Born-Again Zionists

Christian conservatives are teaming with hard-line Jewish groups to transform American policy toward Israel.

Evangelical leader Pat Robertson addresses a crowd of thousands of evangelical Christians who gathered in Israel.Kevin Unger-KPA/ZUMA

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Nearly three decades after leaving his job as a marketing manager at Colgate-Palmolive, Ed McAteer, considered one of the godfathers of the modern Religious Right, still sounds like a salesman. In a well-honed patter, he tells of introducing Jerry Falwell to then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, discussing spiritual matters with Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft, and helping organize the evangelical movement that has become the most powerful grassroots component of the Republican Party. But no subject excites the 76-year-old born-again Baptist more than his unequivocal love for the Jewish people and the state of Israel, and his increasingly influential role as one of the nation’s leading “Christian Zionists.”

The passion of McAteer, a gregarious man with a toothy smile and thinning wisps of brushed-back hair, is evident during a prayer breakfast in May for more than 200 people at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. “I am delighted and thrilled and just pumped up to be here,” McAteer tells the crowd in a Tennessee drawl, nearly bouncing behind a podium backed by brightly colored banners celebrating the biblical tribes of Israel. Before him sits the self-described inner circle of Christian Zionism: pastors, preachers, and religious activists who quietly but effectively lobby for Israel. With a born-again Christian in the White House and events in the Middle East spinning out of control, McAteer recognizes the power of those in the room to influence U.S. policy on behalf of Israel. “The best friends that Israel has are those people who believe the Bible does not contain the word of God, but that the Bible is the word of God,” he announces to the faithful.

When McAteer left the business world in 1976 to help organize the Christian right, the idea of the Israeli government working hand in hand with conservative Christians would have been difficult to imagine. At that time, some evangelical groups were openly anti-Semitic and associated with the John Birch Society and other far-right groups. Today, though, Christian conservatives provide Israel—and in particular the hard-line Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—with its most important political support in the United States. They oppose Israel ceding land to the Palestinians and are pressuring the Bush administration to close Palestinian offices in the United States. They also have close ties to GOP congressional leaders and to a group of high-ranking hawks in the Pentagon—led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—that some D.C. insiders call the “Kosher Nostra.” “They are very vocal and have shifted the center of gravity toward Israel and against concessions,” says Doug Bandow, an evangelical who serves as a senior fellow at the conservative Cato Institute. “It colors the environment in which decisions are being made.” Indeed, thanks to the top-level connections and grassroots activism of evangelical Christians, U.S. policy in the Middle East has never been so closely aligned with Israel as it is under the administration of George W. Bush. As the conflict in the Mideast has heated up, even some of the Jewish state’s most ardent supporters have been surprised by the president’s strong pro-Israel stance.

Given the influence of conservative Chris-tians, it’s no surprise that the Israeli Embas-sy has an “Office of Interreligious Affairs” that hosts monthly briefings for evangelicals, welcomes church bus tours, and organizes breakfasts. Church leaders listening to McAteer this morning have flown to Washington at their own expense to represent congregations as far-flung as California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Florida. They wear American and Israeli flag pins they received at the door from embassy officials, and each will take home a short video showing Israeli soldiers fraternizing with monks last spring outside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. Following a rousing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” they sing “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem, and listen to several Christian compositions, including a Pat Boone original, “Israel O Blessed Israel.”

In public, Israeli diplomats usually speak in the secular language of international politics, but here before a group of Christian

believers they talk of biblical prophecy. “It is no coincidence that our prayers for Christians and Jews complement each other,” Moshe Fox, the embassy’s minister of public affairs, tells the audience. He quotes extensively from the Old Testament, in which God promises the Jews a land flowing with milk and honey, before adding, “I call on you to carry this prayer and help turn this divine promise into a reality.”

Those gathered at the embassy are eager to take up the call. As they see it, America and Israel are both engaged in a religious war against terrorism. That makes the two countries natural allies, says Gary Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, who follows McAteer to the podium. “I have been asked over and over again with this puzzlement, ‘Why are you standing with Israel, Mr. Bauer, you, an evangelical Christian?'” he says, his short stature belied by a delivery honed during his 2000 presidential campaign. “Well my goodness, why would we not stand with Israel? Why would we not stand with the nation in the Middle East that is a democracy? Why would we not stand with the nation about which God says, ‘If you bless it I will bless you, and if you curse it I will curse you’? That’s good enough for me. I don’t need anything else.”

“Amen,” replies his audience, some nodding their heads in agreement, their eyes closed. Many attending the breakfast are part of a significant wing of the evangelical movement known as “dispensationalists.” They work to support Israel, ironically, because they believe it will lead to the ultimate triumph of Christianity. For them, the ongoing crisis in the Mideast has been prophe-sized in the Bible: After Jews reclaim the Holy Land, nonbelievers—including Jews and Muslims—will perish in Armageddon, and Jesus will return as the Messiah to lead his followers to heaven. “I’ve read the end of the book,” says evangelist Janet Parshall, another speaker, whose daily radio program is syndicated to 3.5 million Christian listeners nationwide. “I know what happens.”

IN WASHINGTON, the “Israel lobby” has traditionally been synonymous with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an organization headed and largely directed by American Jews. Rightfully considered to be one of the most powerful organizations in the capital, AIPAC has 130 employees, including seven full-time lobbyists, and its members shower Democrats and Republicans with millions of dollars in political contributions. In recent years, though, evangelicals—who dwarf the number of American Jews—have played an increasingly important role in building political support for Israel.

The active alliance between evangelical Christians, American Jewish organizations, and conservative Israeli leaders dates to the tenure of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who took office in 1977. Begin and his Likud Party used religious arguments to justify confiscation of Arab land and shared in common with American evangelicals—though not most American Jews—highly conservative views on social questions like abortion and welfare. Begin cultivated ties to emerging evangelical leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, honoring him with a dinner in New York in 1980 and presenting him with a Learjet for his efforts on behalf of Israel. Since then, all subsequent Likud prime ministers have carefully strengthened ties to American evangelicals. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu created the Israel Christian Advocacy Council and flew 17 Christian leaders to Israel, where they signed a pledge that “America never, never desert Israel.” And in December 2000, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aleading hawk in the Bush administration, spoke to thousands of supporters of Israel at an April rally.

Evangelicals “are fervently pro-Israel within the high councils of the Republican Party,” says a former Christian Coalition lobbyist, “and their views have probably sharpened the president’s own thinking.”

Sharon addressed a group of 1,500 Christian Zionists who had traveled to Jerusalem, saying, “We regard you to be one of our best friends in the world.”

But it is only in the past year—since the election of Bush and the attacks of September 11—that conservative Christians have put support for Israel near the top of their political agenda, helping to push the Bush administration to side firmly with Sharon and to pressure the Palestinians to replace Yasser Arafat. Well-known figures like Falwell and Pat Robertson have been at the forefront, but dozens of other evangelical leaders and organizations are active across the country. McAteer runs a Memphis-based political network that raises money for the Christian right and introduces candidates to Israeli leaders; in April, he and five other evangelicals sent a letter to Bush urging him to “stand with our friend and ally Israel as they attempt to defeat the same forces of terrorism that we have been battling since September 11.” A minister near Denver, George Morrison, raises support for Israel through his church and helped organize a national conference in June attended by 600 evangelicals. Also attending the event was Esther Levens, an elderly Jewish woman from Kansas City who brings together disparate groups of Christian Zionists through the National Unity Coalition for Israel. Levens founded the group after she saw a poll declaring that 70 percent of Americans supported Israel. “I knew that only 2 percent of Americans were Jewish,” she says, “so I thought, ‘Why not go and try to find the other 68 percent?'”

Some conservative Christians have visions of growing even more influential than AIPAC when it comes to American policy in the Mideast. Richard Hellman, a former GOP Senate staffer and born-again Pentecostal, hopes to organize at least 7 million followers as members of his lobbying group, Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign. “Someone once referred to us as AIPAC’s little echo,” Hellman says with a laugh. “Maybe we’ll turn out to be the echo that roared.”

Lobbying by conservative Christians has already proved vital to Israel, especially during its recent military campaign. Marshall Wittmann, a former top lobbyist with the Christian Coalition and veteran of the elder Bush’s administration, credits evangelicals with getting their message directly to the White House and says that they are in con-stant communication with Bush’s political director, Karl Rove. “These folks are fervently pro-Israel within the high councils of the Republican Party, and their views have probably sharpened the president’s own thinking,” Wittmann says. “He personally identifies with the born-again evangelicals within his own party.”

Unlike his father, who is generally viewed as the president whose policies were least sympathetic to Israel, Bush has taken an increasingly hard-line stance against the Palestinians. In April, the White House issued what was widely seen as a halfhearted call for Sharon to withdraw his forces from the West Bank. When the Israeli leader refused to do so, the administration continued to hold Arafat responsible for almost all of the violence between the two sides, eventually calling for his removal as head of the Palestinian Authority.

Of course, the administration’s pro-Israel stance is not entirely the result of evangelical lobbying. Israel has long been the largest recipient of American aid, receiving $3 billion last year. “The evangelicals are important,” says former CIA director James Woolsey, an adviser to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, “but less in a political sense than as a reflection of the widespread support that Israel has in this country.”

Yet with the election of Bush, evangelical activists enjoy unprecedented influence among top administration officials. “No one has a monopoly on the ear of this president, but he is more receptive to the pro-Israel message than his predecessors,” says Rand Fishbein, a lobbyist and consultant for defense contractors and the U.S. Army. “And in this administration, there are more avenues to get that message to decision makers.” Conservative Christians have especially close ties to a group of hawks within the administration led by Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, two of the highest-ranking Pentagon officials after Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Feith, perhaps the administration’s most fervent supporter of Israel, has said the Israelis should reoccupy all lands ceded to the Palestinian Authority, even though “the price in blood… would be high.” Before joining the administration, Feith was honorary policy chairman of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, and chaired the board of a pro-Israel think tank called the Center for Security Policy.

Frank Gaffney Jr., an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan who runs the Center for Security Policy, notes that hard-line supporters of Israel now find their views welcomed at the White House. “It’s the old issue of pushing on an open door,” says Gaffney. “You are seeing American government policy being profoundly influenced by beliefs that are shared by the pushers outside and the people on the inside.”

CHRISTIAN EVANGELICALS also wield considerable influence in Congress, where they have won support for Israel even among lawmakers who represent states with relatively small Jewish pop-ulations. The two top GOP leaders in the House—Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay—are among Israel’s staunchest advocates on Capitol Hill, despite coming from Texas, a state where Jews represent less than 1 percent of the population. DeLay agrees with hawkish Israelis that the West Bank and Golan Heights are part of Israel rather than occupied territories, and Armey has advocated forcibly removing Palestinians from the West Bank and relocating them to Arab countries.

Lobbying by conservative Christians has also provided GOP leaders in the Senate with a way to wrap their support for Israel in biblical terms. In March, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he said that he supports Israel because it is a strategic ally, a “roadblock” to terrorism, and “because God said so.” There’s probably no one in Con-gress closer to Israel than conservative Sen-ator Sam Brownback of Kansas—a state with 14,500 Jews, 0.5 percent of the population, most of whom haven’t voted for him. A former Brownback staffer, Shari Dollinger, now handles outreach to the evangelical community for the Israeli Embassy. “Christian conservatives provide the political base for most Republicans,” says one GOP staffer. “Many of these guys, especially the leadership, are real believers in this stuff, and so are their constituents.”

Backed by evangelical Christians, conservatives in Congress have worked to drive American policy in the Middle East to the right, taking even more of a pro-Israel stance than the administration. In April, Secretary of State Colin Powell met privately with Senate and House conservatives and asked them to withdraw resolutions in support of Israel’s incursion into the West Bank, saying they would complicate efforts to broker peace talks. Votes on the resolutions were postponed for a week, but were then approved despite White House objections.

Liberal Jewish groups, who favor a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, are alarmed by the political impact of evangelicals. “They see any concession as a threat to Israel, and in this way they strengthen the hard-liners in Israel and the United States,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “That may make it difficult for the peace process to go forward.”

But on the whole, American Jewish groups have increasingly accepted Christian support. In 1999, when Falwell declared that the Antichrist is alive and Jewish, the Anti-Defamation League charged that his remarks were “rooted in Christian theological extremism” and bordered “on anti-Semitism at best and [are] anti-Semitic at worst.” Recently, however, the ADL has remained silent on Falwell and in May ran an advertisement in major newspapers that reprinted an article written by Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, that was titled “We People of Faith Stand Firmly With Israel.” And in July, the Zionist Organization of America honored Pat Robertson for his work on behalf of Israel.

The group’s president, Morton Klein, insists that anti-Jewish sentiment among Christian conservatives is mostly a thing of the past. “You find hints of anti-Semitism among many non-Jewish groups, and a few evangelicals may have anti-Jewish feelings,” he says. “But I have spoken to dozens of Christian Zionist groups and I have never encountered any anti-Semitism, and I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. Instead, I have found a great love of the Jewish people. I’m thrilled they are helping Israel and I think they are doing a great job. They are more pro-Israel and pro-Zionist than most Jews.”

Jewish leaders also tend to downplay the theological beliefs of Christian Zionists, many of whom believe that the Jews will eventually be destroyed in Armageddon. In fact, the more devout fundamentalists say that once Jews establish complete control of the Holy Land, Christ will stage his Second Coming; then Christians will be “raptured” to heaven, and many Jews who survive the ensuing apocalypse will convert to Christianity, thus fulfilling God’s original cove-nant with the Jews.

That’s a risk that Jewish leaders like Morton Klein are happy to take, given the political clout of evangelicals. “I am willing to make this deal: If they continue to support Israel’s prosperity, security, and survival, then if Jesus comes back in the future I will join their parade,” Klein says. “Hey, if I was wrong, no problem.”

EVANGELICAL LEADERS are waging a two-front campaign for Israel, lobbying Washington while rallying financial and political support across the country. The day after attending the prayer breakfast at the Israeli Embassy, Ed McAteer returns to Memphis, where a pro-Israel rally has been organized by the Memphis Jewish Federation, a local charity that provides social services. Unlike their counterparts who had organized similar rallies in New York and Boston, Jewish leaders here in the buckle of the Bible Belt have reached out to the city’s Christian leaders for support. “It’s very important for all faiths to know the issues that unite us,” Andrew Groveman, president-elect of the Jewish Federation, says before the rally. “We’re all good people of the Book. It’s just a question about whether it is a different Book.”

The advertised speakers include as many pastors as rabbis, as well as two congressmen with solid Christian constituencies, Ed Bryant and Harold Ford Jr. As people filter in holding signs that read “Bless Israel, Bless Sharon” and “Arafat Is a Muharib” (an Arabic word for “enemy”), a video plays over and over showing gruesome montages of the Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombings. The Likud mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, appears live via satellite to assure the crowd that his city stands strong and “undivided.”

The Christian ranks add hundreds to the standing-room-only crowd of 2,000. Thomas Lindberg, pastor of the Memphis First Assembly of God Church, tells those assembled about a tour he led to Israel last year. “We felt that special nature that God has put upon that land, and given to his people, the Jewish people of the world. And let me say today that we—and when I say ‘we,’ I represent the Assemblies of God here in America, three and a half million of us, 42 million Assemblies of God people around the globe—we love Israel.”

After the rally, McAteer makes clear that he and other evangelicals see their role in the current conflict less as peacemakers than as unflappable supporters of Israel. Like other conservative Christians, he believes that land now occupied by Israel should not be returned to the Palestinians. “That they get caught under some unfortunate circumstances, that doesn’t change the fact that the land doesn’t belong to them and they have no right to it,” McAteer says.

McAteer and other evangelical leaders believe that Arabs and Muslims can be traced back to Ishmael, the unfavored son of Abraham, who was promised by God vast land and resources but who would never be satis-fied with what he had. No matter how much good fortune Arabs receive, McAteer says, they will never know spiritual peace. “Find an Arab 6 feet, 4 inches tall,” he says. “Have him as handsome as Clark Gable. Give him a body like Charles Atlas. Give him the title to a $50 million mansion. Put him $100 million in the bank. And then, so that his resources will not be diminished, give him the title to 50 gushing oil wells. That man should be the ideal happy man, but he’s a Muslim. Have him stand on a little piece of geography called Israel that backs up between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and if he sees a Jew walk by, with all he’s got, all his happiness diminishes. He’s got fever in his soul.”

At day’s end, McAteer rushes over to B’rit Hadasha, a Memphis synagogue used by a local congregation of messianic Jews. This evening, evangelicals, including some from a group called Christian Friends of Israel, are meeting there. In recent years, the group raised $100,000 from local Christians to purchase an ambulance for Israel, organized a Holocaust memorial at a nearby Baptist church, and paid for 70 Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel. Now they are working with kindred spirits in Kentucky and Maine to start similar organizations in those states.

Prompted by McAteer, they rise one at a time from the synagogue’s gallery to testify to the work they have done for Israel. They speak about the letters they have written to Congress, the trips they have taken to the Holy Land, the relationships they have forged with Jewish neighbors. Here is the very engine of the vast political-religious machinery that McAteer has helped to organize—the local groups whose political activity is driven by an unwavering belief that this is God’s work. They have been charged by the Bible to love Israel, love the Jews, and await the return of their Savior. “We don’t have the answer,” says Emily Jo Greer, a member of the group. “George Bush does not have the answer. Arafat does not have the answer. Ariel Sharon does not have the answer. It’s going to be Jesus.”

Sharon Lindsay, a member of the congregation, says she looks for divine intervention when she watches the evening news. “When I see that the president of Saudi Arabia has come to make a peace plan and then has to leave because his brother has had a stroke, I wonder, ‘Is that the hand of God?’ And I am praying, not for my ideas of what should be, but for God’s will to triumph.”

“Amen,” says McAteer.

And with that, his most recent marathon of prayer and revival comes to an end. Mc-Ateer heads home, knowing that with ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the unwavering belief he witnessed in Washington and Memphis, God’s plan for Israel and the world is right on track.


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