There is a long history of journalists venturing into the depths of a mysterious unknown, in hopes of illuminating dark secrets and elucidating murky waters, of communicating to curious outsiders what exactly goes on in the belly of a bizarre beast.
I can think of few bellies as beastly (and as bizarre) as that of Christian Zionism—a movement consisting primarily of far-right Christian fundamentalists whose pro-Israel fanaticism is only matched by their deep-seated eschatological anti-Semitic belief that, upon the impending apocalypse (which they have no doubt will happen in their lifetime), Jesus will return, and ruthlessly spill the blood of all of the Jews who refuse to accept him as their savior, before damning them to the fiery depths of Hell for all eternity.
A year ago this week, Christians United for Israel (CUFI)—the largest pro-Israel organization in the US, with over two million members—held its ninth annual summit. Close to 5,000 people, mostly Christians, along with some Jews, gathered in Washington, DC to celebrate Israel just two weeks into the nation’s 51-day attack on Gaza, code-named Operation Protective Edge, mere days after the beginning of the Israeli military’s ground invasion. Almost 500 Palestinians had already been killed when the summit took place, and 1,700 more were to lose their lives in the coming weeks.
I attended the event with the intention of gaining a deeper understanding of the Christian Zionist movement, but to be frank, I left the conference even more befuddled than I had been before I entered.
You see, a CUFI summit is a place where there is no distinction between church and state, between religion and nation, between faith and ideology. It is a place where the world is perpetually on the brink of absolute destruction, where Israel’s leaders—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador Ron Dermer—warn “Islamists” are mere moments from setting the globe ablaze, and yet all their steadfast Christian supporters can do is celebrate, dance, ululate under the ecclesiastical influence, that hallowed intoxication only the Holy Spirit can induce. (I really did hear and see multiple people shout they were “possessed by the Lord.”)
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx infamously quipped that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” If he lived to see a CUFI summit, he would likely have been compelled to add a third: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as a real-life scene out of a Marx Brothers movie.”
At the time, on the hot and stuffy evening of July 21, as Christian extremists clasped hands and danced a pseudo-hora to traditional Ashkenazi music blasting through the speakers of DC’s colossal convention center, Israeli missiles (paid for with US tax dollars) were raining down on Gaza like a torrential storm of suffering and death, destroying hospitals, shelters, schools, homes, mosques, and, yes, even churches. Operation Protective Edge was just in its second week and 30 more days of destruction were to follow.
I had hoped to report on the summit at the time, yet found myself unable to do so. Hundreds of Gazans had been slaughtered since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had begun its ground invasion; the “most moral army in the world” had bombed a third hospital only the day before the summit. There were just too many stories to cover, and too few journalists to cover them, in a stifling political climate in which journalists could be, and were, chastised and even fired for telling the public about Israel’s mass execution of droves of besieged Palestinians.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, it was a period of great tragedy, of intense and seemingly ubiquitous human suffering, and I could not bring myself to write about a summit that was nothing less than farcical in its degree of unmitigated absurdity. I knew the result would inevitably be comical, and Mivtza Tzuk Eitan (“Operation Strong Cliff,” the name of the operation in Hebrew) was truly no time for comedy.
Now, thinking back, the conference stands out in my mind precisely as an extension of this period of great suffering, as an affront to all those who purport to honor the values of Christianity, Judaism, or of any other religion.
Today, CUFI continues to duteously back Israel no matter what it does and is currently devoted to sabotaging the Iran nuclear deal. At CUFI’s 2015 summit, held earlier this month, roughly 5,000 of Israel’s most extreme supporters met to discuss how they can undermine the international diplomacy. Just days ago, it held an off-the-record event with Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and editor Bret Stephens, secretly plotting against its own government’s international negotiations.
A look back at CUFI’s conference during the last war in Gaza—when rockets were flying, emotions were flaring, and Israel’s supporters were rapidly radicalizing—can remind us just how extreme the organization is.
A year later, I reflect on the 2014 CUFI Summit as a synthesis of the dialectic: both tragedy and farce, simultaneously.
Inside CUFI’s Annual Summit
When I ambled up to DC’s 2.3-million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center, in a small group of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and CODEPINK members, there was no dearth of protesters already outside. And we were early.
My first sight was an activist in a giant “Holy Bible” costume, holding a sign emblazoned with the words “Who would Jesus bomb?”
Members of the Palestinian diaspora also came out, with posters reading “I’m a Palestinian Christian. Please talk to me.”
Other activists held signs exhorting CUFI members to live up to their professed Christian values, with messages like “Love thy neighbor (including Palestinians),” “Thou shalt not steal thy neighbor’s land* (*includes Palestine),” and “What would Jesus do? Not bomb Gaza (He was a Jewish Palestinian).”
On the inside, I was met with an enormous line, trailing across the voluminous room.
The word “Zion” was omnipresent, as were Bible quotes.
The summit even had a hip hashtag contest, with styling CUFI “I Stand with Israel” merchandise!
People were excited. I even pretended to be.
When I finally stepped into the room where I would spend the next few hours of my life, I immediately heard a roar, of fervor, of faith, of what Žižek would call Ideology.
Well, and music too. Ashkenazi folk music.
Those were just my ears. The first thing that caught my eye were the flags. Boy, were there a lot of flags.
Did I mention there were a lot of flags? They were everywhere. Everywhere.
The jingoistic flag-waving was enough to make any internationalist uncomfortable.
I am not a fan of flags. Arundhati Roy once wrote “Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” Howard Zinn put it a bit differently: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
Yet, in the CUFI Summit, one could not look anywhere without seeing waves in a gigantic, monstrous sea, no, ocean of nationalistic bigotry.
A black friend who attended the summit with me reflected on the event afterward, saying “It was one of the most racist environments I’ve ever been in.” She said she could almost feel the racism; it was practically palpable.
The event can be roughly summarized as an attempt by both the Christian Zionist community and the Israeli government to build anti-Muslim solidarity. I heard some of the most outlandish myths about Muslims. Islamophobia was more than just the theme of the gathering; it was pungent, mephitic in the very air we breathed.
In true megachurch fashion, the event felt like a combination of a concert, a political rally, a series of propaganda speeches, and an impassioned Christian service.
I took copious notes (multiple pages) throughout the night, getting juicy quotes from the seemingly ceaseless slew of speakers.
Pastor John Hagee kicked off the event. As I have written before, Hagee, the founder of CUFI—what may be the world’s largest pro-Israel organization—is a virulent anti-Semite. Hagee is a Holocaust revisionist who called Hitler a “half-breed Jew” and who blames anti-Semitism on Jews. He claims God sent Hitler to “hunt them [Jews] from every mountain and from every hill and out of the holes of the rocks … to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”
Hagee’s speeches at the summit were full of similar rhetoric (sans Hitler).
Fuming with fire and brimstone, the pastor declared “Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah, the Word of God, says it is.”
“The truth concerning who owns the land of Israel,” Hagee said, “was settled thousands of years ago by God himself. The land of Israel was given by God … to the Jewish people.” He said the Book of Genesis makes this clear in the 15th chapter and “22 times more.”
“It is clear to anyone who can read that Israel is the place that God intended for the Jewish people to live and it was to be theirs forever,” CUFI’s founder shouted. “Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for 3,000 years and may it be the eternal and undivided capital with Jewish people in control.”
Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the history of Israel knows that it was founded in 1948, not three millennia ago.
Hagee practically accused Obama of heresy for acknowledging that international law considers East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territory. “America should never pressure Israel to divide Jerusalem,” the Evangelical megachurch pastor maintained.
In spite of Hagee’s well-documented anti-Semitism and Christian extremist proclivities, the CUFI leader is a close ally of Netanyahu and Israel’s ruling right-wing Likud party.
Netanyahu in fact also addressed the summit with a pre-recorded video message. The Israeli prime minister expressed his gratitude to all the Christian Zionists in attendance and referred to Shoah revisionist John Hagee as a “friend.”
“You’ve been terrific; you’ve been supporting Israel through and through,” Netanyahu told the audience. “And that’s important on any day, but especially on this day, when Israel is targeted by the forces of darkness and terror, and all our cities are being rocketed, when we need people to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.’ Not enough of Israel’s legitimate response of self-defense, but enough of the castigation of Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu characterized Islamist movements as a “barbarism” and a threat to the mutual civilization shared by Israel and the US.
You know the truth. You know that we’re fighting the same terrorists who are in Syria—the ISIS, the al-Qaeda, the Hezzbolah, the Boko Haram. This is what Hamas is. They are the same intolerant breed that denies human freedom and human rights anywhere. They’re the same people who want to eradicate the state of Israel, whom they see merely as a small Satan. And you know who the big Satan is; it’s you, the United States, with the freedoms and the values that we share.
I know you have a complete clarity on this. And I want you to know something else.
Throughout our region, there’s turbulence, with the rise of Islamic militancy. All these fanatic groups attack Israel; they want to destroy Israel without a doubt. But they also want to destroy Christians. They persecute Christians and they burn churches and they drive Christian communities away.
There’s only one place in the Middle East where Christians are free, absolutely free—their freedom of worship, their rights are guaranteed. And that’s the state of Israel.
And I know you know that bond, this civilizational bond, between us and our common heritage, is what’s at stake here.
I know that you know that we stand up for something so valuable, the bedrock of a genuine civilization that is faced with the forces of barbarism.
Lindsey Graham’s Keynote
Right-wing Senator Lindsey Graham was the first keynote speaker. Graham, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate who has vehemently opposed the Iran nuclear deal and who has come under fire for overtly anti-Iranian racism, fawned over Israel.
“Have you ever stood on the Golan Heights?” he bellowed, referring to the Syrian sovereign territory that has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967.
In regard to Hamas retaliation against Israel’s bombardment and subsequent ground invasion, Graham asked, “What would we do if we were attacked?” His question wasn’t rhetorical: “I can’t say it here; because this is a Christian gathering, God bless you,” he answered.
He commended Israel for making the land of historic Palestine “available to us [Christians]”—which he ahistorically claims “wasn’t always” the case. Thank Israel “for allowing us to walk in Jesus’ footsteps,” the senator told his captive audience.
Graham touched on all the right-wing talking points.
He fearmongered about “radical Islamists,” whom he claimed “would kill everyone in that country [Israel] and this room if they could.”
The Republican senator, who vehemently opposes abortion and the funding of contraceptives in health care, also used a form of imperialist humanitarian pseudo-feminism to defend Israel’s war crimes. “Compare a woman in Israel to a woman in another Arab country,” Graham said—failing to acknowledge the fact that the US’ closest allies in the region after Israel are theocratic Gulf monarchies in which women are not just culturally but also legally subjugated.
“Thank God for Israel, on behalf of all the women,” he added.
After Graham proclaimed “When you support Israel, you support the rule of law,” someone in the audience shouted “Impeach Barack Obama!” The audience collectively laughed and applauded.
The Israeli military “tries to minimize casualties” and “put itself at risk to save civilians,” Graham continued. “Compare their ethics to that of their enemy. Pray for the IDF,” he implored listeners, before more applause.
The lawmaker even boasted that “Israel is a free-market economy,” with the “greatest technology.”
Graham drew his speech to a close referring to Israel as “a nation blessed by God almighty Himself.”
“Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn His back on us,” the US senator concluded.
John Hagee’s Keynote
Iran was the target of much scorn that night, among all of the speakers. CUFI founder and apocalyptic anti-Semitic Evangelical pastor John Hagee, who spoke again as the second keynote, was arguably the most extreme in his characterization of the Islamic Republic.
Hagee explicitly spoke of Iran as the new Nazis. He warned Iran’s leaders are on the verge of destroying the universe with nuclear weapons.
“The enemies of Israel reject democracy,” Hagee averred. Defending Israel, he maintained, is “as clear as right and wrong.”
“They hate everything we stand for. Their hatred knows no bounds,” Hagee said, calling Islamists “the most radical, vicious people on the planet.”
“This idea that Israel has to restrain itself when she’s under attack has got to stop,” the CUFI National Chairman firmly maintained (use of the feminine pronoun to refer to Israel was common throughout the night). Hagee characterized the UN as “anti-Semitic” and yelled “Tell the United Nations: Shut up. We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
You can say that last part again.
Hagee went on, seeming to imply Iran was somehow linked to the 9/11 attacks, because, you know, Islam. (This is particularly fascinating considering that 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were in fact citizens of Saudi Arabia, a close Western ally and Wahhabi (Islamic fundamentalist) monarchy.)
And “the only reason three thousand of us died on 9/11,” the pastor insisted, was because they could not get access to weapons “that would kill three million.”
“They hate us [the US] as much as they hate Israel,” Hagee said. “We’re the Big Satan.”
The Evangelist also implied that Obama does not have “half a brain,” and claimed the president and Congress—which had indefatigably and unquestionably backed Israel in its contemporaneous assault on Gaza—were “detached from reality.”
It goes without saying that, in typical Hagee-ian fashion, the CUFI leader saw no problem in bringing up and wielding the specter of the Holocaust for political gain.
“America needs Israel, desperately,” Hagee wailed. “We need them as much as they need us. We’re tied to the hip.”
A Nobel Prize for ‘Unimaginable Restraint’
Two sections about university outreach followed in the program, titled “The Campus and the Millennial Challenges” and “CUFI on Campus Report.” Both talks were full of baseless anti-BDS smears.
Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer was the third and final keynote speaker.
While the first two keynote speeches were not covered in the media, the press did pick up Dermer’s talk.
Slate‘s David Weigel (who wrote one of the only critical long-form reports from the inside) described the ambassador’s keynote as “hellacious.” The publication also indicated that “the media was sitting at the back of the room,” but apparently no one considered it worth their time reporting on the extreme remarks of Senator Graham and Pastor Hagee—the apocalyptic leader of one of the world’s largest pro-Israel organizations.
“Israel deserves more than the support of the international community; Israel deserves the admiration of the international community,” Dermer asserted. “No military in history has taken greater care than the IDF to protect innocents of the other side.”
While Dermer was speaking, bombs and bullets were raining down on Gazan civilians. Around 2,300 Gazans, mostly civilians, would be killed in the seven-week war Israel waged against the strip. Over 500 children lost their lives. CUFI cheered on the carnage.
On the Israeli side, just six civilians were killed, one of whom was a Thai national. When the summit took place, there had only been a small handful of Israeli casualties. Dermer, nonetheless, presented Israel as the the oppressed and besiedged Palestinians as the oppressor.
“No one should accept criticism of Israel for showing restraint that has not been shown and would not be shown by any nation on Earth,” Dermer ordered. “And I will not accept criticism of my country at a time when Israeli soldiers are dying so innocent Palestinians can live.”
While Israel’s onslaught was being carried out, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other leading human rights organizations accused the IDF of war crimes. The Israeli military purposefully targeted hospitals, UN shelters, schools, homes, and more.
Ambassador Dermer, however, wanted the IDF to be rewarded. “The truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces should be given a Nobel Peace Prize!” he declared. “A Nobel Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”
Justice Remains Elusive
In the year since, numerous Amnesty International investigations have accused the IDF of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
An independent medical fact-finding mission conducted by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) detailed how the Israeli military deliberately killed Gazan civilians. PHR-Israel documented the IDF’s use of human shields, close-range murder of civilians, targeting of medics and ambulances, employment of unconventional weapons, and more.
A report by Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence found that IDF officers ordered soldiers to “fire at every person you see,” including civilians. Israeli soldiers said they shot Palestinian civilians because they were “bored.”
The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict also accused the IDF of blatantly violating international humanitarian law.
Throughout that night in July 2014—while I was bombarded with doomsday fearmongering about the supposedly imminent destruction of Israel by “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” juxtaposed against joyous, earsplitting music, singing, and dance—I couldn’t help but think of the Gazan Christians being massacred with weapons paid for with US tax dollars, while American Christians shouted praise at Benjamin Netanyahu like young teens at an early The Beatles concert.
A year later, the illegal siege of Gaza continues; the illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem approaches almost its fifth decade; and the illegal colonization of Palestinian land accelerates. Few of the approximately 19,000 Gazan homes destroyed in the war have been rebuilt. Up to 100,000 Gazans remain homeless.
That night, sitting in an enormous hall, surrounded by thousands of bloodthirsty CUFI supporters, I couldn’t help but think of what Jesus himself would have said, if he had seen all these Christians rejoicing in violence, reveling in death.