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On a summer evening in 2002, the Zionist Organization of America held its annual banquet, the occasion for bestowing its Israel Friendship Award. The honor went to Rev. Pat Robertson, the television evangelist and political activist who was perhaps the most visible public face of Christian Zionism.
At that particular moment in time, one could argue, Jews in both Israel and America could not afford to be especially finicky in choosing their allies. In the aftermath of the bloodiest month of suicide bombings during the Aksa intifada, the IDF had invaded and reoccupied the West Bank in early April, earning the predictable international condemnation. The chorus only grew in response to the reports, ultimately discredited, that Israeli troops had massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Jenin.
So not only were the geopolitical right-wingers on hand that night in suburban Chicago, led by Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America's president. Not only were those Jews involved in building a political coalition with evangelical Christians, such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. So was David Roet, the deputy consul-general of Israel in the Midwest, embodying the government of Ariel Sharon.
Three-and-a-half years and a disengagement from Gaza later, Robertson's honor stands as vivid evidence of why Jews ought to treat Christian Zionism with equal measures of gratitude and wariness. As an axiom I learned from a community organizer puts it, "No permanent friends, no permanent enemies."
By now, most sensate Jews have heard of Robertson's comments last week on his television show, The 700 Club. Likening Sharon's incapacitating stroke to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Robertson explained, "He was dividing God's land. And I would say, 'Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or the United States of America.' God says, 'This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.'"
THE STATEMENT is as illuminating as it is repugnant, and what it illuminates is the contingency of Christian Zionist support. By its very theological absolutism, Christian Zionism amounts to a very unreliable partner. As long as Israeli Jews play their ordained role in the eschatological plan, resettling the entire Land as a precondition for the Second Coming - when, by the way, they presumably will either become Christians or die as heathens - the Pat Robertsons will remain steadfast. Should the actually existing Israel make compromises on territory in order to preserve a Jewish majority and create a more secure border, enter the avenging hand of the Almighty.
Long before gloating over Sharon's collapse, Robertson had more than amply demonstrated his penchant for outrageous and offensive rhetoric, comparing feminists to witches, for instance, and urging the assassination of the leftist leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. In a 1993 interview with the columnist Molly Ivins, nearly a decade before the Zionist Organization of America saw fit to fete him, Robertson had the audacity to compare the Nazi extermination of European Jewry to what American liberals were doing to evangelical Christians.
"It's no different," he said. "It is the same thing. It is happening all over again."
This penchant for noxious rhetoric typifies other mainstays of Christian Zionism. Rev. Jerry Falwell, like Robertson one of the most prominent figures in the Religious Right, infamously blamed the September 11 attacks on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians" as well as "all of them who have tried to secularize America."
Words like that tend to take a wee bit of the satisfaction out of hearing Falwell say, "To stand against Israel is to stand against God."
I am hardly arguing for Jewish Zionists to spurn their Christian comrades. The emergence of philo-Semitism among evangelical Christians represents a welcome and reassuring reversal both of a longtime strain of anti-Jewish sentiment among fundamentalist Christians and of the currently trendy support for disinvestment from Israel by traditionally liberal mainstream Protestant denominations. Christian Zionists have worked closely and admirably with American Jews on calling international attention to the genocide in Darfur. Personally, I will always remember the sight of several dozen Christians on a solidarity mission to Israel in a departure lounge at Newark airport, as footage of the Dolphinarium suicide-bombing showed on the CNN monitors. There was scarcely an American Jew booked on that flight.
MEANWHILE, Robertson has apologized for his remarks about Sharon, just as he has apologized for similar effusions in the past. Several leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals have taken pains to distance themselves from Robertson, implying that his ilk is losing influence and passing from the Christian scene. For their part, Israelis may be inclined to shrug off Robertson's comments as they have shrugged off similar calumnies from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
For Jews who think God cried when Gush Katif was evacuated, and for Jews who share the puritanical social agenda of the Religious Right, Christian Zionism is an uncomplicated asset. For the rest of us, the common-sense centrists in Israeli and American Jewry who saw in Ariel Sharon the expression of our beliefs, the passion of Pat Robertson must be, if you'll forgive the phrase, a mixed blessing.
The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His most recent book is Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life.