I have focused on Israel advocacy for more than two decades, first as a volunteer, then as professional staff. I’ve sat in the front row of growing relationships between Evangelicals and Jews in historically Jewish and also Christian organizations in the United States and on many trips to Israel.
Warm winds have prevailed to thaw the mostly cold relationships throughout centuries.
My observations began during the Second Intifada. Launched by Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, the pre-planned Palestinian uprising was ignited when then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. Between 2000 and 2005, 130 Palestinian terrorist bombings resulted in the deaths of 1,100 and injuries of 8,300 Israeli civilians. Practically every Israeli knew someone who was killed or injured.
Buses, restaurants and discotheques became as deadly as battlefields, except only terrorists were armed with weapons hidden in their suicide vests. Many Jewish citizens fled the country. The lies against the Jewish state in Palestinian media flooded the worldwide news. Terrorism grew into a thunderstorm creating fear, death and propaganda. Numbers of Jews and Christians living abroad cancelled their tours to Israel.
Yet, for a few Christians, building relationships went beyond words knowing that action – especially in a crisis – speaks volumes.
Some Christians decided to visit Israel anyway during the Second Intifada. It was a physical way of saying, “We stand with you.” Founder of Israel Always, Earl Cox, (appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2012 as a Christian Goodwill Ambassador) led two trips during the Second Intifada. Although not advertised, we made sure that each Israeli we encountered was aware that we were Christians – not there to proselytize, but to show support.
Then in 2006, Cox and his team organized a trip during the Second Lebanon War. In a week’s time, 40 of us packed up, grabbed our passports and flew to Israel for a 10-day solidarity mission. Again, our message was, “We are friends. Friends come in a time of crisis.”
We prayed at the Western Wall, visited Rambam Hospital and senior citizen homes. We brought toys to children in bomb shelters. With rockets intermittently falling, our group went to the Lebanese border to visit IDF soldiers. Standing at their tanks, they were shocked to see our group walking along giving out small American flags. Our message: “We are American Christians. We are standing with you!”
We walked into empty restaurants in the Galilee greeted by staff with overjoyed smiles. Everywhere we went, the Jewish people welcomed us with open arms. They were surprised to see us. I believe that our seed planting in these small ways added to previous years where Christian organizations had already plowed up a fertile ground of friendship and cooperation in Israel.
Too many to name, but among these organizations, Bridges for Peace established its outreach in 1976. Another on-the-ground warm friendship developed between Evangelicals and Israel in 1980 when embassies pulled out of Jerusalem after the government made its official declaration that Jerusalem was the nation's undivided capital. This compelled a handful of Christians from several nations to establish the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. In 2000, The Christian Broadcasting Network Israel established its Middle East bureau in Jerusalem.
In the United States, the warm winds of healing between Christians and Jews intensified as well. In 2005, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) hired its first national outreach director specifically tasked with engaging Christian leaders as activists in the organization. These non-Jewish leaders were invited into the historically Jewish organization resulting in strong relations within AIPAC and all over the United States. In 2006, Pastor John Hagee founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in San Antonio, Texas with the blessing of his years-long dear friend, Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg.
It is safe to say that Evangelical support for Israel has also manifested in billions of dollars of private donations through numerous Christian organizations and charities. Christians in AIPAC have also been instrumental in bipartisan congressional support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, especially to maintain security aid for Israel. CUFI’s 8 million members have signed and promoted valuable petitions to Congress.
As an Evangelical Christian – one of an estimated 600 million worldwide – I am grateful that God has given us a second chance to stand with Israel. It’s heartwarming to know that since 1963, Yad Vashem, Israel's World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has recognized 27,000 Christians as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Although our relationships in the intervening years between the Holocaust and the present day have taken on a new dimension, a dreadful mark on the Christian faith is a reality. While Yad Vashem has recognized “Righteous Among the Nations,” it does not erase the decisions of Christians driven by apathy, fear or hostility during the Nazi nightmare. The results are the same. Not enough of us stood up.
Hitler, in part, justified his terror with religion because many German pastors and congregations fell under the spell of Nazi propaganda. Christian courage was missing in action. Link that, for example, with Nazi soldiers singing Christmas carols in the concentration camps. Today’s Christians should not be surprised that Jews have kept us at a distrustful distance.
The thaw in our relationships began to melt in powerful churches when the Catholic Church passed the monumental “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time) on Oct. 28, 1965. Many Catholic priests and lay people in European countries opposed the Nazis.
Yet, after an extensive examination of their roles as accomplices – including their theology and passivity about the Holocaust – a papal encyclical to bishops during the Second Vatican Council was issued. They declared that they would no longer blame the Jews “as a collective” for Jesus’ death, renouncing their centuries of teaching that Jews were responsible. The vote: 2,221 to 88.
Repentance and an admission of their failures in the landmark decision in the landmark decision opened wider paths of understanding in the ensuing years.
Although not often mentioned in the context of his Southern Baptist Church membership, I daresay the late President Harry Truman’s imprimatur for Israel’s 1948 statehood helped further thaw the relational ice. In Protestant denominations, Christians increasingly realized the Holocaust’s massive horrors and the apathy of many European Christians. Asking themselves questions about the past, and exploring the Jewish foundations of the Christian faith, led to what has grown into robust Evangelical support for Israel and the broader Jewish community.
Anti-Semitism is making a dangerous encore on the world’s stage threatening Jews again. We cannot allow another deep freeze between Evangelicals and Jews. We also still face troubling attitudes within the Christian community. They are not relying on God’s permanent, incontrovertible covenants with the Jewish people.
In 100 B.C., Roman statesman, lawyer and scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero wisely said, “The shifts of fortune test the reliability of friends.” In the 20th century, Rev. Rick Warren wrote in his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, “Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.”
Let’s make sure we are reliable and trustworthy. We must pray and operate within the spiritual armor described in Ephesians 6:10-18. Increasing friendships with the Jewish community and developing spiritual valor enables us to push back against anti-Semitism wisely and strategically anywhere we encounter it.
Most of us will not be noticed as “Righteous Among the Nations,” but let’s make sure our Jewish friends in the United States, in Israel and worldwide notice we are looking out for them, guided by our Jewish Savior.
Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After nine years she retired and later worked part-time with International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA. Arlene is now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and writes a weekly column at CBN ISRAEL. She has often traveled to Israel, including being invited three times by Israel’s Government Press Office to their annual Christian Media Summit. Her web site is www.ArleneBridgesSamuels.com