Christian Zionist gathering mired in controversy

OAKLAND, California (IPS) - The battle lines over Pastor John Hagee have been drawn, redrawn, and are no doubt being drawn again as this is being written. The San Antonio, Texas-based mega-preacher with the multi-million-dollar empire has always been controversial, but these days, the pastor is a lightning rod for critics.

And as the days pass leading up to Hagee’s annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference in Washington next month, new revelations of his anti-Semitism have come to light.

At last year’s CUFI conference, US Senator Joseph Lieberman called Hagee “an Ish Elochim,” saying he is “a man of God, and, like Moses, he is the leader of a mighty multitude.”

When it was first revealed that Hagee had made a series of anti-Catholic remarks, critics, including Bill Donohue of the conservative Catholic League, went ballistic. Hagee apologized. When Hagee blamed gay people for causing Hurricane Katrina, many were offended. Hagee offered up a half-hearted apology and quickly moved on.

However, when Hagee’s remarks about Hitler being sent by God to force the Jews to pack their bags for Israel became a YouTube sensation — and then garnered the attention of the mainstream media — longtime allies in the Jewish community began to question what Hagee was up to.

To his credit, Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, quickly threw Hagee off the bus, despite having spent a year courting the pastor for his endorsement.

However, the condemnation hasn’t been universal. A number of fellow Christian conservatives and Jewish leaders have rushed to defend the beleaguered pastor. While last year Hagee was treated like royalty at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he prudently chose not to attend this year’s meeting earlier this month. Nevertheless, when his name was brought up by CUFI executive director David Brog, “the crowd broke into a lengthy round of applause, ending in a standing ovation,” the Jewish daily Forward reported.

From 21-24 July, Hagee’s CUFI will be holding its third annual “summit” in Washington. Among the scheduled speakers are Gary Bauer, a CUFI board member and longtime religious right activist and president of American Values; former Republican senator Rick Santorum; Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor; Brad Gordon, co-director of Policy and Government Affairs at AIPAC; Daniel Pipes; and Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Leonard Fein, in a Forward piece titled “Our Hagee Problem Has Yet to Be Addressed” asked: “How many of these [the scheduled speakers at the CUFI conference] will now, in light of the new information about Hagee’s beliefs, cancel out? Or will they twist and turn to rationalize their continuing support for this false witness?”

Despite pleas not to attend the Washington meeting from a number of organizations, including the newly formed Jewish group J Street — which has partnered with Democracy for America in an effort called “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” — Lieberman appears thus far steadfast in his willingness to stand with Hagee.

Some of the other guests are also being asked to forgo attending the conference. At the same time, Hagee’s pals are urging their followers to go to Washington and support the embattled preacher.

In defending Hagee, Stephen Strang, president and chairman of Christian Life Missions and regional director for CUFI, wrote that “Hagee has done more than any other Christian in our generation to show love to the Jews and to stand strong with Israel. Yet he made one comment, taken out of context about Hitler, that some liberal blogger says makes him anti-Semitic.”

One comment as Strang alleges? Bruce Wilson, the investigative journalist who first put together the video of Hagee’s Hitler sermon, has uncovered more anti-Jewish material tucked away in the Hagee archives.

In an email interview, Wilson told IPS that all of the Hagee material that he has been “writing about and making videos (short documentary videos in some cases) of has come from material that Hagee has mass marketed himself, mostly from his sermons.”

According to Wilson, at Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio on three consecutive Sundays in March 2003, the pastor delivered “sermons heavily loaded with anti-Jewish memes, stereotypes, slurs and conspiracy theories, one of which was almost identical to what was perhaps Adolph Hitler’s favorite conspiracy theory, which alleged that an international Jewish banking cabal, led by the Jewish Rothschild banking family, controls the fates of entire nation, even the progression of world events and history, through the manipulation of global money markets.”

The three sermons — delivered on the eve of, and just after, the invasion of Iraq — were packaged and sold by Hagee’s ministry as “Iraq: The Final War.”

Wilson claims that Hagee’s sermons are part of a distinct and “deeply disturbing pattern.” He notes that Hagee’s Cornerstone Church members have sung “Blow the Trumpet in Zion” at CUFI’s “signature event,” the Night to Honor Israel, with scripture drawn from the Second Book of Joel, Chapter 2, verses 1-11.

“That scripture … concerns prophecy forecasting the invasion and ‘desolation’ of Israel expected by Hagee and his church flock, which is divided into 12 administrative units each named for a Tribe of Israel,” Wilson said.

Although the preaching of Hagee and other conservative Christian evangelicals has been going on for decades, “Few in the American Jewish community, or the Israeli Jewish community, grasp the magnitude of the anti-Jewish hatred that has been stoked from American pulpits and American televangelist broadcast networks,” Wilson recently wrote.

“The propaganda has been slightly coded but in the end not very subtle. Rather than directly vilify Jews, Christian fundamentalist preachers and leaders have for decades vilified groups and terms that traditionally, for better or worse, have been associated with Jews.”

While some Jewish leaders reject out of hand the End Times theory that sees Israel as the final battleground before the return of Christ, others prefer to look away, sometimes even laughing off the loopier aspects of these apocalyptic visions on the one hand, while accepting millions of dollars of support for their favorite Israel charities and powerful political network the Christian Zionists have built.

Bruce Wilson’s research, and the attendant publicity it generated, has likely forced Hagee to the sidelines for the bulk of the presidential campaign. When asked whether his new discoveries will lead to the severing of ties between Hagee and some of his most fervent Jewish supporters, Wilson told IPS that “were they to get anything close to the same level of media play as the ‘God sent Hitler’ video it might. Barring that, it would probably take something even more shocking to cause such a rift.”

Will Lieberman and Pipes continue backing Hagee regardless of what other anti-Jewish commentaries might be discovered? Will CUFI continue to escalate its push for the Bush Administration to deal militarily with Iran? These questions might be answered when CUFI members flock to Washington next month.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the US Right.

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