WASHINGTON (JTA) – Seven years on, many Jews still have lingering questions about the addition to the pro-Israel lobbying scene of Christians United for Israel, the project of evangelical leader the Rev. John Hagee.
Hagee believes he has a biblical mandate to press on and is undeterred.
“As Isaiah said, ‘For Zion’s sake we will not hold our peace and for Jerusalem’s sake we will not rest,’ ” Hagee told more than 5,600 delegates at the opening plenary Monday of the CUFI Washington Summit 2012.
The summit stands as something of a Christian version of the annual Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Like the AIPAC event, the CUFI gathering includes a day of lobbying and here, too, the Israeli prime minister is a guest speaker, albeit via satellite.
“We will not be intimidated by any person, by any groups of people when Israel is on the line. We are the front line of defense for Israel in the United States of America,” Hagee said to thunderous applause and a few shofar blasts. “The covenant that God made with Abraham is eternal and it cannot be repealed by the president of the United States, by the president of the United Nations.”
Hagee created CUFI in early 2006 after calling 400 fellow pastors to meet him in San Antonio, Texas, “to form a national organization that could give national unity on behalf of Israel.”
Today, CUFI claims more than 1.1 million members, 754,000 Facebook fans and 96 college campus chapters. It has held events throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Kenya, Israel and Scotland, according to Hagee.
About one in five Americans — some 60 million people — consider themselves evangelicals, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A 2005 Pew study found that 41 percent of evangelicals favor Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict versus 13 percent favoring the Palestinians (20 percent said they didn’t know; 18 percent said neither, and 8 percent favored both).
Yet many Jews view CUFI’s rank and file, who are overwhelmingly but not exclusively evangelical, with suspicion. Only 21 percent of American Jews surveyed earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute said they had a favorable view of the “Christian right” — often a synonym for evangelicals. By contrast, 41 percent view Muslims favorably.
The Jewish views on evangelicals come in large part from long-standing concerns over proselytizing and end-time theologies that foresee that Jews who do not accept Jesus as their savior will be killed.
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, says Jews should embrace the support of evangelicals even if they don’t embrace their theology.
“It’s important for the Jewish community to welcome support for the State of Israel but not necessarily have to agree on every aspect of that support,” Marans told JTA.
Two years ago, the AJC brought together Gary Bauer — a prominent CUFI executive board member — Marans and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to talk about evangelical support for Israel.
For his part, Hagee has said repeatedly in interviews that proselytizing is unacceptable for CUFI members.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who addressed the CUFI delegates during a session on the importance of Christian Zionism, told JTA that he has spoken with Hagee about the matter and believes him.
Both Christians and Jews believe they are living out God’s mandate and that their understanding of the messiah is correct, said Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi in the West Bank community of Efrat and founder of the Israel-based Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. “They have the right to believe that because I believe at the end of days all of the Christians will convert to Judaism."
“Christian Zionism is tremendously important because now we’re in the midst of a religious war,” Riskin said. “There are 1 billion-plus Muslims and there are 2 billion-plus Christians. For us, Christian friendship is critical. ”
Among the Jewish presenters at the conference were Sen. Joe Lieberman (I.-Conn.); Ari Fleischer, a former George W. Bush White House spokesman; Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
For participants at the CUFI convention, Jews were secondary; the focus was on Israel.
During a break between sessions on Monday, a choir stood in the center of the large hallway and harmonized songs praising God for his protection of Israel. Nearby, shoppers perused items for sale in the CUFI store, including white onesies for babies with the words “Defend America; vote Israel,” stainless steel rings with the Hebrew Shma prayer and T-shirts with this quote from Isaiah: “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.”
Elsewhere in the building, some of the children aged 5 to 12 who had come with the evangelical delegates were busy at Camp CUFI, where activities included Israeli dancing, “pray for Israel” sessions, and an Israeli movie and entertainment.
Hagee repeatedly has stressed in interviews that CUFI will not oppose decisions of the Israeli government in peace talks, including if it agrees to relinquish portions of the West Bank. However, the sentiments of many CUFI followers seemed clear.
“The entire territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean” is God’s “gift to the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, who three decades ago helped Hagee organize his first Christian Salute to Israel event, to strong applause. “It is not stolen land. It is the eternal heritage of the Jewish people.”
Hagee told the crowd, “The Bible is a Zionist text beginning with the fact that God created the world and as the owner of the world he entered into a contract with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants forever and gave them the land. Israel does not occupy the land, they own the land!”
The three-day summit will conclude Wednesday with the lobbying of participants’ congressional representatives. The delegates will focus on stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, U.S.-Israeli security cooperation, U.S. security aid for Israel and stopping Palestinian incitement.