Christians United For Israel has long been the largest pro-Israel group in the United States. The organization was founded by Pastor John Hagee in February 2006 in San Antonio. In a CUFI press release provided first to Right Turn, it announced its membership crossed the 2 million mark. That dwarfs the most prominent Jewish pro-Israel organizations. According to CUFI, it has “driven hundreds of thousands of emails to government officials, held 2,162 pro-Israel events in cities and towns across the country, garnered more than 1.2 million Facebook fans, brought 304 leading pastors to Israel on 12 Pastors Leadership Tours, has trained more 2,500 students on how best to stand with Israel, presently has recognized college chapters on 140 campuses as well as an active presence at an additional 163 universities.” It holds an annual summit in Washington where 4000 to 4500 pro-Israel activists attend a three-day program and then go to Capitol Hill to lobby members of both parties. It can boast that it has members from every congressional district in America.
Executive Director David Brog, in a phone interview, told me when CUFI started in 2006 its first task was to tap into what was already there. “Number one was taking present day deep support for Israel in the Christian community and organizing it.” Now, with a true grassroots movement behind it, CUFI is undertaking substantive internal discussions about either a Washington office to lobby and intensify its relationships on the Hill or possibly to spin off a PAC that could raise money for candidates and engage in electoral activities. The latter, especially in the GOP primaries, would be a substantial boost for true friends of Israel and a big problem for pretenders. Brog observes, “People underestimate how savvy these people are.”
For Hagee, the need for a “Christian AIPAC” was evident before President Obama entered the White House. “I started CUFI during the Bush administration when there was an undeniably pro-Israel president,” Hagee tells me in a separate interview. “I was hearing Ahmadinejad threatening to wipe Israel off the map.” In other words, the threats to Israel are not new to Hagee and his members, who take scripture literally and believe “Israel does not occupy the land; it was given the land” according to the Bible. He nevertheless points out that Americans, evangelical or not, are exceptionally pro-Israel. “The American people in the latest poll taken [tell us] 72 percent support Israel. I would also note only 16 percent support the U.S. Congress.” Regardless of the recent fraying of the U.S.-Israel relations, Hagee’s members fervently believe, “Israel will long endure.”
Bible-reading Christians, Hagee says, find CUFI’s pro-Israel message “naturally appealing,” but recent events have certainly contributed to the uptick in membership in the evangelical community and beyond. “As people become more aware of Iran’s nuclear threat to Israel and of ISIS’s and radical Islam’s slaughter of Christians they realized how critical Israel is in the Middle East.” To Hagee, it is only logical that we should support a democratic ally’s right to exist and right to exist behind secure borders. He adds, “And the 1967 green line is not a secure border.”
He plainly is exercised about the administration’s current stance toward Israel. Responding to the recent background quote from a senior official insulting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he does not conceal his indignation. “For a senior official to use a barnyard epithet toward the prime minister of Israel is simply outrageous. Imagine what they would say it were Russia or Iran,” he says. “It’s conduct unbecoming American leadership in America.” Hagee thinks the president should have rooted out and sacked the official.
He is deeply troubled by our Iran policy, which he views as acquiescing to Iran’s demands. “Sanctions are the only thing Iran has ever responded to positively,” he says. “The negotiations are equal parts fruitless and endless.” Iran, he believes, is simply playing for time “until one day they will announce they are part of the nuclear club.” If Congress really wants to be a friend to Israel, he urges quick passage of sanctions with real teeth. As for the Palestinian Authority’s trek to the United Nations Security Council and then the International Criminal Court, Hagee says, “Any use of these institutions by the PA says more about the institutions than it does about Israel.” If the PA carries through on its threat to pursue war crimes proceedings, he says “CUFI would support ending all Palestinian aid.”
Hagee says whether the issue is Iran or the PA, it’s up to Congress to act. “I would like to see the U.S. Congress pass decidedly pro-Israel legislation. Let the president of the United States turn them down . . . [It will] expose the absolute disdain for the leadership of Israel.” He cautions Congress about getting bogged down in “ideological trench fighting” and encourages members to work across the aisle to enact legislation assisting Israel.
In sheer numbers and energy CUFI has lapped many long-time Jewish pro-Israel organizations. But CUFI’s leaders are not content to just reap the harvest of Christian Zionists. Brog says, “We have a responsibility to ensure the next generation of Christians support Israel.” As with all groups, younger Christians evince less support for Israel than their parents’ generation. Brog perceives that younger Christians need to be convinced that Israel is on the side of “justice and the oppressed,” and that requires work to tell the facts and combat Palestinian propaganda. “They have read their Bible. They say, ‘Now convince me your side is just.'”
The case needs to be made, he argues, that if one is for gay rights, equality for women, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, etc., Israel is on the right side. In addition to its campus chapters (ranging from Christian colleges to big state schools like UCLA), CUFI recently brought 150 young campus leaders to San Antonio for intensive training to provide factual material on Israel and train them on how to push back on anti-Israel propaganda. It has begun bringing millennial leaders to Israel to see the Jewish state first-hand. And, last spring it took a Western tour of U.S. college campuses to combat movements to divest in Israel (BDS). In at least two cases (UC Davis and University of Arizona), its training and support for non-Jewish opponents of BDS helped defeat the measures. Brog is convinced that if they “had done this a generation ago we wouldn’t have lost the mainline Christians” to the pro-Israel cause. (Many of these churches have joined BDS and become otherwise knee-jerk critics of Israel.)
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Middle East, Israel and the threat of Islamic jihadism to the evangelical community. “Support of Israel and protection of Christian minorities in the Middle East are the central foreign policy positions of tens of millions of Christians.” Indeed, it is that fervently held belief in their faith-based mission to help preserve and protect Israel that makes CUFI and other pro-Zionist Christians a formidable political presence, most especially on the right.
None of this however addresses one significant problem: The loss of support for Israel on the left. Poll after poll shows Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly supportive of Israel while Democratic and liberal support is falling. Brog says, “[CUFI] can talk to the center and the right. But I am worried we are losing [in support for Israel] self-defined progressives.” J Street became, he argues, just another anti-Israel echo-chamber when a real opportunity was missed. “There is room for a progressive case for Israel,” he reiterates. Perhaps there can be a CUFI of the left that can credibly argue that Israel is the only pro-gay rights, pro-gender equality country in the region, in stark contrast to most of its neighbors.
For now, CUFI is unique. CUFI’s huge and increasing numbers, deep religious conviction, willingness to mobilize and readiness to take its organization to a more intense level of pro-Israel advocacy suggest its influence is only beginning to be felt. Politicians looking for conservative votes should take note; CUFI has 2 million of them — and growing.