WASHINGTON — Televangelist John Hagee’s push to launch a Christian pro-Israel grass-roots lobbying organization received the reluctant blessing of Jewish organizational leaders last week.
Hagee, who leads a mega-church of more than 17,000 members in San Antonio, Texas, came to New York last week to win support from member groups of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The new organization, Christians United for Israel, is being modeled after lobbying powerhouse the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, arguably the most influential Jewish organization in the country.
According to the mission statement posted on its Web site, the new organization strives “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, para-church organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”
Members of the Presidents Conference were delighted at the prospect of a religious figure of Hagee’s caliber leading an organization that could mobilize tens of millions of American evangelicals in support of Israel. But some are worried that the latter part of the organization’s mission statement opens the door to American Christians opposing Israeli territorial concessions on religious grounds.
“What does supporting Israel in matters related to biblical issues mean in today’s world?” asked Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Does it mean [supporting Israel] on both banks of the Jordan River?” Some Jewish communal leaders questioned how such an umbrella organization would respond to Israeli withdrawals from land in the West Bank that evangelicals believe was given by God to the Jewish people.
Hagee, who was vacationing and therefore not available for an interview this week, reportedly told members of the Presidents Conference that his organization will support the government of Israel. He didn’t specify, however, what his organization’s position would be if an Israeli government makes good on Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plans for a wide-scale pullout from the West Bank. At least one of the members of Christians United for Israel’s board of directors, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, publicly opposed Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan last year.
Hagee himself has spoken about his strong belief in God’s covenant with the Jewish patriarchs of the Bible. His Web site states: “All other nations were created by an act of men, but God Himself established the boundaries of the nation of Israel. God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a covenant of land that was eternally binding.”
In past speeches, Hagee said he believes that Israel should not make any territorial compromises in the West Bank. He seemed to strike a more nuanced note in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“The Bible says that God gave the Jewish people this sacred land,” Hagee told the Post’s editor, David Horovitz. “It’s yours. Don’t give it away. If you choose to give it away, that’s your business. We’re still friends, although we feel you made the wrong choice. I wouldn’t stop supporting Israel because of your choice.”
Foxman said that “the stuff that [Hagee] has written in the past gives us a reason to be concerned.” He added that American Jewish supporters of Israel “don’t need another lobbying group that doesn’t support the Israeli government, but hopefully [Hagee] will be pragmatic.”
The director of Christians United for Israel, Steve Swanson, declined to be interviewed. His assistant said that Hagee is the only one who is authorized to talk about the project.
At his March 29 meeting with Jewish community leaders, Hagee vowed pragmatism not only in terms of supporting the policies of the Israeli government but also in terms of avoiding proselytizing.
“He said that they will not engage in missionary activity,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference. “The way he sees it is that we can work with them on the issues that we agree on. There will obviously be issues that people would disagree on — in terms of the domestic agenda — but we all agree on supporting Israel. That’s what he said.”
Hagee is presenting his new organization as a “Christian Aipac,” with the goal of duplicating the pro-Israel lobby’s success in establishing branches across America, in each of the 50 states and in every large American metropolitan city. Hagee told members of the Presidents Conference that he already has established about a dozen and is attempting to set up more. The new organization, he also told Jewish communal leaders, will be launched officially in July. During the meeting last week, Hagee did not indicate whether he intends to cooperate and coordinate his group’s activities with Aipac. He attended the organization’s policy conference in Washington last month.
A spokesman for Aipac said that the organization has no association with Hagee’s new group.
According to activists in the evangelical community, Hagee’s initiative has not yet attracted a great deal of attention. Although the cause may resonate with evangelicals, it is not clear whether supporters would contribute enough money to sustain such a nationwide operation, activists said.
“I don’t know that evangelicals are going to give their hard-earned dollars for that,” said Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. “It seems like a bit of an overreach — it’s not as if Israel doesn’t already have its own lobby.”