Here’s an interesting recent piece in Haaretz that should cause alarm to any human beings who reject fundamentalism. The sad reality is that far too many evangelicals back the most extreme forms of Zionism and occupation:
With two mobile phones and a pair of sunglasses in one hand, a white handkerchief to wipe away sweat in the other, and a small microphone attached to his shirt collar, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein hits the ground running in Ashkelon.
“Okay,” he says, alighting from a minivan in the middle of Operation Pillar of Defense last week, and striding confidently toward the town center, a camera crew recording his every move. “Let’s talk about the matzav [situation]!”
“Who’s that guy?” some locals sitting at the corner cafe ask each other, looking up at the handsome 61-year-old with a small black skullcap pinned to his salt-and-pepper head of hair, who is tossing out greetings in broken Amharic to the Ethiopians in his path and shaking hands vigorously with everyone he meets.
A middle-aged Tunisian immigrant, Rachel Amar, carrying two big grocery bags filled with canned food, stops in her tracks. “Rabbi Eckstein?” she says, recognizing the head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in donations to help the needy here and elsewhere in Israel. “Is that you? I need to talk to you!”
Amar launches into a story that begins with complaints about the state of the neighborhood bomb shelter, and ends with her in hysterical tears. “I cannot be alone anymore. I am terrified of the rockets. I am terrified, do you hear me?” she sobs.
Eckstein puts a hand on her shoulder. He offers to carry her groceries. He tells her that he will make sure the Home Front Command staff in Ashkelon looks into her particular case. And then he looks directly into the rolling camera.
“The people here know me. They know I am the first address they can turn to,” he intones. He gestures toward Amar. “This woman has just told me that she is afraid. This is what trauma does. It affects people on the inside even if you cannot tell from the outside.” He pauses. “She is afraid of the rockets. Afraid of not having enough food.” Pause. “She feels unsafe.” Pause. “Uncared for.”
Lynn Doerschuk, 60, the man who has been working as Eckstein’s producer for over a decade, is standing by in a bright yellow shirt, his baby-blue eyes darting around to figure out the best angles for the shot. He feeds the rabbi the next line: “Everywhere we go, there are needs …,” suggests Doerschuk, speaking under his breath. Eckstein repeats the words, and spins off from them: “Everywhere we go, there are needs … but with your help we can let these people know … [pause] … that they are not alone.”
“Hey! I also have anxieties,” butts in a younger women, walking into the frame to lay out her own pains. “I want to be taken out of here on holiday to a hotel in the north!” she insists. Doerschuk shakes his head – this is not the material he is looking for. “I want to go to America!” she persists, trailing Eckstein and the entourage as they move on. “I want a hotel in America. And I want a husband!”
Next up, Benny Vaknin, the mayor of Ashkelon, emerges from the bunker which has been serving as the situation room for his staff and the military liaisons all week, and approaches Eckstein, hand outstretched. Over 90 rockets had already fallen on Ashkelon during the recent flare-up of tensions between Israel and Gaza, he says, by way of hello. Dozens of apartments were damaged in his city, and tens of his citizens injured – hundreds, really, if you count all those who were psychologically traumatized, he notes. “There’s an emergency meeting of all the mayors of all the southern towns going on right now down in Be’er Sheva,” he says. “But I stayed here because seeing you is more important.”
And indeed, Eckstein probably is more important. For he is the money man. And money, at all times, and especially in those times when rockets are falling on apartment buildings and scared citizens are crowding into decrepit shelters, is needed here. Within days of the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, Eckstein had drummed up $3 million in emergency and security aid for Ashkelon and other communities under fire in southern Israel. These funds come on top of $5.6 million, which had already been earmarked this year by Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to strengthen the emergency security system in Israel. Overall, in the last few years, IFCJ has spent tens of millions of dollars building, renovating and fortifying over 2,000 private and community shelters around the country.
This money, like all the funding Eckstein raises, comes from a very particular, and to some, curious, source. It comes direct from America’s Bible belt, where hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians reach into their pockets to support the Jews of the Holy Land through Eckstein and his personal, unique ministry.
The son of a rabbi, Eckstein grew up in Ottawa, Canada, spent two years in Israel studying at a yeshiva, and was then ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York. He started his professional life working for the most mainstream of mainstream Jewish organizations – the Anti-Defamation League. It was the ADL that sent him, in 1977, to Skokie, Illinois, to get the Christian community there to stand together with the Jewish one against a planned neo-Nazi march. And that is where he encountered, for the first time, evangelical Christians – and began to understand what powerful allies their community could be for Jews and for the Zionist cause.
“The evangelicals believe in the Bible literally – and believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people,” Eckstein explains, quoting from Genesis 12:3, where God declares that He will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.
The IFCJ, which Eckstein founded in 1983, was, at first, mainly concerned with promoting understanding between Jews and Christians and building broader support for Israel. The philanthropic emphasis came soon afterward, with hundreds, then thousands, and today, according to the IFCJ, over 1.2 million Evangelical Christians giving Eckstein money to do, basically, what he sees fit in the Holy Land.
Early criticism of the rabbi’s activities from Orthodox, and other, more mainstream, Jewish organizations – some of whom were concerned the charity was, as far as the evangelicals were concerned, a prelude to actual missionizing activity – has turned, for the most part, into awe.
Today, Eckstein is a major power broker in Israel who collects upward of $100 million a year in donations, making IFCJ one of the largest, if not the largest, “Jewish” charities working here. Of those monies, according to the rabbi’s office, some $50 million a year go to projects in Israel itself, supporting everything from soup kitches in Bnei Brak, to absorption centers for Ethiopians in Jerusalem, to Amar’s shelter renovations in Ashkelon. About $25 million goes annually to programs which help Jews, mainly elderly ones, living in the Former Soviet Union.
A further $5 million is spent on security measures for Jewish institutions in communities around the globe, and $10 million goes towards Israel advocacy and education in the United States.