When Jesse Helms got religion over Israel
Conservative evangelical Christians in America have not always been strong supporters of Israel. They were once downright hostile.
That changed in 1984 when North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms ran for re-election against Governor Jim Hunt. Helms’ about-face on Israel had nothing to do with religion. These were campaign contributions.
During his first two terms in the Senate, from 1972 to 1984, Helms was a staunch enemy of Israel. He proposed a resolution demanding that Israel return the West Bank to Jordan. He said the Palestinian Arabs deserve a “just settlement of their grievances.” He called for severing diplomatic relations with Israel during the Lebanon war in 1982.
Asked about his views, he said: “Let me remind you that Menachem Begin (then Prime Minister of Israel) does not believe in Jesus Christ. “
Then politics intervened. I saw it firsthand in Hunt’s campaign against Helms.
Arthur Cassell, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist from Greensboro, offered to help Hunt. Cassell said the Jewish community across the country viewed Helms as Israel’s number one enemy in the Senate.
There was a rich vein of financial support for Helms’ opponent to tap into.
Tap on it, we did it.
Cassell has organized fundraising events across the country. We sent out a storm of fundraising letters. A reporter later wrote, “The pro-Israel political action committees poured an incredible $ 222,342” into Hunt’s campaign, a large sum at the time. It was only a fraction of the total raised.
Hunt, unfortunately, did not win. But Helms got the message. Upon his return to the Senate in 1985, he suddenly proclaimed himself Israel’s best friend. One account reported:
“The senator gathered as many of his Jewish constituents from North Carolina as possible, and together they set out on a pilgrimage to Israel. There he was photographed wearing a kippah and kissing the Western Wall. Upon his return, the new Jesse Helms bombarded the media with a series of pro-Israel statements.
The website for Wingate University’s Jesse Helms Center features photographs from this trip.
Until he retired from the Senate in 2002, including as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (1995-2001), Helms could not do enough for Israel. He even exempted the nation from its staunch opposition to foreign aid.
Helms ‘change coincided with evangelicals’ new devotion to Israel – and the conversion of the Republican Party. An analysis in Vox says:
“Two fundamental forces have combined to transform the GOP into the hardcore pro-Israel party we know today. First, the rise of the religious right, which views uncompromising support for Israel as a religious obligation. Second, the neoconservative movement has succeeded in convincing most Republican leaders that being pro-Israel should be a core conservative value. “
Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, put it this way: “God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, forever. And God bless those who bless the Jews, and God curse those who curse the Jews. And if we want God to bless us and God wants us to bless America, we have to bless the Jews.
Today evangelicals are closely linked to Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime and recently ousted right-wing prime minister of Israel. Netanyahu was a key and close supporter of former President Trump and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump obliged by moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.
Netanyahu was ousted by a fragile, thin and unlikely coalition of right, left, centrist and even Arab parties. They are united only in their opposition to Netanyahu, who faces charges of criminal corruption.
Friends of Israel fear that close association with right-wing evangelicals will weaken support for Israel among Democrats. It would jeopardize a long history of bipartisan support for Israel.
Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, political consultant and advisor to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.