What may turn out to be the largest official Israel at 50 celebration in America — perhaps with participation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has a roster full of speakers and participants who are Messianic Jews, The Jewish Week has learned.
The event, planned by the Christian Alliance for Israel, is scheduled to attract up to 18,000 people in Orlando, Fla., from April 29 to May 3.
The alliance is an ad-hoc Christian group comprised of individuals, churches and organizations “who share a love for and a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.”
The group was granted official status as part of Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration by The Israel 50th Anniversary Committee.
In a letter to the Christian Alliance, the chairman of the anniversary committee, Marvin
Josephson, wrote: “I am delighted to acknowledge your event as part of our official celebrations of Israel’s 50th birthday.”
In an interview, Josephson said that “I had a request to allow them to use the official designation. We checked them out with a responsible Jewish organization that monitors such things, and we were told they are a very responsible organization. I don’t know anything else.”
He said that the request to give the group official designation came from Israel, but he declined to say from whom.
Messianic Jews are those who have converted to Evangelical Christianity but insist that they have not forsaken their Jewishness.
A number of major American Jewish leaders have been invited to the celebration, and planners say that Netanyahu has said he will participate, either in person or via satellite TV hookup.
The prime minister’s office said that an invitation has been received but that no decision has been made on whether Netanyahu will attend.
Mark Powers, national director of Jews for Judaism, a countermissionary group, called the lineup of participants a “who’s who of the missionary movement. Without question, this is top heavy with leaders of the Hebrew Christian movement.”
Powers said that one of the organizers, Jonathan Bernis of Here O Israel ministries, “claims to have converted 35,000 Jews in the last three years in Russia.” Bernis did not return a call from The Jewish Week.
Powers said his group will work to limit Jewish and official Israeli participation in the rally.
Participants listed in the group’s advertisements include Sid Roth, whose daily “Messianic Vision” radio broadcast clearly targets Jews for conversion, and David and Joel Chernoff, major forces in the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the leading exponent of Jewish outreach to the Evangelical community, said he turned down an invitation to appear because “it had a strong messianic thrust.”
The event’s planner, Cheryl Schang, said that she is sensitive to Jewish concerns about proselytization and especially about Messianic Jews.
“That was an issue we put a lot of thought into,” she said in an interview. “Whenever a Christian group stands up and says they’re doing something big for Israel, messianic people want to be involved. Rightfully, we think they should play a role, but they have to abide by certain guidelines.”
Those guidelines include a strict ban on proselytization, Schang said. She added that some messianic groups refused to participate because of those restrictions.
She identified two of the Jewish “honored guests” as Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But an AIPAC spokesperson said the event was never on Kohr’s calendar. Klein said he has not decided whether or not to attend, but that he would probably do so if Netanyahu appears.
Some Jewish leaders were not impressed by the promise to ban proselytization.
“It’s poppycock,” said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. “If they want to do their own thing for Israel, it’s a free country.
“But to try to engage the Jewish community in this is offensive. We’ve lost enough; we don’t need to facilitate the losing of more by giving legitimacy to those who directly or indirectly target Jews for conversion. This undertaking would give them legitimacy and credibility and a standing in the Jewish community.”
What about participation by Jewish and Israeli officials?
“It’s inappropriate,” Foxman said. “There are enough friends of Israel in the Christian community who are true friends, without ulterior motives, with whom we can celebrate Israel’s anniversary.”
In January, Netanyahu angered some Jewish leaders when he addressed a gathering of conservative Jews and Evangelical Christians in Washington, his first stop during a visit to meet with President Clinton.
Jewish leaders were particularly upset that Netanyahu met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a bitter critic of Clinton and a leading booster of the religious right agenda.