• February 19, 2005
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    Getting tight with the Bible Belt
Getting tight with the Bible Belt In Elon's view, it is a productive relationship; Evangelical churches in the United States, with a combined membership of more than 50 million, are the closest thing to the Yesha Council of settlements on the other side of the Atlantic. Church leaders believe the Land of Israel belongs to Jews, and that only after the Jews settle the land will Jesus be able to return. There is a minor argument, of course, over what will happen in the end of days - the Evangelicals believe Jews will either cease to exist or will convert to Christianity - but this argument is on hold for now.

On Monday, at the major annual conference of evangelistic broadcasters in Anaheim, California, Elon introduced his soon-to-be-released book, "God's Covenant with Israel: Establishing Biblical Boundaries in Today's World." The book, which is being published in English, is a first attempt to formulate in writing the points of agreement and cooperation between Israel and Evangelical Christians in the United States. For Elon, it is also a first attempt to join politics and the Bible in the discourse between the two sides.

"I don't play it objective," says Elon, referring to his book. He says that in his numerous encounters with Christian believers around the U.S., he has felt a breach between the cold discussion of political and diplomatic issues, and the spiritual religious experience, as expressed in outbursts of "Hallelujah" and "Amen" by believers. Elon feels that he is now tying together the loose ends and essentially giving religious-biblical underpinnings to his diplomatic doctrine.

The book appraises four way stations in which, Elon says, a covenant was made between God, the People of Israel and the Land of Israel: Shechem, Beit El, Hebron and Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. It describes his life as a resident of Beit El and depicts for readers the territories as a land of the Bible, the same Bible that his readers read and believe in. Elon sees this approach as part of a chain of values that can link Israel with Americans - "If Sharansky is going for democracy and shared values and Netanyahu is going for the war on terror, then I am going for the Bible," he says.

The third side

Aside from emphasizing the Jewish-Christian partnership in the matter of the Bible and the Land of Israel, Elon's book also devotes extensive discussion to the third side - the Muslims. "I try to strengthen the Jewish-Christian common denominator, which has a scathing dispute with Islam," he says. "I'm not proposing to burn down mosques or make provocations, but neither am I suggesting that the common enemy be disregarded."

As Elon sees it, while Christians and Jews agree on a single historical and chronological outlook, Islam rejects it and proposes an alternative. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of choice. The Muslims, Elon writes in his book, do not accept the historical story according to which at each stage God chose one and rejected the others, and therefore the People of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, are the chosen people.

The National Religious Broadcasters (NBR) association is one of the fastest growing media umbrella groups in the U.S. Although the 1,700 broadcast organizations that belong to the NBR represent a wide range of trends and attitudes, it is the primary working tool of the Evangelical churches in the U.S. The radio and television stations affiliated with the organization broadcast to tens of millions of believing Christians throughout the U.S. - many in the southern U.S.'s Bible Belt.

Member organizations commit to uphold a "statement of faith and code of ethics" that includes the tenets of Evangelical faith, as well as a sort of journalistic ethical code, the components of which are somewhat similar to like-minded documents found elsewhere in the broadcast industry. Except that every section of the NBR code relates to a verse from the holy writings, from which it is derived.

Israel has viewed the American Evangelical community as a significant source of support for more than two decades. What began as a marginal dalliance between groups in the Israeli right and leaders of the Evangelical Church has become one of the primary channels of contact between the official State of Israel and American Christians. Along the way, this alliance has succeeded in overcoming more than a few hurdles - the established Jewish community in the U.S. at first responded coolly to the closer relations while expressing reservations about the rightist approach of the Evangelicals in American politics - an approach that is alien to most of the Jewish community; nor did the previous (Democratic) administration have much fondness for this church.

However, shifts in the American and Israeli political maps, as well as the intifada, which damaged Israel's standing in the international community, removed most of the hurdles that stood in the way of the closer links between Israel and the Evangelicals. They were the only group to support Israel without reservation in the past few years, and one of the only groups to send delegations of tourists - church members - to Jerusalem at a time when the hotels stood empty. In addition, the fact that the Presbyterian Church took an especially critical line toward Israel in the conflict and that other movements considered taking steps against Israel placed the Evangelicals at the forefront of support for Israel.

Liberal Jews are still uncomfortable with the alliance between Israel and the Evangelicals, who represent all that the traditional political and social values of the Jewish community are not. They also warn that in the long term, this closeness will harm Israel's status and image in the American mainstream and among its ruling elites. But the American Jewish establishment has taken the approach that this is not a time to be picky about the choice of friends and allies.

Finding the heartland

The strength and sentimentality of Evangelical support for Israel was evident this week at the NRB gathering in Anaheim, where Glen Plummer, the outgoing chairman of the organization, spoke about the subject. Palmer summed up in a single forceful sentence his political outlook: "There are a few thick-headed people who are saying that Israel is the repressor, that Israel is Goliath and the Palestinians are David. Listen to me - it's all nonsense."

In Benny Elon's conversations with Evangelicals, he attempts to build a sort of parallel between America and Israel, a parallel that relates to the concept of "heartland." In American politics, the term usually refers to the American south and midwest, the simple America that believes in God, maintains high conservative values and is light years away from the America of New York and Los Angeles. It is the America that sent George W. Bush to the White House. "The Israeli heartland is Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, and just as the Americans suddenly discovered their heartland when they saw the results of the recent elections, I believe that they will now discover our heartland, as well," says Elon.

But his objective is not necessarily the enlistment of millions of Christian believers in a struggle against the disengagement plan. Elon wishes to hold these forces in reserve for the big upcoming struggle over the future of the Land of Israel. "We have to exploit this for the long term," he says, "for another year or two, when they will have 100 or 200 Congressmen who can support the annexation of Judea and Samaria. I am not in favor of last-minute action meant to save a single settlement."

It should be noted that this political prediction is controversial. The political might of the Evangelicals in Congress at present is minimal and even if, as Elon claims, they are joined by Jewish legislators and other supporters of the Greater Land of Israel, it is still hard to envision hundreds of Congressmen voting in favor of annexation of the territories to Israel.

The key question that still remains unanswered relates, then, to the ability of the Evangelical Church to supply the goods and aid its friends in the Israeli right. When the administration formulated its new approach to the Middle East two years ago and devised the road map, an attempt was made to enlist Christian believers in the struggle on behalf of the Land of Israel and against the administration's program. Billboards called on believers to phone the White House and tell the president that they do not agree with the division of the Land of Israel. There were some who amused themselves with the notion of President Bush being afraid to lose the votes of his most devoted supporters in the election and therefore withdrawing the road map. Then again, no such thing happened - Bush promoted the road map and the two-state vision and the Evangelical Christians voted for him anyway.

In the second term, will Bush be more attentive to his constituency and become a supporter of the Greater Land of Israel? Elon believes so. He understands the political needs of the president that prevented him from exhibiting such an approach in his first term, but now he feels that Bush, liberated from the political pressures of reelection, "will go back to himself," as Elon puts it. "There is a good chance that in his second term he will be with us and will not give a darn. I am betting on it. I believe that the legacy he wants to leave behind him will be one of the leaving a biblical mark on the Land of Israel."