(photo credit: AP [file])
Christian supporters of Israel who gathered in Washington last week did not just sit through policy briefings and lobbying sessions; they danced the hora, blew a shofar, sang Hatikva and celebrated all that they love about Israel.
Whether repeatedly standing up to cheer for speakers or dancing to Israeli tunes, the over 4,000 animated attendees of the fourth annual Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Washington conference made their passion for the State of Israel absolutely clear.
For two days, the participants learned about Israel, its history, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, how to effectively defend Israel, what America's government should do, how to deal with Iran and how to lobby elected officials. On Wednesday participants met with their elected officials in Congress to voice their support for Israel.
"We're here to tell you and the people of Israel that there are 50 million Christians in this nation who support you and the State of Israel," said CUFI founder John Hagee to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who joined the conference via satellite.
"Your unwavering friendship strengthens us," said Netanyahu, noting that CUFI is helping open a new chapter in Jewish-Christian relations.
Within the Jewish community, there has been disagreement over how to deal with this vocal support.
The most common concerns expressed are that CUFI supports Israel in order to bring about Jesus's "second coming"; that the organization is too right-wing politically and that allying with a group with controversial views on a range of other issues might hurt the community.
In response to The Israel Project's Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi's decision to speak at the CUFI conference, left-wing Israel advocate J Street, on its blog, asked, "Does allying the pro-Israel community further with Pastor John Hagee by appearing at his conference hurt or help [Israel's cause]?"
Laszlo Mizrahi said that in her quest to form an effective Israel coalition, she does not rule out allies because of their views on other issues.
"The fact that I am speaking at a CUFI event doesn't mean that I endorse every thought all their leaders ever had," she said in an e-mail, echoing the sentiments of other Jewish organizations who cooperate with CUFI on Israel advocacy while setting aside other differences.
For their part, CUFI agrees that groups should join it in support of Israel, even of their views on other issues do not line up. Leaders did make clear, however, that CUFI has no conversion goals.
As for the "end of days" theory, Western Regional Coordinator Randy Neal said that while some people do believe that the second coming will occur when all the Jews inhabit the land of Israel, "That's not what drives us."
"What drives us is the biblical mandate to stand with Israel and the Jewish people," said Neal.
Speakers at the conference also acknowledged that the Jewish community is justified in being initially skeptical of Christians suddenly forming a strong coalition in support of Israel.
"Christians have brought it on themselves," said Florida Director Pastor Scott Thomas, referencing historical Christian violence towards Jews.
Founded in 2006, CUFI now claims over 220,000 followers throughout the US.
Recurring themes brought up by most of the conference speakers were the many aspects of Israel's right to exist and expand, a sense that the Obama administration was unfairly pressuring Israel to stop expanding and an urgent need to address Iran.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, joined in criticizing Obama's Middle East policy. He said he did not believe in Obama's theory that sowing some discord between America and Israel will give America legitimacy to negotiate with Arab states.
While CUFI is still confident of its ability to advocate for Israel under the Obama administration and a heavily Democratic Congress, some experts and CUFI leaders expressed concerns that with the current political climate, advocating CUFI's position might become slightly more difficult. However, there was no doubt that Congress remains a strong ally of Israel.
"Support for Israel in America I think has been so strong largely because Americans have been so pro-Israel, and we dare not let that erode," CUFI Executive Director David Brog said.
To continue advocating for Israel, CUFI's newest frontiers are establishing CUFI chapters on college campuses and pioneering the first CUFI trip to Poland and Israel, to take place this year.
"We want to broaden our base in three ways: We want to broaden it theologically, demographically, and politically," Brog said.
At the Night to Honor Israel, Sen. Joseph Lieberman was given the Defender of Israel Award.
"This [convention] is a miracle," said Lieberman, who has previously spoken at the conference. "It is all of you... who are the most important defenders of Israel."
Ambassador to the US Michael Oren and Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov expressed similar sentiments in their remarks.
Israel is also trying to reach out to the Christian community, establishing the Prime Minister's Task Force on Global Christian Relationships, on which Hagee will serve.