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20 December 1999updated 09 Sep 2021 8:30am

Madmen of the apocalypse

New Statesman Millennium - According to visionaries now gathering in Jerusalem, you had bes

By Peter Stanford

Al Kleimer used to sell cookies in Canning Town market in east London. He must have cut quite a dash for, five years on, he still has the chiselled good looks of a film star and the gift of the gab. Any of his old customers who saw him today in his new home of Jerusalem, however, might be forgiven for thinking that Kleimer had gone cookie.

For this 46-year-old American has been born again in Jesus. Following orders from above, he has sold everything and moved to the Holy Land in the belief that, in or around the year 2000, the world will come to an end. The same persuasive skills he once used to sell biscuits to shoppers are now directed from his base in the run-down Palestinian town of Bethany, east of Jerusalem, towards convincing anyone who will listen that only by embracing fundamentalist Christianity can we be saved.

Kleimer has doomsday plotted down to the last detail. Or rather, he points out, God has. It will follow the apocalyptic scenario that accompanies the second coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation. Though many religious figures down the ages have given Revelation a wide berth, Kleimer prizes it above all other texts in the good book and sees in it a mirror of contemporary events.

First, he predicts on the basis of his reading of this curious narrative, there will be seven years of “tribulation”, where an evil Antichrist in alliance with various other Revelation characters – the Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Beast 666 – will precipitate a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem.

These characters will not be in the garb of mythical creatures, according to Kleimer, but demons masquerading as modern-day politicians. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and even King Juan Carlos of Spain are all under suspicion of being the devil’s henchmen.

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The west will then line up behind the Jews, while the Russians and Chinese will back the Palestinians. A vast conflict will ensue, only to end when Jesus returns to initiate a 1,000-year rule of peace and justice across the earth.

Though 2000 itself is not mentioned specifically in Revelation – which speaks simply of the millennium of Christ’s reign – for Kleimer, next year has become something of a lodestar.

I’ve met Al Kleimer, and I have to say I think he needs psychiatric help. As he drove me to the ruined city of Meggido, the biblical Armageddon and, according to Revelation, scene of the last battle for humankind, he showed all the signs of paranoia. Something in the past half- century of his life, between Canning Town and Jerusalem, has gone very wrong. I could see it in his deep-set eyes, which alternated between menace and fear. And I could hear it in the steely certainty of his voice, as he ran through his conspiracy theories of a secret world government, death camps in America for Christians and hidden satanic messages in roadside Pepsi hoardings. (Pepi, apparently, was an evil god in ancient Egypt.)

Yet I never felt threatened by him during six hours crammed into an undersized Fiat Punto. I felt saddened, brow-beaten and occasionally, when the heat and the verbal barrage got too much, moved to think “what if he’s right?” – but fearful, never. He was, it seemed, harmless – or at least only a danger to himself.

What makes Kleimer of more than curiosity value, however, is that his is not a lone voice. He is one of many millions who think along the same lines. Most of them are based in the United States, but as 2000 approaches, fundamentalist Christians with end-time beliefs are flocking to Jerusalem in ever-increasing numbers. Some of them, I discovered, are a good deal more threatening than Kleimer.

One group, the Denver-based Concerned Christians, arrived in Jerusalem earlier this year with the intention, the Israeli security services feared, of staging a mass suicide in the Old City. The divided core of the divided city – with the Muslims defending their two mosques, the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa on the Temple Mount, and the disgruntled Jews restricted to praying at the foot of the Mount at the Wailing Wall – is already sizzling with tension. The Israelis acted swiftly to deport the new arrivals on a technicality.

In October, they took similarly draconian action against a dozen more American evangelists who had been Kleimer’s neighbours in Bethany. The leaders of the House of Prayer, including its head, the self-styled Brother David, a former caravan-site manager from New York, were told to pack their bags and take the next plane out.

Christianity has traditionally kept a low profile amid the political problems of Jerusalem. Yet the new breed of Christian extremists recognises no imperative to tread carefully in a city that has been a flashpoint for the world’s three great monotheistic religions for centuries.

If Jesus tells these Bible literalists to say something or do something, it would never occur to them to weigh the consequences. Their introduction into a volatile city threatens to be the spark that ignites the bonfire of religious vanities between Muslim and Jew.

With estimates for visitors to Jerusalem in 2000 ranging from three to 21 million, one study has already suggested that up to 40 per cent could be evangelical Christians. One hotel-keeper on the top of the Mount of Olives reports that he has already played host to more Virgin Marys, prophets and new messiahs than he would care to count. He may laugh it off as good for business, but elsewhere alarm bells are ringing.

The head of the Israeli Psychiatric Association, Dr Yair Bar-El, has identified a new illness – Jerusalem Syndrome. The perceived holiness of Jerusalem, he says, attracts those who are mentally disturbed. Once they arrive, they think themselves into the script and start acting accordingly.

Bar-El’s thumb-nail sketch sums up Brother Elijah perfectly.

With his mad scientist’s tonsure and his briefcase emblazoned with the words “Elijah, God’s prophet” in bright red capitals, this middle-aged American stands and preaches in the walled Old City of Jerusalem wherever and whenever two or three are gathered.

He is waiting for Moses to join him, and then together they will be the two witnesses, mentioned in Revelation, who come to announce the return of the Lord and who are martyred in the street for their trouble. He greets the prospect of a violent death with an equanimity that even Jesus did not show in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Other Christian fundamentalist groups with similar beliefs have been more subtle in their methods. They hope to get the Jews to do the hard work of beginning the apocalypse all by themselves.

These Christians, mainly based back in the US, have been channelling funding to extremist Jewish groups who dream of replacing the two Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount with a new Jewish temple.

There is a cynicism on both sides of this curious deal. For the American funders, their generosity carries with it the hope that Jewish plans will precipitate a conflict with the Arabs and hence Armageddon. For the Jewish extremists I questioned, there is a clear-sighted view of what their backers want to happen, but an equally pragmatic determination to take the money without being goaded into doomsday.

The connection between Jewish zealots and Christian extremists in Jerusalem and their base camp in the US is a complex one. At a popular level, in Texas – the buckle on America’s Bible belt – the sort of theology that Al Kleimer spouts is mainstream in such institutions as the Dallas Theological Seminary and on the airwaves of innumerable radio and TV shows that wear their millennialist credentials on their sleeves.

One such tele-evangelist, John Hagee, recently had a best-seller with his book Beginning of the End: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the coming Antichrist. “Based on the words of the prophets of Israel, I believe that the [Middle East] peace process will lead to the most devastating war Israel has ever known,” Hagee wrote. “After that war, the longed for Messiah will come.”

Estimates of the size of the millennialists’ following in the US varies. Perhaps the most frightening statistic is the 32 million copies of his book Late, Great Planet Earth sold by Hal Lindsey, a former New Orleans tugboat captain. The book is a mishmash of end-time predictions based on signs lifted from Revelation – UFOs corresponding to a “star from heaven which had fallen to the earth”, Aids linked to the fire that “the fourth angel poured out from his bowl upon the sun”, and China, “the kings of the east”, who will march westwards with “ten times ten thousand soldiers”.

Lindsey’s regular visits to Jerusalem are just another sign of the build-up of Christian forces. For the Israeli security forces, the challenge is to balance the interests of avoiding trouble with their government’s often-stated promise to allow free access to all believers to the holy sites and the boost that increased tourist revenues in the year 2000 could give to a flagging domestic economy. The last thing they want to do is clamp down too hard and frighten away all the peace-loving, bona fide visitors.

While it would be foolish to believe that Kleimer and his kind could, even in their maddest moment, precipitate the Armageddon that they believe is coming, they do undoubtedly pose an as yet imperfectly understood threat to civil order in Jerusalem, the Middle East peace process and, by association, to a wider world. You don’t have to be a visionary to see that they have the potential to cause an explosion that would resound around the world.

Peter Stanford presents “Revelation: a guide to the end of the world” on Radio 4 on Wednesday 29 December at 8pm

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