by Jonathan Feldstein
In 2017, I was contacted by an Israeli filmmaker to help with a project she was working on. I don’t recall how we connected but the topic was one close to me, about which I have spent a large portion of my life, and better part of my career. I was glad to help.
Maya reached out and we spoke at length. The next day, we followed up by email. In our first conversation, and subsequent conversations and meetings, I provided extensive background about the topic. She asked me to help open doors with people she could possibly include in her film, or at least get additional information.
In her email, by way of introducing herself, which I used to introduce her to others she wrote, “I’ve started working on a new documentary on a subject that I find incredibly fascinating and timely: the relationship between Israel and the Christian world. For the past few months, I’ve been reading about this evolving friendship that is benefiting Israel. In a time when religious tensions are high, I feel that it is extremely important to understand and convey the firm bond between Jews and Christians and it is clear that the relationship that you’ve established speaks volumes to this cause.” She concluded, “Looking forward to set up a meeting and to get know each other.”
Adding Film Production to My Resume
We did meet and get to know one another. I was taken by her engaging manner and smile, as well as her background. Maya made Aliyah from the USSR, something about which I had spent considerable time in my earlier life, freeing Jews from the Soviet Union. Through this, I also had several minutes of TV fame about which I negotiated a TV movie contract which was of interest to her. We also connected because she grew up in a kibbutz where my father’s cousins lived, and knew them. From my perspective, we were almost family. Naturally, I wanted to help her “understand and convey the firm bond between Jews and Christians,” and the “evolving friendship that is benefitting Israel.” She gave me some movie title that meant nothing to me specifically, but was cool.
I attempted to make a number of introductions for her, including some of my “A” list. A few Christian friends agreed and some actually spoke to her. Others didn’t respond. The remainder of those who did respond, while they trusted me, said they didn’t know her or her agenda, and were not prepared to open up to someone they didn’t know, and risk being misrepresented. I was surprised by this, but in hindsight, they were right to be suspicious. I am glad that they didn’t engage her. Had they spoken with her, certainly on camera, they’d legitimately have had the right to feel burned by her, or me, something I’d never want associated with my friendship with these people with whom I tried to connect her.
After some time, I stopped hearing from Maya. So did my friends who did engage with her. I assumed that either she decided against doing the film, took a different direction, or had other sources and didn’t need me. I was fine with either. Maybe she casted others in her film who played the part better.
Two Thumbs Down
Two years later, I was interested to discover that her film, “Til Kingdom Come,” was airing on Israeli national TV. Interested, I watched. I congratulated her for finishing the project. She wrote back and asked for my input to which I never responded, simply because while the cinematography was beautiful, I didn’t think she did a good job and had no reason to tell her that. I gave it a “thumbs down.” I figured she did her thing, had her fun, got visibility throughout Israeli media, and that was that. I was wrong.
Recently, I was disappointed to hear that her film has been making its way around American/Jewish film festivals, and in other countries as well. I read some of the reviews, rewatched the film multiple times, and watched hours of interviews and Q&A sessions she and her co-producer did following one virtual screening after another. The reviews, correctly, point out that the topic is controversial. Of course they do. When you watch the film, that’s all that comes across. The portrayal of Christian support for Israel in her film is skewed at best, and even misleading and dishonest.
The real controversy is what was purposefully edited out, what was misrepresented, and even made up. At first glance, that was obvious to me. After digging a little deeper, I began to realize how much this defined the film.
Maya explores one facet of a slice of evangelical Christian support for Israel at a single point in time, a snapshot. She depicts evangelical Christians as a single (white) ethnic group, in one country. It’s a narrow image that pretends to represent a broad movement of sorts, extrapolating that because of what she presented in that instance, that’s how all Christian support for Israel is.
So Much for the Love Story
Just about everything in the film ties Christian support either to a strange (mutually dysfunctional) relationship with Donald Trump, or end times theology of Israel’s destruction. She never spoke to (or presented the opinions of) many of my Asian, black or Hispanic American Christian friends, or others who are no less evangelical and firm in their support of Israel, but whose opinions of Trump ranged from conflicted to loathing. She did not speak to people who consider themselves Christian but not evangelical, and who support Israel. She surely never represented the huge Central and South American, African, and Asian evangelical church where love for Israel is unconditional, Biblically rooted, and has nothing to do with American politics at all. If, as Maya projected many times, she intended to tell a love story, the story depicted is that of an angry ex-lover, perhaps a documentary version of “Basic Instinct.”
While there are surely Christian Zionists who were and are supporting of Trump, and those who believe the end times theology, this film represents a one-sided, biased perspective of Christian support that a well-researched and balanced look would have projected a much wider and deeper reality.
In an accurate and balanced depiction, one would see that not every Christian Zionist is the caricature in which she uses her Christian “actors” to play their role in her film. One would see that not every Christian Zionist is a white Southerner with a stereotypical accent. One would see that there are a diverse range of Christians who support Israel who did not, and do not, support Trump. One would see that the driving force behind their support is rooted in the imperative of Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you (Israel).” One would see that support for Israel is based on overwhelming and unconditional love for Israel, and grief and even repentance for the evils for which the early church is responsible vis a vis the Jews. And if one were to widen the lens, one would see that Christian support for Israel is global, which means it’s not connected to Trump or U.S. policy at all.
But Maya’s film barely scratches the surface of any of that, if at all. She’s made a topic that’s complex, and complicated for Jews to understand, into one that is confrontational in its DNA.
In the end, Maya became a prophet in her own film. In her post-production interviews, she speaks of the relationship with evangelicals as “people who are not honest with one another.” This is echoed by her co-producer, Abie, who speaks of people who “use this relationship for their own purposes.” After seeing the film, one is not surprised to hear this. The surprising thing is that they don’t see the irony in their own statements, made while looking into the camera on their computers, but which in fact could be looking into a mirror. It reminds me of Snow White, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is using this film for their own purposes the most of all?”
Preaching to the Choir
Their Q&A with the JCC of Manhattan is one example. Maya unabashedly showed her cards, and her bias. That others don’t see the bias, or don’t have a problem with it, is quite astounding. The questions from the audience echo the perspective she’s depicted, such as “Evangelical impulse (as) cynical” and even “frightening.” One question even draws a silly parallel between the twin evil and anti-liberal communities of ultra-orthodox Jews “in Brooklyn and these evangelicals.”
It’s also puzzling why the JCC staff member repeatedly offers the opportunity to promote the film as a cause, even offering viewers to “get involved with, help, get the word out.” As someone who has been in nonprofit for most of four decades, I can’t help but wonder how and why it is an appropriate role of a JCC anywhere to help promote and or fund such a film, or any film.
The bias is even more clear when looking at who the sponsors of that event were: The Forward, New Israel Fund, and J Street. These sponsors universally come from a left-wing perspective. The question is whether their role in this event is to promote their agenda, because the film affirms their agenda, or that it’s serving their mutual interests. One thing that’s for sure is without mainstream support and interest, the bias centered around the film is overwhelming.
Just as they call into question a myriad of “unholy alliances” in the relationship between Christians and Israel, if their partners above weren’t bad enough, it is particularly noteworthy that another advocate and promoter of the film is Peter Beinart, an anti-Zionist pundit, and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Someone once said that people who sleep with strange bedfellows should not throw rocks at glass houses, or something like that. Too bad the producers didn’t take that lesson to heart. If the film had not lost credibility on its own, surely by looking at those who are promoting it, one realizes that the loaded left-wing perspective from which it is being embraced with cinematographic messianism calls that into question.
The Content of One’s Cinematography, Not the Color of the Film
Of course, a left-wing perspective of the producers or its supporters does not make the film illegitimate at face value. It’s the content that is in question. But the content, and their Q&A, openly question the legitimacy of support of Christians for Israel, and how that’s embraced by right-wing supporters in Israel. It’s as if they don’t have the right to express themselves or advocate for positions that serve their interests. That’s hardly a liberal perspective.
Throughout post-screening dialogues, Maya and Abie make their agenda clear. She says, “the Israeli audience needs to know about this. American (Jews) community are our brothers and sisters. We have a shared story with them, the same goals. We don’t share the same story and same goals with the evangelical community. Netanyahu chose for us who would be our best friend.”
Uh oh. Now it’s about Trump, and Bibi. The problem is that Maya leads the viewers to believe that former Prime Minister Netanyahu has, by definition, been saying that evangelical Christians are Israel’s best friends, at the exclusion of others. Love him or loathe him, Bibi is not stupid. Not in the film (and not anywhere on record that am aware of) did he say that they are Israel’s best friends. He’s seen in the film saying “We have no better friends in the world.” That’s not exclusive of other friends. But Maya doesn’t think so, and doesn’t want the viewer to think so either. Her spin on this is dizzying, and dishonest.
This hearkens another cinematographic legend, “The Wizard of Oz.” “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the wizard implores. “I am the great and powerful Oz.” And then we learn that Oz is nothing more than an old man pulling the strings and levers, quite literally, out of view. Maya effectively plays the role of Oz, and diminishes and twists the real voices.
Questions from the Q&A
During one of the Q&A sessions, one of the producers commented that it is “urgent that this become part of the consciousness of the American Jewish community of what is going on.” I suppose any film-maker would say that of his or her own film. In this case, yes, of course it is important, but to create understanding, not a documentary lynching.
Abie wonders aloud, “do they really love us? (It’s) hard to get to the bottom of it.” This is ironic because Maya is depicted as an expert, and they spent months making the film. But if after doing all this we are left with the answer that ‘it’s hard to get to the bottom of it,’ what expertise or authority to they actually bring to the issue? If they don’t know the answer and are only able to cast aspersions, how can the film be trusted to be an accurate depiction to begin with?
A friend also in the sphere of working among Christians said that while the film is problematic, it’s these conversations afterward that are even more so. Maya uses these sessions to inject information and bias that she ostensibly learned in making the film, but left out of the film itself. We are left to take her at her word, without any substantiation. She shares just the convenient musings and scenes that buttress her bias, but that we’ve never seen. She offers no real insight into why, despite her bias, Christians actually love her and Israel, about which she wonders aloud with incredulousness.
Why Donate to Israel
Another topic needing some scrutiny is the depiction of the Kentucky church featured as one that’s impoverished, where the children are literally giving their pennies as some sort of theological, if not cult-like, sacrifice. It almost comes across that they are in an unholy Ponzi scheme with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to bilk poor families out of their hard-earned pennies. The antisemitic undertone of this segment is given a pass because of who the producers are and what the message is. But anyone else depicting people collecting pennies for Israel would be slammed by all the organizations that monitor such things.
Understanding the imperative that many Christians hold to bless Israel (rooted in Genesis 12:3), I came away with a different look: that the church and these children’s’ parents are teaching them a core foundation of their faith. How is that any different than my (poor) relatives in Poland, Russia, or New York putting their pennies in a blue and white tin box to redeem a Land that they could only dream about? Just because Maya doesn’t understand or agree with it, why when Christians do it is it suspect and loaded with malice rather than genuinely understanding?
Of course, from a Jewish perspective, we know that tzedakah, the Biblical obligation to give charity, applies to all — rich and poor alike.
“The Settlers” – Another Unholy Alliance
The film alleges tremendous financial and other support by Christians for the “settlers” and Jews in the “West Bank” in general. In fact, in one of the Q&A sessions with people at USC, a shocking question was asked about Yael Eckstein and the IFCJ. “Does the Fellowship fund anything outside the settler movement?” Abie responded that they also fund “humanitarian” projects. Other than his tepid, passive comment, he makes no effort to correct the misperception that the film created. He either doesn’t know, or is just not being honest about, the fact that the overwhelming majority of IFCJ funding has nothing to do with “settlements.” In fact, a survey of major nonprofits over the green line shows that a statistically insignificant portion of total Christian financial support goes to the “West Bank.” With the minor exception of a handful of organizations which raise funds almost exclusively from Christians, but whose total budgets represent a fraction of the total IFCJ budget, much less other main evangelical ministries, the film depicts as a malicious reality something that’s patently not true.
While she provides carefully edited clips and sound bites to demonstrate disproportionate support form evangelicals to the “settlements,” (again taken as unchallenged gospel), the reality is that proportionally, with the exception of one organization she featured, CFOIC, very little Christian money goes to nationalist or social service projects over the green line (aka in the West Bank). She either doesn’t know, or is making up facts to depict evil settlers and evangelicals in bed together.
New Meaning to Best Editor
Recently I learned about the fact that quotes were made up and spliced together in the film, particularly one from President Trump. It’s been researched and documented that what was presented is not what Trump said. Nevertheless, a dismissive comment I heard was to the effect that “if making up quotes attributed to Trump is the biggest issue with the film, I can live with that.” Were another director to produce such a biased piece and making up quotes about a topic that’s deemed politically correct, they’d be raked over the coals. Not Maya. She’s become their sweetheart. I don’t know if she’s up for a Best Editor award, but she’s surely given that new meaning. This is troubling on a host of levels, but in the context of the film, diminishes its overall credibility. It’s important that the true story be shared.
It’s not a “coincidence” that she ends the film with a statement from the senior pastor from her favorite Kentucky church. In the JCC Q&A, she admits, “This is the message I want to say as well to my audience… and I think that it’s amazing that the message that I really want the audience will listen to is said by an evangelical pastor.” Maybe her awkward laughter after stating this is because, if you pay attention, she goads the pastor to make his controversial statement, and deliberately used this as her penultimate finale. But even that, for which at least she has the honesty to make it clear she’s leading the pastor, is tainted. She takes his quote as a statement, but leaves out the context prefacing it where he says, “You don’t want to hear me come across and say…”
“Stupid Jewish people,” Maya says, quoting the pastor. “Can’t you see that the evidence is before you?”
Indeed Maya. The evidence is before us.
Because it’s important to explain the depth and breadth of why Christians do love and support Israel, as well as to address the false impressions and inaccuracies in the film, the Genesis 123 Foundation is hosting a webinar on July 29 at 10 p.m. Israel time, 3 p.m. Eastern (U.S.) to explore issues with the film, including what was said, and what was not said but critical to understand. Advance registration is required. Pastor Boyd Bingham of the Binghamtown Baptist Church, who was featured in the film will share candid insight about the film, along with Dr. Tricia Miller, Christian Media Analyst of CAMERA, an authority on false and misleading depictions of Israel in the media with expertise in the Christian world.