One year after their 2006 debut, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) consisted of less than 8,900 members. As they celebrate their tenth anniversary, CUFI proudly proclaims itself the largest Israel advocacy organization in the world, with a membership of nearly 2.8 million.
CUFI Founder and Chairman, Pastor John Hagee, has had an eventful decade. But his journey to this point began 35 years ago when he organized the first “Night to Honor Israel.” The Evangelical pastor ran into skepticism from the San Antonio Jewish community; but with the blessing of the local rabbi, Hagee got the green light.
“I met Pastor Hagee and was convinced that it was worthwhile to give this person an opportunity,” explained Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg. “I told the [Jewish] Federation that I was very impressed with the pastor and we should give his idea a shot. At that point I think the community was ready to participate in a Night to Honor Israel.”
Hagee credits this first celebration of the Jewish state as the catapult that started it all, telling the Haym Salomon Center, “If we had never done the first one, there would never have been a Christians United For Israel.”
“I don’t think anyone could have expected such extraordinary growth. But we did know, from day one, just how special this effort is. CUFI is an organization, but Christian Zionism is a movement,” explained Hagee. “Israel has a deep well of support among the American Christian community. And while CUFI’s size and strength have put us on the map in a very real way, I believe we’ve only scratched the surface.”
As CUFI looks toward the future, Hagee can’t help but reflect on the past.
“I am deeply grateful that CUFI has been able to help repair the relationship between Christians and Jews. For two thousand years, Christian anti-Semitism has driven our communities apart. Now, ten years of Christian love is beginning to bring our communities back together. It is a beautiful thing.”
Hagee regards the “disastrous deal with Iran” as the biggest disappointment in CUFI’s history considering the hard work CUFI and pro-Israel Jewish organizations put into defeating it. But the pastor insists that the organization is “undeterred” and is using the defeat as a challenge to build momentum and expand the pro-Israel organization’s reach.
Later this month, CUFI will begin taking their message to Christians across the globe in the form of a weekly television show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). “The Watchman” will be a 30-minute weekly newsmagazine focusing on the Jewish state.
“You have America’s largest pro-Israel group, CUFI, with its over 2.7 million members, joining forces with TBN, the largest Christian TV network in the world that offers a great global platform and an even bigger heart for Israel,” explained show host Erick Stakelbeck. “TBN is serious about Israel and they want to reach younger people. Today, we have so many millennials turning against Israel.”
Stakelbeck continued, “We are going to shine a light on the threats gathering against Israel such as Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, BDS, the UN resolutions and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. But we are also going to spotlight all the great things happening in Israel today, everything from the high tech and medical advancements to the human rights that Israel champions.”
While CUFI is taking their efforts worldwide, including branches in Canada and Great Britain, there is a new offensive developing back in the U.S. that has been described as the “Christian war on anti-Semitism.”
Fueling the rapid growth of CUFI’s support for Israel is Christian disgust with the upsurge in anti-Semitism, notes David Brog, who is a member of the CUFI Board of Directors.
“If I had to identify a core value of our members, it is their belief that anti-Semitism is evil. They are sensitive to it. And when they see it, they want to confront it,” said Brog.
For almost as long as CUFI has been in existence, President Obama has occupied the Oval office. Many advocates of the Jewish state do not regard the president as a friend of Israel, believing he has mistreated the one and only democracy in the Middle East.
According to Brog, “President Obama’s treatment of Israel has troubled millions of Americans. They think the Israelis will feel abandoned by America. And they fear that God will judge our country for abandoning them. They want an effective way to speak out against the president’s policies. CUFI offers this opportunity.”
CUFI’s efforts on college campuses address Brog’s and Stackelbeck’s concerns about young Americans. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents at institutions of higher learning coincides with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Confronting this growing on-campus animosity toward Israel and Jewish students has become a top priority for CUFI and most pro-Israel organizations.
David Walker, National Campus Coordinator for CUFI, is implementing a more proactive approach, explaining that BDS on campus is no longer a matter of if …It is already well established.
“We have created BDS Bootcamps to teach students how to become soldiers, armed with the necessary resources and tools to effectively combat BDS on campus,” explained Walker. “The strategy is to create coalitions among student groups to stand up against pro-BDS measures in student governments. This is something the other side has done very well. We also have to educate the students on campus with the facts through op-eds in the school newspaper and campus campaigns to educate students on what BDS legislation really is.”
Walker stressed the importance of “having a seat at the table,” referring to training students to run for student government offices. This is an effort to combat the infiltration of anti-Israel activists promoting divestment legislation among student government associations.
Campus initiatives are not new to the Christian Zionist group. Over 130 students have already participated in the BDS Bootcamps program. CUFI has chapters on 160 campuses and has trained students on 150 additional campuses.
These past efforts and future activism raise safety concerns for CUFI students as well as all pro-Israel and Jewish students on campus.
“Personally, I’ve had anti-Israel student groups get in my face with aggressive behavior to the point where we had to call the police and make statements about threatening behavior and students being shoved at an Israel festival at UC Irvine,” said Jessica Marzucco, CUFI Campus Field Organizer – Western Region. “Our students do face fear of retaliation. We’ve had students threatened, hateful emails, students spit on, and rocks thrown at them. At times our students fear just walking on campus because of the threats they receive.”
CUFI stresses the importance of the messenger. That is why the faces of their students feature many people of color.
“When people see activists from other communities speaking out in defense of Israel, they stop and listen – it adds legitimacy,” explained Walker. “When actual people of different communities are standing up for Israel, making the same points as students from a Jewish organization, it really helps us and shows a greater diversity of the Christian community and CUFI on Campus. We welcome it.”
Next, CUFI on Campus will be taking 35 African American student leaders on a trip to Israel.
As CUFI celebrates its tenth anniversary, they’ve embarked on what some may regard as their biggest initiative to date – taking their cause directly to Washington, D.C.
CUFI Action Fund (CAF) will be the group’s “lobby arm” in our nation’s capital. Headed up by Gary Bauer, former Under Secretary of Education and Chief Domestic Policy Advisor for President Ronald Reagan, CAF, a 501(c)(4), will fill a void that exists in the pro-Israel movement.
“There is no other Christion Zionist organization with the numbers of followers as CUFI. That makes the C4 a powerful force that can legitimately telll every Member of Congress that we have significant numbers of followers in every Congressional District,” said Bauer. “We are particularly strong in areas of the country where there aren’t large Jewish communities. We can have an impact where others can’t.”
CAF can be considered natural growth for the organization. Every July, thousands of CUFI activists converge on Washington for the group’s annual summit. On the final day of the conference, the attendees head for “The Hill” to meet with elected officials in both the House and Senate to express their support for Israel. Last year’s meetings just happened to be on the same day the Iran deal was announced.
While America was debating the merits of the deal with Tehran, CUFI orchestrated over 400,000 phone calls and emails to members of Congress and conducted over 100 town hall meetings and sit-downs with members of Congress and/or their staff.
In the end, no vote was taken, despite overwhelming opposition to the deal in the House, the Senate, and the American public. Keeping Iran accountable to the deal, making sure Washington doesn’t take its eye off the Iranian regime and advocating for Israel on campus, while combating anti-Semitism wherever it erupts, are all in CUFI’s crosshairs.