Inside the Christians United for Israel rally: Unconditional support for Israel
American Christians from all over the U.S. attend gathering; largely unmoved over MK tearing up New Testament.
Liberal Internet users were quick to point out on Tuesday the irony in the fact that the seventh annual gathering of "Christians United for Israel" (CUFI) taking place in Convention Center in Washington, DC, coincided with a Israeli MK Michael Ben-Ari demonstratively tearing up a copy of the New Testament he received by mail, and throwing it into the trash, calling it " an abominable book that brought about the murder of millions of Jews in the Inquisition and autos da fé” and "provocation by church missionaries."
However, the leadership of the organization that claims 1.25 million supporters in the United States seemed unmoved by this act. "People here say that when they wanted to help Israel, at first they weren't welcomed with opened arms," CUFI Executive Director David Brog told Haaretz. "Jews are somewhat suspicious toward Christians. So stories like this might disappoint our Christian friends, they might be curious why should anyone who belongs to people that went through such persecution, would be engaged in such destructive task. But I don't think it will deter them from their task."
Joshua Ahrens, a student from Portland State University, was not dismayed by Ben-Ari’s act either.
"My support of Jews is unconditional. I was astonished how quickly Jewish people opened their hearts and minds to me, and responsibility is on me to explain my motivations. So one person (Ben-Ari) doesn't trouble me at all,” said Ahrens.
Ahrens says he decided to get involved with CUFI on campus after "hearing some anti-Semitic remarks by professors on campus".
"I was looking for organization that deals with this kind of stuff. We put up a flier with an Israeli flags - the next morning I got a text message from one of the students that someone drew a swastika on it,” said Ahrens.
“This is not an OK comparison to me; it was done to hurt other people. So we alerted campus authorities and were shocked they were completely powerless. We had other students circulating untruthful mails about us,” continued Ahrens.
Pro-Israel activity on campuses was the major emphasis of the conference that brought together about 5000 participants from all over the U.S. They were served the usual mix of a video address from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Israel public advocacy panels, prayers, a medly of Israeli songs, mostly right-wing speakers, received with standing ovation and waving Israeli and American flags. Speakers asked for "even bigger sacrifice" - i.e. donations.
Some things looked exactly the same as last year - including the choice of songs (with musical performance led by CUFI's leader, Pastor John Hagee's grown-up kids), and Pastor Hagee laying the Biblical foundation for unconditional support of Israel and criticism of the Obama administration.
"Supporting Israel is not a political issue, it's a Bible issue", Pastor Hagee exclaimed. "There is only one way to live your life - the Bible way or the wrong way."
Later on, he said: "Can we support peace agreement that doesn't provide Israel with defensible borders? The green line is not a defensible border."
Hagee turned to the subject of Iran, adding that "sanctions on Iran are mostly smoke. The Obama administration wants to make them even weaker. All twenty of Iran's major trading partners got exemptions from sanctions. [Secretary of Defense] Leon Panetta is exposing Israel's secret airbases.”
“Wouldn't it be better if the two nations would join forces and remove the nuclear threat?" asked Hagee.
The next issue was the indivisible Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. "Without Jerusalem there is no real life in Israel," Pastor Hagee said. "It's where the Messiah is going to rule the Earth. I assure you, this madness is going to end. The President of the U.S. told people of Jerusalem they can't build additional homes there. He has no authority to tell them that! They are a democracy!" (Another round of thunderous applause).
On the first floor, a special exhibition was arranged – with a warning sign at the entrance that read "the area you are about to enter is representative of the anti-Israeli propaganda students experience on their college campuses."
There was a mock "apartheid wall" that is used often during the "Israel apartheid week" protests on campuses, the "rogues" wall with prominent Israel critics such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein; plasma screen with video interview with college professor calling rockets fired from Gaza "self-defense," and computers offering visitors opportunities to check out various CUFI activities on campuses.
Ossie Hill, an African-American woman who came with her husband from California to CUFI conference for the second time in a row, says she became a supporter of the organization through her friend who is involved with the organization - and she along with other activists received a trip to Israel. "CUFI keeps us really updated on what is going on in Israel, and how to pray for these issues," she says.
Most conference attendants were Christian, but there were also some skullcaps spotted at the event.
Outside, several “Neturei Karta" members protested in front of the Convention center, holding signs saying that Zionism is not equal to Judaism - and some CUFI participants coming to argue with them - or just calling "shame on you!"
One of the skullcaps belonged to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is running these days for Congress from New Jersey's district nine. "There was a story recently that Israel is one of the most hated countries in the world", he told Haaretz.
"In an age when Israel is so unfairly maligned and subject to such unwarranted vitriol, it's startling to see a vast group of millions who feel precisely the opposite - that Israel is the light, a beacon of human rights, freedom and a fulfillment of an ancient dream of Jewish destiny,” said Boteach.
As author of "Kosher Jesus," Rabbi Boteach was appalled by MK Ben-Ari's act. "I've seen irrational Jewish reactions to Christian scriptures. This reaction on the part of some Jews to Christianity and their desire to denigrate is a tragic reminder of how Judaism was often treated by Christians. We expect respect to all religions. They do it in Saudi Arabia. It's Taliban stuff. It's not Jewish. I feel strong about the important friendship of Christian and Jewish people. But America has ever had history of Christian Anti-Semitism, and I see CUFI is an apogee of its love affair,” said Boteach
Boteach went on to discuss the notion that such Christians are interested in Israel only to bring about the second coming of the messiah. "Judaism is clear that action is more important than intention, it's not motivation that matters. I also don't buy it that Christians love for Israel is a pre-condition for the return of Christ. I do believe it's sincere. I think it's based on a true desire to connect to the origins of Christianity,” said Boteach.
It is no secret that some of CUFI activists are considered to be far on the right. One of the members this year was wearing to the festive banquet closing the conference T-shirt against gay and lesbians, "poisoning minds" of kids, and comparing Obama with an anti-Christ. The organization is arguing they are not responsible for personal positions of conference participants. Formally they are also not endorsing political candidates - but of course, the tendency is clear.
"We don't endorse candidates. But I have some disappointments with first Obama administration, there seems to be a perception that Israel's intransigence is a problem. I see differently what drives this conflict - Israel comes again and again to the table, I don't see Israeli reluctance to negotiate as a problem."
Brog also commented on recent efforts by some churches to divest from companies that do business with Israel. "We don't think their leadership will be influenced by us, but we create home for their disaffected members, said Brog.
"Last month I spoke for the first time at a Methodist church. Christians are going to be involved with an issue of Israel whether you are comfortable with it or not. We work to make sure they are on our side,” he continued.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was one of the last speakers at the conference.
Bachmann spoke at length about Israel's troubled neighborhood and stated that the U.S. "should recognize Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights.”
Also, Bachmann called on Obama to forbid the entry of Egyptian President Mursi into the U.S. rather than invite him in, unless he "renounces jihad".
On Iran, Bachmann said “pigs will fly before Iran cedes use of nuclear power. If history taught us a lesson - it is when man threatens annihilation of Jewish people - listen... The world must know we will never waiver commitment to Israel. We believe God will bless those who bless Israel.”