MASADA, Israel — Whether or not Mike Huckabee becomes president of the United States, the nation of Israel — and especially Israel’s hard-line right wing — has few more devoted fans than the former Arkansas governor, evangelical pastor and gung-ho tour guide to the Holy Land.
The man is just nuts about Israel.
Huckabee has been a regular visitor to Israel for 42 years, he says. Some years, he comes three or four times. He can’t remember how many trips exactly. Lots.
He’s led dozens of tours. Huckabee said he believes that “Americans support Israel, but until they see it, they don’t get it.” He’s not hot on the idea of two states for two peoples. But he is passionate about visiting the places where the Bible comes alive for him, such as the green hills now covered in wildflowers on the Mount of Beatitudes in the Galilee, where tradition says Jesus gave the sermon that called upon his followers to turn the other cheek, rather than take an eye for an eye.
Though busy preparing for another run for the White House, Huckabee is currently shepherding his flock of 253 paying guests around Israel for 10 days.
That’s six busloads — a lot more people than may follow some candidates around New Hampshire in February next year.
The Huckabee entourage includes Christian music hall-of-famer Al Denson, violinist and evangelical minister Maurice Sklar and country western star Larry Gatlin, who came off the bus here at Masada sporting a burnt-orange cap with a stitched-on pistol and the words “Texas: We Don’t Call 911” — which is kind of appropriate if you know the story of Masada.
The price is $5,250, including round-trip airfare from New York, five-star hotel accommodations, all meals, deluxe motor-coach transport, licensed guides and all fees, tips and taxes.
Huckabee’s wife, Janet, said they tell guests they can bring a $20 bill and come home with the change.
The Israel Experience tour focuses on the sacred, but there’s plenty of the political. On past trips, Huckabee and his guests have met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
They get an earful in evening lectures, too. On this trip, they’ve heard from speakers such as the philanthropist and venture capitalist Kenneth Abramowitz, president of American Friends of Likud, Netanyahu’s party. Abramowitz has been quoted calling for shutting down the United Nations. During this trip, Huckabee said, Abramowitz spoke to his group about the myths of the Middle East, “such as if Israel gives up land, it will get peace, which is a complete myth.”
The Huckabeeans also heard from Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, who explained to the group, according to Huckabee, that there’s really no such thing as the “Palestinians.”
“The idea that they have a long history, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, is not true,” Huckabee said.
The tourists didn’t hear from the Palestinians themselves on this matter. Huckabee said he hasn’t met with the leadership in Ramallah. On this tour, the group didn’t go to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, across the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank, though they looked at it from one of the Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“I’ve been a bit outspoken,” Huckabee said. “I’m not sure they’d be delighted to see me.”
They started this trip in Jerusalem’s Old City, bowed their heads at the Western Wall, slipped a note between the cracks in the great stones, strolled the Roman-era Cardo Maximus and took in the inspiring view from the Mount of Olives.
They knelt where tradition says Jesus prayed in his moment of doubt and pain in the Garden of Gethsemane, hours before his crucifixion, his anguish so great that, according to Luke 22:44, “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Don’t know your Bible verses? The participants on this tour do. As one of Huckabee’s guests joked, “Scripture will be quoted.”
“It’s like the Bible in color,” Janet Huckabee said.
Here atop a high red butte in the Negev desert, towering above the Dead Sea, stands the mountain redoubt of Masada, built by King Herod just before the time of Jesus and occupied, as a kind of last-stand Jewish Alamo, by the Zealots who rebelled against Roman rule in 66 A.D.
It is one of Huckabee’s favorite places in the world, and here the soon-to-be aspiring presidential contender gathered his people on Thursday. As the visitors stood beneath flapping blue, green and yellow banners — denoting the separate buses — and with the sun fighting with dark snow clouds above, Huckabee explained why.
“One cannot understand the psyche of the Israelis, the heart and soul of Israel, without visiting two places,” Huckabee said: the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and Masada. He called the latter “a God-made fortress” in the middle of the desert.
During the Great Revolt of the Jews, the rebels, known as the Sicarii because of their long, curved daggers, fled to Masada. The Roman 10th Legion laid siege to the mountaintop — 10,000 soldiers against 960 rebels, including women and children.
Quoting the account left by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish leader turned Roman citizen who wrote “The Wars of the Jews,” Huckabee told his audience that in the hours before the gates were breached by the Romans, the rebel leader Eleazar Ben Yair told his people it was better to take their own lives than live as slaves to Rome.
And that they did, with 10 men slaying all, and the last killing himself, Huckabee said.
Huckabee compared their zeal for liberty to that of the American Founding Fathers and said the Jews on Masada fulfilled the New Hampshire license-plate motto, “Live Free or Die.”
He said the Jews “reflect the values upon which our country was founded upon,” a love for freedom. He compared the Jewish Zealots to American men and women serving in the armed forces. He called the Jews “the only people who ever had this as their homeland” and said that when young recruits begin their service in the Israel Defense Forces, “they vow that Masada will never fall again — and they mean it.”
“Amen,” the audience said.
After his talk, the group sang the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Then Huckabee asked the Rev. Steve Sturgeon, a retired military chaplain and a pastor from Dillon, Mont., to say a prayer.
“Lord God, thank you for the Jewish people,” Sturgeon said, as heads bowed. “God, give us a little piece of their backbone.”
Afterward, Sturgeon said that when he quotes Genesis 12:3, this gathering understands what it means.
“And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse,” the passage reads.
“That means if you are a friend of Israel, you are okay,” the pastor said. “If you’re an enemy, you’re in real trouble. God doesn’t change his mind about this stuff. It’s an eternal book.”