Historically, we Jews have had few friends in this world. And the more grave our situation, the more scarce those friends seem to be. Which is why I found myself at a massive gathering at the Washington Convention Center on the night of July 22. There I was among friends at the annual Night to Honor Israel hosted by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) with speakers Pastor John Hagee (founder and national chairman of CUFI), Senator Joseph Lieberman and Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman.
I had never before attended a function sponsored by a Christian group, pro-Israel or otherwise, and though I interrupted my summer plans to attend, I was hesitant to tell people where I was going. Was I uncomfortable at the thought of dining on a plastic-covered kosher meal alongside supporters of Israel from the Bible Belt? I was. But when asked to attend, I decided to go for reasons of hakarat hatov (gratitude).
CUFI, an organization established by Pastor Hagee to support Israel and the Jewish people, does not bill itself as religious or theological; rather, it promotes aid to Israel and combats anti-Semitism. Over the years it has raised more than $30 million for Nefesh B’Nefesh, Migdal Ohr, United Jewish Communities (to benefit new immigrants to Israel), Ariel Development Fund, Kiryat Yam (Ethiopian Absorption Center), and many other Jewish organizations and causes.
Pastor Hagee held the first Night to Honor Israel in 1981; in the wake of the worldwide condemnation and ostracism of Israel after it bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Hagee wanted to publicly support the Jewish state and promote understanding between Christians and Jews. The event has since become an annual tradition and a resounding success.
This particular Night to Honor Israel came on the heels of Pastor Hagee’s crucifixion at the hands of liberals desperate to pin a “Reverend Wright” on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. Looking to redirect the sharp criticism raining down on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, for maintaining a 20-year relationship with a hate-mongering preacher, leftists noted Hagee’s endorsement of Sen. McCain and pounced on a late-1990′s sermon in which Hagee made reference to the Book of Jeremiah in explaining the Holocaust as a precursor to the return of Jews to Israel.
It hardly mattered that Hagee was not McCain’s pastor but merely an endorser of his candidacy, or that the pastor’s words were quoted out of context. The media latched on to the tenuous link between the two until McCain repudiated Hagee’s endorsement, and many of Hagee’s friends repudiated Hagee.
At an April convention of Reform rabbis in Cincinnati, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, condemned Pastor Hagee and urged Jews not to attend Hagee’s Night to Honor Israel. While this was not surprising given the liberal politics of the Reform movement, it smacked of unadulterated ingratitude, considering Hagee’s efforts to strengthen ties between Jews and Christians and raise tens of millions of dollars for Jewish causes.
With that in mind, I could not refuse the call of Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, for Jews to attend this year’s CUFI dinner to give chizuk (encouragement) to Pastor Hagee. After all, Hagee had initiated the Night to Honor Israel after witnessing Israel’s ostracism by the international community; he deserved nothing less in his own time of need.
I am still marveling at the enthusiasm and downright affection I saw and felt that night toward Israel and the Jewish people. We were perhaps forty Orthodox Jews, many of us heads of organizations, in a sea of more than three thousand Christians whose leaders spoke of the God-given right Jews have to Eretz Yisrael. They spoke of the debt of gratitude Christians owe Jews for their contributions to the world and of the blessings God grants to those who support Israel. Enormous banners hanging in the convention center and banquet hall proclaimed “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet” (Isaiah 62:1).
I will never forget the sight of thousands of people – Christians – waving Israeli flags while thunderously applauding statements most Jews are afraid of voicing. In a speech broadcast worldwide, Pastor Hagee unabashedly declared that Christians must stand with Israel because they have a Bible mandate to do so. He vowed support for the entire land of Israel and for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for all time. He asked forgiveness from Jews for Christian silence during the Holocaust and warned that threats to the Jewish people today must be taken seriously, whether they be from the “modern day Hamans” of Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas, or from those who wish to boycott Israel and harm it in any way.
He stated that “nations who persecute the Jews will be judged by God” and recounted the empires and countries of the past that persecuted and killed Jews and that became “historical footnotes in the graveyard of Jewish history.” He contrasted them with the Jews, who are “alive and well, thriving and prosperingand who will be the praise of all the earth.”
Hagee concluded his remarks with the admonition that as anti-Semitism grows so does the need for Christians to stand with the Jews.
When Sen. Lieberman spoke he earned bellowing applause not only for his words but his mere presence.
Lieberman told the audience he had come under intense pressure to cancel his speech following the attack on Hagee in the media. But the senator refused to abandon the pastor and opened his address with the remark, “I am your brother Joseph.”
Lieberman documented Israel’s existence from the time God told Abraham to journey to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1), highlighted the threat of radical Islam to Israel and America, and thanked Pastor Hagee and CUFI for their support. He even threw in a d’var Torah based on the words of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and another based on a medrash in Parshas Shemos.
After hearing such a speech and after watching more than a minyan of frum men disappear briefly for Mincha, I almost forgot where I was. But the presence of so many thousands of these ohavei Yisrael (lovers of Israel) in one room, though heartening, was somewhat disquieting as well.
While it was gratifying and comforting to know we have friends we can rely on, the sheer numbers of the crowd and the defiance of their tone made for a depressing comparison: Rarely do events in support of Israel draw Jewish attendees in anywhere near the numbers I saw at the Night to Honor Israel. And rarely do speakers at those events display the bold honesty I heard at this Christian event.
The thousands of participants also took part in CUFI’s Washington/Israel Summit before and after the dinner. For three days they attended conferences on Israel with influential speakers and elected officials and lobbied members of Congress in support of Israel. I have attended similar conferences and lobbying missions sponsored by Jewish groups and can remember maybe two hundred people showing up.
The Christians of CUFI fervently believe God will bless them because of their support of the Jewish people. In our jaded world rife with expediency and opportunism, I stand in awe of their activism on behalf of a historically beleaguered people for nothing more tangible than a blessing.
If only we Jews would exhibit more selfless vigor and devotion on behalf of our own righteous causes, in a less fractured way and for a similar return on our investment.
Sara Lehmann, formerly an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, is currently a mother and freelance editor residing in Brooklyn.