Back in the old days of those old-fashioned, red-blooded Christian missionaries, there were missions to just about every land and faith imaginable: mission to the heathen, mission to the Jews and even a mission to the world. Now, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who largely deserves credit for the incredibly exploitative alliance forged by right-wing Israelis and American Jews with Christian evangelicals, has created his very own Mission to the Evangelicals. The difference being that Eckstein doesn’t want to make them Jews. He wants to make them Christian Zionists and he wants to use their money to support the Greater Land of Israel phenomenon represented by the settler movement. See this previous post I wrote about Eckstein.
Ze’ev Chafets wrote an illuminating profile of Rabbi Eckstein and his work with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. I came away from reading it thinking of him as the Jimmy Swaggart of the Jewish people.
Chafets story chronicles Eckstein’s evolution from an Anti-Defamation League staffer who came to believe that the ADL was missing the boat in refusing to consider evangelicals as a source of political and financial support for Israel; to the leader of a philanthropic powerhouse which has raised $250 million in the past eight years and is the second largest charity registered in the State of Israel. Eckstein has gone from a pariah within the ADL to a major power broker courted by the likes of Ariel Sharon.
The rabbi calls himself a “nonevangelical defender of evangelicals.” But after Chafets describes a few typical interactions between the Jew and his evangelical friends, you wonder why they are so dear to his heart. In the profile’s first paragraph Eckstein is described by a Midwestern, Harley-riding (into his own church service no less) evangelical minister as “a kingdom guy.” We get the idea, but the Rev. Steve Munsey has to explain himself (unfortunately for him): ”What do I mean by kingdom guy?” he said. ”Like a godfather in the Mafia, it’s a term of respect.” Yeah, with that kind of “respect” who needs enemies?
Not to be outdone, the good reverend shows Eckstein even more ‘respect’ when he introduces him to the 5,000 parisioners gathered in the sanctuary hall (as described by Chafets):
‘Yek-eel Epstein is a powerful giant,” he said, butchering the name. ”He rates right up there. You’ve seen him on TV. He was a rabbi, and he became a born-again Christian!”
Lucky for the rabbi, he gets to clear up that little misunderstanding by explaining to the crowd that he isn’t an evangelical. He does that just before he collects his $5,000 check from the minister handed out in the “humble, modest” surroundings of the Church’s sanctuary. I guess neither Eckstein nor Munsey have lately read Rambam’s eight levels of charity, the highest level of course being anonymous giving.
It also makes you wonder whether all this kissing up to evangelicals is worthwhile when all you come away with is a measly 5,000 bucks.
The rabbi also has a most untraditional view of tzedakah. I call it proprietary fundraising as opposed to Clal Yisrael fundraising. In other words, Eckstein views his relationship with the evangelical movement as proprietary. He owns it. Traditional Jewish fundraising, however, is performed for the benefit of Clal Yisrael (or “all Israel”). If one fundraiser has success in raising funds he or she usually would feel an obligation to share that knowledge for the greater good of the Jewish people so that others might also succeed in raising funds to support those in need. But not Yechiel Eckstein:
In April, Eckstein attended a conference of major Jewish philanthropies in Las Vegas, but when fund-raisers there asked him to share his strategies, he tactfully demured.
In other words, he believes that the evangelicals are his own little cash cow reserved for his own pet charitable Israeli projects. A most unconventional and selfish view of Jewish fundraising.
In order to justify his danse macabre with the evangelical movement, he has to do some heavy theological revisionism regarding the nasty habit that they seem to have of wanting to convert Jews. Here’s his reply to that one:
‘Jews have such a cynical, negative view of these people. There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories out there about how evangelicals only support Israel to bring on Armageddon or because they want to convert the Jews to Christianity. That’s just not true.
But of course it certainly is true and Eckstein seems to believe by categorically denying the existence of these well-known ideas that this somehow will make them disappear.
One of the most telling incidents in Chafets’ story occurs during a conference call with Gary Bauer (ardent right-wing ideologue) involving Eckstein, a staff member named Sandy Rios and Chafets. Here’s how the latter recounts it:
”Jews tend to demonize evangelicals,” Eckstein said sadly.
”And not the other way around?” I asked.
Eckstein shrugged. ”Not really. No.”
Throughout this conversation, Rios was clearly eager to join in. And as soon as there was a pause in the discussion, she did. ”You know,” she said, ”the truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews.”
Eckstein and Mamo exchanged glances. ”Not by some bait-and-switch trick,” she said. ”But we believe it’s part of God’s plan.” Eckstein winced the way he had when Pastor Munsey called him a born-again Christian.
”Anyway,” Rios said, ”we love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us.”
Poor Sandy, she picked the wrong place in which to announce her anti-Semitic views. But it makes you wonder who’s great idea was it to hire her in the first place?
Eckstein later calls Chafets back to let him know they fired Rios basically explaining–it’s so hard to find good help these days: “”Hiring staff is a problem. Truthfully, it’s extremely hard to find people who understand exactly what we’re doing here.”
But Rios isn’t the only one having trouble understanding what Eckstein’s “doing here.” Or I should say, I don’t have trouble understanding WHAT he’s doing. I just don’t understand WHY he’s doing it.
I’m not going to go over the incredibly pernicious effect that Eckstein and his work is having in promoting a partisan Bush-focussed Jewish agenda domestically and a partisan Likud-focussed agenda within Israel. You can read that in my earlier post linked above.