I saw the signs driving up to the church. The road up to Living Word Christian Center, which was hosting the third annual Night to Honor Israel, organized by Christians United for Israel (CUFI), was lined with a crowd of young people, brandishing giant posters, and hooting and screaming at the passing cars. With no way to drive around this display, I drove on through their line, and pulling alongside them, couldn’t help but read the multitude of clearly-hand-drawn posters, which read:
I LOVE ISRAEL
WE STAND WITH ISRAEL
G-D BLESS ISRAEL
And thus began my incredibly surreal evening spent in a Christian church, with over three thousand Christians, and men like Evangelical Pastor Mac Hammond and radio talk show host Dennis Prager and Bet Shalom Rabbi Norman Cohen, all gathered to celebrate Israel together.
And boy, did people want to be at this event! If you weren’t there, I’m pretty sure you missed the event of the century! The overflow parking lot was full to bursting – a full hour before the event. The double lines to get in snaked for yards down the hall. The church sanctuary, which I was told seats 3,300, was standing room only, and I heard there were hundreds more in two overflow rooms.
So what were we all there for? At the risk of upsetting some of our rabbis – hands down the most alive, most exuberant, most excited and genuine celebration of Israel I have ever attended in the United States, bar none. These people – thousands of Christians, and a couple hundred Jews – came together to express their genuine love and unwavering support for Israel.
Three of our local cantors – Cantor Audrey Abrams of Beth El, Cantor Barry Abelson of Temple Israel, and Cantor Mitch Kowitz of Temple of Aaron – sang Hatikvah and Avinu Shebashamayim (the Jewish prayer for Israel). The benediction was given by Bet Shalom Rabbi Norman Cohen. And at the end of the event, the pastor handed a check for $85,200, collected at the event, to the heads of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and United Jewish Fund & Council of St. Paul, to be used for programs in Israel.
(Over the past three years of running this event, CUFI have raised over a quarter of a million dollars, all given to the Federation and United Fund & Council).
Bear in mind – this is over $85,000 collected from less than 5,000 people, just by sending around a donations basket. I’m not so sure that we would do as well at one of our events.
The headline speaker was talk radio host Dennis Prager, who spoke about the idea that,
Nothing is as powerful as Jews and Christians working together. It’s thousands of years too late. But it’s here now, and we’re thanking God we’re living at a time when it’s happening. And it’s happening here in the United States of America… Christians here, Christians in America, are our best friend.
He also went on to highlight the idea that,
Without support for Israel – America is doomed… The day America abandons Israel is the day America begins to decline. World opinion is worthless – it did nothing for Rwanda, Cambodia, or during the Holocaust – it’s useless, and usually wrong. The US says ‘to hell with world opinion.’ The day we march to world opinion [against Israel] – we are doomed.
Dennis Prager then called Living Word Pastor (and director of Christians United for Israel in the Upper Midwest) Mac Hammond “a blessing to the Jewish people.” Aside from his support for Israel through CUFI, Pastor Hammond has also initiated a program called “Israel Feed the Hungry,” through which his congregation has donated over $350,000 since 2004 to help families affected by suicide bombings in Israel.
Pastor Hammond then spoke about the reasons that motivate Christians to support Israel (and support it enough to come out and sit around in church on a gorgeous, sunny Sunday afternoon – and not even at their own church, as many were from other churches, including tons of pastors).
As Dennis Prager rather eloquently put it, “[Evangelical] Christians have an idiosyncrasy. They actually believe the Torah is God’s word.”
Pastor Hammond spoke to his congregation in the same spirit, saying that,
[Support for Israel and the Jewish people] is one of the core elements of Christian pursuit, that has not been enough pursued in decades and centuries past.
Pastor Hammond then quoted Genesis 12:3, saying,
“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” This is fairly simplistic, but true. You are seeking the blessing of the God that you serve. It’s fairly basic, if you believe the Bible.
He went on to say that,
We celebrate Israel as the apple of God’s eye. If we’re going to honor the God we serve, how can we do it without honoring God’s heart? God has an everlasting covenant with Israel. He says that Israel is the apple of his eye [Zechariah 2:8]. God is immutable, unchangeable. If Israel was the apple of his eye, then she is the apple of his eye, and always will be the apple of his eye. How can we honor the God of the Bible without honoring the expression of his love? That covenant is an everlasting covenant. We must honor Israel and the Jewish people are the people chosen by him.
[In honoring the Jewish people], we honor our own spiritual heritage. Without the Jews, Christians would not exist today – we must be basically honest about where we came from. Our God is the God of Judaism, our ethic…comes from the Torah, the word of God. All the things we come from, that founded Christianity, are Jewish. Including the lord we love and serve – Jesus. Our spiritual heritage is Jewish.
If we as Christians fail to purge the poison of Antisemitism in our own ranks – we will corrupt and undermine the basis of our faith. … The New Testament is full of statements that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is everlasting. Antisemitism is a poison rooted in more than racial bias… If there is not a voice to repudiate it, if there is not a visible proactive effort,… then I am allowing something poisonous and insipid to infect our faith.
Now, I realize that many in the Jewish community are very uncomfortable with the recent Christian movement to support Israel and embrace the Jewish people.
The two major arguments for this position tend to be either “but they don’t stand with us on anything else (politically)” or “but they really want to convert us all to Christianity or get us to move to Israel for the apocalypse.” Having now actually come face to face with this movement (and not some theoretical idea of it), I have something I’d like to say regarding both of these issues.
Let’s take the first argument first – they [evangelicals] are not with us [Jews] on other issues.
I actually had someone say to me once, “but we can’t stand with them. Do you know what they think on everything else?” Yes, I get it. These are mostly conservative Christians, and as such, they hold differing positions from most of the Jewish community on lots of political issues, including abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, and many other things. But my question is this – have we really gotten so small minded that we cannot accept anyone who thinks differently from us on any issue?
They are not bringing up about gay marriage when speaking about their support for Israel. They are not tying these issues together, and shoving them down our throats. So why do we have to go there? Do we really choose all of our friends now based on political agreement on every issue? Do we quiz our co-workers and neighbors, just to make absolutely certain we do not accidentally come into contact with anyone who stands somewhere else on some political issue? Are we really so insecure? Or so judgmental? Are all of those people who happen to disagree with us truly so evil that we cannot countenance dealing with them in any capacity at all?
And since when do we demand ideological purity from everyone, anyway? Let’s face it – nobody has the exact same political positions on every single thing. Nobody. You will not find 2 people who agree on absolutely everything politically. That is absurd. And normally, we do not demand ideological purity on all issues before we will stand together on one issue.
When Jews stand at immigration reform rallies or civil rights rallies, we do not demand to know everyone else’s views on abortion or gay marriage. And most of us would not refuse to stand with other groups on these issues, even if we knew that most people there do not support abotion, gay marriage, or what-have-you. For that matter, we do not demand to know where people stand on Israel before we stand with them on abortion or gay marriage, do we? We’re willing to compromise there. There would be no political coalitions at all if people started demanding that kind of purity from their allies. So why would this issue be any different? If you will stand with people who may not be like you in every way in support of other issues, then why would you suddenly get all offended and refuse to stand with people who may not agree with you on every possible issue when it comes to Israel?
Now to the second issue – they [evangelicals] don’t really mean it – they just want us [Jews] to convert/move to Israel.
I was there. I heard these people, and spoke with them. And I have to quote Dennis Prager on this one: “this is as honest and sincere as anything.”
There is absolutely no chance that this is fake. These people really mean it. Really and truly, in their veryheart of hearts. You can see it shining in their eyes when they talk to you about Israel or the Jews. You could not fake such a thing. Whether we understand it or not – you simply could not fake such enthusiasm, such love, and such genuine caring and excitement. Certainly not across five thousand people, and it really was every single person I spoke to, whether from this church, or many others. The pastors, the random people, young, old – everyone.
And again, as Dennis Prager correctly put it, “what is the ulterior motive to?” I have to say that if this is all a giant ploy to convert Jews to Christianity, it’s a really, really bad plan. Are we saying that five thousand people got together, just so they can support Israel, and that’s gonna make the 200 Jews who were there run and convert?
I met one pastor from Zambia, who told me that his church in Lino Lakes gets together every Tuesday to pray for Israel – whom is that gonna convert, exactly? I gotta tell ya, I don’t feel any more inclined to become a Christian after this event than I was before. And I’m pretty sure that neither do any of the other Jews who were there – including Jews like Rabbis Avi Olitzky and Alexander Davis of Beth El, Steve Hunegs of the JCRC, and Mort Naiman of the Jewish Federation. I’m sure that they all just can’t wait to convert now that they’ve seen some Christians do the Hora.
And I gotta tell you – believe it or not – absolutely no one made the slightest attempt to convert me at this event. Not one person even mentioned the possibility. Not one. That’s a pretty poor conversion plan, I gotta tell you. I’ve been more harrassed by Chabad than I was at this church. In fact, they went so far to not make the Jews uncomfortable, that they covered up the cross in their sanctuary with a giant CUFI backdrop, featuring the Star of David. Seriously – there was no cross visible in their sanctuary! Would we ever do such a thing for them?
Besides, again to quote Dennis Prager, “have you ever met anyone who converted (from Judaism to Christianity) because of Christian support for Israel?” Of course they’d like us to be Christian – that is the whole point of them being Christian, and I’m sure they think it would save my soul. And I don’t begrudge it to them – I’m sure they mean well. Then again, my mother would like me to get married and go to grad school – she’s pretty adamant that that would save my life, too. And she’s a heck of a lot more pushy about it. But she’s my mother – that’s the whole point for her. And I’m still OK with her. I just wish she brought it up as little as these Christians bring up my supposed conversion.
So maybe they don’t want us to convert – they just want us all to move to Israel, so the apocalypse would come. First of all – how much do you really know about what is needed for the apocalypse? How many of us have even read the Book of Revelations, which talks about it? But suddenly, we’re real experts on the whole thing. Really now – if this was all a plan to get all the Jews to move to Israel, it would still be a pretty poor plan.
The way to get Jews to move to Israel is to send a bunch of money to help educate Ethiopian children in Hadera? Seriously? Or to give money to a program to help young Dispora Jews be more involved with their community? This is supposed to make us go to Israel? Again, this would be such a complete nonsense plan that I cannot believe that we would in one breath accuse these people of being so devious, and yet so completely incompetent in their deviousness. Really, people.
Whatever doubts I may have had before, I gotta tell you that having actually been there, I have to agree with Dennis Prager that, “this is a group sticking their neck out [to support us], and we reject them.” They sincerely and truly believe that they are honoring God’s will in supporting Israel and the Jewish people – our people. In fact, the CUFI motto is taken straight from Isaiah 62:1: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet.”
They sent 7,000 people to Washington last year, to lobby for Israel. And their lobbying points are identical to AIPAC’s. They are not doing that just to convert us, or whatever – they really mean it, and stand behind it – and lord knows, the Jewish people could use all the help they can get. So no wonder that the JCRC board voted unanimously to support the Night to Honor Israel event in 2009. As Rabbi Cohen of Bet Shalom so eloquently put it,
We have these friends who stand with us on campus, in Washington, who travel to Israel, and provide support for the widows and orphans of the IDF. We have CUFI, these pastors. We pray that you bring the wisdom to the Jewish people to recognize the support of our Christian friends.
I know that many of you will still disagree with me (and with Rabbi Cohen and the JCRC), so I would like to issue you this challenge. It’s easy to be against something you’ve never seen. Come with me next year.
Come and see it for yourself, listen to these people, and see how you feel about it then. And if you are still convinced that this is all an evil plot – I would be happy to give you the chance to say so in this very column. But come hear them first – embrace our great liberal Jewish tradition, and give these people a chance, whatever their religion, or their religion’s unfortunate past with our people. They are certainly doing that and more for us.
[Photos: Absolute Astronomy, Nate Mandos, Trinity Foundation]