Among the Believers

Full House at King of Kings Assembly
Notes from different corners of the world.
July 19 2005 1:29 PM

Among the Believers

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A pedestrian on Jerusalem's Jaffa Street waves an orange scarf to show her opposition to Gaza withdrawal 

JERUSALEM—The Clal Building is a nondescript office complex on Jaffa Road, one of Jerusalem's main shopping drags. At first glance, the interior doesn't look too promising: Lower levels are filled with second-rate retailers, discount fabric stores, and used-book sellers. I wind down the stained, dimly lit concrete steps in the back of the center. There, in an abandoned movie theater in the facility's basement level, right next to a sex shop, sits King of Kings Assembly—a heavily guarded, Bible-believing outpost of Middle America, located just down the street from Golgotha. Most of the congregation, like thousands of other American Christians living and worshiping throughout Jerusalem, see biblical signs in the building tension here as the clock ticks toward Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza. Tonight, they've invited believers from across the city to join them in a special prayer vigil to "seek the face of God on Gaza."

"We don't desire to pray against the government or the nation. And there's no reason to feel threatened here if you happen to disagree," a minister tells an overflow crowd of hundreds, switching back and forth between English and fluent American-accented Hebrew. "But tonight, according to Scripture, we will be standing together in prayer against Gaza disengagement." The crowd gives a collective shout and jumps to its feet. An American woman in front of me, wearing the full head covering and floor-length garb usually sported by observant Jewish women, makes a sort of choked sound and starts to sob her agreement. "Only you can stop this, Yeshua," she says. "Please hear our prayers."

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With Israel's Aug. 17 withdrawal from Gaza just a few weeks away, American evangelicals making their home in Israel are being courted as never before. For months, settlement organizers and other right-wing activists, who consider the evangelical community here a vital link to millions of their brethren in the United States and to the president they helped elect, have been making the rounds among Christian organizations to solicit their support. Most Israel-based evangelicals, like their stateside counterparts, remain passionately opposed to Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and "Judea and Samaria" (the biblical names for some of the land captured by Israel during the Six-Day War; labels used predominantly by right-wing politicians and settlers). To them, the plan counters the biblically expressed will of God. But when it comes to exactly how to react, longtime Christian residents have been as divided as the rest of Israel. Some vow to stand alongside the settlers who plan to stay put in defiance of the disengagement plan. Others, still conscious of their outsider status here and wary of spoiling their brand-new post-intifada working relationship with government leaders, are deliberately staying on the sidelines as the clock ticks toward the withdrawal deadline. All are hoping for some sort of divine intervention.

So, it's a full house tonight at King of Kings, and the sanctuary is studded with flashes of orange, the official color of the anti-disengagement movement: T-shirts, wristbands, ribbons tied to handbags, and belts. Even most of the pastors who lead the congregation in prayer are wearing orange bracelets.

The evangelical love affair with Israel stretches back more than a century, thanks to a mix of prophecy, politics, and an undercurrent of Armageddon-ready dispensationalist thought that's found its most powerful expression in "apocalypse lit" (from Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' best-selling "Left Behind" series).

One young European Christian who worships at King of Kings and works for a Jerusalem-based nonprofit gave me a blunt assessment of some of his American counterparts. "There's something in the bloodstream of American Christianity that looks for, and reacts to, signs of the apocalypse." He adds, "To me, it's not a great thing to herald the end of the world while I'm living here. I have kids. I want to see them grow up." It's assessments like this that trouble many critics of the evangelical-Israel partnership—and even some supporters. But there are few glimpses of last-days theology at King of Kings tonight, just a sense of wholesale desperation on behalf of their adopted homeland. Besides, evangelicals have been notoriously ineffective at achieving items on their real-world wish list, from an end to the Oslo peace talks to a wholesale scrapping of the "road map." So, for some here tonight, trust in God's will goes only so far. They're planning more tangible expressions of their faith through disengagement-day bus caravans to Gaza and donations of money and goods to the Jewish settlers who plan to resist next month's government-ordered eviction.

Over the past two decades, dozens of Christian Zionist organizations have sprouted up in Israel, and thousands of American evangelicals have followed. Since I arrived last month, many have told me how they came here for honeymoons or weeklong summer vacations and caught some version of "Jerusalem fever," selling all their possessions and giving up thriving careers to make a sort of gentile aliyah and work on behalf of the Jewish people. Of course, it's hard to live on faith alone, and many of these unofficial immigrants struggled to find their place in Israeli society.

Then came the second intifada. Christians, particularly evangelicals, kept the ailing Israeli economy afloat during the first rocky months, providing millions of dollars by way of tourism and charitable donations. Now, after decades of mostly unrequited love, evangelicals have finally managed to get the Israeli government to the altar. Over the past year, more than a dozen Christian outreach initiatives have been launched by the Knesset, and the legislature holds monthly meetings to solicit their input and explore their needs. A few months ago, members of Israel's parliament actually spent a day studying Christianity. Legislators even decided that the country's public-school students should start getting a similar education next year, along with lessons on the history and contributions of "Christian Zionism."

Millennial fervor is never out of vogue in this town, and a bit of that is in evidence here at King of Kings. But most of the service feels more like a standard right-wing Zionist pep rally, as ministers from across the country stand to remind the congregation of Israel's biblical claim to post-1967 territory. The loudest cheers are reserved for a passage from the Book of Joshua that includes in Israel's territory "Gaza with her towns and her villages, unto the river of Egypt, and the great sea, and the border." The prayer rises in waves in the packed sanctuary, as instructions roll in from the pulpit: Pray for increased Jewish immigration. For Israeli unity. And, most of all, for the "brave people of Gush Katif"—which is evolving into a sort of Gaza settlement version of the Alamo, as thousands of displaced settlers and their sympathizers journey there for a final showdown with authorities.

I'm fairly familiar with tonight's brand of passionate philo-Semitism. My parents, both middle-class New York Jews, converted to evangelical Christianity in the 1970s. By the time I was 7, my mother had settled into a Pentecostal congregation on the edge of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood—a church she still calls home—and enrolled my sister and me in the Christian school we attended for the next decade.

Though we still participated in the abbreviated family seders and scaled-down Hanukkah celebrations familiar to most American Jews of my generation, most of our days were spent immersed in the sort of Christian perspective that welcomed the coming apocalypse. Still, assimilation was pretty much out of the question for us. For one thing, Crown Heights in the late '80s and early '90s lay squarely on the fault line of the black-Jewish divide. (When my sister and I traveled to school, locals sometimes made vocal observations about our heritage. And they didn't tend to mistake us for Episcopalians.)

Meanwhile, inside school walls, our background often set us apart, like a sort of beloved faculty mascot. I finally taught myself to read Hebrew as a grade-school student after being asked one too many times by my Christian Zionist principal to take a stab at deciphering proffered biblical texts. (I took a different tack when asked to demonstrate the hora for two dozen of my African-American classmates. Panicked, I did what any other self-respecting sixth-grader would do in that situation: I faked it.) Our education may have had some religion-dictated gaps—for instance, we never studied Shakespeare's plays or evolutionary science—but my classmates and I had a solid grounding in Jewish history from Abraham to Zionism.

Some American Jews might be startled when confronted by emotional outpourings like tonight's. But I'm a seasoned veteran of the new reality: When it comes to raking in declarations of one-way devotion, Jews are the prom queens of the American evangelical world. It's a love affair that's easy to caricature. But as any heart-sick high-schooler will tell you, just because a love is implausible doesn't mean the feelings aren't real.

After two hours, the meeting is still going strong. I slip out of a side door into the Jerusalem evening as an emotional American minister pleads with God to "bring this disengagement plan to nothing, so your name will be exalted." The congregation is a sea of sunburned arms stretched toward heaven, dotted with orange wristbands.

Rebecca Sinderbrand has reported from the Middle East for Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications.