Editor’s note: Since the publication of this piece, CUFI has written an official response, which we have published here.
As the farmer walked through his fields, he spotted a freezing viper. Taking pity on the snake, he placed the shivering reptile in his coat. Upon warming, the snake bit the man. As the farmer died, he realized his own fault: “I knew it was a snake when I picked it up.”
This fable characterizes the unholy alliance between Jewish pro-Israel organizations and Evangelical Zionist organizations here at Portland State University—and nationally.
For Jews, a relationship with any Christian groups is always one of mixed emotions. Shaking hands with someone who expects your eternal damnation is a hard pill to swallow—even though most contemporary Christians no longer believe Jews are marked for Hellfire, it’s a hard historical assumption to shake.
It’s made easier because many Jews and Christians—especially mainline protestants such as Methodists and Presbyterians—share core, fundamental values such as social justice, liberal politics and a respect for human rights. Evangelical Christians, including the growing Zionist subset, hold apocalyptic biblical viewpoints.
Evangelical Zionists hold views that fundamentally clash with Jewish opinions on a whole host of social and civil issues. Even their pro-Israel position contrasts with that of most Jews. Evangelical Zionists support far-right wing, “Greater Israel” positions that do nothing to advance peaceful coexistence with Palestinian and Arab neighbors. Yet, in the 2011 American Jewish Committee Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 51% of Jews agreed that Israel should dismantle at least some of the settlements as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians.
This relationship is a moral and practical dead-end. The partnership between evangelical Zionism and the Jewish community is a relationship that will not bear fruits for the American Jewish community’s largely left-of-center Israel advocacy goals.
“Let Knowledge Serve the City” is the motto of Portland State University. Billing itself as an urban university—comprising several square blocks of downtown Portland—its motto is fitting. As a student of its halls, the phrasing of this motto was always a point of intrigue for me: Why should we merely allow knowledge to serve the city? Why not a more active phrasing?
Though not as inspiring as it could be, the motto makes sense for the campus. Most people at Portland State are transfer students just trying to complete their degrees—preferably with a minimum of student protests, club fairs and football games.
This environment makes it difficult for pro-Israel groups to engage in traditional hasbara—the lectures and pizza parties synonymous with pro-Israel college activism—or even to try more dynamic forms of advocacy such as interfaith relationships. For example, although a relationship is blossoming between the Jewish Student Union and the Arab-Persian Culture Club, this partnership avoids the Israel/Palestine debate completely.
There is one Zionist group on campus that finds no problem galvanizing supporters, funding activities or creating controversy: Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Born out of a dream by right-wing fundamentalist televangelist Reverend John Hagee, CUFI’s national board is a who’s who of neo-conservative and evangelical leaders including Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer, president of the right-wing political origination American Values.
CUFI’s reading of the New Testament prophesies that the mass deaths of ingathered and unconverted Jews in the Holy Land will precipitate the End Times. That their Evangelical Zionist partners hold by this tenet is conveniently overlooked by Jewish pro-Israel groups. However, it should be a warning sign for the pro-Israel crowd: They are in bed with a movement anchored overwhelmingly by evangelical Christians—both in funding and leadership.
They believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible that commands them to lobby for the “right” of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria (the preferred term for the West Bank among right-wing pro-settler groups like CUFI). For right-wing Jews with paranoia-inducing memories of the less-than-friendly Israel policies of former Secretary of State Jim Baker, it’s a wet dream to see Christians (and Republicans) setting up funds to support individual Settlements, as CUFI advertises on their website. The notion of a two-state solution is obviously excluded from their worldview.
CUFI takes their mission seriously; their alliances with pro-Israel groups run deep. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a speaker at CUFI’s conference this year, and several CUFI board members attended the 2007 AIPAC conference. That the largest Zionist organization in America is no longer AIPAC, but a right-wing, evangelical Christian organization, speaks to the unfettered rise of Christianity in the pro-Israel community. Hagee is empowered by Jewish groups that compare him to Moses, participate in CUFI events and bestow leadership awards on him. In doing so, they provide legitimacy to his agenda.
To many apologists, the fact that CUFI is pro-Israel excuses Hagee’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Hagee said in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, “There are 1.3 billion people who follow the Islamic faith, so if you’re saying there’s only 15 percent that want to come to America or invade Israel to crush it, you’re only talking about 200 million people. That’s far more than Hitler and Japan and Italy and all of the Axis powers in World War II had under arms.”
That their refusal to accept the two-state solution is also at odds with the policy of most American Jews and most Israelis—not to mention the official policies of both the U.S. and Israeli governments—finds no retort in the pro-Israel community. It’s no wonder that a 2008 J Street poll showed American Jews oppose a relationship with CUFI by a margin of 4-to-1.
At Portland State, pro-Israel groups seem to be eschewing the fact that a majority of American Jews are against any coalition with fair-right Christian Zionists. While CUFI members are commonplace at Hillel events, newly formed campus pro-Israel group With Israel, was the first organization to work with CUFI on pro-Israel issues.
Jewish Student Union (JSU) officers attending a Hasbara Fellowships event received a note from a pro-Palestinian activist challenging their pro-Israel views. According to JSU officer Max Werner, the message was inflammatory—not an olive branch of any sorts. Some JSU officers felt the need to respond while others felt that that this type of tactic—meant to garner a reaction—should go unanswered.
That ideological disagreement set the stage for some JSU officers to form their own group to promote Israel on campus and combat anti-Israel sentiments. With Israel was born. While most officers and members have Jewish heritage, a non-Jewish student, Brittany McKay, heads With Israel.
According to Werner, several national hasbara organizations were quick to try and recruit With Israel. In an attempt to keep from alienating potential pro-Israel students, With Israel rebuffed attempts to charter with larger organizations; they hoped to create a large tent for all to gather under in support of Israel.
But if the J Street poll is correct and 80 percent of American Jews oppose an alliance with CUFI, With Israel is building a much smaller tent than they purport to. With Israel officers are extremely friendly with CUFI officers, going as far as to appear on stage at CUFI events. Their official policy of non-affiliation is a very small detail; the fact that With Israel officers are so friendly with CUFI makes an official relationship unnecessary.
In May, CUFI sponsored a talk by Christian Broadcast Network analyst Erick Stakelbeck, known for his Islamaphobic viewpoints. (He once referred to Dearborn, Mich. as “Dearborn-istan” because of its large Muslim population.) With Israel released a statement in line with their goal of remaining unaffiliated, saying that the group would “not take an official stance of opposition with groups that we may or may not agree with.”
What happened next spoke to the actual relationship between With Israel and CUFI at Portland State: While With Israel did not co-sponsor the event, several officers attended the talk, even getting on stage to speak at Stakelbeck’s lecture. One With Israel officer even encouraged members, via Facebook, to replace defaced CUFI posters, asking members to “tell one of the officers… so that we may get the poster from you” and “put up a new copy of the poster.”
The response to Stakelbeck’s appearance was almost completely mute elsewhere in the pro-Israel community. A small group of Jews and non-Jews protested the analyst’s appearance with signs promoting Zionism without racism. Another recent addition to Portland’s pro-Israel community, Young Adult Supporters of Israel (YASI), would not attend the counter-protest, citing a desire not to alienate the Christian Zionist community.
All this, despite the fact that, according to their closed-membership Facebook page, YASI claims to couple “creative and edgy tactics” such as “buy-cotts, flash mobs, ‘mic’ checks, walk-outs…” in support of their three tenets: combating the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS); supporting the two-state solution; and defending Israel’s right to defend herself. In light of that fact that CUFI’s founder and leader promotes a fundamentalist Biblical interpretation that precludes the two-state solution entirely, the opportunity to protest their speaker’s event seemed auspicious.
What YASI and With Israel have in common is a shortsighted desire not to disenfranchise any pro-Israel voices. It’s a nice image: A big tent with everybody in it. While it is true that we must sometimes partner with those who we disagree with, it is equally true that we are known by the company we keep. If pro-Israel groups continue to cater to CUFI, they will further alienate potential allies on the left—and the overwhelming majority of Jews and college students are situated firmly on the left. For a student or youth organization to fraternize with a far-right, anti-Muslim group is a tactical mistake born out of perceived desperation.
The fervor with which pro-Israel groups cater to Christian Zionists is no surprise. Israel advocates feel as though their backs are against the wall, overwhelmed by a chorus of anti-Israel voices on campus. In reality, that chorus is loud, but very small.
The notion of a “burning campus,” one where Jews fear anti-Semitism and are afraid to represent pro-Israel viewpoints is overblown according to the David Project. A campus-focused Israel advocacy organization, the David Project released a “White Paper” earlier this year, plotting a new map for Israel advocacy on campus: “Others, mainly professionals in pro-Israel organizations on campus, think we are winning the battle because not a single effort to boycott Israel at a significant university has come to fruition. They cite polls showing that the vast majority of students don’t buy the argument that Israel is an apartheid state.”
Considering the actual state of affairs on most campuses—and at PSU where not a single anti-Israel motion was ever even promoted—it seems that pro-Israel groups are not so desperate for friends that they must align themselves with CUFI.
There are other options. Groups like J Street advocate for Israel while respecting the humanity of Muslims and Palestinians and the necessity of the two-state solution. Remaining unaffiliated—as With Israel purports to be—is another path to campus activism that will allow pro-Israel groups to be savvy with campus associations.
Otherwise, pro-Israel groups in Portland—and nationally—will continue to pick up the snake, perplexed at the bite marks.
Gabriel T. Erbs is a student at Portland State University and the editor of the Global Jewish Voice, an international Jewish student blog published by New Voices, the World Union of Jewish Students and AJC ACCESS. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLARIFICATION, 6/19/12: The article mentions information about the YASI Facebook group. All information about the Facebook group was obtained in an interview with a member of the group.