They attach epic importance to their work

Christians Called To Serve Jewish Settlers

By Nathan Jeffay, March 25, 2012

Psagot, West Bank — It is a typical, even  stereotypical, West Bank settlement scene: bearded young men pruning vines while  enthusing about the Chosen People’s God-given right to this region. But in this  case it is Jesus, and not Jewish identity, that animates these tillers.

For years, Westerners have flocked to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to help  Palestinians with their olive harvest, as part of left-wing activist groups like  the International Solidarity Movement. Among other things, the activists seek to  resist efforts by settlers to disrupt the Palestinians’ reaping.

Now, the settlers have international harvest help of their own. The young  Christians working in the Psagot Winery’s vineyards near Ramallah in mid-March  were members of HaYovel. Last year, this Tennessee-based evangelical ministry  started a large-scale operation to bring volunteers to tend and harvest settler  grapes. They attach epic importance to their work.

“When you see prophecy taking place, you have the option to do nothing or  become a vessel to it,” said volunteer pruner Blake Smith, a 20-year-old farmer  from Virginia.

HaYovel preaches the old-school ideology of Religious Zionist settlers with  one innovation: a sacred role for Christians.

The group’s members believe that the establishment of the State of Israel,  its subsequent conquering of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and specifically  the flourishing of agriculture in the occupied areas are fulfillments of  biblical prophecies. Like many settlers, HaYovel cites a prophecy by Jeremiah  that refers to the Samaria region of the West Bank: “Again you shall plant vines  on the mountains of Samaria.” And like them, HaYovel believes that the  settlement movement will help to bring the Messiah to Jerusalem — the only  difference being that the volunteers anticipate a second coming.

But these Christians also focus on a prophecy rarely cited by settlers, who  tend to place ideological value on using only avoda ivrit, or “Hebrew  labor,” whenever possible. “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and  foreigners shall be your plowmen and your vine-dressers,” Isaiah prophesized to  the Israelites.

Basing itself on this verse, HaYovel — which takes its name from the Bible’s  twice-a-century agricultural jubilee — has made reverence of settlers into a  central religious virtue.

“Being here, we just want to serve — and to bless the Jewish people in  building up the land,” said Joshua Waller, a HaYovel ministry leader and one of  the 11 children of Tommy Waller, the group’s founder and spiritual head. During  a lunch break, a settler with yarmulke and sidelocks came to address volunteers.  They keenly asked him to explain why the international community is wrong and  the West Bank is not really occupied, and seemed prepared to accept what they  were told. “We are not here to teach anything, just to learn,” Joshua Waller  said shortly before the talk began.

To some of the volunteers, becoming settler laborers is a way of righting a  historical Christian wrong. “This is a crazy time,” said Joe Trad Jr., a  23-year-old college dropout from Missouri. Over 2,000 years of contention, he  said, “we saw Constantine and the Holocaust. Yet today, in this spot of the  world, you have Christians and Jews for the first time with the same goal.”

The volunteers are a mix of people who, like Smith, had a mainstream  Christian upbringing and were drawn to HaYovel out of curiosity; people from  families that gave up the organized church to develop their own brand of  religion, one they see as closer to Judaism, and some people who are emerging  from personal crises.

Trad, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, went through rehab and became a  Christian two years ago. He described his volunteering as a way of giving thanks “for what the Lord has done for me in my life by freeing me from these  addictions.”

Aaron Hood, a 21-year-old HaYovel staff employee, comes from a Tennessee  family of 14 children that gave up on any organized church and started observing  the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible according to its own understanding. The  family observes Saturday, not Sunday, as a rest day.

The Waller family is similar. In 1998, Tommy Waller, a FedEx manager with a  Baptist background, and his wife, Sherri, a Methodist Mary Kay saleswoman, left  their jobs and went to live in an Amish community in Tennessee, though they did  not become Amish.

The Wallers developed their own religious approach, based on their own  Scriptural interpretations, and built up an informal group of a few families who  prayed and studied together. Tommy Waller visited Israel for the first time in  2004, and resolved to start an initiative to help settler farmers. He set up  HaYovel and began bringing small delegations to the West Bank in 2006 — the same  year that he left the Amish community. Last year, he expanded the operation,  bringing in 300 instead of his normal retinue of fewer than 100. He hopes to  reach 400 this year.

HaYovel’s religious devotion to settlers means that the organization is  welcome even in the West Bank’s most ideological settlements — places that  generally like to preserve a tight-knit, exclusively Jewish community.

The group does have some opponents who fear that HaYovel is not honest when  it denies any missionary agenda. Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of Beit El, rejects  any joint Jewish-Christian ventures. He spoke to the Forward about his  opposition to the group. This past summer, residents of Har Bracha near Nablus  protested the presence of HaYovel members to the village secretariat. The  controversy died down quickly when residents learned that the settlement’s  rabbi, Eliezer Melamed, a hard-liner who has sworn not to accept Christian  donations for his yeshiva, had ruled that HaYovel is “not working to convert us,  God forbid, rather, to strengthen us.”

Aside from the ministry’s reverence for Jews, the other factor making it  welcome in settlements is simple economics.

Settler wineries are flourishing. Eshkol Hazahav, one of Israel’s most  prestigious wine-tasting competitions, awarded West Bank settlement wineries a  record seven of its 50 prizes in 2010. But settler wineries tend to be smaller  than those on the other side of the Green Line that divides the occupied West  Bank from Israel’s pre-1967 boundary. The settlers complain that margins can be  tight — especially as many of them, for ideological reasons, refuse to employ  Palestinians, who will generally work for less money than Jews.

HaYovel’s volunteers work for long stints, sometimes up to three months,  providing hundreds of hours of free labor at the busy seasons of the  grape-growing year. They choose vineyards, and only vineyards, to deploy their  help because farming them is particularly labor-intensive, and because they are  mentioned specifically in biblical prophecy. In the latest trip, which ended on  March 20, 35 volunteers pruned a total of 100 acres of vines at Psagot, Shiloh  and elsewhere. “It takes a lot of expenses off farmers, who are struggling in  this area,” said Nir Lavi, owner of the Har Bracha Winery.

The HaYovel faithful are well aware of strong anti-settlement lobbies among  both Jews and Christians. During their latest volunteer stint, Peter Beinart, a  prominent liberal pro-Israel writer, published a controversial New York Times  op-ed piece calling on supporters of Israel to boycott settlement products (and  proactively patronize other products from Israel) in order to increase pressure  for a two-state solution that he sees as crucial for ensuring Israel’s future as  a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

Meanwhile, just a short distance from the vineyards that HaYovel members were  tending, a conference in Bethlehem called Christ at the Checkpoint convened 300  Christian leaders, academics and activists to discuss how, in their view,  Israel’s occupation of the West Bank violates Christian values.

HaYovel responds to such viewpoints with two words: covenant and  prophesy.

Tommy Waller insists that his ministry bears no antagonism toward  Palestinians, whom it wants to see living peacefully in the West Bank. But he  insists that the biblical promise to give the Israelites the Land of Israel, and  various prophecies, justify Jewish rule there. Given the significance of West  Bank sites to Jewish history, he argues that demanding an end to Jewish rule in  the West Bank is akin to “anti-Semitism.”

“If you take away Shechem [Nablus], Beit El, Shiloh and Hebron — places where  Jewish identity came to being,” asked Waller, “is there still a Jewish  identity?” or

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    • Mike Nunn on March 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Well, Jesus was positive that the world was going to end soon. Over 2000 years later we are still waiting.

  1. Well, there are many (and I count myself among them) who believe that Jesus was positive the world was going to change soon (the Kingdom of God is at hand). And so it did. Radically. Empires crumbled, as did age-old distinctions between classes and races and genders and neighborhoods. Was it instant? For some, probably. But it is hubris of the highest order to demand that cause-and-effect on a cosmological scale perform according to our feeble expectations. As the very wacky Leadbeater once said, “It is one of the commonest of mistakes to consider that the limit of our power of perception is also the limit of all there is to perceive.”

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