Special to JewsOnFirst.org, July 29, 2011
Over this past July 17th – 20th, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) held its 6th annual Washington Summit in the nation's capital to rally its staunch, militant support for Israel. Despite the tough economic times for many Americans, and despite what appeared to be a dwindling number of participants at last year's event, according to official numbers, CUFI managed to draw a crowd of over 5,000 Christians — including over 500 CUFI on Campus student activists – from every state in the Union, as well as some international guests who made the pilgrimage to DC from overseas.
This year’s Summit included many "repeat offenders" to use Frank Gaffney’s phrase, including Gaffney himself whose conspiracy theories and anti-Muslim rhetoric has even seen him shunned by many conservatives; CUFI's Christian Executive Board; Senator Joseph Lieberman; AIPAC officials Jeff Mendelsohn and Jonathan Kessler; Robert Satloff; the CEO/Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoelein; Ambassador Michael Oren; and a live satellite visit from Benjamin Netanyahu.
There were also some newcomers to this year's Summit from the conservative end of the pro-Israel spectrum. These included Elliot Chodoff, a major in the IDF reserves; Colonel Ben Tzion Gruber, also from the IDF reserves; Commentary Magazine editor, John Podhoretz; conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager; the ultra-hawkish blogger Jennifer Rubin; and, of course, conspiracy theorist and former Fox News personality, Glenn Beck.
Whether or not it was the enticement of Glenn Beck as the keynote speaker (more Beck's speech below) at the Night to Honor Israel Banquet, conservative Christians' antipathy to the Obama Administration's Middle East policies and the Administration in general, or CUFI's extensive and aggressive campaign to portray itself as a legitimate, morals based organization, officials made the reason for the unprecedented attendance clear: God wants His will done, and he wants it done through CUFI.
"For such a time as this"
As attendees walked into the convention center, through the metal detectors and bag-inspection area, two large banners adorning two juxtaposed scriptural references from the Hebrew Bible greeted them. The first, from Isaiah 62:6: "I have placed watchmen on your walls," followed by Esther 4:14: "for such a time as this." As understood by many Christian Zionists, it is they who are the watchmen on the walls, placed there by God at this time in history to help His plans for Israel come to pass. At last year's Summit, through the questionable use of Biblical concordance and Hebrew translation, it was determined that the word "watchmen" in Hebrew actually meant Christian, and therefore, the text from Isaiah was a prophetic text, pointing to the Christians of today who would be raised up, again, "for such a time as this."
For such a time as what?
Since its inception, CUFI has struggled to dissociate itself, its existence and its purpose from the apocalyptic imagery that dominates the theological writings and teachings of its Christian leadership. That is, CUFI has had to reconcile the fact that the writings of it's founder and National Chairman Rev. John Hagee are overwhelmingly preoccupied with Israel as a catalyst for the battle of Armageddon and the return of Jesus.
In order for Jesus to return, though, there are a number of things that must happen first. Most, if not all Jews must return to Israel, Israel must control all of the land given to it by God, in particular Jerusalem, because this is where Jesus is set to return and rule the world through a Christian theocracy for 1,000 years before a new heaven and a new earth are created. Once all of these prerequisites are in place, many believe that the Christian church will have fulfilled its earthly duty, at which point it will be "raptured" into the heavens for a period of seven years while the nations of the world, guided by Satan, will attempt to destroy Israel one last time before Jesus returns with the raptured church to defeat the enemies of God. This theology can be found in any number of Hagee's books, including: From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown has Begun; Jerusalem Countdown; The Beginning of the End: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the coming of the Antichrist; Final Dawn over Jerusalem; and his most recent (2010), Can America Survive? 10 Prophetic Signs That We Are in the Terminal Generation. Needless to say, this creates a problem because it places the support of Israel, and a very particular path that Israel must follow (read: no two-state solution), along with the future destruction of a large portion of the Jewish population, into the realm of God-ordained necessities for Christian salvation.
Brog: Speeding the Rapture with brothels
One of the ways they get around this is candidly admit, as CUFI's executive director David Brog does in his book Standing with Israel, that, yes, there are many Christians who do believe that Israel is significant for the Second Coming, but that Christians are powerless to do anything about it. Or, to erroneously argue, as Brog does in the same book that "If evangelicals really wanted to speed Jesus' return they would open up abortion clinics, brothels, and casinos to advance social and moral decay that are preconditions for the Second Coming, in addition to trying to weaken Israel's defenses in order to facilitate the prophesied invasion of the Jewish state by its enemies."
This argument may be sufficient for some, yet it woefully misunderstands (willfully or not) this strand of Christian theology, how these Christians read and interpret their scriptures, and how they understand themselves in sacred history.
The reference to the verse from Esther is instructive. The Book of Esther and particularly the scriptural reference of "for such a time as this" is standard evangelical pedagogy about how God uses people – ordinary, unknowing people – to fulfill His purposes in history. Esther was called upon by God, who spoke through her uncle Mordecai in order to save Diaspora Jews in ancient Persia from a plot aimed at their destruction. Ultimately, it is a story of instrumentality – of God using humans to push history toward its terminal end. Christians are the "watchmen on the wall" because they are the ones who "know the end of the story" (unlike many liberal Jews who are interested in alternative pathways to peace) and despite not actively trying to hasten Armageddon, the specter of its imminent arrival acts as a marker for God's next move – through Christian Zionists – in the unfolding of the story.
Morrison: Division of Jerusalem would prevent Jesus' return
At the unofficial opening of the Summit, the Sunday night Prayer and Worship session, this understanding of sacred time, and God's use of humans to fulfill His will was on full display. CUFI, we were told, wasn't born six years ago because of some good idea. Rather, it has existed since the beginning of time, it has merely taken prayer cells over the past few decades among all the disparate groups now involved in CUFI to bring about its realization as a political tool for God's spiritual will. "God wants to use you," we were told "he wants to do his will through you, through each of us, and if we don't each do our part then we are slowing the fulfillment of his plans." And perhaps the most candid display of CUFI's yearning for the Second Coming came when CUFI's Cheryl Morrison of Faith Bible Chapel in Colorado stated that if we allow Jerusalem to be divided, we would be preventing the return of Jesus. Morrison is the wife and colleague of CUFI executive board member and regional director Rev. George Morrison.
It was at this point that the notion of CUFI supporting a two-state solution was seriously flawed. "We all know that there won't be peace in Jerusalem until Messiah returns." And therefore worldly attempts to establish peace are doomed to failure, because they don't have the spiritual fruits of God's plans behind them. Sure, one might cast off this assertion as irrelevant because we aren't expecting Jesus to return, and therefore such an unprecedented display of support ought to be welcomed in the meantime. The problem, however, is that it dictates an acceptance of the status quo of continuous violence and provides no urgency for establishing worldly peace in the meantime. And, in fact, to support worldly peace that is based on anything remotely close to the Obama Administration's plans, or to relinquish any settlements, for many evangelicals, would be to fall prey to plans of Satan.
So again, for such a time as what? This "time" is the End Times, and for many evangelicals God has given them a sacred appointment to ensure that His plans for Israel and the Second Coming are not inhibited by the "world." So, evangelicals might not be trying to "hasten" Armageddon, but the fact that they know we are apparently at a juncture in history where Satan is making a final push to thwart the plans of God and the return of Jesus means that they must do everything they can to ensure God's plans can proceed unencumbered. And this doesn't involve establishing an agreeable peace in the region.
From the sacred to the (kind of) secular
Despite being an "unofficial" opening event, the prayer and worship session served an important purpose: It more clearly established the sacred significance of the ostensibly secular teaching and goals at the rest of the conference. It set out the inherently sacred, God-willed, nature of CUFI's work so that even when burdened with the bureaucratic necessities, such as "speaking in the language of policy, not prophecy" as Brog reminded attendees in his "Civics 101" session, all those in attendance knew that God was speaking through them. It also had the effect of giving much greater meaning to the words of the non-Christian speakers, all of whom become attributed with a kind of divine anointing, as vessels of God's will. David Brog was compared continuously as the spiritual heir of King David, who God had sent to CUFI for this time.
The rest of the conference followed similar themes as in previous years, with breakout sessions on the "History and Importance of Christian Zionism"; "the American-Israel relationship: past present and future"; "the looming threats of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah"; "The basics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict"; and "How to be an effective Israel advocate" – all presented through a Likud-endorsed lens.
Although presenting politically based arguments, the specter of Bible prophecy was never too far away, with important key words and meanings that, to a secular listener, might sound like nice gestures, yet to the evangelical ear, are loaded with a much different meaning. Robert Alter's classic, The Art of Biblical Narrative helps explain such a reading. Alter points out that as a symbol recurs more frequently to an audience that has an appreciation for its larger meaning, the smaller its information content needs to be. So, throughout the conference, allusion to Israel as "not just a Jewish issue, and not just a Christian issue, but an issue for the whole world" is understood not necessarily about morality and social justice, but rather about impending Christian salvation. Thus, when CUFI's Eastern Regional Coordinator, Victor Styrsky told the audience that "This is a historic moment in time for Christians and the redemption of our faith and of the world – and I hope you know what that means" he didn't have to say anything more. Similarly, when regional director Billye Brim told the audience that today there are more Jews in Israel than outside of it, the audience jumped up in pure elation, because this also signals the close proximity of the Messiah's return.
Attack on Iran back on the table
One of the over-arching themes of CUFI's five and a half year existence has been the preoccupation with Iran and its either implied or overt support for a military strike on the country. In Hagee's book Jerusalem Countdown, released shortly before CUFI announced its formal establishment (despite its existence from the beginning of time, that is) he argues that a military strike against Iran will serve as the requisite catalyst to set of the Gog/Magog war outlined in Ezekiel 38-39, which many Christian Zionists interpret to be an invasion of Israel by its neighbors, "plunging the world toward Armageddon."
As we pointed out in our report on the Summit last year calls for a direct military strike on Iran were surprisingly muted (though by no means absent). However, at this year's Summit the future necessity of a military strike on the country was increasingly referenced as potentially the only viable option of stopping Iran. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who went from being a guest speaker at previous Banquet dinners to speaking alongside Dennis Prager and John Hagee at the opening plenary, received a rousing response when he candidly suggested that the military option should never be taken off the table. Hagee, reiterated this too, and during the question and answer session after Brog's "Civics 101," one of the audience members asked why we were only lobbying for sanctions on Iran and not for a military strike. Brog, invoking Lieberman's courage for calling for an ongoing military option, suggested that going into Congress with demands for a military strike would not give CUFI legitimacy, but constantly prodding them on the Iran issue would keep it on their minds.
It would be remiss to equate Hagee and other Christian Zionists' belief in the prophetic significance of an Israeli attack on Iran and the ensuing violence it would yield as the sole driving force behind many evangelicals' desire for the military option. Indeed, there are plenty of hawkish neoconservatives who share what might be considered a secularized version of Christian Zionists' eschatology that calls for constant war and American supremacy, who are also firmly supportive of the military option. However, the potential prophetic significance of attacking Iran does contribute to evangelicals' support for it in another way. As noted above, it is not the active hastening of prophetic events that Christian Zionists are engaged in, but rather a submission to what God has planned for the world. So when an opportunity to attack Iran arises, to vociferously support such an act is to surrender oneself to the will of God. And this is in fact where much of the danger lies. It is the slow, consistent expression of support for military support for a military strike on Iran that allows it to slowly become "commonsense" and eventually, should the opportunity to arise to vocally support the military option, it won't be out of the blue, and indeed might even seem reasonable. Especially when dressed up in secular language and pitched at the commonsense level that CUFI is becoming increasingly adept at.
So, while for reasons of political expediency, CUFI is fortunately unlikely to garner much support in Congress for a unilateral (or bilateral) attack on Iran, it is clearly not going to do away with the issue. If the day comes that there is an administration willing to undertake such an action, then there will be millions of evangelicals ready to surrender themselves to the will of God and enter the halls of Congress voicing that support.
Hagee is right about one thing: an attack on Iran would set the region on fire. However, for those of us who are unconvinced of the redemptive violence that Jesus' return is predicated on, such an option, and the slow march that CUFI appears to be taking towards making it mainstream, is a disconcerting one.
As with last year's Summit, the theme of redemption throughout the conference was linked explicitly to American redemption and American exceptionalism. This is based on the belief in Genesis 12:3, where God says to Abraham "I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse." The way this scripture is read today by Christian Zionists is that supporting Israel (a very conservative definition of support) yields God's blessings on individuals and on nations. This is read to mean that America's position as a world superpower is predicated on its support of Israel. And therefore, if it stops supporting Israel in the un-nuanced and unquestioning way that CUFI is advocating, God's wrath will be brought down on this nation. And in this sense, Christian support is just as much about America and American nationalism as it is about supporting Israel. Dennis Prager told us that even an atheist could see the truth in Genesis 12:3 – that any nation that blesses Israel is blessed in return, "and no other nation has been as blessed as much the United States of America." Similarly in his speech at the Night to Honor Israel Banquet Hagee remarked that the day that America contributes to the division of Israel (included in this, is a two-state solution) would be a day we can mark in the calendar as the day America starts to decline.
Increasingly, there was also a conflation of American and Israeli identity. The editor of Commentary Magazine, John Podhoretz spent time equating the establishment of modern Israel with the founding of America, as immigrant, frontier people.
Introduced by Hagee as the "leader of the free world" Prime Minister Netanyahu told the audience via satellite to not only think of Israel as an ally of the Unites States, but as indistinguishable from it. "Our enemies think that we are you, and that you are us. And you know something? They are absolutely right."
Glenn Beck's speech full of fake tears and contrived anger
Glenn Beck's keynote speech at the Night to Honor Israel Banquet further conflated the two identities. In Beck's speech that saw numerous standing ovations despite some threads on CUFI's Facebook page that showed some members expressing concern over his Mormon affiliation, which many described as "a cult." The speech, full of fake tears and contrived anger, interspersed Biblical quotes with lines from the Declaration of Independence, and entrenched the synonymous nature of the two documents as divinely inspired. The Declaration of Independence was regarded as the answer to the Holocaust 150 years before Hitler showed up, again instilling the notion that America is THE answer to the redemption of the world. Whether that is theologically understood as many in the audience would have understood it to be – as the Christian nation steering Israel in the direction that they understand God wants it go – or understood in secular terms, whereby American power must be wielded throughout the world by both the United States and Israel, the immediate push is the same.
The right kind of Jew
The most interesting conflation of identity came towards the end of Beck's speech when he suggested that in a world with enemies trying to eradicate the Jewish people, they ought to "count me a Jew and come for me first!" He continued, "Show me the Jews – I'm one!" at which point nearly half of the 5,000 attendees jumped up and raised their hands.
The question we ought to be asking, though, is what kind of Jew does Beck, and the other Christian Zionists who jumped up in the audience, count themselves as? Surely not the ones he compared to radical Muslims?.
It might seem odd for an organization like CUFI – again, trying to establish itself as legitimate and bi-partisan – to have Beck as their keynote speaker after comments like these, his constant and inappropriate use of Holocaust analogies, and his total aversion to the phrase "social justice" and anyone who uses it.
Choice of Beck telling
Yet the choice of Beck as a speaker ought not to be seen as some sort of public relations blunder, but rather a revealing glimpse at some of the broader goals of CUFI and its real concerns. CUFI seems quite clearly disinterested in the concerns of Liberal Jews, and although touting itself as an organization dedicated to allowing Israel to choose for itself what it wants to do, this notion has yet to be seriously tested considering the current Government in Israel shares identical earthly aspirations to Christian Zionists (the other-worldly aspirations, are of course, different).
And this is the rub – Christian Zionists love the idea of Jews – not Jews as they actually are, but as representatives of God's ongoing truth and impending Christian salvation. They love religious Jews who, through the conflation of American and Israeli identities, many seem to think of as sharing the exact same values as them, minus Jesus. Whether it is CUFI on Campus students excitedly Tweeting "there are so many Jews here!" or women fawning over their new Star of David necklaces and sharing stories of possible Jewish lineage, it seems that actual interaction with Jews of diverse opinions is significantly lacking.
So while conversion attempts are waning (some attendees expressed the idea that God is creating "one new man" with Christians and Jews as they are) there is still a need for conversion to the political philosophy of Christian Zionists. And this is where those Jews who are strong supporters of CUFI come in handy. They can criticize Jews to a far greater degree than any Christian Zionists would be willing to do. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin spent a great deal of her talk slamming her co-religionists for being naively liberal, and referencing her fellow panelist's father’s book – Norman Podhoretz's Why are Jews Liberal? – as a way to try and explain that they have fallen away from God and been captivated by the "religion of liberalism" to which the audience expressed considerable dismay. Rubin and others are useful for this kind of criticism because it allows them to express contempt for their fellow Jews, which coming out of the mouth of anyone else would, quite rightly, be considered anti-Semitism see here for some examples.
Reflections on the Summit
Based on the enormous attendance at this year’s Summit, the estimates of over 720,000 official members of CUFI, and the large number of speakers drawn from outside of the evangelical sphere, it is quite clear that CUFI is not going anywhere anytime soon. It will be interesting to see what emerges as the organization evolves, however what is clear at this point is that although attempting to denounce any association to apocalyptic ideas, the specter of the Second Coming is still a central tenet to the base of CUFI support and its religious leadership, evident in our observations at this year’s Summit.
Does this really matter? I think that it is safe to argue that yes, it certainly does, for two reasons. One (based on the assumption that the Second Coming is not going to occur), is that the notion that dividing Jerusalem will retard the return of Jesus means that CUFI members have a particular idea of what Israel needs to do (or what it cannot do). And so, if it fails to live up to these expectations (either by relinquishing settlements, negotiating with the PA, or accepting a two-state solution), it seems hard to imagine how devout Christian Zionists could find it in their hearts continue their level of support when all of these situations are considered to be plans devised by Satan.
Second, is that the conflation of Jewish/Christian and Israeli/American identities, often under the banner of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" is troublesome because it assigns the American and Christian halves an ascendant position, whereby the Jewish and Israeli halves are subsumed within it, based on the expectation that they are identical. What happens when Christians find out that they are not?