A Jerusalem-based evangelical Christian organization said Thursday that it was “disappointed” to learn the country’s chief rabbis urged Jews to boycott their upcoming pro-Israel conference, which they branded as “spiritually dangerous.”
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef earlier this month charged that the conference, organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, was a missionary effort to convert Jews to Christianity.
The ICEJ’s annual gathering — set to coincide with the Jewish festival of Sukkot — draws to Israel thousands of evangelical Christians who celebrate the organization’s declared unshakable bond with the Jewish state. In 2014, some 5,000 Christian pilgrims from 80 countries filled the seats of Jerusalem’s Pais Arena.
In a statement, the ICEJ said Lau and Yitzhak’s accusations of proselytization were a scare tactic, and maintained that its extensive pro-Israel advocacy efforts worldwide demonstrated its “sincere friendship and support for Israel as a Jewish state.”
The organization said it “always respected and upheld the laws of the State of Israel, including those covering missionary activities, and it is regrettable that the Chief Rabbinate acted solely on the misrepresentations of those bearing false witness against us.”
The statement urged the chief rabbis to reconsider their statement, which they said could cause “much harm to the new level of close Jewish-Christian relations that have developed over the past 60 years.”
The evangelical group said Lau and Yitzhak’s allegations were particularly disappointing in light of the biblical tradition of gentiles being welcomed by Jews during the Sukkot holiday.
“We have held countless rallies in capital cities worldwide to stand with Israel and to combat against anti-Semitism. We have addressed parliaments around the world, challenging initiatives directed against Israel in scores of countries,” the statement read. “In addition, the ICEJ has sponsored the Aliyah of nearly 120,000 Jewish immigrants to Israel, and assisted with the successful absorption of tens of thousands more.”
While the rabbis, in their September 3 letter, allowed that the ICEJ was a friend of Israel, they said that the feast intentionally targeted Israeli Jews with missionary activities.
“This is a grave matter that runs contrary to our faith, and we must therefore denounce it and warn the public,” Lau and Yosef wrote. “We call on the Jewish community in the Holy Land not to take part in this conference… the event is spiritually dangerous and undermines the nature of Judaism.”
Conference organizers, the rabbis said, were actively “engaged in missionary work on behalf of the ICEJ.”
The embassy raises millions of dollars to assist with the immigration to Israel of Jews from around the world, most recently from India and Ukraine. During last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the organization provided portable bomb shelters and other assistance to Israeli communities on the Gaza border. It also runs a full-care residence for 70 Holocaust survivors in Haifa.
Earlier this month, the group sent a delegation to Washington, DC, to lobby against the nuclear agreement reached between Iran and world powers in July. The ICEJ said it was called to be “an active voice in defense of Israel,” and presented the White House with a petition signed by over 60,000 American Christians who opposed the historic deal over concerns for Israel’s safety.
During one night of the annual conference, dubbed “Israeli Night,” attendees honor Israeli soldiers and survivors of terror attacks, and in 2014, some 300 Jewish, Christian and Druze IDF paratroopers who served in Gaza were invited as special guests.
According to group’s website, the Feast of Tabernacles is meant to celebrate the “recognition of the hand of God in Israel’s modern day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing, and bless it.” Last year’s feast was the largest in seven years, despite Israel’s conflict with Gaza, which ended less than two months before the conference and saw a stark drop in tourist visits.
“It’s an encouraging statement of solidarity,” ICEJ media director David Parsons told The Times of Israel in an interview last year.
The spirited, colorful, music-filled extravaganza includes visits to holy sites and study and prayer sessions for the pilgrims. They also participate in a march through Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel.
During the 2014 feast, President Reuven Rivlin, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed conference attendees, thanking them for their unwavering support of Israel.
Last month, a number of rabbis petitioned the owner of the arena, asking for the names of the slated speakers in order to “prevent inappropriate missionary activity,” the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabat reported. The rabbis said they objected to the conference after learning that IDF soldiers would be in attendance.
Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.