A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance
by Zev Chafets
HarperCollins. 240 pp. $24.95
Evangelical Christians make up as much as a third of the U.S. population and a full quarter of voters in national elections. In addition to proclaiming their faith in Jesus and belief in the Bible as the true word of God, most evangelicals also oppose abortion, want to see more religion in public life, and strongly support Israel. All of this makes liberals anxious and unhappy, particularly Jewish liberals, who see the evangelical embrace of Israel as a kind of ruse to promote the conversion of Jewish souls and to ensure that Jews play their assigned role in the Christian script for Armageddon.
Indeed, in recent years, this unease has turned into active ill will, including public condemnation from prominent Jewish leaders. In November 2005, for example, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), warned that the evangelical political agenda amounted to a “campaign to Christianize America.” Soon thereafter, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement, denounced the religious Right for its supposedly Nazi-like bigotry toward homosexuals and for claiming a “monopoly on God.”
Why should American Jews, who seemingly would welcome whatever help they can get in supporting Israel, be so eager to kick evangelicals to the curb? That is the question that Zev Chafets, a veteran columnist for the New York Daily News and the Jerusalem Report, raises and attempts to answer in A Match Made in Heaven.
A recently repatriated American who has lived most of his adult life in Israel, Chafets has the right credentials for the job. As a child growing up in the Detroit area in the early 1960’s, he encountered a variety of holy rollers and conversion-seeking proselytizers. His curiosity even led him to the Shrine of the Little Flower, where Father Coughlin, the infamous Catholic priest known for anti-Semitic radio tirades during the Depression, still presided. By the 1970’s, Chafets had moved to Israel, become a citizen, and joined the army. He eventually worked as press secretary to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who, by actively welcoming American evangelicals, did more than any other Israeli politician before or since to establish links between the Jewish state and Christian Zionists.
After describing his own background, Chafets offers a brief history of Christian philo-Semitism in America. As he points out, concern for the well-being of the Jewish people is not something new and anomalous in evangelical culture but is deeply ingrained, dating back to the 1800’s. Among the most striking examples of such support in the 20th century, he notes, was the vocal effort of Christian Zionists to draw attention to the fate of European Jews during Hitler’s rise to power and throughout the course of World War II. Though evangelical concern often went hand-in-hand with campaigns of conversion, it also gave rise to institutions dedicated to the establishment of a Zionist homeland.
To get a sense of the present-day attitudes of evangelicals, Chafets attended one of their conventions in Denver, followed a tour group to the Holy Land, and talked with the movement’s leaders, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Today’s evangelicals, he concludes, are far less concerned with converting Jews and hastening “the end times” than is generally believed. Instead, their passion for the Jewish state is a simple extension of their evangelical faith. As most of them see it, the fact that the people of the Bible still exist and have been restored to their land is proof that God is real.
The evangelicals’ attitude toward the Jews and Israel shines even more brightly, Chafets observes, when compared with that of the mainline Protestant churches, which have grown increasingly hostile to the Jewish state. A large part of the problem, he writes, is the “post-millennial” theology of the liberal churches, which holds that “every house built for Habitat for Humanity, every hot meal served at a downtown soup kitchen, every human-rights document signed at the United Nations, helps speed the arrival of the messiah.” In this deeply political view of the “end of days,” Israel is portrayed as an obstacle to peace, a war-mongering nation that imposes suffering on innocents. Thus, while evangelicals proudly declare their Zionism, many of the mainline churches battle the Jewish state with every tool at their disposal, from meeting with Islamic radicals to disinvestment campaigns that equate Israel with apartheid-era South Africa.
As for Jewish attitudes toward the Christian Right, Chafets shows that they cover a surprising range, especially when one steps outside the hothouse world of mainstream organizations. Though he mostly focuses on the antipathy toward evangelicals found among leaders like Foxman and Yoffie, he also describes the activities of Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who has appropriated “televangelist” techniques to raise money and support for Israel by “ministering” to Christians. He highlights, too, the differing attitudes of American and Israeli Jews. Though Israelis may, in Chafets’s view, take evangelical support too much for granted, they share none of the hand-wringing anxiety about motives commonly found among their coreligionists in the U.S.
Chafets admonishes American Jews to reconsider their fears and prejudices about evangelicals. As he sees it, there is abundant common ground, even on the domestic issues that have been the flashpoint of relations between the two groups in recent years. “Most Jews,” he asserts, “like most evangelicals, embrace and practice middle-class family attitudes. . . . The rhetorical gaps are much greater than the real differences.” Moreover, Chafets stresses, such issues pale against the backdrop formed by 9/11, the war in Iraq, and Hezbollah’s recent rocket attacks on Israel. America’s most fervent Christians have offered, he writes, a “wartime alliance and free partnership,” and Jews who are concerned about Israel’s well-being should accept it “while it is still on the table.”
A Match Made in Heaven can be a trying read at times. Too much of it is about Chafets himself—his childhood friendships, his efforts to avoid the Vietnam-war draft, his experiences in the Begin government, etc. There is also the matter of his smart-alecky tone. On the question of the evangelical concept of “the end times,” for example, he remarks, “if it turns out they are right . . . I and the rest of the Jews will have some ’splainin to do to Jesus.” On his bus tour of the Holy Land with evangelicals, he is only too happy to describe his companions’ trailer-trash mannerisms and hackneyed comments: “I’m just a dumb redneck,” confides one man to Chafets, “but I saw the sun come up this morning, and a little poem came to me about the love of God.” While looking out over the biblical site of Armageddon, he baits a woman to describe how the book of Revelations will play out. “It will take seven years,” she declares, “just to clean the blood and bodies after the battle.” And so on.
Still, Chafets never loses sight of the essential point. Though some evangelicals may be squares or oddballs, these are people who, he writes, have “no trouble recognizing fascism when they see it, and no hesitation about confronting it.” Their solidarity with Israel—and their commitment to resisting radical Islam—is principled and heartfelt, and is based less on theological designs on the Jews than on seeing today’s threats for what they are.
Chafets does point to some worrisome trends, however. Stung by the attacks of the ADL and other Jewish groups, some evangelicals may have begun to reconsider—or, in the words of Donald Wildmon, the leader of the American Family Association, “to get fed up and [to] say . . . ‘if that’s the way you feel, we just won’t support Israel.’” At the same time, the spread of evangelical missions to Muslim countries may eventually cause the movement to be less vociferous in its support of Israel for fear of putting new adherents in harm’s way.
Chafets is optimistic that American Jews can be reconciled to their evangelical neighbors, but the chasm is wider than he allows. Middle-class “attitudes” may unite the two groups at some level, as he suggests, but to judge by survey data and voting behavior, promoting these values has hardly been at the top of the agenda for many American Jews. Instead, their most pressing concerns in recent years have been such causes as gay marriage, abortion on demand, and the banishment of all religious sentiment from the public square. Finding staunch allies eager to support the state of Israel has taken a decided backseat. This, alas, is the nettle that Zev Chafets, in his well-meant sojourn among the evangelicals, fails to grasp.