As Jewish Israelis prepare for the holiday of Sukkot, an estimated five thousand Christians from dozens of countries worldwide are preparing to travel to Israel on pilgrimage for the annual eight-day Feast of Tabernacles hosted by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ).
The Feast, the largest Christian gathering in Israel, will be held from September 29 to October 6, culminating in a prayer vigil in Jerusalem and the iconic Parade of Nations. The first Feast took place in 1980 when the ICEJ opened its embassy, and it draws thousands of Christians from around the world in support of Israel.
Unfortunately, some Christian visitors will hope to use their time in the Jewish state to engage in missionary activity. The ICEJ does its best to prevent this, warning its guests to refrain from such offensive behavior. It is important to emphasize that the ICEJ has never been involved in any attempts to proselytize in Israel.
This year, the Jewish holiday and concurrent Christian event come during heightened tensions in Jewish-Christian relations, which have been rising due to fears that Christians are intensifying their efforts to proselytize Israeli Jews. In March, a law was proposed in the Knesset by the United Torah Judaism alliance that would have criminalized missionizing in Israel. In August, several Christian organizations, including the ICEJ had their requests for clergy visas denied, inhibiting them from carrying out projects that benefit Israel. Several Jewish leaders came out in unequivocal support of the organizations. In the first three weeks of July, some 17 discriminatory acts against Christians were reported across Israel, reported by independent researcher and activist Yisca Harani. They included spitting, verbal abuse, vandalism, and stone-throwing.
International Christian Embassy President Juergen Buehler addressed these tensions and their potential impact on the Feast in a webinar titled “Are Israel-Christian Relations in Crisis?” earlier this month.
“I never witnessed such hatred here in Israel,” Buehler said. “I understand that it is by a minority or fringe [group] in Israel, but I am concerned it could have an impact on the Feast [of Tabernacles], and that is something that has raised my concern.”
David Parsons, Vice President and Senior Spokesman for the ICEJ, addressed this in an op-ed in Jpost on Tuesday, noting that the Jews who object to the Christian presence do so for several reasons.
“The protesters and those who back them have expressed doubts about our friendship,” Parsons wrote. “They are afraid it is a cover for missionary activity. Others question our motives for standing with Israel, saying we are just here out of guilt for past Christian antisemitism, or we want to bring back Jesus, or – worst of all – we are out to force the Apocalypse.”
“On behalf of tens of millions of Evangelicals worldwide, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has been refuting these claims for decades, both through our words and our benevolent deeds in the land.”
Parsons makes a powerful point, pointing out that the 400-year Evangelical movement “largely was never involved in any forced conversions or acts of violent antisemitism against Jews,” though he acknowledged that “it is not easy to turn attitudes around so quickly after centuries of Christian hostility and violence towards Jews.”
“We realize the Jewish people went through a long, hard journey of exile among the nations over many centuries, and this involved much suffering. Regrettably, many of these travails were inflicted by Christians,” Parsons stated.
“Yet we are the Christians most determined to do something to mend the wounds of that tragic legacy,” Parsons stated, emphasizing that their motives could be expressed in one phrase:
“Am Yisrael Chai” – “The People of Israel Live!”
Parsons cites the prophecy of Isaiah 49:22-23 as predicting that “when God begins to regather the Jewish people back to the Promised Land, there would be Gentiles at your side to help with this great ingathering.”
“But our presence here at this very time carries a message of solidarity and hope,” Parsons concludes. “So, we simply say: ‘Israel, believe your prophets.’ For surely there are better days and even a glorious future ahead for this nation.”
David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of The Isaiah Projects and an Orthodox Jewish theologian, suggested that the anger was misplaced.
“I truly don’t understand why some Orthodox Jews are protesting the upcoming Feast of Tabernacles event,” Nerkrutman said. “For over forty years, the ICEJ, in partnership and coordination with the government, has provided an annual event for Christians to visit Israel as part of fulfilling Zechariah 14:16.”
“Out of the 2.4 billion who identify as Christian, 3,000 decided this year to declare to us that we are not alone. Many of the attendees are traveling from the four corners of the world out of a sincere effort to atone for past Christian Antisemitism, to fulfill their personal calling of standing with Israel, and to create a new path of reconciliation between our faith communities,” Nekrutman told Israel365 News.
“Of course, there will be some attendees that have no direct affiliation with ICEJ who may feel the need to share the Gospel to Jews. However, does this warrant a protest from our people? What happened to just saying “no” to them? These protesters will only feed into the recent social media image of Israel that Orthodox Jews hate Christians. I am sure that the organizational leaders of ICEJ have informed their attendees about the sensitivities related to sharing the Gospel in Israel and how that may impede their efforts in building positive relationships with Jews.”
Freedom of religion is mandated by Israeli law. Classified as free speech, proselytizing is currently legal in the country, and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens. However, a 1977 law prohibits any person from offering material benefits as an inducement to conversion. It is also illegal to convert persons under 18 years of age unless one parent is an adherent of the religious group seeking to convert the minor.
As a result, in 2015, Israel’s chief rabbis called for a boycott of the Feast. Parsons responded at the time:
“We are not a missionary organization, and the Christian tourists that arrive to participate in the event believe in the Bible and see it as the Old Testament, where Sukkot is mentioned as one of the three pilgrimages. Also, in King Solomon’s writings, he invites all the people of the world to come to Jerusalem, and every year we are honored to have a warm welcome from the Israelis,” said Parsons.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem was established during the first Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in September 1980, at a time when the last thirteen national embassies had just left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. In response, over 1,000 Christians from 32 nations attending that first Feast gathering decided to open the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem as an act of solidarity with the 3000-year-old Jewish attachment to this city. The ICEJ has since grown into the world’s largest Christian Zionist ministry, with branch offices in over 90 nations and a reach into more than 170 nations worldwide.
The Feast of Tabernacles is considered the most universal Jewish holiday. The Jewish sage Rabbi Eliezer taught that on Sukkot, Jews would bring 70 offerings to God for the merit of the 70 nations of the world. Additionally, the Jewish sage Rashi said the 70 offerings were meant to bring forgiveness to all 70 nations so that rain would fall throughout the world.
During the Feast of Tabernacles and the weeks surrounding it, more than 45,000 Christians visit Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. The ICEJ’s Feast of Tabernacles is the largest single event.