Interfaith pep rally for Israel rocks the Forum

Karen Lyons kept smacking my leg and acting as if she was going to jump out of her seat. She’s a church-going Christian from Pacific Palisades, married to atemple-attending Jew, and she’s prone to such reactions when asked why she loves Israel and what she thinks of those who criticize its actions.

“It makes me physically ill, because that is not the Word of God. God have mercy on their souls because they are ignorant,” she said. “He says pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! That is where he is coming back!”

Such faith — the kind that Lyons said prevents her from voting for a presidential candidate who would promote a peace process that included dividing the Holy City — was what drew her last week to the last major local celebration of Israel’s 60th birthday.

On May 21, about 5,000 people streamed into the Forum in Inglewood, once the house of worship for the Lakers and now that of Faithful Central Bible Church, for a three-hour ceremony honoring three “Heroes of Israel” retired from the military: Col. Shimon Cahaner, who was senior commander during the 1967 capture of East Jerusalem; Brig. Gen. Dov Tamari, the first chief intelligence officer; and Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who was chief of staff during the second intifada.

“We are strong because of the spirit, the spirit which inspires me tonight here in Los Angeles,” Yaalon said, noting Israel’s achievements in science, technology, agriculture and the military. “The spirit of Judaism, Christianity, the faiths who believe in God and believe in good and believe in compassion, fighting the evil, those who are trying to destroy the State of Israel.”

The event was hosted by the Israel Christian Nexus, its biggest gathering in years, and was sponsored by the Israeli consulate, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a plentitude of local synagogues and churches. Christian clergy offered prayers in Hebrew, a Jewish choir sang “Avram Avinu” in Ladino and Christian speakers reminded Jews over and over that they were God’s first love, that salvation came to the world through David’s offspring and, by extension, that every good Christian considers them spiritual brethren.

“I love God; I love Israel; I love the Israeli people,” the Rev. Billy Ingram, of Maranatha Community Church, proclaimed.

With shofars blowing constantly throughout, philo-Semites waving plastic blue-and-white flags and regular interruptions from raucous applause, the celebration felt a lot like a pep rally for a league-winning sports team.

I wasn’t sure all the children of Jacob in the crowd knew what to make of the outpouring. After all, the shouts they were hearing of “hallelujah” and “amen” were coming from Christians.

Sure, no group has proven more essential to American support for Israel than evangelical Christians, but the relationship between Jews and their apostate neighbors — or vice versa depending on the perspective — has been filled with many more moments of tension than transcendence: the Crusades, countless expulsions from European countries, passion plays and blood libels and pogroms, not to mention the Holocaust.

“I grew up in a world in which it would have been absolutely unfathomable that I would stand at a podium in a Christian house of worship, embracing Christian colleagues,” said Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid of the South Bay, the evening’s emcee. “The world has changed, ladies and gentlemen.”

Indeed it has, evident in the two dominant strands of Christianity regarding God’s chosen. While Catholics, Orthodox Christians and many in liberal mainline denominations believe Jews stopped being the elect when they rejected Jesus as lord and savior, evangelicals hold that the Tribe remains the apple of God’s eye and that it is the duty of Christians to defend Israel and redeem Jewish souls.

“God brought Israel into being. It is part of his eternal plan, and anyone who doesn’t love Israel doesn’t love God — plain and simple,” Jim Tolle, pastor of The Church on the Way, a 20,000-member congregation in Van Nuys, said before the celebration began. He added, “I want Jews to love the idea of the messiah as is spoken of in the Prophets. I know him as Jesus Christ.”

Christian Zionism has not been without controversy, though, because it’s based on the belief that Jesus will not return until the Jews are back home, which — as was recently revealed — led the Rev. John Hagee, the influential leader of Christians United for Israel, to say in one sermon that Adolf Hitler was anointed by God to prod the Jews back to Palestine. (The release of this statement prompted Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain to repudiate Hagee, whose endorsement he had embraced.)

But, in general, Israel has welcomed support from the American Christian community, partially because the two have a common enemy in Islamic extremism and a common struggle in the existential fight for Israel’s survival.

“Tonight we send a steadfast message: Evildoers and your followers, you will never win!” Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan shouted. “Today, for the first time in perhaps 2,000 years, we are seeing that we are no longer dealing with Jews vs. Christians but good vs. evil, humanity vs. brutality, freedom vs. tyranny and love of life vs. the glorification of death.”

“To our brothers and sisters in the Christian community, I want to thank you for your support. It is a testament to your love and to your faith,” he added. “By herself, Israel is strong, but with your support, Israel is almighty!”