Vacation plans mean I'm missing this year's Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Washington summit, which begins today. I'm sorry because CUFI puts on a pretty impressive show, and the Jewish community's ambivalence about the meaning of this and other “Christian Zionist” groups is endlessly interesting for journalists.
But at least the reaction is predictable; what I have seen since the first CUFI summit in 2006 (the group was created earlier that year) is that positions in the Jewish world about CUFI and Pastor John Hagee, its fiery and prophecy-minded founder and president, are becoming, if anything, more hardened and resistant to change.
Liberal Jews tend to see the Christian Zionists through the lens of their positions on domestic issues like gay rights, women's rights and abortion – no matter how much CUFI gives to Israeli charities and how much the Christian Zionists defend Israel in public. That's hardly surprising, since liberal Jews tend to vote based mostly on domestic issues, not Israel.
Jews on the right see CUFI as a godsend, in part because the group is pretty open about supporting West Bank charities, something many Jewish groups are loathe to do, and because it tends to reject the idea of more land-for-peace negotiations. CUFI activists are always ready to fight presidents who want to pressure the Jewish state to make concessions, and they set the bar for what constitutes “pressure” pretty low.
Jews on the left and some centrist Jewish leaders worry that Hagee's support is based heavily on the apocalyptic Christian prophecies that have been the focus of most of his books – prophecies that seem to require endless bloody wars in the Middle East and new holocausts as necessary precursors to the Christian messiah. To the extent that CUFI gains political power, will it use some of that clout to fight peace efforts that interpreters of the prophecies say are doomed to fail, and maybe even a trick of the devil?
Jews on the right say that's just theology and not particularly connected to the real-world political support that Hagee and his colleagues seem able to deliver. Hagee says his pro-Israel activism has nothing to do with his prophecy-oriented ministry; who are we, his Jewish supporters say, to doubt him? And what difference does it really make? When the Messiah comes, we'll find out who was right, the Jews or the evangelicals, his Jewish supporters like to say.
Jewish leaders in the center remain ambivalent, by and large – sometimes grateful for new sources of support for Israel, sometimes wary of too close an embrace and generally unsure of exactly what kind of friendship the Christian Zionists are offering. Some remain nervous about the prophecy issue, as well, and uncomfortable with what seems like staunch opposition to giving up any more territory.
One problem in evaluating the friendship of the Christian Zionists is this: they've never been put to the kind of test they'll face if Israel ever elects another left-leaning government seriously committed to land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Right now, groups like CUFI are pretty much on the same page as the government in Jerusalem on the big issues, so it's no sweat for them to say they support Israel, period.
But how will they respond if and when that's no longer the case? Will they publicly oppose those policies and ally themselves with the government's political opponents? Will they argue that the government is now operating against Biblical principles, and therefore bring destruction down upon Israel's own head? The jury is still out on those questions, it seems to me.
So: this week's CUFI convention will go predictably.,
Some Israeli diplomats will come and praise the group to the heavens, and some Jewish politicians will do the same. This year it looks like it's Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.) leading the pack.
Some representatives of settlers groups will hang around, getting a lot of respectful attention. Groups like AIPAC generally try to steer clear of settlers; CUFI embraces them with enthusiasm.
Some left wing groups will protest outside the convention center, and nobody will pay much attention.
The huge choir and orchestra will do upbeat versions of Hebrew songs and some of the Christians will dance in the aisles, waving their arms to the heavens. The Orthodox Jews mingling with the Christians will not be put off by this display of religious fervor; less observant Jews often are.
There will be a lot of talk about the Iranian threat and lot of criticism of Obama administration “pressure” on the Jewish state. There will be a lot of Republicans, fewer Democrats.
And the controversy over the role of groups like CUFI in the pro-Israel effort will continue unabated.
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