For millions of American Christians, this is no ordinary Sunday. In an unprecedented show of support, nearly 20,000 churches across the United States will join in a "Day of Prayer and Solidarity" with Israel and the Jewish people.
From Maine to California, some five million Christians are expected to take part in special services, where they will raise their voices in prayer on behalf of the State of Israel, listen to inspirational sermons, and express their love and admiration for the people of Israel.
This remarkable event is the brainchild of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, chairman of the International Federation of Christians and Jews, and Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, who earlier this year joined forces to create Stand for Israel (www.standforisrael.org) as a means of mobilizing grassroots Christian support for the Jewish state.
In promotional material that was distributed to churches throughout America prior to the event, the group said, "This crisis is one of the worst Israel has ever faced, and its future as a nation hangs in the balance As Christians we have an obligation and a calling to pray for Jerusalem and stand with the Jewish people in defending their historic homeland."
The response, it appears, has been overwhelming. As Eckstein noted, the large number of churches that agreed to participate "reflects the bonds that have been forged between Christians in America and Israel, especially since September 11. There is a greater recognition that we must stand united as we face a common battle against international terrorism."
The fact that large numbers of Christians would gather to pray for the safety and well-being of Israel is all the more extraordinary when one considers the painful record of Christianity's treatment of the Jews over the centuries. Forced conversions, pogroms, the Crusades, and the Inquisition are but some of the horrors which Christians inflicted on Jews in Europe and elsewhere. As the late Joshua Trachtenberg noted in his seminal study The Devil and the Jews, Christians systematically demonized Jews throughout the Middle Ages, accusing them of poisoning Christian wells, ritually murdering Christian children, and using sorcery and magic in alliance with the devil. Indeed, as some historians have argued, it was this thorough and methodical delegitimization that laid the intellectual groundwork for the persecution of the Jews in the modern era as well.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many Jews remain wary of Christian support for Israel. Centuries of harassment and discrimination are not easily shaken, after all. And compounding the problem is the expressed desire of some pro-Israel Christian groups to proselytize among Jews in an effort to convert them, which naturally casts a shadow of suspicion over other Christian organizations too. Last week, it was reported that the Chief Rabbinical Council has decided to look into the question of religious Israeli institutions accepting money from Christian groups abroad in light of the possible links some may have to missionary activities.
While thwarting attempts at missionary activity is vital, it would nevertheless be wrong to condemn all Christians as surreptitious soul-snatchers.
Undoubtedly, some pro-Israel Christians are motivated by the belief that reaching out with political support is an easy way to gain entry to a Jew's heart and thereby capture his soul. But the vast majority of American Christians will be praying for Israel today for far less sinister, and eminently more noble, reasons. They will do so out of a sincere and abiding commitment to the welfare of the country and its people, and out of a deep sense of gratitude to the Jews for their contributions to Western civilization, such as monotheism and morality. Thus, to paint all pro-Israel Christians with the brush of "missionary" seems neither fair nor accurate, and one would hope that more Jews will begin to realize this. Similarly, Christian groups need to be made more aware of the Jewish people's justified opposition to serving as targets of proselytization, which by its very nature is both patronizing and offensive.
As recent months have shown, American Christians are playing an increasingly important role as backers and supporters of Israel. More and more, they are making their voices heard in the halls of power, thanks to the efforts of groups such as Stand For Israel and Esther Levens's National Unity Coalition for Israel. Christian America is reaching out to Israel and the Jews, and it would be wrong to reject the gesture out of hand. A historic alliance is in the making, one which could go a long way toward healing the wounds of the past and forging a united front of Jews and Christians in the struggle for a safe and secure Middle East. And to that, one can only say, Amen.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post