Nomi Malek, 55, welcomes her grandniece Tova, 7, as her daughter Tamar Rudy, 27, from Baltimore, Md., in the background, holds her daughter Michal, 8 months, after arriving at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion's airport, Tuesday July 9, 2002. Defying Mideast violence, about 400 North Americans moved to Israel Tuesday to build new lives in the Jewish state. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)
2002-07-10 04:00:00 PDT Tel Aviv -- The largest contingent of American Jewish immigrants in years stepped off the El Al charter flight at Ben Gurion International Airport on Tuesday, overjoyed at the chance to begin their new lives in Israel.
Forgotten amid all the excitement was the fact that many of the 371 newcomers had been bankrolled by grants from U.S. evangelical Christians, who regard the return of Jews to the Holy Land as part of an apocalyptic prophecy foretold in the Bible.
"What I'm seeing is the Scriptures being fulfilled right before our very eyes," said Bishop Huey Harris, whose First Pentecostal Tabernacle Church in Elkton, Md., raised $2,500 from its congregation to help finance the American Jews' journey.
"What's next? I'm looking for the church to be raptured, Jesus returning for the church . . . and the Jews would receive him as their Messiah."
UNDETERRED BY BOMBINGS
That was far from the mind of Noa Hirsch, a 22-year-old law student from Pittsburgh, as she basked in the greeting by hundreds of well-wishers at the airport. Hirsch said she had come to Israel "to join my people in my land," and she refused to be deterred by the fact that Jerusalem, her new home, has been a frequent target of Palestinian suicide bombers.
"Maybe I'm being foolish, but I don't think so," she said. "Terror is everywhere. I'm not going to let someone tell me how to live my life."
The past 21 months of violence with the Palestinians have prompted American Christian evangelicals to find more reason than ever to support the Jewish state. A growing number have visited the region -- appearing on radio and talk shows, increasing their financial donations to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and even financing advertisements on Israeli television stressing their "unwavering friendship" with Israel.
"This is the time to show we are behind Israel," Gary Bauer, former GOP presidential candidate and prominent member of the religious right, said during his first trip to Israel this month.
"This is an amazing moment in our relations. I think what we are seeing is the forging of a lasting alliance with Jews."
Fundamentalist Christian support for the Jewish people is not new, especially among an evangelical subset known as Christian Zionists, who make up an estimated 3 million of America's 98 million evangelicals. Religious experts believe that some 30 million Christians have some Zionist beliefs.
Doctrinally, they regard the ingathering of Jewish exiles as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy that will precede the Second Coming and end of days. Such a belief has tended to fill many Jews with suspicion and made for mutually tense relations.
But the current intense round of Middle East bloodshed has caused the iciness to thaw and the relationship to blossom.
"The change has not been so much in the Christians as with Israelis and Jews, who are feeling very isolated in the world," said Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American-Jewish Committee.
"What you are seeing is an increasing Jewish awareness of evangelical support for Israel that has led both representatives of Israel and organized Jewish communities to be more effusive in their attitudes toward them."
The shift could have important political ramifications in the United States.
While pro-Israel advocates once looked to liberal Democrats for their main support, they are increasingly warming to conservative Republicans, whose pet causes such as school prayer have long been anathema to many Jews.
Manifestations of the growing relationship are being seen increasingly on both sides of the Atlantic -- including a recent speech by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference,
an invitation to Attorney General John Ashcroft to speak to the Anti- Defamation League -- despite a statement it issued in January criticizing his remark that in America, "We have no king but Jesus" -- and a warm welcome for Christian conservative figures at a large pro-Israel rally in Washington last April.
LETTER TO SHARON
In Israel this week, Bauer presented Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a letter signed by several leading members of the Christian right including Jerry Falwell, expressing the belief that Israel has shown "incredible restraint in the face of wanton violence aimed at innocent Israeli citizens."
Last month, Earl G. Cox, a longtime Republican activist who served in four presidential administrations, announced that he was buying a series of commercials on Israel's Channel Two television to "announce to the people of Israel that the vast majority of American Christians recognize Israel as their friend and ally."
"Enemies of Israel must clearly understand that when they attack the Jewish state they take on millions of American Christians who passionately embrace the Jewish people," Cox told reporters.
Attempting to consolidate the evangelicals' support, Yehiel Eckstein, an Orthodox American rabbi who is president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has started a "Stand with Israel" program.
$60 MILLION IN DONATIONS
Eckstein, who as head of the Jerusalem Friendship Fund for the past eight years claims to have collected some $60 million in donations from the evangelical community to assist Jewish immigration, has joined forces with former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, now a leading GOP consultant, as part of the effort. Their plans include an Internet site for supporters of Israel to write their congressional representatives.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza have been among the most significant beneficiaries of the Christian support.
"We've seen financial support . . . to the settlements double during the past 21 months," said Sondra Oster Baras, an Orthodox Jew and director of the Israel office of the Colorado-based Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, which runs an "Adopt-a-Settlement Program."
While declining to elaborate, other than to say the amount was in the low "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Baras estimated that one-third of the 145 Israeli settlements receive funds from Christians.
Jewish settlements benefiting from Christian contributions include Itamar and Hebron. One of the largest settlements, Ariel, has had close relations with the evangelical Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colo., which "adopted" Ariel before the intifada -- one of about 40 such relationships established by the Christian Friends of Israel Communities.
The financial donations have been matched by the continued arrival of Christian visitors, part of a conscious effort by Israel's Tourism Ministry to work with specific churches and encouraging Christian media to come to the country.
"Despite the security situation, during this time we are seeing more and more groups like this that are coming to Israel -- not just to see holy places but combining it with solidarity reasons for the state of Israel," said Arie Sommer, head of the ministry's overseas marketing division.
SEPT. 11 ATTACKS
Just as the violence with the Palestinians has been one factor intensifying evangelical Christians' interest in recent months, so too has Sept. 11.
"It really resonated; people could identify with the war against terrorism, " said David Parsons of the International Christian Embassy, a Christian support group for Israel in Jerusalem.
American evangelicals' closer political relationship with Israel began when the conservative Likud party first came to power in 1977. Prime Minister Menachem Begin found common ground with such leaders as Falwell and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson.
U.S. evangelical leaders have frequently met with Likud members, including Sharon, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told an evangelical audience in Washington in 1998 that "we have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room."
That is, possibly, until George W. Bush assumed the White House. His sympathy for Israel's military responses to Palestinian terror attacks is attributed by some analysts to his born-again religious convictions.
But Baras said that the Christian Friends of Israel Communities has "ground rules" when working with Christians that include a ban on evangelizing. "They don't try to convince us, and we don't try to convince them," she said.
"This organization stands for building bridges between the two religions. I'm confident enough in my belief and leave heaven and hell up to God."
Other Jews are less sure, fearing that fundamentalist Christians are religious wolves in sheep's clothing, extending the hand of friendship in the present while believing in an eventual endgame of conversion or death for Jews upon Jesus' return.
In February, Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, said he had blocked settlements in Gaza from accepting bulletproof vests from evangelicals. And the governments been reluctant to allow METV, an evangelical Christian television station that had operated from southern Lebanon until Israel withdrew, to erect a transmitter in Ariel.
Nor has Christian support for Jews won friends among Palestinian Christians,
most of whom belong to the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic church.