McCain rejects support of controversial pro-Zionist pastor John Hagee

Televangelist said God sent Holocaust to bring Jews to Israel.

Mccain 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mccain 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
- Comments about Hitler and the Holocaust by controversial Christian Zionist leader Pastor John Hagee have caused Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain to sever ties with him, while some Jewish leaders are questioning the growing nexus of relations with the pastor and his organization Christians United for Israel. Since gaining Hagee's endorsement in February, McCain has been under mounting pressure to cut ties with the pastor - who leads a Texas megachurch with a congregation numbering tens of thousands and an even wider television audience - because of controversial comments Hagee has made about the Catholic Church. The latest Hagee incident followed newly resurfaced audio recordings of a sermon from the late 1990s in which the CUFI leader likened Adolf Hitler to a "hunter" sent by God to hasten the return of Jews to Israel. Citing Jeremiah, Hagee said: "Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter... How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.'" He goes on: "Theodore Herzl is the father of Zionism. He was a Jew who at the turn of the 19th century said, this land is our land, God wants us to live there. So he went to the Jews of Europe and said 'I want you to come and join me in the land of Israel.' So few went that Herzl went into depression. Those who came founded Israel; those who did not went through the hell of the Holocaust." News of these comments caused McCain to reject Hagee's endorsement on Thursday. "Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," said McCain. "I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well." Shortly after McCain's announcement, Hagee withdrew his endorsement, saying that critics had been "grossly misrepresenting" his positions. Jewish leaders have largely remained silent, not wanting to forgo the political support Hagee has given to Israel and the millions of dollars he has managed to raise for humanitarian causes in Israel. Since it was revived by Hagee in 2006, CUFI has also lobbied Washington on Israel's behalf and garnered increasing support from Jewish leaders. Last year, Hagee was a keynote speaker at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But some Jewish leaders, most notably president of United Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, have cautioned against ties with the pastor. Earlier this week, Yoffie wrote a public letter to Hagee demanding an explanation of his "Holocaust theology." "What he is saying is that because Jews didn't respond to Herzl, God sends Hitler," Yoffie told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. "That is offensive beyond words. From a theological point of view, the notion that God intentionally inflicts punishment on millions of people, is obviously something that is simply obscene." This is the second time in a matter of weeks that the two religious leaders have butted heads. At a conference of Reform rabbis last month, Yoffie criticized Hagee over comments he made about the Catholic Church and over his political positions on Israel. Yoffie has consistently called Hagee an "extremist" and cautioned Jews to be wary of his support. "Extremist elements in the religious community are not good allies for us, because they discredit us in the eyes of the American people, and undermine our credibility," said Yoffie. "In the final analysis we are moderate, and for us to be identified with extremists undercuts our credibility, and fundamental effectiveness on behalf of Israel. We have succeeded by being moderate and bipartisan." More generally, Yoffie said religious leaders should not be endorsing candidates. While Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he found Hagee's remarks "offensive," he does not "question motives for support of Israel." Foxman has been an outspoken defender of the growing relations between Jewish and pro-Israel groups and Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. This incident should be a call "for some introspection, and for Hagee to reexamine his beliefs," said Foxman. Hagee has since said his words have been "mischaracterized and attacked." "Let me be clear - to assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the worst of lies," Hagee said in a press conference Friday. "I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms." Hagee spoke of [his] life as dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and supporting Israel, at times when doing so was unpopular. "In taking a stand for Israel, I have received death threats from anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, and I've had the windows of my car blown out beneath the windows of the rooms in which my children slept," said Hagee. "To hear people who know nothing about me or my life's work claim that I somehow excuse the Holocaust is simply heartbreaking." Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg of the Rodfei Shalom congregation in San Antonio, Texas, who spoke with Hagee at Friday's press conference, called attacks on the pastor "ironic," given that "several legitimate Jewish authorities" have made similar interpretations of biblical verses. "It is ironic and absurd that when [Hagee] was lecturing on one of the Jewish perspectives of the Holocaust, his words were twisted and used to attack him for being anti-Semitic," said Sheinberg. "Pastor Hagee said nothing of the kind. Pastor interpreted a biblical verse in a way not very different from several legitimate Jewish authorities. Viewing Hitler as acting completely outside of God's plan is to suggest that God was powerless to stop the Holocaust, a position quite unacceptable to any religious Jew or Christian." CUFI executive director David Brog said it was an "exaggeration" to call Hagee's words "hateful or illegitimate." "This goes back to the age-old question of why a loving God would permit suffering," said Brog. "In seeking to answer that question, many Orthodox Jews and devout Christians have looked to the Bible, and Hagee thought he found some answers in Jeremiah." What is far more important, said Brog, is what people are doing to prevent a second Holocaust. "Hagee has devoted his life to preventing anti-Semitism, and mobilizing millions to stand with the Jewish people. Whether we agree with his attempt to find answers in the Bible or not," said Brog, "he is devoting himself to the cause with everything he's got."