For the past several months, full-color ads have run in the Madison Jewish News announcing the 'Night to Honor Israel' at the Overture Center. The May 6 event, part of a national campaign by a Zionist group called Christians United for Israel, has drawn a sharply critical response from some local rabbis and progressive Jews.
'My concern is that Christians United for Israel love Israel, but for their own purposes, which are at odds with many of the values of the progressive Jewish community,' says Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El.
Biatch says Christians United for Israel seeks conflict with Iran, as part of its desire to hasten Armageddon, the biblical end of times. 'Such a crusade,' he's said in a sermon, 'would result in far greater death and destruction than we could imagine.' (The sermon is available at www.jewsonfirst.org/07b/biatch_sermon.html.)
Biatch also objects to the group's characterization of Islam as a radical, terrorist religion and American Muslims as disloyal to the United States. 'Islam as a religion is valid just like any other religion as a way of living and communicating with God,' he asserts. 'And if you asked Jews about the second Gulf War, most of them would be against it also. Are we disloyal too?'
Finally, Biatch is concerned about the organization's lobbying, in the White House and Israel, against returning land to the Palestinians. Such politics, he says, are an obstacle to peace.
The May 6 event's local sponsor is Pastor Joel Kitsemble, who leads the five-year-old, 300-member Spirit of Faith Church on Madison's west side. He insists its only purpose is to honor Israel.
'Jews are worth honoring,' he says. 'They have contributed a lot to the world and made it better by their existence.' The goal of the program is to build 'love and friendship' between Jews and Christians and let the Jewish community know that 'most Christians stand with them, back and support them.'
While stressing that he cannot speak for Christians United for Israel, Kitsemble offers partial responses to Biatch's concerns. For instance, he denies that the group is seeking Armageddon, although he sees it as inevitable.
'We are not trying to make the future happen, though we are aware of the predictions in the Scriptures,' he says. 'Prophecies will happen but we're not trying to carry them out.' He adds that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad poses a clear threat to Israel: 'If he continues to try to destroy it, we as Christians will stand with Israel and not let him do it.'
Kitsemble also denies that his church is anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian. 'We know there are good people throughout the world, and God has love for all people. We also know there's Islamo-fascism but believe that truth will prevail.'
And, he says, 'Personally I am against giving land for peace, but we won't pressure Israel.'
Pastor John C. Hagee, the founder and head of Christians United for Israel, leads the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. The Rev. Jerry Falwell is on the group's board of directors, and David Brog, one of the scheduled speakers for Madison, is a former chief of staff to Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who serves on the group's board of advisers.
Last year, when hostilities broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hagee lobbied against a diplomatic solution and for continued fighting. His best-selling book, Jerusalem Countdown, calls on the U.S. and Israel to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran. This, he believes, will lead to Armageddon, which will in turn bring about the Rapture, Tribulation and Second Coming of Christ. Non-Christians (including Jews) will perish.
Baruch Binah, Israel's consul general for the Midwest, is also scheduled to speak at the Madison event.
Diklah Cohen, Israel program coordinator for the Madison Jewish Community Council, has no problem with the May 6 event. She has consulted Kitsemble and his church about various aspects of the evening, such as kosher food, and considers them pleasant and sincere.
'I don't believe what they believe, but I care that they support Israel,' she says. 'We don't talk about theology because we disagree about that. We talk about things that happen today, that's what matters.'
As Cohen sees it, groups collaborate on specific issues even if they disagree on the rest. 'That's the beauty of making peace and a better world ' you do it through collaborating on the things you can agree upon.'
Cohen is confident that Evening for Israel is based on a genuine desire to learn about the country and support it. Besides, she adds, 'It's not like Israel is acting according to what Evangelical Christians tell it to do.'
The local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace plans to protest the Overture Center event. 'Let's tell them that not all Jews support ongoing bloodshed, never-ending war in the Middle East, policies that spur starvation among Palestinians and a never-ending occupation,' says the group in an e-mail to supporters.
Laurie Zimmerman, rabbi for the Shaarei Shamayim congregation, worries about Christians United for Israel's political agenda, and wonders why Israel accepts support from people whose very theology foresees the annihilation of all Jews who haven't converted to Christianity. The answer, she says, has been that Israel needs any support it can find.
'It just matters that they support us,' she sums up the official position. 'We can take the money and say thanks.'
Disagreeing, Zimmerman thinks that Israel's politics have moved so far to the right that they now align with the fundamentalist agenda of current American politics, 'so it's not really surprising that it's being welcomed in Israel.'
But that raises alarm bells for her.
'It's very destructive for the people who live there ' the Israelis, Palestinians and Christians,' Zimmerman says. 'It's selling out their rights to an external agenda that is so right wing it can only spell doom to the region. To a fundamentalist ideal that is interested in fomenting a terrible war.'