The Dead Sea lies at the lowest elevation on earth. And in the arid valley that stretches to the salt lake’s western shore sits Ein Gedi, a nature preserve and oasis that ranges from lush, spring fed gardens, to parched craggy rock, dotted with palm trees. Here, among this barren but beautiful landscape, a massive stage is perched amid the dusty rocks, complete with giant video screens and dazzling light displays. It looks more like a docked spaceship than a concert venue. What is normally a peaceful desert scene is now blanketed by the rumbling of a tour bus convoy, and a bank of electricity generators droning in the background.
It’s late September, 20-18, and the searing heat of day has given way to chilling breezes. As a full moon rises across the blue waters of the Dead Sea that separates Israel from Jordan, a blast from the shofar signals the festival has begun. This is the opening night of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, when the Bible calls for an “ingathering” of Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These days, Christian Zionists believe this biblical ingathering also includes them.
Christian Zionists from over 100 countries are here as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem hosts the 6-day celebration. And , as we are learning on this reporting journey, if you really want to follow the global movement of Christian Zionism, follow the money.
For this report, we’ve reviewed dozens of US tax returns from Christian Zionist organizations. Over the last 20 years, a handful of nonprofits has raised over 2 billion dollars in support of Israel. In this episode we navigate these financial streams, and the burgeoning political alliance between the far right in Israel and Christian Evangelicals in the United States, and increasingly around the world.
ANNOUNCER: This is the third episode of a 3-part series called The End of Days. If you missed the previous episodes, we encourage you to begin with the first chapter: The King is Coming – The Rise of Christian Zionism.
SENNOTT: The Dead Sea lies at the lowest elevation on earth. Down in the arid valley that stretches to the salt lake’s western shore, sits Ein Gedi, a nature preserve and oasis that ranges from lush, spring fed gardens, to parched craggy rock, dotted with palm trees. Here, among this barren but beautiful landscape, a massive stage is perched amid the dusty rocks, complete with giant video screens and dazzling light displays. What is normally a peaceful desert scene is now interrupted by the rumbling of a convoy of tour busses, and a bank of electricity generators droning in the background.
AMBI: Lines, buses
SENNOTT: It’s late September, 2018, and the searing heat of day has given way to chilling breezes. As a full moon rises across the blue waters of the Dead Sea that separates Israel from Jordan, a blast from the shofar signals the festival has begun.
SENNOTT: This is the opening night of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, when the Bible calls for an “ingathering” of Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These days, Christian Zionists believe this biblical ingathering also includes them.
SENNOTT: Christian Zionists from over 100 countries are here as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem hosts the 6-day celebration. And as we are learning on this reporting journey, if you really want to follow the global movement of Christian Zionism, follow the money.
DENISON: What does the Bible tell us to do when we owe a debt? <translation>
SENNOTT: Echoed by a Russian interpreter, the Christian Embassy’s Barry Denison presses his case for a collection.
DENISON: He tells us to pay the debt. <translation> And Paul, in this verse, continues, “Because of this spiritual debt, bring your material blessings.” <translation>
SENNOTT: He cites Paul’s letter to the Romans to remind the believers of what he calls their biblical obligations, which he says must be satisfied in order to bring the blessings of Jerusalem back to their nations.
DENISON: So here in a few minutes we are going to take an offering, <translation>
but before we do, I want you to pray with me. <translation>
ask the Lord what he wants you to give. <translation>
Heavenly father, we thank you for this great salvation in Jesus. <translation>
And now Lord, speak to my heart, <translation>
What I should give as my offering <translation>
Thank you, Lord, <translation>
In Jesus’ name <translation>
Now I’m going to ask our ushers to pass the buckets, <translation>
And I’m just going to ask you to obey the Lord, <translation>
SENNOTT: Denison’s all business.
DENISON: And give what he told you to give <translation>
SENNOTT: By invoking the lord’s name, he’s trying to get these believers to open their wallets. And apparently it’s not in vain. As the band plays on, ushers move from aisle to aisle, passing plastic buckets that soon are teeming with crisp American dollars, Israeli shekels and currencies from around the world.
SENNOTT: Although it’s difficult to track the amounts of funds collected in Israel at services like this one, measuring the power of Christian Zionism means examining the finances, again, it’s all about following the money.
For this report, we’ve reviewed dozens of US tax returns from Christian Zionist organizations. Over the past 20 years, a handful of nonprofits has raised over 2 billion dollars in support of Israel. In this episode we navigate these financial streams, and the burgeoning political alliance between the far right in Israel and Christian Evangelicals.
SENNOTT: This is The End of Days: How Christian Zionism is transforming US Policy in the Middle East. A special three-part investigation by the GroundTruth Podcast and WGBH News. I’m Charles Sennott.
According to our research, the 2 billion dollars raised in support of Israel is a conservative figure. It’s not easy to follow the money. The streams of funding are often murky, and financial records are not always publicly available. From tax returns, however, we do know that 1.5 billion dolalrs came through the efforts of one rabbi’s organization:
ECKSTEIN: I am Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
SENNOTT: Yechiel Eckstein is the guy I saw on those billboards when I landed in Jerusalem. He launched his fellowship in 1983, and that year he barely raised $27,000. Today, the fellowship’s annual contributions total 140 million dollars.
ECKSTEIN: The core of the support, that’s causing these 1.6 million people to tithe, to give 10% of their meager income, $76 dollars on the average, to help Jewish people in need. It’s coming from a spiritual place. It’s coming from their belief that they need to make amends for what was done to Jews by so-called, as they put it, so-called Christians that they need to demonstrate true Christian love towards the Jewish people, and that they are Biblically commanded to.
SENNOTT: An Orthodox Jew, Eckstein’s power to mobilize massive numbers of Christians led his biographer Zev Chafets, to write, “No Jew since Jesus has commanded this kind of gentile following.” I asked Rabbi Eckstein how his movement went from the fringe to the mainstream, and about some of the challenges he’s faced in the journey.
ECKSTEIN: For 2000 years Christians were our enemies. They persecuted us in the name of their Lord. They created this anti-Semitism that flourished over the centuries, even to this very day. And I believe that these evangelical Christians see themselves as the “true” Christians. That true Christians would not do something like that. And often they will really separate themselves from that history, they’ll say, well that was Catholics, that’s not us.
SENNOTT: Eckstein’s fellow Orthodox rabbis, however, feel these evangelicals can’t get off so easily, despite the financial support. As we heard earlier, Rabbi Eckstein’s interfaith unity was condemned by some in the rabbinical establishment. His critics were wary of Christianity’s history of anti-semitism.
ECKSTEIN: There are people who cannot adjust to the change in history. The Christians today are not our enemies as they were for 2000 years. Bible believing, as they call themselves, evangelical Christians I believe, are the Jewish peoples’ best friends, and most reliable friends today. And perhaps even, their only friends around the world.
IRIS: At the moment, we Jews and the Nation of Israel needs all the friends it can get,
SENNOTT: Iris Maidenbaum agrees with Eckstein.
IRIS: …and you know, as far as I can see, these are friends, for the most part.
SENNOTT: She and her husband, Shalom, are American Jews from Long Island. I met them outside the Friends of Zion Museum, and they invited me to their home on Passover. They have no issue reconciling Christian Zionism’s motives with their beliefs as Zionists, and what they see as a shared goal of supporting Israel.
SM: I think what you’re really questioning here is the sincerity of the process. They’re helping jews, what is their motive for helping Jews? Look, I’m not worried about what happens at the end, now the question is, do I say, because their motives are not 100% aligned with my goals, do I reject their help because of it? I don’t think so. I think it’s very not practical, we need all the help we can get.
SENNOTT: They seem to shrug when I ask them about Christian Zionism and the anti-Semitism that seems woven into its theology.
IM: both Christians and Jews believe in the coming of a messiah, so we believe it’s the first coming of the messiah, they believe it’s the second coming, so I guess in the end of days, we will see who’s Messiah is right, but you know, I don’t know that that is a relevant issue now with our relationship with each other.
SENNOTT: Israel needs friends as they see it, regardless of the motives of those friends. Israelis and Christian Zionists may not see eye to eye on salvation, but they do share objectives for more immediate pursuits, like the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
SHELEG: It’s important, first of all because of financing support they give to Israel in general and specifically to the settlement project in the West Bank.
SENNOTT: Yair Sheleg is a journalist and researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
SHELEG: But even more important than the finance support is the political support they give in the States with the Congress members with the government, the president.
SENNOTT: He’s tracked the rise of Christian Zionism’s influence within Israel’s religious and political circles, particularly in the era of Benjamin, or “Bibi” Netanyahu, who, after his most recent re-election, will be Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.
SHELEG: There are many rabbis who are against money and political support but especially money from evangelicals because of their theology. But there are also other rabbis who support getting money and political support from the evangelicals because they say we don’t believe in that theology, we don’t believe on the rebirth of Jesus. So what should we care that they believe in that at least they give us money and political support so they are more pragmatic and think Jews should not concentrate in the theological issue, but in the practical issue that the evangelicals support Israel politically and giving money.
CHARLIE: Are you ever surprised that Bibi’s become such an ardent supporter of Christian Zionism?
SHELEG: Well Bibi is really a Republican so as a conservative Republican I’m not surprised that he is in favor of the evangelical connections with Israel and also from people who are close to him, I heard that when he asked and even attacked that his policy make many liberal Jews to be against the state of Israel or at least lower their connections with Israel, people claim that his view is that we have much more Christian evangelical in the States than liberal Jews because the number of liberal Jews is something like 4 million people and the number of Christian evangelicals something like 80 million. So from Bibi’s point of view it’s very rational to prefer the evangelical than the liberal Jews.
SENNOTT: To Israeli leaders like Bibi Netanyahu, evangelical Christians represent a growth sector, both in political support, and dollars.
But where does all of this money go? In Rabbi Eckstein’s case, his fellowship’s 140 million annual budget provides social services to needy Israelis, but also to Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. Another program, called “On the Wings of Eagles,” helps Jews from the diaspora relocate to Israel.
They also provide critical support for the settlements, or at least, some of them. Any project funded by Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews must acknowledge that funding with a plaque that says, “Donated with Love from Christians in America.” But according to Rabbi Eckstein, some settlements are reluctant to publicly acknowledge the support from Christians.
ECKSTEIN: In Israel, you still have 4 or 5 rabbis from the religious Zionist community in the settlements community, interestingly enough, who continue to oppose us. Even though, many of the settlements in Judea and Samaria are receiving money from evangelical Christians.
SENNOTT: In fact, many settlements in the occupied West Bank accept millions of dollars from evangelical Christians, dollars that don’t require public attribution or a plaque. According to a report by the leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Christian Zionist organizations have injected approximately 65 million dollars into the settlements over the last 10 years. But even that estimate is conservative because of a lack of transparency in both the United States and Israel.
Federal tax laws in the US do not require religious organizations to report their contributions, or the projects they fund. Haaretz reported that NGO’s in the settlements fail to register with the government, in violation of Israeli laws. Another unknown factor is a free workforce. In the previous episode we visited Ha Yovel, the organization that sends Christian Zionist volunteers to work in the Har Bracha settlement. Their Sons of Zion package costs each volunteer over $4000, and does not include airfare.
However you package it, this is money flowing into Jewish settlements. Rabbi Eckstein said this support and the funding from his fellowship will need to diversify. He goes on to say that Israel’s relationship with Christian evangelicals needs to go global.
ECKSTEIN: The survival of Israel and the support for the Jewish people is going to become, as the years go ahead, much more dependent on the situation of China and Brazil, and on Korea and Singapore and the Philippines, as it is now on the United States. And we don’t have too many Jewish Chinese people. But there are 80 million evangelical pentecostal Christians in China alone who are potential sources of Israel. That’s the future that I see.
SENNOTT: I sat down with Rabbi Eckstein in his Jerusalem office in March, of 20-18. It would be one of his last in-depth interviews. He died February 6, 2019, due to heart failure. Today his daughter Yael runs the organization he founded.
AMBI: Parade marching
SENNOTT: We started this journey in 2018, on the coinciding holidays of Passover and Good Friday. We end with Sukkot, a time when believers from across the globe gather in Jerusalem, a call of nations in support of Israel.
CHARLIE: Do you speak english? (x4)
PARADE GOER: Yes,
CHARLIE: I’m a journalist trying to talk to all the nations, may I ask you where you’re from and why you’re here?
PARADE GOER: We are from Finland
PARADE GOER: We are come from West Papua
PARADE GOER: Alabama in the US
PARADE GOER: Brazil
PARADE GOER: We are from Hungary
PARADE GOER: We are from Fiji in the South Pacific
PARADE GOER: We are from Samiland
PARADE GOER: We are from Taiwan
PARADE GOER: We are from Guatemala, and we are here because Israel is God’s country,
PARADE GOER: God has called us to come and bless Israel from our nation
PARADE GOER: We can go back home and tell the people that whatever is in the Bible is correct
PARADE GOER: We are here for the feast! Because we love Israel.
PARADE GOER: ..and the blessing of the nation come from Israel
SENNOTT: Christian Zionists from over 100 nations are represented in this parade. In some cases the delegations are quite large, for example, groups from Brazil, China, and several African countries. But this wasn’t always the case.
DUERFELDT: We were there in the first one of these marches, we’d have like 2 people from a little African nation, that had saved for years to be able to come…
SENNOTT: Cindy Duerfeldt and her husband are from Asheville, NC. They first came to Israel in 1978.
DUERFELDT: …to see people from all over the world that were getting the same word from the Lord as we were, we thought we were a little crazy, and then we seen these people from nations that I don’t even know their names, it was just amazing…Even what’s happening today is just a fulfillment of prophecy talking about how the nations will all stream up to Jerusalem in the end days, in the latter days, and here we are, it’s just exciting, electrifying, really.
CHARLIE: So are we in the end of days?
DUERFELDT: We feel that we are, we don’t know the time, it says we will never know the time or the day, we’re not, you know, crazy people that are expecting any second or naming a day or an hour, but we feel strongly just because of the many things that are happening.
SENNOTT: We spoke with a wide spectrum of Jews, Muslims, and Christians…from Palestine, Israel, the United States, and around the world. The Christian Zionists we spoke with are not monolithic, they come from different socio-economic circles, levels of education, political beliefs, and ethnicities. As with any movement, the sensibilities and motivations will vary from person to person. For believers like Kevin Burnor, Chad Holland, and Melissa Patton from the earlier episodes, the end of days is very real and will involve widespread death and destruction. But we also met people whose vision of the end of days was more metaphorical, with less of an emphasis on a prophetic timeline predicting global war, and an uncertain fate for Jews who do not convert to Christianity.
SCHUTZ: There’s really a bigger picture, that’s not the source.
SENNOTT: Jim Schutz heads up the Joseph Project, an NGO that provides humanitarian aid to Israelis and Palestinians.
SCHUTZ: Even if they believe that two-thirds of the Jewish people are going to perish that come back to Israel. that’s not really the message that’s in the Bible.That’s a particular interpretation that is rejected by the mainline Christian Zionist movements and organizations that are based here in Israel and internationally around the world, because purpose of God in bringing them back is actually for healing and restoration, and healing of the nations, despite the fact that there is this birth pang aspect. Something coming to an end that will bring birth to something much better.
SENNOTT: Although Schutz makes it sound hopeful, it’s the imprecision of “something coming to an end” as he puts it, that is concerning. This ambiguity is what Harvey Cox described back in the first episode when he said Christian Zionism’s move to the mainstream may have muted the more offensive elements of their theology. They may be muted, but they remain core tenets of the movement.
Even in vague terms, isn’t the essence of their theology still anti-Semitic? Still calling for Jews to convert to Christianity? For Palestinians, doesn’t this theology empower one ethnicity over another, and turn God into a real-estate agent who would grant the land to one faith over another? As the parade of nations winds down, and the marchers disperse, we continue to grapple with these questions.
AMBI: PARADE OUT
SENNOTT: Since we wrapped up our reporting, Christian Zionists have continued to attribute policy shifts as timestamps on their prophetic timeline. In March of this year, President Trump tweeted that the US will recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. During the 6-day War in 1967, Israel captured the Golan from Syria, and officially annexed it in 1981. In the days leading up to his recent reelection, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a campaign promise that Israel would also annex the West Bank land where Jewish settlements have been built. Such geopolitical moves bring Israel closer to what the religious right would consider Israel’s biblical footprint.
And that belief is strengthening the religious, political, and financial bond between evangelical Christians and the religious right in Israel. At the highest levels of government, there is also a bond between the Trump Administration and Benjamin Netanyahu. For President Trump, this bond delivers on a promise to his Christian evangelical voting base in the United States. For Prime Minister Netanyahu, it galvanizes the far-right policies of the Israeli government. To many political observers in the region, these moves have put an irreparable crack in the foundation of the Arab-Israeli peace agreement. To Christian Zionists, this is all part of the prophecy of the end of days. But to people on the ground, people who live here, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, one thing is clear, the hope for peace is fading, like the light at the end of day.
SENNOTT: Our GroundTruth reporting fellow for this project is Micah Danney.
This piece was produced by Mitch Hanley, with help from Rob Rosenthal.
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Thanks to Nina Porzucki, Phil Redo, Bob Kempf, John Ryan, and Doug Shugarts at WGBH. Funding for this episode comes from WGBH News, The Luce Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
I’m Charles Sennott, executive producer of the podcast, and founder of The GroundTruth Project, which supports a new generation of journalists to do on-the-ground reporting in underreported areas.