The controversial Jewish-Evangelical Christian alliance became frayed this week on the eve of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, with mainstream Jewish groups refusing to participate in a rally against UN Israel-bashing for fear it would legitimize a co-sponsor, a reputed Messianic Jew.
The disagreement came even though organizers of next Wednesday’s rally produced letters from two Israeli leaders — Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Yuli Edelstein — the minister of Public Affairs and Diaspora, expressing their support for the event.
The group causing the controversy is Calev Myers’ Jerusalem Institute for Justice. One newspaper in Lakeland, Fla., The Ledger, described Myers as a “messianic Jew, meaning he identifies himself as a Jew who believes Jesus Christ is the Messiah referred to in biblical prophecy.”
Myers, a lawyer, has made a name for himself in Israel by defending messianic organizations, which he claims are being discriminated against by the fervently Orthodox. He told The Jewish Week that his father is Jewish and his mother is Christian, that he considers himself Jewish, and he flatly denied that he proselytizes.
UPDATE: Following The Jewish Week’s inquiry and publication of this report, officials at the Evangelical Christian group Eagles’ Wings, one of the co-sponsors of next week’s anti-“Durban III” rally at the United Nations, said Friday that Calev Myers will not be speaking at the protest, as originally planned. But his organization, the Jerusalem Institute for Justice, remains a major co-sponsor of the rally.
Ellen Horowitz, content and research director for JewishIsrael.com, which monitors and responds to Evangelical missionary campaigns, said in an e-mail interview: “It is public knowledge that for many years Calev Myers was a worship leader of the messianic/evangelical congregation Shemen Sasson in Jerusalem. … He just removed fairly recent videos from a Christian talk show where he testified in a very big way about his great faith in Jesus.”
In addition to a Jewish communal desire to distance itself from Myers, there was also concern that the rally protests next Thursday’s UN anti-racism conference referred to as Durban III. It is designed to commemorate a similar conference 10 years ago that turned into a forum for anti-Semitic diatribes.
Jewish leaders said UN officials have assured them that safeguards have been taken to ensure this does not happen again. As a result, “a decision has been made by the [Jewish] community to downplay Durban III,” according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We don’t believe it will be anything significant,” he said of the UN one-day program in New York. “We don’t want to call more attention to it.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the “thinking was, ‘Why elevate something that doesn’t deserve significant attention?’ … There will be some Jewish groups that will participate [in the rally], but this was the consensus and we support it.”
Rabbi Potasnik said Myers’ association with the rally “did not create a comfortable place for us.”
Hoenlein said he had heard about Myers “from many people … [and] there is concern that he is associated with messianic groups.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said that although “people identify with anyone who supports Israel, which is so isolated, this group stepped over the line, and the Jewish community is doing the right thing.
“I’m in the world of creating coalitions, but this is a proper line to draw, and the Jewish community should be commended for stepping back from it,” he added.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said his group is not participating in the rally and “if we had been invited we would not participate … because some of the sponsors may indeed be problematic for Jewish groups.”
“Take support from wherever it comes,” he added, “but you have to be discerning with whom you are going to get in bed with when it comes to co-sponsorship with these groups.”
The episode raises anew the question of what kind of friends the Jewish community should climb into the bunker with when Israel is under attack. Such questions were raised three years ago when Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain distanced himself from controversial Texas pastor John Hagee after the Jewish group J Street claimed Hagee had preached that God inflicted Hitler on the Jews so that the Jews would establish the state of Israel in fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. Hagee said he was misquoted.
Others have said Hagee believes that Christian theology requires the eventual conversion of Jews, something some Jewish supporters refute.
At the same time, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel has embraced Hagee, even addressing 6,000 members of Hagee’s group, Christians United for Israel, in 2009 and saying he was “privileged” to be there. The organization has reportedly contributed more than $9 million to Israel and Jewish groups.
Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor, said a newly formed group, Holocaust Redeux, is sponsoring a conference here about Christians United for Israel to explore the issue of whether Jews should support the group. He said the conference, to be held on Nov. 13 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, will examine the issue from the political, financial, theological and halachic (Jewish law) perspectives.
The Myers controversy has put another co-sponsoring Evangelical Christian leader, Rev. Robert Stearns, who is the founder and executive director of Eagles Wings, in somewhat of a bind.
“I did not invite Myers or his organization to the table,” he said. “They were invited by public officials in Israel. I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. … How do you have a non-religious human rights rally and disinvite any group that wants to stand up for Israel?”
Edelstein, the Israeli minister, told The Jewish Week that he had met with Myers and Rev. Stearns during a June 6 breakfast meeting here of Christian activists.
“I was asked to join them because they were planning all kinds of action to fight Durban and the Israel bashing that was hijacking the UN’s human rights agenda,” he said.
“I fully approved of their activities and said it serves a very good cause,” Edelstein said. “I never checked or had a reason to check [their backgrounds]. I guess if we [the Israeli government] had cooperated [with the rally], I would have checked.”
In his letter to the New York Board of Rabbis, Sharansky expressed his appreciation for the pro-Israel and pro-human rights demonstrations planned for next week in light of the “virulent campaigns of delegitimization.”
Among the groups he cited as spearheading the event is the Jerusalem Institute for Justice and Eagles’ Wings. The event, he said is “vital to help assure that the true facts on the ground are understood in context and to show that Israel continues to advance the cause of universal human rights.”
The major Jewish organization scheduled to co-sponsor the Sept. 21 rally, the World Zionist Organization, withdrew a month ago, citing Myers’ participation and the desire not to focus attention on Durban III. Among the few Jewish groups joining the noon rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47 Street opposite the UN building is StandWithUs. Avi Posnick, its East Coast regional director, said his group is participating because “the demonstration is about standing up for Israel, and all groups that have that goal in mind should be supporting this rally.
“We don’t want to publicize something that is not going to get any attention except for us promoting it, but we have not seen that many countries pulling out,” he said. “And the fact that it still calls for the recertification of the statements issued at the 2001 Durban conference — calling Israel an apartheid state and equating Zionism with racism — is troubling.”
As of last week, 10 nations, including the United States, Germany, Canada, Italy and Austria, have announced they are boycotting Durban III.
Mainstream Jewish groups, meanwhile, have focused their energies on opposition to the Palestinian push for UN endorsement of their quest for statehood and full UN membership, according to Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
More than 60,000 signatures against the UN move that were collected in an online campaign are to be presented Tuesday to the Palestinian observer mission to the UN. Copies will also be mailed to all UN missions.
The Jewish community’s concerns about Myers prompted Rev. Stearns to write to him asking if he proselytizes. In his reply Myers insisted that he is “not a missionary.”
“I am actually against antagonistic proselytizing or missionary work,” Myers wrote, adding that he made aliyah from the United States and has served 17 years in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I believe in putting aside our theological phobias and working together for our common goals,” he added. “Obviously, this project is an excellent opportunity for that. It has absolutely nothing to do with theology and we will not let any partner organization from any side push a religious issue. If we let ourselves get divided over marginal issues, the State of Israel will be the big loser in the end.”
Myers told The Jewish Week that despite what some online Web sites claim, he is not an elder of an Evangelical church and does not even belong to any church. He described himself as a “person of deep faith,” but insisted, “I am not a missionary and I don’t proselytize. I’m a lawyer who believes in civil rights and freedom of religion. ... I don’t wave a religious flag and I prefer not to discuss my personal faith. ... I am not a religious person. ... I am not Catholic, nor do I believe in Catholic theology.”
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founding director of Jews for Judaism International, said he makes no distinction between those who are “messianic or Evangelical — they both want to share their faith. … When Calev is quoted in articles, he always talks about how Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but he avoids mentioning that he believes Jesus is God, the son of God, part of the Trinity and the bodily incarnation of God. Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews are unanimous in their rejection of Jesus being God and the Messiah.”
Rev. Stearns said he has a “20-year track record of being glatt kosher on the issue of proselytizing. … My organization has an absolutely clear record on the issue of missionizing and proselytization: we as an organization do not engage in it in any way, shape or form.”
Rabbi Potasnik said he knows Rev. Stearns as a “friend of the Jewish community and an outspoken supporter of Israel.”
“At a time when there is a dearth of friends for Israel … we should be grateful for his consistent support,” Rabbi Potasnik said.
Rallies Set For UN Session
The following events are scheduled to be held at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations at 47th Street (unless otherwise noted) in response to Tuesday’s opening of the 66th session of the UN General Assembly and to Thursday’s UN “Durban III” Conference:
Sept. 21: A coalition of mostly Evangelical Christian groups will hold a two-hour rally at noon to protest the UN’s so-called Durban III conference against racism.
Sept. 21-22: Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan in February 2002 by al Qaeda, will deliver the keynote address at the Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution. Among the sponsors is UN Watch. It will be held from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. both days at the W Hotel at Lexington Ave. and 49th Street. Registration for seats and to watch the event online: www.ngosummit.org.
Sept. 22: From 9 a.m.-6 p.m. at the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel at 44th St. and First Ave., a conference dealing with the Perils of Global Intolerance: The United Nations and Durban III. Featured speakers include Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
The conference is co-sponsored by the Hudson Institute and Touro College. To receive login information for the live conference webcast, register at www.durbanwatch.com.
At 11 a.m., Iran 180, a coalition of groups including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, will stage a variety of street theater pieces to satirize the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad, who is scheduled to speak to the General Assembly that day.
At noon in a tent set up in the Plaza, the JCRC will begin an open dialogue in which passersby in addition to invited guests are invited to discuss with representatives of Israeli society the future of the Middle East. Among those participating will be Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Minister of Public Affairs and Diaspora, who said he would discuss the importance of dialogue at a time when the Palestinians were in the UN seeking unilateral UN recognition as a state.
Also at noon, StandWithUs is sponsoring a three-ring circus rally to “expose the shocking hypocrisy” of Durban III. It will feature clowns wearing Ahmadinejad masks and holding balloons to symbolize that the conference “casts all decent values to the winds.”
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