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(DV) Berkowitz: Rehearsals for the Rapture







Rehearsals for the Rapture
Will Christian Zionists and radical right wing Jewish groups head to
Israel to disrupt the dismantling of Gaza settlements?

by Bill Berkowitz
April 12, 2005

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President Bush cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday [April 11] against West Bank settlement growth but Sharon gave no commitments... Sharon pledged his commitment to a U.S.-backed peace "road map" but sent conflicting signals about abiding by its call for a halt to Israeli "settlement activity."

-- Reuters, April 11, 2005

In mid-February, Israel's parliament backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. On March 15, Ha'aretz, a daily Israeli newspaper, reported that "Settlers protesting the disengagement plan brought rush-hour traffic to a standstill in south Tel Aviv... when they blocked the Ayalon Highway at the Kibbutz Galuyot junction and placed burning tires across the road." (According to recent newspaper accounts, the 9,000 people affected by the removal plan will receive nearly $900 million in compensation. But removing the settlers will not be easy, as they have vowed to stand their ground.)

While the vote in parliament hasn't yet set off anything other than a few disruptive demonstrations by anti-disengagement settlers and their supporters, increased violent resistance may be in the offing. Christian Zionists and radical right-wing Jews appear to be getting ready to saddle up and head out to Israel to help the settlers halt the removal, a process slated to begin in July.

"Thousand of Jews -- and Christians, too -- are waiting in the U.S. for the call to join the struggle of the settlers in Gaza," Ha'aretz reported in early January. "In Gush Katif, [the largest bloc of Jewish communities in Gaza], they expect that when the hour of reckoning comes, Diaspora Jewry will not only send financial aid, but will also dispatch legions of people for the violent struggle against the government."

Many of those itching to get in on the action in Israel have been there before, including New York City councilman Dov Hikind and Rabbi Mordechai Friedman, president of the New York City-based American Board of Rabbis, an organization made up of some 1,000 orthodox clergymen. Rabbi Friedman recently said that "hundreds if not thousands of his followers will come to Israel to fight the plan." Friedman acknowledged that a member of the Board of Rabbis would be going to Israel "to meet settler leaders and pave the way for future resistance," the Jerusalem Post reported in late December. "The government needs to protect its citizens and when they don't the citizens can take back the government," Friedman told the Post. "We need to paralyze the country," Rabbit Friedman said. "The only way to do that is with means which include violence."

Gro Wenske, head of the Norway-based Christian Bible and Israel Organization, also pledged to participate in the resistance. She said that hundreds of Christians from Norway will come to Israel to fight the evacuation. And Helen Freedman, from the New York-based Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI), said her organization of 4,000 has already vowed to join the fight against disengagement. "We pledged already in November that should the disengagement come to be a reality, we will go to assist in the resistance," she said.

According to spokespersons for the settlers, "thousands of inquiries from Jews as well as Christians who are waiting for the call" have been received. Dror Vanunu, the head of public relations for Gush Katif, who recently returned from a speaking and fundraising trip to North America, said that both Jews and Christians contributed generously to the children of Gush Katif. According to Ha'aretz, "they also received the blessing of Rabbi Hershel Billet, who is known to be particularly close to President George W. Bush."

At a May 11, 2004, prayer breakfast organized by New York Governor George Pataki and attended by Laura Bush, Rabbi Billet, an Honorary President of the Rabbinical Council of America, told the audience that, "It is a divine mission to eradicate evil from the world. I believe that God has given us the courageous president, Mr. George W. Bush, to be our commander in chief to lead us and the world in the sacred war against the evil of terrorism."

Israel was very much on the minds of those who gathered at the recently concluded annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, the world's largest association of Christian communicators with over 1,700 member organizations. After the Intifada began four years ago, "Israel ramped up its campaign for evangelical support by marketing itself as the place 'where Jesus walked' and enlisted Christian broadcasters as surrogate propagandists," Max Blumenthal reported. "With the Intifada now at a dead end and Israel expecting upwards of 700,000 Christian tourists this year, tourism officials deployed to the convention exuded a blithe, celebratory mood... "

A Budding Relationship

Christian Zionists have been longtime and uncompromising supporters of Israel, a relationship that has been deepening over the past three decades. For some fundamentalist Christians, their support is motivated by a belief in the "end-times" -- a series of events that takes place in Israel only after the Jews have returned and solidified their hold on the territory. Christian Zionists hold that after the final battle, or Armageddon, Jesus will descend from Heaven and there will then be a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth.

Sara Diamond, in her book Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989), maintains that "Israel holds obvious special religious significance" for Christians. Diamond notes that historically the relationship between Israel and U.S. Christian fundamentalists was not always smooth sailing. That changed dramatically, however, when "popular broadcast ministries, especially those focused on studies of the 'end-times,' drew evangelicals to pay closer attention to Middle East politics." Christian fundamentalists are fond of relating Bible passages to historical and current events. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the influx of Jews from the Soviet Union, and the 1967 Six Day War in which, Sara Diamond points out, "Israel captured Jerusalem and began its occupation of the territories known in the Bible as Judea and Sumaria," all feed into the current wave of support for Israel among Christian fundamentalists.

Over the next two decades, Jews cemented their relationship with anti-Communist conservative Christians in part due to their mutual work on behalf of freeing Soviet Jews. "We found that if we wanted support for Soviet Jewry or Israel, we had to go to the evangelical community," Rabbi A. James Rudin, the former director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told Dan Levitas. Religious right leaders joined marches and signed petitions on behalf of Soviet Jews and in 1974, Levitas writes, they supported the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, "which limited U.S. trade with the Soviet Union because of its failure to allow open emigration." Six years later, the Anti-Defamation League's national director Nathan Perlmutter and his wife Ruth wrote The Real Anti-Semitism in America, making "the case for a strong evangelical-Jewish alliance, arguing that anti-Israel sentiment posed the greatest threat to American Jewry."

At the same time, the Likud Party in Israel was drawing closer to their right wing counterparts in the US. According to Levitas, "Jewish-evangelical relations had become so close by the early '80s that, immediately after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin telephoned Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell before calling President Ronald Reagan to ask Falwell to 'explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing' (Newsweek, December 23, 2002). That same year, Falwell received Israel's 1981 Jabotinsky Award for his support of the Jewish state."

Building New Alliances

In the past few years, a number of new organizing efforts have united right wing Jews and Christian Zionists. In May 2002, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein (president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews) and Ralph Reed (former executive director of the Christian Coalition and current Republican Party chairman of Georgia) got together for a new project called Stand for Israel. The organization was modeled after the powerful Jewish lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and it aims to counter what they see as media bias against Israel -- a long held belief shared by both Israelis and Christian-right activists.

In April 2003, more than 1,000 policymakers, Christian leaders and pro-Israel activists gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, for Stand for Israel's Washington Briefing. House Majority Leader Tom "the embattled" DeLay and Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos were presented with the Friend of Israel award.

According to the Stand for Israel Web site, the annual International Day of Prayer and Solidarity with Israel "is the cornerstone of... [its] campaign. For three years in a row, millions of people in tens of thousands of churches across America and the world have expressed their support for the State of Israel during church services, pro-Israel rallies and workshops, uniting their voices in prayer for peace in the Holy Land."

Recently, Rabbi Eckstein lashed out at mainline Protestant denominations over their failure to "stand alongside" of Israel in solidarity. "At the same time that we're seeing the results of 25 years of efforts in bringing together Jewish and evangelical groups in support of Israel, we're also facing the sobering reality of mainline denominations not only turning their backs on Israel, but lining up to viciously attack the only Middle Eastern country with democratic values and practices," wrote Eckstein in a News Release dated March 7.

Gary Bauer, a prominent evangelical leader and head of the Christian right group American Values seconded Eckstein's views: "Mainline Christian groups need to be held accountable for their irresponsible, unjust attacks on Israel," he said. "These church bureaucrats do not speak for American Christians... Rabbi Eckstein does a real service by speaking out on this issue, just as The Fellowship does by bringing Jews and evangelicals together in support of Israel."

One of the Religious right's favorite Jews, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the president of the conservative Jewish organization Toward Tradition, got together with Bauer in early 2002 to found the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (AAJC). According to its Web site, the AAJC's Board of Advisers includes Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Bauer, Charles Colson of Prisin Fellowship Ministries, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Rev. Pat Robertson, Pastor Rick Scarborough, Rabbi Barry Freundel, Rabbi David Novak, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Michael Medved, and John Uhlmann. According to Rabbi Lapin, "Let us remember that friendship is a two-way street. American Christians consistently stand by Israel, and while they ask nothing in return, they deserve friendship and support from American Jews. Christians seek an America that is strong both morally and materially, as do Jews, and such an America is the best friend Israel can have."

On Valentine's Day, Rabbi Lapin, who is a major opponent of same-sex marriage, displayed his solidarity with the Christian right by being a featured speaker at a sports arena in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where Governor Mike Huckabee and his wife became the most high-profile converts to the covenant marriage cause.

In one of Toward Tradition's seminal essays entitled "Enemies or Allies? -- Why American Jews Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Conservative Christians", David Klinghoffer writes that American Jews need to wake "up to the blessing... of political friendship with America's conservative Christians."

Klinghoffer argues that not only it is wrongheaded and politically stupid for Jews -- a minority -- to be hostile to conservative Christians -- the majority -- "it is in the interest of Jews and Christians to think of themselves as civic partners in the great project of renewing American civilization."

And in a June 2002 piece in National Review online Klinghoffer suggests that "At a minimum, Christians can reasonably ask that groups like the ADL, the American Jewish Congress, and Wiesenthal Center lay off a bit. In exchange for their vital support of Israel, at least until the Mideast crisis has subsided, let [Abe] Foxman et al. declare a moratorium on bashing Christians."

How does the Christian Zionists' support for Israel play in country? For the answer to that question we turned to Gershom Gorenberg, the associate editor of The Jerusalem Report and the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. "To the extent that Israelis are aware at all of these people, they are most likely to know of them as giving to philanthropic projects," Gorenberg told me in an e-mail interview. "My guess is that only the wonkish class -- some journalists, politicos and foreign policy people -- pay significant attention to the political tie, which gets occasional reporting in Ha'aretz. And within those groups, the feelings are split on left-right lines."

Gorenberg pointed out that "US Jewish radical right groups have a very bad image here [in Israel] -- a combination of resentment of the radical right with a generalized dislike of people who don't live here, don't serve in the military, don't take the risks, then try to force Israel to take their positions."

The American-born Israeli journalist, who is an associate at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, added that "the protest movement against the Gaza withdrawal has already managed to portray itself as radical and to alienate much of Israeli society, including the moderate right, due to calls for soldiers to refuse orders and to use of Holocaust imagery. My guess is that if soldiers have to drag foreigners out of houses in Gaza, the general public reaction will be absolute fury."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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