WASHINGTON (JTA) — While criticism of President Obama’s demand for an Israeli settlement freeze has been relatively muted among U.S. Jewish organizations, this week’s Christians United for Israel conference here provided the opportunity for some prominent Jews and Christians to level some public complaints.
Far and away the most forceful came from U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), one of the more hard-line Democrats in Congress. Berkley told the group of Christian Zionists on Tuesday that “to pin the peace process” on the settlement issue “is absolutely foolhardy.”
“To publicly dress down the State of Israel is a huge mistake,” she said to a huge ovation from the 4,000 delegates at the group’s fourth annual conference.
CUFI founder and chairman Pastor John Hagee also weighed in when he introduced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared via satellite Tuesday to speak to the crowd. Hagee told Netanyahu that "50 million Christians" support "Israel’s sovereign right to grow and develop the settlements of Israel as you see fit and not yield to the pressure of the United States government." (The prime minister did not address the settlement dispute.)
A few hours after Netanyahu’s speech, Hagee reiterated his criticism of the Obama administration, although he refrained from identifying the president by name.
"America is singling out Israel" in the Middle East, the pastor said. "Despite all of the risks Israel has taken for peace, our government is pressuring Israel to take more risks. Hello Congress, we’re putting pressure on the wrong people here. You want to get tough, get tough with the terrorists, not the only democracy in the Middle East."
Hagee and his organization have been a source of much debate in recent years. AIPAC and some other Jewish organizations have embraced their efforts to create an Evangelical Christian pro-Israel lobby. But some critics complain that CUFI supporters hold ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and church-state separation, and fear the organization could end up working to oppose Israeli peace moves. (CUFI leaders insist they would never work against the decisions of the elected government.)
During the presidential campaign last year, Republican nominee John McCain accepted an endorsement from Hagee, but later renounced it after revelations regarding past comments made by the pastor, including his claim that the Holocaust was divine punishment. Hagee offered explanations for several of the most incendiary comments and denied claims that he was anti-Catholic, and several of his Jewish allies firmly rejected efforts to paint him as anti-Semitic.
While McCain eventually distanced himself from Hagee, CUFI’s Jewish allies have stood by him and the organization. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, attended this year’s event. Hoenlein pointed to the administration’s request that Israel not proceed with the construction of 20 apartments in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, and asked why Obama’s people haven’t told Palestinians to take down “illegal structures” in the city, but “legal structures are a problem.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who accepted CUFI’s Defender of Israel Award on Tuesday evening, appeared to offer some criticism of the Obama policy, although it was much gentler.
“The chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East is not Israelis living on the West Bank but the regime in Tehran,” he said.
The banquet Tuesday night also included greetings from the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, a speech from Jewish radio talk show host Dennis Prager and a muscial performance by Dudu Fisher. A number of delegates at one point danced the hora during the singing of "Hava Nagila."
Some dovish activists and organizations have expressed concerns for years about CUFI possibly opposing the policies of the Israeli government, but these days several Jewish groups on the left are doing just that — and it’s CUFI telling the White House not to pressure Israel.
On Wednesday, CUFI delegates took that message to Capitol Hill. The delegates told their members of Congress that they should not “pressure” the Jewish state but respect “Israel’s democratically elected government” and “work with them,” said CUFI Executive Director David Brog.
Brog said CUFI would not be specifically addressing the settlement issue, but added that it was worried that recent pressure on Israel over settlements could "extend to territorial concessions" as well.
The message is that the United States should respect Israel’s wishes if it wants to be more "cautious," said Brog, because "Israel has demonstrated it will make painful concessions for peace," but the Palestinians and the Arab world have not.
“Israel is a sovereign state,” said CUFI Florida state director Scott Thomas, senior pastor at Without Walls Central in Lakeland, Fla. “We’d like to see the pressure off our ally” and on others in the Middle East.
CUFI delegates also asked for congressional support on two pieces of Iran-related legislation: the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would impose sanctions on companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum, and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which authorizes state and local governments to divest from companies investing in Iran’s energy sector and protects fund managers who divest from lawsuits.
The fact that thousands of Christians had come to Washington motivated solely by their love for Israel is a key sign of the “changing” relationship between Jews and Christians, Netanyahu said during his remarks.
"For centuries, the relationship between Christians and Jews was marked by conflict rather than partnership and friendship," the Israeli leader said. "But this is changing. A new chapter in the relationship between us is now being written."
"Today millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for freedom, millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for truth, millions of Christians stand with Israel because they want to see a genuine peace in the Holy Land," said Netanyahu, who received a thunderous standing ovation when he initially appeared on the video screen.
Hoenlein also noted that relationship in a fiery speech to the conference. He said he was there to fulfill the religious principle of Hakarat Hatov, "recognizing the good, recognizing those who stand up for us."
Comparisons drawn between 1939 and the present, which some have made in recent years because of the threat of Iran to the Jewish state, are inaccurate because there are now "tens of millions of Christians who will not be silent and stand with the State of Israel,” Hoenlein said to a standing ovation.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project advocacy group, sounded a similar theme after taking part Monday in a panel discussion at the CUFI gathering titled "Committed to Israel’s Destruction: Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas."
“The fact that I am speaking at a CUFI event doesn’t mean that I endorse every thought all their leaders ever had, or that I expect them to endorse everything we have said or ever done," Mizrahi told JTA. "I do, however, appreciate that 3,000 Americans have come to Washington to stand with Israel."
Still, many in the Jewish community remain wary of allying with Christians on Israel — something that CUFI leader Thomas said he understood.
"I’d be a bit leery and questioning myself," he said. "We’re trying to reverse a history of anti-Semitism and replacement theology.
"We’re going to continue to keep the hand extended," Thomas added, and hopefully Jews will realize it is "genuine."
Thomas also reiterated what CUFI leaders have emphasized repeatedly — that their support of Israel is not related to Christian eschatology which says Israel has a central role in bringing about the second coming of Jesus Christ. That has nothing to do with their backing of the Jewish state, they say, because there is nothing they can do to speed up that process.
"This is not apocalyptic," Thomas said. "We don’t control future events."
Thomas said his support is based in Genesis, which in Chapter 12 states that God will bless those who blesses the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews, and said that his Christian faith couldn’t exist without the foundation of Judaism.
Although he didn’t go into details about what he meant, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told CUFI that U.S. policies in the Middle East must be "firmly grounded" in Judeo-Christian principles.
"Reaching out to the Muslim world may help in creating an environment for peace in the Middle East, but we must insist as Americans that our policies be firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded," said Cantor, the House minority whip and the only Jewish Republican in Congress.
Apparently unhappy with some of the media coverage of their organization in previous years, Christians United For Israel didn’t allow reporters to roam the Washington Convention Center talking to delegates during the conference, and the media was escorted from the press room to the halls where conference events took place.
And just in case delegates happened to meet up with anyone from the media outside the convention hall, they were urged to avoid them by conservative Christian activist Gary Bauer, who was moderating a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon.
"Try hard to resist the temptation," he told the crowd of 4,000. "These folks are not really on our side" and "want to make Israel look bad."
CUFI officials did arrange interviews with pre-selected delegates per media request.
Berkley marveled at the reception she received. After insisting that the wish of some for the "elimination" of the State of Israel would never happen, the Jewish Nevada Democrat received a standing ovation.
"If I wasn’t so Jewish," she quipped, "I’d think about converting right now."
The Weekly Standard’s executive editor, Fred Barnes, also spoke Tuesday afternoon, declaring that his publication was "the most pro-Israel magazine" in the United States.