Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times
August 23, 2011 - 12:00am

Reporting from Jerusalem

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before conservative American commentator Glenn Beck, viewed by many supporters as a modern-day prophet, brought his messianic message to Jerusalem.

But even in an ancient city that has seen its share of religious enthusiasts, Beck's high-profile Holy Land tour this week, culminating Wednesday in a rally just a stone's throw from the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock mosque, is raising eyebrows.

Before Beck's arrival, most Israelis were unfamiliar with the former Fox News host, whose cable TV show went off the air in June amid sagging ratings. But his rally has triggered a debate over whether he should be embraced as a pro-Israel friend or condemned as a fanatic who has battled allegations of anti-Semitism.

The visit is focusing renewed attention on the growing, and some say unlikely, alliance between right-wing Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.

Beck, who declined to be interviewed, is calling his Jerusalem rally "Restoring Courage," playing off his "Restoring Honor" event in Washington last summer. The purpose, he has said, is to demonstrate American solidarity with Israel. Hundreds of Christian supporters, many from the U.S., are expected to attend.

Beck's staunch support for Israeli control over Jerusalem and his criticism of Palestinians' ambitions to create their own state have won him praise from many conservative Israeli leaders.

"He is a friend who supports Israel, and we should work with him," said Danny Danon, an outspoken member of the Likud Party who advocates the annexation of the West Bank to Israel. "It's important for us to see that there are people out there who support us and not all the world is against us."

But critics say Beck's track record of controversial statements makes him an inappropriate ally. Last month he likened Norwegian youths gunned down at a political camp by an anti-Islamic extremist to "Hitler Youth." Twice in the last year Beck has been denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for "bigoted" and "horrific" comments on his show, one likening Reform Judaism to "radicalized Islam" and another in which he said Holocaust survivor and billionaire George Soros betrayed fellow Jews to Nazis.

Under pressure from Jewish groups in the U.S., Beck apologized for the remark about Reform Judaism.

He has several times had to fend off allegations of anti-Semitism. Last year he appeared to endorse the notion that Jews killed Jesus Christ; his list of the world's nine most "dangerous" people includes eight Jews; he speculated in 2009 "that Israel might be wiped off the map, leading to all-out Armageddon."

"If this is the only kind of friend Israel's government can find around the world, that's a very poor sign," said Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of Peace Now, the Israeli anti-settlement group. "It's a reflection on our current leadership that instead of having the world on our side, we can only get someone like Glenn Beck."

Arab Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi warned that Beck's tour could provoke violence, calling him "a neo-fascist comedian who is motivated by a hatred of Islam."

Beck's visit reflects the partnership between conservative Israelis and some American Christian groups. So-called Christian Zionist groups and evangelical churches, such as Texas-based John Hagee Ministries, donate millions of dollars to help fund settlement construction in the West Bank and support Israel.

The support comes, in part, from a belief among some Christian fundamentalists that Jews are God's "chosen people" and that a return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem are signs of the second coming. Beck, who converted to the Mormon faith in 1999, frequently discussed such end-of-the-world prophecies and biblical themes on his program.

For conservative Israelis, the benefits of the alliance are more pragmatic. American evangelical groups have become a key source of tourist dollars and political and financial support, particularly as the divide has grown between American Jews, who remain predominantly liberal, and Israelis, who are shifting more toward the right.

"It's a marriage of convenience," said Hebrew University political science professor David Ricci, an expert in U.S. relations. "Over the last 10 years, fewer liberals in the U.S. are willing to be clearly identified with the Israeli government."

But Ricci and others see potential fault lines in the partnership. For starters, evangelicals are often active in missionary work, something Israelis do not tolerate.

Last week, Texas-based Daystar Television Network hosted "Israel Day," in which it broadcast live from Jerusalem. In between on-air solicitations for $1,000 pledges, the program's hosts condemned efforts to make part of East Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state, and they vowed unconditional support for Israel.

Yet at the same time, the station boasted of "bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the land of Israel." One host said that more Jews have been converted to Christianity in the last 20 years than in the last 2,000.

Such comments don't sit well with most Israelis. Likewise, Jewish people don't fare very well in some Christian "end times" scenarios, in which Israel will be destroyed by an apocalyptic war during which Jews are either converted to Christianity or killed.

"This type of Christianity believes in the gathering of the Jews in Israel in order to bring about Armageddon," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a U.S. lobbying group that advocates for a two-state solution. "That's not exactly good for the long-term survival and security of Israel."

Ben Ami said that the tie between conservative Israelis and fundamentalist Christians "threatens to turn this whole conflict into ground zero for a religious war, rather than a territorial war, and a religious war is much more difficult to resolve through peaceful compromise."

Danon, who agreed that American evangelical groups were becoming an important political ally for Israel, said he's not worried about the religious divide.

"When the messiah comes, we'll ask whether this is the first time or the second time," Danon joked. "In the meantime, we have a lot in common. We don't need to argue about it today."


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