While conversing at a convention center in Washington with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, I asked him whether he considered what we were witnessing at that convention center as a religious or historic revolution, after 2,000 years of Christianity. Without missing a beat he fired back "Yes! This is an earthquake!"
Some 6,000 Christian activists and community leaders from all over the United States gathered in the oppressive Washingtonian heat last month for the seventh annual Christians United For Israel summit. David Brog, the executive director of CUFI, explained to me that the summit included two days of study, interspersed with massive events with speakers from Congress and the Senate, and a third day in which the thousands of participants go to Capitol Hill to meet with their states' representatives and find out one thing from them: whether they are protecting Israel.
The politicians on Capitol Hill aren't normally visited in Washington by more than a dozen constituents from their district. During this annual summit, they are liable to meet more than 700 constituents at one time. This event has a dramatic effect on the political activity of these representatives. They understand that there is strong grass-roots support for Israel in the U.S.
"Every year, we give them three issues we want them to raise with their congressmen," Brog explained. "This year we wanted to focus on three issues: legislation aimed at preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons; improving cooperation on defense issues between the U.S. and Israel and supporting American aid to Israel; and ending the anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian Authority."
Brog recounted that not too long ago, the pro-Israel Christians in the U.S. operated independently until 2005, when pastor John Hagee decided to consolidate all the various groups under one umbrella with one express goal. The organization he consequently founded recently registered its millionth active member.
Every month, CUFI holds dozens of pro-Israel events across the U.S. Of the approximately 100,000 letters received at the White House every day (mainly by email), some 40,000 letters can arrive in a matter of hours, calling for the U.S. to ease the pressure on Israel or to approve a certain sanction on Iran, and so forth.
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The evangelical Christian community in the U.S. boasts between 50 and 100 million members. For the sake of discussion, let's say the number is 75 million. Of those 75 million, about 50 million are in some way and the combination of these two words is difficult for us Jews to grasp Christian Zionists. We're talking about a significant religious core of Americans who support Israel and the Jewish people without question. They repeatedly emphasize that they are not interested in converting Jews (this is in fact one of their clearest rules), nor are they motivated by a desire to expedite Judgment Day Armageddon to them, Gog and Magog to us on Israel's soil. They simply support Israel because it is one of the basic tenets of their faith.
I asked pastor Hagee, the founder and national chairman of CUFI, whether Israel was part of his belief system. "Yes," he replied, and took the time to explain: "God created the world, Genesis 1:1, He made a covenant with Abraham, Genesis 15; He blessed the Jewish people in Genesis 12. In Psalms 126 He says 'pray for the peace of Jerusalem,' it's an order, not a request. Therefore, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Isaiah 62:1 'those of you who love Israel speak out for Zion's sake, I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet.' Romans 15:27, Paul says: 'if you the gentiles have benefited from the Jews' spiritual things, then you gentiles owe them to give to them your material things.' That is in the Bible, word for word. So what are the spiritual things the Jewish people have given to us? We have a debt of gratitude because you have given us the word of God. You have given us the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You have given to us Old Testament prophets. You have given to us the first family of Christianity Mary, Joseph and Jesus. You have given to us the 12 disciples. That is why Jesus said in John 4:22 'salvation is of the Jews' that is, if you take away the Jewish contribution from what I have, there would be no Christianity. Judaism does not need Christianity to explain its existence. But Christianity has to have Judaism to explain its existence."
Throughout the duration of the summit, the speakers constantly went back to the one verse which seemed to be the foundation for the entire scope of their pro-Israel endeavor: After God calls on Abraham to "get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1), he promises "and I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). This verse has become a code among the evangelicals. All you have to say is "Genesis 12:3" and everyone understands. They understand the verse to mean, literally, God promised that anyone who helps and supports the Jewish people will receive blessings, and on the contrary, anyone who harms the Jewish people will be punished. They look at history through this prism: The nations that respected the Jews and granted them rights, flourished. As soon as they turned their backs on the Jews, they experienced national, social, economic and military decline. That is what happened to Pharaoh's Egypt, to Spain until Ferdinand and Isabella's Edict of Expulsion, Germany, Britain (which denied its mandate to establish a national home for the Jewish people), and more. They believe that support of the Jews is the source of America's power.
One of the fiercest speeches I heard at the summit was given by Cheryl Morrison, the director of Women's Ministries and Israel Outreach at Faith Bible Chapel, a 4,000-member non-denominational church in Arvada, Colorado. She quoted Isaiah 60:10-12: "And sons of strangers shall build up your walls, and their king shall minister to you.
For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish. Yes, those nations shall be utterly wasted." Here, she said, the prophet teaches us what our role is, as Christians: to help the Jewish people return to their home and fortify their land. But, she added, the prophet warns us that those nations who fail to help the Jewish people return to Zion will be lost and disappear from this world. She then turned to the audience and said: I love my country, I love America, I want to see it prosper that is why I am a Christian Zionist!
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After centuries of bloody conflict between Jews and the church, it is difficult for the average Jew to believe that there actually is a revolution underway in the way Christians at least some of them view us. The ancient tenet on which the attitude toward Jews has traditionally rested is called "replacement theology," which argues that when the Jews refused to accept Jesus as their messiah, they violated their covenant with God, nullifying it and releasing God from his obligation to them. God abandoned His people and chose the church. Since then, the true Israel, the "Israel after the spirit," is the church, while the Jewish people remain merely the "Israel after the flesh" the biological descendants of the biblical Israelites. The revolutionary concept introduced by the evangelicals is the complete rejection of replacement theology.
Rabbi Riskin, of Efrat, recalled the watershed as an event in 1965 when the Vatican promulgated the Nostra Aetate (In Our Age) a declaration on the relation of the church with non-Christian religions which included a chapter on Jews. "The important passage says that 'God
does not repent of the gifts He makes or the calls He issues.
' In other words, God does not break covenants, therefore His covenant with the Jews is steadfast, and will remain strong forever."
Pastor Hagee expanded on this point, saying "it is true that there has been a small element in Christianity who taught that the Jewish people were replaced. But that is not taught in the Bible. Jesus Christ was a Jewish rabbi. And he made this statement to everyone who followed him. And Jesus taught basic Judaism. He says: 'Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of my brethren' he was talking about the Jewish people, he wasn't talking about us 'you have done it unto me. For the last statement that Jesus the rabbi said to those who followed him was that the Jewish people have the favor of God."
"Paul says in Romans 11:1, '[Has God cast away His people? God forbid. For] I am of the tribe of Israel, a Benjaminite.' Simply, he was saying, if God was casting Jewish people away, then why is he using me? It is a poignant logic that's pure and powerful theologically and in every other way. When you read the very end of the Bible, Israel is a nation. It's thriving, it's growing, it's prospering. And in the scripture, whenever something is replaced, it never re-appears again. But Israel was reborn in May 1948. It miraculously was born according to the statements of all the Old Testament prophets."
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The list of speakers at the CUFI summit is very impressive. One of the main speakers was Jewish Senator Joseph Lieberman. He told the thousands of Christians in attendance that their support was invaluable not only as humans, or Americans, but specifically as Christians. This support is important "not just from a practical or political standpoint, but also from a historical standpoint."
He recounted how the first thing that he learned as a Jewish boy was the Shema Yisrael (Hear O Israel) prayer. And in the New Testament, Mark 12:29, Jesus says The most important is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.'" Then Lieberman addressed the crowd with the ancient words uttered by the biblical Joseph when he met his brothers after being separated from them for many years: "I am Joseph, your brother" (Genesis 45:4), he said. "We are brothers in our faith, sons of the same father. During the course of history, our families parted ways, but now they are reuniting. One of the reasons for this reunion is our shared love for Israel and the Jewish people. This comes from a shared faith in the Bible."
Lieberman mentioned his family, and grandchildren who live in Israel, and made his way to the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat on Israel. "Don't let anyone tell you that a nuclear Iran is Israel's problem. It's not! It is also America's problem. Don't let anyone tell you 'we'll learn to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb' we won't! We mustn't!"
After Lieberman, Republican Senator Roy Blunt took the stage, reportedly saying that very little in Congress garners strong bipartisan support. Israel is the rare exception." Blunt, together with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, recently issued a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, signed by 44 senators, saying "we know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain [nuclear] capability is unacceptable."
The summit's main event included a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, via satellite from Jerusalem. It was interesting to see the crowd's reaction when he appeared on the screen. They gave him a standing ovation, cheering extensively, and the sound of a shofar could be heard in the background. Netanyahu spoke about Israel's successes, and the many dangers it faces. But he also remarked on the Jews' right to their land:
"Israel refuses to accept one of the greatest lies of modern times: that the Jewish people are foreign occupiers in Judea and Samaria. No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land. Four millennia."
"Israel wants peace with our Palestinian neighbors. We want them to have their own independent national life. We're prepared to make painful compromises to achieve that goal. But the Jewish people will not deny our own history. We will not build a future based on lies."
"The truth is that the land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. This is the land where the Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, worshipped a single God. This is the land where the Jewish prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and many others, where all these prophets wailed against injustice and aggression. And this is the land where a young Galilean preached a message of love and peace that spread across the entire world."
"To deny the right of the Jewish people to the Jewish land is not only to deny history, it is to deny our common heritage, our common civilization, our common destiny. That is why I have no doubt that you will stand firmly by Israel's side as we defend ourselves, and as we defend the truth," Netanyahu concluded.
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This year's summit also put an emphasis on the presence of Christian Zionists on American campuses. Brog pointed to a grave problem: though two thirds of Americans support Israel, only one third of U.S. university students support Israel. The summit was attended by chapter heads from various college campuses across the continent, who shared their experiences and presented their activities. It was interesting to hear young Christians describe their personal experience with being victims of anti-Semitism.
Back to the summit: Another notable speaker was Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, the spiritual leader of Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio, Texas, with his white beard and great big black kippah. He said the blessing for bread, in both Hebrew and English, and everyone answered him with an "Amen." He told the audience how every year he sends a DVD of the CUFI summit to his relatives, Holocaust survivors, living in Detroit. Every year they gather around the television and cry "if only there were more Christians like these in the 1930s, how many Jews would have been saved."
"Israelis need to know that many people outside of Israel bravely support them," Brog said, adding that not only were there millions of Christians who support Israel, but there was now also an active, organized political bloc operating in the government of Israel's greatest ally, the U.S.
Rabbi Riskin also pointed to the immense potential of Christian support, saying that "they are friends. True friends. In a mostly anti-Semitic world, do you see how much of a miracle that is? There are more than a billion Muslims, and there are barely 13 million of us. But there are about two billion Christians. What a potential asset! We are no longer the minority. That is huge, both politically and morally."
That night I saw Hagee's daughter, a powerful soul singer, do a moving rendition of "Hatikva" in Hebrew while 6,000 Christians stood to honor our national anthem, holding Israeli and American flags. The band played the hora and hundreds of students, CUFI members, were swept onto the dance floor. At moments like this, my inborn Israeli cynicism moves aside to make way for other emotions. Better emotions.