Latest update: June 3rd, 2013
The firestorm that erupted with the YouTube posting of excerpts from a 1990 sermon by Pastor John Hagee – reflecting his belief that the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel both reflected God’s will – is a case study of how certain religious views have been placed beyond the pale of permissible discussion.
Within a week of the posting, the reputation of the leading Christian supporter of Israel had been trashed, his views distorted, and the Republican presidential candidate forced to disavow his support – all without any serious discussion of the sermon, its theology, or its relationship to Jewish scriptures.
As always, truth was slow to get its boots on, but the response of the new media was nevertheless impressive. David Brog on The American Thinker website, Anne Lieberman on the Boker Tov, Boulder! Blog, and Joel Mowbray in the Washington Times, among others, distinguished themselves. Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America published an articulate defense.
Here is some additional material necessary to understanding Pastor Hagee’s views and work, and the controversy his sermon produced:
Whether one agrees with his remarks or not, they are hardly controversial to those familiar with the conversation Jews have been having with and about God for thousands of years.
Pastor Hagee is hardly the first person to posit an interactive relationship between the hand of the Creator and the fate of the Jewish people. His opinion in this matter may be uncommon in the mainstream, but it is hardly singular, remarkable or exceptional among Holocaust survivors.
Founder and president of CJHSLA, Doris Wise Montrose, said, “My entire life I never heard a discussion about the Holocaust that did not bring up God. Many survivors, including my father, believed that God had a hand in the Holocaust, either by causing it or by allowing it to happen.”
CJHSLA urges the public, especially the Jewish community, to recognize and appreciate Pastor Hagee’s stalwart leadership in American Zionism, as well as his overt, compassionate and substantial support for Israel. Hagee’s organization, Christians United for Israel [CUFI] has raised over $30 million for charities in Israel, and for this he deserves our gratitude.
“What I know for certain,” said Montrose, “is that 6 million Jews were brutally and systematically murdered over a period of twelve years – from 1933 to 1945 – because human beings here on earth did nothing to stop it. Pastor Hagee understands that better than most, and has made it his business not only to seek atonement for the sins of those who stood idly by, but also to ensure that history is not allowed to repeat itself.”
“At CJHSLA, we stand with John Hagee,” Montrose concluded. “He should be honored, not scorned.”
2. In late March, Pastor Hagee was the subject of an earlier media flare-up, relating to his purported antagonism to Catholicism and gays. He addressed those concerns in a dignified statement to his congregation (followed by a letter to the Catholic League, which subsequently praised his sincerity and courage in handling the controversy and called it “closed”).
CUFI posted the video of Pastor Hagee’s statement, to which the congregation (numbering in the thousands) listened in respectful silence, until the audience interrupted with applause, which turned into a standing ovation, right after this statement:
As most of you know, two years ago, I founded Christians United for Israel. I believed then and believe now that Israel’s friends dare not be silent when Israel is facing such serious threats to her existence.
Ever since I started speaking out for Israel, I have come under intense scrutiny and increasing attack. I did not plan to spend this period of my life in the middle of a political firestorm. Rest assured I will not shrink from our work on behalf of Israel. I will continue to stand with Israel in the future. [Applause and standing ovation]
3. In early March, Pastor Hagee appeared at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles (one of the largest Reform congregations in America) for an extensive colloquy with Rabbi David Woznica. During the colloquy, Pastor Hagee described how he founded Christians United for Israel:
So in February of 2006, I brought together 400 of the leading evangelicals in America – pastors of megachurches, guys who did all the television five times a week nationally, people who own the radio and television Christian networks, presidents of universities – people who are the impact people, and I presented the idea about a Christian Night for Israel.
And briefly, I said Israel is in a state of danger, we have a Bible mandate to stand up and speak up for Israel, we have never done anything as a Christian group that gets close to a unified canopy under which every person who calls himself a Bible-believing evangelical can speak up for Israel. And we’re a one-issue organization – Israel, Israel, Israel. Don’t start bringing up all of these evangelical hot button issues about which you’ve been fighting for thirty years, because we have to stay focused on what we’re doing.
And I said we will do a Night to Honor Israel in every major city in America . . . and they all of them stayed, and that’s how I knew God was in the house. And I said we’re going to go once a year to Washington and take as many of our leaders as we can. We’re not going to stand out on the grass and sing “Amazing Grace,” because Congress could care less about “Amazing Grace.”
They only care when you go in their offices, look them in the eye and say “I’m a Christian and I support Israel” and you give them a list of talking points for every one of them, and every senator and every congressmen hears the same message from Americans from Maine to California on one day.
4. In the sermon that caused the current flap, Pastor Hagee cited two biblical sources for his belief that the tragedy of the Holocaust and the miracle of Israel were part of God’s ultimate plan: Jeremiah 16 (which foretold a second Exodus to occur in the future, this time “from the North”) and Ezekiel 37 (which promised that the dead would be reborn in Israel). These are not obscure biblical references. With respect to Jeremiah 16, it may suffice to note a story told in the Jerusalem Post on April 30, 2008 (Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day) – written by former Israeli diplomat Naphtali Lau-Lavie:
Recently, while searching in the Yad Vashem archives, I came across the testimony of a survivor from Treblinka, who later immigrated to Chicago. This is what he wrote:
“In the early morning [on October 21, 1942] we arrived at Treblinka on the transport from our ghetto. On the ramp the selection process had begun. Together with a group of youngsters, I was taken from the crowd and pushed aside. We stood and watched the groups being led in the direction of the gas chambers.
“Suddenly, we heard the familiar, strong voice of our rabbi. He was standing in the midst of the Jews of his community reciting the confessional viduy prayer, said when Jews know they are about to be martyred. The rabbi said a verse, and his “congregation” repeated it after him, verse by verse …”
The Jews described were from the city of Piotrkow in Poland, and the rabbi referred to was my father.
My father’s life was taken at Treblinka after he said the viduy…. At our last meeting, as … we were standing on the doorstep, he recited from Jeremiah 16:6-7: “Both the great and the small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried; neither shall men lament for them, nor cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them; neither shall men break bread for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead; neither shall men give them the cup of consolation to drink for their father or for their mother.”
Then he stopped for a while, looked straight into my eyes, and continued, again from Jeremiah, 13:16: “And there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord. And thy children shall return to their own border.”
Next he addressed me directly: “If you manage to get out of here, go and return to the Land from which we were expelled, because only there will the Jewish people be itself and become strong enough to prevent such tragedies.”
Naphtali Lau-Lavie was rescued from Buchenwald in 1945 by American soldiers. He made it to Israel (not yet in existence at the time of his father’s reference to Jeremiah) and he eventually served as Israel’s consul-general in New York.
As for Pastor Hagee’s reference to Ezekiel 37, perhaps an even shorter explanation may suffice. At Yad Vashem, the first thing one notices is a prominent quotation in large letters on a column above the parking lot. It reflects the promise in the immediately preceding verse that God will “open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves . . . and I will bring you into the land of Israel.” The quotation engraved on the column (Ezekiel 37:14) is this: “And I will put My spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will set you on your land.”
5. Literal readings of the Bible, belief in a judgmental God, faith in miracles foretold, or suggestions the God of the Hebrew Bible continues to play an active role in history are not fashionable today. Simply voicing them is not politically correct, and can result in an attempt to exclude one from public life.
The modern age is one in which all authority is challenged, especially religious authority. It would be a better age if the more traditional views of others were accorded greater respect.
In noting that Pastor Hagee’s sermon was from 1990, there is perhaps an implicit suggestion that it should be discounted as simply an “old” sermon. But the 1990 date is significant for two other reasons. First, it reflects the fact that Pastor Hagee has been supporting Israel and the Jewish people for more than two decades. He has made such support the central tenet of his entire ministry. As Doris Wise Montrose observed, Pastor Hagee should not be scorned but honored – especially by the Jewish community.
Second, 1990 was just after the time when a million Jews had finally been able to leave the Soviet Union – the most powerful totalitarian state in history – and go to Israel. To Pastor Hagee, it was another instance of the Exodus “from the North” that Jeremiah had predicted – another modern miracle, like the re-creation of the State of Israel itself.
One need not agree with every element of Pastor Hagee’s sermon, nor believe in Jewish eschatology, nor even endorse the arguments of theodicy, to recognize that his treatment by the political/media complex was an injustice reflecting the perils of defending Israel in terms that are not politically correct.
It is particularly unfortunate that many Jewish leaders and organizations stood by silently while a longtime friend of Israel and the Jewish people was driven from the public square.
About the Author: Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (www.jpundit.typepad.com/jci/).
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