July 20 was the 13th day of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, and the deadliest. On the morning of July 21, as they trickled into the annual Christians United for Israel conference, the mostly American supporters of the Jewish state walked past muted TVs blaring the latest damage reports from this-or-that foreign correspondent. More than 100 Palestinians died in one day; more than 445 Palestinians since the operation started.
The supporters of CUFI moved up the convention center escalators and took their seats for a plenary session. Onstage were the first guests, all recognizable from Fox News—Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Bill Kristol, onetime CIA director James Woolsey, and the Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams, a presidentially pardoned veteran of foreign policy disasters on two continents. Sitting right next to them was John Hagee, the burly Christian Zionist pastor who founded CUFI in 2006 He leaned into a microphone, passionately explaining why supporters of Israel should not be tricked by casualty reports.
“Since July 8, more than 1,000 rockets have been launched into Israel by Hamas from Gaza,” said Hagee, who speaks with a captivating rumble that could make a brunch order sound like a lost gospel. “Two-thirds of Israel’s population has had to run to bomb shelters, having 90 seconds to save their lives.”
The objective of Hamas, said Hagee, “is to win the media war with dead civilians. We’ve come to Washington to ask our government to stop demanding for Israel to show restraint.”
More than 4,800 evangelicals and Jews broke into applause. Some raised their arms and turned up their palms; a shofar-maker from New Jersey blew on one of his horns.
“If a foreign power had launched 1,000 rockets into America, we would be pulling the gates of the White House down,” said Hagee. “Let Israel finish the job. Let every rocket be dismantled. Let every tunnel be destroyed.”
Hagee had set the theme: This year’s CUFI conference, followed by its members’ lobbying trips to Congress, would pressure the Obama administration not to broker an early cease-fire in Israel. The people of Israel would not suffer so that “John Kerry could win his Nobel Peace prize.” (Hagee made that joke again at an evening, music-and-dancing stuffed CUFI celebration, which started with a taped message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.) American evangelicals needed to imagine themselves as Israelis, praise the “miracle” of the Iron Dome missile defense system, and understand that the Jews had a biblical mandate to the entire Holy Land.
“I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.”
CUFI claims to be the world’s largest coalition of pro-Israel evangelicals. Nobody disputes that; critics actually prefer to promote Hagee as the face of the movement. In 2007, after CUFI started to gain momentum, Hagee published a book laying out how the apocalypse would happen—the Antichrist, if you were wondering, would be “the head of the European Union”—and in 2008 John McCain’s presidential campaign was cowed into denouncing him. Progressive journalist Max Blumenthal reported on the 2007 Christians for United Israel conference and asked the faithful if they were looking forward to the rapture. After getting a few yeses—and after asking Hagee pointed questions about Scripture—Blumenthal was sent to the exits, and CUFI got more gingerly and careful in its approach to the media.
How careful? The reporters who showed up—many from conservative or pro-Israel media—were guided through a metal detector to a filing center, away from the main conference. At the appropriate times, we were guided from the first floor hideaway to the third-floor ballroom where the plenary sessions were being held. When the sessions ended, we were given time to wrap up, then politely guided back downstairs.
But during breaks it was easy to chat with attendees, to walk through a CUFI exhibit on how it was fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on campuses—and to notice that Hagee’s books were on sale next to CUFI T-shirts. In Hagee’s latest, Four Blood Moons, he advances the theory that a series of lunar events that started on April 2014 means that “in these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”
Hagee keeps saying this stuff; CUFI keeps separating itself from the rapture-ready bestsellers. On Monday I asked David Brog, the Jewish executive director of CUFI, whether Four Blood Moons was informing any of Hagee’s or the activists’ thinking about the crisis in Israel or Russia.
“Absolutely not,” said Brog. “Outside observers don’t give evangelicals credit for being able to hold two different ideas in their heads. There’s often confusion, when it comes to evangelical support for Israel, because evangelicals, like a lot of Jews, believe that we may be living in a messianic time. Of course, in the Jewish case, no one ever says—‘Ah, that’s why you support Israel, you think you’re going to bring the messiah.’ It’s black letter Christian theology that the date of the second coming was set eons ago.”
Brog had obviously answered countless versions of the question, usually from more hostile inquisitors; in the response I got, he insisted that CUFI’s members, like many evangelicals, “have a profound sense of guilt in the Christian Era, and how the Holocaust happened and Christians didn’t do anything about it.”
That was backed up by the speeches, and by the hallway conversations. Israel was one war away from destroying Hamas—unless John Kerry stopped it. Iran was one missile away from a second Holocaust—unless the Obama administration acted. On Monday night, Hagee gave a special award to Republican super PAC donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who turned and thanked the mostly Christian audience for backing Israel.
“If you had been there during the Holocaust, you would have stood up and fought for the Jewish people,” said Miriam Adelson. “And maybe the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened.”
“I’ve never had a greater warm feeling than being honored by Pastor Hagee,” said a beaming Sheldon Adelson.
But the honors were mutual. Speaker after speaker gave the evangelicals ammunition for the next time someone criticized the Gaza operation, or shamed Israel over the body count.
“Here’s a message for America: Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “More Germans died in World War II than American soldiers. That didn’t make the Germans right.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who debuted at the conference in 2013 and got its loudest ovation this year, walked the crowd through all the Obama administration betrayals. Remember, how Kerry had warned that Israel could become an apartheid state—a “slander and a lie.” Remember how Kerry had acknowledged the BDS movement and angered Israel’s leaders. The Obama administration was naive; CUFI wasn’t.
“It is Hamas who is putting women and children on top of the rockets,” said Cruz, “because they value the missiles and rockets more than they value their own civilians.”
The politicians were limited in what they could say. They had been to Israel—Graham credited a trip he took with the Adelsons for “changing my life.” But they were not Israelis. Over two boisterous days, the only speaker who brought the crowd to silence was Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, an Israel Defense Forces veteran whose organization Our Soldiers Speak sent him to campuses and other hot zones to describe the reality in Israel.
“There is an entire generation being raised in southern Israel, barely any of whom do not suffer from PTSD due to the rocket fire,” said Anthony. “The entire Zionist experiment rests in no small part on what it is we do during this campaign.”
What the IDF needed was a total victory. “Rocket factories can be destroyed,” said Anthony. “Weapon factories can be destroyed. Terrorists can be eliminated. Tunnels can be dug out.” But it could only happen if America resisted the temptation to criticize Israel or to stop the operation.
“Hamas started this war,” said Anthony. “The soldiers of Israel must smash their skulls and break their spines.”
When he said that, a standing-room crowd of pastors and activists and politicians rose to its feet, waving the twin flags of the countries God loved.