Over the past months, the White House has convened a series of off-the-record meetings about its policies in the Middle East with leaders of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a newly formed political organization that tells its members that supporting Israel’s expansionist policies is “a biblical imperative.” CUFI’s Washington lobbyist, David Brog, told me that during the meetings, CUFI representatives pressed White House officials to adopt a more confrontational posture toward Iran, refuse aid to the Palestinians and give Israel a free hand as it ramped up its military conflict with Hezbollah.
The White House instructed Brog not to reveal the names of officials he met with, Brog said.
CUFI’s advice to the Bush Administration reflects the Armageddon-based foreign-policy views of its founder, John Hagee. Hagee is a fire-and-brimstone preacher from San Antonio who commands the nearly 18,000-member Cornerstone Church and hosts a major TV ministry where he explains to millions of viewers how the end times will unfold. He is also the author of numerous bestselling pulp-prophecy books, like his recent Jerusalem Countdown, in which he cites various unnamed Israeli intelligence sources to claim that Iran is producing nuclear “suitcase bombs.” The only way to defeat the Iranian evildoers, he says, is a full-scale military assault.
“The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty,” Hagee wrote this year in the Pentecostal magazine Charisma. “Israel and America must confront Iran’s nuclear ability and willingness to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons. For Israel to wait is to risk committing national suicide.”
Despite his penchant for extreme rhetoric, or perhaps because of it, Hagee endeared himself to key members of the Israeli right. With the help of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once spoke at a massive pro-Israel fundraiser at Cornerstone Church, Hagee has raised at least $8.5 million for Israeli social work projects. And as a result of Hagee’s influence in the Lone Star State, reflected by his enormous wealth–he reportedly rakes in more than $1 million a year from his television ministry–and his close relationship with the previously omnipotent and now disgraced former House majority leader Tom DeLay, Washington’s Republican leadership is just a phone call away.
Hagee recently united America’s largest Christian Zionist congregations and some of the movement’s most prominent figures–including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer and Rod Parsley, an Ohio preacher instrumental in launching Republican Ken Blackwell‘s gubernatorial campaign–under the banner of CUFI, creating the first and only nationwide evangelical political organization dedicated to supporting Israel. Hagee says he would like to see CUFI become “the Christian version of AIPAC,” referring to the vaunted pro-Israel group rated second only to the National Rifle Association as the most effective lobby in Washington.
But while Hagee is the public face of CUFI, he remains tethered to his ministry in the Texas plains, far from the wheeling and dealing of inside-the-Beltway culture. To advance his agenda on the Hill, Hagee has tapped David Brog, a seasoned and articulate lawyer who has been Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter’s chief of staff, and who boasts myriad connections in Republican Washington. Besides Brog’s political acumen, there was another characteristic Hagee found appealing: He is Jewish.
“I think while there are some differences between us as far as our religious views,” Brog told me about Hagee, “what matters more, and what is of much deeper significance, is everything that we share. We share a love for Israel and a love for America. And we share an understanding of the war on radical Islamic terror, and that makes us brothers.”
As Hagee’s political point man, Brog has instantly emerged as an important operative on the Christian right and an effective advocate shielding the movement from institutional Jewish criticism whenever an evangelical leader makes a gaffe. After a series of wildly impolitic remarks by Pat Robertson, including the suggestion that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s descent into a comatose state was God’s punishment for the Gaza withdrawal, Brog used an interview with the conservative National Review to defend Robertson as “a good man.” When Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman lambasted the Christian right as a dire threat to America’s Jewish community, Brog scolded Foxman in a lengthy Wall Street Journal op-ed. “There are very serious threats facing American Jews today, and they have nothing to do with social conservatives,” he wrote.
Brog says he is more comfortable among evangelicals than most Jews, in large part because he shares their viewpoint on social issues like abortion and homosexuality. “I experienced an evolution in my views,” Brog explained. “I was a Democrat as late as law school, and when I started off in the political world I was an Arlen Specter Republican. But over the years I’ve really continued to become more conservative. I don’t think my views on social issues line up with those in the Jewish community anymore.”
Brog’s first major order of business as CUFI’s executive director was to preside over its kick-off banquet on July 18, an unqualified success, with more than 3,000 evangelicals packing the Washington Hilton’s main ballroom to hear speeches by speakers ranging from Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon to Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, to Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman who has vowed to peel off Jewish voters from the Democratic Party by highlighting the GOP’s unwavering support of Israel.
Though CUFI’s banquet was planned months in advance, its timing could not have been more opportune, staged as Israel and Hezbollah exchanged their first salvos over Lebanon’s southern border. While international diplomats were ratcheting up pressure on the United States to administer a cease-fire, Falwell used his speech at the banquet to issue a stern warning to the White House. “I will rebuke the State Department for any and every time it told Israel to stand down and show restraint,” he boomed, sending gales of applause rippling through the packed crowd.
The next day, thousands of attendees of CUFI’s banquet fanned out to Congressional offices to lobby lawmakers in support of Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon. CUFI’s lobbying push coincided with the nearly unanimous passage of an AIPAC-authored House resolution declaring support for Israel. Though CUFI’s efforts on the Hill certainly did not hinder support for the resolution, according to Brog, CUFI’s impact has been felt “on a more subtle level.”
Brog underscored how the latest Middle East crisis has provided a platform for Christian Zionists to exercise their newfound influence: “There is an ongoing debate in Washington over how long to let Israel continue the campaign against Hezbollah–how long will we let Israel fight its war on terror as we fight our own war on terror? And I think the arrival in Washington at that juncture of thousands of Christians who came for one issue and one issue only, to support Israel, sent a very important message to the Administration and the Congress, and I think helped persuade people that they should allow Israel some more time.”
M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington-based group working to restore US support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, dismisses the Christian Zionist lobby as a pilot fish alongside the great white shark of AIPAC. “I think that the only effective pro-Israel lobby is the Jewish pro-Israel lobby,” Rosenberg told me. “And that’s because the right-wing Christians are Republicans. Israel tends to not even be their main issue; they have abortion and gay marriage higher on their radar. What makes the Jewish pro-Israel lobby more influential is that their people give their donations to anyone who is effective on the issue, Democrat or Republican. These people [Christian Zionists] are locked into Republicans.”
But Brog maintains that CUFI represents a novel phenomenon in evangelical politicking. Though CUFI’s constituency is almost entirely Republican, Brog says the success of its banquet reflects the increasing importance of Israel to evangelical voters. “It took AIPAC over fifteen years to get over 2,000 people to their annual policy conference. The fact that in five months that we got over 3,000 people to our conference and were turning people away–it sent a message. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, I support Israel among the other issues I support.’ It’s another to cancel your vacation and fly to Washington and say, ‘I’m here, I’m a Christian activist and Israel’s more important to me than any other issue.’ ”
Brog has revealed several “meet and greet” sessions between CUFI and the Bush Administration that highlight the elevated importance of Christian Zionism in GOP-dominated Washington. At the White House, Brog and CUFI’s representatives have professed their support for Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon and, in Brog’s words, “spoke to the Administration about Iran and the need to prevent arms from going to Iran and Hamas, and the need not to let any US aid go to Hamas.”
Brog explains that CUFI has become a valuable ally of AIPAC, which helps them coordinate lobbying efforts. “They have a great research staff,” he said. Brog has also earned the confidence of the Jewish Federation by making sure to elicit the cooperation of its local chapters before initiating a recruitment drive in the federation’s area. “I have absolutely no reservation about working with John Hagee,” Houston-area Jewish Federation CEO Lee Wunsch told the Jerusalem Post.
AIPAC spokesman Josh Block declined to answer questions about the extent of CUFI’s influence. But he offered a positive, if somewhat canned assessment of their lobbying efforts. “That organization is evidence of the broad American support for the US-Israel relationship that exists in every segment of American society,” Block told me. “AIPAC welcomes all organizations working to strengthen the bond between the United States and Israel.”
But CUFI is not just any pro-Israel organization.
Brog first encountered Hagee in 2005, shortly after Brog left his job as Senator Specter’s chief of staff. Both Brog and Hagee happened to be invited by evangelical publishing magnate Steven Strang to speak at an evangelical mega-church’s “Night to Honor Israel” in Orlando, Florida. At the time, Brog was “researching” a book he planned to write on evangelical-Jewish relations. “I was just curious,” he said, “are these guys really some evil people working for Armageddon as the media portrays them?”
Any concern in Brog’s mind that evangelicals harbored nihilistic motives for supporting Israel was dispelled, he says, once he and Hagee sat down and chatted. It was then that Hagee revealed his vision of a massive new Christian Zionist lobbying organization. Brog expressed enthusiasm for Hagee’s idea and touted his political experience. Hagee was sold. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “I thought it was the most important thing I could do, not only for Israel but for America,” Brog said of his decision to work for the preacher.
A speech in November 2005 by Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman blasting the Christian right as the “key domestic challenge to the American Jewish community” was the moment for Brog’s emergence. During the late 1990s, Foxman had heaped praise on Christian Zionists and paid to reprint a pro-Israel op-ed by Ralph Reed as a prominent ad in the New York Times. Foxman’s criticism provoked Brog to step forward in his new identity.
In an op-ed article published on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, he wrote: “There is indeed merit to the agenda pursued by Christian conservatives. Evangelical Christians are rock-solid supporters of Israel–a fact that the Jewish community has belatedly begun to acknowledge and appreciate.”
Brog’s rebuke to Foxman was echoed with a chorus of Christian-right outrage, including a blunt threat from Don Wildmon of the American Family Association. “The more [Foxman] says that ‘you people are destroying this country,’ ” Wildmon said during a radio broadcast, “[the more] some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, ‘Well, all right then. If that’s the way you feel, then we just won’t support Israel anymore.’ ”
Since the controversy stirred up by his comments, Foxman has muted his criticism of the Christian right. Even more, he has offered his qualified acceptance of CUFI. “On the one hand, we need to welcome him. On the other, we need to be cautious about embracing it,” Foxman said last month to the Jerusalem Post about Hagee and his organization.
Brog’s recently published book, Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State, expands his case for Jewish acceptance of evangelical political goals. Brog told National Review that his book has universal appeal and will help anyone to “better comprehend the birth pangs of what in time will be a very important alliance.” The phrase “birth pangs” is clearly understood by evangelicals as a scriptural citation from Matthew 24, which refers to the apocalyptic struggle that will usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Yet the thrust of Brog’s arguments is targeted toward a Jewish audience suspicious of evangelical motives. Brog’s thesis rests on the premise that while Islamic anti-Semitism poses an existential threat to Jews, Christian anti-Semitism is a bygone phenomenon that died the moment the Allies seized Hitler’s bunker.
To explain the psychology of those Jews who think otherwise, Brog invokes the stereotype of the shtetl Jew. “Many in the American Jewish community are also living in the past, stuck in European ghettos,” Brog wrote. “In an alternative reality built on traumatic communal memories, millions of Jews continue to crouch, fingers on their triggers, surrounded by bloodthirsty Christians who view them as a replaced, deicide people. Yet the world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and the enemy they fear has long since become a friend.” As proof, Brog cited the outpouring of evangelical support for Israel.
Despite his best efforts, Brog remains dogged by questions about evangelical reasons for backing Israel. Hagee has told his supporters that supporting Israel is a “biblical imperative,” and proudly pronounces his belief that Israel is the future site of the Rapture. Hagee has even reveled in events that most Israelis would describe as tragic. For instance, in his 1996 book The Beginning of the End, Hagee described the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as fulfillment of prophecy and suggested admiration for Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir.
Imagining Amir’s mindset as he prepared himself to kill Rabin, Hagee wrote, “Tonight, if God was good, an opportunity would show itself. No longer would Rabin be able to transfer Israeli lands to Palestinians. The damage he’d done in the West Bank and Gaza was enough. Israel had a divine right to the land, and to give it away was an act of treason against Israel and an abomination against God.”
More recently, some of Hagee’s allies, such as nationally syndicated evangelical radio host Janet Parshall, became ecstatic when Israel and Hezbollah commenced hostilities last month. “These are the times we’ve been waiting for,” Parshall told her listeners in a voice brimming with joy on July 21. “This is straight out of a Sunday school lesson.”
Brog dismisses concerns about the Christian Zionists’ fixation on end times as a “misreading of Christian theology. “One sign of the Second Coming is that there will be widespread moral decay in society,” Brog told me. “If Christians really thought they could speed the Second Coming, then why aren’t Christians out there opening brothels and selling drugs? Quite to the contrary and quite to the chagrin of many liberals, they are doing the opposite.”
Thanks to Brog’s parrying of Jewish criticism and securing the cooperation of major Jewish organizations, his “brother” Hagee faces few repercussions as he prays for Armageddon. With local CUFI chapters growing across the country, a “rapid response network” of thousands of pastors developing, and an open door to the White House, Brog and Hagee are planning for the long term. “We want to speak to Washington and encourage support for Israel whatever the conflict may be,” Brog said. He paused, adding, “Provided of course that Israel’s cause continues to be just.”
But the renewal of the peace process and rolling back the West Bank settlements would be an unjust cause. For Hagee and for CUFI, all roads lead to a “nuclear showdown: with Iran. Diplomacy would only make God angry. As Hagee warns in Jerusalem Countdown, “Those who follow a policy of opposition to God’s purposes will receive the swift and severe judgment of God without limitation.”