As the Jewish High Holiday season moves in, Israel is getting set to welcome a throng of religious visitors — evangelical Christians.
Thousands will pour in from more than 80 countries to the streets of Jerusalem in early October for an annual march celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Jewish festival of Sukkot. As they follow in the footsteps of Jesus, whose holiday visit to the city is described in the Book of John, they’ll also be rallying behind the modern state of Israel.
Evangelicals from the U.S. alone pump more than half a billion dollars a year into Israeli tourism and charity, while endorsing the country’s conservative politics in a controversial alliance. Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Jewish state has energized fundraising efforts as evangelicals try to ramp up support for a land many see as God-given.
“After the elections, being pro-Israel became a part of the establishment, rather than part of the opposition,” said Rabbi Tuly Weisz, who raises money for charities from evangelicals through his israel365.com website. “I do believe that this year’s increase in tourism and overall growth in charitable giving can be partially attributed to the fact that the Trump administration is seen to be extremely pro-Israel.”
Although some fundraisers haven’t seen a Trump-related uptick in donations, Mike Evans, founder of the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, saw the U.S. president’s May visit as a peerless opportunity to recruit Christian support. He hailed Trump as the Jewish state’s best friend in a post to his 28 million Facebook followers, and draped buildings with three-story banners urging the U.S. president to “Make Israel Great.”
“I want to do whatever I can to influence him to care about the Jewish people,” Evans said.
Polls show no other group in the U.S. supports the Jewish state more than evangelicals — not even American Jews. Israel can count on their unstinting support in Washington, and Netanyahu recognizes the power of their backing as he faces multiple criminal investigations that could drive him from office.
“Millions and millions of Americans cheering him and donating money to Israel sends an image that is very powerful to the Israeli public,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a Bar-Ilan University political scientist who has studied the evangelicals’ relationship with Israel.
In the midst of an eastern European tour in July, the prime minister made sure to address the Washington conference organized by evangelical pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, appearing on two massive screens by satellite from Budapest.
“We have no better friends than you,” Netanyahu declared. “You are always there for us.”
Israel didn’t always welcome evangelicals, who are the subject of an anti-missionary law. Many believe Jews must return to the biblical Land of Israel to facilitate a Second Coming of Christ. Some say masses of Jews will die in the final struggle between God and Satan if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord.
Others see an unholy alliance. Deeply fervent Jews suspect all evangelicals are missionaries, while secular liberals deplore their conservative politics and support for Israel’s settlement of captured lands Palestinians claim for a state.
“We do not seek their honey, and we do not seek their bee sting,” said a West Bank rabbinical council’s 2014 ruling, quoting a Talmudic adage.
Still, for official Israel, the outpouring of love is a boon as it seeks new allies in the face of growing antagonism in the U.S. and Western Europe toward its occupation of land Palestinians claim for a state. Evangelicals see things differently, and according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry are flying in in even greater numbers this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured Jerusalem’s Old City and West Bank biblical sites.
In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 82 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. said they believe Israel was given by God to the Jewish people, versus 40 percent of Jews. Almost 60 percent of evangelicals, according to a 2015 Bloomberg poll, said they would back Israel regardless of U.S. interests.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is the heavyweight champ in raising money from evangelicals. His International Federation for Christians and Jews collected $132 million in 2015 — the last year for which records were publicly available — much of it going to the poor in Israel and other Jewish communities, according to Internal Revenue Service records.
“I demonstrated that there was this group out there that is growing in numbers and influence and that it’s important for the Jewish community to reach out to them, and that it could be done with integrity by a Jewish rabbi,” Eckstein said.
Organizations such as Hagee’s CUFI have modeled their approach on Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby known for its mastery of Washington politics, according to David Brog, a former CUFI chief executive now leading billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s campaign against Israel boycott efforts on college campuses.
“Almost every politician in America gets that if you want to appeal to evangelical Christians, you talk about traditional values, about being ‘pro-life’ and also about your support for Israel,” said Brog, a cousin of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “Even a guy like Donald Trump who didn’t share the values of the religious Christian community was able to talk about Israel in a way that really galvanized people.”