NEW YORK (JTA) – Controversy may have driven the Rev. John Hagee from an active role in the presidential race, but the high-profile pastor is vowing to push forward with his pro-Israel activism.
Hagee came under fire after a video surfaced of a sermon in which he suggested that Adolf Hitler was acting out a divine plan to drive the Jews back to Israel and the Holocaust was punishment for the Jewish rejection of Zionism.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), responded by rejecting Hagee’s endorsement because of the comments, calling them “crazy and unacceptable.”
And Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Reform movement who has tangled with Hagee in the past, said he was “deeply troubled” and issued a letter to the pastor asking for an explanation.
In response to McCain, Hagee withdrew his endorsement of the senator and seemed resigned to not playing a major role in the presidential race. But he defended himself against those attempting to paint him as insensitive to Jewish concerns, with a top aide describing the condemnations as part of a campaign to silence conservative Christian supporters of Israel.
“Let me be clear – to assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the worst of lies,” Hagee said at a news conference in San Antonio on May 23. “I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms. But even more importantly, my abhorrence of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has never stopped with mere words.”
David Brog, the Jewish executive director of Christian United for Israel, an organization spearheaded by Hagee, sent an e-mail to supporters portraying the controversy as a political ploy.
“Make no mistake about it, many who attack Pastor Hagee seek not only to hurt him but to silence all Christian friends of Israel,” Brog wrote.
“We need to give a bold and unified response,” he added, urging supporters to donate money to CUFI and attend its Washington conference in July.
Hagee, who founded CUFI in 2006, is one of the country’s foremost evangelical supporters of the Jewish state. Just a year ago, his keynote speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was received enthusiastically by the thousands of pro-Israel participants on hand.
But with this year’s AIPAC conference just a week away, Hagee is coming off a string of controversies, with some liberals making more aggressive efforts to keep Jewish organizations from working with him.
Much of the firestorm surrounds a widely disseminated YouTube video in which he appeared – at least to many of his critics – to describe the Catholic Church as “the great whore.” Hagee recently apologized to Catholics for any offense caused by his remarks, but he has also maintained that he was referring to those who have bought into “the false cult system of Jew hatred and anti-Semitism,” whether they be Catholic or Protestant.
Last month, Yoffie said Jews should disassociate from Hagee because the pastor was not respectful of other faiths and rejected territorial compromise by Israeli leaders. Hagee responded by telling reporters that it was Yoffie who was being disrespectful, and said that CUFI would accept the decisions of Israel’s elected leaders.
In the aftermath of that exchange, Yoffie and Hagee sounded conciliatory tones and were said to be considering a meeting. But when news of the Holocaust comments surfaced last week, Yoffie wasted little time in upbraiding Hagee, saying it was an affront to victims of the Nazis to suggest they had brought their fate upon themselves.
“There needed to be a public response that I thought gave expression to the deep concern of the Jewish community about this kind of an approach to the Holocaust,” Yoffie told JTA. “At a time when this is being argued in the newspapers throughout the country, there had to be a Jewish voice that said very clearly these views are offensive.”
According to Yoffie, the notion that God would punish Jews with the Holocaust has no basis in Jewish thought. But at least one rabbi disagrees: Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Orthodox Congregation Rodfei Shalom in San Antonio.
“Pastor interpreted a biblical verse in a way not very different from several legitimate Jewish authorities,” Scheinberg said at the May 23 news conference, standing alongside Hagee. “Viewing Hitler as acting completely outside of God’s plan is to suggest that God was powerless to stop the Holocaust, a position quite unacceptable to any religious Jew or Christian.”
Juda Engelmayer, a spokesman for Hagee, accused Yoffie of “jumping the gun to score a point.” He added that it was wrong for Yoffie to say that Jews find Hagee’s comments offensive.
“There are lots of Jews who believe just what Hagee says,” Engelmayer said.
Scheduling difficulties have made it difficult to find a mutually agreeable time and location for a meeting. But as with the last time they tussled, Yoffie and Hagee both say they are still open to one.
“We remain open to a meeting,” Yoffie said, “and if he’s still interested in a meeting we would be delighted to have one.”