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April 6, 2006

Evangelicals Rally Their Flocks Behind Israel


by Bill Berkowitz

Charismatic televangelist John Hagee thinks that the Rev. Pat Robertson's suggestion that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was payback from God for withdrawing from Gaza was "insensitive and unnecessary." But he nevertheless appears to share Robertson's concern that Israel may be giving up too much land to the Palestinians.

To prevent the George W. Bush administration from pressuring the Israelis into turning over even more land, Hagee, the pastor of San Antonio's Cornerstone Church and the head of a multimillion-dollar evangelical enterprise, recently brought together 400 Christian evangelical leaders representing as many as 30 million Christians for an invitation-only "Summit on Israel."

The result was the launch of a new pro-Israel lobbying group called Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

By 2002, a number of veteran Christian conservative evangelical leaders and Republican Party power brokers had joined forces with conservative Jewish leaders to launch several pro-Israel organizations. But the history of Jewish-evangelical involvement goes back several decades.

According to Rabbi James Rudin, writing in his recently published book, The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of U.S., "the first [modern] evangelical-Jewish meeting" took place in New York in 1975.

A bevy of issues including "the meaning of Messiah in both traditions, Jesus the Jew, biblical theology, and the meaning of modern Israel and Jerusalem for Christian conservatives and Jews" were discussed.

Rudin points out that "the evangelical commitment to Israel creates some ambivalence" in the Jewish community, since that "commitment" is built on the biblical belief that "without an Israel, an ingathering of Jewish exiles, [the] major event in Christian eschatology [the Second coming of Jesus to Jerusalem] cannot take place."

"That is why some evangelicals are dismayed at any Israeli withdrawal or disengagement from any area of the biblical 'Holy Land.' That is also why the strong Christian conservative support of Israel is not linked to Middle East realpolitik or America's growing thirst for Arab oil," Rudin says.

Although not as well known on the national political scene as some of his evangelical brethren, Hagee has built an impressive evangelical empire and developed strong political ties to the Republican Party.

Since his 1978 "conversion" to Zionism, he has emphasized establishing and maintaining good relations with Israeli leaders and conservative sectors of the U.S. Jewish community. Over the years, he has met with Israeli heads of state and carved out a special relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party performed dismally in the recent elections in Israel.

"Think of CUFI as a Christian version of American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC]," the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Hagee told The Jerusalem Post in an interview a few days before his February summit. "We need to be able to respond instantly to Washington with our concerns about Israel. We must join forces to speak as one group and move as one body to [respond to] the crisis Israel will be facing in the near future."

While Hagee wouldn't spell out which particular crisis he was concerned with, he did tell the Israeli newspaper that "'the Bible issue', namely what he considers to be the mistaken policy of trading parts of the biblical Land of Israel for peace," was at the top of CUFI's list.

"Every state in the Union, every congressional district" will be accounted for, Hagee added.

A post-meeting report at the John Hagee Ministries Web site said that Christians United for Israel had put together a national board consisting of Hagee as national chairman; fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell; Gary Bauer, president of American Values; and Pastor George Morrison of Arvada, Colorado.

Christians United for Israel intends to establish a 50-state rapid-response network that aims to reach every senator and congressman in the U.S. The organization is also concerned with "protecting marriage, family, and faith," Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported.

Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of San Antonio's Congregation Rodfei Sholom attended the meeting and called it a historic gathering. Scheinberg told the San Antonio Express-News, "It's the first nationwide effort I know of to unify evangelical leaders in support of Israel. These leaders who participated speak for millions of people. This organization has phenomenal potential in supporting, defending and advocating for Israel."

Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg go way back. In a story entitled "Our Jewish Roots" published in JHMagazine [.pdf], Hagee tells of a June 1978 visit to Israel where he "went as a tourist and came home a Zionist." When he returned home he decided to organize "A Night to Honor Israel." According to Hagee's account, Rabbi Scheinberg "pressed the Jewish Community into taking a chance and extending its hand in mutual friendship."

The rabbi, pictured with Hagee in several photographs in JHMagazine, delivered the benediction at the first "A Night to Honor Israel" event in 1981, and has been a regular participant ever since.

Members of CUFI intend to meet with "legislators in Washington for two days in July to tell them about the organization and its platform, and express their support for Israel," according to Ha'aretz. In addition, the "A Night to Honor Israel" event will be expanded and held in several cities simultaneously.

CUFI's Web site maintains that the group was founded "to provide a national organization through which every pro-Israel organization and ministry in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to Biblical issues."

"We see Christians in the United States as true friends and important supporters on the basis of shared values, and we welcome their efforts to strengthen the ties between Israel and the U.S.," said Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon.

In addition to running San Antonio's well-attended Cornerstone Church, Hagee heads up the multimillion-dollar evangelism enterprise called Global Evangelism Television. Over four decades, members of his ministry have donated millions to carry out his mission.

Global Evangelism Television has become a massive moneymaking family enterprise which brings in millions of dollars year after year by selling inspirational books, tapes, and the promise of prosperity.

Hagee is the author of a number of books including Attack on America New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days and The Beginning of the End The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Coming Antichrist. His latest nonfiction book is called Jerusalem Countdown A Warning to the World, which landed on bestseller lists.

The new book posits that "biblical prophecy is playing itself out daily in the Middle East," Agape Press, a Christian-based news service, reported. "Hagee says Iran's new president, coupled with [the] victory by terrorist-backed Hamas in the Palestinian elections, paves the way for an impending war in the region."

In addition to spearheading the launch of Christians United for Israel, and appearing on a panel at the recent National Religious Broadcasters convention, Hagee has aligned himself with a number of Christian Right evangelicals that condemned the Evangelical Climate Initiative, signed by 86 evangelical leaders acknowledging the seriousness of global warming and pledging to press for legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

(Inter Press Service)

 

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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column ”Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories, and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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