Jewish allies of the Rev. John Hagee rushed to his defense yesterday to say the Texas evangelist is not anti-Semitic despite Sen. John McCain campaign's repudiation Thursday of the evangelist's endorsement.
"John Hagee is one of the Jewish people's best friends," Los Angeles talk show host Dennis Prager said on the air yesterday morning. "Identifying John Hagee with anti-Semitism would be like identifying Raoul Wallenberg, the great Swede who saved thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, with anti-Semitism."
Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, of Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio, appeared at an afternoon press conference yesterday to say Mr. Hagee's "words were twisted and used to attack him for being anti-Semitic."
In actuality, Mr. Hagee "interpreted a biblical verse in a way not very different from several legitimate Jewish authorities," the rabbi said.
"Viewing Hitler as acting completely outside of God's plan is to suggest that God was powerless to stop the Holocaust, a position quite unacceptable to any religious Jew or Christian," the rabbi said.
"I have devoted most of my adult life to ensuring that there will never be a second Holocaust," Mr. Hagee told reporters. "I have worked tirelessly to eliminate the sin of anti-Semitism from the Christian world and to ensure the survival of the state of Israel."
At issue was Mr. Hagee's reference — in a late 1990s sermon and in his 2006 book "Jerusalem Countdown" to Adolf Hitler being a "hunter" used by God to force Jews to emigrate to Israel.
In a reference to the Book of Jeremiah, whose author predicts a scattering of the Jewish people but saying God would bring them back to the promised land, Mr. Hagee says in the sermon: "How did [the Holocaust] happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel."
David Brog, a Conservative Jew who is executive director of Mr. Hagee's nonprofit Christians United for Israel (CUFI), said critics misunderstood the biblical context.
"Leading rabbis have said the same thing," he said. "This is a legitimate effort to grapple with the age-old question of why God allows evil in the world. Pastor Hagee was not, as some are claiming, saying the Holocaust was good. He has said repeatedly, throughout his life, that the Holocaust was the greatest of tragedies.
"But there is a long-standing Jewish tradition of searching for divine explanations for tragedy. For people who are biblical literalists, God is omnipotent; therefore, they maintain, God must have allowed the Holocaust to happen. What you hear here is an effort to search for an explanation."
Mr. Prager agreed.
"As a religious Jew, I don't happen to believe that God brought on the Holocaust," he said. "But my Orthodox Jewish father who fought in World War II and many other believing Jews do. There is nothing anti-Jewish about that belief."
Since 1982, Mr. Hagee has sponsored lavish "Nights for Israel" banquets to raise $30 million for Jewish and Israeli humanitarian causes. Then- Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire proclaimed Nov. 17, 1984, "Pastor John Hagee Day."
In 2006, he brought 3,000 pro-Israel evangelical Christians to the District for a "Washington/ Israel summit" to push the Bush administration to better support Israel and to showcase CUFI. A July 18, 2006, banquet at the Washington Hilton attracted then-Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon and Israeli defense chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon.
The Catholic League, which had criticized the televangelist over statements taken as denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church, defended Mr. Hagee over the latest charges.
"I ... found him to be the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met, and that is why attempts to portray him as anything but a genuine friend to Jews — one for whom the Holocaust is the horror of horrors — is despicable," League president Bill Donohue said Thursday.
Earlier this month, Mr. Donohue's watchdog group said an exchange of letters clarifying some theological matters "effectively ends" its dispute with Mr. Hagee.
Barry Block, senior rabbi at San Antonio's Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue, says the local Jewish community has been divided on Mr. Hagee for years.
"He has a long history of making hate-filled statements about a variety of groups," the rabbi said. "For the first time, we're dealing with a problematic statement about Jews, but we should be equally concerned about his record on Muslims, Islam, Catholics, Catholicism, and gays and lesbians."
He added, "Anti-Semitic is a term I use sparingly and would not apply to Pastor Hagee."