Born-agains for Sharon

Savvy salesman Rabbi Eckstein has convinced evangelicals to support Israel -- and he's hobnobbing with the likes of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. But what will he do if Kerry wins?

By Max Blumenthal
Published November 2, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)
main article image

For some 7 million evangelicals at 25,000 churches worldwide, Oct. 17 was the third Annual Day of Prayer and Solidarity with Israel. For President Bush's Southeastern regional campaign coordinator, Ralph Reed, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's liaison to the U.S. evangelical community, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the event was their latest attempt to rally Bush's base to the side of Sharon. To help make their point, Eckstein and Reed summoned 21 of Israel's diplomatic representatives in the U.S. to the pulpits of some of America's leading conservative churches.

In Atlanta, at the Mount Paran Baptist Church, to which Reed belongs, Israel's consul general to the Southeast, Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, shared the stage with Pastor David Cooper, author of the bestseller "Apocalypse." Meanwhile, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to pay a visit to New Life Church and its senior pastor, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a star in the glowing documentary about Bush, "Faith in the White House."


Eckstein was confident the Annual Day of Prayer event would keep pro-Israel pressure on Bush. "Over 30 percent of the evangelical respondents to an online survey we conducted last week said support for Israel was their number one factor in electing a president, and another 61 percent identified Israel as an important factor in their choice," he stated in a press release six days prior to the event. "This confirms what our experience tells us -- evangelical support for Israel hasn't diminished one bit. If anything, it's stronger than ever." Though evangelicals undoubtedly will vote overwhelmingly for Bush, the irony is that Jews in America, who support Israel for a different set of reasons than the evangelicals targeted by Eckstein do, are expected to vote overwhelmingly for John Kerry.

Evangelical support for Israel has increased dramatically in the past four years even as the country's international reputation has suffered as a result of Sharon's repressive, unilateral policies. To most evangelicals, Israel is "covenant land," a place granted to the Jews in God's covenant with Abraham; to many, Israel also represents the eventual landing pad for the Second Coming of the Messiah. While this scenario is not exactly friendly to Jews -- according to premillennial theology, once biblical Israel is fully resettled and Christ returns, Jews must accept him or perish -- evangelicals' theological interest in Israel renders them fervently opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians and, thus, the natural allies of Sharon and his rightist Likud Party.

Rabbi Eckstein seems to have reached the apex of his lonely, 25-year-long quest to cultivate America's evangelical community as Israel's financial lifeline and most ardent lobbying bloc. Once a pariah among his peers, he has gained influence through savvy salesmanship, building his International Fellowship for Christians and Jews into a philanthropic powerhouse that donates tens of millions of dollars to Israel annually. In the process, he has forged close relationships with popular right-wing evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer, as well as White House neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams, who is in charge of Middle East policy on the National Security Council. Together, Eckstein and his allies have played an instrumental role in pressuring the Bush administration to abandon the so-called road map to peace and defend Sharon's ham-handed handling of the occupation unconditionally.


I met with Eckstein in August at the IFCJ offices, which occupy an entire floor of a building in Chicago's Loop. Inside his office, Eckstein reclined behind a desk, looking out over the city's breathtaking skyline. Husky and youthful at 53, he looked more like a pro athlete than an Orthodox rabbi. (Think legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly with a yarmulke.) He lives in Israel, where he serves as an informal advisor to Sharon, and was in Chicago to attend to business and visit his family.

During our meeting and an hourlong phone conversation the month before, Eckstein spoke glowingly about the Christian-Zionist alliance he has brokered. "With evangelicals, I haven't had to change opinions like I do with the [liberal] National Council of Churches. All I have to do is tap into their abiding love for Israel," he told me. "Since 9/11 and since the intifada, the Jewish community has become much more pragmatic; they feel Israel's survival is at stake, and they've recognized the one group that stands with us boldly and proudly is this evangelical group."

Eckstein found his calling in 1977 when he was director of inter-religious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. When some neo-Nazis planned a provocative march in Skokie, Ill., a heavily Jewish community with numerous Holocaust survivors, the ADL sent him to Chicago to marshal Christian opposition to the march. Eckstein soon found himself in Wheaton, Ill., the epicenter of the mounting evangelical movement. It was during a meeting with the director of Wheaton College's Bible study program and the dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that Eckstein had his epiphany about the role of evangelicals.


"The Jewish community was very frightened by this phenomenon of the rising Christian right, but I came to know that evangelicals are not bogeymen; they are simply a group of serious people who felt the pendulum had swung too far to the left and that what was needed was to return to the Judeo-Christian roots."

By 1983, Eckstein had formed the IFCJ and become a fixture at National Religious Broadcasters conferences, where he promoted tourism to the Holy Land and solicited donations for his organization. "When I started out 25 years ago, there was nobody in the field. I went to my first NRB convention and I was the only Jew there, and I went for 15 years straight," Eckstein recalled. "What I participated in spawning has kind of caught on ... Now there are 10 to 15 booths at NRB conferences selling Israeli or Jewish stuff and lots of Jews in yarmulkes walking around."


Five years later, Eckstein was in New York helping maverick Republican presidential primary candidate Pat Robertson "mitigate Jewish opposition" to his campaign -- and cultivating him and his legion of followers as supporters of Israel. In 1986, Robertson had compared non-Christians to termites deserving of "godly fumigation"; he later asserted, in the book "The New World Order," that communism was "the brainchild of German-Jewish intellectuals." But while Robertson may not be particularly fond of secular Jewish liberals, he has always been an ardent Christian Zionist who, in his preaching and pulp-prophecy books, refers to the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Israel's victory in the 1967 war as miracles presaging the Second Coming.

In 1994, when the ADL issued a scathing report blasting fundamentalist evangelicals, and Robertson's Christian Coalition in particular, as a grave threat to Jewish life, Eckstein leaped to defend his allies. He convened a meeting in Washington between evangelical and Jewish leaders, and convinced the ADL's director, Abe Foxman, to invite Robertson's master tactician, Reed, to issue a call for reconciliation at ADL's annual conference. And in a 1995 address broadcast nationally by C-Span, Reed reassured the ADL of the Christian Coalition's commitment to a pluralistic society, recounted a moving visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and issued a call for Jews and evangelicals to "move from confrontation to cooperation." According to Eckstein, "Reed made a wonderful impression."

The following year, Eckstein capitalized on his successes by forming the Center for Christian and Jewish Values in Washington. Co-chaired by Orthodox Jewish Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and evangelical Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the now-defunct center, according to Eckstein, "brought together disparate groups to find common ground on issues of shared concern." While Eckstein did bring people of different faiths under one roof, their ideological leanings were mostly uniform. The center was made up almost entirely of right-wing evangelicals like then Family Research Council director Bauer, Southern Baptist Convention executive director Richard Land and the dean of Robertson's Regent University's school of government, Kay James. (James is now director of the Office of Personnel Management under Bush.) Also involved were neoconservatives such as Abrams, William Kristol and William Bennett. The center was essentially a command post for the culture war.


Despite its pantheon of influential conservatives, however, the center produced little more than a flurry of symbolic resolutions calling for religious freedom in the Third World, more education for what Eckstein termed "non-abortion" and a moment of silence as an alternative to school prayer. The center also served as the platform for Lieberman, Bennett and Brownback's censorship crusade, which ultimately amounted to a few blustery editorials blasting Hollywood's "mental poison" and a failed bill in 1997 that would have mandated that TV manufacturers install "V-chips" allowing parents to block offensive programming.

While the center's culture warriors soldiered on, Eckstein shifted his focus to filling the IFCJ's coffers. By 1999, he had settled in Israel and was cruising the Holy Land in a van with his own film crew to produce a line of fundraising videos custom-tailored to evangelical tastes. In one of the videos, "Guardians of Israel," Eckstein appears amid scenes of heart-wrenching poverty, staring directly into the camera like Mister Rogers' long-lost brother, his hand on the shoulder of one destitute Israeli or another, pleading for Christian money. "If you don't hear this woman's tears, you're not human," Eckstein says in "Guardians of Israel," while standing above a sobbing woman in Nazareth. In another of Ekstein's videos, "On Wings of Eagles," a narrator, soliciting money for his immigration program for Russian Jews, informs viewers, "Just $350 can save one Jew."

After viewing one of these videos in 2000, the ADL's Foxman accused Ekstein of "schnorring from non-Jews to help Jews." However, what may seem like shameless pandering to Eckstein's critics is, in fact, effective salesmanship to those familiar with the insular evangelical culture. When Eckstein looks into the camera with tears welling in his eyes and declares, "I couldn't face God if I didn't open up to you, Christians" -- a phrase few Jews could imagine themselves uttering -- he is appealing to the confessional tradition that stresses God's transformative power. It is the same tradition that prompts President Bush to say, "There is only one reason I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith."


Eckstein's uncanny ability to penetrate evangelical culture has fed a perception among his detractors that he is really a "Jew for Jesus." One of Eckstein's most strident critics, Jerusalem City Councilor Mina Fenton, has enlisted a group of high-profile rabbis in a campaign to in effect excommunicate him. Fenton points as proof of Eckstein's crypto-Christianity to his fictional novel, "The Journey Home," loosely based on his friendship with evangelical pastor Jamie Buckingham. In the book, Eckstein writes, "While I still don't believe in Jesus as the Christ as Jamie does, and view him instead as a Jew who brought salvation to the gentiles, in some respects, that is exactly what I have become -- a Jew for Jesus."

In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Fenton accused Eckstein's IFCJ of trying to "create a situation of dependency [of Israel on evangelical funding], so that they can control us. They pour money galore into welfare, absorption, aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel], and education and find our weak points." Fenton also believes that by pumping so much evangelical money into Israel, Eckstein is helping to further evangelicals' apocalyptic "end times" agenda.

That charge has dogged Eckstein throughout his career in spite of his best efforts to defuse it. In 2003, he commissioned the Tarrance Group to conduct a poll of evangelicals' attitudes on Israel. While a majority of respondents cited a literal belief in Genesis 12:3 -- "he who blesses Israel shall be blessed" -- as their primary reason for supporting Israel, a minority, albeit a large one at 28 percent, cited "reasons related to the End Times." Even though the Tarrance Group is run by veteran GOP operative Ed Goeas, who has collaborated with Reed on numerous campaigns, Eckstein feels vindicated by the poll.

"The media portrays [evangelicals] as premillennialists who do this [support Israel] to get all the Jews to Israel, ... [so] those who don't accept Jesus will be killed. It's just hogwash. If anything, it's about Genesis 12:3," said Eckstein.


Eckstein's close associate Bauer echoed his opinion. "Among Christians, there's just a fundamental religious idea that the Jews are God's people and the land of Israel is covenant land that God granted them. Beyond that, what drives Christian support for Israel is that Christians tend to see U.S. foreign policy in very moral terms," Bauer told me. "We believe Israel and the U.S. are facing the same types of totalitarian forces, and we as two countries that share the same values should stand against that."

Away from the media's critical eye, however, Eckstein has struck an altogether different tone. In "On Wings of Eagles," as montages of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in Oslo in 1994 and the crumbling Twin Towers flash across the screen to an ominous soundtrack, a narrator intones, "The mosaic of events we see happening today is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with the pieces beginning to form the exact picture foretold by the prophets." Next Eckstein appears standing on a mountaintop somewhere in Israel, and, before launching into a pitch for donations, says, "You can see the pieces of the puzzle that are coming together." Is he insinuating that with so many "end times" prophecies in the headlines, evangelical support for Israel is all the more urgent? It's unclear what else he could mean.

However controversial Eckstein's fundraising techniques may be, they are working. His videos enjoy widespread viewership on Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and through paid spots on local networks across America's heartland. Eckstein has even organized aggressive fundraising campaigns in countries like Mexico and El Salvador, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. With nearly 350,000 donors, the IFCJ was able to dole out a whopping $20 million to 250 social welfare projects in Israel last year, including an armored, mobile dental clinic that provides services to Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. Today, the IFCJ is the second largest nongovernmental donor to Israel, next only to the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel.

By building the IFCJ into a such a powerful philanthropic force, Eckstein has mollified erstwhile critics like Foxman. "I'm popular now because we give away money and that has helped leverage this whole issue [evangelical support for Israel] to give it legitimacy in the Jewish community," Eckstein said proudly. As a testament to Eckstein's success, in 2002 Foxman took out full-page ads in major U.S. papers, reprinting a pro-Israel Op-Ed written by Reed, then chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.


When Sharon and Bush came to power in 2000, they began a cozy relationship that has become iconic of the evangelical-Likudnik marriage Eckstein helped broker. With Eckstein as his advisor, Sharon has courted the support of evangelicals more aggressively than most of his predecessors. In the fall of 2002, for instance, Sharon told a crowd of 3,000 evangelical tourists in Jerusalem, "I tell you now, we love you. We love all of you!"

That same year, he invited Bauer to Jerusalem for a private meeting with his Cabinet. "I was given a great deal of access and a number of briefings on the various issues they're facing," Bauer told me. "In my meeting, ... I attempted to explain that they had a much broader base of support in the U.S. than perhaps they realized and they should be sensitive to the fact that more Americans than they think regard Israel as a natural ally." To help make his point, Bauer gave Sharon a letter of support signed by leading evangelicals like Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family president James Dobson.

As for Bush's friendly relations with Sharon, Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor for the first President Bush, told the Financial Times this month, "I think Sharon just has [Bush] wrapped around his little finger." Yet Bush is complaisant not only to Sharon but also to his own domestic base. After all, over the past four years, Eckstein and his evangelical allies have waged a fierce lobbying blitz to pressure Bush against participating in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that every American president since Jimmy Carter has engaged in.

Their campaign gained momentum at the National Rally in Solidarity with Israel in April 2002 on Washington's Mall, which was attended by over 100,000. While popular figures like author Elie Wiesel and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued fiery denunciations of Palestinian terror, the most boisterous applause of the day was reserved for evangelical radio host Janet Parshall, who boomed, "We will never give up the Golan. We will never divide Jerusalem." None of the rally's Jewish speakers was nearly as strident; in fact, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a prominent neoconservative, was booed for referring to the daily suffering endured by Palestinians under occupation. The rally coincided with the initiation of Reed and Eckstein's Day of Prayer and Solidarity with Israel, which mobilized 17,000 evangelical churches to pray for Israel that October.


With a number of close associates now working in the White House, Eckstein and company leveraged their grass-roots muscle into high-level access. In July 2003, Eckstein brought 20 leading fundamentalist evangelicals to the White House for "a quiet meeting" with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Middle East advisor Abrams. There, delegation members stated their fervent opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian road map while Rice explained the administration's sympathy for their position. Rice "talked about her religiousness and how her father was a Baptist minister," Eckstein recalled. "And she explained the administration's position: It's Bush's faith that prompts him to take some of his major positions. I think that's what's so attractive about Bush to people," Eckstein added. "You can become relativistic, but what's needed is black and white."

Alhough Eckstein says his meeting with Rice marked the first time leaders of the Christian right had met with a high-level White House official on Israel policy, it wasn't the last. As Rick Perlstein of the Village Voice reported, in March Abrams met with leaders of a self-identified "theocratical" lobbying group, the Apostolic Congress, to allay their concerns about Bush's pending endorsement of Sharon's Gaza pullout plan. And evangelical leaders like late Religious Roundtable director Ed McAteer have reportedly held numerous off-the-record meetings on policy toward Israel with White House public liaison Tim Goeglein, who was the spokesman for Bauer's 2000 presidential campaign.

Curiously, Eckstein refused to tell me who was among the delegation he brought to the White House, though he did mention that Bauer was pointedly uninvited as punishment for running against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries and attacking him as insufficiently conservative. Yet lack of direct access hasn't prevented the wily Bauer from influencing White House policy on Israel. When the Bush administration criticized Israel's botched assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in June 2003, Bauer e-mailed an alert to 100,000 followers calling for pro-Israel pressure on the White House. "We inundated the White House with e-mails and faxes arguing that Israel had the same right to defend itself as we did. In very short order, the tone of the White House changed dramatically, and I believe it was the reaction of Christian conservatives in favor of Israel that changed the tone," Bauer said. And when Israel did kill Rantisi in April, the White House issued the now boilerplate statement of support for Israel's "right to defend herself."

Bauer's influence earned him the keynote address at the 2003 annual convention of pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), where he says he was interrupted 12 times by standing ovations. Bauer has also played a leading role in lobbying on behalf of Israeli settler groups (he refused to say which ones) against both the road map and Sharon's Gaza pullout plan. "Off and on over the years I have met with various groups in the West Bank, and they've come to the U.S. I've given them my best read on what the lay of the land is in Washington and how they might be more effective in getting their message out here," Bauer said. "I oppose ethnic cleansing, and the idea that the West Bank or Gaza should be a Jew-free zone is deeply offensive," he added.

Bauer, unlike Eckstein, who is beholden to Sharon and his Gaza policy, has little to lose and everything to gain by working with Israel's most reactionary elements. Through his political action committee, the Campaign for Working Families, Bauer is aggressively soliciting donations from conservative Christians for the Bush campaign while plugging the latest version of the GOP's anti-Kerry "flip-flop" attack on his group's Web site. Bauer ostensibly hopes that by backing Bush, he can heal the wounds his 2000 primary run opened and, if Bush wins, earn back his place at the grown-ups table.

Although Eckstein says he's a registered Democrat, he has converted to Bush's side and is urging other Jews to join him. "I personally think the Jewish community and America should vote for Bush because I think he will be stronger on terrorism. And anything less than a full confrontation [with terrorists] has the potential, God forbid, to spell the end of Western civilization as we know it," Eckstein said. "I, like many Jews, support John Kerry's domestic agenda, and that's why I think many Jews are struggling with this choice in a big way."

Whether or not Jews have struggled with their choice, most are supporting Kerry. A nonpartisan poll taken by the American Jewish Committee in September showed 69 percent of Jews supporting Kerry, compared with 24 percent for Bush. The poll's other findings reveal strong Jewish opposition to Bush's policies on social issues, but overwhelming support for further dismantling of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, an issue Kerry has studiously avoided and Bush has refused to press with Sharon.

Another factor in Jewish support for Kerry is his unabashedly pro-Israel platform. To reinforce Kerry's message, his campaign in July released a policy paper, "Strengthening Israel's Security and Bolstering the US-Israel Special Relationship," stating positions on the Gaza pullout and Israel's separation wall that are identical to Bush's.

But if Kerry is elected, members of the Christian-Zionist lobby should not expect any backslaps from the new president. With Bush back in Crawford, Texas, Eckstein and company's White House soul mates would have to return to their think-tank fellowships and academic jobs, severely compromising the influence and access the lobby has worked for over two decades to attain.

Already, Bauer is grumbling, "I would be happy if Kerry was overall pro-Israel, but I would have to caution that before the race got going in earnest, Senator Kerry repeatedly said where the president failed in not having a balanced approach in the Middle East. A balanced approach is the last thing I would want."

Max Blumenthal

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

MORE FROM Max Blumenthal

Related Topics ------------------------------------------