As 2000 nears, Christian backing of Israel intensifies

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NEW YORK — When Gershon Solomon spoke recently in Orlando, Fla., about rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, a woman approached him and gave him a gold watch.

"Here, take it. This is the gold for the Temple. Take it to Jerusalem," she told him.

Solomon, the leader of the Temple Mount Faithful, a Jerusalem-based group dedicated to rebuilding the Temple, recently conducted a six-week fund-raising tour of North America during which he spoke almost exclusively to Christian audiences.

His visit, one of several organized by Christians for him in the past few years, comes as Christian-Jewish alliances, and, in particular, evangelical Christian support for Jewish causes, continues to grow.

The end of centuries is often fertile ground for apocalyptic movements. But as the year 2000 approaches, this is the first time that so many Christians and Jews have worked so closely together, according to Richard Landes, the head of Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies.

Political changes, such as the establishment of the Jewish state and the recapture of eastern Jerusalem, have led to a groundswell of support for Israel among fundamentalist Christians — of whom there are an estimated 40 million in America, according to Landes — accounting for what he calls "one of the most unusual and powerful alliances in modernity."

This support makes some uneasy.

"During apocalyptic times, Christians have a tendency to be philo-Semitic," said Landes, a history professor. "They believe that if they love Jews, they will convert. That's the equivalent of a high school crush."

But alliances between fundamentalist Christians and their Jewish partners could prove disastrous if the coming apocalypse fails to meet the Christians' expectations, Landes asserts.

"When the disillusionment comes, you end up with apocalyptic scapegoating, 'We weren't wrong — the Jews have betrayed us again,'" he said.

Landes has traced what he believes to be some of the earliest anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe to disappointment over the failure of an apocalypse in the year 1000.

The specifics of the Christians' so-called End Time can vary, but the scenario goes something like this:

Jesus returns to earth and fights a seven-year battle with the forces of the Antichrist.

It is during this time that "infidels" are slaughtered. Christians, including all who have converted, are spared the battle because they will be raptured — taken directly to heaven — before the fighting begins.

After Jesus' forces triumph, he rules for 1,000 years, after which the final battle between good and evil — the Armageddon — occurs. God then destroys the forces of evil, and the final judgment takes place.

Christian support for Israel has translated to real dollars in recent years. This year alone, evangelical Christians will give approximately $10 million to fund Jewish immigration to Israel through traditional American Jewish philanthropy.

Perhaps the most prominent Jewish-Christian alliance is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

According to its founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the group has donated more than $20 million to the Jewish Agency for Israel during the past five years to help resettle Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union in Israel. The group has an estimated 130,000 donors, 95 percent of them Christians, Eckstein said.

On Solomon's six-week trip, which included stops in Ohio, Texas, Florida, Idaho and Michigan, Solomon was hosted by Christian families.

"I was excited again and again at how many Christians in this country love Israel," Solomon said.

Solomon and his hosts share a core set of beliefs: a hawkish view toward Israel's security, a belief that the apocalypse is nearing if not imminent, and a Bible-derived love for the Jewish state.

"I'm happy to love Israel and happy to love the Jews because the Bible tells me to," said one of Solomon's hosts, Dick Saulsbury of Odessa, Texas.

Saulsbury admits that he and Solomon don't see eye to eye on what will happen if the apocalypse does begin. Saulsbury admits that the differences "bother me some," he said. "We would love" for the Jews "to become Christian, but that's between them and God."

So the men stay focused on their common love for Israel.

"Their eyes are lifted toward Jerusalem, and they are so jealous" of Jews living in the Holy Land, Solomon said. "That's what missing in the Jewish community."