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(photo credit: Courtesy)
SAN ANTONIO - The curtain rose to a hundred performers singing "Hinei Ma Tov" as the audience swayed back and forth and clapping their hands. They remained standing through "Hatikva," declarations of support for Israel, and a duet of "Jerusalem of Gold."
And when the evening closed - on a prayer for the State of Israel - 6,000 people, all but a few of them evangelical Christians, streamed out of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.
On Sunday night, Pastor John Hagee, head of the Cornerstone Church and a founding member of Christians United for Israel, hosted his 26th annual "Night to Honor Israel." It was a massive multimedia extravaganza of music, skits, speeches and dance, broadcast live throughout the world and attended by Israeli representatives and community leaders from the Jewish Federation of Houston.
The event aimed to show solidarity between the evangelical community and the State of Israel, which Hagee calls the "apple of God's eye." It also reminded anyone listening that God's politics are very, very specific.
"I am concerned about this upcoming so-called peace summit," Hagee thundered from the pulpit, referring to the Middle East conference planned for next month in Annapolis, Maryland.
He's a big, rotund man, and his voice echoed throughout the megachurch's enormous sanctuary. "America must never pressure Israel to give up land. It must never pressure her to divide Jerusalem. Turning Jerusalem over to the Palestinians is tantamount to giving it to the Taliban," he said.
Hagee has been throwing "Nights to Honor Israel" for a long time, ever since the upswing of anti-Zionism following Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor convinced him he had to speak out in defense of the Jewish state.
In the intervening years, he has become the most outspoken and influential of America's evangelical Christian Zionists. His television and radio ministry reaches 99 million homes each week. He says he aims to "bring Jews and Christians together," and refers sweepingly to the "Judeo-Christian faith."
That quarter-century's practice has given the night a quality of polished extravagance.
Everything was big and loud, from the red-carpeted church to the 100-member choir to the amount of money donated. John Hagee Ministries gave more than $8.5 million, most which came from private donations, to Israeli causes from the Israel National Autism Foundation to the city of Ariel's Development Fund. Over $6m. went to aliya organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and Exodus II.
"We love you because you are a man of God," said Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, as he accepted a check for a million dollars on behalf of Nefesh B'Nefesh.
"Within the last 50 years," Ayalon said, "we have gathered in the Jews from the North, from the East, from the South. Now, with the help of our Christian allies, we are going to finish this job and bring the Jews from the West as well."
Despite its focus on Israeli culture and Jewish history, the Night to Honor Israel was aimed squarely at Evangelicals. There was no better reminder of this than the "Song of Zion," a history of the Jewish people told with video, live music and interpretive dance.
According to the presentation, today's Jewish state is but a continuation of the Israel of the Old Testament. The country it describes is romanticized and biblical, all beards and harps and attractive dancing girls in flowing robes and sparkling tinsel breastplates. It jumps suddenly from exile to return to exile, presenting the Holocaust and the rebirth of the state as but the most recent phases in that cycle, the one the sole cause behind the other. It ends on a high note in 1948, with an Israel that is strong and secure. There is no mention of wars or conflicts or politics.
If there was one thing missing from the evening, it was nuance. Everyone spoke in superlatives, from Hagee to Jewish talk-show host and keynote speaker Dennis Prager to the Israeli government representatives. According to Prager, who gave a half-hour address on the perils of American secularism and the need for a "Judeo-Christian alliance" to fight it, Hagee's Evangelicals are "the backbone of this country."
"You are the Jews' best friends in the world," he said.
A common thread ran throughout the night, echoed by Israeli delegates, Jewish community leaders and Hagee himself.
"Jews look around the world today," the pastor said, "searching for allies. You look at the United Nations, that new Tower of Babel. You look to Europe, where the specter of Hitler walks anew.
You look to the universities, with their professors backed by Arab money. A new Holocaust seems around the corner. You feel alone.
"But on behalf of 50 million Evangelicals," he finished, to shouts of "Amen" and wild applause, "I tell you: Israel is not alone!"
The audience cheered thunderously, shouting agreement from every corner of the church.
Hagee gets a lot of audience participation. The crowd cheered when he talked about God's plan and when he spoke of the need for Israel to stand strong against Iran. When he talked about Israel giving up land, they yelled "No!" When the band struck up "Blow the Trumpet in Zion," a martial evangelical hymn, they danced wildly in the aisles.
"Pastor Hagee is a spiritual leader who personifies the words of the living God," said Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg in his an opening speech. "I thank God for the unity of Jews and Christians in love and respect." The head of San Antonio's Rodfei Shalom congregation, Scheinberg has partnered with Hagee on the Nights to Honor Israel since they began.
Hagee has become known for his outspoken views on social issues and foreign policy. At last year's AIPAC policy conference in Washington, he called for America to launch a preemptive attack on Iran. And while he has been a self proclaimed "friend of the Jews" since a visit to Israel in 1978, his views on salvation are very definite.
According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, in a sermon last November, Hagee said, "If you live your life and don't confess your sins to God almighty through the authority of Christ and his blood - I'm going to say this very plainly - you're going straight to hell with a nonstop ticket."
His message now is a little different. "It is wonderful to see Christians and Jews coming together to stand together and be together forever," the pastor said Sunday night. "We have far more in common than the things that we have allowed to tear us apart."
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