Focus U.S.A / Whatever Happens, Israel Can Always Count on U.S. Evangelicals

Thousands of Christian activists descended on Washington this week in a show of strength by America's pro-Israel Christians.

Thousands of Christians from across the United States descended on Capitol Hill on Thursday in order to lobby Washington lawmakers on behalf of Israel.

Organizers of the event, called Christians United for Israel, showed their strength by lobbying over 85 percent U.S. Congress offices.

Delegates at the Christians United for Israel conference in Washington, June 21, 2010.

Attendees of this year's gathering are visibly different from those in the past: about one in five of the 5,000 participants was from a Hispanic Church.

Last year we had about 300 Hispanics, but this year we started specific outreach to the Hispanic churches where Spanish is a language of worship, says David Brog, the executive director of CUFI. We have started an outreach to African-Americans. It was always our goal to broaden our base ethnically, geographically and theologically.

Yet despite the attempt to reach out to traditionally left-leaning minority groups, Democrats are few and far between at the conference.

We are determined to be bipartisan, we always invite Democrats but typically we get better answers from the Republicans, says Brog.

Democrats' reluctance might have something to do with CUFI's relations with activists on the right wing of Israeli politics.

In May, CUFI leader Pastor John Hagee wrote in an op-ed in The Forward newspaper that we will never, never oppose Israeli efforts to advance peace".

Yet Hagee has courted controversy with by offering financial backing to some settler organizations.

Pastor Hagee gives away a lot of money each year," says Brog. "Last year he gave away approximately 10 million dollars and over 95 percent of it went to charities within the green line. About 5 percent went to humanitarian projects over the green line. Almost all of it went to the areas that will be within the Israeli state following the agreement. With limited exceptions he hasnt been a really big supporter of settlements. It has not been a focus of his giving and it certainly hasnt been the focus of his advocacy."

CUFI stands for supporting an Israeli democratically elected government, he said. I noted from the audience that a large majority at the Capitol Hill supports a two-state solution. There is no need to get into an argument about it, thats not our point."

Another controversial issue has involved CUFI's support for the Im Tirtzu group, which has launched high-profile attacks on the New Israel Fund, another charity that backs a range of organizations on the liberal-left, including Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem.

Pastor Hagee has a panel advising him whom to fund, which consists of three Jewish friends of his. If you want to blame anyone for Im Tirtzu, blame us, said Brog. Pastor John Hagee had never heard of Im Tirtzu. I met the Im Tirtzu guys and they told us how they are trying to teach Zionism in college campuses. We were impressed and they got some funding. The decision has not been made yet about this year, but the entire issue will be revisited in light of their emphasis last year.

But whatever the case, CUFI remains capable of provoking anger among its opponents.

Outside the conference hall, a small group of protesters gathered outside the conference center, some of them from the pacifistic anti-settlement group "Code Pink" and some with posters calling Israel Satan and Pastor Hagee a Zionist murderer.

One conference participant grew visibly upset, approaching several protesters and hitting their posters with his bag

"I was not even talking to him, I was giving an interview to a journalist, and this guy was coming by and swung his bag at me and then he comes to other participants and swung it at them as well," said a protester with the "Code Pink" group, Medea Benjamin, who intends to complain to the police about the incident.

The delegate who assaulted the protesters was quickly taken inside, where Pastor Hagee used his speech to slam left-wing critics of Israel, such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who he said "should be ashamed".

I dont know who this gentleman is. Like any conference, we havent screened people, we dont know them," Brog said of the incident. "I dont know if this man was Jewish or Christian, but obviously its not a very Christian response."

The scuffle was just another more sign - if any were neede that  one Christian response Israel can always count on is backing from U.S. Evangelicals.

Harry Truman, who recognized Israel 11 minutes after its creation, was a member of the evangelical group American Christians for Israel, " Israel's ambassador, Michael Oren, told delegates.

Sixty-two years on, it seems Israeli governments on both sides of the poltical divide have done nothing to diminish that support.