Evangelical Christians, long seen as a monolith in lockstep support of Israel, publicly fractured last week as two significant evangelical factions lobbied President Bush with criticism of Israel from opposite points of view.
For the first time, Christians United for Israel, a major Christian Zionist group with strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lobbied President Bush against the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a solution advocated by Israel, the Bush administration and the pro-Israel Washington lobby itself.
Meanwhile, some 30 Evangelical leaders, including prominent activists and intellectuals, publicly lauded Bush’s stand in favor of two states: Israel and a seperate state in the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinians. They also urged Bush to get involved more actively to make this happen. But this group pointedly noted that both Israelis and Palestinians “have committed violence and injustice against each other.”
The two groups’ dueling letters to the president, each critical of Israeli policies from respective viewpoints, marked a new, more complex phase in evangelical Christianity’s political stand towards Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, observers and partisans from all sides agreed.
The letter from Christians United for Israel, whose leader, Pastor John Hagee, was a keynote speaker at AIPAC’s Washington policy conference this year, lectured Bush, “Simply stated, land for peace is a failed policy of the past that has produced nothing but more war. Under the current circumstances, we feel a two-state solution would be unwise.”
Rev. Hagee’s letter, signed by himself and 50 other CUFI ministers, marked the well-funded new group’s first official effort against Israeli and U.S. policy. It was a step that Jewish groups that have worked with CUFI had earlier worried about and came just one week after its own national conference in Washington, where key officials sounded a similar theme. Representing a key constituent of Bush’s base, CUFI’s White House lobbying is likely to compel administration attention.
Josh Block, a spokesman for AIPAC, declined to comment on the letter saying he had not had a chance to read it. But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said CUFI’s stand should not cause Jewish groups to waver in their welcome of the group’s support.
“Do I have a problem with Hagee on his one-state stand?” he said. “Yes. But he’s entitled . . . . He does not make his support of Israel at this time conditional on Israel accepting a one-state solution.”
In contrast, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest of American Judaism’s religious streams, said that by embracing Hagee, as many Jewish groups have done locally and nationally, “We are thereby embracing a radical position that will ultimately discredit Israel, not strengthen it. We are embracing a faction that says no to concessions; no to a two-state solution.”
In an opinion piece in The Forward last May, Yoffie charged that Jewish groups, particularly Jewish federations, have embraced CUFI under the influence of large contributions to federation fundraising campaigns by groups under Hagee’s control.
The CUFI letter arrived at the White House just one day ahead of the letter from 30 other Evangelical leaders in support of the Israeli and U.S. two-state position. That letter, organized by Ronald Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action, stated: “We affirm your clear call for a two-state solution. … We also write to correct a serious misperception among some people, including U.S. policymakers, that all American evangelicals are opposed to a two-state solution.”
In lobbying Bush against a two-state solution, CUFI, which portrays itself as a staunch defender of Israel, set itself in clear opposition to the Jewish state’s official policy. But the writers of the second letter also upheld the value of criticizing Israeli policies in other respects, noting, “As evangelical Christians we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: ‘I will bess those who bless you.’ And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present state of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted.”
The letter stated: “Both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other.”
The letter deplored the “tragic cycle of violence” which, it said, could be ended only through a negotiated agreement that would require concessions by both sides and “robust leadership” from Washington.
In a response quoted by The New York Times, Rev. Hagee appeared to excommunicate the pro-two-state writers from Christianity: “Bible-believing evangelicals will scoff at that message,” he said. Asked why Jewish groups were embracing Rev. Hagee, who opposed Israel’s two-state policy, while the signers of the second letter enjoyed no such cache, Foxman said, “I’d say they’re new to advocating support for Israel. They’re even-handed in their approach to a two-state solution. But all of a sudden for them to surface on this issue is a little surprising.”
Rabbi Yoffie said, “I don’t agree with every word of that letter. I thought it came off as much too evenhanded, though that may not have been their intent. It read like there was equal fault on both sides. There is not. The Palestinians bear the bulk of the blame for the current situation.”
But Rabbi Yoffie lauded the letter’s “fundamental point about a two-state solution. That’s the political reality in America, in the Bush administration and with the government of Israel. There is no disputing that, even if you have issues with the tone of the letter.”
The letter signers include, Leighton Ford, a prominent evangelical minister; Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the county’s leading Evangelical schools; and Robert A. Seiple, who served as Bush’s special ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom earlier in his administration.
One of the signers, Gary M. Burge, is author of “Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians,” a book strongly critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinians.
The two letters come just a few months after Janet Parshall, a prominent fundamentalist radio personality long known for her support of Israel, publicly broke with the Christian pro-Israel movement for other reasons. Last March, Parshall dropped out of a Jerusalem conference sponsored by a Knesset caucus advocating ties with the Christian Zionist movement after the caucus condemned evangelization of Jews in Israel.
“I thought, wait a minute. We can’t just blindly support Israel,” she said then in a public statement. “We have to be able to tell them as a friend, you can’t do that. You can’t silence us.”
Israel, said Parshall, was telling the movement, “We’ll take your aid, your support and your tourist dollars, but we won’t take your Jesus.” She criticized the Christian Zionist movement for what she termed “a kind of blind support that says no matter what Israel does, Israel can do no wrong” and charged that some leaders in the movement fostered a belief that Jews could be saved outside of Jesus. “That’s not true,” she said.
Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that Parshall’s view was “gaining traction” in the evangelical world. “That’s a common argument nowadays,” he said. “I hear that a lot.”
Like others, Cizik also said the two letters to Bush last week reflected a deepening split within evangelical Christianity with underpinnings more theological than political. CUFI, with its staunch stand against those advocating territorial concessions by Israel, tended to attract believers in an apocalyptic endtimes scenario involving the Jewish state, he said. Those associated with the other letter tended not to see the modern state of Israel as as being implicated in end-time scenarios but subject to standards of justice no different than any other state.
In this end-time scenario, derived from interpretations of parts of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, the return of Jesus must be preceded by the ingathering of all Jews to Israel, defined by its biblical borders. This is to be followed by an international conflagration centered on the Jewish state that will result in the slaughter of all but a fragment of the Jewish people. This fragment will then convert to Christianity with the second coming of Christ.
Because of these beliefs, said Cizik, “They out-Likud the Likudniks. I think they’re more adamant about the land than Israel itself.”
Indeed, in a short video documentary of CUFI’s conference last week by left-leaning journalist Max Blumenthal, many participants invoked such end-times beliefs when asked why they supported Israel.
But Ret. Army Gen. Jim Hutchins, CUFI’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, disputed the generalization. “There are dispensationalists in our movement,” he acknowledged, using the theological term referring to those who believe the apocalyptic scenario involving Jews and Israel is being played out today with the modern Jewish state. “But not all who support Christian Zionism are dispensationalists. Christian Zionists don’t support Israel based on a speculative end-time scenario in the future, but based on God’s [biblical] covenant with the people of Israel in the past.”
Hutchins also stressed that CUFI was “non-conversionist.”
“Conversion is not our goal,” he said. “Our goal is to support Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”
Hutchins also charged that the signers of the pro-two-state letter were “supercessionists,” a term referring to those who believe that with Christ’s arrival, God’s biblical covenant with Israel was replaced by His covenant with the Church.
“Most of the people [who signed the opposing letter] regard Israel like they would any other Third World country that should be treated like anyone else who’s rejected Jesus Christ as messiah,” he said. “It [the letter] fails to recognize God has an inviolable covenant with the Jewish people, and it includes the land.”
Sider, who organized the pro-two-state letter, replied, “I have no idea what all the people who signed our letter would think on supercessionism.” More importantly, he stressed, “We’re not in any way anti-Israel. We want Israel to have a secure base as a secure nation; and also the Palestinians. That will only happen with strong U.S. involvement.”