John Hagee: Christian pastor with a Zionist message

It’s become a standard part of John Hagee’s stump speech, the story of how the evangelical pastor and founder of the 1.2 million-member Christians United For Israel (CUFI) first got started on the path of Israel advocacy.

It began with a trip to the Holy Land in 1978 — “I went to Israel as a tourist and came back a Zionist,” Hagee told the mostly Christian crowd of more than 1,000 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Aug. 26. And then grew into something bigger with the Israeli airstrike that destroyed the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.

“Israel has done the world a favor, and they should be complimented, not criticized,” Hagee said, recalling his reaction to the negative media coverage that followed the Israeli preemptive strike.

That was the inspiration for the first “Night to Honor Israel,” held in 1982 in Hagee’s hometown of San Antonio. He founded CUFI in 2006; today the rapidly growing organization stages about 40 “Night to Honor Israel” events every month in cities around the United States.

In some cases, the events amount to infusing a regular midweek religious service at a local church with a pro-Israel agenda. But at the Saban, CUFI staged its first “Night to Honor Israel” to take place in a non-church venue in Los Angeles, precisely at a time when Israel might be poised to, as Hagee would call it, do the world another favor.

Consul General of Israeli in Los Angeles David Siegel also spoke: “Iran today represents the genocidal hunter, they are on the prowl and they are calling for the destruction of my people, day in and day out,” Siegel told the crowd. “And after 20 years of trying to deal with this diplomatically, it is time to say, enough.”

Last month, Hagee told The Journal’s senior political editor Shmuel Rosner that he is not satisfied with the United States’ current regime of sanctions against Iran; from the audience’s applause, it appeared Hagee’s supporters in Los Angeles found his tougher stance — which is more closely aligned with that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s — more to their liking.

What the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — a lobby singularly dedicated to supporting Israel — is to the American Jewish community, CUFI aims to be for American evangelicals. Both pledge to support the policies of any Israeli government in power, regardless of party, and, to that end, CUFI does not take an official position on the two-state solution. In Hagee’s view, any decision about creating a future Palestinian state should be made by Israel alone.

“God is angry with every nation that does anything to divide the land of Israel; that includes the United States of America,” Hagee said.

The pastor’s position is even more uncompromising on the matter of Jerusalem.

“President Obama told the Jewish people in Jerusalem they could not build homes in East Jerusalem,” Hagee said. “The truth is, Barack Obama has absolutely no authority to tell the Jewish people what they can and cannot do.”

When the applause from the crowd died down, Hagee continued. “Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for the past 3,000 years. That’s before Barack Obama was a community organizer in Chicago.”

Given such comments, it’s hardly surprising to find that Hagee has Republican fans.

“I was amazed and impressed,” Ron Plotkin, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors, said as he left the Saban Theatre. “I had heard some great things about [Pastor Hagee]; he lived up to all the expectations.”

Having Jews in the audience at CUFI events is of the utmost importance to this organization, which has taken pains to try to reassure Jews that they do not seek to convert them to Christianity.

The members of CUFI, inspired by the passage in Genesis in which God tells Abraham “those who bless you will be blessed, those who curse you will be cursed,” appear genuinely to want to stand with Israel and the Jewish people.

To that end, CUFI has set up more than 100 campus chapters at colleges and universities across the country, in an effort to “level the playing field,” Randy Neal, CUFI’s western coordinator, said. All the money collected at Sunday’s event was directed to CUFI’s efforts to reach out to college students and impact the debate over Israel on American campuses.

“If they’re going to put a fake apartheid wall up on the quad, then we’re going to put a faux Western Wall up on the quad,” Neal said. “And instead of putting prayers on the wall, we’re going to put up signs that show the incredible contributions that Israel’s made to the international community.”

Neal mentioned Israeli contributions ranging from “agriculture, technology, communication, medical, environment, energy,” but his reference to the Western Wall is telling, as that location clearly holds pride of place, not just in the Jewish psyche, but for CUFI as well.

Hagee calls the Western Wall one of his favorite places in Israel, and one of the few videos shown at the event that featured views of Israel — it played near the middle of the evening, as ushers walked the aisles with silver plastic buckets in their hands ready to collect donation envelopes — made generous use of shots of the Western Wall.

As a Christian rock band on stage played the theme song from the film “Exodus” (“This land is mine / God gave this land to me”), the screen displayed Jewish men at the wall swaying and praying in prayer shawls. They lifted Sephardic Torahs and shook their lulavs.

The scenes at the wall were, as it turned out, the primary representation of contemporary Israel in the video. Most of the rest of its footage had been pieced together from black-and-white reels that appeared to be at least 50 years old, showing haggard-looking Jews kissing the earth and, immediately after, folk-dancing Israelis, moving at the slightly sped-up pace of old-style newsreels.