Evangelicals – arguably the world's most vocal supporters of the state of Israel - were recently upset by Israeli rabbis who urged Jews to boycott a huge Christian tourism event taking place this week.
More than 6,000 Christians from over 90 countries are expected to make their way to Jerusalem this week to celebrate the 28th annual Christian observance of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, according to the event's organizer, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
However, the chief rabbinate urged Jews last week to not attend the event, warning them that some groups will attempt to convert them to Christianity.
"According to information that has reached the chief rabbinate, there are participants in this conference who convert Jews to Christianity and perform missionary activity throughout the year," said Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Rehovot, according to The Associated Press.
Kook emphasized that Israel bans missionary work and proselytizing, so "the chief rabbinate is calling upon Jews not to take part in the conference."
The event's organizers said they are upset over the rabbis' call to boycott the massive celebration.
"It is disappointing to learn that some rabbinic authorities are trying to discourage the Jewish public from participating in this traditional march," said the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, ICEJ's executive director.
"The ICEJ has never conducted any missionary programs in Israel and we clearly instruct our Feast pilgrims against such activity during their stay here."
Benny Elon, a lawmaker who heads parliament's Christian Allies Caucus, questioned why the rabbi was making such a call after the event took place for 27 years with understanding on both sides that missionary activity was prohibited, according to AP.
Sukkot is one of the three major holidays in Judaism where the Jewish population travels to the Temple of Jerusalem. The pilgrimage festival lasts for seven days with some people sleeping in temporary structures called Sukkah, where they reflect on their sins and God's goodness in providing for all their needs. Sukkah are structures reminiscent of the ones the ancient Israelites dwelt in during their 40 years in the desert.
The Book of Zechariah states that all nations will make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the messianic era to celebrate Sukkot. Christians understand this scripture to mean that Jews will welcome non-Jews to join in celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem, according to AP.
The ICEJ Christian Sukkot gathering is not only the largest annual Christian event, but may also be the largest annual tourism event this year for Israel. The gathering this year is expected to bring some $15-18 million into the local economy and over 16,000 hotel room nights, according to the Israeli Globes newspaper.
On a regular basis, evangelical Christians make up one-third of American tourists that visit Israel, according to the country's Minister of Tourism.
In recent years there has been a growing alliance between Israel and evangelical Christians who believe Jews must return to the biblical land of Israel before the Second Coming of Christ.
U.S. Christian Zionists, in particular, have been one of – if not the most – vocal advocates for the protection of Israel. They have often lobbied the U.S. Congress to protect Israel against its hostile neighbors.
Yet a growing number of evangelical leaders have also recently come forward to criticize Israel for its ban on evangelism and to voice support for a Palestinian state.
Award-winning Christian talk show host Janet Parshall, a long-time supporter of Israel, said she realized Christians "can't just blindly support Israel" after she heard that the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus does not associate with groups that share the Gospel.
"We [Christians] have to tell them, as a friend, [that] you can't do that. You can't silence us," said Parshall, who still believes in the biblical mandate to protect and care for Israel.
The ICEJ said the Christian Sukkot celebration will take place despite lack of support from the rabbis.