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Begin and the Evangelicals

The story of the Israel-Evangelical partnership

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2 May 2014
Begin and the Evangelicals

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem co-sponsored a special event in March to honour Menachem Begin for being the first Israeli prime minister to openly embrace Evangelical Christian support for his nation.

The Menachem Begin Heritage Center hosted the gathering as part of their 100th Anniversary observances since Begin's birth. The main address was delivered by Dr. Daniel Gordis of the Shalem College, author of the new biography Menachem Begin: The Struggle for Israel's Soul.

Of all the Israeli prime ministers since 1948, Begin stands out as the first to openly endorse Christian Zionist support and to seek to harness it in defence of the Jewish state. Others before him may have had connections to individual Christian figures, but the story of the Israel-Evangelical partnership as we know it today starts with Begin.

Even from the rise of the modern Zionist movement, there are many examples of personal friendships between Jewish and Christian figures with shared interests in resettling Jews back in the historic Land of Israel.

For instance, when the Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore first toured Palestine in 1849 to assess the prospects for setting up Jewish colonies there, he was accompanied by a prominent Christian Zionist named George Gawler.

When Theodor Herzl published his book Der Judenstaat in 1895, he was quickly befriended by Rev. William Hechler, who became a sort of 'foreign minister' for the young Zionist movement.

Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in turn was befriended by Arthur James Balfour a decade before he became the British foreign secretary and signed the Balfour Declaration.

Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion also had encounters with Christian Zionists, including Southern Baptist leader Dr. W. A. Criswell.

But Menachem Begin was the first Israeli prime minister to warmly embrace Christian Zionist support in an open manner. He, too, had developed friendships with individual Christian leaders like author Dr. David A. Lewis. But Begin went further by actively seeking Christian support and acknowledging its value in public. There are several reasons why.

First, Begin realised that he shared a certain biblical worldview with Evangelicals. Dr. Gordis noted that Begin looked on the Bible as Israel’s title deed to the land and saw the Jewish return as fulfilment of the vision of the Hebrew prophets, just as many Christians did.

Second, Begin was surrounded by several close advisors who shared his friendly disposition towards pro-Israel Christians. This included Harry Hurwitz, who had been exposed to genuine Christian supporters of Israel in his native South Africa and was the key official within Begin's inner circle who convinced him to approve the founding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem in 1980.

Finally, Begin's last years in office were marked by several steep challenges to the nation, including the American AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia, the US “reassessment” after the Osirak air raid, and the fallout from the First Lebanon War. To meet these challenges, Begin actively sought Christian support, especially from among prominent American Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Ed McAteer.

Yet Begin’s first public embrace of pro-Israel Christians came at the ICEJ's Feast of Tabernacles in September 1981, when he stood before a gathering of several thousand cheering Christians from dozens of nations and told the crowd: "Tonight, I know that we are not alone."

Later, when Begin resigned from office, the Christian Embassy sent him a letter of gratitude for his friendship. In response, Begin wrote back: "Your decision to establish your Embassy in Jerusalem at a time when we are being abandoned because of our faith was an act of courage and a symbol of the closeness between us. Your acts and gestures gave us the feeling that we were not alone."

The partnership between Israel and her Christian friends has grown ever since into what Israeli officials now view as a “strategic asset” for their nation. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows this history well and continues to value and nurture Christian support. But this official embrace truly starts with Menachem Begin.

This article first appeared in the May edition of the ICEJ's Word from Jerusalem magazine. Read the latest Word from Jerusalem


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