By Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein/JNS
President Donald Trump’s recent announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and declaring that the U.S. will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not happen in a vacuum or come out of nowhere. It did not happen solely because of Jewish influence, either. It happened because millions of good Christians in America urged the president to do so.
But where did this groundswell of Christian support come from?
It was exactly 40 years ago when I initiated some of the earliest dialogues ever between evangelical Christians and Jews. Little did I realize then that these Christians, whom most people never even heard of, would grow in numbers and influence both in America and around the world, and would become such a crucial base of support for Israel and the Jewish people.
Five years later, in 1983, I founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), with the goal of building bridges of cooperation and understanding between evangelical Christians and Jews as well as broad, grassroots support for the State of Israel.
The notion of changing 2,000 years of bitter history and replacing it with a partnership marked by friendship and acts of unconditional love (without missionary activity) was regarded at the time as an unattainable pipe dream. But I went ahead nonetheless, despite the criticism, skepticism and attacks. I began bringing evangelical leaders to Israel to meet various prime ministers, starting with Menachem Begin, and to the White House to press for pro-Israel policies. Later, we launched the “Christian tourism to Israel” industry, in partnership with the National Religious Broadcasters, the umbrella organization of all those involved in evangelical Christian media. Today, more than 1 million Christians visit Israel each year.
From there we proceeded to grow broad-based political support for Israel among evangelicals, opening an office in Washington, D.C., and a Stand for Israel advocacy program that today reaches millions of people around the world every day. Finally, 20 years ago, we began raising funds from Christians, primarily through TV and direct response marketing, to help Jews immigrate to Israel from the former Soviet Union, feed and care for needy Jews in Israel and around the world, and provide security for Israel and Jewish institutions worldwide. It would take four decades of hard work as well as the financial support of just a few hundred Jews in the earlier years, and later of 1.7 million Christians, to reach the point where we are today—the largest global source of Christian support for Israel.
Over the years The Fellowship often came under attack, initially by Reform and liberal Jews and establishment Jewish groups, and later mostly by extremist haredi Jewish leaders and rabbis who even refused our overtures of help because the funds came from Christians. Some still refuse to accept our help even today.
But eventually The Fellowship was, in the words of former Sen. Joe Lieberman, “vindicated.” Today, The Fellowship helps roughly 1.4 million people each year, in Israel and around the world. Our $140 million annual budget supports the most vulnerable segments of Israeli society—the poor, the elderly, Holocaust survivors, people with disabilities, immigrants, minorities, terror victims, veterans and others. Indeed, The Fellowship is today the largest philanthropic welfare organization in Israel.
In addition, we provide $30 million a year from Christians to help the world’s most destitute Jews in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere with basic needs such as food, medicine and heating fuel. We’ve brought more than 750,000 Jews on aliyah from 28 countries where they were threatened by anti-Semitism, terror and economic despair, and helped found the U.S. aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh. We provide millions of dollars in security assistance to more than 100 Jewish communities worldwide.
Over the years our Christian partners have contributed more than $1.4 billion—mostly with an average sacrificial donation of $76 per person—to help Israel and the Jewish people. These are not wealthy mega donors, but people who care wholeheartedly for Israel and relate to her and the Jewish people with unconditional love.
I am recounting this not to herald our organization’s impact, but to remind us all of how the growth of Christian support for Israel and the Jewish community during the past four decades contributed to President Trump’s historic announcement on Jerusalem.
Today, phrases like “Jews and evangelical Christians supporting Israel” barely raise an eyebrow; as if it were a given. But Christians’ faithful support for Israel was never a given. Nor is it today—especially if we measure it in terms of the dwindling level of support for Israel from the next generation of evangelicals.
We owe these Christians a debt of gratitude—of “hakarat hatov” (Hebrew for the recognition of good).
There are an estimated 100 million Pentecostal Christians in China alone, and hundreds of millions more in Latin America, the Far East and other regions. Most of them are where the evangelical community in America was 40 years ago, when I first began working with them. They have not yet been taught that it is their biblical duty to stand with Israel and to bless the Jewish people.
It is imperative that the Jewish community invests in educating them, reaching out to them, and rallying their continued support—and that of their children—in the years ahead. Much more needs to be done if we seek to rely on evangelical support in the future.
Evangelical Christians remain an essential, steadfast, strategic partner for Israel, both in the U.S. and around the world. But their continued friendship is not a given. We need to invest in their burgeoning communities and in the next generation of evangelicals to ensure that they too stand with Israel and that their support grows rather than diminishes in the years to come. Our survival, and that of the State of Israel, depend on it.
Most of all, we need to unequivocally and unabashedly say “Todah rabah” (Hebrew for “Thank you very much”) to President Trump and to our evangelical Christian friends.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.