Religious passion combines with politics at CUFI parley

Pastor John Hagee, CUFI's founder, speaks at the organization's Night to Honor Israel at the Washington Convention Center, July 21, 2010.  (Paul Wharton)

Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder, speaks at the organization’s Night to Honor Israel at the Washington Convention Center, July 21, 2010. (Paul Wharton)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Pastor Scott Thomas was ready to "present the Biblical positions" of his support for Israel — as the Christians United for Israel literature put it — to the Florida congressional delegation.

"We believe Israel has the right to defend herself …" the youthful, handsome pastor for Without Walls Central Church in Lakeland, Fla., started, then trailed off, visibly tired at the end of day of interviews, turning away from a reporter. "Randy, you’ll have to help me with the other two talking points."

Randy Neal, a senior official with CUFI, the evangelical group that attracted 5,000 activists to Washington last week to lobby for Israel, counted them down for Thomas.

"We believe Israel has the right to defend herself, we need to increase pressure against Iran to get it to abandon its nuclear program," Neal said. "We don’t believe, recognizing Israel as a sovereign nation, that we can dictate where they can and can’t build."

That was this year’s CUFI platform in a nutshell: Get behind Israel, and block the Obama administration when it pressures Israel.

Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder, made it clear in a fiery floor speech on the evening of July 21 at the massive Night to Honor Israel, held in the cavernous Washington Convention Center.

That’s the same place that hosts the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, and the CUFI event this year drew almost as big a crowd.

Many were like Shelby Shelton, 68, from north Florida, who said, "The Bible says the time for Zion is now and it’s very clear that we should support the Jewish people." Her husband, Ron, 72, sporting a flowing white beard, nodded.

CUFI is the largest organization representing what are believed to be tens of millions conservative evangelical Christians who support Israel. They do so because of what they believe is Israel’s biblical mandate and, they say, because supporting Israel is aligned with U.S. interests. In recent years, lawmakers have been heedful of the constituency’s numbers as a factor in sustaining support for Israel.

The organization also has found itself at the center of controversy.

Before founding CUFI, Hagee told followers that he saw Hitler as God’s agent because he helped force the Jews toward the land of Israel. He later apologized, explaining that this was his theological explanation to cope with the magnitude of the Holocaust.

Hagee also has cast Islam as being at war with the West, but more recently has modified such statements to "radical Islam" or "Islamism."

In words and donations, Hagee has backed West Bank settlement, but also says he will support whatever peace solution Israel’s elected government backs.

Onstage last week Hagee, who launched the first Night to Honor Israel in 1981 at his San Antonio church, riffed on President Obama’s famed election slogan "Yes we can!" by asking the crowd to join him in warning, "No, we can’t!"

"Can we support any treaty that does not allow Israel to defend itself?" he boomed, leading the crowd: "No, we can’t!"

The political message of the evening, and of the entire event, was that Obama had turned on Israel although he now seems to be correcting himself.

"It’s particularly unsettling for the people of Israel that the relationship between Israel and its most steadfast ally has been troubled this last year," U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a CUFI stalwart, told the crowd.

Lieberman said he now would "hope and pray" that the relationship was on an upswing in the wake of the positive meeting earlier this month between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The message, that Obama administration pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion is unwelcome, trickled down to the rank and file.

"We are not here on earth by accident," Lieberman said, sparking one the biggest rounds of applause of the evening. "We are here as a result of a conscious and intentional act of creation of the almighty." Lieberman insisted on calling himself "Brother Joseph."

Whatever its importance to the leadership, politicking earned little better than polite applause throughout the evening. The real roars were reserved for scripture reading and Israeli music, including a rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold” in perfectly accented Hebrew by Hagee’s son and daughter, Matthew and Sandra.

During medleys of Israeli songs performed in Hebrew and English, fresh-faced students from Christian colleges joined matrons from the Midwest, African Americans and Hispanic evangelicals — a major target for CUFI in the past year — on the floor in massive hora dances.

The crowd, which vigorously waved Israeli flags at any mention of the Jewish state, eagerly shouted "Amen!" when Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of San Antonio, Hagee’s friend and ally for decades, delivered the Jewish blessing over the bread.

Thomas, the Florida pastor, spoke of discovering the "Judeo" in his Judeo-Christian heritage.

"When I discovered the Judeo aspect of my Christian faith, it was the most natural response to pray for Israel," he said. "To stand for her, to support her."

It was a theme repeatedly invoked by conference-goers.

"Our book that we read says, ‘Those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed,’" said Jacqueline Ulmer of New York, repeating a passage from the Bible that spilled from everyone’s lips.

The convention skewed heavily Republican, with only one Democrat — Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) — speaking among about a dozen Republicans. David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, told JTA that in the past Democrats had not responded when he invited them, so this year he didn’t really bother.

"I got a little lazy this year," he acknowledged, saying he regretted not inviting the National Jewish Democratic Council, although he invited its counterpart, the Republican Jewish Coalition.

It was left to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, to make a robust case for the Obama administration’s emphasis on diplomacy toward a two-state solution.

"The two-state solution will be predicated on a demilitarized Palestinian state," he told the crowd, almost apologetically. "That Palestinian state will have to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

This year’s fund-raising appeal at the convention was to support CUFI’s college student organization. Next up, speakers said, is an initiative that aims even younger: CUFI Kids, seminars training pre-teens in Israel activism.

John Hagee Ministries has raised more than $43 million for Israeli causes since 2006, when Hagee founded CUFI. Most of the money goes to medical and educational charities, although a portion — about 5 percent, according to officials — is spent in Jewish communities in the West Bank.

Victoria Hearst, a scion of the Hearst publishing empire who leads a ministry in Colorado, has visited Israel at least 12 times and has helped set up projects in the West Bank Jewish town of Ariel.

"I do everything I can for Ariel," said Hearst, who attended the CUFI gathering. "Islam is a bad tree, it produces nothing but bad fruit — you have to cut it down."

CUFI officials repudiated Hearst’s comment.  "This is an appalling comment," Ari Morgenstern, CUFI’s spokesman, said. "CUFI completely and unequivocally rejects this characterization of Islam. We always distinguish between militant Islam and the rest of the Muslim world."

CUFI was caught in an Israeli controversy earlier this year when it was discovered that its affiliate, John Hagee Ministries, funded Im Tirtzu, a student group in Israel that launched strident attacks on liberal nongovernmental groups, calling for their defunding and banishment.

Brog said that Hagee Ministries would "revisit" its commitment to Im Tirtzu, suggesting that the group had hoodwinked the donor board by making a presentation that depicted the group as wanting only to educate college students about Zionism.

(JTA Intern Sarah Freishtat contributed to this report.)

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