This year, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), one of the most powerful voices for Israel in the United States, marked its 15th anniversary.
“We could never have imagined CUFI would achieve so much, so quickly. But God has blessed us because we are fulfilling our biblical mandate to stand with Israel and His chosen people,” Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of CUFI, told Jewish News Service. “This said, I noted when we launched CUFI that there was a sleeping giant of Christian Zionism in this country. That giant has now been awakened. When millions of people share a passion for Israel, great things are possible.”
Still, the organization and the movement it represents, Christian Zionism, is also one of the least understood. For some American Jews, they see an organization rooted in Christian theology and are reminded of centuries of Christian persecution. Or for others, they see a movement that holds many traditional and conservative values, and consider it out of place in an increasingly diversifying world. Yet a deeper look into CUFI, through its leadership and grassroots supporters, reveals an organization that reflects the diversity and forward-thinking in its support for Israel, and not afraid to call out all forms of bigotry and anti-Semitism while remaining true to its biblical values.
“I won’t use the word ‘proud’ because the glory for CUFI’s success is God’s alone,” said Hagee. “The most significant achievement was bringing together millions of people from many different backgrounds and denominations across America in support of one single cause—Israel and the Jewish people.”
To that end, on the grassroots level, the group says it has gained more than 4,000 students on U.S. college campuses and taken 1,000-plus pastors to Israel.
‘A history of standing with and protecting Africa’
Mareyah Washington, a junior at St. Augustine University, a private historically black college in North Carolina, told JNS that supporting Israel on campus has been an uphill battle for her.
“I find my campus to be uninformed for the most part when it comes to what’s going on in the Middle East,” she said. “Starting with a clean slate actually allows me to engage in non-confrontational conversations about Israel, and prepare my classmates and faculty for the lies they are going to hear as they dig deeper into this subject.”
Washington, who said that her support for Israel is rooted in her own personal faith, points out that as an African-American, many of her peers question why she supports a country like Israel.
As president of her school’s CUFI chapter, which sponsored a trip to Israel for her in 2019, she uses it as a platform both to advocate for Israel and for general awareness of international issues.“You are sometimes viewed as a sell-out for advocating for a non-African nation,” she acknowledged. “However, Israel has a long history of standing with and protecting Africa, as do the Jewish people with African-Americans.”
“One thing I will always be grateful to CUFI for is my trip to Israel with the Bonhoeffer fellowship of 2019. Being able to see the security fence in person, interact with the people I advocate for, and walk where Jesus walked all strengthened my relationship with God and gave me a deeper love and drive for what we do,” she said.
CUFI also draws strength from its support across the country by individual churches and pastors. This is evidenced each year (in pre-COVID times) when it brings thousands of supporters to Washington, D.C., for its annual conference, where they lobby members of Congress on issues important for Israel.
‘Organization draws its power from its people’
Pastor Jay Bailey, the lead pastor of Solid Rock Church in Columbus, Ga., and Georgia State Director for CUFI, told JNS that the organization draws it power from its people.
“With every passing year, the CUFI Leadership and their highly skilled team launch new initiatives, undertake bold and innovative projects, produce new resources, inspire people young and old alike, and challenge thought leaders and political influencers to take up the mantle and join the cause,” he said.
Bailey, who originally hails from Jamaica and Canada, and has served at Solid Rock Church for 18 years, said he has been involved with CUFI since 2010.
“Support for Israel is both a head and heart exercise for me. It is morally right to stand with Israel and her people. For me, there is no equivocation to this conviction. The Bible mandates that we love and honor Israel, and in doing so, we are honoring God and His eternal Word,” he said.
In particular, Bailey noted that his close work with the Jewish community in Georgia has been most the fruitful part of his experience with CUFI.
“The relationships that have been forged, especially with the Jewish community, have been deeply meaningful and fulfilling. What has been particularly special to experience has been the receptivity of the Jewish people,” he said, adding that he himself has Jewish ancestry with his seventh great-grandfather on his father’s side serving as the first chief rabbi of England.
Bailey said with rising anti-Semitism in the United States, coupled with the challenges Jewish and pro-Israel students face on campus, the work CUFI does is more critical than ever.
“We are also seeing ever-increasing threats against the nation of Israel from sovereign states who desire to wipe Israel from the face of the earth,” he stressed. “These threats are real and pose an existential threat to Israel and the United States.”
“The challenge is clear: It is noble, it is right, and it summons us to embrace it. CUFI will do what CUFI always does when face with a challenge. We accept it, and then we rise above it,” said Bailey. “This is why there are over 10 million members who are a part of this family, and as for me and my household, we will support CUFI.”
‘Hesitation is the exception, not the rule’
Yet the group’s success has not come without its challenges. In particular, Christian support for Israel has not always been a given, and that very support has not always been warmly received by the Jewish community.
Versions of Christian Zionism in America can be traced back to colonial times with Puritans like with Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, or President John Adams. However, the modern movement of Christian support for Israel in the United States and the United Kingdom emerged in the late 19th century when leaders such as Lord Shaftesbury and William Eugene Blackstone helped shape the movement’s policies in their respective countries.
Hagee explained that “Christian Zionism today is more organized and is now a far more biblically literate community than ever before. The movement today is stronger than ever, but we are working aggressively to make it even stronger.”
But it wasn’t always easy to garner Christian support for Israel. For most of Christian history, the teaching of replacement theology, which argues that the Christian church has replaced Israel and the Jewish people regarding the plan, purpose and promises of God, has been the dominant teaching.
Hagee, now 80, initially faced pushback from other Christians regarding his ministry’s support for Israel—his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, in addition to his family, was threatened by violence that included bomb threats and smashed windows during his early days prior to founding CUFI.
“CUFI’s primary focus is education, and we’ve seen a real increase in Christians’ understanding our biblical mandate to stand with Israel and the Jewish people,” he said. “Likewise, though it remains a potent threat, we’re making strides in beating back Replacement Theology and teaching the American Christian community about the dangers of this anti-Semitic school of thought.”
Christian Zionism has also faced resistance in its efforts to be accepted by the Jewish community. For one, the Jewish community has faced centuries of anti-Semitism at the hands of Christians, who have perennially persecuted Jews and encouraged conversion.
“After working with the Jewish community for more than 40 years, I’ve come to fully understand their hesitancy to work with Christians. I believe we’ve done a fairly good job of showing that we are exclusively focused on supporting Israel and combatting anti-Semitism,” said Hagee. “We’ve kept true to our word that we are a non-conversion association, and today, when we approach members of the Jewish community, hesitation is the exception, not the rule.”
Areas where CUFI and the Biden administration agree
At the same time, politics have played a role in creating suspicion among American Jews of Christians. The American Jewish community overwhelmingly supports the Democratic Party and liberal policies, while evangelicals are closely tied to the Republican Party and conservative issues.
Hagee dismissed this, saying that while not everyone may share in their policies, they hardly ever encounter rejection from the Jewish community.
“CUFI is well-known, and while not all of our policy positions are shared by all corners of any community, including the Jewish community, in our experience only a small minority of members of the Jewish community decline to work with CUFI,” he recounted.
Among the successes that CUFI cited has been its involvement with the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018 and the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights the next year.
At the same time, the group has also been part of advancing legislation including the Never Again Education Act, the Taylor Force Act and the Sanctioning of the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. Hagee also noted the Never Again Education Act, Executive Order 13899 on combating Anti-Semitism, consistent bipartisan support for U.S. aid to Israel year after year, and the advancement of anti-BDS legislation on college campuses and states across the country.
Sandra Parker, chairwoman of the CUFI Action Fund, which serves as the group’s lobbying arm, said several issues that CUFI is working on coincide with core concerns of the Biden administration.
“We are a nonpartisan association, and we see areas, such as Turkey, where we feel CUFI and the Biden administration strongly agree,” she said, referring to the group’s support for sanctions on Turkey related to the F-35 fighter-jet program, which the Biden administration extended.
And while CUFI was very vocal in its opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and supported former President Donald Trump’s decision to leave it, it hopes to work closely with U.S. President Joe Biden and his staff on the issue.
Parker said the organization aims “to help shape the thinking in Washington as it relates to Iran. We do not believe that the U.S. should return to the JCPOA or be taken in by Iran’s pre-nuclear blackmail.”
Advancing anti-BDS legislation, fostering Holocaust education
At the state level, Parker said they work on several common areas with Jewish and pro-Israel groups.
“CUFI is engaged at the state level like never before, continuing to advance anti-BDS legislation, and this year, we’ve started to work on Holocaust education issues as well,” she said.
With 2021 marking CUFI’s 15th anniversary, the organization says that it continues to grow rapidly despite challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Prior to the pandemic, CUFI was hosting an average of 50 events per month in cities and towns across the country and an annual summit with an average of 5,000 in attendance. Since March of last year, we’ve had to make a dramatic shift in the way we engage our members and the nation,” Shari Dollinger, co-executive director of CUFI said.
Dollinger said that the pandemic has helped them reach new supporters while still staying engaged with its current members.
“CUFI has seen a dramatic increase in online engagement. For example, after we held our summit virtually, we saw more than 300,000 emails sent to elected officials in support of the summit policy agenda items,” she said.
Additionally, Dollinger said they have rolled out a host of online engagement opportunities, such as small-group study series and online content such as short videos.
“In some respects, I feel we had the building blocks already in place that enabled us to grow even during the pandemic,” she said. “CUFI’s emphasis on digital engagement has always been strong.”
Looking towards the future and a post-pandemic world, Dollinger stressed that CUFI will continue to focus on providing educational content for its 10 million members and hopes to return to in-person events soon.
“In the long-term, this educational focus will remain, but I hope and pray we will be able to return to the kind of face-to-face interactions that have such a dramatic impact. Among those, of course, are trips to Israel. Once it’s safe to do so, we plan on ramping up our pastor trips to the Jewish state without delay.
“We may not be on the first flight, but we won’t be far behind,” she assured.
‘Our message resonates’
As for the U.S.-Israel relationship, Parker said that while she remains optimistic for the future, she’s also concerned about the threats to it as well.
In particular, she noted that CUFI is “deeply concerned” about fringe elements that have made their way to Congress in the past few years.
“Congress is no place for anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories and the like,” she stated. “Israel-haters, isolationists and all those who would traffic in anti-Semitic tropes or attack the Jewish state should be shunned from both political parties.”
Indeed, CUFI was outspoken in condemning Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and urged her removal from committees in the House of Representatives.
“Unfortunately, I am disturbed that party leaders have not gotten their houses in order, but then again, the American people ultimately decide who goes to Washington to represent them, and the American people are overwhelmingly pro-Israel,” said Parker.
Moving forward, Hagee emphasizes that as long as CUFI remains “true to its biblical values” that he does not see anything stopping it.
“We grow because our message resonates, and it resonates because it is an honest and true representation of Israel’s biblical, moral and historical claim to exist as an independent, sovereign nation,” he said.
“We have an impact because our people understand that to be a faithful supporter of Israel requires action and failure to act provides Israel’s enemies abroad and the anti-Semites here at home with an opening for their hatred to take root and propagate—not on CUFI’s watch!”
–Sean Savage | JNS.org | Reprinted under partnership with JNS.