Should Jews in Israel – people or institutions – accept charitable donations from Christians ?
This controversy has roiled many religious Israelis, and even provoked a public conference during Pesach that answered this question in the negative – and vehemently so. What is the background, and what are the issues ?
There are many Christian groups, primarily but not exclusively evangelicals, that are among the most enthusiastic financial and political supporters of the State of Israel. One in particular, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, was founded 27 years by Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, and that organization has donated well over $100,000,000 (that’s one hundred million dollars) to the Jewish poor in Israel, and were especially instrumental in facilitating the aliya and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The IFCJ stepped in when assistance was desperately needed – winter coats and blankets, food for the hungry, etc. He has come under withering attack, which he –dedicated to building bridges between Jews and Christians – has borne quite well. But what exactly should be controversial about Christians helping the Jewish poor ?
Many of the opponents , including Rabbis for whom I have great respect, argue that it is a desecration of G-d’s name to accept charity from non-Jews. In that contention, they are not wrong, and would that we could provide assistance to all Jewish poor. But such considerations do not inhibit many Jewish poor in America from accepting welfare, food stamps, and all sorts of government assistance (even as I wish it would). So Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) in this context seems to be a bit elastic.
The more prevalent reason, often articulated, is the fear that Christian evangelicals will use their contacts in Israel in order to proselytize, and that it reflects a certain Christian eschatological view that requires that all Jews be in Israel for the Second Coming to take place. Each argument needs to be analyzed separately.
Israeli law bans proselytizing, even if it is rarely enforced, and when enforced, has few consequences. It reflects the obvious point that Israel is the Jewish State, and that proselytizing, despite being part of the Christian faith (depending on denomination), is a disrespectful act in the Jewish state. Certainly, to my knowledge, IFCJ has never been involved in missionary work, nor have most of the Christian organizations that involved in Israeli charitable endeavors.
Naturally, I oppose any attempts to convert Jews (as I do any attempts to convert Christians to other faiths, including Judaism) but I hasten to add that I have never been troubled by missionaries. In my spirited youth, I used to debate them on street corners and through correspondence. The bottom line is: we should be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas. If we do not reach fragile Jews with the message of Torah, we have only ourselves to blame. We have a most wonderful product that all thinking Jews should explore. And if our failures are exacerbated by our inability to provide financial or emotional support to these wayward Jews, and Christians step into that breach, the fault is, again, ours. The happy, intelligent, educated Jew who feels a part of the Jewish community is not in any danger from missionaries.
What of the Christian belief that utilizes support for Israel in order to advance a distinctly Christian eschatological agenda ? I don’t believe this is the case. I have spoken to evangelicals – leaders and laymen – and to a person they have rooted their support for Israel and love for Jews in the Bible’s admonition (Isaac’s blessing to Jacob) “those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed.” The latter is powerful motivation indeed, and has been the catalyst not only for the substantial financial support provided Israel but also for the political support. Many see America’s prosperity as predicated on its support for Jews and Israel and – especially recently – fear America’s decline and financial woes are traceable to its wavering support for Israel. And, of those Christians who await the Second Coming and support Israel accordingly, so be it. I don’t share that belief, but they are certainly entitled to it. The poor who benefit likely could care less what is in the hearts of these eschatologists. Overt friendship is more meaningful than a covert conviction.
Today, evangelical Christians are the leading supporters of Israel in the United States, (frankly) shaming Jews both in the depth and consistency of their support. They can muster 40,000,000 (that’s forty million) e-mails within hours, and influence policy, while Jewish organizations meet, and talk, and discuss, and brainstorm, and strategize, and then issue a watered-down apologia. (Case in point: in April 2002, President Bush ordered – ordered ! – Prime Minister Sharon to remove Israeli tanks from Jenin and withdraw Israeli forces after the first few days of Operation Defensive Shield. He was quite adamant about it, but then, two days later, nothing. Silence from the White House. What changed ? Forty million e-mails (count ‘em) from Christian evangelicals calling on the President to support Israel’s right of self-defense as Israel sees fit.) Time and again, American policy towards Israel these days is driven by evangelicals and not – as we think – by Jews, whose support for Israel is often tepid and unreliable, who lack the raw numbers of Christians to make a political difference, and who are knee-jerk Democrats and therefore often irrelevant to the process.
Most Jews, sad to say, do not believe in the divine origin of the Bible, and so they do not accept that the Jewish people are in the land of Israel by divine right. The leading advocates of the biblical right to the land of Israel for the Jewish people are Orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals. That is why the commitments of both those communities are unswerving, and occasionally necessitate challenging and emboldening even the government of Israel. That friendship and that support are, therefore, unconditional, and that is not a common experience for Jews or Israelis.
A people with few friends should embrace all those who offer friendship, and not assume improper motivation. Of course, part of the discomfort is justified, a legacy of two millennia of Christian outrages against Jews – violence, mass murder, forced conversion, persecution, economic deprivation, and the like. But it is important that we not trap ourselves in a 19th or 15th century paradigm. Christians have changed; while there are still pockets of Jew hatred, the average Christian – in America, and in much of the world outside of Europe – harbors no innate enmity towards Jews. Christian tourists flock to Israel because it is the Jewish state. Most Christians seek to support Israel for positive and virtuous reasons, and it ill-behooves us to interpret that as sinister. And, perhaps most importantly, Jews and Christians today share a common enemy – radical Islam, which has a rabid hatred of Jews but also an open contempt for Christianity. Bear in mind that Jews and Christians lived as second-class citizens in the Muslim world (Coptic Christians in Egypt even today, to name one group). It would be most advantageous if Jews fought today’s battle together with our natural allies, rather than re-fought the battles of the 11th and 12th centuries.
When the Temple stood, non-Jews brought offerings as well, in accordance with Jewish law. We long for the day when “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” when all nations will flock to Jerusalem, from which the word of G-d emanates. We should guard against illegal proselytizing, to be sure, but I prefer to believe that the assistance and support Israel receives from Christians is a harbinger of that awesome day when the kingdom of G-d on earth will be recognized by all mankind.