Searching for Black Gold in an Unlikely Place

When I first heard about John Brown, the American born-again Christian looking for oil in Israel, I thought, "well … he's obviously unhinged."

Everyone knows Israel doesn't have oil, right? I mean, Israel celebrates its 60th birthday next year, and if it had any of the black stuff, surely some clever person would have found it by now! So, it was with some skepticism that I approached this story and Brown.

The first impression I had of the man, himself, was that he was charming and not quite the wide-eyed evangelical I had expected. We picked him up at his hotel for the first of several meetings. He proved a good talker, and seemed honest and sincere.


(The story came to our attention when John Brown was profiled by Gabriel Sherman for Conde Nast's "Portfolio" magazine. Click here to read "Portfolio's" full article on John Brown and his search for oil in the Holy Land.)

With disarming candor, he described his former life as a high-powered businessman, and how he had run into drinking problems in the early 1980s. He said he had a religious experience in 1981 that changed his life.

"There were some things in my life that needed to be cleared up with the Lord. I felt like God actually took a hose and washed me, and I felt like the sin was actually rolling off me," Brown said, as we chatted, overlooking the holy sites of Jerusalem.

It wasn't long before Brown heard a sermon from a visiting preacher, talking about oil in Israel. It was another turning point in his life that began a 25-year journey.

Brown came to Israel in 1983, and it was there that he fell in love with the landscape and people, and found his mission. That mission was to find the hidden oil he believes is there. His unshakeable faith in the oil lies in the Scriptures. There are passages in the Bible which, for Brown, stand out like sign posts to the oil he hopes to find.

For example, in Genesis 49:25, Jacob promises Joseph "the almighty shall bless thee with the blessings of heaven above, and the blessings of the deep that lieth under."

For Brown, those underground blessings can mean only one thing — oil. Most biblical scholars believe other references to oil in the Bible refer to olive oil, but don't tell Brown that. His belief is unmovable, and his optimism unshakeable.

"My job is to get the oil for Israel, I'm totally focused on that. What I'm doing it for is to help Israel, so that Israel can become geo-politically stronger and more independent," he said.

To back up his faith and convince people he is serious, Brown has formed a company called Zion Oil and Gas. It's a team of real oil men with a lot of experience. Glen Perry is one — an oil man with decades of exploration under his belt. I asked him what he thought about the project.

"It is, without doubt, the most exciting project I've ever been involved with," he said.

Not a bad endorsement from a man who admits he was a skeptic. But now, he's a believer, too, but not like Brown. Perry believes in the science — he believes Israel has oil, because millions of dollars worth of seismology and geological research tells him it should be here.

Zion Oil has been drilling an exploration well this year in the north of Israel, near the town of Hadera. The company has exclusive drilling rights for thousands of acres of land.

What they say they have found makes them very excited — strong evidence of hydro carbons, the essential foundations of oil and gas. Next spring, the drilling starts again to a deeper level, where Brown is convinced he will strike it rich.

It hasn't always been easy, and Brown's faith, as well as his bank account, have been challenged. As we stood looking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, he reflected on the struggle.

"There were times in my heart I knew the Bible was true, but I didn't have any idea why it wasn't working any sooner. I didn't plan a 25-year journey. I thought it was a simple case of getting a license, getting the oil and doing good things with the money," he said.

But up at the site of the drilling, his old self-confidence soon returned, and I found myself slowly getting drawn into his vision of what he expects this place to become — a major oil production site.

There's not much to see there now, but he promises that next spring, his dream will become a reality, as his drill reaches 18,000 feet below the surface. And whatever the doubters say — and there are plenty — if it happens, and if he discovers oil, it couldn't happen to a person who wanted it more.