A Conversation with Joel Rosenberg
As part of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry’s mission to teach about Israel and the Jewish people, our North American Ministries Director Steve Herzig interviewed Joel Rosenberg, a well-known New York Times bestselling author. From his home in Jerusalem, Joel discussed Bible prophecy, life in Israel, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. Here is an excerpt from that interview.
Steve: Thanks for your time, Joel. Seven years ago, you made aliyah. That is, you immigrated to Israel. That’s not easy, especially for an American. It’s even more difficult for a Jewish believer in Jesus. Tell us about your experience.
Joel: Personally, it’s been seven fat years. Emotionally, it has been seven lean years. It’s a challenge. I meet Jewish believers who have been denied or fear being denied the right to immigrate to Israel. It’s painful. And they ask me, “What is your secret?” I don’t have a secret. We applied and wrote a cover letter explaining we’re evangelicals. We didn’t want to hide it.
We take no credit. If God wants you in this country, He will do it. We trust the God of Israel, but it was hard. Most Jews are coming from countries where they’re in danger, so when they hit the hard moments—relationally, structurally, bureaucratically, legally, financially (let’s say you’re from Yemen) you’re like, well, thank God, I’m not in Yemen. Americans don’t think that way. When you leave the world’s wealthiest, most powerful country, where everything has been made as easy as possible, Israel is a hard adjustment.
Steve: What advice do you have for Jewish believers wanting to make aliyah?
Joel: It’s not for the faint of heart. I don’t try to persuade people to make aliyah. It’s between you and the Lord.
Steve: You’re a high-profile person. Does that translate into opportunities to share your faith in Christ?
Joel: I get a lot of opportunities. I get invited to meet with many leaders and people in government, like the president of Israel or cabinet ministers, members of the Knesset, and business leaders. All these require an appointment. They have already Googled me and already made the decision to meet with me or not. And if I clear [their background checks], I know they’re willing to be in a room with me. Sometimes they want an off-the-record meeting just so we can get to know each other.
Steve: Israeli citizenship means military service. Have your children served?
Joel: We have four sons. Two of them have completed their service. One served in an elite combat unit. When you’re an American-Jewish teenager and get drafted into the Israeli army, as a believer you have no place to hide. They ask you right in the beginning, “Are you religious or nonreligious?” What do you say as a Jewish believer? “No, by your definition. I’m not religious or ultra-Orthodox.” So they say, “You’re secular.”
One quick story. One of my sons was in a combat unit, and his commander asked, “So, are you religious, not religious?” My son said, “Well, you know . . .” So he told him [that he believed in Jesus as Messiah]. The commander, who is only 21 or 22, asks him, “Do you go to the synagogue?”
[Joel’s son] “Not really.”
[Commander] “Don’t you spend time reading the Bible and praying?”
[Joel’s son] “Yes, I do.”
[Commander] “Where do you do that?”
[Joel’s son] “Well, wherever.”
[Commander] “All right. Look, go to the synagogue. Just sit on the bench outside.”
So he does that. Well, another guy in the unit who is a young believer [in Jesus] wants to sit with my son to study, and another really religious [Orthodox] guy in the unit sees it and is furious. And he’s screaming at my son in Hebrew, “How dare you?” and physically assaults the young guy studying with my son.
There is pushing and shoving, while my son stands between them. These are combat soldiers, right? They’re trained to kill people. Eventually, the fight gets broken up. And it’s the religious guy who ended up going to jail. The commander said, “This is absolutely not acceptable. I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe. We are Israelis. You can believe whatever you want.”
Another example: You’re on a hilltop over Hebron, a radical Palestinian community with a lot of terrorist activity. You’re holding an M4 automatic weapon, wearing full combat gear. You have an all-night vigil on a hill, and your commander is with you. This happened to both my boys.
What are you talking about after the third hour, the fourth? Eventually, Jesus is going to come up. The Bible will come up—Isaiah 53 will come up. But as long as you build relationships, that is the way. Jewish people do not want to be targeted. No one wants to be targeted. We have to be relational.
Steve: You’ve written extensively on Iran, which Ezekiel 38—39 calls Persia. Is Iran an existential threat to Israel today?
Joel: Yes, Iran is a threat. And there are other threats. But Israel does have a strategic relationship and alliance with America. We do have F–35 stealth fighter jets that can slip into our enemies’ countries without even being seen. We have submarines lurking off the coast of Iran right now. They [the submarines] have missiles. We have treaties with Egypt and Jordan and now with four other countries. It’s a conundrum, right? Two things are true at once. Israel is the most targeted country on the planet, and Iran is becoming more dangerous than ever.
Yet Israelis feel more secure than ever. We get that people hate us, want to kill us, and want to annihilate us. That’s not new. You can go back to Haman [Est. 3—9] trying to annihilate the Jewish people, or Pharaoh or Hitler, right up to today. But God is favoring us. This is exactly the dynamic, Steve, the Bible says would be in motion before this Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance happens. And now, in the last 20 years, particularly the last few years, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are forming an alliance that is not normal.
It hasn’t happened in the 2,600 years since Ezekiel wrote the prophecy. One country that’s interesting is Kush. Historically, a lot of English translations of Ezekiel 38 describe Kush as Ethiopia. And it’s certainly true that Ethiopia is part of what ancient Kush was. But ancient Kush is really the country we today call Sudan.
When I wrote the book Epicenter 15 years ago, Sudan was a radical, jihadist country aligned with Iran. When [Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to give a speech about destroying the “evil cancer” of Israel, he gave it in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Sudan buys weapons from Russia. So at that time, 15 years ago, it seemed it would be in a coalition against Israel.
Today Sudan has a peace treaty with Israel. It’s actually moved us back slightly from the brink. When I wrote that book, Turkey was a friend of Israel; and Israelis took cheap vacations there. But in the last few years, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is taking Turkey to the dark side.
Steve: Joel, would you describe the impact The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry [FOI] has made on you and your family?
Joel: We have been so encouraged by the staff of FOI that we know personally. They are wonderful, and we deeply respect them. In fact, we are financial supporters and have been for a number of years.
Many ministries love Israel and provide political support, but they’re not willing to tell Jewish people that our Messiah has come. Nor do they help young, new believers in Jesus from a Jewish background to walk and grow in their faith. And that’s a shame because more Jews have come to faith in Jesus as Messiah in the last 20 or 30 years than in the last 20 centuries.
And that’s true in America. We did a research project that the Joshua Fund [joshuafund.com] helped fund a few years ago with the Southern Baptists. There are almost 900,000 Jewish evangelicals in the United States alone. Here in Israel, we’ve gone from 23 Jewish followers of Jesus in 1948 to 30,000, according to an Israel College of the Bible study just a few years ago. That’s tremendous.
What we need today are ministries like The Friends of Israel that are not ashamed of the gospel, knowing it is the power of God for salvation to the Jew first, but not only to the Jew. To the Gentiles as well. So I’m encouraged and grateful for The Friends of Israel.
Steve: God has opened doors among many in the Arab community too. Tell us about that.
Joel: We have seen answers to what I call “audacious” prayer. King Abdullah of Jordan was such an answer. I’ve met with the king of Jordan five times, the president of Egypt five times, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia two times—two-hour meetings each time. God is opening doors.
I’ve got a book coming out in September called Enemies and Allies, where I explain what has happened. I walk people through what’s changed in the last 20 years, since 9/11. Who are our enemies and who are our allies? I think it’s going to be a very interesting book for people. I literally have not talked publicly about it until today. It’s going to look at where we are in our fight with radical Islamism. Just a few years ago, we had genocide going on near our borders from ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It was horrible. Now it’s over. How did we win? What’s been happening?
Also, the book discusses the rising Iranian-Russian-Turkish alliance. Even if you don’t want to look at it prophetically, it’s dangerous. I talked to [then-U.S.] Secretary [of State] Mike Pompeo on the record. I talked to [then-] Vice President [Mike] Pence on the record. I talked to the defense secretary of Israel on the record. These are exclusive interviews about the enemies.
Another section is on the opportunities and allies. How did the Abraham Accords come about? I was on the south lawn of the White House when they were signed. I know the leaders who made these deals. I have the entire story. It’s literally the first book of its kind. And I tell it from the perspective of a follower of Jesus—a Jewish, Israeli, American, dual citizen with two sons who served in the Israeli army. It’s a book I think your world will find very, very interesting.
Steve Herzig’s hourlong interview with Joel Rosenberg can be seen online at foi.org/joel.
→ You can order Joel’s latest book, Enemies and Allies, from The Friends of Israel at foi.org/jr-book or by calling us at 800–257–7843.
→ You can find Joel online at Joelrosenberg.com. He also has established the Joshua Fund to bless Israel (joshuafund.com) and two news websites for up-to-date information on Israel (allisrael.com) and the Arab world (allarab.news).