Jewish Group Calls for Closer Ties to Christian Evangelicals

Mar 01, 2003 03:36 PM EST

BALTIMORE -- In an uneasy alliance with an ally of Israel, a U.S. Jewish group is calling for closer ties with Christian evangelicals, who have long supported the Jewish state.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which concluded a four-day national meeting this week, called on Jewish communities to engage evangelicals to work jointly on issues of mutual interest.

That includes support for Israel, religious accommodation in the workplace, social services and a movement to pass legislation protecting the rights of religious organizations.

But the council cautioned that "our abiding objection to proselytization targeted at Jews must be clear and consistent." In recent years, conversion efforts among Jews by groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention have offended many Jews.

Evangelicals said sharing their faith is integral to who they are.

"It is a major imperative for evangelicals. It's part of the definition of 'evangelical,' " said Gerald McDermott, a professor of religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., who writes on the relationship between evangelicals and Jews.

"Jews should fear proselytizing that is coercive, but they should not fear friendly persuasion that they are free to reject," he said.

In addition to differences over missionary efforts, Jewish public policy groups have disagreed with evangelicals on domestic political issues, including women's rights, abortion and the separation of church and state.

But the endorsement of active cooperation with evangelical Christians is an indication of how strongly the group feels about increased threats to Israel's security and its perceived international isolation.

"This is an example of the tension our community is feeling," said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the public affairs council.

The group's resolution encourages Jewish organizations to find ways to make use of pro-Israel sentiments and activities of evangelical Christians.

A recent example was last October's Day of Prayer, part of the Stand for Israel project of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which involved 16,000 evangelical churches with a membership of 5 million.

The Rev. Richard Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission, said that the sentiments expressed in the resolution opened many possibilities for cooperation.

"It could be the beginning of a new era of understanding and common cause at a whole new level between evangelicals and Jews," Land said.

Evangelical support for Israel is biblical.

For a small proportion of evangelicals called Christian Zionists, it is based on their belief that the return of the Jews to Israel is a condition of the second coming of Jesus Christ.

But many evangelicals reject that motivation.

"We don't believe any human being or human event can manipulate the second coming," said Land, the Southern Baptist official.

"The second coming will come when God has foreordained it will come," he said.

Instead of the Apocalypse, most evangelicals base their love for Israel on Genesis, the first book of the Bible, said George W. Mamo, who is executive vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

"The motivation is in the 12th chapter of Genesis, where God says, 'I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you,' " Mamo told the Jewish Council for Public Affairs this week.

"And he's speaking to Abraham, and he's speaking of Abraham's children," he said. "Of you."

By John Rivera