WASHINGTON (JTA) – The choir danced a hora, the fiddler played a hoedown, Joe Lieberman cited scripture and Pastor John Hagee said his enemies would never draw him away from Israel.
Thousands of followers of Christians United for Israel, the movement Hagee founded, traveled this week from across the United States to pack the cavernous Washington Convention Center in a defiant show of strength.
In the signature “Night to Honor Israel” on Tuesday, Hagee depicted himself as emerging from a lion’s den of media dissimulation and political iniquity.
“There have been a great many misrepresentations and a great deal of confusion sown,” Hagee said, his baritone booming over a constant swell of cheers and blessings.
Hagee was referring to the intense and at times outright hostile scrutiny he suffered this year after he endorsed the presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Within weeks Hagee withdrew his endorsement, unwilling to suffer a depiction of himself – some of it distorted – as a bigot who reviled Catholics, gays and Muslims and who was insensitive to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust.
The experience clearly scarred Hagee. His speeches are usually optimistic prophecies of an Israel thriving against the odds, but on Tuesday night his sermon was peppered with dark, wistful humor.
His routine litany of “Never agains” punctuating pledges to protect the Jews from terrorists, Iran and anti-Semites was rounded out with a new promise Tuesday night: “What will I say the next time I’m asked to endorse a presidential candidate? Never again.”
Hagee described a “vicious media firestorm” – not surprisingly, the media was barred from much of the four-day conference. During the parts open to the press Tuesday, CUFI volunteers rushed to abort any attempts to interview conference attendees.
“You are not covering our dark motives, you are expressing your dark motives,” Hagee told reporters.
Hagee’s strident support for Israel and the settlement policies of Israeli hawks has been controversial since he launched his first “Night to Honor Israel” in San Antonio, the hometown of his Cornerstone megachurch, in the early 1980s.
Since then, he claims to have raised $30 million – a portion of it for building in West Bank settlements – and in 2006 went nationwide by founding CUFI with an array of other popular evangelical preachers.
Hagee said the attacks he suffered subsequent to his McCain endorsement were nothing less than a campaign to separate Americans from their beliefs.
“We need to be careful that we don’t allow belief in the Bible to be unacceptable,” he said.
It was clear that the most hurtful episode for Hagee was the emergence of out-of-context excerpts of sermons in the mid-1990s in which he attempted to offer a theological explanation for how God would allow the mass murder of the Jews.
Adolf Hitler, he said at the time, was a demonic agent of God driving the Jews back to their historic homeland.
Such a “theology of suffering” is not inconsistent with an evangelical outlook that seeks a divine explanation for even the most incomprehensible historical events. In the heat of the presidential campaign, however, a few liberal bloggers and media commentators twisted this relatively commonplace exegesis into Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
In an issue of The Torch, the movement’s magazine distributed at the conference, Gary Bauer, a leading political evangelical, said the attacks were “obscenely distorting.”
David Brog, CUFI’s Jewish executive director, likened Hagee’s suffering during the episode to a “new inquisition.”
“Breathe in deeply and you can still smell the embers smoldering around Pastor Hagee’s public persona,” Brog wrote.
Bruce Wilson, a progressive blogger, posted the video of the Holocaust sermons. That led Hagee’s lawyers to force YouTube to pull down any video depicting his preaching, citing copyright infringement.
Some of the defiance on Tuesday night masked a conciliatory tone, however.
Hagee again expressed his skepticism of land-for-peace formulas, but added, “We do not decide – the Israelis decide and they alone have the right to make that decision.”
The reference apparently was to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Reform Jewish leader who earlier this year urged Jewish groups to cut off Hagee in part because of his strident advocacy of settlement building and concerns that he would seek to undermine Israeli peace moves.
Hagee also was careful when he referred to Islamist terrorists, describing them as hewing to a “radical interpretation of Islam” – a moderation of his earlier, more sweeping condemnation of the religion.
He also had as guests at the event Roman Catholic lay leaders who had criticized Hagee for his denunciations of anti-Semitism in which he used language once associated with radical Vatican-hating Protestants.
Asking Catholic League leader Bill Donohue to rise to applause, Hagee said they had settled their differences.
The thrust of the evening’s message was that if anything, the events have driven Hagee and his Jewish friends closer together. The 3,000 CUFI followers waved Israeli and American flags throughout the event. Hagee’s choir and orchestra slid from a traditional hora-driven rendition of “Hava Nagila” into a country western version complete with soaring fiddle.
His longtime friend from San Antonio, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, blessed the evening’s events.
Dan Gillerman, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told Hagee’s followers that their love for Israel sustained him during his six years in the post.
“I pray that God will continue to bless you with success,” Gillerman said.
The biggest “get,” however, was U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the first Jew to land a spot on a major national presidential ticket when he ran for vice president with Al Gore in 2000 as a Democrat.
J Street, a new left-wing pro-Israel lobby, on Monday had delivered a petition with 42,000 signatures to Lieberman’s office urging “Don’t Go Joe.” It cited Hagee’s inflammatory statements about Muslims and gays, as well as his backing for settlements.
Lieberman, who appeared to a hero’s welcome, cited the petition only to say that he ignored its pleadings. He said he recognized Hagee as flawed, but that was mitigated by the greater good he helped bring about.
Citing scripture, Lieberman said the same could be said of Moses and Miriam, whose flaws of anger and pettiness are noted in the Bible.
“I can only imagine what the bloggers would have to say about Moses and Miriam,” Lieberman said. “Judge each other with the humility that comes from the certainty that each and every one of us is imperfect.”
The presence of Lieberman, a leading surrogate for McCain, also underscored a political tinge to the proceedings, despite Hagee’s assurances that he was out of politics for good.
Hagee’s praise for President Bush was drowned out by cheers and applause. Bauer, introducing Lieberman, likened him to President Ronald Reagan and praised him for standing up to the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party and running as an independent in 2006 after he was ousted in a primary.
Lieberman described an amendment he sponsored last year declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group as a “no-brainer” that drew the votes of 76 senators. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, opposed the amendment.
Lieberman, whose approval rate in Connecticut and among Jews is plummeting, clearly enjoyed the moment. He loved CUFI, he said, because “I can go back to scripture more than with many other groups – frankly, including many Jewish groups.”