Despite a recent upsurge in Palestinian terror attacks and intelligence warnings indicating a possible suicide bomber might be headed toward the capital, the streets of Jerusalem were delightfully full yesterday as thousands took part in the city's annual Succot (Feast of Tabernacles) march.
With color, pomp, and ceremony, marchers wound their way through the streets, spreading cheer and goodwill in a city that has seen more than its fair share of violence and grief since the start of the Palestinian terror campaign two years ago.
Among those taking part in the festivities were thousands of Christian supporters of Israel, whose love for the country and its people was clearly on display. Hailing from dozens of nations around the globe, many of the pilgrims are visiting under the auspices of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has been organizing such events since it was launched in 1980.
The importance of the march goes far beyond its entertainment value. It serves as a refreshing reminder that although we are besieged by enemies at home, we still have plenty of warm and caring friends abroad who are willing to stand with us even in the most difficult of times. Indeed, even as the UN Security Council was busy condemning Israel for having the nerve to defend itself against Yasser Arafat's onslaught of terror, the Christian marchers helped to drown out the criticism emanating from New York thanks to their merriment and high spirits.
The growing popularity of the annual Jerusalem march among Christians worldwide is a testament to the rising support Israel enjoys in various Christian quarters, particularly among Evangelicals in the United States. As Michael Freund noted in a feature story in last Friday's Jerusalem Post, "No one outside the Jewish community has been more supportive of Israel than US Evangelical Christians, and they've just begun to get better organized." The reasons behind this groundswell of backing are linked both to our security predicament and the phenomenal growth of Evangelical Christianity, now said to number as many as 50 million people in America. Bible-believing Christians throughout the US hold firm views regarding the State of Israel's role in the divine plan for history and, more than ever before, they have begun to put their money, and their political clout, to work on its behalf.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first Israeli leaders to energetically reach out to US Christians, actively courting their support and encouraging them to work on our behalf. On two separate occasions, when Netanyahu was effectively summoned to Washington by an exasperated Bill Clinton seeking to pressure him into making further concessions, large numbers of US Christians turned out to greet him and voice their support.
The sudden burst of Christian pro-Israel activity did not emerge out of thin air, of course. It is the result of a lot of vision and hard work. Groups such as the Kansas-based National Unity Coalition for Israel, which is run by the indefatigable Esther Levens, have brought together dozens of Christian and Jewish organizations across the US, literally mobilizing millions of people to press their elected representatives on Israel-related issues. Working through constituent groups such as Bridges for Peace and Christian Friends of Israel, the coalition has helped to educate numerous Americans about the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship, and it has become a leading voice for Israel in the halls of power in Washington.
Other groups, such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein's International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Sondra Oster Baras' Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, have played a crucial role in rallying financial support from US Christians to fund a range of social and humanitarian projects here. From assisting Russian and Ethiopian Jews to make aliya to defraying the costs associated with their absorption once they arrive, the IFCJ has succeeded in raising tens of millions of dollars annually from American Christians, enabling them to play an active role in improving Israeli society. And CFOIC, through its work with Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, has helped to energize greater levels of support among Christians for Jewish residents of the territories.
Needless to say, some Israelis look askance at such expressions of Christian friendship, fearing that they are intended to conceal a missionary agenda aimed at converting Jews. Last week, in fact, the Jerusalem Municipality reportedly turned down a request by a so-called Messianic Jewish group which had sought to take part in yesterday's march, because of concerns it would exploit the event to proselytize.
Having suffered so much from forced conversions at the hands of Christians throughout the past two millennia, it is hardly surprising that many Jews are apprehensive, even skeptical, about the sudden outpouring of love and support. But, while fending off missionary elements is certainly important and even necessary, it would be wrong to automatically dismiss all Christians as surreptitious soul-snatchers.
There are undoubtedly those who use pro-Israel activities as a ruse for proselytizing, but there are also many deeply devoted Christian friends of Israel whose sincerity and commitment is beyond reproach, and whose only agenda is to live in accordance with God's promise to Abraham: "I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you." And when it comes to our Christian friends, it seems safe to say that they will most assuredly be blessed.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post