The news will be announced Sunday evening in Jerusalem, when the Prime Minister of Israel will address several hundred new members of Christians United for Israel – the Christian lobby known as CUFI. Pastor John Hagee, the founder leader of the group, will be there, celebrating this achievement.
And it is an achievement, no doubt. Just two years ago, the 500,000 mark was passed, with some fanfare. Now it has doubled.
I covered the launch of CUFI just a few years ago, and it is now by far the largest pro-Israel organization in the US. Like it or hate it – as some still do - ignoring it is no longer an option. Not for Israel’s government (this was never really in doubt: Israel will take whatever support it can get), not for other pro-Israel lobbies (as Nathan Guttman aptly put it: “the shofar-blowing, hora-dancing Christian evangelicals are now an integral part of the pro-Israel advocacy scene”), not for Congressional legislators. One million members mean that many Congressmen and women have a lot of CUFI members in their districts, ready to take action.
CUFI has members in all 50 states, it hold dozens of events every month in every corner of the US. In Washington, its annual conference attracts more than 5,000 participants. It is powerful and growing stronger, even though a word of caution is advised: A member of CUFI only has to sign on and give an active email address – no dues involved. But the leaders of CUFI say that such emails are what make CUFI’s potential impact. Behind the active emails there are active supporters, ready to send a letter, to attend a rally, to call a congressman, to make contribution when necessary.
True, most of it, if not all, are of the Republican electorate and legislative arm. The Republican Jewish Coalition has just released a statement on the “growing Israel gap” between Republican and Democrats (78% of Republicans sympathize with Israel compared to 53% of Democrats – this is a problem I’ve written about quite a lot in the past), and the power of CUFI is yet another sign of the strong support for Israel among America’s right wing voters.
That many Jews in American don’t feel comfortable with Evangelical support for Israel is also not exactly new. Some of them do not like CUFI’s embrace because of theological fears, others because of political differences.
When CUFI was established, Hagee’s second in command, David Brog, explained to me in a long interview why Christian Evangelicals support Israel (read it here) but readily acknowledged that “it is very hard for Jews to believe that Christians have suddenly embraced philo-Semitism in an honest and sincere way”. As for politics, this might be an even more challenging barrier. Most Jews in America – including many staunchly pro-Israel Jews – still support President Barack Obama. And Hagee doesn’t always make it easy for them to see him as an ally in defending Israel. Last summer, in CUFI’s Washington gathering, the pastor insisted that “President Obama is not pro-Israel”.
My book covers with some detail an exchange of verbal fire between Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, then leader of the American Jewish Reform movement. Yoffie wanted Jews to stop cooperating with the Hagee organization:
Mr Hagee’s uneasy relations with American Jews were an accident waiting to happen. They never felt comfortable with his support for Israel, never really accepted him as part of the “camp”. We cannot cooperate with the Christian Zionists, said Rabbi Yoffie, because theirs is not “unconditional support for the Jewish state”, but rather support for a certain political agenda — one that is unacceptable to Rabbi Yoffie.
But Hagee, time and again, denies such allegations. My support for Israel, he told me when I interviewed him in San Antonio when CUFI was still more a dream than reality, is not conditioned on Israel’s policies:
[W]hat would his Christian lobby do in such a case? How would it react? Hagee has a prepared response to that question as well. No, he would not help advance decisions that would speed up an evacuation [of settlements], yet he would not stand in their way. In any event, he would never dream of actively opposing the Israeli government. He cites the example of an Israeli hospital that began performing abortions. What did Hagee do? He simply transferred his support to another institution. That is how he will act if settlements and territories are evacuated. He can always help orphanages, hospitals and needy communities in Israel. He will find the right worthy cause and his support for Israel will continue.
Bottom line: Israel cannot afford to be picky with friends. It needs them. That some of these friends have views that not all Israelis support is obvious, and natural. With so many of them on board, ready to be actively supportive makes it even more important for Israel to show appreciation for their efforts. Prime Minister Netanyahu will do just that Sunday evening.