By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
MEMPHIS – Ed Holliday was making a subtle connection between groups who’d suffered oppression.
“Not far from where we’re meeting here, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world, on the night before he was assassinated, that although I might not get there with you, we, as a people will get to the Promised Land,” said Holliday. He inserted the biblical reference to make sure his listeners connected the dots.
Holliday, a Tupelo dentist and conservative evangelical, had purchased a table at the annual Prayer Dinner for Israel. The guests seated with Holliday on May 19 at Opera Memphis included two Northeast Mississippi pastors, one of them black, and a newsman from a Christian radio station.
Around the room, Jewish men in crisp suits, many accompanied by their elegant wives, wore the skull caps called yarmulkes. Their Christian friends were dressed equally well.
At their tables people scoffed at President Obama’s suggestion, made that afternoon, that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians should include consideration of the borders that existed prior to the 1967 conflict.
Following Holliday’s invocation, the rhetoric from the panel of speakers was strong as guests finished their dinner.
“Anti-semitism often rears its head as cleverly cloaked, anti-Israel sentiment,” said one presenter, taking a veiled swipe at the president and fearing no reprisal from the sympathetic audience.
Jews and evangelicals clapped in thunderous unison as a digital image of the white and blue Israeli flag, emblazoned with the Star of David, waved on the screen behind the lectern.
The strong friendship that’s developed over the past 30 years between Jews and conservative, evangelical Christians might seem like an odd pairing. Many commentators trace it back to the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right.
Evangelicals, for example, vote overwhelmingly Republican, while according to the Pew Forum, 65 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats. The most obvious difference between Jews and evangelicals is their understanding of Jesus. Most Jews revere the carpenter from Nazareth as a learned rabbi while Christians believe he was the messiah.
Despite these differences, evangelicals who count themselves among the dedicated groups referred to as friends of Israel, or Christian Zionists, say they are sisters and brothers to Jews.
“At the root, it’s a shared, fundamental belief that God will do what he says he’s going to do,” Holliday said days after the dinner.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament as Christians refer to it, God promises to make Israel a mighty nation, and never to abandon it. Based in part on dispensationalist theology, many evangelicals believe the well-being of Israel is directly related to biblical prophecy, specifically passages concerning the end times. Through prayer, advocacy and fundraising, these evangelicals try to make sure Israel remains strong.
“If you believe the word of God, then you believe there’s a culmination of events that’s going to take place in Israel,” said Sue Creely of Tupelo, who, along with her husband, Earl, has attended pro-Israel rallies for years, including one last summer in Jackson. The Rev. John Hagee, a leading voice among friends of Israel, was the keynote speaker.
“The day America turns it back on Israel, God will turn his back on America,” Hagee thundered as a crowd of several hundred, including the Creeleys, waved small Israeli flags they’d been given as they entered.
While many Jews are happy to take evangelicals’ hands in friendship, some view rallies like the one in Jackson with a measure of caution, according to Bob Schwartz.
“Much of that comes from a sense that Israel has substantially different theological meanings for Jews and evangelicals,” said Schwartz, a member of Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo. While it’s not necessarily the way he sees it, some Jews, Schwartz said, worry that Zionist Christians aren’t doing everything above board.
“Supersessionism,” is the term commentators have used to express their conviction that, at the end of the day, no matter what evangelicals say, the end game is always converting Jews and keeping Israel intact for the end of time.
But Jews have other, less theological reasons for being wary of pro-Israel rallies. At the Jackson event, near the edge of the crowd, James Bowley looked a lot more pensive than those around him.
Support for Israel seems like an unqualified good, Bowley, a Jew and director of religious studies at Millsaps College said later, but, he added, “especially among Jews who disagree over Israeli politics, these events can exacerbate their differences.”
Some Jews, for example, are much more willing than others to consider a two-state solution and grant concessions to Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Friends of Israel, Bowley said, tend to embrace a kind of unilateral, ultra-conservative view of Israeli politics that makes moderates, like him, uncomfortable.
Pro-Israel rallies gain more traction in the South, Bowley said, because of the conservative political and social climate created by a strong evangelical presence.
Despite being accused of insincerity and harboring a hidden agenda to convert Jews, most evangelicals, according to Creely, support their Hebraic brethren out of a genuine sense of Christian love.
In a 2001 essay in the magazine First Things titled “Salvation is from the Jews,” the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus articulated a position many evangelicals have embraced. In it, the Catholic priest suggested Jews shouldn’t be viewed as potential Christians but as unique conversation partners with followers of Christ, possessing insights that can help illuminate the Christian faith.
Hagee has been criticized by fellow evangelicals, Bowley pointed out, for not aggressively proselytzing the Jews he so adamantly supports.
Creely admits that when she interacts with Jews at pro-Israel rallies she’s gently trying to “bring Yeshua (Jesus) to them,” but, like them, she also feels a sense of ownership of the Holy Land.
“As engrafted Christians, Israel is our homeland, too,” she said. “Israel is the apple of God’s eye. Those who bless it shall be blessed, and those who curse it shall be cursed,” she said, paraphrasing Gen. 12: 3. “We take that very seriously.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.