Jews, Christians in Uneasy Alliance over Israel
By Jason Keyser, The Associated Press - March 7, 2002
Just a year ago, Esther Greenberg was leading a secular life in impoverished, frozen post-communist Siberia.
Now she shares a room with seven other Russian-speaking immigrants at a religious school in one of the most devout sections of Jerusalem, and begins each day with Jewish prayer.
The 15-year-old's goal is earthly enough - a college education and a better life than her parents had in Russia.
But her sponsors' identity is something of a surprise: evangelical Christians who consider Jewish immigration to the Holy Land as the realization of biblical prophecy that will lead to the apocalyptic end of days.
Christians, most of them evangelical Protestants in the United States, have donated billions of dollars to aid Jewish immigration over the last 10 years. Some Christians estimate half of the 1 million Russian-speaking newcomers received help from Christian groups at some stage of their journey.
Christians also lobby lawmakers in Washington to support Israel, make solidarity tours to the Holy Land, run pro-Israel news services and whisper countless prayers.
It is the latest chapter in a tradition of fundamentalist Christian support that has greatly increased ever since the Zionist movement began funneling Jews en masse to the region in the early 1900s. That support has flourished during the latest Palestinian uprising.
"It seems that the prophetic time clock is accelerating," said David Parsons, who came to Israel six years ago to aid the Jewish state after leaving behind his job as a lawyer in North Carolina. He works for Jerusalem's International Christian Embassy, which has paid for 50 flights carrying 15,000 Jewish immigrants to Israel.
The immigration, he said, is "an amazing testimony to the accuracy of the word of God. Everything's right on schedule."
Some Christians believe the Bible contains a precise timetable for the planet's final days, which are to begin after the return of exiled Jews to the Holy Land as promised by Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel and Zechariah.
Then is to come a last battle depicted in the New Testament book of Revelation that ends with the destruction of Satan and Jesus' Second Coming to inaugurate a thousand-year reign in a new, golden Jerusalem.
Hoping to push that prophecy along, many of these Christians are supporting Jewish immigration. Money from US churches, for example, pays for food and clothing at the Daughter of Zion boarding school where Greenberg and 100 other girls from former Soviet republics live.
At the school in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, students - some of whom until recently did not know they were Jewish - study the Torah, Jewish law and the Hebrew prophets, a pursuit outlawed in the Soviet Union under communism's atheistic rule.
The school depends on $400,000 a year in donations, one-fourth of its operating costs. Much of that comes from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has collected $50 million in the last five years from Christians in America.
The group helps finance three other Israeli schools, has given $10 million for immigrants' plane tickets to Israel and finances job training courses, including a nursing program for Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia at Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer Hospital.
Greenberg and many of the girls at the boarding school left behind lives darkened by anti-Semitism, poverty, shattered families and sometimes war. A year later, she speaks fluent Hebrew, chats with friends on a sparkly cell phone and is fitting in.
In the transformation of Esther Greenberg and other Jewish immigrants, Christians believe they are witnessing the foretold ingathering of Jews, a key ingredient for bringing about Jesus' return.
The focus on end-times prophecy - and at the center of it, Israel - has sharpened since the turn of the millennium, which by some Christian calculations puts the world within a half century of Christ's Second Coming. Events like the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States are also evidence of the impending turmoil that is to precede Earth's final battle, some say.
The inter-religious alliance is a tricky one, however.
According to the evangelical Christians, the Jewish return from exile will be followed by their acceptance of Christ.
"This poses a paradoxical problem - that very often those who love Israel don't really love Judaism," said Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
Some Jews feel the work of "Christian Zionists" is exploitive and foists upon them a mythical role in an apocalyptic play they did not seek.
The chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, said in late February that he had forbidden a bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip from accepting bulletproof vests donated by Christians because their intention is to convert Jews.
Christians say they are not out to convert Jews and are motivated by a verse in the book of Genesis in which God promises the biblical patriarch Abraham that "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse" (12:3).
Christian interest was aroused with the Zionist movement in the early 1900s. Christians cite the prophet Ezekiel: "This is what the sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land" (37:21).
So, Israel's founding in 1948 was a watershed for the Christian groups.
Israel's capture of East Jerusalem and the Old City in the 1967 Mideast war was another crucial moment. The new territory made it theoretically possible for Jews to control the holy sites and rebuild the destroyed Temple.
Some evangelicals point to the New Testament book of Acts as evidence that the Temple will be rebuilt, drawing the Second Coming of Jesus: "He (Jesus) must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything" (3:21).
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which helps finance the immigrant boarding school, acknowledged he has some reservations about Christian supporters.
But he sees no dilemma in accepting help from those who "feel a mandate to bless Israel and the Jewish people," as long as they don't work to convert Jews.
"Jews are kind of on a pedestal for evangelical Protestants," he said. "They are God's special people and so you need to treat them in a special way."
In her room at the boarding school each morning, Esther Greenberg prays - a reflection of a new Jewish identity and of the religion that was suppressed among her parents' generation.
She considers her new home and her new life, smiles and says, "Here we are free to work, to live, to be independent."