Last month Christians United for Israel (CUFI) – the largest pro-Israel organization in America with nearly 1.8 million members (and 1.2 million Facebook followers – 15 times as many as AIPAC) – held its ninth annual Washington Summit, with 4,800 delegates from all 50 states. Founded in 2006, CUFI has held more than 1,700 pro-Israel events, including 260 formal “Nights to Honor Israel;” now hosts about 40 pro-Israel events a month; has a campus organization at more than 300 colleges; publishes a magazine; and run an active website. The Summit featured Prime Minister Netanyahu (on video); Ambassador Ron Dermer; five U.S. senators; former CIA director James Woolsey; columnists Charles Krauthammer, Dennis Prager, and William Kristol; several IDF members; and many others. The delegates lobbied their Congressional representatives (the principal talking point: any final deal with Iran must deny it not simply a nuclear weapon, but a “nuclear capability,” because “allowing Iran to develop all of the components of a bomb so long as they don’t put these components together is not a solution”).
Following the Summit, CUFI ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and 15 other major American newspapers, quoting the provisions in Hamas’s charter asserting that Islam will “obliterate” Israel; that there is no solution except “jihad”; and that the Jews must be killed – and setting forth CUFI’s response: “Israel’s Enemies Are Our Enemies/ Israel’s Fight is Our Fight/ We Stand with Israel.” CUFI then sent 51 pastors on a four-day solidarity mission to Israel – one from each state and the District of Columbia. They prayed at the Western Wall; visited the parent of one of the Israeli teenagers murdered by Hamas; traveled to Sderot on the Gaza border; met with key public figures; and attended an IDF briefing, among other activities.
Last week, CUFI issued an “action alert” after reports were published that the White House had blocked routine weapons transfers to Israel while Hamas was waging its war against it. Within two days, over 30,000 CUFI members had personally emailed President Obama to demand he reverse that stand.
During the 2014 Summit, CUFI’s founder and leader, Pastor John Hagee – now 74 and showing no signs of slowing down – gave me an exclusive interview. The following are excerpts from the 30 minute conversation.
Q: [W]hen you started this effort back in 2006 for CUFI, did you anticipate where you would be today, with an organization of this size, with five U.S. Senators [addressing the Summit and with thousands of delegates from across the country]?
PASTOR HAGEE: I would have to say that the day we did it, on February 6, 2006, I did not know the fire and the enthusiasm that would sweep across the Evangelical community.
I invited to my church, Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, 400 of the leading Evangelicals of America. These were the presidents of universities, the owners of radio and television networks; these were the pastors of the mega-churches, and the leading televangelists, and I was not confident that we would get through the day without extreme controversy.
[I told them] we must meet with the Jewish community on the basis of mutual esteem, love and respect. And you could have heard a pin drop. These are the leaders of leaders, and they don’t lead easily. I expected a floor fight to break out of mega proportions.
I said, “How many of you will support me on this issue?” Four hundred hands went up – like they were hooked to one wire. And I said, “The Lord, Himself, is in this house, because that’s a miracle.” It was a miracle. At that moment in time, I saw a supernatural wind take this organization much further than I had envisioned it the day before. Because when you have that kind of horsepower unified, nothing is impossible.
And there are 60 million of us in America, so we are just beginning, but I told them, I said, “Let’s go to Washington. We want to go to Washington once each year, and face the Senators and Congress members, speaking out for Israel. I said, “So let’s, kind of as a pilot program, let’s go to Washington and let us see what that’s like. I said, “How many of you have ever been to Washington speaking out for Israel?” Two of us. “I said, OK, let’s go.”
So, they went home and started telling their church members about it, and without organization or anything else, 3,500 people showed up that first time. It was four months down the road and that’s the night when it dawned on me, “We have lit the torch on an issue that has the ability to be globally significant in the defense of Israel.”
Q: Can you take me back a little bit further to tell me how all this started for you … Can you give me a little insight into your earlier years, how you became who you are, and got to the point that you’d be at the Western Wall; can you give me some insight into what led you there at the age of 48?
PASTOR HAGEE: I am a sixth generation pastor. My father was a pastor, my grandfather was a pastor. They were Bible scholars par excellence, and my mother and my father – my mother went to Bible School herself, and taught – but both of them had an abiding affection for the Jewish People because of the Scripture. Everything we did in my home was whether it was okay with the Bible.
So, who are the Jewish People in the Bible? They’re the apple of God’s eye. They’re cherished, they’re Covenant People. So, I had that background of being affectionate -- or have affection for -- the Jewish People for their contribution to Christianity, because the Jewish People have given to us the Word of God, they’ve given to us the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they’ve given to us the Old Testament Prophets, they’ve given to us the First Family of Christianity, they’ve given to us the Disciples, the Apostles – that’s why Jesus said in John 4:22, “Salvation is of the Jews,” because if you take away the Jewish contribution to Christianity, there’d be no Christianity. Judaism does not need Christianity to explain its existence. We cannot explain our existence without your existence.
And so, when I went to Israel in 1978, I knew that I wanted to do something to help the Jewish People. And so, it really didn’t happen until Menachem Begin gave the instruction to destroy the nuclear reactors of Iraq [in 1981] and the American media went after Israel tooth and tong. And I said, “This is our opportunity to really, truly, do something for Israel. And so at that exact moment in time I told [my wife] Donna we’ll have a Night to Honor Israel and I went to my church and I said, “This is what I want to do,” and they said, “Yes, we’re with you.”
And I went to the Jewish Federation and ... I looked at them and I said I want to have a Night to Honor Israel, and they said, “What’s that?” and I laid it out. They said, “We’ll have to have a committee meeting, and they had three committee meetings, and one lasted late into the night at which Rabbi Sheinberg said, “You know, look, as Jews we know how to handle our enemies, but what if this guy’s a friend?”
So we went forward with a Night to Honor Israel, and we had a press conference that it was going to happen, and within an hour of the newspapers hitting the streets we started getting death threats at the church, “Tell the preacher we will shoot him by Friday. He will never live to see the Night to Honor Israel held in that auditorium.” I called the FBI and asked, “What do you guys do when something like that happens?” and they said drive [a different route] every day to work. I thought, “Well, you have to go to the FBI Academy to learn how to do that?”
So the people in my church became very concerned with these death threats. They said, “This is dangerous” and I said, “It is, but we’re going to do it.” We went to the auditorium, the Lila Cockrell Auditorium in downtown San Antonio, September 10, 1981, to have the first Night to Honor Israel in the history of our city. And the building was packed, people standing in the lobby. There was enough tension in the room to give a brass doorknob a migraine headache. I mean, it was tight.
And we had our choir there singing Hebrew songs on our television and cameras rolling. My idea was to take this video and send it to the largest 200 Evangelical churches in America and get this thing started. I sent out 150 invitations to the local pastors to come, and got one positive response. So I knew then that it was going to be a little tougher getting started than I thought.
So, we had a wonderful night. I mean, Heaven just came down and kissed the Earth. It was very special. And at the end of the program, the security guy came up to me and said, “We’ve got a bomb threat on this building. It’s supposed to blow up in five minutes.” And Rabbi Sheinberg was praying the benediction. He mercifully didn’t pray very long, so I went to the podium and I said, “I hate to end this wonderful night on a negative note but we have a bomb threat on this building.” …
I only intended to do a Night to Honor Israel one time, but because of all of the push-back that the anti-Semites gave us, I said, “There’s a real problem here that needs to be addressed.” So, I walked off the platform that night with my wife in one hand and the Consul General of Israel in the other, and I said, “We are going to have a Night to Honor Israel every year until they get used to it.”
And it got bigger and bigger, and we took it to national television, because I was on national television 37 years, and global television for 22 years, and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger and then in 2006, because of the strength of the Night to Honor Israel, we started Christians United for Israel.
Q: And have you experienced physical threats, or other threats over the last nine years?
PASTOR HAGEE: On a regular basis. That’s why I have all the security people with me, all the time. I live with them.
Q: [Your emphasis on the] failures of Christianity during the Holocaust – is that something that came from your theology, or from your parents, who would have lived through that and taught you? Where did that come from?
PASTOR HAGEE: Well, basically, it came from the research that I did. Whenever I went to Israel – I did in 1957, I had two university degrees at that time, and one of them was in theology. I’d never been taught about the Crusades, never been taught about the Spanish Inquisition, never really been taught about the theological base of the Holocaust, which was that the Jewish People had no place in the economy of God.
The day we left the Wall, I went to the Harp of David and bought about three or four hundred dollars worth of historical theological works out of that bookstore, and saw the failure of what was called “Christianity” to defend the Jewish People, and it was so blatant, so obvious, so persistent, so pervasive and then it dawned on me that Replacement Theology that was, at that time, sweeping America, is nothing really but theological anti-Semitism. Replacement Theology is that the Jewish People have been replaced by the Church and no longer have standing in the economy of God. And when I started rebutting that over television, it started a firestorm. The resistance of pastors and so forth that was beyond description.
But the beauty of television is that you can get into people’s homes. And if you can get into their homes, you can get into their minds, and I got into their minds with the Bible. “This is what the Bible says. I don’t care what your preachers say, I don’t care what your denomination’s teaching. This is what God’s point of view is.”
And it took several years, but people got it. And then when we started Christians United for Israel, the foundation had been laid, and it took off. And we’re now getting ready to shift into high gear. I think it’s really getting ready to take off in a greater dimension than 1.8 million people.
Q: What do you anticipate in the next few years in terms of “taking off”? What’s your vision, what do you think is going to happen?
PASTOR HAGEE: Here’s what we want to happen.
We would like to continue the Nights to Honor Israel in every major city, the Pastors’ conferences in every major city, teaching them their responsibilities to speak up for Israel; the continuous growth and development of our college and university programs that are taking the fight to the next generation, because anti-Semitism is a flourishing thing on America’s college campuses, and we are in over 300 universities right now.
And in the future, we would like to open a Washington office that has the ability on a daily basis to communicate with Congress members and Senators concerning the needs of Israel as we see it, and to become a daily influence on the policies of government as it relates to the State of Israel.
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