Resurrection

08.24.11

What’s Beck Doing in Israel?

At the first of three rallies he is holding in Israel, Glenn Beck preached to his followers like a pastor. Michelle Goldberg reports on Beck’s ridiculous attempt to become a religious leader.

For years now, Glenn Beck has been warning us that we are hurtling toward a point of no return. Time and again, he has said that we’re in an “Archduke Ferdinand moment,” one shot away from a global conflagration. On other occasions he’s changed analogies from World War I to World War II; in March he announced on his radio show, “We have become the Weimar Republic. The warning signs are here and the enemies are within the gates.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Beck is now preparing his followers for Armageddon. On Monday, in the first of three rallies he’s holding in Israel, a mostly American audience gathered in the ancient Roman amphitheater in the northern seaside town of Caesarea to hear from Beck and leading end-times preachers like John Hagee and Mike Evans. “I have spent the last few years trying to find a solution to what’s going on [in] the world,” said Beck, standing on a floodlit stage at the pit of the open-air structure, Roman columns behind him and the scent of the ocean in the air. “Anybody who’s listened to me or watched me for the last few years, you know about five years ago I said, ‘We’ve got to get off the exits. We’ve got to get off the exits. We’re passing the exits!'”

His voice grew more and more urgent, sounding rather like Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka narrating the Wondrous Boat Ride: “There’s going to come a time when there’s nothing but freeway and a cliff!” Then, suddenly oddly calm, he said, “We’re there.” From the crowd, there were scattered assents. “While there may not be a political solution, the good news is, the God of Abraham ain’t running for office!” The cheering crowd leapt to its feet. “Be not afraid! Know who he is! Know his face! Know that he is a God of covenants and a God of miracles! We are leaving the age of man-made miracles of spaceflight, and we are reentering the age of miracles of God.”

For the last year or so, Beck has been transforming himself from a political commentator to an unlikely religious leader, a Mormon who has mastered the style and idiom of evangelical Christianity. “Restoring Courage” marks the completion of his evolution into a messianic preacher. It’s a multiday Israeli extravaganza set to culminate Wednesday evening with a rally beside the southern wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, all devoted to showing solidarity with the most hawkish elements in Israeli society. He’s recast himself as a great champion of the Jews, united with Israel in a coming global war with the Islamist and socialist hordes.

This is more than a little ironic, given Beck’s uncomfortable history with American Jews. His radio program and now-defunct television show have been full of classic anti-Semitic tropes, particularly his attacks on George Soros as a manipulative puppet master who is deliberately destroying America’s economy so as to impose a totalitarian one-world government. Beck has championed the work of obscure anti-Semites like Nazi sympathizer Elizabeth Dilling and Eustace Mullins, who once wrote, “The existence of the Jewish parasite upon the host is a crime against nature, because its existence imperils the health and the life of the host.” He is the author of a propaganda novel that attributes 9/11 to a scheming public-relations executive based on the real-life Edward Bernays, one of several Jews who occupy an outsize place in his personal demonology. He once described Reform Judaism, the liberal denomination of most American Jews, as akin to “radicalized Islam.” (He later apologized.) Even the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary has been alarmed by Beck; writer Peter Wehner described him as “the most disturbing personality on cable television.”

Glenn Beck has turned one of the most contested places on earth into a mere backdrop for his attempted resurrection.

Beck is working closely with David Barton, the GOP operative and conservative revisionist historian, on “Restoring Courage.” The two acted as cohosts on Sunday night, and donations to the event are being channeled through Barton’s Wallbuilders organization. Barton’s record on Jewish issues is no better than Beck’s. He built his career by arguing, via a selective reading of documents from the Founding Fathers, that the Constitution is rooted in biblical values and that the founders never intended to separate church and state. And early on, he found an eager audience for his dubious history lessons on the right-wing fringe.

In 1991, as the Anti-Defamation League has reported, Barton spoke at a summer gathering of Scriptures for America, a group founded by Pete Peters, a pastor in the Christian Identity movement. Christian Identity holds that Anglo-Saxons are the true children of Israel, while Jews are the Satanic offspring of Eve’s liaison with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Black people, according to Christian Identity theology, are a separate species of “mud people.” In November of that year, Barton spoke at another Christian Identity gathering, this one in Oregon. According to the ADL, his self-published books were advertised in The Watchman, a Christian Identity publication.

Barton later argued that he didn’t realize Christian Identity was a racist organization, which suggests, at best, remarkably poor observational skills, since his co-speakers at Scriptures for America included Holocaust denier Malcolm Ross and white supremacist Richard Kelly Hoskins.

Given this history, there’s an almost awe-inspiring audacity to Beck and Barton’s attempt to cast themselves as princes of philo-Semitism. Over and over again on Sunday, they emoted over their deep love of the Jews. And there were some Jews present who appreciated their affection. Among the few Israelis in attendance were a 27-year-old couple, Rafi and Natasha Farber, originally from Miami, now living in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. “There’s no one else out there to really be friends or allies with,” Natasha said. And she’s right—most of the world, including the majority of Jews, opposes the ongoing appropriation of Palestinian land.

Not that the thousands of Americans who’ve journeyed to Israel for Beck’s event are likely to learn that. On Tuesday I stood with a mixed group of Americans and Israelis, most of us Jewish, looking at the site of Beck’s final rally. It’s one of the most volatile places in Israel, with immense apocalyptic significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. “What happens at that one spot, more than anywhere else, quickens expectations of the end in three religions,” wrote the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg in his book The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. “At that spot, the danger of provoking catastrophe is greatest.”

Looking at the site, my colleagues traded wry quips about Beck’s messianic metamorphosis. As they did, a white-haired American woman admonished us. “If you want war, continue to listen to this,” she said. “But he”—Beck—“is only for peace. And we don’t follow him—we follow Jesus.”

She was with three other people, and soon we were having an animated argument. The Israelis were particularly impassioned, and the Americans didn’t quite believe that they were actually Jewish. Suddenly, a publicist named Ari Morgenstern appeared. He’s a spokesman for Christians United for Israel, but is helping Beck with the rally. After determining there were reporters among us, he whisked the foursome away, saying, “We’re asking all journalists not to bother people on the Glenn Beck tour.”

Beck’s event is less about Israel or Jews than about people like these Americans, whose view of the conflict needs to be carefully managed. After all, he has lost his TV show and his political influence. Israel is currently swarming with American congressmen on junkets sponsored by pro-Israel organizations, but none of them are going to Beck’s rally. Walking around the Old City, I ran into Florida GOP Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party favorite. Beck adores West—he’s even fantasized about a 2012 West presidential campaign. But West said he couldn’t make it to “Restoring Courage,” insisting his schedule is too packed. Right now, the only politician set to attend is Herman Cain. For Beck to stay relevant, he needs a miracle, or at least an audience that believes he’s in touch with something divine. And so he’s turned one of the most contested places on earth into a mere backdrop for his attempted resurrection.