Israel Courts African-American Evangelicals, Despite Some Hurdles : Parallels White American evangelical Christians have long been key backers of Israel. Now a major Israeli charity is wooing African-American churches for support. There are some political hurdles.

Israel Courts African-American Evangelicals, Despite Some Hurdles

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White American evangelical Christians have long been key backers of Israel. Now, a major Israeli charity wants to bring in African-American evangelical churches. Evangelical theology does support Israel and African-Americans did make common cause with Jews during the civil rights struggles, so there is some overlap, but the Israeli-American split over Iran makes things tricky. NPR's Emily Harris has more.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Twenty African-American leaders representing the 6.5-million-member Pentecostal Church of God in Christ file into a small room with plastic chairs set out in rows. This Tel Aviv center helps Sudanese and Eritreans who are seeking asylum in Israel. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews invited these church leaders to Israel and welcomed them at this tour stop.



ECKSTEIN: Are you all new immigrants here?


HARRIS: Eckstein's organization raises more than $100 million a year for social projects in Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Much of that money comes from white American evangelical Christians. Now Eckstein is expanding his fundraising efforts to target African-American congregations. Like white evangelicals, Church of God in Christ theology supports Israel. But Eckstein notes different politics.

ECKSTEIN: The land is the Jewish people's. We have a covenant. All of that is there. But they're also African-American and Democrats and in a very difficult position to go against the president.

HARRIS: President Obama, he means. That's important because Eckstein, through his fellowship, actively lobbied against Obama on Iran. So did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a way many Obama supporters saw as disrespectful. Kristina King works for Eckstein on the fellowship's new outreach efforts. An African-American who used to work for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, she puts the problem this way.

KRISTINA KING: Safety and security is the issue with the Jewish community. Respect is the issue with the African-American community. So when you disrespect our president, it's a hard offense to overcome.

HARRIS: Rabbi Eckstein knows this, but his goal is long-term, developing allies for Israel.

ECKSTEIN: Maybe we won't push them on that. But we will certainly soften them to overtures by others and build that support and solidarity for Israel.

HARRIS: The church leaders' tour was paid for by the fellowship and by the government of Israel. It was busy. In addition to the migrant help center, they saw a Tel Aviv bomb shelter, visited historic Jewish and Christian sites and met with Jewish Ethiopians, a group Israel has struggled to integrate. Bishop P.A. Brooks, global vice president for the Church of God in Christ, says he'd like to help Israel with racial integration.

P.A. BROOKS: I feel that we can assist them in funding and we could, in a consultative way, advise how best to handle these types of situations and not be in denial.

HARRIS: Supporting black people in Israel could alleviate that challenge of the Netanyahu-Obama rift, says University of Massachusetts African-American scholar John Bracey.

JOHN BRACEY: This is more pan Africanism than pro-Israeli sentiment. And it's an acknowledgment of racism in Israel.

HARRIS: Which potentially raises the question of Palestinians, says Valerie C. Cooper, associate professor of black church studies at Duke. Cooper says many African-Americans see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as racialized, which could curtail Israeli recruitment efforts.

VALERIE C. COOPER: They are right in the sense that there's potential overlap between Israel's interests and the interests of black church people. But I also think that there may be limits to how successful lobbying efforts will be.

HARRIS: But if successful, says Josh Reinstein, director of the Christian Allies Caucus in Israel's parliament, vocal African-American backing for Israel could shore up Democratic support after the divisive votes on the Iran accord.

JOSH REINSTEIN: Because there's threats and there's cracks in the community that's saying, you know, maybe some part, or the left flank of the Democrats, will start taking on the Palestinian narrative and not the pro-Israel position that they have until now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tell all the people.

HARRIS: At their last supper in Israel, the Church of God in Christ delegation sang this favorite hymn. They planned to go home and tell the people what they learned.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tell all the people.

HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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