Christians Called To Serve Jewish Settlers

Evangelicals Volunteer on West Bank Because the Bible Says So

Shared Supper: Evangelical Christians share a meal with Jewish hosts at an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
nathan jeffay
Shared Supper: Evangelical Christians share a meal with Jewish hosts at an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 25, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

It is a typical, even stereotypical, West Bank settlement scene: bearded young men pruning vines while enthusing about the Chosen People’s God-given right to this region. But in this case it is Jesus, and not Jewish identity, that animates these tillers.

For years, Westerners have flocked to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to help Palestinians with their olive harvest, as part of left-wing activist groups like the International Solidarity Movement. Among other things, the activists seek to resist efforts by settlers to disrupt the Palestinians’ reaping.

Now, the settlers have international harvest help of their own. The young Christians working in the Psagot Winery’s vineyards near Ramallah in mid-March were members of HaYovel. Last year, this Tennessee-based evangelical ministry started a large-scale operation to bring volunteers to tend and harvest settler grapes. They attach epic importance to their work.

God’s Work: Volunteers come to the West Bank to further a Biblical mission.
nathan jeffay
God’s Work: Volunteers come to the West Bank to further a Biblical mission.

“When you see prophecy taking place, you have the option to do nothing or become a vessel to it,” said volunteer pruner Blake Smith, a 20-year-old farmer from Virginia.

HaYovel preaches the old-school ideology of Religious Zionist settlers with one innovation: a sacred role for Christians.

The group’s members believe that the establishment of the State of Israel, its subsequent conquering of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and specifically the flourishing of agriculture in the occupied areas are fulfillments of biblical prophecies. Like many settlers, HaYovel cites a prophecy by Jeremiah that refers to the Samaria region of the West Bank: “Again you shall plant vines on the mountains of Samaria.” And like them, HaYovel believes that the settlement movement will help to bring the Messiah to Jerusalem — the only difference being that the volunteers anticipate a second coming.

But these Christians also focus on a prophecy rarely cited by settlers, who tend to place ideological value on using only avoda ivrit, or “Hebrew labor,” whenever possible. “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and foreigners shall be your plowmen and your vine-dressers,” Isaiah prophesized to the Israelites.

Basing itself on this verse, HaYovel — which takes its name from the Bible’s twice-a-century agricultural jubilee — has made reverence of settlers into a central religious virtue.

“Being here, we just want to serve — and to bless the Jewish people in building up the land,” said Joshua Waller, a HaYovel ministry leader and one of the 11 children of Tommy Waller, the group’s founder and spiritual head. During a lunch break, a settler with yarmulke and sidelocks came to address volunteers. They keenly asked him to explain why the international community is wrong and the West Bank is not really occupied, and seemed prepared to accept what they were told. “We are not here to teach anything, just to learn,” Joshua Waller said shortly before the talk began.

To some of the volunteers, becoming settler laborers is a way of righting a historical Christian wrong. “This is a crazy time,” said Joe Trad Jr., a 23-year-old college dropout from Missouri. Over 2,000 years of contention, he said, “we saw Constantine and the Holocaust. Yet today, in this spot of the world, you have Christians and Jews for the first time with the same goal.”

The volunteers are a mix of people who, like Smith, had a mainstream Christian upbringing and were drawn to HaYovel out of curiosity; people from families that gave up the organized church to develop their own brand of religion, one they see as closer to Judaism, and some people who are emerging from personal crises.

Trad, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, went through rehab and became a Christian two years ago. He described his volunteering as a way of giving thanks “for what the Lord has done for me in my life by freeing me from these addictions.”

Aaron Hood, a 21-year-old HaYovel staff employee, comes from a Tennessee family of 14 children that gave up on any organized church and started observing the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible according to its own understanding. The family observes Saturday, not Sunday, as a rest day.

The Waller family is similar. In 1998, Tommy Waller, a FedEx manager with a Baptist background, and his wife, Sherri, a Methodist Mary Kay saleswoman, left their jobs and went to live in an Amish community in Tennessee, though they did not become Amish.

The Wallers developed their own religious approach, based on their own Scriptural interpretations, and built up an informal group of a few families who prayed and studied together. Tommy Waller visited Israel for the first time in 2004, and resolved to start an initiative to help settler farmers. He set up HaYovel and began bringing small delegations to the West Bank in 2006 — the same year that he left the Amish community. Last year, he expanded the operation, bringing in 300 instead of his normal retinue of fewer than 100. He hopes to reach 400 this year.

HaYovel’s religious devotion to settlers means that the organization is welcome even in the West Bank’s most ideological settlements — places that generally like to preserve a tight-knit, exclusively Jewish community.

The group does have some opponents who fear that HaYovel is not honest when it denies any missionary agenda. Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of Beit El, rejects any joint Jewish-Christian ventures. He spoke to the Forward about his opposition to the group. This past summer, residents of Har Bracha near Nablus protested the presence of HaYovel members to the village secretariat. The controversy died down quickly when residents learned that the settlement’s rabbi, Eliezer Melamed, a hard-liner who has sworn not to accept Christian donations for his yeshiva, had ruled that HaYovel is “not working to convert us, God forbid, rather, to strengthen us.”

Aside from the ministry’s reverence for Jews, the other factor making it welcome in settlements is simple economics.

Settler wineries are flourishing. Eshkol Hazahav, one of Israel’s most prestigious wine-tasting competitions, awarded West Bank settlement wineries a record seven of its 50 prizes in 2010. But settler wineries tend to be smaller than those on the other side of the Green Line that divides the occupied West Bank from Israel’s pre-1967 boundary. The settlers complain that margins can be tight — especially as many of them, for ideological reasons, refuse to employ Palestinians, who will generally work for less money than Jews.

HaYovel’s volunteers work for long stints, sometimes up to three months, providing hundreds of hours of free labor at the busy seasons of the grape-growing year. They choose vineyards, and only vineyards, to deploy their help because farming them is particularly labor-intensive, and because they are mentioned specifically in biblical prophecy. In the latest trip, which ended on March 20, 35 volunteers pruned a total of 100 acres of vines at Psagot, Shiloh and elsewhere. “It takes a lot of expenses off farmers, who are struggling in this area,” said Nir Lavi, owner of the Har Bracha Winery.

The HaYovel faithful are well aware of strong anti-settlement lobbies among both Jews and Christians. During their latest volunteer stint, Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal pro-Israel writer, published a controversial New York Times op-ed piece calling on supporters of Israel to boycott settlement products (and proactively patronize other products from Israel) in order to increase pressure for a two-state solution that he sees as crucial for ensuring Israel’s future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

Meanwhile, just a short distance from the vineyards that HaYovel members were tending, a conference in Bethlehem called Christ at the Checkpoint convened 300 Christian leaders, academics and activists to discuss how, in their view, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank violates Christian values.

HaYovel responds to such viewpoints with two words: covenant and prophesy.

Tommy Waller insists that his ministry bears no antagonism toward Palestinians, whom it wants to see living peacefully in the West Bank. But he insists that the biblical promise to give the Israelites the Land of Israel, and various prophecies, justify Jewish rule there. Given the significance of West Bank sites to Jewish history, he argues that demanding an end to Jewish rule in the West Bank is akin to “anti-Semitism.”

“If you take away Shechem [Nablus], Beit El, Shiloh and Hebron — places where Jewish identity came to being,” asked Waller, “is there still a Jewish identity?”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.