Christian pilgrims at Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem
Christian pilgrims at Via Dolorosa, JerusalemIsrael News Photo: (Israel Ministry of Tourism)

[An abridged version of this feature piece was published on this website earlier this week - Ed.]

Should Israel build ties with pro-Israel Christian organizations?

Are these organizations just a front for missionaries?

Are there conversion strings attached to economic aid from Christian Zionist groups?

These hotly-argued issues exploded at the start of September when Israeli Knesset members attended the Days of Elijah Evangelical Christian Conference in Texas. The debate over ties with Evangelicals resurfaced again now that Jerusalem Municipal Council Member Mina Fenton sent out a letter calling for the exclusion of MK Benny Elon (NU/NRP) from negotiations to unite the Religious Zionist parties due to his cooperation with Evangelist groups as head of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. 

The Days of Elijah Conference, hosted by the Christian groups “Battalion of Deborah” and “Covenant Alliances”, advertised that it was to “present [the] Knesset Christian Alliance Caucus” to participants, and featured pictures of speakers including MK Benny Elon of the National Union party, MK Dudu Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu, Elhanan Glazer of the Pensioner’s Party and Yedidya Atlas of Israel National News (Arutz Sheva) as Master of Ceremonies. Rabbi Tovia Singer, head of the anti-missionary Outreach Judaism, was to speak.

Atlas and Rabbi Singer attended the same conference in previous years.

Concerned about reports that missionary organizations would use the pro-Greater Israel venue for their own ends, the Knesset members received an assurance from conference chairperson Jodi Anderson, whom Rabbi Singer refers to as a “true Christian friend of Israel,” which stated, "The purpose of this event is to be a blessing to Israel…There is no speaker… involved in any missionary activity." 

The statement satisfied the Knesset members, but Rabbi Singer and Yedidya Atlas heard that Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and renowned missionary Richard Booker, founder of numerous messianic congregations in North America, were going to attend this year and demanded that the conference remove them from the program. Anderson replied that it was too late to redo the schedule, and the two cancelled their appearances. MK Benny Elon attended one session.

The issues involved in the arguments over participation in the conference highlight the complexity of relationships with “true believer” pro-Israel Christian groups, who do not always, to quote Rabbi Tovia Singer, realize the “offensive nature of evangelizing” to the Jewish people. This blurring makes the Knesset’s Christian Alliance Caucus’ activities very difficult, and as MK Benny Elon, the present Caucus chairman, said, “this means we constantly have to check and double-check, that sometimes we make mistakes. When we discover them, we stop contacts to the people or groups involved.”

There are two irreconcilably opposed schools of thought vis-a-vis cooperation with pro-Israel Evangelical Christians. Outgoing Jerusalem City Council member Mina Fenton believes that all Christian groups are actually engaging in missionary activity in Israel, that there can be no delineation between pro-Israel and missionary, evangelical organizations. She pointedly refers to the “Knesset Christian Caucus”, omitting the word “Alliance” and has spearheaded an ongoing campaign to ban any cooperation with Christians.

Christian Groups in Israel

Among the proliferating Christian groups, several stand out and can serve to illustrate the complexity involved.

The “Jews for Jesus” movement is openly missionary in nature, supported by groups abroad such as the Gratefully Grafted, who promote Messianic ministries in Israel and list Messianic congregations headed by Israelis on their website.

Asher Intrater is head of “Revive Israel Ministries” which, according to their website, focuses on “personal evangelism, discipleship training, and congregational planting… centered around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv… in the simple and direct preaching of the gospel of Yeshua (the missionary term for Jesus, denoting salvation)…”.

“Aglow” is a pro-Israel trans-denominational organization of Christian women known for welfare work all over the world. Yet the report of their 2008 visit to Israel stated that “as we do on every trip to Jerusalem, a group of us spent time…with Asher Intrater and his young Israeli disciples… Gentile and Jewish believers stood side by side, hand in hand to declare the Lordship of Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah…”

It is not surprising that Evangelical Christians who support Israel are thrilled by what they saw at Intrater’s, even if they themselves refrain from missionary work in Israel. They are first and foremost believing Christians who do missionary work in other parts of the world. To Jews living in the Jewish State, however, these activities, attesting to the proliferation of missionary groups in Israel, are profoundly disturbing and shocking.

Some welfare and pro-Zionist Evangelical Christian organizations engage in preaching Christian theology while helping the poor. Immigrant populations from Ethiopia and Russia are considered especially susceptible, but internet sites proudly claim to be influencing members of the Israeli police, soldiers and other individuals. Lack of Jewish education makes members of the latter groups who are looking for spiritualism and salvation easy prey for missionaries.

The Knesset Caucus

On January 5, 2004, the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus was established with the late MK, Dr. Yuri Stern (Yisrael Beiteinu party) and MK Yair Peretz (Shas party) as chairmen. There was no mention of missionary activity at the founding of the Caucus, created “in order build a direct line of communication, cooperation, and coordination between the Knesset and Christian leaders around the world, to work with Christians who support Israel…” According to MK Stern at the time, this Jewish-Christian cooperation was seen as crucial in order to oppose the rising tide of fundamentalist Islam. 

MK Benny Elon, the present Caucus Chairman, says that he is aware of the ambivalence towards Christian groups, but feels strongly that Israel’s increasing isolation in the world makes it imperative to build alliances with the influential and numerically large Evangelical Christians, adding that US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is herself an Evangelical Christian.

He noted that as far as missionaries are concerned, in addition to the antipathy shared by all Caucus members, the Caucus is legally bound to refrain from all connections with missionary groups in order to have NGO status. This includes banning the Jews for Jesus who failed in their bid to the Supreme Court for recognition as Jews.  He insisted that there are no compromises on this issue, even though it has led to several Christian groups leaving the Caucus.

The Two Groups Sponsoring the Elijah Conference

The “Battalion of Deborah” site’s main page features, along with information about the Days of Elijah Conference, links to maps of towns in Judea and Samaria, the Women in Green organization, and Israeli MK’s, US Senators and Q & A’s positing the legality of settling all parts of the Land of Israel. It contains no mention of missionary activities.

The “Covenant Alliances” site says it is happy to “embrace the opportunity to become part of the Knesset Christian Alliance Caucus”, claiming unqualified support of Israel and the Jewish people. It is based on the hope that one day there will be a restoration of both Christians and Jews to belief in the “true Messiah”. 

The site calls for petitioning the US government to “vigorously work for the resettlement of the Palestinian refugees to the lands of their Arab kinsmen… and demand the Palestinian Authority disarm the terrorists in their midst, and halt all violence, propaganda, and incitement against the people of Israel...” MK Elon commented that “we will worry about the second coming when it comes…”

What, then, made attending the Days of Elijah Conference the subject of such controversy, resulting in Rabbi Singer canceling his appearance, while three Knesset members and Elyakim Haetzni did take part, only once they were assured that there would be no missionary activity?

The answer is that the conference exposed the problematic intertwining of Zionism, Evangelism and Messianic Judaism. The two sponsoring organizations were not the only ones present at the Conference.  CFI, “Christian Friends of Israel”, was involved as well. There was vehement opposition to speakers advertised in the brochure such as Richard Booker.

CFI is an organization whose website once included the paragraph “Reaping the Harvest”, a blatant missionary call claiming that “With Israel in deep trouble, people are crying out for answers. They are looking for their Messiah. They need to know His name...The fields are white – WE MUST GATHER NOW!” According to Rabbi Singer, CFI’s work is more dangerous than that of the Jews for Jesus, because they bring aid to Israel’s needy communities and use it to gain converts. 

The CFI website was changed radically before the conference, possibly in order to be able to work with the Knesset Caucus, and now has no trace of missionary content, with a mission statement stating: “As Christians we have received from God a love for Israel and the Jewish people... We believe the Lord Jesus is both the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world; however, our stand alongside Israel is not conditional upon her acceptance of our belief.” Whether CFI actual missionary activities in Israel have ceased is as yet unknown.

Another speaker at the conference was David Decker who has a past of missionary initiatives in Israel. Decker is written up on a Baptist Church site: “David and his family were called... to move to Israel and minister Yeshua to [the]…chosen people... David founded Brit Olam Fellowship in Tel Aviv that has become one of the strongest messianic churches in Israel... David is now involved with the establishment of Jerusalem Church of all Nations, a new ministry in the Old City of Jerusalem with Jewish and Gentile members. Son Daniel is serving in the Israeli Air Force. Son Michael and daughter Carmela are leaders in a growing messianic youth revival and the Messianic Coffee House in Jerusalem.”

Political figures say that they find it necessary, for the good of Israel, to go where many Rabbis cannot or will not tread. It requires constant vigilance to avoid connections with  missionary or messianic groups while not destroying influential Evangelical Christian political, economic and moral support for Israel.  Israel’s representatives, be they Rabbis, politicians or organizations, will gain the Christian world’s respect when they stand fast upon that principle.

MK Dudu Rotem based his speech at the conference on the verses of the prophet Ovadiah, that week’s Sephardic synagogue reading, who prophesied that in the days to come G-d will restore His kingship over the Jewish people alone in their land.

Israel’s Jewish citizens have to stand fast as Jews, and this is perhaps, the crux of the problem. Arguing about missionary work among Israeli Jews, who speak Hebrew but know little about Judaism, cannot hide the fact that they are easy prey for so many other religions and sects because of their ignorance of Judaism.

Teaching them their own eternal truths is the only real answer.