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Program Examines Why Christians Should Support Israel

June 21, 2007 By:
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Rev. Peter T. Manzo
The Rev. Peter T. Manzo admitted that he hasn't always been enamored with the modern State of Israel. For many years, he viewed the Jewish nation "as an intrusion into the indigenous life of the Middle East."

"Millions of Eastern European immigrants had simply bullied the Middle Eastern natives out of their homes," he continued. "If the Jews needed a homeland, let it be carved out of Germany and Eastern Europe. So I thought when I left college in 1968."

Speaking at a program titled "Why Christians Should Support Israel" at Temple Beth Hillel/ Beth El in Wynnewood, the one-time deputy public advocate for New Jersey and current religious leader of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Cherry Hill, N.J., described his "conversion" from critic to ardent supporter.

It happened back in 1985, when Manzo -- who would go on to become a founding member of the Philadelphia area-based Interfaith Task Force for America and Israel -- visited the Jewish state for the first time with a Christian delegation.

This was about the same time that his reading of the Bible began to shift from an allegorical to a more literal interpretation, an approach more often associated with Evangelical, rather than the so-called "mainline" -- or political and socially liberal -- Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal Church.

'Light Unto the Gentiles'

"Mystically, subtly, Jesus had become such a part of me that I had felt at home in his home," said Manzo, explaining that his reasons for becoming a Zionist were more theological than geopolitical.

"Israel is an incarnation -- just as Jesus said he was. Israel as both a land and a people, endured in God's care and purpose to be a light unto the gentiles."

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El and Rev. William Harter, minister of the Presbyterian Church of Falling Spring in Chambersburg, Pa., also took part in the interfaith dialogue, offering very different reasons as to why they believe Christians of all denominations should whole-heartedly back the Jewish state.

Cooper made his pitch primarily on humanitarian grounds, stating that Israel and Zionism provided a safe haven for a people literally facing existential extinction in the Diaspora.

"No longer was Israel this theoretical place that when the Messiah comes we would like to inhabit. That wasn't what modern Zionism was about," said Cooper. "What motivated modern Zionism was this: We needed someplace to go because we were not safe there."

Harter -- a founding member of the Nation Council of Churches Committee on Christian Jewish Relations -- argued that Israel is a bastion of democracy and pluralism in a region that's plagued by authoritarian rule and rising currents of Islamic extremism, which threaten numerous religious minorities.

But in many ways, all three presenters were preaching to the choir. That's because the audience was comprised almost entirely of Jews -- and a staunchly pro-Israel crowd at that.

Rochelle Wolf, chair of the synagogue's Israel advocacy Committee, which sponsored the program with a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that religious leaders and congregants from roughly 30 area churches had been invited to attend.

In the end, only about half-a-dozen members of the Christian faith turned out, according to Wolf. She speculated on a number of possible reasons for the low turnout, ranging from the event's timing to the fact that it took place in a synagogue.

In recent years, as Israel has faced consistent international condemnation for its response to terrorism, construction of the security barrier and handling of the Second Lebanon War, Evangelical Christians have, by and large, remained steadfast in their support for Israel.

However, among mainline Protestant denominations -- including Presbyterians and Episcopalians -- relations with the Jewish community have been strained by efforts to divest from Israel.

In 2005, following the lead of the worldwide Anglican Church, the executive council of Episcopal Church USA, considered a motion to divest from Israel for perceived human-rights abuses. That motion was defeated.

Then, in 2004, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from companies doing business with Israel, a move that sparked both a backlash within its own ranks and attempts by other Protestant denominations -- including the Lutherans -- to follow suit. At its 2006 general assembly, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a motion that, while not striking the earlier resolution from the books, essentially put a halt to the divestment process.

Harter -- who strongly opposed the divestment movement in the Presbyterian church -- said that those within his denomination who supported divestment misread the reality in the Middle East by internalizing the paradigm of Israel as the oppressor.

He argued that throughout the Middle East, religious minorities such as Sufi Muslims, Druze and Coptic Christians, are being increasingly marginalized by the growth of Islamic extremism, and that for all its problems, Israel still represents the best manifestation in the region of coexistence among religious groups.

"All over the Middle East, this is the issue," explained Harter -- "whether there can be an authentic pluralism, or whether Islamic triumphalism will succeed in oppressing that pluralism."

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