NEW YORK – Some 60 members of the Republican National Committee, including its chairman, are heading to Israel at the end of the month on a trip fully paid for by an organization described as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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The trip is being organized by the American Renewal Project, an endeavor housed in and financed by the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group in Tupelo, Mississippi. The AFA is described as a "hate group” and "extremist group” by the SPLC, an Alabama-based civil rights nonprofit, because of statements it made that are deemed anti-LGBTQ, anti-Latino and anti-black, and which suggest that the United States is a country for Christians only.
“The AFA has an extensive track record of bigotry and hate,” SPLC president and CEO Richard Cohen wrote in a letter to each member of the RNC, urging them not to go on the free trip.
Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s director of issue analysis, has said that black people “rut like rabbits.” Moreover, in a September essay, he wrote: “We are a Christian nation and not a Jewish or Muslim one.” On a video segment on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" last Friday, Fischer was seen blasting gay activists as “jack-booted homo-fascist thugs,” and depicting Islam as “an Ebola virus that is lethal and deadly.”
RNC chairman Reince Priebus sent out the invitation for the trip – whose expenses from New York to Israel are entirely covered – to all 168 RNC members in November. More than one-third accepted, and they will be joined by about three dozen other guests, said David Lane, the man behind the initiative.
“Our issue is not with these folks going to Israel, which is an important ally and important for international policy,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project of the SPLC. “Our issue is that one of our mainstream political parties and a group with these heinous beliefs is sponsoring it.”
“I’m shocked that Priebus would arrange something like this with the AFA,” she added. “We are greatly concerned that members of the RNC would lend their good offices to a group like AFA. It’s time for this kind of hate to be condemned, not sanctioned.”
Lane is a longtime behind-the-scenes, evangelical Christian political operative who rarely speaks to the press. In an interview with Haaretz, however, he said his work involves “mobilizing pastors in pews around the country” to be politically involved.
His American Renewal Project is working to persuade 1,000 evangelical pastors to run for public office in 2016. “The Lord gave me this model of mobilizing pastors to try and engage the culture. Somebody’s values are going to rein supreme,” Lane told Haaretz, adding, “America was founded by Christians for the glory of God and the Christian faith.”
Lane said he’s taking a total of 98 people on the nine-day trip to Israel, which begins on Saturday, January 31. Participants will travel from the Galilee and Golan Heights to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, he told Haaretz, with Jewish tour guides and two evangelical pastors in tow. In addition to Priebus and his wife, guests include Susie Hudson, who last week was elected RNC secretary, and Jewish conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager.
'Re-establishing Christian culture'
Also joining the group will be a best-selling evangelical novelist named Joel Rosenberg – “a very prominent messianic Jew,” according to Lane. Because Rosenberg’s father was Jewish (though he converted to Christianity), the author was able last year to make aliyah - immigrate to Israel - with his family.
In an email sent via his publisher, Tyndale House, Rosenberg describes himself as an evangelical. According to his Tyndale bio, he has worked as a communications adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish Agency's Natan Sharansky, as well as American politicians.
Asked why he organized this trip, Lane said, “Who’s the best friends of Israel? The 65 to 80 million evangelicals in America who read their Bible and believe in the Abrahamic covenant.”
“We were established as a Christian nation in the name of God and for the advancement of the Christian faith. It’s my position that we’ve lost that,” Lane explained, in an appearance on conservative political commentator Glenn Beck’s television show "The Blaze." “Restoring America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establishing a Christian culture is the only way that we get out of where we are.”
Prager has visited Israel about 20 times, but this will be his first trip with evangelical Christians, he told Haaretz in an interview. Although he knows Lane, he said he was unaware of the link between Lane and the AFA.
After he heard some of the statements made by AFA leaders – as cited by the SPLC on its page designating the conservative Christian organization as a hate group – Prager said: “The only hate group is the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have no other mission in life other than to defame conservatives.”
Prager lauded Lane as a friend of the Jewish people, telling Haaretz that he “has done more good for Jews than all of the donors to the SPLC in the history of that organization." Lane’s organization “took 100 pastors to Auschwitz,” Prager noted, adding, “Does that sound like a hate group? To normal Jews that is a love group.”
“I am honored to work with David Lane,” Prager said. “I will not stop working with someone who does good because some of those whom he works with make repugnant statements.”
For his part, AFA's Fischer, in a 2010 essay slamming the end of the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay soldiers, blamed homosexuals for the Holocaust: “Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.”
The SPLC’s Beirich said, in response: “We stand by our listing of AFA. They richly deserve to be on the hate list. It’s hard to imagine anyone defending their ugly statements about so many of our fellow citizens.”
Fischer and Tim Wildmom, president of the AFA, as well as the group’s external public relations representative, did not reply to multiple requests for their response to SPLC's statements. The PR representative did, however, send links to two articles in conservative publications critical of the SPLC.
Asked who exactly furnished the approximately $400,000 that Lane says the trip will cost, he declined to share specifics. “I know people who love Israel and want influential people to travel there and see the reality of the land of Jesus,” he told Haaretz.
Lane added that he is not coordinating the trip with anyone from the Israeli government. An Israeli embassy spokesperson in Washington said, when asked about the trip, that Israeli officials “have no comment on that.”
Representatives of the RNC, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the ADL did not respond over the course of a week to multiple phone messages or emails from Haaretz, requesting comments.
Lane noted that his first trip to Israel was in 2008 or 2009, after being invited to go by his pastor in Thousand Oaks, a Los Angeles suburb. Since then, he says he has taken seven or eight groups on what he calls “spiritual journeys.”
One of his guests in 2013 was Senator Rand Paul, at the time a strict libertarian who opposed foreign aid. An unofficial Republican candidate for president, Paul has since become visibly pro-Israel, recently cosponsoring a bill to defund the Palestinian Authority, and is now a leading pro-Israel voice in the Senate. “A lot of people believe that after Rand Paul went [to Israel] in January 2013, his views evolved and he saw how wonderful the Jewish people are,” Lane told Haaretz.
“I don’t talk to journalists usually. I don’t like to talk to media,” Lane added. “I’m trying to build a constituency. I’m trying to build an audience who love Israel through the evangelical community.”