The Israeli Tourism Ministry is threatening to block the Rev. Pat Robertson’s plan for an evangelical center alongside the Sea of Galilee, after the televangelist suggested last week that Prime Minister Sharon’s stroke was a punishment from God.
“We cannot do business with him after these words,” ministry spokesman Ido Hartuv told the Forward. “We have to rethink the agreement with him.”
The Tourism Ministry reportedly has been working with a group of investors, led by Robertson, who want to open a center on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in the vicinity of a number of Christian holy sites. According to Hartuv, the Israeli government was prepared to offer the land for the center free of charge — until Robertson spoke out last week on his television program, “The 700 Club.”
“The Prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who ‘divide my land,’” Robertson said during the January 5 broadcast. He then suggested that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated for the same reason. “It was a terrible thing to happen,” Robertson said, “but nevertheless he was dead and now Ariel Sharon… he’s at the point of death.”
Robertson drew swift condemnations from Israelis, American Jews and some fellow evangelical leaders, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke, were the judgments of God,” Land declared in a statement posted on his Web site.
Robertson has been accused in the past by some critics of trafficking in antisemitic imagery, and he has been criticized for funding efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. Until now, however, the Israeli government and some major Jewish groups have worked with him because of his vocal support for the Jewish state and his strong condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. The debate over the legitimacy of dealing with Robertson has mirrored a wider debate over the degree to which Jewish groups should work with evangelicals on Israel-related matters, given their efforts to lower church-state and other protections.
Though Israel may now decide that Robertson is no longer kosher, Hartuv stressed that the Tourism Ministry was upset only with the televangelist, not with the wider evangelical community. “They are very welcome to do business with Israel,” Hartuv said.
But Yuri Shtern, founder and co-chairman of the Knesset Christian Alliance Coalition, criticized the ministry’s decision, saying that it penalized all evangelicals for Robertson’s behavior. “In no way should it be conditional on the good political behavior or quality of remarks by different community and spiritual leaders,” said Shtern, a member of the right-wing National Union Party. Shtern opposed the Gaza pullout, saying that it would end up fueling terrorism.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and chairman of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, suggested that the Tourism Ministry might have had an ulterior motive for freezing the project. “The plan never had legs to begin with,” Eckstein said. “There was never a commitment by Pat to buy into this and put it together.” He called the Tourism Ministry’s decision “a disingenuous move.”
According to The Associated Press, plans for the project included an auditorium, a broadcast center and a chapel, as well as a series of paths to connect holy sites.
Hartuv said his ministry planned to give the land, which is government owned, to the group for free. “There is nothing there,” he said. “It will bring tourists. They will visit Israel and bring a lot of income.” He estimated that, if completed, the center would bring 1 million tourists a year and add $2.2 billion to the economy.
Hartuv said the Tourism Ministry was looking to pursue the plan for the Christian center with other evangelical leaders. During his conversation with the Forward, he even held out the possibility that Robertson could explain his way back into the ministry’s good graces: “We just want to find out what are the reasons for his statement. Maybe we didn’t get him like he meant to be.”
However, Hartuv added, “If it’s true, it’s very serious.”
The plan for the Christian center was part of an ongoing effort by the Tourism Ministry to lure more evangelical Christian tourists to Israel. The outreach effort peaked while the ministry was headed by former National Union chief Benny Elon, a settler leader who actively encouraged evangelical opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plans.
According to David Prince, a spokesman at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, the Tourism Ministry previously bought airtime on Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network to promote travel to Israel. Prince said that the ministry currently has no advertising budget for the coming year and has not decided whether it would again buy airtime on Robertson’s network.
Christian Broadcast Network spokesperson Angell Watts said, “We have not talked to the Israelis on this subject.” Watts added: “We continue to maintain our longstanding commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, America’s largest evangelical magazine, said that he did not expect the controversy to have serious repercussions for evangelical tourism in Israel.
“Israeli tourism depends heavily on American Christians for business, and there are many other ways for the Israelis to reach those potential tourists apart from Pat Robertson,” Neff said. “They will want to keep that clientele coming, and they could turn to other vehicles to get those tourists.” He wryly added, “I say that as the editor of a magazine that carries lots of ads for the Israeli tourism industry.”
With reporting by Ori Nir