Among the Believers

Looking Beyond the Gaza Withdrawal
Notes from different corners of the world.
July 20 2005 6:31 AM

Among the Believers

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Earl Cox.
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Earl Cox 
Jerusalem's Western Wall.
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Jerusalem's Western Wall
A prayer near the Western Wall.
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A prayer near the Western Wall

JERUSALEM—To add to the general edginess of pre-disengagement Jerusalem, for the last few weeks the city has been gripped by successive heat waves of, well, biblical proportions. By noon, the stones of the Old City seem to radiate heat; winding through the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter is like taking a leisurely stroll through a slow-roast oven. Ten minutes in the midday sun and you feel a bit like you just ran a marathon. An hour outside feels more like getting hit by a bus. The brutal temperatures have thinned out the crowds at the Western Wall, and the tourists are sparse today. But the faithful are still here. There are the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews defiantly sporting fur hats and knee-length black coats in the summer sun. There are Israeli student groups and campers—wearing matching T-shirts and the orange wristbands of the anti-disengagement movement—chanting Zionist slogans from the courtyard in the back of the complex. And sitting just beside a phalanx of gun-toting soldiers, there's Earl Cox, Southern gentleman and longtime GOP stalwart."Four years ago, I didn't really know any Jews. Didn't much like them, either," he admits. But a trip to Jerusalem a few days after the start of the second intifada in 2001 started a "transformative process." Within months, he was back in Israel with a "message from God" and a sweeping pro-Israel marketing campaign that included funds for terror victims, TV and billboard advertising, and "awareness-raising" trips for conservative American opinion-makers. Now he's moved into a Jerusalem hotel for the year and launched a self-funded radio show, spending millions of his own money to give Israeli politicians a bully pulpit in the Bible Belt."I put in my time for the [Republican] party," says Cox. "I could have wound up my political career as an ambassador for Bush to some South American country. But you can't ignore the call." Instead of riding out his golden years in Rio, he's spending his days as an Israeli political gadfly: sending free pizzas to Benjamin Netanyahu's staff, trying to convince former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau to run for president of Israel, and praying at the Wall for up to four hours each day. "Time passes quickly here," he insists. "I have many friends in this place. I feel very much at home."You come here, you see history coming to pass before your eyes, just like the Bible said," he says, as his eyes drift down toward the devoted, clustered a few dozen yards away. "Those people down there, they know it. Soon the whole world will know it. God's allowed me to be a small part of that here. But I'm not unique."In a sense, he's right. It's not hard to find Americans here on self-described missions from God spending small fortunes on biblically based Zionist visions, from John Brown, the Texas entrepreneur who's spent more than two decades and several million dollars on a quest to find oil inside Israel's borders, to the Rev. James Vineyard, the Oklahoma City minister whose seemingly full-time battle against Gaza withdrawal has included political lobbying, protests, and vituperative full-page ads in the Jerusalem Post. In fact, many of these prophecy-motivated men have turned their attention this summer to the Gaza disengagement plan, which Cox calls "a deliberate thwarting of God's design."Men like Cox and Brown are exactly the audience controversial Knesset member Benny Elon is trying to reach with his new book. God's Covenant With Israel: Establishing Biblical Boundaries in Today's World is scheduled for release in Christian bookstores sometime this week. "My first English book. It's written for the Christians," says Elon, sitting in his cramped Knesset office. "I cannot overstate their importance. The Christians here are the key to Christians all over the world. And they are the key to Israel's survival."The rabinically trained Knesset member has been touring the United States for years, courting evangelical leaders from James Vineyard to Jerry Falwell, along with sympathetic red-state pols like Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. As minister of tourism a few years ago, he spearheaded a move to make Israel's religious roots a marketing priority. That vision carried the country's hospitality industry through the second intifada. Now Elon has a new goal: to make Israel's borders as much of a moral issue to Christian conservatives "as gay marriage and family values." It's long after working hours, but with disengagement just weeks away, the Knesset is still open for business. In the hallway just beyond Elon's closetlike office, I can hear an animated political discussion edge up several decibels before devolving into the traditional Israeli conversation-ender, "Mapitom!" (Roughly translated: "Seriously, what the hell are you talking about?" Shorter translation: "That's crap!") Elon, along with about a dozen other elected officials spanning the political spectrum, is a member of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus. In less than a year, the caucus—the only Israeli government body whose business is conducted entirely in English—has become an institution here. Some of what the committee does is simple bureaucratic mine-clearing, like helping Christians sort through the prickly visa and work-permit paperwork that bedevils most nonprofits here. But other initiatives are startlingly innovative. So far this year, the government has handed evangelicals their own plot of land near the Sea of Galilee, started a special outreach program to shore up support for Israel in African-American churches, and planned the committee's first stateside conference for American sympathizers in Fort Worth this September.

Most of the panel's organizing efforts have been aimed at rallying evangelical energy behind the sort of uncontroversial pro-Israel wish list that might come out of a particularly earnest Jewish Community Center meeting. (For example: The United Nations should be nicer to Israel. Or: We really don't think Iran should have the bomb.) Most members of the CAC shy away from courting Christian support one way or the other on internal matters like disengagement. But Elon has spent years trying to marshal evangelical influence on thorny foreign-policy questions. His new book includes a pledge for believers to sign in support of Jewish control of Judea and Samaria—what he calls the "heartland of Israel." Evangelical heavyweights like Kay Arthur and Glenn Plummer signed the pledge earlier this year, when Elon made the rounds at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. A flood of believers followed their lead. "We have thousands of signatures already. We want millions. Then a congressional bill," says Elon.

This sort of vision has been a right-wing dream here for years, and Elon, whose greatest claim to fame to date beyond his tourism innovations was a "peace plan" that named Jordan the new Palestinian homeland, isn't much of a mainstream spokesman. Evangelical distaste didn't stop the Middle East road map, and it's unlikely to prevent disengagement from starting as scheduled. But Israeli officials haven't been taking any chances. Earlier this year, U.S.-based Israeli consular officials stateside were working overtime on counterprogramming for Elon's book tour, grumbling to reporters that his anti-disengagement road show was their No. 1 time-waster this spring. Meanwhile, Elon, like many anti-disengagement organizers here, is already starting to look past Aug. 17, the day the government starts evicting the remaining Gaza settlers. "The people I speak with in American churches, they are all against the withdrawal. They don't understand it. So, I'm trying to build, with patience, because we'll be back. In six or seven years, we'll be in Samaria again. … I don't think this is the end."

If he can maintain his current level of stateside success, says Elon, "Within two years, at least 200 representatives in America will understand that, for their constituents, Israel's claim to Judea and Samaria is non-negotiable. The Israeli prime minister will be able to visit America knowing that half of Congress understands this issue from our perspective. That is how I define success." It is, he concedes, a long shot. Then again, he reminds me, "I live in the land of miracles."

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