It is difficult for me to write an introduction for this piece, not because of the amazing interview I had with Maya Zinshtein about her documentary “‘Til Kingdom Come’, but how I’m having to grapple with some of the sad truths that my religious background paved for me, and how these shared “truths” have given America a complicated and misguided relationship with Israel. Growing up in the Evangelical Christian world of the 700 Club, Pat Robertson and the Left Behind book series, I was taught that our relationship with Israel, as Christians, was very important to our story. Some Evangelical Christians who take the Bible as literal believe that Israel is the last hope to our end of days, which is pulled out of Revelation. So much money is being directed to Israel based on this belief, and what from the outside can be seen as a positive form of unity and love, reveals itself–once you dig a little deeper–to be a misguided political agenda that is being pushed by our current president. Now we are seeing some scary realities come to fruition that have influenced a deeper divide between Israel and Palestine.
With all of this money going towards Israel, Maya Zinshtein started with the question, “why?” “Why do these Evangelical Christians ‘love’ us so much?” As she dug deeper, it brought her to the organization , International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and one of their largest donors, the Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Maya likened her experience of making this doc to making a layered cake. She wants her documentary to be what you see when you cut the cake. As we discussed these layers, I asked her what she hopes the viewer will take from this film, and her response was powerful: “I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.”
“‘Til Kingdom Come” is now playing virtually at the Chicago International Film Festival until 10/25. Learn more.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
MAYA ZINSHTEIN: I’m an Israeli, and I’m also a filmmaker and a journalist. I had been asked to look into some other project that Christian Evangelicals were just a part of it. I think many Israelis, and of course myself, are involved with the politics in Israel. This is what interests me. When I came across this phenomena of Evangelical Christians’ involvement in Israel, I started to look into it. The more I looked into it, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about what was actually happening. This was in July 2017, and Trump was already the president. But that was before everything happened later that was shown in the film. Back then, it was very clear to me that there was this huge influence happening, and it’s happening totally underneath the surface.
As a journalist, and I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m talking about, you become slightly obsessive in the beginning about your subject. You’re just reading, reading, and reading. After a month of reading through the nights, I realized I was fascinated by the subject, and it’s fascinating to explore. I started from this big subject, with the Christian Evangelical involvement in Israel, and I started to look at what story I should tell.
I started to reach out to all the different organizations based here in Israel that were involved with Evangelical Christians. It was funny because one of the heads of these organizations told me, “Listen, if you’re patient, by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020, you may see Trump recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”, and then it all happened in half a year. People who were so deeply involved in this process didn’t understand that Trump was really into it, and that he was going to make the announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
This person at some point told me, after the announcement of the US Embassy moving to Jerusalem, after all of these gifts started coming in–because there were much more gifts–he told me, “Listen, if things keep going in this direction I can just quit my job and move to the Bahamas, because everything we’ve dreamed of, and pushed for for so many years, they’re just giving it to us.”
It started with that, on a political level. It was clear to me that the way that I like to tell stories is like making a layered cake. When you cut it, you see all the layers. I wanted to start with these people that are Evangelical and very faith-driven. I heard about these churches all across the US that raise the Israeli flag and kids praying for Jerusalem before they are going to sleep. You need to understand for us, this is like, “what and why?”
MARTIN: I love how you put it in your director’s statement how you are exploring this “love” between Evangelical Christians and the Jewish people in Jerusalem and Israel. This love is obviously flawed, and you’ve touched on that with what is seen and what is layered beneath. There is that “Elephant in the Room” in terms of what that really means. Can you comment more on that?
ZINSHTEIN: When I was doing my research, the word “love” would keep popping up. “Love” is a specific sentiment based on when you have emotions towards someone that you know, and this idea that someone loves me so deeply without knowing me, not personally of course, but as an idea, I found this “idea” fascinating. Like what does it mean, this “love”? If you keep saying you love me, and not me specifically, but the Jewish people in Israel, what does that mean?
MARTIN: Yeah let’s get into the specifics of why you “love” me.
ZINSHTEIN: That’s why I think it’s so interesting. At the beginning I met this really nice Evangelical guy and at some point he was honest enough and said, “Listen, you need to understand, they don’t ‘love’ you, they love Jesus. You are the way to Jesus. You are the key, we just can’t make it without you. We have to have you within our story because you’re a part of it.” And that was helpful and answered for me the question I kept asking, “why do you love me?” Once I understood that, it was a breakthrough for me. You have to understand that it’s not about us, the Jewish people in Israel, that’s the thing. And if it’s not about us, what is the problem?
Many Israelis here are happy with cooperating with the US Evangelical Christians. They’re thinking is, “finally somebody loves us, thank god, let’s take it.” For Israelis, it’s a very emotional thing. The Jews in Israel within the last years of the occupation are raised in the state of mind that the world is against us, and everyone hates us. It’s almost like the psychology of this Jewish nation is that everyone hates us. So when finally somebody “loves” us, “we” take it.
MARTIN: How did Pastor Boyd Bingham and Yael Eckstein become the main subjects of this documentary?
ZINSHTEIN: Once I finished mapping this world between the Evangelical Christians and the Jews, I met Rabbi Eckstein, who passed away, and we started to learn more about the fellowship [International Fellowship of Christians and Jews]. I asked them who are your biggest donors?
To my surprise, their biggest donor was this church in this very tiny town in the US. Usually the fellowship gets donations from private people, usually dollar to dollar donations from across the country. They don’t really get involvement from churches. The people from that church came to Israel, and I asked, “can you make an introduction?” We called and met them, and I asked “can we join you for your trip in Israel for a couple days?” So we stayed with them for the whole trip. It was really a journey. We were fascinated by this group that we met, and then we said we’ll come with them to Kentucky. And they said, “yeah right, you’ll never come”, and two months later I landed there with my team. I remember the moment when I arrived in Middlesboro, and I saw this huge Israeli flag in front of the church. Then I saw the Star of David on the cross and I was like, “whoa”.
It was a journey. First we thought we should focus on Rabbi Eckstein more because he is the guy who actually started all of this, but then it was very clear that there was this generational comparison that we can make with Yael and Boyd taking their fathers’ missions forward. For me, actually with all of these stories, there is this line of indoctrination or how this idea (Evangelical Christians in the US supporting Jewish people in Israel) is passing on generation to generation. For me, creating this comparison of the pastor’s son and the rabbi’s daughter and the ideas of their families and their parents added another layer. And as you know, I like layers.
I think Boyd is a very smart guy. He knows how to articulate his thoughts. In some way, I think that he can represent himself, but also represent a broader idea. In the beginning it wasn’t easy because how strange it was for me to be in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and also strange for Middlesboro, Kentucky to have me there.
MARTIN: Yael is fascinating to me. She seems so intelligent. Something she said in the film that stayed with me is that, “My dreams are nothing like what I dreamt them to be”. If she didn’t have her father’s legacy to live up to, I feel she would have chosen a more independent path. She seems to see through “the charade” or “the elephant in the room” regarding their relationship with the Evangelical Christians but she keeps moving on and following her father’s footsteps. What was it like working with her for this film?
ZINSHTEIN: You create a relationship, you know? We’ve been filming her for a long time. She knew my work and she understood that I was not making an infomercial for the fellowship. She asked me one question, “How do you want me to feel after I watch the film?” I told her, “Yael, I want you to feel that I saw you.” Her response to the film was positive. She texted me after she watched it and she said it’s fair and it’s smart.
In regards to Yael following in her father’s footsteps, once you’re on the train that’s going, it’s difficult to jump from it. I know she feels a huge obligation, and an emotional obligation to her father. She wants to continue his mission. That was everything in his life. To come onto this path that someone made for you, and you want to play differently, there are not many people doing that. Of course, you’d love for your subjects to see the light, but that’s what happens in Hollywood movies, not necessarily documentaries. This is real life, you know? And she is a very intelligent woman. I think her goal is to succeed.
You know, I’m an immigrant. My roots have been cut, and I needed to start from scratch. If I had stayed in Russia, I would have probably been a third generation of something, and I’m glad I’m not. But this idea of what it’s like to have a legacy on your back, like do you have free will, was interesting for me to explore. And of course she has free will. She can do whatever she wants, but maybe she doesn’t want to.
MARTIN: What do you hope the viewer will take most from your documentary?
ZINSHTEIN: I think it depends on who is the viewer. My dream is that many Evangelical Christians will watch this film. I think a lot of their “love” is loving this ancient book. But we have a reality here in this country.
I’ll answer your question with a story. We were in a Christian Israeli summit, and I had a conversation with a few young members. I spoke with them after I saw them advocating for cutting the support for the Palestinian refugees, alongside the fact that these people need help. The Israeli community sees this advocacy as very dangerous. The Israeli security community really doesn’t want this. I told them, “Listen, my brother is in the reserve special forces. He will go on to fight the next war. Why do you think you can have an influence on my next war?” When you speak with some Americans, they will tell you Russians have a heavy influence on the United States government. My belief is that every single country has the right to decide on their own future. So I say to them, “You’re sitting there in Washington and you think you can influence my future. You’re not going to fight this war, my brother will.” And he just looked at me and said, “I never thought about it.”
That was a moment for me. I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.
Also, there is a Jewish community that is a huge audience for this film. I feel they are dealing internally with so many questions about Israelis making Christian Evangelicals their best friends. And I know there is a huge conversation going on in the American Jewish community about this too. They’re thinking, ‘Should we cooperate with that, and how should we respond to that?’ I see my job as highlighting the dark side of the room. I want to highlight this dark side, and hand it over, and say “Here, think about it.”
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
ZINSHTEIN: Find your allies. One of the producers of this film, who was also the DoP [Abraham (Abie) Troen] has been a great ally. I’m specifically using this word because if you want to start a project that doesn’t have any funding, you need to find someone as crazy as you, and as bold as you to discover with you, like in Middlesboro, Kentucky. It’s my second time learning this lesson [“‘Til Kingdom Come” is Maya Zishtein’s second directorial effort as a documentarian, following her debut, “Forever Pure” (2016)], that’s really the key. And then you need to build your team, and have the best team that you can have. Finding these allies to be running with you, that’s something that is really crucial. You can’t make films alone.