When the first Christian evangelical volunteers descended on the religious West Bank settlement of Har Bracha about 10 years ago, offering to harvest grapes for the local Jewish farmers free of charge, not everyone welcomed them with open arms.
After all, for generations Jews had been taught that when Christians go out of their way to be nice, it is probably because they are secretly plotting to convert them, and, therefore, it's best to keep a distance.
Much has changed since then. There are still Jewish settlers not completely comfortable with the idea of Christians living in their midst and working their fields. But they are far less vocal these days.
Hayovel, the U.S. organization that brings them to Har Bracha, is among a growing list of evangelical groups that operate exclusively in the so-called “biblical heartland.” Over the past decade, it has brought more than 1,700 volunteers to the settlements – and only the settlements because, as a matter of principle, its volunteers do not assist farmers within Israel proper.
Explaining the organization’s special attachment to this disputed piece of land – that most of the international community does not recognize as part of Israel – Hayovel states on its website: “Every country in the world has turned its back on Judea and Samaria, the heartland of Israel, where 80 percent of the Bible was either written or occurred.”
There were many years when Hayovel operated under the radar, believing that the less Israelis knew what it was up to, the better.
No longer. These days, the nonprofit is more than happy to host journalists and the curious at its main campus, located on this settlement that overlooks the large Palestinian city of Nablus. Its willingness to be so aboveboard about its activities is evidence of how mainstream such interactions between Christian evangelicals and Jewish settlers have become.
The ‘real' Israel
The Heart of Israel (also known as the Binyamin Fund) is another nonprofit benefiting from these ties. Established three years ago, the organization raises hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for earmarked projects in the settlements, according to its American-born founder, Aaron Katsof.
Although Katsof says evangelicals do not account for the bulk of the money he raises, they do account for the vast majority of his donors. “You have to realize that while the average Jew gives $1,500, the average Christian gives $50,” he says. “But their share is growing very, very fast.”
Asked what prompted him to set up this new fundraising organization, Katsof – who lives in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh – responds: “The more evangelicals I met over the years, the more I realized how thirsty they were to connect to the settlements. When they land in Tel Aviv, they often tell me that it isn’t how they imagined Israel. But when they come out here to the settlements, they say this is exactly how they imagined it.
“They are our biggest, biggest, biggest, biggest allies,” he adds.
His is not the only organization trying to translate this groundswell of evangelical support for the settler movement into dollars and cents. But estimating the scope of this financial assistance is difficult, as nonprofits and churches registered in the United States are not required to list their sources of funding or to specify where the money is going. In addition, some of this charity takes nonmonetary forms, such as free labor hours (in the case of Hayovel), or free marketing and sales services.
A 2015 report by Molad, a progressive Israeli think tank, tried to estimate the amount of money being invested in the settlements by the evangelical community. It concluded that it was virtually impossible – among other reasons because “many of the Israeli NGOs active in Judea and Samaria do not fully abide by the rules of transparency and do not report to the NGO Registrar, in violation of the law.”
Nonetheless, the report concluded that a “hefty share” of all evangelical investment in Israel ends up beyond the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders), and that the beneficiaries include regional councils, right-wing NGOs, illegal outposts, businesses and travel companies specializing in settlement tours.
A review of the financial statements of the main organizations active in raising money from evangelicals for the settlement project indicates that the numbers are still relatively small in absolute terms. But they appear to be growing. It also appears that more and more of these initiatives are taking root.
Often, the best way to determine whether such organizations are directing their fundraising efforts at evangelicals, as opposed to Jews, is to look at the language used in their fundraising pitches (many of which are featured on their websites). When the word “God” is used, as opposed to “Hashem,” the audience is most likely Christian. So, too, if the term “Bible” is preferred over “Torah” and “Biblical Heartland” over “Judea and Samaria.”
Another giveaway is the use of the phrase “fulfillment of biblical prophecy” when explaining the significance of such donations. It is a phrase widely known to win the hearts and open the pockets of evangelicals.
Based on this review, as well as on media reports about specific projects, Haaretz estimates the total amount of funding raised in the past 10 years at somewhere between $50 million and $65 million. The calculation (click here for full details) takes into account all the major nonprofits that direct their fundraising efforts at the evangelical community and enjoy 501c status in the United States.
Some 400,000 Jews live in West Bank settlements, accounting for about 6 percent of the total Jewish population in Israel and the occupied territories. An estimated two-thirds of them are religious.
Since Orthodox Jews have traditionally been more wary of Christian outreach efforts than their secular counterparts, their strengthening ties with the evangelical community were far from obvious.
“Conventional wisdom would say that the religious community would be the last to embrace this support,” says Rabbi Tuly Weisz, the publisher of Israel365 – a daily newsletter distributed to 150,000 evangelicals around the world. “But I believe it’s the most logical relationship," he adds. "These Christians support Israel in general, and Judea and Samaria in particular, because of the biblical foundation – and that is something religious Jews can definitely relate to.”
It helps, he notes, that evangelicals who backed Donald Trump in the presidential election have since been pressuring him to pursue policies in line with positions embraced by the settler movement. These include moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and enabling new settlement construction in the West Bank.
“There’s definitely more of a movement within the religious Jewish community to accept friendship from evangelicals for these reasons,” says Weisz.
Ambassadors for Israel
Hayovel scored a major coup in its quest to gain acceptance in Israel several months ago: The Strategic Affairs Ministry informed its founders that, starting this year, they will receive a set annual fee from the Israeli government. This is not for their work in the fields of Samaria, but their advocacy work on behalf of Israel and the settlement movement in their communities abroad.
“The government realizes that the hundreds of volunteers we bring here each year can serve as speakers and ambassadors for Israel abroad,” says Caleb Waller, the 27-year-old son of Hayovel founder Tommy Waller.
For now, the government has offered Hayovel a small sum of $16,000 a year, but has indicated that this figure will grow, according to Caleb Waller. Asked how he and his fellow Christian volunteers feel about accepting money from Israeli taxpayers, he responds: “Well, the Israeli government gives money to the LGBT community of Tel Aviv as well, so there’s no reason I should feel bad.”
Indeed, it often seems there is more that unites the Christian right and Jewish right these days than divides them. Tomer Persico, the Shalom Hartman Institute Bay Area scholar in residence, notes that many settler rabbis have been able to overcome their instinctive resistance to Christian outreach efforts because the evangelical community has been so helpful in promoting their agenda – and not only on the political front.