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.”
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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 more evangelicals I met over the years, the more I realized how thirsty they were to connect to the settlements'Aaron Katsof, founder of Heart of Israel (The Binyamin Fund)
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.
“Not all the settler rabbis – but definitely most – have embraced this new cooperation and friendship, which is based not only on the mutual agenda of resistance to any Jewish withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, but also, importantly, on a shared conservative worldview as far as gender relations, LGBT rights, minority rights, the place of religion in the public sphere and nationalism is concerned,” he says.
“Religious social conservatives on both sides have found support in each other and a shared language,” Persico, who is also currently a visiting professor at the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, adds. “In fact, so much so that religious-Zionist Israelis today sound a lot like evangelical Republicans.”
Aaron Lipkin, who serves as spokesman for the settlement of Ofra, notes that many of the Orthodox rabbis known to be opposed to Christian outreach efforts have toned down their rhetoric, noting, “They’re much more quiet these days.”
And since the election of Trump, he adds, attitudes are changing at the grassroots level as well. “Until Trump came along, it was mainly Anglo-Saxons living out here who connected with evangelicals,” says Lipkin. “Now, there is a sense of gratitude among other residents as well. They see that the evangelicals are very good friends to us.”
Lipkin owns and runs a travel agency that specializes in evangelical tours to the settlements. It’s a niche, he says, that has proven very lucrative.
“This is a population that is really into the Bible,” he says, “and 99 percent of the events in the Bible took place in this area – in Hebron, Shiloh, Shechem [Nablus] and Jerusalem. Regretfully, 99 percent of the tourists who come to this country don’t go to where the Bible took place. I’ve made it my job to change that.”
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities raises about $1 million a year for settlement projects, with almost all of the donations coming from evangelicals. Established in 1995, CFOIC was the first Christian charity of its kind to focus exclusively on the settlements.
It is probably no coincidence that the driving force behind this enterprise is an American – a former Clevelander, to be exact – who lives in the settlement of Karnei Shomron. Neither is the timing of its establishment a coincidence. As Sondra Baras, the founder and Israel director notes, the idea took root around the time the Israeli government had begun to concede sovereignty over sections of the West Bank – she prefers to call them Judea and Samaria – as part of the Oslo Accords. Her evangelical friends were so outraged by these territorial concessions that Baras, an Orthodox Jew, proposed setting up an organization that invested exclusively in the settlements.
Among religious Jews in the settlements, Baras says she detects far less resistance to the type of work she does these days. “Initially, there were vicious attacks against me – but all attempts to boycott me failed,” she says. “Our organization hasn’t had problems with rabbis in a number of years.”
Katsof, whose Heart of Israel fundraising initiative is modeled on Baras', says he has noticed a similar trend. “People used to be more scared, but I see the religious Zionist community getting more open to this,” he says. “They realize that at the end of the day the missionizing activities they were so concerned about simply don’t happen.”
‘World's biggest scam’
Among Orthodox Zionist rabbis, one of the most outspoken critics of this budding relationship is Rabbi Shlomo Aviner – the spiritual leader of the settlement of Beit El.
In a manifesto published almost two years ago, Aviner described Christians who love Israel as “the world’s biggest scam.” He wrote that all forms of Christian aid to Israel aim to erase Israel “in one way or another,” and warned that Orthodox Jews should not be lured by “statements of love, hugs and kisses.”
Evangelicals are the most dangerous of all Christian groups, he wrote, because they see Israel as a stepping stone to the Second Coming and believe that at the end of days, after most of the Jews have been killed, those remaining will convert to Christianity. “This is why they shower us with love and money,” he stated.
But it seems Aviner is increasingly finding himself in the minority. A key factor working against Aviner and others like him is a landmark ruling by Har Bracha’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who is a respected religious authority in the Zionist Orthodox community. Melamed had been asked to weigh in on the case of Hayovel, and after considerable deliberation concluded that it was fine for Christians to work the fields of Jewish farmers, so long as they did not engage in missionary activities.
This ruling was seen as a green light for settlers to welcome evangelicals into their midst and accept whatever help these Christians wished to extend.
Persico explains why evangelicals are such avid supporters of Israeli settlers and Jewish claims to the entire West Bank. For these groups, he says, “it is essential that Israel control Jerusalem and the entire Promised Land, in order to set in motion the events of the much anticipated Armageddon. The settlers, of course, do not believe this narrative, but they are happy to take advantage of evangelical beliefs in it.”
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University and a leading authority on Americans in the settler movement, notes that it is these Americans who have been “at the forefront of the rapprochement between Jews and evangelicals.”
She cites Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of the settlement of Efrat, as a leading example. A former New Yorker, Riskin established the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and is active in Christians United for Israel – an organization founded by popular U.S. televangelist and megachurch Pastor John Hagee – which has more than 4 million members.
The favored settlement
JH Israel, headquartered in Alabama, focuses its fundraising efforts almost exclusively on Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. Heather and Bruce Johnston, who founded the organization, had been close friends of Ron Nachman, the late mayor of Ariel and among the first settler leaders to identify the potential in evangelical philanthropy.
Ariel is largely secular, unlike many other West Bank settlements, so there was also less resistance to overcome there.
Over the past 10 years, JH Israel has more than quadrupled the amount of funding it raises for Ariel, and in the most recent fiscal year that sum has hovered at around $1 million. Over the years, the Johnstons have hosted dozens of schoolchildren from Ariel at a Christian retreat they run in northern California. It was during one such visit, about 10 years ago, that the idea was floated to create a similar facility in Ariel.
The $2 million outdoor experiential facility they built in Ariel – known as the National Leadership Center – hosts thousands of Israeli high school students every year. As Haaretz revealed several months ago, the Israeli Education Ministry decided this year, for the first time, to subsidize the center to the tune of 1 million shekels ($270,000) yearly. Like the funding to Hayovel, it highlights how the Israeli government is using taxpayer money to seemingly strengthen the evangelical-settler alliance.
Among the settlements, Ariel is by far the largest beneficiary of evangelical charity. In 2008, the John Hagee Ministries invested $8 million in a sports complex in the settlement. (John Hagee Ministries has also donated close to $1 million to Riskin’s Jewish-Christian center in Efrat.) Although Friends of Ariel, the American fundraising arm of the settlement, maintains close ties with evangelical churches, it is not clear how much of its funding comes from Christians.
Nachman once explained that the reason he courted evangelicals was that Jews did not give him money. “I go to the Christians because the Jewish organizations boycott me,” he told Israeli daily Maariv in 2010. “No [Jewish] community abroad wants to adopt us. Their money they distribute to the criminals at the New Israel Fund,” he added, referring to the U.S.-headquartered organization dedicated to promoting progressive causes in Israel. He has a point: Most of the mainstream Jewish philanthropies put little, if any, money into the settlements.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and Christians United for Israel – two of the best-known evangelical charities devoted to Israel – do provide money to projects in the settlements. But supporting these communities is not their primary mission. The same holds true for the main evangelical organizations headquartered in Israel: Bridges for Peace, the International Christian Embassy and Christian for Israel, for example.
Drones in the settlements
Far and away the largest organization operating in the field is IFCJ, which raises on average $140 million a year. According to founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, only a tiny share of this, about 1 percent, actually goes to the settlements.
“We now have a whole bunch of requests for drones in the settlements – and we are going to provide them, because that’s the kind of thing we do,” he says. “If there are settlers who are poor and needy, and in need of food and heating, we will also include them. But we don’t try to link churches with settlements,” he adds.
Adding up all the money raised by such charities does not tell the entire story, however.
Blessed Buy Israel, for instance, does not hand out funds, but instead helps promote settlement business in the United States. Founded and run by Steve and Doris Wearp, an evangelical couple from eastern Texas, Blessed Buy Israel sells products made by about a dozen family-run businesses in the settlements directly to churches (as well as online).
Sales totaled $50,000 in 2017, the first year of operation, and are expected to double this year. Without the Wearps peddling their merchandise, these businesses might not have such access to the U.S. market. The Wearps and their five boys also volunteer six to seven weeks every year with Hayovel.
“It’s funny, but in many ways I feel closer to many Orthodox Jews here than I do to many Christians in the United States and around the world,” notes Steve. “There’s more common vision, more common purpose and deeper spiritual ties to our friends here.”
During the harvest season that just ended, Hayovel says its 175 volunteers picked 340 tons of grapes in the settlements, putting in a combined total of 4,930 hours. Given the current minimum wage, they saved local farmers about $40,000 in expenses over the three-month period.
Hymns in the vineyard
On Haaretz's visit to Har Bracha, volunteers from the United States, Sweden, Norway, Hong Kong, Austria and New Zealand could be heard singing Christian hymns as they picked grapes in the vineyards owned by Tura Winery. Some of the women had babies strapped to their backs as they moved up and down the rows.
Asked whether the farmers have offered to share their profits with the volunteers, Hayovel's designated spokesman, Luke Hilton, responds: “These farmers aren’t rich guys. Every dollar we can save them, they can put back into this land – and we want to allow them to be on this land.”
Tura Winery is owned by Nir Lavie, who was born in Israel but spent part of his childhood in the United States, while his father served as an overseas emissary. Those years in the United States, he says, taught him there was nothing to fear about Christians. When he opened the winery 20 years ago, it produced 3,000 bottles the first year. Since Hayovel volunteers began lending a hand, production has expanded dramatically and he now produces 50,000 bottles a year.
To hear it from Lavie, there is no reason to take pity on him or his business.
Asked if the winery was profitable, he responds: “Baruch Hashem” (“Thank God”). He becomes more defensive, though, when asked how much money he saves from all the free help. “And what about the kibbutzim?” he responds angrily. “They didn’t save money with all their volunteers from Holland and Sweden?”
He has a point, of course, except that volunteers on kibbutzim traditionally received room and board in exchange for their work. Hayovel volunteers do not; they are required to cover all their expenses on their own.
“In any event,” continues Lavie, “what’s really important is that these people eventually become goodwill ambassadors for Israel around the world. And they also benefit because doing this work makes them happy. So let’s just say each of us needs the other. Thank God we have them, and I hope it continues another 200 to 300 years.”