Is Pastor Hagee Good for the Jews?

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Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty

American Evangelical Pastor John Hagee addresses a crowd of his followers as they wave Israeli and U.S. flags during a rally downtown Jerusalem.

Cutting ties with John Hagee has proved to be a lot easier for Senator John McCain than it has been for some of the very Jewish groups most offended by the conservative Evangelical pastor's statements about God and the Holocaust. McCain moved to dissociate himself from Hagee after a 1999 sermon was publicized in which Hagee claimed that God intended the Holocaust, and had prophesied it in the Book of Jeremiah. "And that will be offensive to some people," Hagee boomed. "Well, dear heart, be offended. I didn't write it. Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority to the Jewish people is to get them back to Israel.' "

But where McCain cut ties with the Evangelical mega-pastor who had endorsed his candidacy, Abe Foxman, head of the anti-Semitism watchdog organization the Anti-Defamation League, appeared more willing to forgive. The reason for Foxman's reluctance to abandon Hagee may have been summed up in a letter from the pastor carried on the ADL's website, in which Hagee points out, "I have devoted much of my adult life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the state of Israel."

Hagee's support for the Jewish State — he also heads up the influential organization Christians United for Israel, and was a key speaker at last year's conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — has brought Israel millions, if not billions of dollars from Evangelical tourism, and it has delivered political support for a strong pro-Israel policy in Washington. As important as it has been to Israel, such backing has always come with an asterisk: Hagee's affection for Israel derives from a belief that for the Second Coming of Christ to occur, the Jews must return to Israel and rebuild the Temple destroyed by the Romans. The catch in this belief is that once the End Times roll, practicing Jews will be killed off during a period called the Tribulation — only those who convert to Christianity will survive.

Asked about this theology in a 2006 interview with NPR's Terry Gross, Hagee said that Jews would not be "raptured" and would be exposed to the Tribulation, although he said an unspecified number of survivors will accept Jesus as the Messiah and thereby attain eternal life. Many Jewish supporters of Israel tolerated Hagee's disdain for their beliefs, reasoning that his friendship was useful to Israel and that his End Times scenario was but a harmless fantasy.

But the 1999 sermon jolted many, because of its implication that Hagee could look with equanimity upon the mass extermination of Jews not only at some point in the hypothetical future, but also in the recent past. And, dear heart, they were offended.

After McCain dropped Hagee, the pastor wrote in a letter to Foxman that the Holocaust had been "a tragedy unique in its evil and horror," and that he himself was committed to helping the Jewish community fulfill the words "Never again." However, he admitted, "Central to my faith is a belief in an omnipotent, sovereign God" who presumably could have stopped it. "I grappled with the vexing question of why a loving God would allow the Holocaust to occur."

Hagee is a potent influence in the hyper-fundamentalist wing of the Evangelical movement, and although his beliefs (technically known as pre-millennial dispensationalism) are held formally only by a minority of Evangelical congregations, the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which render those ideas in fictional form, have been wildly popular. So it is worth noting that Hagee's claim to have been pained and perplexed at how his God could have allowed the Holocaust may represent fuzzy logic. After all, Hagee made clear in 1999 that he thinks he knows exactly why God had allowed the Holocaust — in Hagee's view of the preordained march of history towards Salvation, the Jews are collateral damage.

Most Biblical historians believe that Jeremiah, who indeed spent his career predicting his own people's ruin, lived to see his vision fulfilled when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC. It's difficult to find a serious academic who believes Jeremiah was looking 2,600-odd years into the future, although it may be a snug fit with the narrative of pre-millennialism. Unlike most of his predecessors, Hagee knows and likes Jews — rather like a Maoist who has personally befriended some members of the bourgeoisie, and finds himself torn between his affinity for them as individuals and what he knows to be their fate as a class in history's inevitable march toward a greater good.

For McCain, Hagee's theology may make him a liability, but for Foxman, the need for the Evangelical powerhouse's support for Israel trumps any annoyance at his view that the purpose of the Jewish State is to create conditions for an apocalypse that will see most Jews destroyed. Without commenting directly on Hagee, the ADL chief told TIME that in general "My condition for [Evangelical] friendship is that your love is not conditioned on my accepting your theology." Hagee apparently passes muster, since Foxman, replying to his letter, stated that he looked forward to working with the pastor against anti-Semitism. "We value your acknowledgement that the Holocaust was a tragedy unique in its evil and horror" and "the limits of our understanding in seeking to comprehend the mind of God," Foxman wrote. He added avuncularly, "We mortals sometimes get into trouble fathoming God's ways." Some of us more predictably than most.