(JTA) — Pat Robertson was trying to pay Jews a compliment.
“They’d rather be polishing diamonds than fixing cars,” he said in 2014 on his show on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the station the Southern Baptist minister founded in 1960 that had grown into an evangelical Protestant powerhouse.
Robertson made his observation — while chuckling — in a conversation with a rabbi who was sympathetic to his conservative beliefs, Daniel Lapin. He clearly thought that diamond polishing was a good thing, and somehow rooted in biblical precepts.
“What is it about Jewish people that make them prosper financially?” Robertson had said, introducing his rabbi friend. “You almost never find Jews tinkering with their cars on the weekends or mowing their lawns. That’s what Daniel Lapin says, and there’s a very good reason for that, and it lies within the business secrets of the Bible.”
Those remarks were sharply emblematic of a dilemma that has for years dogged the American Jewish establishment and that was personified by Robertson, who died Thursday at 93. Like many evangelicals with a vast television audience and political influence, Robertson was full of admiration for Jews and deeply supportive of Israel.
At the same time, Robertson’s message carried with it the baggage of age-old stereotypes that caused Jews discomfort. Those came alongside a history of statements denigrating feminism, LGBTQ people and Muslims.
“ADL genuinely values the support of Israel these leaders have demonstrated,” an Anti-Defamation League statement said in 1994 after a 60-page report it published on Robertson’s Christian Coalition drew pushback from Jewish political conservatives, led by Lapin. “But this support cannot be used as a shield from legitimate criticism.”
Robertson broadcast his hugely popular “700 Club” show multiple times from Israel, and articulated the argument that biblical prophecy necessitated Christian support for the Jewish state. That view has since permeated the Republican Party.
“The survival of the Jewish people is a miracle of God,” he said in an undated speech posted on his website. “The return of the Jewish people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a miracle of God. The remarkable victories of Jewish armies against overwhelming odds in successive battles in 1948, and 1967, and 1973 are clearly miracles of God. The technological marvels of Israeli industry, the military prowess, the bounty of Israeli agriculture, the fruits and flowers and abundance of the land are a testimony to God’s watchful care over this new nation and the genius of this people.”
Following his death, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee called Robertson “a great friend of Israel and a pioneer in the modern Christian Zionist movement.”
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Pat Robertson, a brilliant orator and faith leader and an extraordinary friend of Israel and the Jewish People,” David Friedman, former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, tweeted on Thursday. “Deepest condolences to Gordon and the entire Robertson family. May you derive much comfort from his incredible legacy.”
Yet this “genius” people kept irking Robertson. In 2014, he called the director of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates against proselytizing in the military, a “little Jewish radical.” The subject of that epithet, Mikey Weinstein, was not mourning Robertson on Tuesday.
“I know quite well what it felt like to be savaged by him just for being a Jewish person who fights for civil rights in our armed forces,” he said in a statement.
In 1988, when the ADL asked Robertson to condemn the antisemitism that was emerging in protests against Martin Scorsese’s movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Robertson demanded a quid pro quo: that Jewish groups condemn the movie’s Jewish producers.
In 1995, Robertson got into trouble when he tried to get out of trouble for his 1991 book, “The New World Order,” in which he blamed much of the world’s woes on “European bankers” who happened to be Jewish.
Robertson’s defense was a familiar one. The book, he told The New York Times, was “pro-Israel and pro-Jewish” because among its targets was the United Nations. He added that he had “many, many friends in the Jewish community.”
Robertson was so confident of those friends that he thought they would help propel him to the presidency in 1988. “I would anticipate, especially among Conservative and Orthodox Jews, I would have a tremendous body of support,” Robertson said then. “I’m counting on it from everything I’ve seen.”
The support never materialized; Robertson dropped out of the race early. But he consolidated a style of campaigning that mixed Christian piety with politicking, which Jimmy Carter had pioneered a dozen years earlier and that has now become ubiquitous, at least among Republicans. Mike Pence, the former vice president, has made his evangelical faith inseparable from his politics as he launches a campaign for the 2024 GOP political nomination.
Unlike Pence and other Christians running for office, Robertson was never able — or perhaps willing — to obscure the foreboding manifestations of his beliefs, preaching about an apocalypse in Israel and blaming a stroke that struck the late Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (a view which made him persona non grata with the Israeli government for a short period).
In 2002, the ADL’s then-national director, Abraham Foxman, summed up the ambivalence many Jews felt when Christian Evangelicals were planning a Washington rally for Israel at a time when it was beset by the second intifada. Jewish groups were neither discouraging nor encouraging the event, he said.
“There is no alliance,” Foxman said. “The relationship is based on this one, specific issue.”