I've prayed for Israel since 1936," testified 91-year-old Olga Simmons of Myrtle, Mississippi, as a group of about 65 people burst into applause with the enthusiasm of a Southern tent revival.
But this was no revival. It was a luncheon last week at an East Memphis hotel for a mixed group of evangelical Christians and Jews who have found common cause in their hard-line defense of Israel and opposition to compromise with the Palestinians.
The group included three Memphis rabbis, two members of the Israeli Knesset, and several ministers representing Crichton College, Southern Baptists, the Assembly of God, and others. It was organized by Ed McAteer, founder of the Religious Roundtable.
With Southern Baptists alone claiming over 100,000 members in Shelby County and Baron Hirsch Congregation being the largest Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the country, even a tentative, single-issue alliance is potentially a political force. All the qualifiers are necessary, however, because 65 people don't represent two large and diverse communities, and McAteer is no slouch when it comes to self-promotion.
But let's at least grant that something interesting is going on when Jews and evangelicals embrace in the manner of ambassadors and shouts of "amen" and "bless you" mingle with the singing of the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem.
"These people have proven themselves to be friends and we appreciate their support," said Lawrence Zierler, senior rabbi at Baron Hirsch. Zierler moved to Memphis eight months ago from Cleveland. He said he has been doing interfaith work for 12 years.
"We are all better for the friends that we have in other faith communities than for the friends that we need in a moment of crisis," he said. "It is better to relate and debate than to wait and equivocate."
Don Johnson, head of the Apostolic Coalition, got a standing ovation when he said, "I'm glad to be here with our Jewish friends because when the United States quits backin' them then we've backed out."
Others in both the Christian and Jewish camps seemed more reserved. Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, the largest Reform congregation in Memphis (1,800 families), left before the program began, citing another commitment. "You leave your theology at the door when it comes to the survival of Israel," Greenstein said.
The groups find common ground in their reading of parts of the Old Testament regarding Israel, but there are sharp political differences. In the 2000 presidential election, American Jews generally supported the Gore-Lieberman ticket, while evangelicals went for Bush-Cheney. The Belz family, represented at the luncheon by Andy Groveman, senior vice-president of Belz Enterprises, has been a strong financial supporter of several local and statewide Democratic candidates. McAteer was an ally of the first President Bush.
There seem to also be differences of opinion about the current President Bush. Groveman said Bush has been "exactly on course" in the war on terrorism since 9/11. But McAteer was passing out flyers in which he was quoted as saying, "Bush is absolutely, 100 percent wrong on supporting and even talking about an idea called the road map" with regard to Israelis and Palestinians.
"We pray that our President will understand that God gave the land to the Jew," said the relentlessly upbeat former Colgate salesman. "We do not believe the land should be divided."
The guests of honor were Knesset members Joseph Paritzky and Ilan Leibovitch, who were in Nashville and Memphis as part of a goodwill tour. The luncheon group was mostly middle-aged or older. There were two black preachers and one black politician, City Councilman Rickey Peete. Evangelicals outnumbered Jews about two-to-one. They sat around six round tables and ate pasta and sandwiches while McAteer made introductions and called for "a prayuh," imitating the accent of Billy Graham. Tom Lindberg, pastor of 2,800-member First Assembly of God Memphis, did the honors in ecumenical fashion. That was followed by enthusiastic renditions of the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and the Hatikva.
Paritzky seemed particularly touched. "We felt, in a way, embarrassed," he said. "We in Israel have forgot what it means to be simply happy." He sat down to a standing ovation and a chorus of "amen" and "bless you."
McAteer claimed there are "millions of Bible-believing Christians in this country who believe as we do" and put the ranks of evangelical Christians in the United States at 70-80 million. Outside the dining room, he had set up a table with flyers urging people to call the White House with the message that "President Bush Honors God's Covenant with Israel."
Other than Peete, the only elected official in attendance was Shelby County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, who called Israel "my home country because every Christian thinks of Israel as their home country."
Is Memphis in the vanguard of a hot trend here? The Wall Street Journal, which did a front-page story on this general subject a while ago, seems to think so. But journalists, mimicking economists, have spotted 10 of the last three hot trends.
David Kustoff, a Jewish Republican activist featured in that article, sees some erosion of the Democrats' four-to-one margin among Jewish voters in the last three presidential elections -- and more to come if Joe Lieberman is not the candidate in 2004.
"One Memphis rabbi told me Bush was the best president for Jews in America since Harry Truman," he said.