America’s largest pro-Israel group is no longer a Jewish one.
Or at least that’s what one might gather from Christians United for Israel’s recent announcement that it now has more than 500,000 members. In its November 30 press release touting the milestone, CUFI boasted that this makes it “by far the largest pro-Israel organization in America, as well as one of the leading Christian grassroots organizations in the world.”
Some might challenge this characterization, given that CUFI counts as “members” anyone who is signed up to its e-mail list. Few, however, would dispute that CUFI has, in the five years since it was founded, become a major player on the pro-Israel scene.
CUFI’s Jewish executive director, David Brog, said that his organization has only begun to tap into what he calls a “reservoir of strong supporters of Israel in the Christian community.” This pool of potential supporters, he estimated, consists of more than 50 million Christians who are “theologically predisposed to support Israel” and are seeking a way to become active.
The group’s recruiting strategy focuses on “going from church to church” in an effort to bring more supporters on board, Brog said.
In contrast to CUFI, most Jewish groups tend to view membership as involving payments of dues. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is widely viewed as the country’s most powerful pro-Israel organization, expects its 100,000 members to pay dues (minimum $50) and in general focuses more on engaging leaders and political donors than on building membership rolls. Increasingly, however, newer groups prominent in Israel advocacy, such as The Israel Project and J Street, do not use a member-based model, instead relying heavily on e-mail to build a constituency.
When it was founded in February 2006, CUFI was a purely evangelical organization. Brog said the group is still “predominantly evangelical” but that it is becoming increasingly diverse. It is reaching out to Latino and African-American churches, and making efforts to get Catholics and mainline Protestants on board as well.
“You hear people shouting for Israel in Spanish. You hear African-American people shouting for Israel. It’s become one big celebration,” said Scott Thomas, senior pastor of Without Walls Central Church in Lakeland, Fla., referring to the diversity of attendees at CUFI events.
Pastor Michael Stevens, who is in charge of CUFI’s outreach to the African-American community, said that his efforts are based on the “unique perspective” that connects Jews and African Americans. “We’ve both been through some pretty horrendous history,” he said.
CUFI has been critical of President Obama’s policies toward Israel and has publicly expressed its displeasure with American pressure to stop Israeli settlement expansion. Stevens said he does not see that as a problem for CUFI’s black supporters. “As African Americans we love the fact that there is an African American in the White House, but we don’t always agree with his policy and his politics,” he said.
CUFI’s highest-profile action in the past year came this summer when it launched an online petition to indict Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for incitement to genocide. The video clip promoting the campaign featured prominent American Jews such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Senator Joseph Lieberman and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The petition garnered more than 130,000 signatures.
CUFI does not provide detailed information about its finances, and as a religious organization it is not required to disclose information that secular nonprofit groups do. CUFI’s spokesman, Ari Morgenstern, said that the organization is funded by its grass-roots supporters. “Our donations average $18, yet our budget is in the millions,” he said.
Last year the group distributed, through its sister organization, John Hagee Ministries, more than $8 million to Israeli and Jewish organizations, according to CUFI. CUFI has stated that less than 5% of that sum went to settler organizations operating in the West Bank.
This clarification appears to be an attempt by CUFI to shake off its right-wing public image, which has spurred criticism within the Jewish community. The group has also emphasized that it would no longer support Im Tirtzu, an Israeli activist group that mounted a controversial public campaign against the left-leaning New Israel Fund earlier this year.
But while CUFI has been warmly welcomed by the Israeli government and increasingly accepted by many mainstream Jewish groups, it has not succeeded in overcoming its negative reputation among liberal Jews.
While an outspoken supporter of Israel, Pastor Hagee has become a lightning rod for critics due to his sometimes fiery rhetoric. He has said that if America pressures Israel to give up land, “God will bring this nation into judgment.” After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Hagee said in a radio interview that God had punished the city because of a planned gay pride parade. He spurred an outcry for suggesting that God had sent Hitler as a “hunter” to force Jews to return to Israel, though some of his defenders within the Jewish community noted that Jews have engaged in similar theological speculation about the Holocaust.
Leaders of the Reform movement have been among the staunchest critics of CUFI within the Jewish community. Reform synagogues rarely agree to participate in the Night to Honor Israel events organized by CUFI across the country.
“What does it mean to the Jewish community if CUFI becomes the face of the pro-Israel camp?” asked Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “I’m afraid it will further distance the younger generation.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, disagrees. “Every year I speak at their event, and there are some in the Jewish community who give me a hard time, but I’m proud of what I do,” she said. Laszlo Mizrahi added that CUFI brings an important new constituency to pro-Israel advocacy. “AIPAC doesn’t have many supporters in Missouri or North Carolina, “she said. “CUFI does.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman