Christian Zionists gain Israel’s inner sanctum

Christian Zionists gain Israel’s inner sanctum

After raising more than two hundred million dollars for various projects in Israel, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the organization he founded and is president of, has hit pay-dirt.

In late December, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped found the state of Israel, announced that the IFCJ “will be declared a funding partner of the Jewish Agency … [and] Eckstein will … receive new voting powers that will include spots on the committees that oversee the agency”s budget and that meet with the prime minister and his Cabinet,” the Jewish daily Forward reported.

The announcement indicates a major shift in agency policy. Nearly 10 years ago, the head of the Jewish Agency “refused to be photographed taking a check” from Eckstein. “Now, it has publicly, and apparently proudly, acknowledged that the IFCJ would be donating 45 million dollars to the agency over the next three years, almost all of it raised from evangelical Christians in North America,” according to The Forward.

Eckstein told the news service JTA that “This elevates” the fellowship and “thereby Christians around the world to strategic partner with the worldwide agency …”

“Appointing Eckstein on the basis of how much money he can bring raises wider questions about who should be making policy for the agency — which is supposed to be the bridge between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, not simply a philanthropy — and how the Jewish community is represented,” Gershom Gorenberg told IPS.

Gorenberg, the author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount and The Accidental Empire, pointed out that “If money is the sole criterion, if this is simply a philanthropy, then there is no reason for the institutionalized relationship with the government.”

“The Jewish Agency is essentially saying that pro-Israel Christians are joining with the Jewish community worldwide in helping aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] and in strengthening the security and welfare of the state of Israel. That has never happened before,” Eckstein added.

The Forward reported that the agreement, which is pending approval by the agency”s board, states that the IFCJ will donate 15 million dollars a year to its “core budget for immigration and resettlement, historically IFCJ priorities.”

The donation is nearly double last year”s eight million dollars. The IFCJ will also be designated a “funding partner” of the Jewish Agency, a status previously shared only by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for US federations, and Keren Hayesod, which represents international federations.

“I think we accept, with reservations, the political involvement of the evangelical community on behalf of Israel,” said Jewish Agency board member Richard Wexler, chairman of the United Israel Appeal. “It would be rather cynical, having accepted the political help, to reject the financial assistance which has become more and more vital given the reduction in allocations and financial distributions from the federation system in America.”

Over the years, Eckstein has raised more than 250 million dollars, much of it from conservative Christian evangelicals, for his organization”s various projects in Israel. He is often credited as being one of the first Jewish religious leaders to advocate building relationships with conservative Christian evangelicals.

In late February of 2002, Eckstein and Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Pat Robertson”s Christian Coalition and the head of Century Strategies, a Republican Party-oriented political consultancy, founded Stand for Israel. According to its website, Stand for Israel, which Eckstein chairs, “aims to engage people both spiritually and politically on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, by encouraging them to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and providing them with the facts they need to advocate for the Jewish state and fight anti-Israel bias in media.”

Earlier this year, at a conference at the Centre for Jewish Studies at Queens College in New York City on the state of world Jewry titled “Is it 1938 again?” Eckstein, in answering the question in the affirmative, called for a strategic alliance with evangelical Christians, because they are “our best friends and closest allies.”

“He brushed off concerns about their supposed ulterior motives — converting Jews and advancing Armageddon — as a “figment of, if I can say it, this liberal, Jewish and journalistic imagination,”” the Florida Jewish News reported.

Eckstein”s organisation “represents a community whose interest in Israel is based on their own theology,” said Gorenberg, who is also a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. “However much they proclaim love of Israel and Jews, their priorities are not based on Israeli or Jewish evaluations of what”s in Israel”s interests. They may oppose a two-state solution, for instance, because it doesn”t fit their theology — which is different from right-wing Jews who believe that such a solution is dangerous to Israel”s future. I disagree with the right-wing Jews as well, but it is a different type of disagreement.”

In addition to raising great sums of money for Israel and devoting two-plus decades to building alliances with Christian Zionists, Eckstein has become an outspoken critic of Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In a late-November piece for The Jewish Week — written prior to the CIA”s National Intelligence Estimate that maintained that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and is unlikely to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb until at least 2010 — Eckstein argued that dealing with the “threat of Iran” is one of Israel”s greatest “challenges.”

“There are signs that the world is beginning to understand the necessity of doing something about Iran”s reckless pursuit of nuclear technology,” Eckstein wrote. “In the US, Americans appear to be leaning toward decisive action that goes beyond toothless United Nations resolutions and sanctions.”

Eckstein compared the plight of the 25,000 member Jewish community in Iran to “the state of Jews in Nazi Germany.” “While the historical circumstances may be different, the parallels are obvious: … Adolph Hitler publicly identified Jews as uniquely evil and placed upon them primary responsibility for the ills affecting German society at the time.”

On 25 December, 40 Jewish immigrants landed in Israel, making it the largest-ever single group of Iranian immigrants brought by the Jewish Agency. The agency has declared its intention to do whatever it can to bring as many Iranian Jews to Israel as possible.

“It feels like we”re losing control,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a co-founder of the Web site Jews on First, which monitors the religious right and Christian Zionist groups in the United States. “Those who will be in charge of the Zionist enterprise will not be Jews, but the senior partners with the most money.”

While Eckstein”s role in the Jewish Agency raises serious questions, Gershom Gorenberg pointed out that the “ad hoc relation that sometimes exists between Israel and conservative Evangelicals … is parallel to the ad hoc coalitions sometimes created by circumstance between feminists and fundamentalists on issues such as prostitution or pornography. They may jointly support a particular measure, but there is no real community of interests, no coalition.”

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the US Right.