Christians emerge as key patrons for Jews moving to Israel

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TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel's founding fathers, who etched a commitment to encouraging Jewish immigration into the declaration of independence, might be surprised to find that, seven decades later, the state is relying on Christians to fulfill that promise.

What was once a strictly Jewish-funded mission is increasingly being bankrolled by evangelical Christians. Israel's Christian allies now fund about a third of all immigrants moving to the country, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

The figures reflect the ever tightening relationship between Israel and its evangelical Christian allies, whom Israel has come to count on for everything from political support to tourism dollars.

"After 2000 years of oppression and persecution, today you have Christians who are helping Jews," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group that raises money from evangelical Christians for Jewish causes. "This is an amazing thing."

Israel has long depended on diaspora Jewish communities, especially in the United States, for donations and to lobby their local governments on its behalf. But evangelical communities have become increasingly important.

Israeli charities raise millions of dollars from Christians around the world, and evangelical Christians make up 13 percent of all tourists to Israel. A parliamentary caucus works with evangelical legislators around the world to foster support for Israel.

Israelis can also thank white evangelicals for helping to put President Donald Trump, an ardent supporter of Israel's nationalist government, in the White House.

"Israel has no better friends, I mean that, no better friends in the world than the Christian communities around the world," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Christian media summit in Jerusalem last year.

European and American Jewish philanthropists championed immigration to Israel, known as "Aliyah," or ascending, even before the creation of the state in 1948, by working to settle Jews in what was then Ottoman and British Palestine. In the decades after independence, the government partnered with Jewish groups to organize dramatic airlifts of Jews from troubled countries.

Christian support for the Aliyah largely began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and has grown in recent years as American Jews have redirected charitable donations to niche causes. That has forced nonprofits to expand their pool of benefactors.

"We don't see any reason why not to rely on help, including donations, from all our friends around the world, be they Jewish, Christian or others," said Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that spearheads Jewish immigration to Israel.

The Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, however, said it has no ties to Christian groups.

Of the more than 28,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2017, at least 8,500 arrived thanks to Christian donations, according to official figures and numbers provided by the Fellowship and Jerusalem's International Christian Embassy, another prominent group that raises money from evangelicals. The Jewish Agency receives additional undisclosed funds from other Christian donors, meaning that share could be even higher.

Not everyone is pleased. Some in Israel are suspicious that the evangelical embrace stems from a belief that the modern Jewish state is a precursor to the apocalypse — when Jesus will return and Jews will either accept Christianity or die.

Liberal Jews, who make up the majority of the American Jewish community, bristle at the evangelicals' ties to the political right and their support for Israel's settlement enterprise in the West Bank, a major sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group in Washington, said the Jewish community should be "wary of taking help from those who are playing with our lives to further their own religious and ideological purposes."

Evangelical Christianity is one of the fastest growing religious movements, making up more than a third of the world's estimated 2 billion Christians. Evangelicals say their affinity for Israel stems from Christianity's Jewish roots. Some view Israel's establishment as fulfilling biblical prophecy, ushering in an anticipated Messianic age. Jews also believe in a future Messianic age, but do not believe Jesus is the Messiah.

"It's a connection. It's a DNA that goes back to Sunday school, to their very being. It's a love affair, it's a romance with a nation that is connected to heaven and earth," said Mike Evans, an evangelical Christian who sits on Trump's evangelical faith advisory board.

In recent years, suspicions have diminished in Israel, thanks in part to the steady flow of donations as well as evangelical representatives playing down talk of the end of days. They say it is not a central tenet for most of the world's evangelicals or what makes them love Israel.

Johnnie Moore, the faith board's spokesman, said the skepticism over evangelical support was "ignorant" and "offensive."

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews says it gave $188 million to the Jewish Agency over the course of a two decade-long partnership, with Eckstein even sitting on the agency's executive board. But after disagreements over how to publicize the Fellowship's support, the two had a falling out and the Fellowship struck out on its own in 2014.

Its own Aliyah project has since ferried thousands of Jews to Israel from 27 countries, providing them with financial assistance beyond that extended by the state, as well as vocational training and assistance with local bureaucracy. The Fellowship said it has spent nearly $20 million on Aliyah since 2014. Eckstein said the organization believed Jewish-funded groups were not doing enough, particularly following the conflict in Crimea.

Some 200 Jews from Ukraine arrived at Israel's Ben Gurion International airport recently wearing Fellowship t-shirts. They were greeted by a gaggle of boisterous Israeli student volunteers, waving flags and chanting Hebrew folk songs.

One of the new arrivals, Serghey Lanovyy, said it made no difference to him that his Aliyah was funded by Christians.

"Religion is religion. You can believe whatever you want but if people need help, they need help," he said.

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