How Christian evangelical money and Biblical prophecy are driving immigration to Israel
After days of despair and uncertainty came some welcome news: the Israeli government would allow some 300 Ethiopians stranded in Gondar since early February to come to Israel. Their flight to Tel Aviv had received special permission to take off, they were told, even though Ben-Gurion Airport had been shuttered during the latest coronavirus lockdown.
What had yet to be determined was who would cover the costs of bringing these new immigrants over.
After failing to get a firm commitment from its regular donors in the Jewish Diaspora, the Jewish Agency – the quasi-governmental organization responsible for aliyah – put in a call to its evangelical friends. This proved to be a smart move: The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem agreed on the spot to hand over $1,300 for each immigrant on board the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that landed in Israel on February 12.
It would be one of the final flights in Operation Rock of Israel, a major airlift of Ethiopian immigrants that has brought over roughly 2,000 members of the Falashmura community (descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity about a century ago) since December.
Many of these new immigrants, like those on this particular flight, had both their airfare and other relocation costs covered by evangelical groups – a fact left out of most of the official government announcements about the operation.
Funding aliyah – the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland – was once deemed a sacred cause for Jewish organizations in the Diaspora. But as Jewish philanthropy to Israel continues to dry up, and with it donations earmarked for aliyah, Christian groups are increasingly stepping into the void with undisguised energy and zeal.
“Christian Zionists,” as they like to refer to themselves, tend to be deeply devout and very conservative, and funding aliyah not only dovetails with their political agenda, but also with their religious beliefs. Contributing to the ingathering of the exiles provides these evangelicals with an opportunity, as they see it, to participate in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy by helping Jews make the journey to Israel. When asked to explain the motivation for their efforts, many will recite by heart passages in the Bible that command them to do so.
Many also believe that the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ, an event meant to be preceded – though they tend not to dwell on this point – by the great battle of Armageddon, in which all nonbelievers, like the Jews, will be wiped out.
Christian engagement in aliyah is not a new development. Indeed, as far back as 30 years ago, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, evangelical organizations began providing assistance to Jews leaving the former Soviet Union for Israel.
But it was on a rather small scale back then, at least relative to the sums being raised by the organizations traditionally tasked with this mission – the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. (The latter is responsible for raising donations for Israel from the rest of the world.)
A shift has been underway in recent years, with the evangelical community assuming a larger share of the burden. And it’s not only Christians in the United States and Europe who are opening their wallets: More and more donations in recent years are coming from organizations and churches in countries with no Jewish communities to speak of, such as China, South Korea, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. They even include Indonesia and Malaysia, two Muslim-majority countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.
Stories of ‘lost tribes’
Despite its name, the Aliyah Korea Movement does not promote aliyah from South Korea. After all, there is hardly a Jewish community in the country. Instead, it helps Jews from other places move to Israel. When asked what prompted his decision to establish this organization a little over a year ago, Pastor Sang Gil Jang said he was “moved to tears” while reading passages in the Bible about the ingathering of the exiles.
“After I read the scripture, I inquired with the Israeli ambassador at the time and asked him how I could help the aliyah movement,” he recounts in a conversation with Haaretz, speaking from his Songdo Jusarang Church on the western outskirts of Seoul. “He introduced me to the Jewish Agency, and my group pledged to help 300 Jews make aliyah.”
His organization ended up raising $350,000, which was more than enough to help bring 300 French Jews to Israel. With the leftover money, he says, they were also able to fund a recent flight of 120 immigrants from Kazakhstan.
His congregants, Jang reports, are now busy raising money to facilitate the aliyah of other members of the Falashmura community, as well as the Bnei Menashe – a group based in northeastern India that claims ancestry from the lost Israelite tribes. (Neither the Falashmura nor the Bnei Menashe are recognized as Jewish by Israel’s religious authorities and are, therefore, required to undergo conversion upon arrival in the country.)
Explaining the motivation of his donors, the Korean pastor says: “We as Christians are blessed with salvation from Jesus and our Lord, God. Therefore, we are obliged to bless Israel and to participate in the process of fulfilling the prophecy preparing the way for the Messiah to come back.”
Butch Maltby, a U.S.-based evangelical consultant with long-standing ties to Israeli government agencies, notes that stories of lost tribes, like the Bnei Menashe, resonate deeply with Christian donors.
“For those that are Israel-oriented, it’s extremely exciting to hear about these new groups being discovered,” says Maltby, who lives in North Carolina and often travels to Israel.
He acknowledges that some evangelicals are motivated by a desire to see “the return of the Messiah,” but insists it’s not the case for everyone. “At the end of the day, the motivation is as simple as God said to love, respect, appreciate and support Israel, and so people giving for aliyah purposes are making an effort to do that,” he says.
‘Convergence of interests’
Evangelical donors tend to focus their fundraising efforts on the neediest potential immigrants, such as the Falashmura, the Bnei Menashe and, especially, individuals deemed eligible for aliyah from the former Soviet bloc. The Bnei Menashe is the only group among them whose aliyah is organized and overseen by a private organization rather than the Jewish Agency. This private organization, Shavei Israel, receives a considerable share, if not the bulk, of its funding from evangelicals.
Last year, following a relatively long hiatus, the Israeli government gave Shavei Israel permission to resume its aliyah program, and 250 members of the Bnei Menashe community immigrated to Israel in December. In a message thanking his donors, the organization’s founder, Michael Freund, noted how vital they were to his mission. “This aliyah was also the fruit of efforts by a wide range of Christian Zionists and lovers of Israel around the world,” he wrote. “International groups such as Christians for Israel, Bridges for Peace, Ebenezer Operation Exodus, the ICEJ and Shalom Asia Pacific, as well as many Christians from Scandinavia to Seoul, poured out their hearts in prayer and provided support to carry the sons of daughters of the Bnei Menashe back to Zion just as Isaiah (49:22) foretold.”
The global pandemic made 2020 an unusually slow year for aliyah. According to the Jewish Agency, only 20,000 immigrants arrived in Israel last year – down 40 percent from the previous year. Based on data collected from the main Christian groups involved in funding aliyah, at least a third of these immigrants made the journey to Israel with their financial help. Not only did these groups cover and subsidize the costs of airfare, but on many occasions they also financed relocation expenses, such as the two-week-mandated stay in coronavirus hotels.
It is difficult to obtain precise figures on the amount of money raised from evangelicals for aliyah – mainly because the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod, two organizations through which large amounts of it are funneled, are reluctant to share all of the data.
The Jewish Agency traditionally relies on two main sources of funding for its overall activities: the Jewish federations in North America and Keren Hayesod. In the early years of the state and during the period of mass emigration from the former Soviet Union, aliyah was by far its biggest spending item.
With immigration down dramatically in recent decades, the amount of money the Jewish Agency allocates to aliyah has dropped accordingly, but the share accounted for by Christian groups has been growing consistently, according to sources familiar with the organization’s fundraising work.
The federations do not raise money from Christians, but Keren Hayesod does – in fact, increasingly so over the past 15 years. Figures made available to Haaretz show that Keren Hayesod raised close to $10 million last year from Christian donors (about 5 percent of its total donations). Of the money it handed over to the Jewish Agency last year, about $8 million was earmarked for aliyah activities. In other words, funds raised from Christians more than covered the amount designated for aliyah.
The Israeli government funds a large share of the benefits provided to new immigrants once they arrive in the country. The reason it has always refrained from funding the flights and other on-the-ground activities aimed at assisting new immigrants before they arrive in the country is not for lack of cash but rather, out of concern for its diplomatic relations with other countries: It would not look good if the government were actively engaged in encouraging Jewish citizens of other countries to pick up and leave. The Jewish Agency, which is not an official arm of the government, was, therefore, seen as a better choice to take on this role.
Promoting aliyah is one of the key missions of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises money almost exclusively from evangelicals. Founded in the late 1980s by the late Yechiel Eckstein, a Modern Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, the Fellowship used to hand over $12 million a year to the Jewish Agency to finance aliyah-related activities. About seven years ago, Eckstein pulled his money out – angry that the Jewish Agency was not giving him or his donors the credit and publicity he felt they deserved – and set up his own aliyah operation.
Following this fallout, the Jewish Agency set up its own in-house unit for fundraising among Christians, an effort increasingly focused on the Far East. According to sources familiar with these activities, the Jewish Agency raises $4 to $5 million a year directly from Christians through this unit.
Those engaged in this type of fundraising work often cite a “convergence of interests.”
“We were looking for ways to cover our expenses, and these Christians came along and wanted to give us money,” says a senior official familiar with the Jewish Agency’s fundraising work, describing the dynamic. “So we figured: why not take it?”
The Jewish Agency’s financial woes stem from the ongoing drop in funding it receives from the Jewish federations. Over the past 20 years, according to well-placed sources, the amount of money the federations have handed over to the Jewish Agency for its core budget – the source of most of its spending on aliyah – has declined by more than 60 percent, down to slightly more than $70 million this past year. The reason the federations are cutting back is because they, too, are hurting: Young American Jews are less inclined to donate to their local federation these days, and those who do prefer to see their money go to local Jewish needs rather than Israel.
When they do give money to Israel, many donors prefer to direct their charity to specific groups and causes they support, rather than funnel it through the federation system. And these causes are rarely related to aliyah.
Yael Eckstein, who took over the Fellowship after the sudden death of her father two years ago, explains the drop in support for aliyah among Jewish donors this way: “In the past, Jews around the world felt a moral, spiritual and religious responsibility to tend to Israel’s needs. What we’ve been seeing lately is that they’re increasingly focused on local causes, so while Jewish funding for Israel is drying up, Christian funding has either continued as normal or increased.”
Taxi service to the airport
The Ebenezer Fund was among the first Christian organizations to provide financial support to aliyah. Back in the early ’90s, at the start of the mass influx from the former Soviet Union, it would charter ships from Odessa to Haifa that transported immigrants to Israel’s shores. A key motivation at the time, says Hinrich Kaasmann, chairman of the group’s German chapter, was guilt over the Holocaust.
Back then, he recounts, offers of assistance from Christian organizations like his were met with “absolute suspicion and public opposition” by the Jewish Agency and Israeli authorities.
“That has since changed into a real partnership,” Kaasmann says.
Among the Christian organizations that fund aliyah, Eckstein’s Fellowship, which raises some $140 million a year, is by far the biggest and best-known. Unlike the Fellowship, the others – prominent among them the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, Ebenezer Fund, Christians For Israel and Ezra – do not run their own aliyah operations or charter their own flights. Rather, they suffice with sending checks to the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod.
Many of these groups also maintain on-the-ground operations that offer material support and encouragement to potential immigrants, working closely with local Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) and often serving as shlichim in their own right. Among other activities, they help organize aliyah fairs and cover travel, lodging and other expenses related to the aliyah application process.
In some cases, they even pay for DNA tests so that aliyah applicants can prove their Jewish ancestry. The German Ebenezer Fund, says Kaasmann, regularly purchases new clothing for Ethiopian immigrants to ensure that they arrive in Israel “with dignity.”
Headquartered in the Netherlands, Christians for Israel has a team of 20 staffers who work closely with Jewish Agency envoys based in Ukraine – a major supplier of immigrants to Israel in recent years.
“We give out food parcels or meals-on-wheels to over 30 Jewish communities across Ukraine. This way, we meet thousands of people. In all of the communities we visit, we talk to them about the option of aliyah,” says spokeswoman Sara van Oordt-Jonckheere. “Some of them don’t see it as an option, some change their minds after years.” Others, she says, have “no clue” this option exists for them.
Once prospective immigrants decide they want to make the move to Israel, she says, the Jewish Agency provides them with their details. “Then our local staff in Ukraine bring them to the consulate or embassy and help them with getting their papers in order, and in the end we bring them to the airport.”
Although Ukraine is their most established base of operations, she notes that her group helps with aliyah from many other countries as well, including Ethiopia.
Through its independent aliyah operation, the Fellowship not only charters flights but also provides every immigrant that comes through its offices with a $1,000 check and an extra baggage allowance.
From Texas to China
Evangelical assistance doesn’t end when the immigrants reach their destination. Yehuda Scharf, the former director of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department, notes that various programs and facilities run by the organization have been saved from closure in recent years thanks to evangelical donors. Ibim, a well-known absorption center in southern Israel, where many Ethiopians spend their first year in the country, was almost shuttered a few years ago for lack of funding, he notes. “There was this very wealthy Texas oil woman at the time visiting Israel, and I took her to Ibim,” he recounts. “When she saw what we were doing there, and I told her the place was about to shut down, she burst into tears and on the spot wrote a check for a few million dollars.”
Christian donations, he says, have also saved some of the Jewish Agency’s Hebrew-language ulpan programs based on kibbutzim.
“When donations from Jewish people are declining, we have no choice,” explains Scharf, noting that it’s not unusual for wealthy individual donors to come through with such large checks. “A couple of years ago, while on a trip to Ethiopia, I met a Chinese donor who handed over a check for $1 million to help us with the immigration from Ethiopia,” he says.
Maltby points to another recent trend in Christian funding of aliyah: the proliferation of what he describes as “mom and pop” nonprofits. “We’re talking about small organizations with less than $100,000 in annual revenues organized around this issue,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll get a pastor and his wife who make a trip to Israel, and it really hooks their hearts. They come back home and try to help Israel anyway they can.”
‘Outsourcing Zionism to Christians’
Yet many in the Jewish world still find the idea of accepting money from Christians to promote immigration to Israel repugnant. Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was an early critic of Yechiel Eckstein’s, and hasn’t changed his mind since. The Jewish world’s growing reliance on Christian money to finance aliyah is “offensive and disheartening,” he says.
“For us not to be able to fulfill that minimal Zionist goal of bringing the Jews to Israel who want to come, and leaning on Christians to do it, is giving up on our Zionism,” Foxman says. “This is what Zionism is supposed to be. Why else do we have a Zionist Jewish state? If we have to outsource Zionism to the Christians, then we’ve failed in what we’re all about.”
Jewish world leaders, he says, need to be more skeptical about the motives of those Christians who are so passionate about aliyah.
“When evangelical Christians say they need us there, that they need Jews in Israel and they need the country to be strong, we know why. It’s for the second coming of the Messiah,” Foxman says. “So, you know what? I don’t think Jews should go to Israel for the second coming of the Messiah.”
Those in Foxman’s camp point to a recent scandal involving an alleged missionizing organization as evidence of what can go wrong when the Jewish Agency lets its guard down.
Return Ministries, a Canadian “mom and pop” charity that professes to “partner with God in the return of his people to their land,” reached an agreement with the Jewish Agency five years ago that allowed its Christian volunteers to run a center in the Galilee located on Jewish Agency property.
This center provides housing and other forms of assistance to new immigrants and soldiers without families in Israel. The Jewish Agency had been unaware at the time, it later said, that the mission of Return Ministry included spreading the gospel of Jesus among Jews. After it was called out by an anti-missionary group, the Jewish Agency canceled its contract with the group in January.
Keren Hayesod issued the following statement in response to questions about its fundraising activities among evangelicals: “For the past 100 years, Keren Hayesod has been working for the development of the State of Israel and for the advancement of Israeli society in various sectors.
“For years, Jewish communities around the world have been partners in building the country. In the last 15 years, Christians, who love Israel, from all over the world have joined our efforts. These friends of Israel contribute to social projects, particularly in aliyah and absorption in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. These areas of interest reflect their values and ideology. Keren Hayesod does not work with messianic organizations and is against any missionary activity. The friends of Israel that Keren Hayesod works with are interested in strengthening the State of Israel, fighting against boycotts of Israel and promoting solidarity in Israeli society. Each year we are seeing increases in the support of our Christian friends. In addition to their donations, they also visit Israel, increasing tourism and use all the platforms at their disposal to advocate for our country.”
The Jewish Agency responded that it “carries out its aliyah responsibilities with support from our two main partners – the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod, along with other Jewish donors, as well as budget from joint programs with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry. The Jewish Agency is also grateful for the support of Christian friends of Israel who donate to specific aliyah projects. Support from Christian organizations has been steady over recent years and there continues to be tremendous support for aliyah from the global Jewish people.”