A Gift Horse or a Trojan Horse? Pro-israel Preacher Goes A-lobbying

A Texas preacher is coming to Capitol Hill later this month with a present for the Jews: some 2,000 heartland Americans lobbying for Israel. The question dogging the Jewish community now is what kind of gift horse Pastor John Hagee will be riding: The kind with the mouth better left unchecked, or the Trojan kind, unwrapping relations with the Christian right that many Jews would rather avoid.

Hagee, a televangelist who leads the 19,000 member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, has made his case to Jewish groups nationwide, most recently on a tour of Jewish communities in southern California.

His message: There would be absolutely no proselytizing or missionizing associated with Christians United For Israel, the group he established in February to nationalize Christian pro-Israel lobbying.

Evangelical Christian support for Israel is not new — nor is the mixed Jewish response to the efforts. What appears different is the active lobbying network Hagee is trying to establish.

Some major Jewish groups say Hagee will be as good as his word, and enthusiastically endorse the group’s lobbying day on July 19, which is expected to attract Israel-loving Christians from around the country.

“This organization is a sign of broad American support for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Jennifer Cannata, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, came away reassured from a briefing he hosted for Hagee.

“There’s a stipulation that everyone has to sign on to who’s attending,” Hoenlein said. “There’s not missionizing and proselytizing for anyone. We don’t have to be skeptical about everything, sometimes good things do happen.”

Among the skeptical is Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“His Web site and his record does not indicate that he has stripped himself of proselytizing efforts,” Foxman said. “On the one hand, we need to welcome him. On the other, we need to be cautious about embracing it.”

Hagee’s Web site exhibits a degree of ambivalence about evangelism. On the one hand, under “Evangelism” on the “Beliefs” page it declares: “The Lord commands us to go out and make disciples of all the earth.”

On the other, under “Israel and the Jewish People,” on its FAQ page, it instructs Christians to “remember the debt of gratitude the Christian community owes to the Jewish community. The Jewish people do not need Christianity to explain their existence or their origin. But Christians cannot explain their existence without Judaism.”

He is also affiliated with Daystar, the second-largest Christian network in the United States, which features a lineup that includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America has lobbied against Israel’s agreement to license Daystar’s broadcasts in Israel.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at a Los Angeles meeting, Hagee’s genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

If anything, Hagee has taken heat for refusing to proselytize Jews, according to his closest Jewish friend in San Antonio, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Orthodox Congregation Rodfei Sholom.

“He’s taken a number of positions that have run at times in conflict with other Christian groups on not proselytizing and non-missionizing,” Scheinberg said.

Even some of Hagee’s Jewish critics say he has kept his word on the proselytizing issue. The problem, they say, is Hagee’s other baggage.

“It’s immoral to be involved with Pastor Hagee when many of his activities are bad for the present and future of Jewish life in America,” said Rabbi Barry Block, who is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in San Antonio.

Block says San Antonio’s 10,000 Jews are divided over Hagee but united across denominations on most other issues.

Block says other Christian churches have marginalized the evangelist because of what they believe to be his extreme anti-Islam views and his strongly fundamentalist teachings on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

His reported annual personal earnings — hovering in the high six figures, according to reports — are also looked at askance by some.

An alliance with Hagee poses a danger to Jews who seek to work with the broader community that is shunning him, Block says, and the danger is just as potent now that Hagee is taking his advocacy for Israel nationwide.

“He preaches an apocalyptic theology that most of my Christian colleagues find silly,” Block said. “Whatever the Christian version is of ‘shonda for the goyim,’ ” or disgrace in front of the gentiles, “that’s how his Christian colleagues view him.”

Block and others also take issue with Hagee’s positions on Israel, which go against the policies of the Israeli government.

“Let’s understand, too, that the Israeli policy favored by CUFI and Pastor Hagee is rejected by people in Israel,” Block said, referring to Hagee’s opposition to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “Unlike AIPAC, it is not committed to supporting Israel’s policies.”

Marvin Nathan, the chairman of the ADL’s national civil rights committee and an attorney in nearby Houston, says Hagee’s domestic views make him unacceptable.

“Hagee has his night to honor Israel and raises millions of dollars, but then on Sunday, when you turn on your television, he’s talking about women who have abortions and gays and lesbians that are ruining children’s lives,” Nathan said.

The problem with sidelining Hagee, say those Jewish leaders who are friendly to him, is that the minister’s support for Israel is so serious and substantial that he becomes impossible to ignore.

Hagee’s strong pro-Israel track record speaks for itself, say his allies.

In 1978, in the first of 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last month, he visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his pro-Israel group among Jews.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California in Los Angeles, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the Washington summit:

Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.

Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city, to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “You do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and absorption of Russian immigrants.

Hagee’s Jewish supporters say that Christian conservatism has permanently settled into the political landscape.

“To say Christian conservatives are beyond the pale says more about the closed mind of whoever expresses that opinion,” says David Brog, a former chief of staff for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) who wrote a book, “Standing With Israel,” about evangelical Christian support for Israel.

Ultimately, for many Jewish leaders, Hagee’s unquestioned support for Israel is the bottom line.

“I have absolutely no reservation when we deal with John Hagee or anyone else in the evangelical community,” said Lee Wunsch, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston who is close to Hagee and helped him launch his new group in February. “Israel needs all the friends it can get.”

JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles and Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this story.

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