Jesus and Jerusalem

Sharon Sanders of Christian Friends of Israel. Click image to expand.
Sharon Sanders of Christian Friends of Israel

JERUSALEM—As vacation hot spots go, Gaza might seem like a tough sell. But proponents argue that encouraging people to visit “Biblical Israel” is a logical extension of the religious tourism strategy adopted by the Israeli government over the past few years. Summer is traditionally the slow season for Christian tourism here; inspiration levels need to be sky-high to take on a day of mostly outdoor sightseeing in mid-July. Even so, youth groups and pastoral missions have continued to make their way to the area this summer. One of the main organizers of Bible-believing tours of the West Bank and Gaza has been the decade-old group Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, run by Cleveland-born Sandra Oster Baras from her home in the Karnei Shimron settlement.

Like many Christian leaders here, Baras has just returned from spending the early part of this summer touring American churches ahead of disengagement. “I met a lot of people who, because of their deep attachment to Israel, are very confused about what’s happening this summer,” she says. “I presented the whole concept. I made a very concise case against disengagement. The reaction I got was overwhelming support.”

She wants their help—though she isn’t yet comfortable with the idea of Christians using their newfound political influence here. And she is adamantly opposed to anything resembling missionary work. “We have ground rules,” she says. “Before we work with someone, they need to know that we’re not going to change their mind, and they’re not going to change ours.”

It’s a tough balancing act for Christians with competing passions: Jesus and Jerusalem. Sharon Sanders of Christian Friends of Israel, who often works with Baras, has had two decades of experience with that high-wire act. After 20 years in the Middle East, she still looks and sounds exactly like the Midwestern housewife she once was, complete with a downstate Illinois accent (like many Christian transplants here, she speaks little Hebrew). She followed a well-worn path to the foothills of Jerusalem: In the 1970s, she and her husband, Ray, a middle-aged farm manager, read Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic Late Great Planet Earth, the volume that sparked Armageddon fever in a wide swath of the churchgoing set. Eventually, the couple sold their Champaign dream home “down to every last stick of furniture” and made their way to Israel, where they co-founded CFI.

A pro-Israel tapestry at a Christian organization HQ. Click image to expand.
A pro-Israel tapestry at a Christian organization HQ

For Sanders and other Christians here, religious life resembles Borough Park, Brooklyn, more than the Bible Belt. Sunday is a regular workday in Israel, and many evangelical Christians celebrate the Jewish Shabbat instead. Sanders and her husband light candles on Friday nights and generally try to observe the day of rest along observant Jewish lines. The Christian services they attend on Sundays, at an Assemblies of God church that has drawn support from Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, are scheduled in the evening to accommodate workers who have to put in a full day at the office first. The worship service often starts off with the Shema, and Bible readings, even John 3:16, are called “Torah portions.” Jesus is always “Yeshua.”

Most of Sharon Sanders’ days are spent coordinating U.S. donations for needy Jews or educating American Christians on their God-ordained responsibility to Israel. But other passions pull at her. Like most Christians here, she admits feeling a temptation to share her faith with the people she aids, a feeling she has to consciously resist. And despite a vow to “leave the running of the Jewish state to the Jews,” she is adamant that withdrawal from Gaza runs counter to God’s grand design. The organizers of the Gush Katif settlements, who have pledged to defy government-ordered evacuation next month, came to CFI recently to seek support; Sanders and her husband gave them posters bearing an excerpt from the Book of Amos in which God pledged that his people would “never again be uprooted from the land I have given them.” On Aug. 17, disengagement day, Sanders plans to head for the settlement-area rally organized by the right-wing Jewish group Women in Green (whose other activities include encouraging civil disobedience among soldiers called upon to carry out Gaza evictions and helping people looking to move into Gush Katif for an August showdown with authorities.)

“I’ll wake up that day and hope I look out my window and see a sea of orange [the color of disengagement] blanketing Jerusalem,” she says passionately. “I’ll be praying: ‘Please God, in Your mercy, don’t let anyone take this land away. Let someone stop them.’ I know it’s not my place, and I’m sorry, but it has to be said—that land belongs to God and His people.”

Sanders and her husband represent the old guard, a generation of Christians who’ve lived in this city since before the first intifada. They’ve been joined by a new wave, many of whom arrived after the start of the second Palestinian uprising. These young people, like the Sanderses, are passionately Zionist—but most seem more hesitant to take a public stand on issues like disengagement.

Many Christian Zionist organizations have life-sized mannequins of Ruth in their lobbies; they feel that Christian Zionists are playing Ruth to Israel's Naomi. Click image to expand.
Many Christian Zionist organizations have life-sized mannequins of Ruth in their lobbies; they feel that Christian Zionists are playing Ruth to Israel’s Naomi

Michael Hines and his wife came to Israel for a 10-day honeymoon trip; three years and three children later, they’re still here (though they haven’t been able to convince his wife’s father to come for a visit). Hines is a young veteran of British politics; he spent an extended stint working as a press aide for the Liberal Democrats. Now he flacks for the granddaddy of Israel-based Christian Zionist organizations, the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem.

The 25-year-old organization—part nonprofit, part Israel advocacy group—is located in one of the more impressive embassy properties vacated when the international community decamped to Tel Aviv years ago in protest of Israel’s declaration that Jerusalem was its eternal capital. Their annual Feast of Tabernacles, which draws thousands of Christians to Jerusalem, has become a compulsory stop for any ambitious Israeli pol. In Hines’ office, one wall features a map of Israeli settlements. Another is dominated by a massive bookshelf. The reading material ranges from a two-volume biography of militant Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky to the complete works of Jewish historian Josephus.

Hines shies away from taking a personal stand on internal Israeli matters, even on background. But he’s quick to say this tendency toward discretion and second-guessing may have taken too deep a hold in the new generation of evangelicals. “Basically, there’s this sense that your parents are old fuddy-duddies who support Israel. But Palestine’s sexy, so you support the ISM [International Solidarity Movement],” he says. The mission is to make loving Israel “cool” again, and to that end the ICEJ’s “Grafted” program (named after a Christian belief that the church has been “grafted” onto Jewish roots) brings young Christians on free or highly subsidized trips to Israel.

Sanders, whose own organization also sponsors similar tours, explains the essential nature of these youth-targeted enterprises. “We need that Zionistic fervor back in this country. That pioneering spirit,” she says. “After 20 years, we’re getting recognition, finally, that we provide some of that for Israel—and have for a long time. So, this is a special time in history for this nation and for us as Christians. Now we have to keep this spark alive.”