It was the early Jewish nationalist Nathan Birnbaum who coined the term “Zionism” in 1890 to describe the movement to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine. The idea’s essence was defined in the very name of the journal he published to advance the cause: “Self-Emancipation!”
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But now, the largest evangelical Christian group supporting Israel is set to independently take on a mission long seen as central to this self-conception: promoting, funding and implementing mass aliyah, or immigration, of large numbers of Jews to Israel from their native countries.
On October 6, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced it plans to launch its own separate aliyah operation, headed by Israel’s former top official dealing with the issue, and backed by millions of dollars collected from American evangelical Christians.
The group’s plan has set off a furious controversy on multiple levels. The pushback ranges from turf-oriented objections by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Zionist movement’s longtime vehicle for promoting and implementing aliyah, to broader concerns about the ideological and even theological implications of the Christian group’s move.
“There’s a certain irony here when you see Christian evangelicals working to move Jews out of their countries, which is very different from the ideology that says Jews should live everywhere,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American history at Brandeis University. He noted that by moving full force into the field of aliyah, the Fellowship and its Christian backers are, in fact, taking the side of “traditional Zionists” who believe in promoting immigration of Jews to Israel, as opposed to the ideology of many American Jewish groups that believe in helping Jews live full and safe lives in their countries of residence. “But, in any case, we’re lucky to have money on both sides of this debate,” Sarna added.
IFCJ, commonly referred to as the Fellowship, and its leader, the American Israeli rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, see the move into mass aliyah as a natural expansion. The group, which Eckstein founded in 1983 to cultivate evangelical Christian support for Israel and for Jews seen as imperiled in the Soviet Union, is today an organizational giant with an annual budget of $111 million in 2012. In addition to its own initiatives to aid needy Jews around the world and to facilitate their immigration to Israel, the Fellowship gives millions each year to JAFI.
In 2007, that support led JAFI to offer Eckstein a seat on its board, including membership on the committee overseeing the agency’s budget, and chairmanship of the agency’s aliyah and rescue committee.
Notwithstanding the Orthodox cleric’s own religious and ethnic background, critics voiced concern then about the precedent of giving a group representing the interests of Christian evangelicals, however friendly, a voice in Zionism’s most important world vehicle. Eckstein did little to assuage their concern when he summed up what the move meant.
“For the first time,” he said then, “Christians, who are mainly my constituency, will have a seat at the table.”
The Fellowship’s new move to set up its own aliyah operation will confront once again the sense of discomfort some Jews feel about the direct involvement of evangelicals in an operation that aims not just to help Jews in need, but also to fulfill the conditions many evangelicals see as a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ.