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October 5, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Ron Sider and M.J. Rosenberg

BILL MOYERS: Someone who didn't know better could imagine from the very name Christians United For Israel - CUFI -that pastor John Hagee speaks for all Christians. Well, he doesn't.

Like other faiths, Christians are a motley lot. For example, the last time I checked there were at least 27 varieties of Baptists in America, and I can tell you from first hand knowledge, Baptists differ profoundly in how we read the Bible, how we read history, and how we read election returns. Evangelicals come in hundreds of sizes and shapes, and CUFI is just one of the legions of conservative Christian organizations.

You know some of the others -- Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

What these fellows have forged is a close connection between the White House and the religious right.

But they don't represent all evangelicals -- not even close. Look at this letter to President Bush from evangelicals who don't belong to CUFI: "We affirm your clear call for a two-state solution" "Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia." andů "Israelis and Palestinians must both accept each other's right to exist."

Thirty-four leading evangelical leaders signed that letter in July.

And just this week, in the wake of the Annapolis meeting, another statement by evangelicals was issued calling for the creation of a Palestinian state. This time, over 80 evangelical leaders signedů including this man, Ron Sider, who's with me now. Ron Sider is one of the leading evangelicals who signed both declarations of Christian policy. He's the president of evangelicals for social action and he teaches theology at Palmer Seminary at Eastern University theology, ethics and politics.

His many books include, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" named one of the most influential books in religion in the 20th century ; "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" which won Christianity today's top award and the forthcoming "The Scandal of Evangelical Politics", which is due out in January.

Also joining us is M.J. Rosenberg, who has spent his career in the secular politics of Middle East policy, first as an editor at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, then for almost fourteen years as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill. Since 1998, he's been the director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, or IPF, which promotes a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East. He also writes the weekly "IPF Friday", a popular opinion column on the Arab-Israeli conflictů.

Welcome to both of you. What do you think when you hear John Hagee calling for military strikes on Iran?

RON SIDER: I mean, that's absolutely scary. I think it's abominable. But if he were representing a majority of evangelicals, then I would be really frightened. But the evangelical standard, the vast majority simply don't agree at all with that.

M.J. ROSENBERG: Well, we haven't-- you know, as a Jew, what scares me about him is that he sees us-- he sees Jews and Israelis as part of this divine plan rather than seeing us as people-- as, you know, as actors on the human stage, as just people. Israel was established not to fulfill prophecy. It was established after the Holocaust to be a secure refuge for Jews. And to have these thousands and there are hundreds of thousands of people out there, it doesn't matter if it's a small percentage of evangelicals, it's lots of people, who would take me and my friends and relatives in Israel and sort of, like, use us in their religious, you know, in their religious visions, a vision that ends, of course, with the demise of Jews and lots of other people as well. That's the part I find frightening. I mean, and I really do. It's-- and it's-- I think it's unsettling to most Jews.

RON SIDER: Yeah, I understand the problem. But don't worry about it too much. I mean, if you really are clear that this is just a minority voice on the fringe of the evangelical world then it's not nearly as frightening. The evangelical world, you know, represents a quarter of American voters. But the vast majority simply don't agree with Reverend Hagee.

BILL MOYERS: But Ron, when we say-- when you say that they're a fringe group, you've got in that conference in Washington John McCain, Newt Gingrich-- Rick Santorum-- Gary Bauer, big players in the political-- conservative political movement in this country. That doesn't strike me as fringe.

RON SIDER: Well, they certainly represent, you know, a number of people. Enough that those vote, you know, would like to get their votes. But, you know, President Bush sent them a letter, even though his own position is totally contrary to what their own position is. So the fact McCain showed up doesn't mean that he agrees with them. It just means that, you know, there's some voters that he'd like to get.

M.J. ROSENBERG: That's a good-- that's the good news about Annapolis. I mean, the fact of the matter is these people in theory have access to President Bush., and yet Bush went ahead with Annapolis anyway, which shows that they're not really dictating U.S.-Middle East policy.

RON SIDER: My group met with Condoleezza Rice. There were just six of us. It was the folk who had led to the Bush letter and now to the subsequent evangelical declaration on Israel-Palestine. And she said it would be extremely important for the public to know that a large number of evangelical leaders are in favor of a two-state solution.

BILL MOYERS: But here's the issue, it seems to me, as a journalist. The heart of the message of CUFI is that Israel must not negotiate with the Palestinians. The president this week says there will be a negotiation. If serious negotiations occur, won't they try to thwart it?

M.J. ROSENBERG: They will try to thwart it. But they're not politically as significant as the people within the Jewish community that will try to thwart it. The fact of the matter is--

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

M.J. ROSENBERG: Well, for instance, I mean, there are lots-- as you know, there are lots of right wingers, hard liners in the Jewish community, within the Jewish lobby that are not comfortable with a Palestinian state or with the United States promoting a Palestinian state. Those people are far more influential than CUFI because they're involved in politics in both parties. CUFI is almost exclusively Republicans. The Democrats are as closely as hard lined elements in the Jewish community as the Republicans are. They are the ones that matter politically. I don't think that CUFI matters that much politically. The other thing is the hard liners within the pro-- in the Jewish community give campaign contributions based on that issue. The CUFI people don't. They don't have nearly as much sway. One, they're in the pocket of the Republican Party. Republicans don't really have to court CUFI; they got them. I-- and I think that that makes them weaker politically than if, you know, I-- after all, nothing Hillary Clinton's going to do is going to cause them to vote for her.

BILL MOYERS: Which is more powerful, Christians United for Israel or AIPAC?

M.J. ROSENBERG: There's no comparison. Christians United for Israel is a big organization but does not cut a-- it's not a major figure on the Washington scene. AIPAC is about as big a lobby as it gets. AIPAC is much more-- more important.

RON SIDER: And the politicians know that CUFI represents only a minority. I mean, if, in fact, they represented the vast majority of the evangelical world, Bush would have to be a lot more careful. Condoleezza Rice couldn't go ahead with the kinds of things she's doing because evangelicals are enormously important for Bush-- and the Republican Party.

M.J. ROSENBERG: And they can't-- and they--

RON SIDER: But they know they don't represent the majority.

M.J. ROSENBERG: And they can't walk away. I mean, the fact of the matter is the CUFI people are going to vote Republican. When you're entirely in one camp, you just-- people don't have to pay much-- Bush doesn't have to pay attention to them. Where are they going to go?

BILL MOYERS: Ron, are you comfortable with Christian Zionists supporting Israel?

RON SIDER: Well as an evangelical I'm certainly committed to supporting the security of Israel. Everybody who signed my letter in the new declaration agreed that the United States should support Israel. We want Israel to have a security, peace, a democratic state in the Middle East on into the indefinite future. That's not at issue. What we're saying is precisely in part for the security of Israel and in part for the sake of justice, there has to be a negotiated two-state solution so that the Palestinians have hope for a fair state, for an economic future that's viable. And the vast majority of the evangelical world agrees with that.

BILL MOYERS: How many evangelicals are there in this country?

RON SIDER: Oh-- you know, with different polls and different studies that say different things. But a quarter of the American voters. Eighty, 90 million people. It's a huge segment. What's emerging in the present time, and it's huge in terms of change and impact, is that there's an evangelical center emerging. You know, the stereotype was that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, you know, the religious right represented the evangelical world. They never did. But now we've got a-- an evangelical center emerging that is much, much broader. It's saying that faithful evangelical civic engagement must have a biblically balanced agenda. And that means you've gotta be concerned about sanctity of human life but also the poor. With the family but also with racial justice and creation care.

M.J. ROSENBERG: You know, there's really a similarity between what you describe and the Jewish community at large. The perception of the Jewish community is that we're concerned only about Israel and that is the thing that drives the community. Israel is one issue that we care about. Fact of the matter is the American Jewish community is the most liberal religious grouping in the United States. And if you look at Jewish organizations, AIPAC is one organization, a very well-known organization. It has 100,000 members. Its focus is only on Israel. But our long-time larger historic organizations, you know, American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith, Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress. You know what their number one issue has always been? First Amendment and separation of church and state.

BILL MOYERS: You know, one of the things that intrigues me is that as a Baptist, growing up as a Baptist, I knew that Jews were our best companions in the struggle for the separation of church and state. And yet here you have both Southern Baptists throughout this country now and American Jews-- involved with a theology that intertwines with the state in the case of Israel and the United States. So what's happened to the tradition of the separation of church and state among Jews who have long fought for it but now welcome the embrace of a John Hagee?

M.J. ROSENBERG: Well, I think it's probably, you know, some Baptists and some Jews have forgotten their history. I think that's the main thing. I do think that most Jews, though, still, if you ask them to-- what's the issue that's most important to them, it is the fact that we be protected in this country as a minority. America has been the best home that the Jews have ever had in history. The establishment cause means something to us because if religion is established here, it's not going to be ours. There's not-- there's no such thing as the Judeo-Christian faith. There's the Christian faith. We are a minority community, like the Muslims are, like the other minority groups. It's very important to us, to every Jew that there be separation. I think what happens what you see at this with Hagee and AIPAC, you know, it's a very-- it's just an expedient temporarily-- temporary alliance.

BILL MOYERS: But in the long term, as Keynes said, we might all be dead.


BILL MOYERS: And if these people have their way, I mean, a strike on Iran, a one-sided position in Israel... I mean, that's volatile. That creates a combustion, doesn't it?

M.J. ROSENBERG: Well, especially now when you-- the fact is if you're virulently anti-Palestinian, you're anti-Israel. 'Cause there's no peace for Israel, no security for Israel unless there's security and statehood for the Palestinians. So when people get up there and say no Palestinian state, the Palestinians are terrorists, the Muslims are a terrible threat to us all, that jeopardizes Israel's future. And that's why you have someone like Prime Minister Olmert , who was a right-winger his whole life, who now sits down with Abbas and says, "We have a partner and it's the goal of Israel to help create a Palestinian state." That's what the prime minister says.

RON SIDER: You know, what I think is exciting is that a majority of the evangelical world, you know, wants to join with the majority of the Jewish world in saying now is the time. Let's make that happen. And I think if we can join forces, which is really possible-- we can, in fact, encourage-- hopefully even push, you know, the American-- U.S. administration to be vigorous. Because I don't think this is going to happen in the next year or whenever, it's-- unless the U.S. president and, you know, the secretary of state push really hard.

BILL MOYERS: I appreciate the fact that you both are optimistic if not benign toward CUFI and people like thatůBut it's always the radicals and the fanatics in the Middle East who have the last word. I mean, look, when Prime Minister Rabin was moving toward a-- a-- the same kind of peaceful solution, he was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish student, who killed him and said, "I did it because God told me to." You both are optimistic about this process--

M.J. ROSENBERG: Well, I don't feel benign about Hagee. I-- my wife is a-- my wife's parents are Holocaust survivors. My wife was born in a refugee camp in Germany, came to America in 1950. The fact of the matter is Israel to us is really, really important. And so is this place, which was the sanctuary for my wife's family, for my family, for my kids. Hagee threatens our place here. I'm not benign about him. I'm just kind of thinking, well, there are more like him and that's a good thing. That's not benign.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a biblical basis for supporting Israelis more than Palestinians? You-- I mean, you both-- Jew and Christian, read Genesis 12:3, quote, as John Hagee does, "I will bless those who bless you." How do you read that differently from Hagee?

RON SIDER: Well, there's another text just a couple chapters on in Genesis 15 where God says to Abraham that he and his descendents will have all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. Now, if Hagee thinks that all the promises about the land in the Old Testament apply to the State of Israel now, that would mean that he thinks that Israel ought to take over part of Egypt, all of Lebanon and Jordan and most of Syria and half of Iraq. I mean, that's just silly. You know, there has to be a compromise on land.

M.J. ROSENBERG: I don't look at Israel at all in biblical terms. I look at it entirely as this is the place that the Jews once lived thousands of years ago. And if we had had access to it during the 1930s and 1940s, six million Jews who were dead now would have been able to go there and live. It's a viable, dynamic, wonderful, exciting place that, unfortunately, it has not been able to live up to its potential because of this endless war. So what I want for Israel and for the Palestinians as well, these are two people who, working together, can make this region, make the holy land truly a light unto the nations, which is-- if you want to talk about the Bible, that is what it's intended to be. Israel should not be a place that teaches the world about military science. It should be a place where, you know, diseases are cured and it offers all kinds-- a-- a much better life to everyone in the world. I want peace for those people.

BILL MOYERS: I understand that. But don't the fanatics and the radicals always have the last word in the Middle East?

RON SIDER: Not always. I mean I think that's simply too pessimistic. There's always a danger of you know, a radical assassinating somebody. But it depends to a large extent, Bill, on whether or not the vast majority who want peace rise up-- organize-- insist that now is the time. We can, in fact pressure the U.S. and the U.S. can play an important role in encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians that, no, the last word doesn't necessarily rest with radicals. But it'll take a lot of activity, vigorous activity on the part of people who are in the center and care and want justice and peace for everybody.

M.J. ROSENBERG: I mean, if you look at Egypt, I mean, E-- Saddat did this incredible thing of making peace with Israel. He was in fact, assassinated for it. But the peace has lived on. And not a single Israeli or Egyptian has died in a war between-- or any hostile fire between these two countries in 30 years.

BILL MOYERS: Egypt and Israel?

M.J. ROSENBERG: Egypt and Israel. So to me -- that's also Jordan and Israel -- I mean, there is peace. It's not like Israel is no longer an island in a hostile sea.

BILL MOYERS: But in this country the right wing, the radicals, if you will, you call them radicals, they are radicals. They're organized. They have the money. They have this alliance with the Republican Party. And AIPAC and others make it impossible for Democrats to have the kind of conversation that you're having here. I mean, you don't hear this debate in the Democratic debates, do you?

M.J. ROSENBERG: You don't. And that's-- it's so amazing that no one asks the candidates about Israel and Palestine in debates, ever.


M.J. ROSENBERG: I think the reason they don't ask is that they know what the candidates are going to say is, "I love Israel. I stand with Israel. Israel is great." End of the discussion.


M.J. ROSENBERG: Because they are intimidated. What hap-- what--


M.J. ROSENBERG: By the lobby which basically does not want a debate on this issue. But, you know, I don't blame the lobby. I blame the politicians. They're not going to lose their seats in Congress. They're not going to lose the presidency because they endorsed a two-state solution. The-- it is not losing that they're afraid of. They're afraid of getting any static from a couple of right wing donors. I mean, I really-- I'm not-- it's not-

BILL MOYERS: It's not just a--


BILL MOYERS: --I mean, you have seen the candidates for Congress lose because of opposition from supporters of Israel.

M.J. ROSENBERG: You know what? I think that the only people say that candidates for Congress have lost because of that opposition is, one, the lobby itself to tout its own power. And those candidates who lost for other reasons and want someone to blame. No, I can go over those case by case--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but-- but in your newsletter you keep talking about the power of the lobby to intimidate the discussion among Democrats in particular.

M.J. ROSENBERG: I said in--

BILL MOYERS: --talk about Barney Frank, who's a good liberal Democrat but never discusses this. You talk about Nancy Pelosi writes a letter to Bush before the Annapolis conference and says the only solution can be one that deals primarily with what Palestinians are doing and has no reciprocity from Israel.

M.J. ROSENBERG: Oh, absolutely. The-- they have a real chilling effect on debate. The thing that's really ama--

BILL MOYERS: More so than CUFI, don't they?

M.J. ROSENBERG: Oh, much more. CUFI doesn't really-- I don't see them as really counting on this issue. No, they have a much more-- I go up to the Hill all the time, talk to members of Congress. And what they always are say is, "I'm with you 100 percent. I'm for the two-state solution. I know it's the best thing for America and it's the best thing for Israel. But you really don't want me to go out and say that in public." So they say, like, in my heart I agree with you. But that's not good enough.

RON SIDER: I think that MJ's basically right on that. And I'm sorry about that. I wish they did. I wish they had the political courage to-- in fact, say what they think. Because I mean, it's really momentous in terms of the U.S. and the history of the world and our foreign policy. Because 1.3 billion Muslims in the world tend to judge the U.S. and see it through the lens of Israel-Palestine. And all those Muslims perceive the U.S. as very one-sided. If we would solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, that would remove one major problem in the huge dangerous relationship between the U.S. with its large Christian majority and the Muslim world.

M.J. ROSENBERG: And, you know, on top of it, you have in the Jewish community some 70 percent of our community supports the two-state solution, supports the peace process, supports what Bush tried to do this week in Annapolis. But under our current system, it isn't majorities that matter, it's special interest groups based in Washington. It's a problem with our system right now and how it works.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think after Annapolis?

RON SIDER: I'm cautiously optimistic. I think it's new to have the leaders of Palestine and Israel say they're going to meet every two weeks. And I hope they, in fact, do it. It's clearly a new commitment on the part of President Bush to make this an important issue and to use his influence. I think Condoleezza Rice has been close to brilliant in bringing it together. And she clearly, that was one thing that came clear in our meeting with her. She is passionate about this, is ready to use all of her energy and skill--

BILL MOYERS: Two-state solution?

RON SIDER: Oh, absolutely. She-

RON SIDER: Yeah. She thinks that this is absolutely essential for the U.S. I mean, Condoleezza Rice said in our meeting that the basic parameters of a solution and agreement are clear to everybody. They've been there for some time. What's needed is the psychological breakthrough that can let us say what we all know has to happen. And one of the things that has to happen is a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

BILL MOYERS: Can peace take on its own momentum now, do you think? We've seen the demonstrations in Gaza by the militant Palestinians. We saw the demonstrations led by rabbis in the heart of Jerusalem opposed to Annapolis. We've seen CUFI send 12,000 and more letters to the White House opposing the Annapolis conference. I mean what gives you two fellas any feeling that on the ground this can work its way out?

RON SIDER: Well, partly-- is the-- some of the geopolitical concerns. I mean, right up front for all of the players at Annapolis is the fact that they're scared stiff of Iran and Hamas and more and more in league with Iran and-- and the terrorists and radicals are getting more and more power. So that's pushing everybody to move ahead. That's going for us. But only if large numbers of Americans in the center really get serious about encouraging this approach and really push now, only then will it happen.

M.J. ROSENBERG: I go to Israel all the time. And what keeps me going and being optimistic is the remembrance of 1999. 1999 was the best year in the peace process. It was when the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the help of the United States, with the CIA, were doing security cooperation. There was no terrorism in Israel for a period of, like, 2 1/2 years. The Palestinians started to-- their economy was getting better. The Israelis felt safe. And Israel felt just wonderful. And we had a moment, my wife and I visited her family in Tel Aviv. They are very right-wing. They are very religious. They don't like Arabs very much. And all they kept talking about was how they loved going shopping in the West Bank and how nice the Palestinians were and how surprised they were. And we-- my wife and I just smiled at each other and thought, you know, this is incredible. And later we realized they want-- both people are hurting so much that anything you could give them that offers hope, they're going to grab. So I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic about these two people, the Israelis and the Palestinians.

BILL MOYERS: But you were optimistic in 1999. What happened?

M.J. ROSENBERG: What happened in 1999 was the failed summit of 2000. A bunch of--- Barak and Arafat both dropped the ball. Clinton did his best. I give, you know, Clinton credit there. I'm assuming, 'cause I'm an optimist, that this time we've got leaders in place who really want to go for it and learned from what happened in 2000. So that's what makes me optimistic.

RON SIDER: And I think the geopolitical situation where-- worry about Iran and the terrorism and the radicals, I think that is stronger now and--

M.J. ROSENBERG: I agree.

RON SIDER: --much more relevant--

M.J. ROSENBERG: I agree.

BILL MOYERS: Ron Sider, M.J. Rosenberg, I've enjoyed your discussion very much. Thank you for being with me.

M.J. ROSENBERG: Thank you.

RON SIDER: Thanks.

BILL MOYERS: That's it for this week. We'll be back this time next week. I'm Bill Moyers.

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