Night to Honor Israel Turns Into 26-Year Project

Pastor John Hagee runs the 19,000-strong Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, but he can't afford a new car.

Or perhaps the man who wants to save Israel merely believes in the proverb "waste not want not." In any case, Hagee isn't throwing out his old automobile for an energy-saving hybrid — just yet.

"I am going to get one when this car wears out. I am too poor to just dump my car," said Hagee in a one-on-one interview with "By the way, you can't get a hybrid in my part of the country because you have to get in the line to sign up for one."

Just as hybrids are still a foreign concept in some parts of the United States, support for Israel isn't always a unifying thread either. Hagee, the head of Christians United for Israel, is trying to change all that.

"America has been supportive of Israel in times past, but in recent days there have been voices on both sides of the aisle that are questioning the support. We want then to know that the grassroots structure of America, especially in the evangelical community, wants that support to Israel to continue," Hagee said.

Hagee, a portly, grandfatherly type with silver-haired temples and wire-rimmed glasses, sat quietly on a couch in a hotel room-turned-interview space last week. He recalled how the 50 million-strong evangelical community has shifted its support toward protecting the Holy Land.

"I went to Israel — first time in 1978 as a tourist myself, and I came home a biblical Zionist, and I began to explain to our congregation the biblical responsibility that we have to be supportive of Israel and as I began to educate them, they began to see it and that evolved to that original night to honor Israel in 1981," he said.

Hagee said he formed the idea of a citywide "Night to Honor Israel" after he heard Israel being "vilified" in the media for destroying Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in Iraq. While the motivation among the 3,000 congregants of Cornerstone Church was there, members questioned whether anyone else would be.

"I went to the Jewish community and told them what I wanted to do, and in their natural Jewish suspicion they looked at me like I had a contagious rash," Hagee recounted.

"And they said, 'You want to do what?' And I said I wanted to have a night to honor Israel because nothing of that nature had ever been done in the history of our town for the Jewish people," he said.

Hagee said that "being truly Jewish," leaders of the Jewish community in San Antonio decided to have a meeting, and then another and another and another until finally came a meeting "in which every able-bodied Jewish person in San Antonio was there."

"I told them at that meeting that at the night to honor Israel there would not be anything conversionary at all. I gave them every word I would say from 'good evening' to 'goodbye,'" Hagee said.

With the blessing of Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, the Jewish community agreed maybe it was time to take a risk on someone who claimed to be a friend. But even before the plan got off the ground, Hagee faced another challenge.

"We had a press conference announcing what we wanted to do, and they put it right on the front page because it was big news. Christians had never done anything for the Jewish people before. And within an hour we started getting death threats at the church saying, 'We're going to shoot the preacher by Friday,'" Hagee said, still speaking quietly in a slow, Texas drawl.

"I'll tell you the story. They were so very ugly that I called the FBI. You know there is no course in seminary about dodging assassins. So, I called the FBI and said, 'What shall I do?' and they said, 'Drive a new way to work every day.' And I said, 'You guys had to go to the FBI academy to learn that?'"

Hagee said his opponents shot out the windows of his car as it was parked in his driveway. As the tension built some in his congregation questioned whether to go through with it since Hagee was obviously taking such a risk of personal injury.

Still, he pressed on, and on Sept. 10, 1981, about 1,000 Jews and Christians came together for A Night to Honor Israel.

"It was the first, all firsts are very exciting," Scheinberg told in a separate interview. "There was some apprehension in the air but everything the pastor had promised, he fulfilled. You know, we were comfortable with the prayers that were chosen, we were comfortable with the songs that were sung and above all the strong, clear support for Israel."

Hagee described that night in the Lila Cockwell Theater as "magical" and "electric."

"The building was packed. There was enough tension in the room to give a brass doorknob a headache. We walked out on the stage and we had our television cameras there because we wanted the world to see what we were doing. We had our choir there, they sang Hebrew songs, and I assure you it was southern Hebrew, but it was our best effort," he said.

As Scheinberg began giving the benediction, Hagee said security approached him to say that a bomb threat had been made on the building. It was supposed to blow in three minutes.

"And I prayed a little prayer, and it went like this: 'Dear God, don't let the rabbi pray like Moses right now, let him pray like a Presbyterian late for lunch,'" Hagee said.

God evidently answered his prayer and after Scheinberg finished speaking, Hagee want to the microphone and said he hated to end the night but they needed to clear out the room.

"The Christians saturated that room with their absence. I mean, they, whooh, they vaporized," Hagee recalled with a breathy whistle. The Jews, however, shrugged off the threat and kept on going.

"The Jewish people looked at me and I learned what is called the 'Jewish flip of the hand.' They flipped their hand at me as if to say: 'Those who would like to stay another hour, there are kosher hot dogs in the lobby.' They were unmoved they just kept right on talking.

"On the way home I told my wife, I said, 'If these anti-Semites think they can shut us down with threats, we're going to have a night to honor Israel until they get used to it and until the enemies of Israel recognize their right to exist,'" he said. "So here we are 26 years later, we just kept doing a Night to Honor Israel every year."