By DAVID PARSONS–
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, the largest Christian Zionist organization, will conduct its annual Sukkot conference in Jerusalem next week. Now, 34 years after it was founded, is the time to recount one of the architects who strengthened the relationships between the State of Israel and Christian Zionism — late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.
Begin stands out as the first premier to publicly welcome Christian Zionist support and to seek to harness it in defense of the Jewish state.
Others before him may have had connections to individual Christian figures, who shared the mutual goal of resettling Jews back in the historic Land of Israel. When Theodor Herzl published his book Der Judenstaat in 1895, he was quickly befriended by Rev. William Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna. Hechler soon became a sort of “foreign minister” for the Zionist movement, opening doors for Herzl to the German Kaiser and other European leaders.
Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, also had encounters with Christian Zionists, as noted Southern Baptist leader Dr. W. A. Criswell claimed to have had a relationship with Ben-Gurion. Later, Dr. Pat Robertson and others made attempts to reach out to Yitzhak Rabin.
But Menachem Begin holds the unique distinction of being the first Israeli prime minister to warmly embrace Christian Zionist support in an open manner. He, too, had developed personal friendships with individual Christian leaders like author Dr. David A. Lewis. But Begin went further than his predecessors by actively seeking Christian support and acknowledging its value in public. There are several reasons why.
First, Begin came to realize that he shared a certain biblical worldview with evangelical Christians. Although Begin saw much of the world through the prism of the Holocaust and thus was fully aware of the long, tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, he also had a strong biblical background and knew this gave him much in common with Bible-believing Christians today. In particular, he viewed the Bible as Israel’s title deed to the land and saw the Jewish return to the land as fulfillment of the vision of the Hebrew prophets, just as many Christians did.
Second, Begin was surrounded by several close advisers who shared his friendly disposition towards pro-Israel Christians. This included the late Harry Hurwitz, the founder and long-serving president of the Begin Heritage Center. Hurwitz had served as head of the South African Zionist Federation in Cape Town before making aliyah in the early 1970s. He was the key official within Begin’s inner circle who convinced Begin to endorse the founding of a Christian Embassy in Jerusalem in 1980.
Finally, Begin’s last years in office were marked by several steep challenges to the nation, including the American sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. “reassessment” after the Osirak nuclear reactor bombing operation, and finally the fallout from the First Lebanon War. In all these cases, Begin actively sought Christian support, especially from among prominent American Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Ed McAteer and others. Media accounts from those days recount how Begin approached a wealthy American Jewish friend to lend his private jet to bring over Christian solidarity missions at critical times during the Lebanon crisis.
Yet Begin’s first public embrace of pro-Israel Christians came at the ICEJ’s Feast of Tabernacles in 1981, when he stood before a gathering of several thousand cheering Christians hailing from dozens of nations and warmly told the crowd: “Tonight, I know that we are not alone.”
The partnership between Israel and its Christian friends has grown ever since, and has now become what Foreign Ministry officials have acknowledged as a “strategic asset” for this nation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows this history as well as anyone and continues to both solicit and express appreciation for Christian support.
David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.