Washington — An upstart Jewish group looking to make its mark on Washington is launching a campaign to distance the Jewish community from controversial evangelical Pastor John Hagee.
Following revelations that Hagee made comments perceived to be describing the Holocaust as an act of divine retribution, much of the Jewish communal establishment has stuck by the outspokenly pro-Israel Hagee, even as Republican presidential candidate John McCain rejected the pastor’s endorsement.
On May 27, however, the dovish J Street political action committee launched an e-mail campaign calling on Senator Joe Lieberman to cancel a planned speech next month to Hagee’ pro-Israel Christian lobby.
Titled “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” the e-mail campaign is the first major effort organized by J Street, which proclaims one of its core missions to be the distancing of the Jewish community from right-wing evangelicals. Seizing upon McCain’s May 22 rejection of Hagee’s endorsement, which the GOP candidate had previously courted, the group is calling on Lieberman to sever ties with the pastor.
“The Lieberman-Hagee alliance is at the heart of this issue,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. “John McCain helped establish that Hagee is outside the mainstream. Now this has to be done also within the Jewish community.”
The online petition, which supporters of the group are urged to sign and circulate, details Lieberman’s longstanding relations with Hagee, including the Connecticut senator’s comparison of the pastor to Moses at an event organized by the Hagee-led Christians United for Israel.
“How can Joe Lieberman continue to stand with a man who preaches that Hitler was only doing God’s bidding in the Holocaust?” the petition asks.
Lieberman’s office issued a statement May 28 calling Hagee’s comments “unacceptable,” while stressing that the senator does not plan to cancel his appearance at CUFI’s upcoming annual “Washington-Israel Summit.”
“At that conference, I will also make it clear that it is imperative that our language is always respectful and tolerant of all our fellow citizens” Lieberman said.
This year’s Washington-Israel Summit, scheduled to begin July 21, will feature Reps. Eliot Engel and Mike Pence, as well as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Sallai Meridor. Also scheduled to speak is a senior member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hagee was a keynote speaker at Aipac’s last policy conference.
A representative for the McCain campaign declined to comment on Lieberman’s plans to speak at the CUFI event.
David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, said he did not sense any change in views toward his group since McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement.
“I found that whoever was friendly and supportive before remains that way now, and those who were critical and skeptical about us are still critical and skeptical,” Brog said. He stressed that he and his organization are willing to explain Hagee’s remarks “to anyone who is willing to listen.”
Hagee himself convened a press conference May 23, at which he argued that his now-famous sermon depicting Hitler as part of a divine plan to force the Jews back to the Land of Israel was taken out of context.
“I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms,” Hagee said. Any suggestion to the contrary, he added, would be “the worst of lies.”
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has been among the Jewish community’s most vocal critics of Hagee’s remarks. Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s director, issued a statement May 22 calling on others to join McCain in distancing themselves from the controversial pastor.
“We hope that Senator McCain’s responsible action in this matter will encourage other political and religious leaders to act likewise in condemning Pastor Hagee’s remarks,” Saperstein wrote.
Other Jewish groups, however, have taken a more measured stance.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, told Mother Jones magazine that he accepts the clarifications offered by Hagee.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward that as long as Hagee’s support for Israel is not conditioned on accepting his views on other issues, there is no reason to disqualify him. But Foxman stressed that the onus is on Hagee to provide further clarification to the Jewish community.
“We have the right to come to someone like that and say, ‘Do you really believe this?’” Foxman said. “I want to know if he still believes in what he said, and if so, what next? What else is God planning for us?”
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