To a first-time visitor, Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, feels less like a house of worship than a supersized House of Blues. The evangelical megachurch seats five thousand and features state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, plus a stage-length JumboTron. The seats are more luxurious than those at many high-end movie theaters.
On a recent Sunday night, the auditorium served as the locus for a small but significant moment in global politics. The near-capacity crowd gathered for a Night to Honor Israel, an annual event 43 years in the running, now held across the country but started by Cornerstone’s founder, Pastor John Hagee. Typically, the Night amounts to a restatement of evangelical Christians’ commitment to supporting Israel and its claims to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, populated mainly by Palestinian Arabs. But this time the event carried the emotional weight of the October 7 pogrom in which some 2,000 members of Hamas, the militant organization that controls the Gaza Strip, murdered more than 1,400 Israeli men, women, and children and took another 240 of them back to Gaza as hostages. This Night wasn’t a church service. It was a war rally, albeit in explicitly religious terms.
Throughout the proceedings, the JumboTron displayed a graphic of Israeli and American flags flowing into each other alongside a nighttime image of the skyline of Jerusalem—Israel’s capital, near which most of the crowd believed Jesus is prophesized to return after the kingdom of Israel is reestablished. As the audience entered, activists handed out pamphlets (“Father, we ask that You defend Israel’s righteous cause against her enemies as Your angels escort her warriors into battle”) and small Israeli flags to wave. They also handed out lapel pins with American and Israeli flags, though they felt a bit misplaced: most everyone showing up was dressed casually. Older women donned shorts and chanclas; many men had T-shirts tucked inside their jeans. The best dressed were a smattering of men in sharp suits and women in elegant blouses and glittering necklaces.
On the stage sat the evening’s speakers, including Hagee and two Israeli diplomats, Livia Link-Raviv, consul general for the American Southwest, whose office is in Houston, and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s representative to the United Nations. Link-Raviv spoke first. “Last year, I asked you, ‘Did you think that Israel is complicated?’ You all agreed with me: it’s not,” she said about one of the most complicated countries on the planet. “It’s the holy land. It is the homeland of the Jewish people.” Then she got to the crux of her address: “The [Israel Defense Forces are] strong and resilient, but we have a different battle to fight. The front of public opinion,” she said, as much of the audience vigorously nodded along. “Do not get confused. Do not allow others to get confused, not now and not in the days and weeks to come when inevitable difficult images will continue to appear”—an apparent reference to photos of women and children killed and wounded in Gaza by Israeli air strikes intended to target Hamas fighters.
Hagee stepped to the podium. He had started Night to Honor Israel in 1981 with the help and blessing of Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, who was the leader of the San Antonio Orthodox temple Rodfei Sholom. The event’s growing popularity over the decades led Hagee to found Christians United for Israel, a lobbying group that advocates for maximum material and political support for the Jewish state. Night to Honor Israel events sponsored by CUFI are held across the country throughout the year, typically in evangelical churches.
CUFI has become the most powerful political arm of American Christian Zionism, a religious ideology that, broadly, holds that Jews are God’s chosen people and that it is Christians’ holy duty to support their reclamation of their biblical homeland, which was promised to them in a covenant with God. The most extreme Christian Zionists hold that the biblical kingdom of Israel encompasses everything west of the Jordan River, including the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. Once that kingdom is reestablished, many Christian Zionists believe, Jesus will return. Then, Christians, along with any Jews who repent for having rejected Christ and convert to Christianity, will be raptured to heaven while the rest of humanity is left to suffer Armageddon. Hagee’s interpretation is one step less extreme; he preaches that because Jews have a covenant with God, they are not in need of “saving” and will have a place in the kingdom of heaven.
CUFI, according to Hagee, is also the biggest lobbying group of any kind in the United States, with a reported 10 million American members. That has made Hagee a kingmaker of sorts in Republican politics, and Cornerstone has become a required stop for ambitious GOP candidates. Recent keynote speakers have included former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, as well as Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick. Israeli political leaders understand CUFI’s political importance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a video address to the annual CUFI summit in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
To sustain a long and brutal military campaign, Israel needs the support of the United States, even as the death toll mounts for civilians among the 2.1 million Palestinians in Gaza. The strength of American political leaders’ stomachs will ultimately be determined by that of American voters. Hagee’s speech, like the others’, was meant to harden the crowd’s hearts and minds. “Now is the time to exterminate Hamas. End it and end it now,” Hagee said to approving shouts and applause midway into his speech. And then Hagee bellowed, “Israel today! Israel tomorrow; Israel forever!” The line echoed one made famous by George Wallace, who advocated “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” (During the former Alabama governor’s 1968 campaign for president, Hagee organized support for him through a group called Wallace Youth.)
Hagee’s address was bookended by videotaped remarks from Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Texas senator Ted Cruz and maximum-volume musical interludes. Cotton called October 7 “one of the worst terror attacks against America since 9/11,” conflating the U.S. and Israel in a way that prompted more than a few puzzled head cocks in the audience. Cruz declared, like every other speaker, that Hamas employs “Nazi tactics in pursuit of Nazi goals”—a reference to the militant group’s stated goal of destroying Israel. This prompted loud murmurs of approval from the congregants.
The keynote speaker, Erdan, stated that “to defend our future is to use every mean, every mean at our disposal so that this horror is never repeated. . . . I can tell you that all, all of Hamas’s terror infrastructure is built deep within and under Gaza City. There are terror command centers under hospitals, missile launchers in schools, and rocket manufacturing facilities inside apartment buildings.” His implication was that high civilian casualties could be expected. Yet he also implored the audience to discount “every number and every claim that you hear from Gaza,” because, he implied, Hamas controls all the information coming out, which discounts the information coming from nonprofits and journalists, including news reports of thousands of civilian casualties.
Erdan, Hagee, and Link-Raviv’s speeches didn’t deny that Palestinian civilians were going to die in this war, but neither did they allow for any real consideration of the worth of those civilians’ lives. In a twist on Isaiah’s injunction, the audience was, in effect, being asked to deny hearing any evil or seeing any evil so long as it wasn’t Israel suffering it.
The Night to Honor Israel seamlessly blended songs about God’s love with invocations that Israel’s supporters must harden their hearts against sympathy for Palestinian women and children who are going to suffer in the war against Hamas. The crowd concluded the evening in prayer and song and cheered for the battles to come.