There may well be no better illustration of the adage about politics making strange bedfellows than the relationship between Glenn Beck, the former Fox News talk-show host, and Israeli leaders—mainly those from the right side of the political spectrum.
A voice of Christian Zionists in the U.S., Beck is staging a rally in Jerusalem this week to “restore courage,” specifically the courage of ordinary Americans to publicly champion Israel. At a time when the Israeli government is feeling especially besieged—by armed attacks, a Palestinian initiative at the U.N., and economic protests at home—the event is a welcome show of support. Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party have signed up to attend, and Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi will deliver an opening prayer.
But Beck is a problematic ally for Netanyahu. Twice in the past year, his on-air tirades have been criticized as anti-Semitic (the Anti-Defamation League said his comments “distort and trivialize the Holocaust”). His underwriters for the Jerusalem rally include a revisionist historian whose views on Christian preeminence would make most Jews cringe.
Both sides tend to downplay the embarrassments. But they reflect a broader tension in the complicated relationship that has formed mainly in the past decade between the Israeli right and Christian evangelicals in the U.S. (and to some extent, far-right parties in Europe). The two sides share a biblical faith in Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria—what most of the world calls the West Bank. They are allies in the fight against Islamic ascendancy. But the partnership has required Israelis to overlook what, on the fringes of the Christian right at least, can be a tendency to embrace some unsavory ideas about Jews—or to just utter some pretty nutty things.
“We have our differences,” concedes Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “But we have a saying about our partnership: Muslims are going after the Saturday people [Jews] now and they’ll be targeting the Sunday people [Christians] later. So we have to work together.”
In Beck’s case, the remarks tend to get enmeshed in his withering attacks on liberals. In a radio broadcast last February, he compared Reform Judaism to “radicalized Islam,” a comment that Jewish leaders denounced as offensive and outrageous. Last year, he accused Jewish billionaire George Soros of “helping send Jews to their death camps,” during World War II. In response, a Jewish group said he was drawing “his material straight from the anti-Semitic forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” When a right-wing extremist killed dozens of teens at a political summer camp in Norway last month, Beck likened the victims to Hitler Youth.
Danon sees the remarks as the gaffes of a man paid to constantly gab. Among Israeli politicians, Danon is a kind of self-appointed liaison with America’s Christian and Tea Party right. In the past year alone, he has hosted Mike Huckabee, Herman Cain, and Sarah Palin in Israel. “If you take every media personality who has a daily show, you will find problematic things that he said,” Danon says.
But other Israelis are less forgiving, including one opinion writer at this right-wing website, who asks if Israelis haven’t gone mad, allying themselves with the likes of Beck. Bradley Burston, a columnist for the daily newspaper Haaretz, this week ridiculed the idea that Beck would be “arriving from America to teach us the meaning of courage.” The left-leaning movement Peace Now highlighted the fact that Beck chose a politically sensitive spot for his rally just outside Jerusalem’s Old City: “Glenn Beck can put a match to Jerusalem and then fly home to America. But it is the Israelis and Palestinians who will have to live with the consequences of Beck’s actions.’
The criticism might be having an effect. While two U.S. presidential candidates, Cain and Rick Santorum, are expected to attend, two lawmakers who are huge supporters of Israel have backed out: Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Beck’s website offers supporters “restoring courage” tour packages, including airfare and accommodations for $4,999. But Beck said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week that he expects to lose a million dollars on the overall venture. “This is not a money-making event,” he told the newspaper. “I am doing it … to show the world the courage of Israelis and the choice between good and evil and life and death, and to remind people that life’s not a spectator sport.”