Editor's Note: This article is the first in a two-part series on the Christians United for Israel conference in Washington, D.C., and the impact of evangelical support on U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
Washington was inundated with thousands of Christians last week, but unlike their usual marches to protest abortion rights and other social issues, these Christians had something else in mind: U.S. Middle East policy.
In fact, many seemed not to notice the hot, humid, cloudy weather — a typical July day in Washington — as they prepared to lobby Congress. They had just been energized by the preaching of Pastor John Hagee, who delivered an impassioned speech the night before in support of Israel.
While a quiet man of gentle disposition, Hagee, who leads the 19,000-strong Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and heads Christians United for Israel, can quickly whip up the faithful. His words, while rich in biblical citation and religious imagery, aren't minced.
"It is clear that Israel is in the greatest danger she has faced since six Arab armies tried to strangle the Jewish state in the birth canal in 1948," Hagee told the crowd at the conference's Night to Honor Israel gala. The event also featured former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among others.
"The head of the beast of radical Islam in the Middle East is Iran and its fanatical president, Ahmadinejad," he continued. "Ahmadinejad believes if he starts a world war, the Islamic messiah will mysteriously appear and produce a global Islamic theocratic dictatorship.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are reliving history. It's 1938 all over again," he said. "Iran is Germany. Ahmadinejad is Hitler and Ahmadinejad, just like Hitler, is talking about killing the Jews."
While concerns about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are spread far and wide in the U.S. and Israel, perspectives vary on what to do about it. The United States has recently lifted its 27-year diplomatic freeze on Tehran by meeting with Iranian officials to discuss security in Iraq — a move that has won both praise and criticism in Washington, D.C.
But those diplomatic talks are single-minded in nature, and when it comes to Israel, several Jewish organizations in the United States hold that U.S. officials must do everything in their power to persuade the international community to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear ambitions.
"U.S. policy toward Iran should be to try to marshall the rest of the world to apply sanctions to Iran so the Iranians will stop trying to pursue their program of nuclear weapons," said Neil Goldstein, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "Nothing should be taken off the table."
"If diplomatic options, economic sanctions could work they could only work if there is a threat of another alternative," said Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Otherwise, there is "absolutely no incentive to Iran to agree to adjust its plan" for developing nuclear weapons.
Hagee's supporters agree that Iran is the biggest existential threat to Israel.
"An enemy of Israel is an enemy of ours. We feel our country is threatened," said Julie Wineinger, a registered nurse from Davis, Calif.
"We must get our governments at the state level, at the city level to not invest money, our pension funds, in the Iranian regime," said Greg Stephens, a pastor at Father's House Church in El Cajon, Calif. "Florida has passed a law. California just did — and I need to make sure that passes both sides of the California legislature because we have got to shut off the money to a guy who wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, who denies the Holocaust. It is the late 1930s again in America, in our world, except this guy will have the bomb."
Hitler analogies usually draw universal criticism from Jewish groups that complain that the comparison is frequently misused. But Foxman, whose group spends its days trying to prevent defamation of Jews, said this time it works.
"As a Holocaust survivor, I can understand it," Foxman said of Hagee's rhetoric. "Since 1938 there has been no head of state who has threatened the annihilation of the Jewish state, a Jewish state. ... It is historically appropriate to compare. ... Some people say it's somewhat hysterical, I don't think so."
"It's appropriate," Goldstein added. "Ahmadinejad has called for wiping Israel off the map, which is taken to mean he has genocidal intentions toward Israel."
But pacifist group Tikkun, a liberal Jewish organization in Los Angeles that advocates direct dialogue with Iran, expressed alarm at Hagee's words.
"Any language that compares Hitler or a current regime to Nazis" is a "false analogy," said Nichola Torbett, Tikkun director of national programs. "As far as I know, Iran hasn't killed 6 million people. ... so, that comparison doesn't hold up. ... We don't love [Ahmadinejad] other than the way in which we love everyone. We try to differentiate the person and his actions."
For his part, Hagee is equally outspoken when it comes to working with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party has been engaged in factional fighting with terrorist-designated Hamas. Hamas now controls Gaza while Abbas tries to strengthen his hold on the West Bank.
It "is an absolute waste of time," Hagee told FOXNews.com. "Abbas is controlled by Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization. If Abbas does anything that really irritates those terrorists, they'll shoot him. ... Hamas controls him, and when a terrorist controls you, if we give to others, to Abbas, Hamas will use it for their benefit."
Dajani argued that Hagee's judgment is unfair, since Abbas has never had the room to succeed.
"We've never really given Abbas a chance to prove whether his actions are as sincere as his words," said Dajani. "He was elected as president on a very clear platform — basically the intifada was a mistake, or the militarization of the intifada was a mistake, violence will never achieve statehood."
But Abbas has little or no control over many of the economic tools he could use to win over Palestinians, Dajani argued.
"His being able to deliver is related to his power to be able to deliver. In terms of improving [his odds for success], a lot has to do with what Israel and the United States give him — deliverables. ... I think now there's a new urgency in the air to support him meaningfully," he said.
"It's a judgment, it's not a crazy judgment," Foxman said of Hagee's conclusions on the Palestinian Authority president.
He added that Israel must take responsibility for the coming successes or failures of working with Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
"That's a judgment that the state of Israel has to make first and foremost with the advice and support of the United States. ... And both have decided to try the option of strengthening Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority," Foxman said
At the end of the day, he said, for everyone's sake, he hopes Hagee is wrong. "God forbid if he's right."
No Ulterior Motives?
Hagee and his supporters acknowledge that Jewish skepticism of CUFI's intentions is not unwarranted. Christians have given Jews reason to worry in the past — about both their physical well-being and religious freedom, said Victor Styrsky, California director of Christians Standing With Israel and CUFI.
Dropping Hebrew and Yiddish into much of the discussion on Israel, Styrsky said he is not surprised by the suspicion he has encountered when he approaches Jews.
"Throughout history, the Jew has risen up in every circumstance he found himself only to be cast down by the goyim around him. Martin Luther, the patriarch of the Protestant faith, wrote: '[On] the Jews and Their Lies,'" he said.
But the evangelical community today is different from its historical Christian counterparts, Styrsky said, because evangelicals do not read the bible as a metaphor, and therefore must acknowledge Jews are the chosen people of God.
Styrsky and Hagee also emphasize that they are not interested in converting Jews, a position that puts them at odds with some other Christian faiths and has been part of the reason for Jewish skepticism throughout the centuries.
"Most people do not understand eschatology at all, period," Hagee said. "Many preachers do not understand it well enough to teach it, and there's nothing in the bible that's more twisted than eschatology. But I can assure you that eschatology has nothing to do with our support for Israel."
"That is not Christian theology," Styrsky said. "That thought is nowhere in there."
Foxman, who has dedicated his life to securing Jews' civil and religious freedom, said Hagee has pledged time and time again that no strings are attached to his mission. Assuming Hagee is true to his word, Jews should be glad for the help.
"I think Israel needs friends and supporters. Certainly, it doesn't have it in Europe, it doesn't have it in Latin America, so any group that shows advocacy and support and embrace, we welcome ... as long as that embrace and support doesn't come with strings attached," he said.
He added that those Jews who are concerned about End of Days scenarios — that Christians just want Jews in Israel to fulfill the messianic prophecy — shouldn't worry so much. He compared the Christian-Jewish arrangement to politics, wherein candidates seek support of voters in exchange for representation of their positions.
"If they have an ulterior motive to have the second coming, they're entitled as long as they don't require us" to go along with it, Foxman said. "They are entitled as long as they don't make it conditioned to us to accept their other agenda, which is Christ."
Log on Monday for the second part of the story chronicling efforts by American evangelicals to influence the Middle East debate.