Interview'Just as important as food is hope'

In Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist leader makes it his mission to save Ukraine’s Jews

Inspired by George Floyd protests and own childhood, outspoken Netanyahu ally Mike Evans launches ‘Ukraine Can’t Breathe’ campaign, delivering aid and helping families escape war

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prominent evangelical Zionist Mike Evans stands in front of the Friends of Zion museum in Jerusalem after he unveiled his "Ukraine Can't Breathe" campaign, April 4, 2022 (courtesy)
Prominent evangelical Zionist Mike Evans stands in front of the Friends of Zion museum in Jerusalem after he unveiled his "Ukraine Can't Breathe" campaign, April 4, 2022 (courtesy)

Last month, visitors to central Jerusalem’s Nahalat Shiva neighborhood were welcomed with a massive new sign proclaiming “Ukraine Can’t Breathe.”

The blue-and-gold banner wasn’t sponsored by the Ukrainian embassy or the many Jewish aid groups sending supplies to the border. Rather, it was draped across the front of the Friends of Zion Museum, the brainchild of prominent Evangelical Zionist Mike Evans.

The juxtaposition of the slogan with the last words uttered by Eric Garner and George Floyd, two Black men suffocated to death by police in the US, was no coincidence. Evans, 74, told The Times of Israel that he fully intended to co-opt what had become a rallying cry for racial justice and an end to police abuse, in order to mobilize support for Ukraine.

“To breathe, you have to have oxygen, air,” Evans said. “And Ukraine does not have air. No one will protect Ukraine’s airspace. So you’re seeing unspeakable horror and hell happening to human beings, and Ukraine cannot breathe.”

The use of a Black Lives Matter slogan — by an outspoken conservative whose support for former US president Donald Trump stands out even in a city full of Trump backers — may seem off, but Evans stands by it. A one-time missionary who was criticized in the 1980s for targeting Jews for conversion, Evans now insists that he does not proselytize, and he also says he fully supports Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, despite publicly calling them “nobodies” less than a year ago.

Evan maintains that it was wholly appropriate to use the “I can’t breathe” rallying cry in order to mobilize grassroots support for Ukraine, and to raise funds for Evans’s ongoing efforts to feed and evacuate Ukrainian Jews, including Holocaust survivors.

“The wonderful, brilliant, kind young people of the world mobilized, united, to stand behind George Floyd, which was magnificent,” explained Evans. “I was one of them. We all felt total detest at the abuse of one human being, and taking the air out of his lungs. And I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Black Lives Matter to realize there’s 40 million human beings in the crosshairs, with a boot on their neck sucking the air out of their lungs. I don’t think it’s disrespectful. It’s inequity.”

Protesters rally outside the 3rd Precinct on April 19, 2021, in Minneapolis as the murder trial against the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd advanced to jury deliberations. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Nearly 5 million citizens have fled Ukraine, and millions more are internally displaced within the country.

According to Evans, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Evangelical leader that he “likes what we’re doing.”

“Human beings are not black or white,” Evans declared. “Their blood is red, every one of them. They’re the same, human beings are human beings. These precious people that are suffering unspeakable horror and hell, we have to stand with them.”

For Evans, the theme of being unable to breathe is also personally resonant.

Angry at being alive

Evans grew up in western Massachusetts with a Jewish mother and Christian father, whom he described as an antisemite who drank and accused Evans’s mother of cheating on him with a Jewish man.

“He never said he loved me, he never affirmed me,” Evans recalled. “Only abuse. Violent abuse.”

When Evans was a boy, his father would regularly come home drunk and beat his mother. Evans, helpless, would sit at the top of the stairs and cry.

One day, when Evans was 11, he decided he wouldn’t remain silent any longer, and screamed at his father to stop the abuse.

Dozens of bodies wait to be buried at a cemetery in Bucha, outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

“He ran up the stairs, he picked me up by my throat way above his head, and he strangled,” said Evans. “I remember looking in those bloodshot eyes and thinking, it’s over. I’m dead.”

Evans blacked out, and woke up later in a fetal position.

“When I came conscious, I screamed at God in the dark in a rage. I was angry that I was alive,” he said.

Though the boy hadn’t believed in God until that point, he had a revelation after nearly being strangled to death.

“I couldn’t even defend just one Jew against a Jew-hater,” recalled Evans. “But my reason for being born was to defend all the Jews.”

Prominent evangelical Zionist Mike Evans (L) and his son Michael II in the Friends of Zion museum in Jerusalem, April 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

He says he decided to dedicate his life to combating antisemitism. “Helping suffering people is very personal to me, because I suffered,” said Evans.

Initially, his efforts to save Jews involved bringing them closer to Jesus, as happened for him. In the late 1970s Evans founded the Messianic B’nai Yeshua congregation on Long Island in New York, with the express purpose of reaching out to the area’s Jews to convert them. Meetings by the group drew protests, including from the militant Jewish Defense League, and the Anti-Defamation League also raised concerns.

“We see our fellow Jews as living in a burning house,” a Bna’i Yeshua staff member told The New York Times in 1978. “If you saw that wouldn’t you tell them there is a safe house across the street?”

Today, though, Evans says he is focused not on proselytization, but rather helping needy Jews in Israel and elsewhere, especially those now suffering in Ukraine.

Strength and comfort

Evans and his son Michael II have been feeding Jewish Ukrainian orphans and Holocaust survivors for over ten years. They also built a community center and apartments for Ukrainian Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews pass by a billboard welcoming US President Donald Trump ahead of his visit, in Jerusalem on May 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“Every Holocaust survivor that needs our help, we’re giving it to them,” said Evans.

Evans has won plaudits from Israelis for his charitable work.

Jerusalem City Council member Fleur Hassan-Nahoum addresses a rally in solidarity with the alleged victims of Malka Leifer outside the Jerusalem District Court on March 13, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

“Mike does a lot of tzedaka for the neediest in Jerusalem and Israel,” said Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, using the Hebrew word for charity. “Whether it is Holocaust survivors, lone soldiers, injured soldiers or needy families, Mike is a source of understanding and much-needed resources to many of our most needy populations.”

Hassan-Nahoum also lauded Evans’s creativity in his support of Holocaust survivors.

“He established a hotel for Holocaust survivors next to his museum where he regularly holds bar/bat mitzvah celebrations for those who never celebrated one when they were in concentration camps,” said the deputy mayor. “A few months ago I was invited to a beauty contest for female Holocaust survivors. Incredible how these 80-plus women were enjoying themselves, how good they felt and how seriously they took it.”

“I mean, who thinks of these things?”

Mike Evans II stands in a warehouse in Ukraine, April 2022 (courtesy)

Evans says money for the group’s activities comes from donations from Christian Zionists, including his Jerusalem Prayer Team. A tax filing from 2019, the last year publicly available, shows that Evans’s group received over $1.7 million in donations, and spent over $3.3 million on email blasts, social media, self-published books by Evans (a former New York Times bestselling author), ad campaigns aimed at combating antisemitism, and running his Friends of Zion museum in central Jerusalem.

The organization said it spent another $55,000 on aid for needy Jews in Israel, including survivors.

Evans and his son have made three trips to Ukraine since the fighting began in February.

The day after the launch of the “Ukraine Can’t Breathe” campaign, the two men flew to Warsaw to accompany a convoy of supplies to Lviv, then on to Kyiv.

They crossed the Poland-Ukraine border with a 50-foot truck and several buses filled with over 19 tons of kosher food and medicine at the Dorohusk crossing. The food was meant to feed some 45,000 people.

There’s people sleeping in the synagogue. They’re doing their best. They’re putting on a brave face.

With the supplies safely across the border, the father-son duo hitchhiked back into Poland to get the elder Evans back to Israel. His son, a father of 4, then caught a train from Przemysl, Poland, into Ukraine to catch up with the convoy in Lviv.

He and the Ukrainian clergymen driving the vehicles spent the next five days dropping off the food and medicine at churches, synagogues, and homes in Kyiv, Bucha, Irpin and other villages around the capital.

Mike Evans II stands in a Kyiv synagogue, April 2022 (courtesy)

Hundreds of bodies have been found in Bucha and Irpin in recent weeks, after Russian troops abandoned their drive on the capital from the north. Ukrainian officials and international rights groups say the killings are evidence of Russian war crimes.

In the capital, Evans and his team delivered supplies to the Brodsky synagogue and the Kyiv Jewish Center, both Chabad-affiliated.

“There’s people sleeping in the synagogue,” said the younger Evans. “They’re doing their best. They’re putting on a brave face, but it’s heartbreaking to see the state and the stress that they’re under.”

On April 8, Evans II found himself a bit too close to the fighting for comfort. After dropping off food for local Holocaust survivors, he and his driver headed to a market near the front lines to make a delivery.

They could hear shells exploding nearby as they unloaded the truck, but couldn’t see the fighting because of a fog that had descended on the city.

Mike Evans II looks out into the fog close to the front lines near Kyiv, April 8, 2022 (courtesy)

“We hear sounds of battle getting closer and closer,” Evans II recalled, “and we’re listening to it and talking. Then I heard shots to my left, and suddenly a whistle next to my ear.”

It was the closest he had been to combat since being caught in a shelling at Kibbutz Kfar Aza during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.

Whether to a Holocaust survivor or a prominent publisher who stayed behind to cook for refugees, Evans II tried to offer words of support along with the supplies.

“Just as important as food is hope,” said the younger Evans. “Anywhere I can go where I can share a kind word, pray for them, lift them up, then I do that.”

Mike Evans II prays with a Holocaust survivor in Kyiv, April 2022 (courtesy)

He told the story of an old Jewish woman who couldn’t leave her apartment outside of Kyiv. When Evans II visited her, his translator told him she wanted him to pray for her. “So I just took her hand, and prayed that God would give her strength and comfort her during this time.”

“These things are important too,” he noted.

The two men returned to Ukraine in mid-April to deliver aid and extract a Jewish family from Kherson. After being contacted by Israeli relatives of the family, Knesset member Sharren Haskel had reached out to Evans to see if he could help the family escape the Russian-occupied Black Sea port city.

Evangelical Zionist leader Mike Evans and 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Lyubov stand in Ukraine, April 2022 (courtesy)

Evans’s longtime representative in the country, a Khazakstan-born Ukrainian named Viktor Matveyev, arranged the rescue. He contacted a local named Matthew (his last name is being withheld to protect his anonymity), who rode his bicycle past Russian troops to reach the family of seven, Matveyev told The Times of Israel.

Matthew was able to lead five members of the family out of Kherson, driving a car through fields to avoid Russian troops. including the grandmother, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor named Lyubov.

“She told me, we wouldn’t have been able to get out without you,” said Matveyev. The family has reached a relatively safe area in Ukraine, where they will decide on their next destination.

Israel’s Ukraine policy

Despite Israel’s attempts to maintain its relationship with both Russia and Ukraine, and its refusal to provide weapons to Kyiv, Evans is sympathetic to the path that the government has taken during the conflict.

Setting up an emergency room tent at an Israeli field hospital in Mostyska, Ukraine, March 22, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

“I think Israel has been extremely gracious,” Evans said. “I think it has done its very best under the circumstances. The circumstances of Syria, the circumstances of Iran.”

Israeli officials say the Russian military presence in Syria, where the IDF is pursuing a multi-year campaign against the entrenchment of Iranian-backed forces, is a central reason Jerusalem must avoid choosing sides in Ukraine.

Evans said he hadn’t spoken with either Bennett or Lapid, but “he wouldn’t be surprised if they’re doing a lot more than they’re willing to say.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on February 27, 2022. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Pool)

The evangelical leader, a confidant of former prime minister Netanyahu for decades, hasn’t always been this publicly supportive of Bennett.

In June 2021, he published a scathing post on The Times of Israel’s blog platform in which he called the politicians who formed a coalition to oust Netanyahu “amateur nobodies” who were willing to destroy Israel in order to get rid of the prime minister.

Shortly thereafter Evans apologized publicly and wrote a letter to Bennett, to which he received no response.

Evans said he “absolutely” regrets writing that post. “I was depressed that week over the pain and the agony of the suffering near Gaza… and I said some things I shouldn’t have said.”

He said that he is now “100% supportive of Bennett.”

New Hope MK Sharren Haskel speaks during a vote on a medical marijuana reform bill, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Mike Evans is a person who loves Israel,” said Haskel, a member of the Bennett-led coalition. “And he is extremely worried about everything that has happened, especially in the international arena. I understand his position, and the worries that he had. There were quite a few Israelis who were somewhat worried, but I think we did come with the best outcome of this current government.”

Evans hasn’t been afraid to publicly pressure US leaders either. He was behind dozens of billboards that went up around Jerusalem in May 2017 urging Trump, whom he advises, to “Make Israel Great” by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Evans said he had reassured an Israeli leader who expressed doubts that Trump would go ahead with the move: “Relax, we have enormous power over him, it’s going to happen.”

A few months later, Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy from Tel Aviv.

According to Haaretz, Evans spent $100,000 on the billboards, which also advertised his Friends of Zion Museum, also called the Mike Evans Museum.

Evans has drawn some criticism for his self-promotion — he called himself the “first Evangelical asked to lead the March of the Living,” which event organizers denied — and for his outspokenness on Israeli politics.

“Mike is a larger-than-life character,” Hassan-Nahoum said. “Some believe he shouldn’t get so involved politically but who else would have had the guts to write an op-ed directed at Trump, telling him in no uncertain terms that if he makes the Evangelical community choose between him and Israel, he will lose?”

Then-US president Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hassan-Nahoum was referencing a letter Evans sent to Trump after the ex-president was quoted in a book by Israeli reporter Barak Ravid bashing Netanyahu for calling to congratulate US President Joe Biden and blaming Israel for the lack of progress in the peace process. Nonetheless, Evans maintains that Trump was the “most pro-Israel president in American history.”

He argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin never would have invaded Ukraine if Trump was still in the White House.

“They have no fear of Joe Biden, none at all,” Evans said. “I think Joe Biden is pro-Israel. And I think he’s a good human being. But I think he’s a leftist. And I don’t think he understands the power of strength and moral clarity.”

“Weakness is an unforgivable sin in the Middle East.”

Out of hell and into Israel

Many Jews, especially the majority who are non-Orthodox and politically liberal, have traditionally been wary of Evangelical support for Israel. They are often concerned about proselytizing, uncomfortable with Evangelical views on end times, and disagree on domestic priorities.

Evans, who boasts some 77 million followers on his “Jerusalem Prayer Team” Facebook page, said he “completely understands the concerns some Jews have around Christian Zionism.”

Illustrative: Thousands of evangelical Christian pilgrims pray during a prayer gathering on the Dead Sea shore in Ein Gedi on September 20, 2013 in the Judean Desert, during their annual visit to Israel to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and to express solidarity with Israel. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

“There’s plenty of nutjobs to go around,” he said with a laugh.

Despite his past missionary activity and the fact that many of his books traffic in end-times theology (often via nuclear war with Iran), Evans insists that his main mission is to help Jews in need.

“Our staff is here to defend the Jewish people and to combat antisemitism,” Evans insisted. “We’re not here with hidden agendas. We didn’t come here with some kind of bait-and-switch trick. The vast majority of Christian Zionists, their passions are pure.”

Haskel said that she “cherishes” Evangelical support, and Israelis should not take it for granted.

“I think the evangelical community is a strong community who is certainly standing by the State of Israel,” Haskel said. “I think it’s doing amazing work all around the world in supporting the truth and supporting the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Evans emphasized that his Christian Zionist supporters do not ask him to proselytize to Ukrainian Jews in any way.

“They’re not asking me to preach to them. They’re asking me to get them food, to save their lives,” he said. “They’re asking me to get them out of hell to the land of Israel.”

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