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What to Make of Evangelical 'Love-Fests'?

April 22, 2010 By:
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Pastor John Hagee at a Christians United for Israel event last month in Jerusalem
Throughout time, it's safe to say that Jews haven't been overwhelmingly embraced by Christian groups. Out and out "love-fests" are practically unheard of.

But that's exactly what Pastor John Hagee's gatherings in support of Israel have come to symbolize. Now that love-fest is coming to town, with more than 1,000 people, including evangelical Christians and a number of Jewish supporters, expected to attend a "Night to Honor Israel" this Sunday at the Family Worship Center in Lansdale.

While the San Antonio, Texas-based Hagee and his organization, Christians United for Israel -- known as CUFI -- have been no strangers to national controversy, the local event apparently hasn't ruffled many feathers.

A number of rabbis and Jewish communal officials are expected to attend.

And it was the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that helped select one of the two Israeli charities to benefit from the evening's fundraising efforts.

The biggest hiccup seems to be that the event -- keynoted by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America -- is scheduled at the same time as the largest annual event for the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, being held at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.

David Brog, the Jewish executive director of CUFI, said of the local event: "Really, it's an evening to honor not just the Israel in the Middle East, but it's also an evening to honor the Israel in our neighborhoods, the Jewish community -- something that Christians have not traditionally done over the centuries."

Brog, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter when the senator was still a Republican, has been involved in the cause for several years. He said that he decided to write his 2006 book, Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State, after meeting with various evangelical groups from central Pennsylvania and wondering why they were so gung-ho about Israel.

Hagee, who leads the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, organized his first Israel night in 1981, in the wake of international condemnation following Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

But it wasn't until four years ago, when he founded CUFI, that he emerged as the central figure in American Christian Zionism.

Since then, he has become something of a political and social lightning rod. And CUFI's annual summer conference has become a major Washington pro-Israel powwow, attracting speakers such as U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Plenty of Controversy

But there's been plenty of controversy surrounding CUFI, including a 2008 statement by the leader of Reform Judaism urging Jews to stay away from any of its events, partly because he viewed CUFI's positions on Israel as too hawkish.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, stated two years ago that CUFI "rejects a two-state solution, rejects the possibility of a democratic Israel and supports the permanent occupation of all Arab lands now controlled by Israel," according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) distanced himself from Hagee during his last presidential bid, after an old sermon surfaced in which Hagee said that God had caused the Holocaust in order to hasten the birth of the Jewish state. Hagee later apologized for this comment.

A more recent dust-up came with the dovish lobbying group J Street. CUFI had criticized it for failing to initially back additional sanctions against Iran.

J Street, for its part, blasted CUFI for funding a right-leaning Israeli organization called Im Tirzu, though it turned out that the dollars were given by the John Hagee Ministries and not CUFI.

Brog countered that CUFI supports the positions of the government of Israel, and denied that it opposes the peace process or any Israeli policies. He said that CUFI has criticized the Obama government for pressuring Jerusalem to make concessions. Brog also said that accusations that Hagee is anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim are off the mark.

Jerilyn Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, acknowledged the controversies, yet stressed that Federation was supporting CUFI's efforts to honor Israel and not necessarily the broader evangelical agenda.

Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, said that he didn't hear any complaints about the event, and that there's no reason why Jewish groups should avoid CUFI.

Still, there's an ongoing debate in the Jewish world about to what extent groups should embrace evangelicals.

Should Israel -- seemingly in need of political support more than ever, especially at a time when some liberal Protestant denominations have harshly criticized its actions -- trump all other issues? Or does evangelical opposition to abortion rights, and rhetoric about gays and Muslims, make any alliance inherently problematic?

Ilana Wilensik, who directs the Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Chapter of American Jewish Committee, said that her group has been holding dialogue sessions with the Bucks County Christian Coalition, an evangelical group, since 1995.

"We'd be crazy to not embrace people who are so supportive of Israel," she said, but added that "we have to be sensitive to the fact that they don't believe what we believe."

Burt Siegel, the longtime director of JCRC who is now retired, said he remains skeptical about finding common ground: "My position has always been that if they want to support Israel, fine. But I'm not going to make believe that I don't have some real problems with them."

And then there's the question of motivation. Do evangelical Christians have ulterior theological motives for supporting the Jewish state? Specifically, do they hope that the Jewish return to Zion will usher in an end-of-days scenario, one that some Christians hope will result in the mass conversation of the Jews, or worse, nonbelievers in Christ being sent to hell?

Not true, according to Brog.

He said that many evangelicals, who take the Bible literally, understand the return of Jews to Israel as a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis. Most Christian Zionists base their support on the words of the Hebrew Bible and guilt over Christian anti-Semitism, rather than on the book of Revelations in the New Testament, he said.

Pastor Liz DeFraine of the Morning Star Fellowship in Berks County is co-organizing the "Night to Honor Israel" with the help of 15 other Pennsylvania churches. Two years ago, roughly 1,000 people attended the first CUFI event in the Keystone state, which took place at DeFraine's home church. Last year, an event of similar scope was held in Reading.

Proceeds are slated to go to Hazon Yeshaya, which provides social services to Holocaust survivors in Israel. In addition to that program, which was recommended by and is also funded by Federation, CUFI says that it will fund Ohr Torah Stone, an organization founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin -- an Orthodox leader living in the West Bank -- that promotes Jewish education and values.

"Right now in the world, Israel needs all the support it can get. It doesn't mean we agree on everything," said DeFraine. "We believe in what the Old Testament says. We believe that Jesus was the Messiah. But we have so much more in common, so much that brings us together." 

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