In Washington, D.C.’s convention center they danced the horah, sang Hebrew songs, and waved American and Israeli flags. Charlie Daniels played Hatikvah on his fiddle. It wasn’t a bar mitzvah, or a gathering of the pro-Israel group AIPAC. It was the fifth annual summit of an even larger pro-Israel organization, the nation’s largest: Christians United for Israel, better known as CUFI.
A few hours before addressing the convention, its founder, Pastor John Hagee, explained how CUFI came to exist. “I went to Israel in 1978 as a tourist with a group of people from my church and I came home a Zionist,” he said. “I felt the presence of God in the city of Jerusalem like no place on earth.” Praying at the Western Wall, he realized he had to “do everything in my power to bring Christians and Jews together in an atmosphere of mutual esteem and acceptance.”
At first, he didn’t know how to begin. But in 1981, after an Israeli airstrike blew up the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, “the American media went after Israel hammer and claw. I saw the door of opportunity open. I told my wife as we watched the television with the news anchor berating Israel and Menachem Begin, ‘We are going to have a night for Israel.’ ”
Hagee approached the local Jewish leaders to suggest a gala fundraiser. He deadpanned, “They looked at me like I had a serious and contagious rash.” Hagee won them over, held a news conference with an orthodox rabbi announcing the event, and “within hours started receiving death threats at the church. We had the night for Israel, and it was terrific.” When a bomb threat came, he remembered declaring, “If these gun-toting anti-Semites think they can shut us down by threatening us, we are going to do it every year until they get used to it!”
Through his ministry and then with the founding of CUFI in 2006, Hagee has been at it ever since. “CUFI began with 400 evangelicals in February 2006. Today we have 426,000 members.” The purpose of the group, Hagee said, was to give “every pro-Israel Christian and Christian church the opportunity to stand up and speak up for Israel.” When they lobby on Capitol Hill, he said, his members “ask the leadership of our government to stop putting pressure on Israel to divide Jerusalem and the land of Israel.”
Since 2006, CUFI has held hundreds of events nationwide, raising $43 million for humanitarian work (including that of Migdal Ohr in Galilee which serves disadvantaged youth and the Kiryat Yam absorption center for Ethiopian Jews) and inspiring Christian support for the Jewish state. Pastor Scott Thomas of Lakeland, Florida, explained that thousands have rediscovered the “Judeo part of our faith.” He recalled a Tampa Night for Israel that raised money for flak jackets to protect IDF troops in Tiberius, and a night in Pensacola that bought a bomb shelter for residents of Sderot, the small town on the receiving end of rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza.
Now, with the Iranian nuclear threat growing, relations with the Obama administration tumultuous, and assaults on Israel in international bodies a daily occurrence, Israel can use some real friends. At the banquet, Senator Joe Lieberman—he introduced himself as “your brother Joseph”—observed that this “is a time when the people of Israel feel more vulnerable and isolated than in a long time. . . . But because of CUFI and Christian Zionists throughout the world the people and the children of Israel do not feel isolated from the international community of faith.”
CUFI members affirm the consonance between their faith, patriotism, and support for Israel. Thomas explains, “When I stand up for Israel, I stand up for America.” He says that his members’ religious roots bring them to support Israel, but recent events have mobilized them to confront biased media accounts, fundraise, lobby, educate fellow Christians, and pray for Israel. “The Bible directs us, but the facts inform us,” he says.
Unlike many Jewish organizations, CUFI continues to grow. Pastor Carlos Ortiz, who conducts Hispanic outreach for the group, has helped bring in 1,500 churches. Among Jews, there remains some skepticism and some outright hostility. Yet Hagee noted progress among those Jews whose support for Israel is grounded in their faith. “There is a level of comfort between Christians and Jews who believe in and accept the Torah as the word of God.” His own devotion is an expression of his Christian faith. He explained:
The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a Zionist text. To read and understand the Bible is to accept the reality that the Jewish people are not living where they chose but where God chose. There is a real estate contract recorded in the Bible with the boundaries of Israel, given as clearly as the human tongue can express. And the land is God’s gift to the Jewish people. That’s not political. It is the will of the sovereign and eternal God.
Hagee is bracingly candid about the historical underpinnings of Jews’ mistrust:
I understand the fear of some Jewish people of Christians because for 2,000 years they were killed under the sign of the cross. When a Jewish person sees the cross he sees an electric chair. When a Christian sees a cross he sees hope and redemption. Two thousand years of suffering won’t be overcome overnight.
In addition, antipathy toward CUFI may be attributable partly to aversion to the rest of the Christian right’s political agenda. As for Jews’ concern about Christian proselytizing, Ortiz says suspicion fades “when they see we are not trying to convert them.”
Hagee is a charismatic preacher with a sonorous baritone voice. At the banquet, he held the crowd spellbound, explaining Israel’s plight and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. He reminded the crowd that John F. Kennedy went to Berlin at the height of the Cold War, “an outpost of democracy in a sea of tyranny.” He quoted Kennedy: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ” Hagee then pivoted:
I stand here at a time when Israel is a tiny outpost of freedom and democracy in a sea of tyranny. . . . Permit me to say something to you straight from the heart. Please know that what I say to you now is a sentiment shared by millions of Christians across America and around the world. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ani Yisraeli—I am an Israeli.”
As he recited the litany of threats and insults to the Jewish state, he repeated the mantra again and again until 4,000 Christians stood shouting, “I am an Israeli.”
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Israel policy in the Bush administration, appreciates that support. “American Jews ought to notice that there are actually more evangelicals in this country than Jews by about 20 or 30 to 1,” he says. “With the Jewish population shrinking as a percentage of the American people, Christians are an increasingly critical base of support for Israel—and groups like CUFI are begging us to accept their help. We should accept it with gratitude and enthusiasm.”
CUFI activists understand that America’s enemies—Islamist terrorists—are Israel’s enemies, too. They appreciate a robust defense of both countries. Abrams in a panel discussion urged those present to make their voices heard when, for example, a lawmaker “plays footsie with CAIR.” The crowd erupted. Co-panelist Malcolm Hoenlein, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, demanded “transparency” from the builders of a mosque near Ground Zero and warned against groups that would “undermine the fundamental values of the United States.” He too got a rousing ovation.
CUFI executive director David Brog says recent events have caught his members’ attention. “They are upset this president is taking a different approach to Israel and there is daylight between our countries for the first time.” He bristles at the notion that CUFI is “politicizing” foreign policy. Indeed, Brog worries about the “bipartisan fraying” of support for Israel. With CUFI’s Democratic members, including many Hispanics, he hopes to “affect the debate in the Democratic party. It would be a tragedy if one of the two parties ceased to be pro-Israel.” After all, Brog says, “We are speaking for a traditional foreign policy. We must stand for principle and not just power.”
Ortiz says these are critical times for Israel. He tells the story of the Jewish queen Esther, when the Jews were threatened with annihilation in ancient Persia. “Her uncle comes to her and says, ‘You gotta move, baby, or your people will perish.’ ” CUFI is on the move. It has no intention of allowing Israel to perish.
Jennifer Rubin is Commentary’s contributing editor.