Remembering the Rabbi Who Brought Jews and Christians Together

Feb. 14 2019

Yechiel Eckstein, an American-born rabbi who did much to foster Jewish cooperation with evangelical Christians, died in Jerusalem last week at the age of sixty-seven. In 1991, his outreach to Christian groups led him to create the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which remains one of Israel’s largest charities and has raised millions of dollars for needy Jews. While much of Eckstein’s public activities focused on Israel, he came to the idea of a Jewish-evangelical alliance when confronting American anti-Semitism, as Jonathan Tobin writes:

Eckstein was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi . . . and then joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), where he worked on interfaith-dialogue projects. But it was only after he journeyed to the Chicago suburb of Skokie in 1977 to resist the plan of American Nazis to march through a neighborhood populated by Holocaust survivors that he was struck by an insight that eluded the organized Jewish world.

While the ADL and the rest of the Jewish establishment were used to looking for allies among the mainstream liberal Protestant denominations, the people who were most willing to join with the Jews were evangelical Christians. They were the last people most Jews thought would stand with them in a time of need; the overwhelming majority of American Jews and their leaders were largely convinced that conservative Christians either sympathized with the Nazis or were hopelessly anti-Semitic. . . .

[But] Eckstein was right. The majority of conservative Christians were not only instinctively Zionist, but also philo-Semitic. . . . When Eckstein launched a drive to collect funds to aid the hundreds of thousands of Jews arriving in Israel from the former Soviet Union, the response from these Christians was overwhelming. . . . He proved that religious Christians were willing to back Jewish causes with a fervor and generosity that sometimes dwarfed that of Jews. And he made it clear that, political differences notwithstanding, American Jews should regard their evangelical neighbors as faithful and sincere allies against anti-Semites of all stripes.

That’s a lesson that many American Jews, who are steeped in a prejudice against evangelicals that is largely driven by cultural elitism and partisan politics, still have a hard time understanding. Yet Rabbi Eckstein forged an alliance that will stand the test of time.

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More about: ADL, Christian Zionism, Evangelical Christianity, Israel & Zionism, Jewish-Christian relations, Religion & Holidays


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat