JERUSALEM—Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Dallas megachurch, kept the faith and concluded his mega-controversial benediction over the spanking new United States Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel, with “in the spirit of Jesus Our Lord. Amen.”
The Israelis in the crowd traded uncomfortable glances, but the vast majority of Americans populating the temporary stands cheered and repeated after him, Ay-Men!
Jeffress returned to public consciousness on Monday when he announced he’d be giving the benediction at the opening of the Jerusalem embassy and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated that Jeffress was a "religious fanatic" inciting against religious minorities, including Mormons, like Romney, and Jews.
“Robert Jeffress says ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.’ He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem,” Romney tweeted.
No one listened. At least no one seen in the stands today.
Jeffress was a major voice of support for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and was a member of his evangelical advisory board. In the early morning of Jan. 20, 2017, shortly before Trump took the oath of office, Jeffress delivered a private prayer service for the Trump family.
Jeffress does not limit his intolerance to Jews and Mormons and Muslims. He has suggested that the Catholic Church was misled by Satan.
He claimed President Barack Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist.
The “the dark dirty secret of Islam,” Jeffress offers, is “a heresy from the pit of hell,” and “a religion that promotes pedophilia.”
But American evangelicals have a long history viewing Jews in particular as a vehicle for their own redemption. A vocal demimonde of pro-Israel Trump evangelicals, many analysts believe, carried Trump past the finish line in 2016, and the very small subset of Republican Jewish Coalition members, for whom the opening ceremony was nothing less than a victory parade, are inclined to set aside any discomfort they may feel for the sake of fostering political partnerships.
Eugene Kontorovich, a Northwestern University professor of law who attended the embassy opening, which was, in terms of physical fact, merely the unveiling of a new sign at the old American Consulate building in Jerusalem, said he thought a political common cause was good reason ‘to think again about tolerance towards other people’s beliefs and religious precepts.’” Meaning tolerance of politically useful intolerance in this case.
Mike Hayes, the founding pastor of the Covenant Church in Carrollton, TX, and a member of a large Texas contingent attending the event, that included Senator Ted Cruz and the San Antonio megachurch preacher John Hagee, said that “the church has a long history of separation from and even persecution of Jews and Jewish causes.” He added that this “has changed a lot in my lifetime, but I think there’s probably still a separation.”
He recoiled from Jeffress’ sentiment, but said “It is a pretty typical feeling of a large percentage of evangelical thought throughout the years, coming all the way from the early birth of the church.”
Daniel Seidemann, a liberal activist and author on issues relating to Jerusalem, tweeted that “Jeffress embodies the true significance of moving the embassy to Jerusalem: transforming ‘pro-Israel’ into a wholly owned subsidiary of the ‘end-of-days’ evangelical alt-right.”
Jeffress was far from the only contentious religious leader at the event, that proceeded apace even as the death toll from Palestinian protests at the border with Gaza leapt from 20 to more than 50 and as Israeli air force jets could be heard overhead.
Also in the audience, though not invited to speak, was Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, who faces possible charges for inciting to racism after a March speech in which he compared African-Americans to monkeys.
In an address on aspects of Jewish law touching on a blessing made upon seeing the season’s first fruit trees blossoming, and also, according to the Talmud, the central text of rabbinic thought, when seeing “a black person, a very red or very white person” Yosef explained the text does not refer to an African-American, but to a black person born to two white parents.
“You can’t make the blessing on every black person you see — in America you see one every five minutes, so you make it only on a person with a white father and mother,” the chief rabbi said. “How would you know? Let’s say you know! So they had a monkey as a son.”
Some 800 people cheered when Trump’s name was uttered and for some the event appeared to be an ecstatic moment, their hour come round at last.
Hagee, who pronounced the ceremony’s final blessing, caught the mood of the crowd with a rhythmic call-and-response of “Israel lives!” and when he said “The Messiah will come and establish a Kingdom that will never end.”
Amb. Yoram Ettinger, a former Isaeli consul in Texas and a friend of Hagee, said the pastor “was deeply misunderstood and often slandered.”
Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, a group that spearheaded the embassy move, got national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republican presidential candidate John McCain disavowed his endorsement after comments relating to Adolf Hitler came to light.
In audio from the 1990s, Hagee appeared to suggest that Adolf Hitler fulfilled a biblical prophecy by supporting the migration of Jews to pre-state Israel.
“God says in Jeremiah 16: ‘Behold, I will bring them the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave to their fathers. … Behold, I will send for many fishers, and after will I send for many hunters,'” Hagee said, according to a transcript of the sermon. “‘And kthe hunters shall hunt them.’ That would be the Jews. … Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”
McCain said the remarks were “deeply offensive and indefensible.”
Hagee withdrew his endorsement of McCain and asserted “that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the biggest and ugliest of lies. I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms.”