poured millions of dollars of donations into Israel, formed a tight alliance with the Likud and other Israeli politicians seeking an expanded “Greater Israel,” and mobilized grass-roots efforts to get the United States to adopt a similar policy.

Christian Zionist leaders today have access to the White House and strong support within Congress.

For many Jews, the enthusiastic support of these evangelical Christians is welcome at a time of terrorism and rising anti-Semitism. Several Israeli leaders have called them “the best friends Israel has.”

But other Jews and Christians have begun speaking against the alliance, which they see as a dangerous mix of religion and politics that is harmful to Israel and endangers prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

The prophecy

For Christian Zionists, the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham and the center of His action from now to the Second Coming of Christ and final battle of Armageddon, when the Antichrist will be defeated. But before this can occur, they say, biblical prophecy foretells the return of Jews from other countries, Israel’s possession of all the land between the Euphrates and Nile rivers, and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple where a Muslim site, the Dome of the Rock, now stands.

These beliefs lead to positions that critics say are uncompromising and ignore the fact that most Israelis want peace. “Pressuring the U.S. government away from peace negotiations and toward an annexationist policy, that has a direct negative impact on the potential for change in the Middle East,” said Gershom Gorenberg, a senior editor at the Jerusalem Report newsmagazine.

Two former chief rabbis of Israel, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, have approved a ruling urging followers not to accept money from the groups, warning that their ultimate intent is conversion of Jews. Christian Zionists believe that during the Last Days, Jews must either accept Jesus as the Messiah or perish.

Other Christians in the Holy Land oppose what they consider a false interpretation of Christianity that is heightening tensions here. “Christian Zionism transforms faith into a political ideology, and one that needs an enemy,” said the Rev. Rafik Khoury, of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

But Christian Zionists argue that Christians’ role is to back Israel wholeheartedly and conform to God’s message in Genesis: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curses thee” (Genesis 12:3).

To this end, Christian groups have sponsored the migration of thousands of Jews from Russia, Ethiopia and other countries. They have funneled resources into social programs for Israeli communities, and they encourage churches in the United States to support Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

“We stand for the right that all the land that God gave under the Abrahamic covenant 4,000 years ago is Israel’s … and He will regulate the affairs of how Israel comes into the allotment which is hers forever,” said the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, director of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), the largest of the Zionist groups with branches in 55 countries. Biblical Zionism rejects any effort to read the Scriptures spiritually or allegorically, Mr. Hedding said. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” he adds.

Pre-millennialism

Christian Zionism is a more recent term for a 19th-century theology that began in England, called “premillennial dispensationalism.” It divides history into eras, or “dispensations,” based on a complex interpretation of biblical texts in books such as Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation. Most other Christian groups view these prophecies as predictions fulfilled long ago or as visions with a purely symbolic or spiritual meaning. But premillennialists insist they will occur on earth in the future.

Israel’s creation in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 — in which Israel captured all of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip — galvanized premillennialists to believe the Last Days had begun. Mr. Lindsey’s book, the nonfiction best seller of the 1970s, popularized premillennialist teachings for millions of Americans and put Israel right at the center, said Donald Wagner, professor of religion and Middle East studies at North Park University in Chicago. Mr. Lindsey started a consultant business, Mr. Wagner said, that involved sessions with the Pentagon, CIA, Israeli generals and the U.S. Congress.

But Mr. Lindsey wasn’t the first premillennialist author to leave his mark. William Blackstone, a fundamentalist lay preacher in the United States, wrote an 1882 best seller, “Jesus Is Coming,” and in 1891 organized the first campaign in support of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Pre-millennialists in the British imperial government included Lord Arthur Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who were the first to officially promise a Jewish homeland with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Christian Zionism

In the United States, pre-millennialist teaching has spread through TV and radio evangelists and, most recently, the “Left Behind” novels and prophecy Web sites.

Supporters range from avid believers to more passive participants who nonetheless believe in prophecy and watch for its fulfillment, scholars say.

Such teaching may attract more followers in times of stress, observers suggest, as it offers one explanation for disturbing world events.

Christian Zionists “create a worldview into which people walk and don’t realize how big a move they’ve made,” said Martin Marty, religious historian and co-director of the Fundamentalist Project, set up to study worldwide religious reaction to modernity. There are sincere people in the movement who pray for the conversion of Israel, but don’t take up the political program, he said.

But he and others, including some evangelicals, are increasingly concerned that many Christian Zionists have become activists whose actions ultimately could have serious — even disastrous — consequences.

“The danger is that, when people believe they ‘know’ how things are going to turn out and then act on those convictions, they can make these prophecies self-fulfilling, and bring on some of the things they predict,” said the Rev. Timothy Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee and author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”

“Before the Six-Day War, dispensationalists were content to sit in the bleachers of history explaining the End-Time game on the field below, pointing out events and identifying players,” Mr. Weber adds. “But after expansion of Israel into the West Bank and Gaza, they began to get down onto the field and be sure the teams lined up right, becoming involved in political, financial and religious ways they never had before.”

A confluence of events in the 1970s and 1980s set the stage for the current activism. After the 1967 war, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants joined the international consensus that Israel should give up the occupied territories for peace, a growing evangelical community became more politically active, and for the first time the Likud Party came to power in Israel with an aim to hold on to “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical terms for the West Bank.

A 1978 study by an Israeli scholar on American fundamentalist churches helped spur the Likud Party’s courting of Christian Zionist leaders such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, said Clifford Kiracofe, a former senior staff member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Since then, Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon have addressed Christian Zionist gatherings of thousands in Jerusalem and met with evangelical leaders and groups during trips to the United States.

Evangelical leaders began traveling to Israel and organizing tours for churches from across the United States. Today, a network of more than 200 pro-Israel grass-roots organizations has developed in the United States, and Christian Zionist groups work to involve American congregations in prayer, financial aid and advocacy.

For Ray Sanders and thousands of U.S. churchgoers, their role is to learn how best to bless Israel.

“We take that injunction very seriously, and we want the Jewish people to realize the good will we have toward them, contrary to centuries of anti-Semitic history,” he said. CFI runs several humanitarian projects, including a distribution center for the needy in Jerusalem, where donations from the United States have provided clothing and household items for 250,000 people.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which draws support from the Christian Zionist community, holds an annual day of prayer for Israel that last year involved 18,000 churches in the United States. Since fund raising began eight years ago, individuals and churches have contributed about $100 million in humanitarian aid for Israeli social programs — $20 million in the past year alone — and sponsored 100,000 emigres from Russia and Ethiopia, said Yechiel Eckstein, who founded the group with an evangelical pastor.

“We have 350,000 donors who support this work, and we get 2,000 to 2,500 checks in the mail a day,” he said of IFCJ, based in Chicago and Jerusalem. Rabbi Eckstein travels to several continents to educate congregations on the Jewish roots of Christianity and to urge advocacy for Israel.

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