The Friends of Israel Turns 70

When the calendar turned the page into 2008, Israel began celebrating six full decades as a modern nation. The story of Judaism’s return to its “place of places” in the Holy Land is a chronicle of events too miraculous to be attributed to human capabilities. Providentially speaking, it involved a convergence of circumstances that grew out of centuries of maltreatment, capped by the unimaginable: the Holocaust.

Israel’s modern resurrection was reminiscent of the story unfolded in the book of Esther: a people under siege, delivered by God-empowered individuals who were in the right place at the right time. In other words, people strategically positioned for such a time as this.

Ten years prior to that biblical and historical landmark in 1948, other events were converging that would create a tandem force in the Christian world. Though not of equal magnitude, the founding of The Friends of Israel Refugee Committee, later to become The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry (FOI), would show another side of the coin in the affairs of the era.

By 1938 Adolf Hitler was on a rampage against the Jewish people, bearing a grudge and a promise. His promise: to create an Aryan, 1,000-year Reich by exterminating European Jewry under the guise of fostering, in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s terminology, “peace in our time.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world chose to look the other way, hoping that silence and concessions would satisfy the Nazi dictator’s lust for land and power. Of course, the vast majority was wrong.

The Nazi regime’s cruelty was visible and premeditated. Nazi doctrine rested on an evil, three-pronged axis: deception, fabrication, and brutality.

  • Deception played on the naiveté of decent people who believed Germany was an oppressed nation desiring nothing more than to break free from the economic stranglehold imposed on it following its defeat in World War I. Many viewed Hitler’s purges and military buildup as merely an attempt to rebuild national pride and self-confidence. Unfortunately, these people operated on the premise that Hitler meant what he said and would keep his promises.
  • Fabrication was central to the Nazi scheme, which revolved around propagating the “big lie.” Hitler needed a scapegoat through which to birth his “superrace” and fuel his delusions of national grandeur. He found it in European Jewry. Every conceivable evil afflicting Germany was blamed on the Jewish people, whom the Nazis claimed contaminated the hallowed Aryan ground. Eliminate the Jews, Hitler declared, and utopia would quickly become reality.
  • Brutality was the Nazi modus operandi. That people bought into the regime’s gargantuan lies threw open the door to an inferno of savage cruelty the likes of which had never before been displayed in modern times. Brutality became so infused in the nation’s psyche that the stench from the death-camp ovens and the stacks of Jewish skeletons being carted to mass graves were excused by another lie: We didn’t know what was going on.

Men of Vision, Men of Faith
One of the great tragedies of the run up to World War II was that major national political leaders, clergy, and citizens in the Christian West—including Americans—joined the masses behind the wall of silence that doomed 6 million Jewish people and traumatized virtually the entire world.

There were, however, others who saw the situation through a different prism, one of care and compassion for people unable to help themselves.

Thus, in 1938, a group of evangelical Christian men in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, decided to break the silence and rescue as many Jewish people as possible from the inferno engulfing Europe. The Friends of Israel Refugee Committee (FIRC) sought to aid displaced Jewish people in a host of countries. A quote from Israel My Glory, established in 1942, read as follows:

We are anxiously awaiting the end of the war, preparing to go to the stricken lands of Europe with spiritual and material comfort for the little remnant of Israel, which, we pray, will have survived the greatest calamity in Jewish history.

While awaiting that eventuality, FIRC workers ministered to Jewish soldiers and allied troops waiting to take part in the invasion that would liberate Europe.

As a Christian organization, the ministry functioned under two inalienable mandates: the obligation to “comfort, yes, comfort My people” (Isa. 40:1) and the command to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15).

The times were impeccably expressive of the prophet Jeremiah’s lament during the stresses of another dark chapter in the history of Israel:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which has been brought on me (Lam. 1:12).

Friends of Israel relief was distributed in many material and practical ways. Food, clothing, housing, medicine, and other forms of aid and comfort were basic features of the program.

And as an evangelical organization, there was (and remains) the spiritual aspect: to make the Messiah known to Jewish people, on an equal footing with ministry to all people the world over. Jesus’ command is to propagate an equal-opportunity message: “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’”

In fact, the apostle Paul established a sense of indebtedness to do so. “I am a debtor,” he wrote, “both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise,” and to his kinsmen: the Jewish people (Rom. 1:14).

An interesting footnote to the early beginnings of The Friends of Israel is that in 1938 there was no State of Israel. Therefore, those who attempt to make this organization a dupe of Israeli politicians, claiming we believe Israel right or wrong, do so completely without factual substance. Our founders had one goal: to reach out to people in the utmost distress. Not a single shred of evidence exists to the contrary. This ministry was never about politics. It was, and remains, about helping people in need.

Foundation and Function
Dr. Victor Buksbazen, born in 1903, became the general secretary of the ministry in March 1943. For the next 33 years he set the course for the work and epitomized the integrity, clarity, dignity, and trustworthiness upon which the organization is fixed today.

Born and educated in Warsaw, Poland, Victor was a classical scholar in the best sense of the word. After receiving a bachelor of divinity degree at the University of Warsaw in 1926, he became assistant professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the university. An expert in linguistics, Victor was fluent in Polish, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Russian, Greek, and Latin.

Dr. Buksbazen manifested the same intellectual acumen as another Hebrew-Christian scholar, the renowned Alfred Edersheim. Both were steeped in the life and culture of their people and shared a passion for biblical and historical accuracy that Gentile theologians do not possess in quite the same way. Victor’s superb commentary, The Prophet Isaiah, remains a legacy for generations to come.

Sensing the imminent danger facing Polish Jewry, Victor immigrated to England in 1937. There he could continue to write and minister to the increasing numbers of refugees forced to flee Nazi occupation. As was the case with many who left before the concentration camps became operational, he had close emotional and physical ties to kinsmen who were unable to escape the coming terror. His personal attachment undergirded his work with a foundation of compassion and concern that others were incapable of experiencing in the same acute way.

I suppose one could say that such personal attachment defines a ministry, as opposed to an organization that is simply benevolent and philanthropic. A passion for the survival of family and friends caught in a desperate situation does more to produce action, depth, and sensitivity than merely observing from afar.

God’s gift of Victor to the helm of The Friends of Israel was richly augmented by Victor’s wife, Lydia. Lydia was an English Jewess who possessed all of the positive refinements of European grace and quality that enhanced the growing ministry. She, too, had a family history punctuated by the isolation and treachery of marauding anti-Semites. In Lydia’s experience, it was the pogromists in Russia who put her people to the sword. Her book They Looked for a City tells her gripping story in ways that have moved the hearts and changed the lives of thousands.

So, under the duress of the Nazi reign of terror, God raised up an organization fitted with all of the tools necessary to build for the future. FOI was not created as a personality-driven movement that would rise or fall on the strength or weakness of individuals. And though others would eventually embellish what the early founders began, it was the founders who positioned the ministry to build for the future.

For Such a Time As This
When this Mission was born, the future of the Jewish people was in serious jeopardy. They were without a homeland and were crying out in desperation for hearts to care and hands to help. As we celebrate The Friends of Israel at 70, how much has really changed?

Admittedly, the players are different. But the playbook remains the same. The world’s condition is unaltered. Deception, fabrication, and brutality are still the enemy’s main tactics.

This time it is the Western confederation of nations, led by the UN, that is swallowing the land-for-peace delusion. Palestinians and other Islamists claim to be the oppressed people who wish only for a nation to restore their pride and self-worth. All the while they dangle the carrot of good intentions and promise peace and prosperity—until they get what they want, which is everything.

The big lie is still at center stage. Replace the name Hitler with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who rants against his selected scapegoats, Israel and the Jewish people, blaming them for every iniquity and offering the only “acceptable” solution: genocide and annihilation of the Jewish state. His desire is not for a 1,000-year Reich but for a global, Islamic caliphate.

Now the door is open to unbridled brutality. It is endemic in every sector of the plan to eliminate Israel and the Western democracies. Look at the situation in the Jewish communities bordering the Gaza Strip. Thousands of rockets have assaulted Israeli citizens, indiscriminately causing an untold number of casualties.

As we launch into the eighth decade of FOI’s service, we can only conclude that this ministry has been well prepared to meet the uncertainties of the future. Today we are able to minister to more people by more means than ever before. Our international staff, media technology, and literature penetration enhance our worldwide stature, building bridges to Israel and the Jewish people. And the times we live in are providing opportunities that were inconceivable 70 years ago.

That having been said, I’m sure that if we could stand today among that heavenly cloud of witnesses who saw it all begin, we would hear the words As good as it has been, the best is yet to come.

Happy birthday, FOI!

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