Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state -- no ifs or buts.
There won't be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.
In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, "I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist," Hagee said.
Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization --both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.
Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:
- Expand the existing "rapid response network" of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel's security and well-being.
- Institute an annual "Night to Honor Israel" in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that "you do not stand alone." The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.
Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.
The pastor didn't spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.
This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.
"We don't have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them," said Erem.
CUFI's purpose, according to its official brochure, is "to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues."
The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals' deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.
Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.
However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee's social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor's underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government's license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.
Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network's lineup also includes "messianic" Jews with long pro-conversion records.
When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.
"If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians," Hagee said.
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