Only religion-beat professionals used to know about the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Israel that was more Christian than Jewish and involved all sorts of odd folks waving Israeli flags on the streets of Jerusalem.
Fortunately, The Atlantic sent Emma Green to cover the 2017 version of this Sukkot festival with the angle that these days it’s not just American evangelicals populating the place -- 90 percent of the crowd is made up of internationals. And that the local Jewish population is truly OK with them being there.
From the front lines of a conference center in Jerusalem, here's what she wrote:
JERUSALEM -- The scene was like a contemporary Christian music concert, but with a lot more Jewish swag. European pilgrims wore Star of David jewelry as they swayed among the palm trees of Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judean desert. Spanish delegates sported matching “España loves Israel” T-shirts. A tiny woman from China jogged around waving a person-sized flag bearing a Hebrew word for God, while another Chinese woman periodically blew a giant shofar, the ram’s horn that is sacred in Judaism. The crowd sang songs from the Psalms, following transliterated Hebrew on giant television screens. As night fell, their chorus of “holy, holy, worthy, worthy” seemed to fill the desert.
This was the opening ceremony for the 2017 Feast of the Tabernacles, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s annual celebration held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More than 6,000 Christians from all over the world had come to show their love for Israel, and I tagged along with ICEJ spokesperson David Parsons and his wife, Josepha. “It’s like a pre-celebration before Moshiach comes,” she explained, using the Hebrew word for messiah.
I remember interviewing Parsons 17 years ago when some of us came to Jerusalem in the closing days of 1999 to record what a new millennium looked like from the Mount of Olives and to write news stories about some of the crazies who thought the Second Coming was imminent.
Christian Zionism typically involves a belief that Jews must return to Israel in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. While the movement long predates the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, it got new energy from the American religious right in the 1980s. Now, according to Daniel Hummel, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the movement is undergoing a transformation, both theologically and geographically.
The ICEJ Feast is an example of a broader shift within Christian Zionism toward Pentecostal or charismatic traditions: Many attendees come out of traditions that emphasize present-day miracles, ecstatic worship, and God’s healing powers. The ICEJ also has an international rather than American focus: Parsons, an amiable North Carolinian who has lived in Israel for decades and casually uses Yiddish phrases like “oy oy oy,” proudly noted that Americans made up less than 10 percent of the Feast’s attendees this year.
First, a personal note: I wish reporters would quit using the word “ecstatic” when describing charismatic worship, as most charismatics and Pentecostals I know would hardly describe ecstasy as a common Sunday-morning experience.
Anyway, the rest of the piece builds the case that while American evangelical Protestants may have flown the Zionist flag in the 20th century, there’s a much more formidable international presence these days at the Feast.
Many of the delegates came from countries that explicitly oppose Israeli policies. On the day of the Jerusalem March, when thousands of Feast participants parade through the city, a group from South Africa wore T-shirts declaring, “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “the People of Israel lives.” A year ago, the South African delegation to UNESCO -- the United Nations body that protects the world’s cultural heritage -- voted for a resolution that implicitly denied the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, a contested holy site in Jerusalem. (This month, the United States and Israel both announced decisions to leave UNESCO over this and other related issues.)
This may be one reason why the Israeli government bothers to confer its blessing on the Feast: This year, as in the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared his greeting via a taped message.
“The future investment the state is doing is hoping that these groups end up actually representing important players in their own countries,” Hummel said.
Herein lies a major fault with this piece: It’s based mostly on the theories of this one college professor from Wisconsin. Is there anyone in the Israeli government who could support this theory? We don’t get any Israeli representative on either side of the Atlantic who speaks to this. A taped message from Netanyahu is pretty underwhelming, in terms of a political statement.
Green’s visit to Jerusalem bears out Hummel’s theories to a point. Still, how long is it going to take the viewpoints of visitors from Angola to Norway to ascend to those who govern them?
It may take a bit longer than it did in the U.S.A., which has the world’s largest Jewish population (estimates range from 5.7 million to 6.8 million) outside of Israel. The point is made that the attendees love the idea of Jewishness but wouldn’t know what to do with an actual Jew if they met one.
None of the people I met said they had any interaction with Arabs during their visit to Israel, except for the delegation of 20-something women from Samoa, who had befriended a Muslim woman at their hostel. Few Feast attendees said they had interacted with Jews in Israel, either, outside of the occasional tour guide or Messianic Jews, people who claim Jewish heritage and practice but embrace Christian teachings. Other than speakers and presenters, Jews do not attend the ICEJ’s annual event.
One defense I'd make of the Christian-centric attendees is that a lot of them may be on arranged tours (as described here) that allow no interaction with the locals. My first trip to Israel involved an Arab-owned bus company, so we got a lot of interaction with Palestinians. The second visit was also a tour, but this time I was steered only towards Jewish contacts. (On my third visit, I rented a car and saw who I wanted).
For your viewing pleasure, I've included a guest editorial from The Jerusalem Post urging Israelis to notice that 47,000 Christians were in Israel over the Sukkot holiday and that their presence is starting to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 14;16 about Gentiles observing Sukkot in Israel during the messianic age.
As you can see by the photo atop this page of Asian women in a Sukkot parade, there's definitely a story here about the internationalization of Christian Zionism. I'm grateful at least one publication ran a piece about a little-known trend in Christianity that may not stay obscure much longer.
FIRST IMAGE: British Zionists in Sukkot parade. MAIN IMAGE: Photo of Christians marching in Sukkot parade by Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90 at israel21c.org.