Fundamental faux-pas

Prominent American Evangelical leader Pat Robertson made an about-face this week, apologizing for saying that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was "divine retribution" for his having evacuated the Gaza Strip. Robertson's initial remarks prompted a wave of condemnation from the White House, the Israeli Embassy in Washington and from many Jewish and Christian leaders. They also led to a threat on Israel's part to sever cooperation with Robertson on the construction of a state-of-the-art Christian heritage park in the north of the country. Many evangelical groups - as well as some nationalist Jews - see withdrawal from Gaza as a retreat from a biblical prophecy of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. Some fundamentalist Christian and Jewish leaders even blamed American backing of the pullout for last year's Hurricane Katrina. Robertson's comments, which he retracted following the public outcry against them, were considered by some to be "no slip of the tongue," but rather the result of deep-seated fundamentalist ideology. "These are not really the opinions of one man alone," said Malcolm Hedding, the executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, adding, "One needs to be careful about playing God." Yet, while distancing his organization from Robertson's statements, Hedding also credited the evangelist for having "the courage and humility" to apologize. Abe Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League and a longtime Robertson critic, said that he was not surprised by the "hutzpa" of the televangelist. "I was shocked but not surprised that Pat Robertson once again has suggested that God will punish Israel's leaders for any decision to give up land to the Palestinians. His remarks are un-Christian and a perversion of religion," he said. In contrast, long-time Robertson supporter MK Benny Elon, who has worked closely to strengthen Israel's ties with the Christian Evangelical world, called the remarks "insensitive" and "a tactical mistake." In a letter of apology sent to Sharon's family, Robertson said his remarks had been "inappropriate and insensitive" and asked for forgiveness, prompting Israel to reconsider its decision to break off ties with the popular Evangelical leader.