Bloomberg | How Billy Graham Made Israel OK With Evangelicals

When Billy Graham brought his evangelistic crusade to the Holy Land, in the spring of 1960, he was already a world-famous figure. But not in Israel. People here had never seen him on television because in those early days of socialist austerity there was no television. Even if there had been, Graham, who died last week, wouldn’t have appeared. Attempting to convert Jews was (and remains) taboo.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion authorized rallies in Arab Christian venues, including Jerusalem’s towering YMCA building. Graham wanted to speak in Tel Aviv as well. Allowing that could have forced the Ben-Gurion’s Orthodox coalition partners to bring down the government.

So he came up with a compromise: Graham could speak at the city’s main auditorium if he promised not to mention Jesus or read from the New Testament. The prime minister proposed, through an aide, that Graham limit himself to a talk about his travels.

Graham could have made an issue of this. But he was here to make friends, and he understood that it wasn’t personal, it was politics. He dropped Tel Aviv from his schedule.

In gratitude for his flexibility, Foreign Minister Golda Meir held an official luncheon in Graham’s honor. She was charmed by the handsome young evangelist, especially when he assured her that he had no intention of doing any Jewish missionizing. In fact, he said, he was grateful to Israel for producing Jesus, to whom he had committed his life. Meir, who had grown up in the U.S., liked the sound of that, and suggested he repeat it to the local media, which he did. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Over the next decade, Graham became an outspoken Christian Zionist. In 1967, after the Six Day War, he told the Anti-Defamation League that he envisioned Jerusalem as an undivided Jewish city, and called for Evangelical-Jewish dialogue. “The Jews are God’s chosen people,” he said. “We cannot place ourselves in opposition without detriment to ourselves.”

The Graham organization produced a film, “His Land” (“His” referred to Jesus, not Graham). It starred Cliff Richards, the British Elvis, in a journey through the holy land, ancient and modern. The movie presented Israel in a glowing light and won rave reviews from American Jewish leaders who were still a little leery of Graham. It also helped put Israel on the map of Evangelical tourism.

Graham became a champion for the release of Soviet Jewry, and encouraged their immigration to Israel. And he stood up for the Jews of his own country. In 1973, he opposed Key 73, an interdenominational campaign to convert the Jews of America. This was a controversial position in the Southern Baptist world, but he didn’t flinch. “I believe that God has always had a special relationship with the Jewish people,” he wrote in Christianity Today. “In my evangelistic efforts I have never felt called to single out the Jews as Jews…”

This ecumenical attitude deeply influenced young Christian Zionists like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and John Hagee, paving the way for the present alliance between Evangelicals and Israel.

Around this time, Meir, now the prime minister, visited the U.S. At a White House dinner, she was seated between Graham and President Richard Nixon. She gave the preacher an illustrated Hebrew bible inscribed: “To a great teacher in all the important matters to humanity and a dear friend of Israel.”

Soon after, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Israel’s survival seemed to be endangered. Graham rallied evangelicals, personally and persistently lobbied the White House for emergency aid, and coordinated his efforts with the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin. In his memoir, Rabin, a man not given to sentimentality, wrote that Graham’s “unreserved support for Israel never failed to move me.”

The approval of Meir and Rabin, coupled with Graham’s anti-proselytization policy, made Graham persona grata among America’s secular, liberal Jews. Synagogues and community organizations bombarded him with invitations and honors. The American Jewish Committee gave him an award as “one of the century’s greatest Christian friends of Jews.”

This proved to be a bit of an embarrassment when, in 2002, the National Archive released a taped conversation between Nixon and Graham. Their discussion took place in the Oval office on Feb. 1, 1972, following the National Prayer Breakfast. Nixon began ranting against the pernicious Jewish media cabal and Graham fell right into step.

“The Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” Graham told Nixon, adding that Jews were flooding the country with pornography. He suggested that Nixon’s second term would be a good time for action, and that he would be ready to stand alongside the president.

When the tapes came out, a lot of people asked how Billy Graham could have said such things. Graham himself was contrite. “I guess I was trying to please,” he told a reporter from Newsweek.

And, of course, he had no idea he was being taped.

The Nixon-Graham recording has figured prominently in Graham’s obituaries. Those who don’t like evangelicals — especially Republican Evangelicals — take it as proof that the reverend was a hypocrite and a closet anti-Semite. Others have a more generous attitude. “A two-minute tape and people remember it 50 years later,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. “Of course he can be forgiven. He repented. That’s why we have Yom Kippur.”

Meir and Rabin were not around in 2002, but they wouldn’t have been shocked, I doubt any apology would have been required. The standard Israeli attitude toward friendly gentiles is a combination of “trust but verify” and “actions speak louder than words.” Throughout public career Billy Graham passed that test. What he felt in his heart, or said in private, was his business.

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