Pastor John Hagee speaking at the 2022 Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Washington Summit. Credit: CUFI/Oren Cohen.
Pastor John Hagee speaking at the 2022 Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Washington Summit. Credit: CUFI/Oren Cohen.
featureReligion

ISRAEL TURNS 75

Pastor Hagee on first visit 45 years ago: ‘I arrived in Israel a tourist, and I left a Zionist’

The Christians United for Israel founder told JNS that his first Western Wall visit in 1978 was a “turning point,” setting him on a path to uniting Jews and Christians.

As an 8-year-old boy, John Hagee sat at the kitchen table listening on the radio to the formation of the modern-day State of Israel in 1948. “Never did I think that I would one day stand in the holy city as a participant in history,” he told JNS. “I was simply awestruck.”

One of the best-known Christian Zionists, the pastor—founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel (CUFI)—has met all 11 Israeli prime ministers since Menachem Begin, including Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has known since 1985.

But the pinnacle of his Israel experiences—what he calls participating in history—came in May 2018 when David Friedman, then Washington’s ambassador to Israel, invited Hagee to offer a prayer at the opening ceremony of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

That was an “exceptional honor and privilege,” Hagee told JNS. “Since CUFI’s founding, our position has always been that Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, and the U.S. should acknowledge that in word and deed.”

In a wide-ranging interview with JNS, Hagee reflected on why he first visited Israel in 1978 and what it has been like to return countless times over the past 45 years. He also discussed his decision to become a man of the cloth and, over the years, one of Israel’s most prominent supporters.

At home in a foreign land

Growing up in East Texas, Hagee aspired to serve in the military, and he received an appointment at 17 to go to West Point. “Ministry was the farthest thing from my mind,” he told JNS. One night at a church service that initially felt like thousands before it, he felt the desire very strongly to know God.

“From one breath to the next, I could not imagine my life without Him,” he said. “Everything changed.”

Hagee turned West Point down to attend seminary. In March 1958—just before he turned 18—he preached his first sermon “and never looked back.”

As a devout Christian, he made no distinction between biblical and contemporary Israel. “The modern State of Israel is, and has always been, central to my worldview and my faith,” he told JNS. “I learned Israel’s story as found in the Bible and her history as found in the pages of books, and still learn and study her contemporary challenges as described in the pages of newspapers and articles.”

It was not until 1978, when he was in his upper 30s, that Hagee had the financial means to travel the world, and he opted to visit Israel for the first time.

He wanted to see where Jesus had lived and taught, as well as visit the Sea of Galilee and the Western Wall. “It is foreign to arrive in a foreign land and feel completely at home, and it is unusual, yet impossible, not to leave a piece of your heart in the land once there,” he told JNS. “I arrived in Israel a tourist, and I left a Zionist.”

There is no substitute for visiting Israel, but one need not travel to the Holy Land to “understand its vital importance to all Christians, appreciate its modern incarnation and love its people,” Hagee said. “Since the time of God’s covenant with Abraham, Israel has always and forever shall be.”

Pastor John Hagee and wife Diana welcome Ukrainian refugees to Israel. Credit: CUFI/Oren Cohen.

On his visit to Israel 45 years ago, Hagee experienced a “turning point in my life,” standing before the Western Wall for the first time.

“As I prayed, I looked to one side and saw a Jewish man engaged in fervent prayer. And in that moment, I came to understand that he and I were spiritual brothers, but that I knew very little about him, and he may very well be scared of people like me,” said Hagee. “In the subsequent days, I bought as many books as I could to understand as much as I could about the history of the Jewish people.”

He came to appreciate the extent of Jewish suffering under those claiming to bear Christianity’s banner. He talked to his wife Diana (née Castro) and arrived at a decision. “While I didn’t know how or what exactly we were going to do, the Lord had placed it upon my heart to be a healing and uniting force between Jews and Christians,” he said.

In 1981, he hosted the first Night to Honor Israel, and in 2006, Hagee founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

“Today, I believe CUFI’s greatest achievement is that its existence has changed the way many Jews and Christians regard each other,” he said. “Now more than 10 million Christians have come to understand the importance of standing with our Jewish brothers and sisters in both good times and bad.”

‘More times than I can count’

“I’ve been privileged to have visited Israel more times than I can count,” Hagee told JNS. “What is most unique about Israel is not how it has changed, but how it has retained its character and ethos.”

Israel has grown dramatically over the past nearly half-century. “Its modern cities have grown from nearly nothing at all,” he said. “The desert has truly bloomed in the Jewish state. Israel has become one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.”

Yet the core values that drive Israel and protect it have not changed in the 45 years Hagee has visited, he said.

Stateside, however, Christian views of Israel have evolved quite a bit. Christians have long doubted that their faith had much of an impact on Israel, and did not translate that faith into action, Hagee said. That has changed.

“Millions of Christians across the country have come to understand that our mandate is not to just pray for something to happen—though this is vital—but also to be agents of change for something to happen,” he said. “Yes, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and we also do what we can to confront and combat antisemitism, whether it be in churches, communities, campuses or Congress.”

Hagee Ministries has donated more than $120 million to Israeli humanitarian causes, and more than $9 million to help Ukrainian Jews make aliyah, according to Hagee.

“Support for Israel amongst Christians is a deeply-held religious belief, but without education about Israel’s modern struggle, there could be no action in support of the Jewish state,” he said.

An overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants (79%) view Israelis favorably, as does 69% of mainline Protestants, and 69% of Christians overall, according to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2019. (Among those groups, positive views of Palestinians were much lower: 35%, 38% and 41%, respectively. Meanwhile, 57% of the religiously unaffiliated viewed Israel favorably, and 54% saw Palestinians favorably.)

As Christians become more “biblically literate,” they reject replacement theology, which holds Christians to supersede Jews, and as they learn more of Israel’s ancient and modern history, many become pro-Israel activists, Hagee told JNS.

He declined to comment on domestic Israeli issues, such as judicial reform, which has divided many Israelis.

“Israel is a democracy, and, as in all democracies, there are times of great challenge,” said Hagee. “But at the end of the day, truth will find its way and will bring unity and healing to the nation.”

‘God’s grace and time’s march’

Hagee has brought thousands of Christians to Israel over the years and has found common themes in their experiences.

“Israel releases a healing force that heals the body and comforts the soul,” he said. “There is not a time that one soul has left that sacred soil without having been changed forever.”

One standout Israel experience came in 2021 on a visit with Nikki Haley, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now a Republican presidential candidate. Hagee remembers vividly when Haley hugged a woman whose home had been destroyed by one of thousands of Hamas rockets.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley embraces an Israeli woman, whose home was hit by rockets in May 2021. Credit: CUFI/Oren Cohen.

“There, amidst all that destruction and pain, these two women from wildly-different backgrounds understood each other completely. I saw in Nikki’s eyes how deeply she felt for this woman, and I was moved as I witnessed this brokenhearted woman find just a bit of comfort in that heartfelt embrace,” he said.

Hagee encourages all people of faith to do “everything in their power” to visit Israel but said trying to describe a first visit to Israel is like attempting to convey adequately in words what it’s like to hold one’s child for the first time.

“There are two constants in this world: God’s grace and time’s march. It doesn’t seem like my first visit to Israel was so long ago, but my focus is on each day and the days ahead,” he said. “Every trip to Israel is more meaningful than its last, and every time I leave, I am eager to return.”

He will do that in the fall when he takes 800 people “to discover the joy and beauty of Israel.”

“The memories and moments that stand out from my visits to Israel could fill a book,” he said. “I pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And because my hope is in God, I know Israel shall remain strong and prosperous, and I have every confidence that Israel’s best days are ahead of her.”

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