More than 7 million Christians are believed to have participated last Sunday in an annual show of prayer support and solidarity for Israel.
"Israelis haven't had a lot to celebrate lately, but when we see Christian friends gathering in such great numbers on our behalf, it sends a powerful message of hope to Israel and Jews everywhere," Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said in a statement.
Eckstein's Chicago-based organization was sponsor for the third annual International Day of Prayer and Solidarity with Israel. While hard numbers aren't available, Eckstein said he believed this year's participation surpassed last year's record of 7 million Christians and 25,000 churches.
A press release listed supporting denominations as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of God of Prophecy, the Baptist Bible Fellowship, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church and the Full Gospel Fellowship.
Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi, has a 20-year track record of building bridges with conservative evangelicals dating to conversations following Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith's 1982 proclamation that God doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew. Endorsements on his Web site include Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Richard Land.
"Praying together on October 17, we can become part of a tremendous movement of prayer for Israel and peace in the Middle East," Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement. "Like never before, we understand the unsettling sense of vulnerability that the people of Israel feel. But the God who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. At this time of uncertainty, there can be no better response than for people of faith to come before His throne, humble ourselves and pray."
While leaders in the Israeli government welcome evangelical support for Israel—other endorsements include Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Daniel Ayalon, Israeli Ambassador to the United States—America's Jewish community is divided over the reasons behind that support. Many evangelical Christians support Israel because they believe the Bible commands them to.
"America often has been the sole friend of the nation of Israel," author Tom Doyle wrote in a commentary in Baptist Press. "God has lavished rich blessings on our country as a result of our honoring His people, Israel. His promise to bless those who bless Israel and to curse those who curse Israel still affects the destiny of nations today. America is no different, and we will pay a very high price if we ever turn our backs on Israel. It will be our greatest national disaster."
What many Jews—and some Christians—find disconcerting are interpretations of biblical prophecy forecasting an apocalyptic Battle of Armageddon and Jews either accepting Christ or being destroyed.
"Scripture promises that Israel will one day repent and embrace Jesus as Messiah," Doyle, author of a Broadman & Holman book titled Two Nations Under God, continued. "Israel needs to turn to her Savior. The church should be Israel's best friend. Believers can and should be the people who help move Jews toward their destiny. God calls the church to influence Israel."
Such language gives pause to David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "We have concerns about that theology—both the supersessionist theology of Armageddon and the implication that this is a religious battle, a biblical battle," he said in the Jerusalem Post. "For Jews, it's very uncomfortable for us."
Others don't like the blurring of Jewish customs and Christianity in "Messianic" congregations. An estimated 200 such congregations exist in the United States, about 50 in Israel, and many more in other countries.
"A Messianic congregation is a fellowship of Jews and Gentiles who believe that Yeshua is the true Jewish Messiah promised by God through the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, and who worship within the framework of traditional Jewish patterns," says a statement on the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship Web site.
Critics say that rather than Jewish people who believe in Jesus, however, the Messianic movement is in reality a Christian creation to convert Jews.
"You cannot be Jewish and Christian at the same time--you simply cannot," Houston Rabbi Kenneth Weiss said in the Houston Chronicle. "They are mutually exclusive."
Southern Baptist leaders say Christ's command to preach the gospel to all people not only includes Jews, but applies to them especially.
"Every believer must be burdened for the salvation of the Jewish people," Jim Sibley, coordinator of Jewish ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, said at last summer's annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship.
According to Baptist Press, Sibley said this concern "is not just for Messianic Jews."
"Our love for Israel is based upon the fact that God uniquely loves Israel and has chosen the Jewish people," he said.
That creates problems for some in the American Jewish community that question working with Christian groups that are pro-Israel but not necessarily "pro-Jewish."
An editorial in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles questioned whether "apparent allies might not be our friends."
"We cannot prevent Christians from actively seeking converts," the article said. "But we can oppose Christian groups that actively target Jews for conversion."
Other Jewish leaders, however, welcome support for Israel wherever they can find it.
"American Jews should not be apologetic or defensive about cultivating evangelical support for Israel," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. "The need for support by an Israel under siege is great. Fortunately, evangelical support is overwhelming, consistent and unconditional."
Foxman said fears that such support will undermine other concerns that are important to Jews but not to Christians are overblown. "We will continue to articulate in forceful ways our significant disagreements on social issues," Foxman said in 2002.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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