Jewish group seeks better ties with allies

Council wants to work with evangelical Christians on Israel, religious rights

February 26, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In an uneasy alliance with an ally of Israel, a national Jewish group is calling for closer ties with Christian evangelicals, who have long supported the Jewish state.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, concluding a four-day national meeting here yesterday, called on Jewish communities to engage evangelicals to work jointly on issues of mutual interest. That includes support for Israel, religious accommodation in the workplace, social services and a movement to pass legislation protecting the rights of religious organizations.

But the council cautioned that "our abiding objection to proselytization targeted at Jews must be clear and consistent."

Evangelicals have long been viewed with suspicion by many Jews for their zealous missionary efforts. Jewish public policy groups such as the council have also differed with evangelicals on domestic political issues, including women's and reproductive rights and church-and-state separation.

But the endorsement of active cooperation with evangelical Christians is an indication of how strongly the group feels about increased threats to Israel's security and its perceived international isolation.

"This is an example of the tension our community is feeling," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the council.

The council's resolution encourages Jewish groups to harness pro-Israel sentiments and activities of evangelical Christians. An example was October's Day of Prayer, part of the Stand for Israel project of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which involved 16,000 evangelical churches with a membership of 5 million.

"I think [the resolution's] biggest effect is that communities that just weren't sure about working with evangelicals now will have a comfort level to reach out to a community that has been reaching out to Israel for a long time," said George W. Mamo, the fellowship's executive vice president.

The Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission, said the sentiments in the resolution open many possibilities for cooperation: "It could be the beginning of a new era of understanding and common cause at a whole new level between evangelicals and Jews."

But the new relationship is not without potential pitfalls.

In the resolution and in discussion at the meeting, the Jewish leaders repeatedly voiced concerns about Christian proselytizing. In recent years, conversion efforts by groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention have offended many Jews.

For the relationship to work, there must be guidelines, said Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League.

"Conversions by deceptive means or duplicitous means are totally unacceptable," Korn declared Monday at a session on evangelical-Jewish relations. He added that aggressive conversion campaigns must be rejected outright. "If that is a fundamental tenet of the evangelical community ... you'll not get any support from the Jewish community because that is anathema to us as a people."

Evangelicals say sharing their faith is integral to who they are.

"It is a major imperative for evangelicals. It's part of the definition of evangelical," said Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College in Virginia, who writes on the relationship of evangelicals and Jews. "Jews should fear proselytizing that is coercive, but they should not fear friendly persuasion that they are free to reject."

Evangelical support for Israel is biblical. For a small proportion of evangelicals called Christian Zionists, it's based on their belief that the return of the Jews to Israel is a condition of the Second Coming of Jesus.

But many evangelicals reject that apocalyptic motivation.

"We don't believe any human being or human event can manipulate the Second Coming," said Land. "The Second Coming will come when God has foreordained it will come."

Instead of the apocalypse, Mamo said, most evangelicals base their love for Israel on Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

"The motivation is in the 12th chapter of Genesis, where God says, `I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you,'" Mamo told the Jewish public policy group this week. "And he's speaking to Abraham, and he's speaking of Abraham's children. Of you."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.