About a decade ago, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel refused to be photographed taking a check from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. This past week, the agency accepted a hefty donation from the evangelical-backed organization and offered Eckstein a seat on two of its most powerful committees.
Eckstein’s organization and the Jewish Agency, which helped found the State of Israel, announced that IFCJ would donate $45 million to the agency over the next three years, almost all of it raised from evangelical Christians in North America. As part of the agreement, IFCJ will be declared a funding partner of the Jewish Agency. Eckstein will also receive new voting powers that will include spots on the committees that oversee the agency’s budget and that meet with the prime minister and his Cabinet.
“For the first time, Christians, who are mainly my constituency, will have a seat at the table,” Eckstein told the Forward.
The moves underscore the astonishing speed with which IFCJ and the evangelical movement in general have grown in stature as supporters of Israel. Even 10 years ago, Eckstein was shunned not only by Jewish Agency head Avraham Burg but also by many American donors.
Some Jewish leaders remain uneasy about allying themselves with evangelicals. But the support, both political and financial, seems to have proved irresistible.
As part of the agreement, which still must be approved by the Jewish Agency’s board, IFCJ will donate $15 million a year to the Jewish Agency’s core budget for immigration and resettlement, historically IFCJ priorities. This is nearly double IFCJ’s donation of $8 million last year. The IFCJ will also be described as one of the Jewish Agency’s funding partners, a status previously shared only by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for American federations, and Keren Hayesod, which represents international federations. Eckstein will also become a voting member of the executive board and will gain seats on the budget and finance committee, which makes recommendations for how the Jewish Agency allocates its funds, and the coordinating committee, which meets with the prime minister and Cabinet members. Eckstein had previously been a nonvoting member of the executive board. Both Eckstein and a Jewish Agency representative stressed that Eckstein would continue to be IFCJ’s representative on the board.
“It’s not like all of a sudden you’re going to have Pat Robertson on the committee,” Eckstein joked.
Traditionally, UJC and Keren Hayesod have supported the Jewish Agency, but support from both has been stagnant. The 2008 budget of the Jewish Agency shows a contribution of $138 million from UJC, down from $140 million the year before, and $44 million from Keren Hayesod, up slightly from $42 million the previous year. Despite contributions from Israeli philanthropists, the flat level of allocations — combined with a weakening American dollar and reduced grants from the American government — has created a looming budget crunch at the Jewish Agency.
Meanwhile, IFCJ has become an increasingly important funding partner. Funneling its contributions through Keren Hayesod, IFCJ gave $8 million to the Jewish Agency last year. Eckstein has held one of Keren Hayesod’s board seats since 2001. He is currently a nonvoting member of the executive board and has participated in committee meetings.
With a decline in funding allocations to Israel from American Jews, and studies showing declining emotional attachment as well, donations and political support from evangelical Christians have become essential to Israel.
“I think we accept, with reservations, the political involvement of the evangelical community on behalf of Israel,” said Jewish Agency board member Richard Wexler, chairman of the United Israel Appeal. “It would be rather cynical, having accepted the political help, to reject the financial assistance which has become more and more vital given the reduction in allocations and financial distributions from the federation system in America.”