Pastor John Hagee, the firebrand evangelical Christian minister from San Antonio, Texas, had thousands of pro-Israel activists standing, clapping and chanting at this year’s annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Hagee’s virtuoso performance at the conference in March underscored his emergence as a linchpin in the growing political alliance between Jewish and evangelical pro-Israel activists. Less well known is that Hagee, who in February 2006 founded the first Christian pro-Israel lobbying group — Christians United for Israel — is working to extend his influence beyond power centers in Washington, to Jewish and evangelical communities across the country.
In little more than a year since its inception, Hagee’s Christian Zionist group — with an almost entirely volunteer staff of 13 regional directors, 46 state directors and more than 85 city directors — has hosted 40 dinners in cities nationwide, well-attended by Jews and evangelicals alike. To date, the events, billed as “Nights to Honor Israel,” have raised more than $10 million for charitable causes in the Jewish state.
Setting aside their initial skepticism — and taking Hagee at his word that he is not out to convert them — the heads of local Jewish federations have supported, or at least attended, the dinners.
“If you search through Jewish stories around the U.S., a lot of us have pieces of personal memory where non-Jews were there for us — not because they had a hidden agenda, but because they believed it was the right thing to do,” said Michal Kohane, the Israeli-born executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. “There is a strong aspect of CUFI in which they are the descendants of that ideological concept.”
Just as liberals have criticized Aipac for giving Hagee the dais, they are now speaking out against the pastor’s grass-roots fundraising dinners. Most recently, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, Betty McCollum, declined an invitation to attend an April 29 “Night To Honor Israel” in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, citing what she called “Hagee’s extremism, bigotry and intolerance.”
Critics complain that Hagee’s hawkish, biblically based views on Israel do not serve the Jewish state, and that his conservative domestic agenda — including opposition to gay marriage, abortion and immigration — is squarely at odds with the liberal views of most American Jews.
“I don’t like that they would not like to see Israel trade land for peace, because in my view that’s a very important formula,” said Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison, Wis. “The real bottom line is the fact that this organization would like to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East so it will lead to Armageddon.”
Biatch is among a handful of Reform rabbis who are opting out of the federations’ warm embrace of CUFI.
Over the past year, heated discussions over whether or not to participate in Hagee’s events have set the Internet list-serve for Reform rabbis ablaze.
Biatch spoke out against the alliance with Christian Zionists in a March 23 sermon to his 700-family congregation after he saw an ad in his local paper stating that “A Night to Honor Israel” was set to take place in Madison. In his address, Biatch also expressed concern over what he views as Hagee’s anti-Muslim rhetoric broadcast in speeches on the pastor’s Web site and elucidated in his books.
In Sacramento, Calif., the city’s largest Reform synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel, also declined to participate in its local CUFI event, which took place last September. Moreover, several midlevel donors withdrew their financial support for the local Jewish federation as a result of its involvement with the area’s “Night to Honor Israel.”
The partnership “wasn’t something that everybody in the Jewish community had an easy time accepting,” Kohane said. “But it was just something we had to take the heat for.”
The evenings are designed to educate evangelicals, who number about 75 million in the United States, on what Hagee sees as a biblical imperative to support Israel with political action and open pocketbooks.
In most cases, in addition to the representatives of the local Jewish federation, the events draw a sampling of Jews in the community who are curious to know what motivates their newfound allies.
The recent “Night to Honor Israel,” held outside of Minneapolis, raised $100,000. In Sacramento, about 900 guests gave a total of $25,000.
The most lucrative evening, held in October in Hagee’s hometown of San Antonio, reaped $7 million.
The funds sometimes flow directly into the coffers of the Jewish federations. This past summer, when philanthropic efforts were focused on raising wartime aid for Israel’s embattled northern region, $1 million of the money raised in San Antonio was donated to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston for the Israel Emergency Campaign.
Another $3 million went to an orphanage in the Galilee, and $1 million was donated to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that helps Jews settle in Israel. Hagee and his wife, Diana, were recognized by the national body of federations, United Jewish Communities, as “honorary chairs” of the $350 million emergency campaign.
The senior religious leader of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Hagee is also the author of several books on what is known as “end days” theology. His most recent book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” depicts a scenario in which Iran and a coalition of Islamic countries, led by Russia, will unleash a nuclear attack on Israel, leading to the ultimate battle of Armageddon. According to Hagee, this battle between what he terms the “Islamo-fascists” and the Christians and Jews is already upon us and will entail the loss of countless Israeli lives.
This is where liberal Jews run for the hills. Hagee’s political views come straight from a literal interpretation of the Bible, which includes the belief that all of Israel and the Palestinian territories was promised by God to the Jews. According to this view, laid out in “Jerusalem Countdown,” there is no room for negotiation with the Palestinians — whom Hagee lumps with all other Arabs (even those living in America) as Islamists acting on a Koranic mandate to slaughter infidels — and certainly no room to withdraw from the West Bank in exchange for a peace accord.
For 25 years, Hagee has been fundraising for the Jewish state through his television ministries and through his own “Night to Honor Israel,” planned annually with help from Aryeh Scheinberg, a San Antonio Orthodox rabbi. The two first met in 1981 when Hagee approached Jewish leaders in Texas to communicate his support for Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. While most rebuffed Hagee, it was Sheinberg who implored the Jewish community to give him a chance to prove that his agenda was not to proselytize.
Since that time, the two men have developed a close personal friendship and traveled to Israel together on multiple occasions, even praying side by side at the Western Wall. Scheinberg says he considers Hagee “like a brother,” adding that his own political positions, both on Israel and on domestic issues, are largely in line with the pastor’s.
The board of Hagee’s organization includes other prominent Christian conservatives, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, and Gary Bauer, former president of the Family Research Council.
But the organization’s executive director, David Brog — a Jewish political operative who last worked as Republican Senator Arlen Specter’s chief of staff — said that the domestic policy agenda of his group’s leadership should not be seen by Jewish liberals as an obstacle to forming a pro-Israel coalition.
“We are crystal clear that we are a single-issue organization,” said Brog, who is a relative of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and is also one of the Christian Zionist group’s few full-time staff members.
“CUFI doesn’t speak on the life issue, or the church-and-state issue,” Brog said. “If you want to work with us on Israel and very vociferously disagree with some or our board members on other issues, that’s fine.”
Some liberals, however, counter that bolstering religious conservatives in any way is a bad idea.
“To get in bed with the hard Christian right on Israel is a dangerous path,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. “This is a hard-driving, extremely smart and successful movement to essentially recast the U.S. as a Christian nation, and if Jews don’t think that empowering that group in American foreign policy isn’t part and parcel of empowering that group on domestic policy, they’re wrong.”