Local ICEJ representatives often seek to influence their home country’s politics and culture. Jehu Chan, 67, an evangelical who runs ICEJ’s program in Singapore with his wife, Christine Jael, was trained for military service years ago by the Israeli Defense Forces. Along with reaching potential Christian converts in his home country, he hopes to correct the record about Israel—even in Singapore, a country with a very friendly relationship with Israel. “There’s a lot of fake news about Israel,” he told me.
Many of the delegates came from countries that explicitly oppose Israeli policies. On the day of the Jerusalem March, when thousands of Feast participants parade through the city, a group from South Africa wore T-shirts declaring, “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “the People of Israel lives.” A year ago, the South African delegation to UNESCO—the United Nations body that protects the world’s cultural heritage—voted for a resolution that implicitly denied the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, a contested holy site in Jerusalem. (This month, the United States and Israel both announced decisions to leave UNESCO over this and other related issues.)
This may be one reason why the Israeli government bothers to confer its blessing on the Feast: This year, as in the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared his greeting via a taped message.
“The future investment the state is doing is hoping that these groups end up actually representing important players in their own countries,” Hummel said.
A number of organizations—including Jewish ones—are investing in the same hope. At the Pais Arena, the giant Jerusalem venue where most of the Feast was held, attendees could visit a booth for Israel 365, an organization founded by a Modern Orthodox rabbi that aggregates news about Israel into newsletters for largely Christian audiences. Visitors could learn to shake a lulav and etrog, the fronds and fruit traditionally waved during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or take selfies with an image of the “soon-to-be Third Temple,” as Maayan Hoffman, the director of publishing, called it. “When it comes to diplomatic support, evangelicals are our best friends,” she said. “We need these people to be our allies in the UN.” They’re also good for business: In addition to having a non-profit arm, Israel 365 also acts as a for-profit consultancy to organizations and companies that want to reach Christians.
All the Christians I met at the Feast saw Israel as central to their understanding of Christianity. Julio Caesar, a 49-year-old pastor from Madrid, said his church holds a special Friday service to honor Israel and pray for peace in Jerusalem. Gift Sabeno, a 36-year-old from Angola, said he has “concerns about what we see in the news” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but “we can pray and know it is being changed while we’re praying.” Most people didn’t have a deep knowledge of the country’s complicated politics. “I think it’s a shame that it’s been like this,” said 18-year-old Drea Fosse of Norway, who supports Israel “100 percent” and can sing the words to “Hava Nagila” from memory. But on the conflict, she said, “I think I have too little knowledge to say something.” Lydia Tang, a 35-year-old delegate from China, said she is not at all concerned about Palestinian humanitarian issues or Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors. “God can take care of that,” she said. None of the people I met said they had any interaction with Arabs during their visit to Israel, except for the delegation of 20-something women from Samoa, who had befriended a Muslim woman at their hostel.