by JewsOnFirst, July 31, 2006
Christian Zionists -- Christian evangelicals who avow support of Israel based on a belief in Biblical end-times scenarios -- are whipping their followers into a fervor in favor of an attack on Iran. In a related development, conservative commentators like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have been beating the drum for a US attack on Iran, characterizing the current conflict in Lebanon as the start of “World War Three."
The calls for aggressive action against Iran wouldn’t amount to much more than laugh lines for Comedy Channel newscasts, were it not for the involvement of some highly influential, right-wing Christian evangelical leaders in a new Christian Zionist organization, Christians United for Israel, or CUFI.
Religious right groups typically support aggressive foreign policies because of their identification with the Republican Party and their interest in missionizing where the US intervenes. But CUFI, which recently brought 3,500 citizen-lobbyists to Washington, is advocating confrontation with Iran based on "cherry-picked" Biblical interpretations.
CUFI's founder, Rev. John Hagee, is leading this push for aggressive US action, purportedly based on Biblical principles. Hagee heads the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio and a big evangelical television operation. He founded CUFI in February and packed its leadership with luminaries of the religious right.
A Christian lobby for Israel
Hagee established CUFI as a Christian congressional lobby in support of Israel, modeled on the pro-Israel congressional lobby AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), according to news reports. (However, for unknown reasons, he disclaims similarity in an opinion article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).)
While AIPAC generally supports current Israeli government policy, Hagee and CUFI board members, including Rev. Jerry Falwell, make clear that they do not support Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, based on their Biblical interpretations. (For more on Christian Zionism, see the sidebar at right.)
Hagee has been promoting war with Iran since February. His book on the subject, Jerusalem Countdown: A warning to the world, has sold 700,000 copies, the Wall Street Journal reports. Speakers at CUFI's July 18th kickoff banquet hurled imprecations at Iran.
Esther and Iran
Sarah Posner, who reports on Hagee for the American Prospect, writes that, "[b]ased on his end-times prophecy, a supposed love of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and false claims that Iran is just months away from a viable nuclear weapon, Hagee maintains that confrontation with Iran is necessary to fulfill God’s plan for the future of the world."
In June, Posner considered the impact of heartland Christocrats fired up against Iran:
While pundits and politicians in Washington debate the merits of confrontation with Tehran, Hagee and other evangelical leaders plan to activate hundreds of congregations across the country -- many of which boast tens of thousands of members -- to flood congressional inboxes with e-mails at the touch of a button. The message from the heartland, beyond the ken of elites who cannot quite imagine such a decision, will be to strike Iran before it is too late.
In an April email to CUFI supporters, Hagee used the story of Esther to mobilize his followers against Iran.
Esther went before the king when Israel was in a time of crisis because the Hitler of the Old Testament (Haman) planned to exterminate the Jews.
Mordecai said to Esther, "For if you remain completely silent at this time...you and your father's house will perish."
CUFI is exactly in the position of Esther. Israel is in a time of crisis.
A 21st Century Hitler (the president of Iran) has put in place a plan to exterminate the Jews with nuclear warfare. If we remain completely silent at this time...God's punishment will come to us also.
The Bible's book of Esther is generally understood to be drama – not a prophetic book. By assigning to CUFI a role as a modern-day Queen Esther, positioned to influence government action (Esther 4:14), Hagee has staked out rather ambitious territory.
Jewish commentators do not normally attribute such "ouiji board" interpretations to Bible verses. Indeed, Jewish commentators interpret the book of Esther as calling for more responsibility on the part of Jews for their fate. Some commentators suggest that the book may be a sly letter from the Jewish Diaspora claiming that people in the Babylonian Exile (circa 500 B.C.E.) do not need to return to Israel since they were an important "lobby" that saved the Jewish people.
Jewish leaders welcome CUFI
Many Jewish leaders welcome the support for Israel offered by Hagee and other Christian Zionists. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. spoke at the July 18th CUFI banquet.
The next day, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Republic Jewish Coalition, the American Jewish Committee and the Israel Project sponsored a rally with Hagee near the White House, according to the JTA. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) spoke at the rally.
For the most part, Jewish leaders dismiss the evangelical Christian commitment to proselytizing when it comes to Hagee and his CUFI associates. Some believe that Israel's present situation is so dire that they pay scan tattention to the Christian Zionists' end-times motives. And Hagee has gone out of his way to put them at ease about the proselytizing.
He has met several times with Jewish organizational leaders and assured them that CUFI will not seek to convert Jews to Christianity. Before this month's CUFI meeting, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, hosted a briefing with Hagee, according to the JTA, and said he was assured there would be no proselytizing. "There’s a stipulation that everyone has to sign on to who’s attending," Hoenlein said. "There’s not missionizing and proselytizing for anyone. We don’t have to be skeptical about everything, sometimes good things do happen."
"Immoral to be involved with Hagee"
Hagee was less forthcoming on the missionizing issue at a meeting this June with the Southern California Board of Rabbis. According to the JTA, when Hagee proposed a nationwide series of "Nights to Honor Israel" like the one he holds yearly at his Cornerstone Church, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of Jews for Judaism, objected that such programs are a Trojan horse for proselytizing. Hagee responded, not with genial Southern folksiness, but a hard edge: "If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians."
Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Hagee's hometown, advocated a more sweeping rejection of Hagee, telling the JTA, "It's immoral to be involved with Pastor Hagee when many of his activities are bad for the present and future of Jewish life in America."
In a column written for the JTA, Block was more explicit:
San Antonio Jews are deeply and personally affected by the actions and advocacy of Hagee and his minions. Most harmed are young people from our synagogues, attending public schools. They are proselytized at lunch and subjected to Christian prayer in their extracurricular activities. If we hear our young people’s pain — as I do, regularly — we cannot stand with the very people who inflict it.
The Christian Zionists' domestic agenda
Most Jews in America reject the domestic program of the religious right. However, Jewish organizations, many of which welcome CUFI's establishment, may find it difficult to vigorously oppose the Christocratic domestic agenda promoted by Hagee and the colleagues he has gathered onto CUFI's executive board.
A glance at the anti-gay, anti-choice, patriarchal, anti-First Amendment articles in Hagee's JH Magazine shows that Hagee subscribes to the standard religious right program. In an article entitled "How Free is Freedom," in the July/August 2003 issue, Hagee wrote:
Let's continue to look at our nation closely. We worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism. We have endorsed sodomy and called it an alternative life style….In the name of "choice", we have murdered the unborn. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building "self esteem."
CUFI has brought together for its board and its regional coordinators a religious right dream team, among them: Dr. Jerry Falwell; Gary Bauer, president of American Values; Pastor Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church near Columbus; religious-right radio personality Janet Parshall; Benny Hinn of Benny Hinn Ministries in Irving, Texas; Pastor George Morrison of the 4500-member Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado and chairman of Promise Keepers; Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries International; Larry Huch of Larry Huch Ministries in Dallas; Stephen Strang, CEO of Strang Communications, which published Jerusalem Countdown; self-improvement book author Joyce Meyer; and Jesse Duplantis of Jesse Duplantis Ministries in Hammond, Louisiana. (Also participating as a board member is Ron Wexler, an Orthodox Jew.)
These right-wing Christian leaders command hundreds of thousands of people in the battle against gays, reproductive rights, science and, increasingly, for the establishment of Christianity as the public, if not the state, religion.
These leaders are the base and bulwark of the Republican Party. Most Jews shun the GOP, not least because it favors the rich over working families.
From its website and publications it appears that Hagee's Cornerstone Church emphasizes acquiring wealth as a sign of God's favor. Most churches and synagogues have rejected these notions as heresy.
In an interview this month with the San Antonio Express-News, Hagee all but scoffed at Jews opposed to his domestic agenda:
I think if I could put a dividing line, the Orthodox and Conservatives who have a Torah appreciation give us wholehearted support. The rest who are not driven by the Word of God have a liberal agenda.
And the liberal agenda is they are pro-abortion. They're pro-homosexual. They're pro-gay marriage — they want men to marry men and women to marry women — and their difference with me is not really what I'm doing with Israel. Their hostility to me is poisoned by their liberalism. They take a liberal position that poisons their view of what we could be doing for Israel.
CUFI harps on Iran
In a stroke of fortuitous timing, CUFI held its kickoff event in Washington on July 18th, less than a week after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Israel attacked Lebanon. Iran, which backs Hezbollah, was the focus of banquet speeches. Hagee and CUFI board member Gary Bauer repeatedly spoke of "Hitlerian" Iran (and "Islamofacists").
Iran was also the focus of several thousand CUFI visits to congressional offices the following day, according to the Wall Street Journal and the National Catholic Reporter .
Hagee's influence in conservative Christian circles appears not to have gone unnoticed in Washington.
It is not clear how many senators and representatives were swayed by CUFI's lobbyists. Nevertheless, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, appearing on talk shows before the CUFI lobbying day, popularized the concept of World War III, pitting "civilization and the rule of law against the dictatorships of Iran and Syria and the terrorist groups of Hezbollah and Hamas that they support." (See accompanying box)
The Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli parliament member with strong ties to the US religious right, Benny Elon, saying that Hagee is the influence behind Gingrich's assertions.
Arizona Republican Senator and presidential contender John McCain did not reject Gingrich's predictions about "World War III" when asked about them on Larry King Live. Instead, McCain stated that "I think that it's very clear that Iran is becoming more and more belligerent and needs to be reigned in."
Ezekiel and Russian oil
While McCain's comments on Iran are probably influenced to some extent by political calculations, Hagee's support for war with Iran is purely Biblical in its inspiration.
In his recent interview with the San Antonio Express, Hagee said:
Very clearly, the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel Chapter 38, verse 5 mentions Persia (which is modern-day Iran) as being at the head of the class leading the torment against Israel. It starts listing the Islamic nations that will come against Israel. ... The president of Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and is doing everything in his power to get nuclear weapons to make that possible.
And there's more. Hagee went on to say:
Russia is going to ingratiate itself to the Islamic nations and is going to say to them we will give you the military leadership if you will give us the oil. The oil will make Russia a superpower and he will say to the radical Islamic nations, we will give you the military know-how to attack Israel and you can crush the state of Israel and control the city of Jerusalem.
Now the only problem is the city of Jerusalem belongs to God. God makes it very clear in Ezekiel 39 that he's going to totally destroy that army. It'll be the most supernatural display of the might and power of God to protect Israel and the Jews since God destroyed Pharaoh in the Red Sea.
Never mind the fact that Russia does not appear to be in need of oil – Hagee's comments have an internal logic of their own. His reference to Russia would not be considered off-message among Christian end-timers. During the Cold War, conservative evangelicals touted the Soviet Union as Satan's minion and the most likely instigator of Armageddon, just as Iran has been cast in that role now.
Cold War absolutes allowed people like Hagee to define themselves and their followers against black and white portrayals of good and evil. It's possible they may feel some nostalgia for those days; certainly asymmetrical warfare is a trickier end-times sell than a war between super powers, which truly did have the potential to launch a nuclear Armageddon.
Also underpinning Hagee's antagonistic foreign policy is hostility toward Islam. In the interview with the News-Express he said:
There are the radical Islamics who believe they have a mandate from God to kill Jews and crush the state of Israel, and there are peaceful Islamics who want peace as much as you do or I do.
But the point is there are about a billion people who follow the Islamic theology, and about 20 million of them are the radical Islamic people. Twenty million people can turn the world upside down.
In an election cycle, a couple of million right-wing Christian evangelicals hitting the ballot box while hopped up on foreign policy positions taken straight from the Book of Revelations can have a pretty negative impact too. It is disquieting to think about militant evangelicals mobilizing for Israel in hopes of hastening Armageddon at any time. But throw into the mix a combustible situation in the Middle East and election year politics, and the brew becomes especially toxic.
Recorded conversation led by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, August 18, 2006
Following up on our July 31st report above, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst co-director, moderated a discussion about how rabbis are dealing with Christian Zionist "Nights to Honor Israel."
These "nights" are a project of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an agglomeration of powerful religious right leaders assembled by San Antonio televangelist John Hagee. Most commonly, local Jewish federations and congregations jointly host the Night to Honor Israel with CUFI.
Participating in the hour-long conversation are: Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio; Rabbi Neal Katz of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas; Rabbi Paula Reimers of Congregation Beth Israel in Lebanon, Pennsylvania; Prof. Yaakov Ariel of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald of Beth Israel Congregation in Florence, South Carolina (who was on the call, but unfortunately, the audio on his line did not work). Rabbi Beliak introduces all the participants several minutes after the recording begins.
Their discussion ranged beyond the honor-Israel nights to a discussion of Christian Zionism which touched on dissent in the Jewish community, the religious right and inter-religious relations. Listen to the conversation here:
by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst, July 31, 2006
Christian Zionism is a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that understands the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial, and religious support. Christian Zionists believe that when all Jews are gathered in Israel, Jesus will reappear; there are varying "end times" scenarios for what follows. (For more, please see the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism.)
Christian Zionism is an extreme modern apocalyptic movement that shares with Nazi philosophy the paranoid idea that Jews and Judaism are the central actors in the world. Both movements seek the eventual dismantling of the Jewish people and Jewish faith - Nazism by death and Christian Zionism by conversion to Christianity of a remnant of Jews, who will finally learn their "lesson" from the death of most of the Jewish people at Armageddon (Ir Megiddo); then the "left-behind" remnant is expected to commit apostasy by converting to Jesus worship.
All the Christian Zionists' expressions of love and friendship (for example, Pat Robertson saying "We love the Jewish people") -- all their farm aid (including red heifers to use in revived temple sacrifices) and help for Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel -- are preparations for genocide by remote control.
Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El, located in Christians United for Israel leader John Hagee's home town of San Antonio, writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "[Hagee] and his group’s partners hew to a theology that mainstream Americans of every faith reject and often abhor. Even as they speak to large congregations, Hagee and his ilk are repudiated by tens of millions of Christians, including evangelicals, and for good reason. The group’s advocacy for Israel will harm everything we hold dear, as Israel and the Jewish people are tarnished by association."
Christian Zionism entirely ignores Jewish/Zionist aspirations for normalcy. Zionism was to be a new start for Judaism and the Jewish people living enlightened lives in peace. Instead Christian Zionism encourages the Israeli government and the US Jewish organizational leadership on a path toward enmity with the Palestinians and disrespect for Islam. In his book End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, Gershom Gorenberg pointed to the triad of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish fundamentalisms goading and threatening each other.
Many Jews are puzzled by Hagee's Christian Zionism. Many do not understand how it differs from altruistic support of Israel. Nonetheless, they welcome it and its blandishments of friendship in the face of so much opposition to Israel.
Most of what has been written about Christian Zionism by Jews (for example, Yechiel Eckstein's The Journey Home, and CUFI Executive Director David Brog's Standing with Israel: Why Christians support the Jewish state,) is also not helpful because it projects a romantic version of Zionism that assumes maximum claims for land and barely nods to pragmatic political considerations. Virtually the entire pantheon of Zionist thinkers from Theodore Herzl to David Grossman and Amos Elon saw peace with Arab neighbors as the culmination of the Zionist dream, not as an impossibility.
That peace demanded compromise in resolving disputes, not preparation for endless wars and "end-times" scenarios.
This is an excerpt of a transcript of Larry King's July 16 program, posted on the CNN website.
KING: Let's go to New York now and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Do you support what Israel is doing?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I do, and I think that this is a situation where a country has been attacked. Their soldiers have been killed and captured. I think, if the similar incident took place in the United States of America, I'm not sure we would be advocating restraint and responding to an unprovoked attack.
KING: Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House was on "Meet the Press" today. I want you to listen to what he said and you comment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We're in the early stages of what I would describes as the Third World War and, frankly, our bureaucracies aren't responding fast enough. We don't have the right attitude about this. And this is the 58th year of the war to destroy Israel and frankly, the Israelis have every right to insist that every single missile that leaves south Lebanon and that the United States ought to be helping the Lebanese government have the strength to eliminate Hezbollah as a military force, not as a political force in the parliament, but as a military force in south Lebanon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is World War III.
GINGRICH: I believe, if you take all the countries I just listed that you've been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity; you'd have to say to yourself this is in fact World War III.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Senator McCain, do you agree?
MCCAIN: I do to some extent. I think it's important to recognize that we have terrorist organizations which -- who are dangerous by themselves, are now being supported by radical Islamic governments, i.e., the Iranians, which makes them incredibly more dangerous because they are trained, equipped, motivated and assisted in every way by the Iranians. So that it's the Iranians that gave them the rockets that they are reigning down on Haifa as we speak.
It's the Iranians who provided them with the missile that struck the Israeli war ship. And so, I think that it's very clear that Iran is becoming more and more belligerent and needs to be reigned in. They are penetrating -- they have penetrated southern Iraq to a significant degree or in sending people into southern Iraq. They are continuing their development of nuclear weapons and now this latest provocation. No one believes that Hezbollah would have acted the way they did without at least the approval, if not the encouragements of the Iranian government. This is serious.