At a time when old-time Zionists have become more acquainted with anxiety than celebration, with Israel confronting floodwaters of excoriation and isolation internationally and on campus, and with thousands feeling connected to more than a dozen families saying Kaddish for terrorist murders, Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, sensed that the annual ZOA dinner had to provide not only a meal in a ballroom but a reason to believe.
When the ZOA was founded in 1897, the founders surely could never have imagined that the greatest infusion of energy at the ZOA dinner last Sunday night would come from a pair of feisty Christian Zionists — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex), a possible presidential candidate, and Pastor John Hagee, leader of Christians United for Israel, with more than a million members. The two turned the dinner into a well-dressed version of a Texas tent revival show, urging the gathered to throw away their crutches and insecurity and reclaim the high ground of confidence in hardline politics, sometimes more hardline than the Israeli government itself.
Cruz spoke with such passion about terror victims (whom he was able to individually name though speaking without notes), the common cause between the oppression of Jews and Christians in the Middle East, and stiffer sanctions against Iran, that some of the 1,100 in attendance enthusiastically chanted “Run Ted Run!” “Cruz 2016!”
At Sunday’s dinner at The Grand Hyatt in midtown, Cruz asked, “What would real presidential leadership look like? A real president who is standing up for the nation of Israel… [Someone who would] say on the world stage, under no circumstances would Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran will either stop or we will stop them.”
Hagee also criticized President Obama’s Iran policies: “While the Iranians are playing chess, the Americans are playing checkers.”
The pastor went further in his attacks on the president — or as Klein called him, “Barack Hussein Obama” — declaring, said Hagee, that he is “one of the most anti-Semitic presidents in the history of the United States.”
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was not at the dinner, later issued a statement: “We understand and appreciate that Pastor Hagee has strong opinions and is genuinely concerned for the well-being and safety of the Jewish state of Israel. That said, the pastor’s remarks about President Obama were offensive and misplaced. [There] are many, myriad and serious threats to Jews around the world. ‘Anti-Semitic’ is a term that should never be used lightly, or applied to exact a political score or make a political point.”
Hagee explained himself later in his ZOA address: In October, he said, an Obama administration official made “a disgusting personal attack on Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,” referring to Netanyahu as a “coward” and “chickenshit.” The White House disavowed those words but Hagee accused the White House of making “no effort to find out who said it,” and Hagee demanded the White House find out whom that official was “and have him removed from public office.”
Cruz brought up the official’s “chickenshit” remark, as well, saying, “Anyone watching the policy of this administration would not [have been] surprised by that. [The official] simply said out loud what the treatment has been.”
Hagee, without rebuke from the ADL, also mocked Obama’s frequent assertion that the United States has an unbreakable bond with the State of Israel. Said Hagee, “He knows it’s unbreakable because he’s been trying to break it for the last five years.”
Hagee was equally defiant in his rejection of the peace process, as it is commonly understood. “The controversy of who owns the Land of Israel was resolved 4,000 years ago,” said Hagee. “The Jewish people do not occupy the land. The Jewish people own the land. … I propose that America cut off all foreign aid to the Palestinians. … Israel has a right to secure borders and the 1967 borders are not those borders.”
Similarly defiant, Klein asserted that Jewish settlements were legal and moral, and that Israel’s claims to Jerusalem were neither right nor left because “truth is not a political position.”
The ZOA leader told the dinner that Israel’s international loneliness was comparable to 1938 Czechoslovakia. Maybe we’re alone, said Klein, but “there have been many cases in which only the Jews were right and the whole world was wrong.”
Before the dinner, Klein remarked, “things have gotten so much more frightening in the last year, I wanted ZOA to gain more visibility by having an all-star array of Jewish leaders and activists.”
Aside from Hagee and Cruz, a video greeting from Prime Minister Netanyahu, a Torah address by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and the presence of several billionaires (Sheldon Adelson, most prominent among them), Klein’s all-stars also included “two liberal Democrats,” he said, “Alan Dershowitz and Mort Zuckerman. I don’t want people to say we just had conservatives.”
ZOA’s campus activists also sold subsidized tickets to 261 college students. Klein said, “We view this, for college kids, as a seminar on the Arab war against Israel, because on campuses they’ll never learn the truth that they’ll learn at our dinner.”
Ronald Rubin, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, said in the corridor, “In these times, when so many are not taking up Israel’s defense, the role of the ZOA is even more urgent than it was. Israel’s interests are not necessarily popular liberal interests. That’s an important message for the Jewish community to learn.”
Anna Herman, another guest at the event, said she goes to lobby Congress twice a year with NORPAC and ZOA. Her son, a Tel Aviv lawyer, lives in the settlement of Har Bracha. “The ZOA is the only one who speaks for my kids in Israel who live in the [settlements]. They’re very brave people and they need support.”
From the other end of the political spectrum, Dershowitz cheerfully told the dinner, “I am here as a liberal Democrat Zionist,” and the crowd cheered. “I’m here in the spirit of unity and bipartisanship. Israel must always remain a bipartisan issue.”
Dershowitz explained to the dinner, “We who support Israel must express our deep gratitude, our deep appreciation, and yes, our admiration, for those who stand up for the the State of the Jewish people, even if we disagree with their other political, theological, or social views… And the corollary of that, we must express our disdain and opposition to those who try to demonize Israel, even if we agree with them on some other social or political issues.”
Dershowitz rhetorically asked his liberal allies, “Why don’t you follow your principles [and support Israel] when Israel [in comparison to Arab states] has the strongest record on human rights, on gay rights, for women’s rights, for environmental rights, so why do so many on the left demonize Israel?”
Hagee closed the dinner with critique of the administration that he said has “lectured Israel like an unruly child. … We should not be pressuring Israel to be more like us. … Israel is not the problem. They are they solution.”
This article was originally published by the Jewish Week and may be found here.