The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) are embarking on a strategic relationship in Israel advocacy.
“We are limited demographically," said JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber. "We can’t be everywhere fighting every battle. We need friends."
Halber was joined for a Jan. 9 interview at his office in Rockville, Maryland, by CUFI's co-executive director, Shari Dollinger; national outreach director and eastern regional coordinator, Pastor Victor Styrsky; and communications director Ari Morgenstern. The interview was one of several sit-downs the JCRC arranged for the group, including meetings with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Men's Club at the Bender JCC, local professionals in the philanthropic and advocacy spheres, and the JCRC board.
Halber stressed the importance of Jews coming to understand that the evangelical community largely shares a love for Israel and truly wants to support and protect Israel. “For Jews on any side of the political spectrum, suspicion of Christian outreach is understandable due to years of persecution and evangelizing... it’s 100 percent natural to be suspicious. We have to be willing to overcome our suspicions,” Halber said.
Though CUFI’s Dollinger is Jewish, she has been focused on Christian support for Israel for over 20 years. Her journey began when, as a junior at Brandeis, she interned for Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and her “eyes were opened to the deep of support for the Jewish State from the Christian community.” In February 2006 in San Antonio, Texas, she recalled being part of the founding of CUFI. Pastor John Hagee called together 400 leading evangelicals — pastors of megachurches, TV empires, and ministries. Pastor Hagee, one of the most influential evangelicals in America, heads a church numbering over 19,000 members and is CEO of Global Evangelism Television. Pastor Hagee is also the national chairman of CUFI.
At that 2006 meeting, said Dollinger, Pastor Hagee took the handful of Jewish community leaders and rabbis who were present into his office and said, “This is going to be a huge fight.” He said that because he planned to tell the 400 assembled Christians that CUFI would be a non-conversionary organization, it would support the democratically elected government of Israel, and it would be a bipartisan organization; he believed there would be opposition from the assembled evangelicals.
“There was no fight, every one of the 400 agreed,” Morgenstern chimed in. “These three red lines [of Pastor Hagee’s] have been the operating principles of CUFI ever since,” Dollinger said. “We’ve demonstrated this each day and by how many members we have, 5.3 million as of today — we grew by 300,000 in the past month.” There are members in every Congressional district, of every race and ethnicity.
Compare these numbers to AIPAC, whose website reports that there are over 100,000 members. The Pew Research Center reported that as of 2014, about one quarter (25.4 percent) of American adults identifies as evangelical. This equates to roughly 81 million evangelical Christians, based on a U.S. population of 325 million. How many Jews are there in America? The Jewish Agency reported about 5.3 million in 2017. With mounting pressure from the global community and growing anti-Semitism, partnering with CUFI and the evangelical community — millions of ardent supporters of Israel — could be a game changer.
Anti-Israel sentiment on campus has been an ongoing problem for college kids. CUFI has a boots-on-the-ground approach that has been hugely successful. CUFI on Campus started 10 years ago as a result of Jewish students going to their Christian friends saying, “We are alone, we need your support,” said Dollinger. There are 280 official chapters, including one at Harvard University, that boasts Alan Dershowitz as its advisor. CUFI on Campus has trained over 4,000 students.
Additionally, four years ago, CUFI started the Israel Collective, a program for evangelical millennials. CUFI runs four Israel trips a year for young evangelical influencers (those with over half a million social media followers), including NFL players, former Miss Americas, and evangelical hip hop artists. Their Instagram feeds get filled with pictures from their trips, said Dollinger. They become “unique spokespeople for Israel in their own communities in their own way.”
Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce was so moved by his trip that he used his cleats for Israel. It was reported widely in November that Pierce chose Israel for the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign run by the NFL, in which more than 800 NFL players donned cleats on the field to highlight charities of their choosing. In the Israel Collective’s online video, Pierce said, “Israel Collective has been a life-changing thing for me,” and showed off his new cleats, festooned with the Israeli flag. “Having the Israel flag in front and center was paramount for me — I needed that to be right where it is.”
Millennial outreach is a means of “trying to shape public opinion [which] pays for generations to come,” Halber noted. “Even if it’s just someone who sees the football player with the Israeli flag on his cleats, it becomes something more acceptable, while the BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] movement is trying to make Israel unacceptable.”
When asked about CUFI’s relationship with the current presidential administration, Dollinger said: “We will work with any administration, any party that is advancing the pro-Israel agenda. This administration, between tearing up the Iran deal, moving the embassy, and signing the Taylor Force Act, has proven to be a pro-Israel administration.” However, Dollinger and Pastor Styrsky both stressed that CUFI is "platform-based and not personality-based."
“We appreciate the close relationships we have with this administration as well as with elected officials on both sides of the aisle here in Washington,” Morgenstern added. "When we came in July [for CUFI’s annual DC summit] we were able to meet with 98 percent of members [of Congress] and their staffs. We are in every Congressional district... The administration has at every level opened the door to us.”
Overall, Pastor Styrsky wants people to know that CUFI’s position is “whatever Israel wants.”
“The height of arrogance has been the curse of Christendom in our relationship with the Jews,” he said. “If we think we know better or have the right to tell them what to do, that won’t ever work for me.”
By Kami Troy
Kami Troy is the senior editor of Kol HaBirah.