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Jews On First!

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Evangelicals Strengthening Bonds With Jews

By Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, February 6, 1983

After years of mutual alienation and distrust, evangelical Christians have been meeting with Jewish leaders in New York and elsewhere to offer support for Israel and to forge a new relationship with Jewish groups.

Jewish leaders are talking of a surge of support from a wide range of conservative Christians, including fundamentalists. Jewish leaders who want to build ties with evangelicals also point to pro-Israel editorials in evangelical magazines and to theological pronouncements by Christian preachers eschewing proselytizing among Jews. There have been rallies and newspaper advertisements supporting Israel, participation of evangelicals in synagogue services and the creation of pro-Israeli organizations among Christians.

But while many Jewish leaders have openly welcomed the evangelicals' eagerness to build ties, others say they are uneasy. They say they harbor deep doubts about the wisdom of alliances with conservative Christian groups that, they feel, want ultimately to convert the Jews and, on many political issues, often hold profoundly different, more conservative points of view.

''The evangelical community,'' said Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee in New York, ''is the largest and fastest growing block of pro-Israeli, pro-Jewish sentiment in this country.

''Since the 1967 war,'' he said, ''the Jewish community has felt abandoned by Protestants, by the groups clustered around the National Council of Churches, which, because of sympathy with third world causes, gave an impression of support for the P.L.O. There was a vacuum in public support for Israel that began to be filled by the fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.

''For myself, as a result now of knowing thousands of evangelicals, I came to the conviction that Jews had to change the basic image of them as Bible thumpers, as illiterate and bigoted people. We had stereotypes about evangelicals in the way that we felt Christians had stereotypes about Jews.''

J. Richard Butler, director for the Middle East of the National Council of Churches, denied that his organization had abandoned Jewish groups.

''The position of the National Council of Churches since 1980 unequivocally supports Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state,'' he said. ''We have been critical of Israeli policies and practices, as we have been critical of some of the policies and practices of other states.''

The most prominent spokesman among Jewish leaders for the more hesitant point of view toward the evangelicals is Rabbi Alexander Schindler, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a reform organization.

''Why does organized American Jewry continue its flirtation with the Christian right?'' he said. ''We know the reasons, of course. Most Jewish leaders are willing to forgive anyone anything so long as they hear a good word about Israel.''

''Even their support of Israel is intrinsically demeaning to Jews,'' Rabbi Schindler said, referring to the evangelical Christian belief that the Jews must be ''ingathered'' in Israel before there can be a Second Coming of Christ. Prayer Breakfast Honoring Israel

''The reason I am reluctant to work with such groups as Moral Majority,'' he said, ''is that in their domestic program the main objects of their attacks were some of our staunchest supporters among liberals in Congress. So even their support of Israel is flawed in this respect.''

Much of the support of the Christian right comes from large, nationwide organizations, such as Moral Majority. Last week in Washington, another such organization, Religious Roundtable, held a National Prayer Breakfast in Honor of Israel, attended by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and representatives of the Reagan Administration.

Mr. Thomas, a spokesman for Moral Majority, said the group was giving full support for Israel not only on theological grounds, but also because it regards Israel as a reliable democratic ally.

Religious Roundtable, a conservative organization founded in 1979, says it has 150,000 members in 200 chapters across the country. Evangelical support for Israel proceeded ''along two lines,'' said Dr. Paige Paterson, president of the Chriswell Bible Institute in Dallas.

''There is a general evangelical interest in Judaism as such,'' he said, ''and, of course, a tremendous theological interest in the State of Israel.''

'Feel a Tremendous Closeness'
''Evangelicals take every word of Scripture to be true,'' said Dr. Paterson, who is also associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. ''Thus we feel a tremendous closeness to the Jews as the chosen people.''

Some Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Tanenbaum, give credit to Billy Graham for being among the first major evangelical leaders to show strong public support for Israel.

Jewish supporters of ties with evangelicals say there is increasing grass-roots support among evangelical groups and activist pro-Israeli preachers.

In San Antonio, for example, the Rev. John C. Hagee, a nondenominational preacher who heads the 3,000-member Church of Castle Hills, in 1981 organized what he called ''Night to Honor Israel.'' It is a kind of music and prayer, evangelical-style traveling road show, complete with an orchestra and 80-voice choir that has performed in several cities in the Southwest and will go on a 10-day concert tour of Israel this June.

''Traveling in Israel in 1976,'' Pastor Hagee said, ''I was literally moved to tears as I began to walk the streets of Jerusalem and I remembered the historical nightmare that the Jewish people were forced to live because of organized Chrisianity's brutality.''

Shocked by the Reaction
Pastor Hagee said he was shocked five years later, in 1981, by the reaction in this country to the Israeli bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq. ''The headlines in my city were vicious against Israel, headlines like the U.S. ought to abandon Israel, things like that. I told my wife that we're going to do something in support of Israel.''

In San Antonio, in Fort Worth and Tulsa, in Houston and Phoenix, Pastor Hagee rented civic centers or symphony halls where he held ''Night to Honor Israel.'' His choir and concert orchestra performed ''Hatikvah,'' Israel's national anthem, and other Israeli and American songs.

Pastor Hagee gathered Jewish and Christian leaders for interdenominational prayers on the podium, and he took collections for the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

In ''an aggressive speech in support of Zionism,'' he has proclaimed the eternal covenant of God with Abraham, which, he believes, gives the Jews the right to all of biblical Israel forever. He will hold another ''Night to Honor Israel'' in Jones Hall in Dallas this May before going to Israel in June.

''Our approach in honoring the Jewish people is absolutely nonconversionary,'' Pastor Hagee said. '' We have a very strong conversionary approach among the gentiles, but it is absolutely forbidden among the Jews.''

Meetings With Begin
The embrace of Israel by evangelical Christians has been welcomed in Israel itself, where Prime Minister Menachem Begin has met with such conservative Christian leaders as Mr. Falwell and Jimmy Draper, president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

While on trips to this country, Mr. Begin has held meetings with delegations of evanglicals, including leaders of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, the national Religious Broadcasters and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Until the death of his wife cut short a trip to the United States in December, Mr. Begin was scheduled to attend a pro-Israel rally at the First Baptist Church in Dallas. He has said that he will reschedule his visit this year, church officials said.

The visit to Dallas was opposed by Jewish leaders who feel uneasy about a close relationship with evangelical Christians. During meetings with some Jewish leaders in New York, Mr. Begin was urged not to accept the Dallas invitation.

The fundamentalist view, Jack R. Fischel, a professor of history at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania, wrote in the December issue of Midstream, a Jewish monthly, ''reinforces the image of the secular-minded, materialistic, unredeemed Jew who not only rejects Christ but refuses to migrate to Israel to fulfill biblical prophecy.''

Charting Anti-Semitism
Professor Fischel's article prompted a reply by Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, head of the Washington (D.C.) Hebrew Congregation. ''There is not a shred of evidence,'' Rabbi Haberman wrote, ''based on a statistically sound nationwide study, that the level of anti-Semitic bias is any higher among fundamentalists than any other religious group in America.''

Some evangelical Christians are uneasy with what they see as an uncritical view of Israel among its supporters. ''There is a fascination on the part of the evangelical right with Israel and a belief that everything Israel does must be supported, because God is on Israel's side,'' said Timothy Smith, a professor of theology at Johns Hopkins University and a Wesleyan evangelical.

But while interested in Israel for religious reasons, certain evangelical groups, Mr. Smith said, ''are concerned about pulling Israel back from the Begin and Sharon military policies, which they feel are a violation of its ethical tradition.''

One of the solidly pro-Israeli groups formed in recent years is the United States Christian Embassy, based in Montreat, N.C. It is a branch of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a pro-Israel group claiming members from more than 50 countries. A Debt Owed

''The purpose of the Christian Embassy is to show in an uncompromising way support for Israel and the Jewish people worldwide,'' said the organization's executive director, Jim Jackson. ''We have a real concern for the growing lack of awareness internationally of the great debt, especially from a Christian perspective, that we owe the Jewish people.''

The American branch has set up 10 ''consulates'' in this country and has plans to establish 10 more. It is planning a campaign of protest on behalf of Soviet Jews called ''Mordechai Outcry,'' after the biblical figure who helped save the Israelites from annihilation by the Assyrians.

The campaign will culminate in a demonstration in Washington and a vigil outside the Soviet Embassy in March during the Passover holiday, Mr. Jackson said.

TAV Evangelicals, a Sacramento-based organization of lay evangelical Christians, is one of the organizations formed in response to criticism of Israel after the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

The organization's founder, Douglas Shearer, a businessman and lay preacher, said his activities were sparked by local ''anti-Semitic radio broadcasts'' made at that time. TAV Evangelicals -whose name derives from the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet - paid for newspaper advertisements in California and the state of Washington supporting Israel.

''We're going to be sponsoring a whole series of conferences involving Christian pastors and Jewish leaders,'' Mr. Shearer said. ''They will start on the West Coast in the spring, and then go through Texas and on to the East Coast.''

Last November, TAV Evangelicals sponsored a conference in Washington of some 40 evangelical leaders and 15 rabbis to discuss possible cooperative programs. The meeting was sponsored by Rabbi Haberman's Washington Hebrew Congregation. Hebrew Singing and Dancing

''The evangelical leaders brought 300 or so of their followers who stayed in Jewish homes,'' Rabbi Haberman said in a telephone interview. ''When we worshiped together and when hundreds of evangelicals sang the Hebrew portions of the liturgy and went into sessions of Hebrew singing and dancing that enthralled the congregation, we experienced an explosion of interreligious friendship. People who were suspicious of this sort of thing were instantly turned around.''

In March, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a national organization of reform Judaism, will hold an all-afternoon meeting with a group of ''highly respected evangelical leaders,'' according to Rabbi Haberman. ''We're going to try to sort out an agenda, to find common ground of faith and commitment,'' he said.

Jewish supporters of increased contacts with evangelicals, like Rabbis Haberman and Tanenbaum, argue that the pro-Israeli Christian groups are not uniformly conservative and that many of them have gradually turned away from conversion of the Jews as a primary goal.

''It's important to recognize the diversity within the evangelical community,'' Rabbi Tanenbaum said. ''There is a mainstream evangelical community that tends to be moderate and centrist, usually to the right of the liberal Protestants.''

'Divinely Ordained Plan'
''Certainly, the fundamentalists recognize the election of Israel,'' Rabbi Haberman said. ''There's no reason why Jews cannot also recognize a divinely ordained place for Christianity in the fulfillment of God's purpose.''

''We're going to be out front, yes, we want to convert you,'' said Dr. Paterson of the Chriswell Bible Institute, a participant in the November meeting in Washington. ''We want to convert everybody. But a true evangelical will not coerce; he will only share as pesuasively as possible.''

The theological grounds for support of Israel, evangelicals say, comes from the ''eternal covenant'' between God and Abraham, a covenant that they argue, contrary to some Christian doctrine, was not superseded after the appearance on earth of Jesus.

''If I deny the everlasting covenant with the Jewish people,'' said Jim Jackson of the Christian Embassy, ''how can I trust in the new covenant that he made with me through Jesus Christ?''

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