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'The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel." So began a speech by Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United For Israel, before an AIPAC Policy Conference plenary earlier this week.
His address may not have received as much media attention as those by Richard Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu. It should have, however, because it could herald a critical new stage in the American-Israeli relationship.
The speech certainly did not lack clarity. "It is 1938," Hagee said, "Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran's nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East."
Neither, however, did he mince words regarding what any Jewish audience cannot help thinking when hearing such unabashed support from a Christian leader.
Hagee noted that those who committed the Holocaust were "baptized Christians ... in good standing with their Church." He continued: "Today I humbly ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for every act of anti-Semitism, and the deafening silence of Christians in your greatest hour of need, during the Holocaust. We were not there. We cannot change the past, but together we can shape the future. Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven."
The AIPAC audience granted Hagee multiple standing ovations. The Jewish people, some surely thought, has been waiting two millennia to hear such unalloyed words of contrition and support, and they could not have come at a more propitious time.
Understandably, offers of Christian assistance will continue to be met with a considerable degree of wariness. History aside, Jews and evangelical Christians are perhaps the ultimate "Odd Couple" -- culturally, religiously, politically and even geographically.
If all these obstacles are not enough, there is also Jewish concern regarding Christian motives, concern that necessitates careful consideration in building relationships. First, there is the suspicion that evangelicals, as their name implies, are out to convert Jews. Second, that their support is colored by doctrines of "rapture" and the apocalypse, in which a catastrophic global war plays an important part.
In a Jerusalem Post interview last year, Hagee responded that a growing majority of evangelicals no longer preach replacement theology - the doctrine that Christianity has replaced the Jewish people in the plans of God. As for himself, Hagee said further, "I do not target Jews for conversion." Nonetheless, he stressed, "If you come into my church, you are asking to hear my witness of Jesus Christ and you're going to get it, wide open."
"What is going to happen when Jesus comes back?" Hagee said, touching on the second sensitive point. "I say to my rabbi friends: 'You don't believe it; I do believe it. When we're standing in Jerusalem, and the Messiah is coming down the street, one of us is going to have a major theological adjustment to make. But until that time, let's walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people."
Hagee reports that CUFI now has 13 regional directors, 40 state directors, 80 city directors, and is aiming to organize in every Congressional district. After only four months in operation, CUFI brought 3,500 members to Washington, DC to lobby Congress last July. That is already over half the size of the AIPAC conference, and the numbers are growing quickly.
The objective, Hagee told AIPAC, is to signal to Congress that American support for Israel "is no longer just a Jewish issue, but a Christian-Jewish issue from this day forward." The political importance and value of such a transformation, if successful, is difficult to overstate.
Jews and evangelicals will never agree on many issues, but the one on which they do agree is of overwhelming importance. It is natural, given history, that Jews are wary even of a hand outstretched in friendship, and caution is justified. The Jewish people, however, cannot afford, and arguably does not have the right, to simply dismiss a significant potential ally.