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With pilgrims returning to Israel post-pandemic, should Christians avoid evangelizing to Jews?

Jews for Jesus and it's May 2018 "Behold Your God Jerusalem" evangelistic campaign in Israel. | jewsforjesus.org

As the end of the pandemic brings more Christians back to Israel for tours of the Holy Land, should they evangelize the Jewish people during their visit?

That's the question raised in a Jerusalem Post report on the return of Christians to Israel to mark the biblical Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, earlier this month following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

More than 2,000 pilgrims from 70 nations were estimated to come to Jerusalem Oct. 9-16 for the celebration, which was sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), according to the outlet.

But while the gathering heralded the return of Christian tourism to Israel following the pandemic, some Jews, like Israel365 founder Rabbi Tuly Weisz, seem ambivalent about the trend — which, for them, also means the return of evangelism to the Holy Land.

According to Weisz, while non-Jewish tourists should be "warmly welcomed" to "come closer to the true fulfillment of Sukkot," he appeared less welcoming to the Evangelical practice of sharing the Gospel with the Jewish people.

"Unfortunately, some of the Christian visitors will hope to use their time in the Jewish state to engage in missionary activity," he wrote. "The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) does its best to prevent this, warning its guests to refrain from such offensive behavior."

Weisz pointed to several Christians who have voiced their opposition to missionary activity while visiting Israel, including David Swaggerty, senior pastor of Charisma Life Ministries in Columbus, Ohio, who was among those in Israel for the celebration.

Swaggerty was quoted as saying, "As a Christian who believes in the Great Commission, I feel that the call to spreading the Gospel does not apply to the Jewish people. Especially in light of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, I am here to support Israel unconditionally and with no strings attached."

In an interview with The Christian Post, Swaggerty clarified that while he has no problem taking the Gospel around the world to pastor's conferences in far-flung countries like Thailand and Tanzania, when he's in Israel, it's a different story.

"When I go to Israel or with my Jewish friends in Columbus, missionizing is off the table," he said. "I do not do that. I don't believe that's God's will for my life to do that."

Acknowledging that some — if not many — of his peers would disagree with his approach, Swaggerty said that doesn't bother him.

"They think you should get everybody converted that you meet, but I don't see it that way," he added.

Swaggerty said the Jewish people hold a special place in his heart: as a teenager, he worked in a jewelry store where he was surrounded by a "dozen Jewish men who became my family." 

He said he also saw how they were treated by Christians who tried to evangelize them and, as Swaggerty put it, "to force them almost into conversion."

"I don't feel that's my responsibility. My calling is to build bridges of trust and friendship among the Jewish people and Christians," he added. "In doing that, I have a commitment to myself and my followers, my congregation, that we do not missionize the Jewish people."

What about Messianic passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 53, which most Protestant theologians consider to be fulfilled by Jesus in His first coming?

For Swaggerty, whose ministry statement of faith affirms the death and resurrection of Christ, there's "no point in fighting whether He came once or not at all" since "when He shows up, there will be no mistaking who He is."

"One day, Israel is going to see Messiah. They're praying all the time for Him, and one day He's going to show up, and when He does, the entire land of Israel, the whole nation, are going to embrace Him as Messiah," he explained. 

"I don't want to betray my own faith, but I don't want to push it onto my Jewish friends."

While it's unclear whether groups like ICEJ — which did not respond to a request for comment from CP — are discouraging Christians from evangelism while in Israel, Swaggerty said he used to host several tours of the Holy Land and would warn people not to proselytize.

Now, he says, after attending this year's Feast of Tabernacles with Weisz, he believes there's a new interfaith movement underway. 

"What we're seeing on a much bigger scale ... is like a spiritual phenomenon happening around the world between Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians, where they're willing to step across the aisle," he said.

"We're finding that as you build relationships of trust, we can work together because we serve the same God."

But for Messianic Jewish author, radio host and columnist Michael Brown, such an approach to evangelism is a "terrible disservice" to the Jewish people.

"Every Jewish believer I know urges Christians to please share the Good News with our people," Brown told CP. "It is the most unloving thing you can do to withhold the water of life from a Jewish person. Jews and Gentiles are saved the exact same way. It is through faith in Jesus, through His death on the cross. 

"And without that, there is no salvation."

As a self-identified "Jewish believer in Jesus," Brown said he believes it's "heretical" to exclude Jews from the Great Commission. 

"I appreciate sensitivity. I appreciate recognizing that for many Jewish people, Jesus is a bad word. I appreciate the fact that Jewish identity and preservation of our people is important," he said. "But faith in Jesus will enhance that rather than take away from that."

For Brown, Swaggerty's views on the ultimate salvation of Israel are "terribly misguided."

"Nowhere does the Bible say that salvation will be retroactive and that on that day, every Jew throughout history will be retroactively saved," he said. "That's completely contrary to Bible."

Instead, Brown added, the Bible teaches that, for Israel, there will be a national turning to the Messiah at the end of the age.

While Brown agreed that Christians touring Israel should "recognize they're not there to save Israel, they're there to see the country," he also said believers shouldn't go out of their way to avoid sharing the Good News.

"If providentially they meet someone and can share the Gospel, wonderful. But they're not there to pour into the country in an insensitive way and go around bothering people going about their daily business," he said. 

"But if you're in a cab ride and you're there as a Christian and you have an opportunity to share, do it! Why not? Why withhold the news of the Jewish messiah from the Jewish people?"

Before the pandemic, Christians comprised 55% of all tourism in 2019, according to data cited by the Jerusalem Post. More than a quarter of those visitors identified as Evangelicals.

In 2020, however, tourism plunged by 81% from 4.5 million in 2019 to just over 831,000. 

Ian M. Giatti is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ian.giatti@christianpost.com

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