by Sean Savage/JNS.org
WASHINGTON, DC—With the conflict in Israel in their hearts and on their minds, thousands of evangelical Christians converged on Washington, DC, from July 21-22 to flex their collective muscles for the Jewish state as part of the annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) summit.
“Our joy is consistently interrupted by news from Israel. But it is good to be together with loved ones at a sad time. I see the energy more than ever, that we have to speak out and be a voice for Israel,” David Brog, executive director of CUFI, told JNS.org.
With nearly 1.75 million members, CUFI calls itself the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States. But CUFI’s vocal support for Israel also draws a number of detractors who deride the group’s mixing of bible-based morality with lobbying and politics.
“The day American turns it back against Israel, God will turn its back against the United States of America,” CUFI’s founder, Pastor John Hagee, told thousands of supporters packed into Washington’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Despite the skeptics, Jewish and Israeli leaders have taken notice of the rapid growth of evangelical support for Israel over the last few decades, and those leaders’ presence at the CUFI summit reflected their gratitude and respect.
“I come here to get refreshed,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, referring to evangelicals’ strong passion for Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (in a recorded video message) and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer also addressed the summit. Dermer focused on the threats facing Israel and the conflict in Gaza, saying that the Jewish state should be given a Nobel Peace Prize for the “unimaginable restraint” it is showing in its current military operation.
But the summit strove for more than the series of speeches celebrating Israel and criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies. CUFI has a number of legislative goals that it hopes its supporters will deliver to Congress. First and foremost is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
CUFI urged its supporters to back further U.S. sanctions on Iran, which have been held up in Congress in order to allow the U.S.—as part of the P5+1 powers (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany)—to continue diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic in Vienna.
During his address, Tea Party favorite U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) urged the audience to lobby Congress to pass new sanctions on Iran, which he blamed the White House for stalling.
“[The] greatest threat to the state of Israel is not Hamas. [The] threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability is the greatest threat,” Cruz said.
“[Iran] will either halt their program now and dismantle it, or we will dismantle it,” he added.
While external threats to Israel remained a focus throughout the summit, CUFI more subtly reminded its supporters of the internal threats to American support for Israel.
David Brog explained that one of CUFI’s goals is to make sure the next generation of evangelicals continue their support for Israel and don’t go the way of the mainline Protestants.
“Once you cut yourself off from the bible and you just become a reflection of modern politically correct passions, you lose your distinction from the rest of society, so why go to church?” Brog told JNS.org.
In his opening remarks, Pastor Hagee heavily criticized mainline Protestants such as Presbyterian Church USA, which recently voted to divest from Israel at its summit in June.
“When you turn against Israel you have lost your moral compass,” Hagee said, while also noting the rapid decline in the Presbyterian Church’s membership over the past decade.
While Israel has historically enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the U.S., in recent years the cause of the Jewish state has become increasingly embraced by conservatives, who champion America’s shared values with Israel and the threat of common enemies like radical Islam.
A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center amid the Israel-Gaza conflict found a large partisan gap in support for Israel, with 73 percent of Republican respondents saying they sympathize with Israel in the current Gaza conflict, compared to 44 percent of Democrats.
“Dating back to the late 1970s, the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies has never been wider,” the Pew Research Center said.
Like its Jewish counterpart, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, CUFI believes that bipartisan support for Israel is essential and welcomes anyone on either side of the aisle who shares the group’s values.
“We are studiously bipartisan,” Brog told JNS.org.
Yet Brog admitted that CUFI does not want its mission of bipartisanship to prevent the organization from criticizing the Obama administration or other Democrats for their policies on Israel.
“We have been pretty vocal in our criticism of the Obama administration,” he said. “We don’t feel the cause of bipartisanship needs to blind us to the failures of this administration.”
Perhaps highlighting the growing partisan divide on Israel and liberals’ lack of interest in courting evangelical voters, CUFI’s summit featured a heavy concentration of conservative commentators such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, as well as Republican politicians like Cruz and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
“I hope that in the future we will see more Democrats,” Brog said. “We are in danger of losing one of our parties on Israel, and that would be a disaster.”