We can't lose Jerusalem'

By Nathan Guttman
If America's evangelical Christian coalition really represents 50 million people, as its leaders claim, it is an electoral sector whose strength cannot be ignored and whose demand not to pressure Israel into retreating from the territories must be considered
MEMPHIS, Tennessee - It had been a very tough day for evangelical preacher Ed McAteer. That afternoon he had been busy getting together dozens of his friends, who, like him, are evangelical Christian clergy, for a meeting with Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon in the building of a Christian college in Memphis. Afterward, he tried to fit in some time in the minister's tight
schedule for a tour of McAteer's latest project: billboards.

McAteer, a middle-aged man who, on that day, wore a tie bearing a Star of David and a menorah, brought Elon to a junction where one of the billboards had been erected. Alongside advertisements for cars and traffic signs was a giant billboard that read: "And the Lord said to Jacob ... unto thy offspring will I give this land. Pray that President Bush honors God's covenant with Israel. Call the White House with this message." The billboard provides the telephone number of the White House.

McAteer is proud of the new project that he has launched and for which he has raised the funding. There are 114 such billboards
throughout America's Bible Belt, a region in the American South that stretches from Virginia and the Carolinas in the east to the Midwest. The Bible Belt contains the power centers of America's evangelical churches. McAteer loves to talk about how he left his job as a senior marketing executive for Colgate-Palmolive, exchanging the toothpaste business for the chance to realize a dream: seeing to the welfare of the State of Israel.

McAteer: "If I come to a place where no one has heard of the Bible and they ask me - in one word - what it is about, I will tell them that the first 39 books are about one nation, named Israel." He is a co-founder of the Moral Majority organization and the founder of the Christian Roundtable, which has millions of members in branches in all 50 states. For the past 21 years he has organized prayer breakfasts for Israel and his friends include nearly all of Israel's prime ministers. He uses simple and direct wording, especially when the subject is the territories: "Every grain of sand on this piece of property called Israel was given to the Jews and belongs to the Jews." It is not surprising that Elon began his visit to the U.S. last August in Memphis as McAteer's guest. In Elon's honor, McAteer organized an audience consisting of the creme de la creme of pro-Israel evangelical clergy and television preachers. The alliance between, on the one hand, the settlers and the supporters of a Greater Israel and, on the other hand, Christians affiliated with churches in the American South began in the early 1990s and was reinforced during the Benjamin
Netanyahu's tenure as prime minister, when Israeli officials began to reciprocate the love showered on the settlers by conservative
American Christians.

Elon as moderate

Compared with the evangelical Christians in his immediate vicinity, Elon sounds like a moderate - almost like a member of the central section of the Israeli political spectrum. He tries to talk about his ministry's central topic - tourism - and takes pains to skirt political issues. He was rebuked by the Prime Minister's Office when he set off for a campaign in America aimed at presenting an alternative political program to the road map. The fog surrounding the minister's political positions was lifted immediately after the
official gathering, when he met a number of prominent Christian leaders in a small room adjacent to the hall. "From the standpoint of political correctness," he says, referring to the billboard project that calls on American President George W. Bush to abandon the road map, "I should not be involved with this campaign. However, I feel really at home here. It is no secret that we share the same views."
Elon explains to his Christian listeners that his role in the government is to play the "bad guy" and to ask the really tough  questions. He tells them that Israelis long for peace and are therefore willing to fall for any illusion of peace. He holds the audience in the very palm of his hand. Some of his listeners even softly recite "Amen" after many of his statements, while others, like a young woman named Olga, become quite emotional. Olga, 29, jumped up from her seat and clarified to the visiting Israeli minister that God had promised Israel much more land than what it has today. She told him that Israel was destined to stretch to the
Tigris and the Euphrates. The clergy in the audience cheered.  The Memphis conference is not the only expression of American Christian support for the Israeli right. The Bible Belt is a hub of activity for Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District and for the settlers: from McAteer's billboards, the sale of small baskets of fruit and fund-raising events for the settlements to
demonstrations in front of Bush's Texas ranch. The road map and the political developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front have managed to provoke the Christian Zionists, as they sometimes dub themselves, to embark on a series of activities to save the territories and to prevent the transfer of parts of the Holy Land to the Palestinians. 
Evangelical Christian communities in the U.S. are gradually turning into a solid basis of political support in America for the settlers
and, to a lesser extent, a source of financial assistance. Unlike the manner in which the American Jewish community organizes its
fund-raising activities, American evangelical Christians have no general "appeal" for the settlements, nor do they have any umbrella
organization to coordinate the assistance. The amount of money that the evangelical Christians raise is also much smaller. While American Jews can mobilize millions of dollars annually and manage to fund giant projects - hospitals, research foundations, and clinics, which are named after individual donors or entire communities - the evangelical Christians are able to mobilize funds on a much more modest scale. Donors in the Bible Belt have managed to raise funds for the purchase of equipment or for scholarships, but they still have a long way to go before they will be able to donate, say, a clinic or a school.

Adopting settlements

One evangelical Christian community that is very active in the fund-raising field is the Faith Bible Chapel (FBC), which is located in a Denver suburb and has 6,000 members. FBC was the first evangelical congregation to join the "Adopt a Settlement" project: The settlement it adopted is the West Bank city of Ariel. Each year FBC organizes Israel Awareness Day, when the faithful are asked to make their contributions. FBC holds summertime garage sales and sells small fruit baskets before Christmas while, in its affiliated congregational schools, the pupils collect donations. All the money is raised for Ariel: for its child development center, elementary school and kindergarten, Hanukkah parties, Torah scrolls, medical equipment, etc. 
Cheryl Morrison, who is in charge of FBC's activities on behalf of Israel, estimates that her congregation has already donated some
$125,000 to Ariel. "We started in 1995 when the political atmosphere was against the settlements, but we felt it was the right thing
to do from a biblical standpoint. These are people that are living the prophecy, so we decided to adopt them," she explains.

Some 50 settlements in the territories have been adopted by Christian communities in the U.S. and they receive economic assistance from their adoptive communities. Mike Evans, who heads the Jerusalem Prayer Group, is one of the initiators of the "Adopt a Settlement" project. According to Evans, each community donates to the best of its ability and the donations are
not transferred through a single channel. As he sees the campaign, the annual donations run into several million dollars. His ultimate goal is to raise more than $50 for each settler annually. With some 225,000 settlers, the total donation goal is slightly more than $11 million per year.

Other American Christian groups, which are pro-Palestinian, not pro-Israel, believe that the total annual amount of assistance to the
settlements does not exceed a few hundred thousand dollars annually, but is constantly increasing. Dr. James Hutchins, head of
Christian Friends of Israel, says that his organization has only recently begun to focus its activities on assistance to the
settlements: "It is important now to focus on that because it is part of the road map, which we see as a mistake and think it is against the Scripture."

The assistance of most of the Christian communities in the U.S. is focused primarily on social, humanitarian and security-related
services: an ambulance (donated by evangelical Christians in Memphis), flak jackets, bulletproof cars, long school day programs and bulletproofing for a playground located adjacent to a Palestinian neighborhood. In terms of scope, the contribution of the
American Christian community to the territories' economy lies more in the expression of moral support and is not seen as
being a substantial source of financial assistance. However, if the new trend among evangelical Christian leaders succeeds, their
contribution to the settlers' lifestyle should become more significant over the next few years.

The ideological basis for the cooperation between evangelical Christians and the settlers is the Christians' belief that the entire Holy
Land has been given to the Jewish people and that only the return of the Jews to the Holy Land will enable the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Although the vision of the Second Coming also includes the idea that the Jews - those who will survive, that is - will begin to believe in Christ, that aspect of the vision is not mentioned at present.

"I am not trying to convert them to Judaism, and they are not trying to convert me to Christianity" is the way Elon explains the
agreement that enables him to cooperate with evangelical Christians until the End of Days.

Love Jerusalem

Evangelical Christian leaders emphasize that although their program for providing funding for the settlements is still in its early
stages, their political struggle is already in full swing. One particularly hot Sunday in mid-August this year, some 200 Christian and
Jewish leaders gathered for a demonstration opposite Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas. The demonstrators wanted to voice their opposition to a Palestinian state.

"We made it on a Sunday so our Jewish friends could come, but many Christians couldn't make it," explains Jodie Anderson, one of the demonstration's organizers. Anderson, who prefixes her name with the Hebrew word "geveret" (Mrs./Ms.), is the founder of The Battalion of Deborah, which supports the Israeli organization "Gamla Shall Not Fall Again." Each year, The Battalion of Deborah collects $15,000 in donations to Gamla. In addition, the American group conducts political activities in the U.S. against the road map and against the idea of handing over holy places to the Palestinians. Last year, the organization tried to get the U.S. Congress to pass a bill that would prohibit the removal of holy sites from Israel's jurisdiction. However, the bill has not yet been passed because, claims Anderson, of pressure from the State Department.

The Crawford demonstration was not a resounding success. The television networks ignored it and Secret Service agents protecting the president allocated the demonstrators a strip of land far from the view of visitors to the ranch. It is even doubtful whether Bush or any of his staff will see the billboards set up in southern states. Nonetheless, the leaders of the Christian Zionists are confident that Bush and, what is more important, his political strategist, Karl Rove, are carefully reading the public opinion polls and are reviewing the figures. If this Christian coalition really represents 50 million Americans, as its leaders claim, it is an electoral sector whose strength cannot be ignored and whose demand that Israel not be pressured into retreating from the territories must be considered. 

Last May, 20 prominent evangelical Christian leaders, including former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Reverend Jerry
Falwell, sent a letter to President Bush in which they argued that it would be morally reprehensible to compare Israel to the
Palestinian Authority. Television pastor Pat Robertson said that the plan to divide Jerusalem was suicide. When Bush criticized
Israel's attempt to assassinate senior Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, Bauer protested in the e-mail he distributes daily to his
supporters. The next day, he points out, the White House was flooded with thousands of e-mails on this subject and the president
stopped criticizing.

"It is true that this president is very popular among conservative Christians, but this community also has very strong views concerning Israel and that is the reason for a growing feeling of dissatisfaction because the
administration is holding Israel to a different standard on fighting terrorism than the standard it sets for itself," says Bauer.

Although he admits that conservative Christians have no other presidential candidate to vote for, they can, he claims, exert an influence through their willingness to dedicate themselves to the presidential election campaign: "If this administration will be
unfair to Israel, it won't lead [these] voters to the Democrats, but it will affect their enthusiasm and volunteering."

Other evangelical Christian leaders have no qualms about using more threatening language regarding the present occupant of the Oval Room, who regards the Christian right as a genuine source of support. McAteer, for example, has already announced that in the upcoming elections, he will not vote for Bush a second time. McAteer served as an adviser to Bush Sr., but he says about him as well that he "was not a friend of Israel." He describes the elder Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, as a "despicable" individual.

Evans says that the division of Jerusalem would be the last straw in the eyes of American Christians: "You will see the sleeping giant awake: 50 million Christians will raise support and fight. We already lost Bethlehem. We can't  lose Jerusalem."

Despite their numerical strength, not everyone is impressed by the evangelical Christians' political clout and by their ability to
influence the future of the Middle East. First, it is unclear whether all the tens of millions of religious supporters really believe in the
vision of a Greater Israel that will be ruled by the Jews. Second, many of them will decide how to vote on the basis of domestic issues and Bush's record on religious issues, abortion and family values. Regardless of whether they will be enthusiastic or not, for most of them, Bush is the only game in town.

Israeli officials still maintain a relationship of tacit agreement with the evangelical Christians. Cabinet ministers, members of
Knesset and ambassadors welcome their warm support for Israel, but enthusiastic Christian supporters must endure Israeli officials' stormy silence when the issue is the Middle East peace process. The last thing that Israel
wants is to be seen as a supporter of organizations that oppose the road map, the
apple of President Bush's eye. Evangelical Christian leaders apparently understand the Israelis' silent agreement.

"We know the embassy has to present certain views," Hutchins observes, "but we can say what they are not allowed to [say]."