JERUSALEM — With 4,000 Christian guests from 70 countries set to participate, the city’s annual Sukkot march was billed as the centerpiece of a weeklong show of evangelical support for Israel. But then televangelist and former GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson opened his mouth and uncorked a can of theological worms guaranteed to make many Israelis and American Jews squirm.
Jews need to begin to cry out for their messiah, Robertson said during a 40-minute speech marking his 35th trip to Israel. The Christian leader declared: “I’ve met wonderful Jews in Siberia, Brazil, the United States, here in Jerusalem who are all saying ‘Yes, Jesus you are our messiah.’”
Robertson’s appearance seemed to upstage the march, which was supposed to serve as the main event for the Christian Zionists who took part in a packed itinerary of spectacles, parades and prayer gatherings that made up the 25th celebration of the holiday of Sukkot organized by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Instead of serving as an interfaith rallying cry, Robertson’s speech, though replete with strong condemnations of the Palestinians and support for an undivided Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, became a lightening rod for the annual Christian solidarity pageant.
Hundreds of Israeli messianic Jews took part in the Christian embassy’s Sukkot feast. Official statistics noted that more than 1,000 participants in this year’s event were Israelis — some Christians, but many Hebrew speakers with Jewish names on their nametags.
The morning after his speech, during a news conference, Robertson was asked if he shares his thoughts on messianic Jews while meeting with Knesset members and Cabinet ministers. “No, I don’t tell that to Israeli politicians,” the Christian leader replied.
The Christian embassy decided not to distribute tapes of Robertson’s speech to the press. By contrast, a taped version of the remarks of Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Tzipi Livni was handed out minutes after the conclusion of her speech.
The embassy’s media liaison, David Parsons, a seasoned veteran when it comes to navigating the minefield of Jewish-Christian relations in Israel, told the Forward that Robertson’s “views are off.” The incident would be “a good opportunity to engage with Pat on these things,” Parsons said. He insisted that Robertson “is not trying to force any conversions,” and “we’re not going to be part of any missionizing.”
Robertson’s remarks drew criticism from several Israeli lawmakers, including ones active in promoting Christian conservative support for Israel.
The co-chair of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, Yuri Shtern of the right-wing National Union Party, said he was “very upset” with Robertson. “I had hoped a leader of [Robertson’s] standing accepted the continuing existence of the Jewish people as part of God’s plan,” said Shtern, who appeared with Robertson at a different speech.
In addition to fueling fears about evangelical efforts to convert Jews, Robertson appeared to offend Jewish sensitivities on several other fronts.
During a different address, near the Knesset kicking off an annual Worldwide Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem, Robertson appeared to lend ammunition to critics who argue that Christian conservative support for Israel is motivated by a belief that the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land will bring about Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus.
“I see the rise of Islam to destroy Israel and take the land from the Jews and give east Jerusalem to [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat,” Robertson said. “I see that as Satan’s plan to prevent the return of Jesus Christ the Lord.”
Robertson, who has been sharply critical of Islam in the past, called Israel’s Arab neighbors “a sea of dictatorial regimes.” He said he “sends notice’’ to Osama bin Laden, Arafat and Palestinian terrorist groups that “you will not frustrate God’s plan” to have Jews rule the Holy Land until the Second Coming of Jesus.
Referring obliquely to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to remove Jewish communities from the West Bank and Gaza, Robertson commented that only God could decide on transfers of biblical land.
Robertson was more direct in warning President Bush against backing any plan to divide Jerusalem. “Bush has no problem with evangelical support, but if he starts up with Jerusalem, he’ll lose it,” Robertson warned. “They’ll start a third party.”
During his speech, Robertson recalled, that on his first flight into Israel in 1968, “the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘You’ve made mistakes in Virginia, you’ve made mistakes in New York — you don’t make mistakes in Israel.’”