Glenn Beck's Ambivalent Welcome in Israel

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The conservative TV host's much-hyped rally drew little attention here, much of it negative


CAESARIA, Israel -- The tears came early for Glenn Beck. Holding a bible in his hand, his eyes moistened and his voice cracked only moments after he took the stage at the ancient Roman amphitheater of Caeseria, Israel in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 on Sunday. Beck paced the stage, praising the righteous Gentiles of history who saved Jews from anti-Semitism, and spoke of the greatness of the Jewish people and the need to "love the Jewish people as they are."

Standing on the ancient ruins, Beck also spoke of what he called Jews' "2,000 year old flinch," which makes them shy away from affection from Gentiles (including, presumably, himself) because of "not just the Holocaust, but it's [persecution of Jews] happened over and over and over again."

Billed as "The Courage to Love", the evening was the first of three rallies planned for Beck's "Restoring Courage" visit to Israel, which the radio and former Fox News host has billed as an Earth-changing opportunity for "people who value freedom, honor and faith" to show their solidarity with Israel. Those in attendance on Sunday flew from across the United States and beyond as part of package tours to Israel for the event. Others present included local National Religious Jews and casual observers who took advantage of the free tickets given out for the event. According to Beck, the rally was also broadcast live at over 1,000 churches across America. The main event, "Courage to Stand," will be held Wednesday at the Davidson Center in Jerusalem, after initial plans to hold it at the Temple Mount were cancelled due to security concerns.

Far more tent revival than political rally, Sunday's event lacked the sort of red meat anti-Obama or Muslim-baiting rhetoric that had made Beck so popular among the American Christian right. He instead glorified Israel as a sort of city on the hill, a light unto the (Christian) nations of the world. The Judeophilia extended far beyond the praise of Zionism or the state of Israel and seemed to be an all-out love-in for Jews, cast in the role of God's chosen people and the creators of civilization.

The call to support Israel, which has recently been used as a wedge issue to lure Jewish voters, seems for Beck to be an essential component of the preacher and political savior package that drives his lucrative media empire. But among Sunday's attendants, the feelings did seem largely genuine. Those who had traveled across the world to be with Beck in Israel typically expressed a very non-cynical admiration of Israel, or at the very least a glorified Israel that stands as an embattled bastion of Westernism in a region ruled by tyranny and religious oppression.

Standing in a t-shirt depicting Samuel Adams with the word "Faith" written on the bottom, Maine native Marge Ripley, 65, said that she came to Israel for the first time to attend the event because she and other Beck listeners see Israel as an example of bravery to emulate. She said she believes that the Obama Administration is turning on its Israeli allies. A member of the Mormon church, Ripley said, "The way the news has been lately it doesn't seem that our leadership is really supporting Israel. It's a free country and it's the only free country in this area and we believe in freedom."

For Zane Zimmerman, a "non-denominational believer" from a small town outside of Oklahoma City, the rallies were the highlight of his 15th visit to Israel. "This world is very precarious right now, with the riots all over the world, the economic situation, and our White House has turned against Israel with what they're doing. And we're here to stand here and say the Jewish people have the right to live while the world is closing in on them again."

He added that he believes that the Obama administration "is turning on Israel and the American people do not support this."

When asked what Beck represents to him, he described the broadcaster as "someone who cares, someone who is sounding the alarm and doesn't mind living in the crosshairs." During his most recent visit to Israel in early July, Beck was feted by Israeli politicians during a meeting of the Knesset's Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, where he was invited by committee chair and right-wing parliamentarian Danny Danon of the Likud party. Danon invited Beck to speak to the committee about how Israel could help improve its image abroad. During his introduction, he said of his guest, "if we had no Glenn Beck today ... we should have invented a Glenn Beck."

Beck's currently ongoing visit got off to a rougher start. He arrived in Israel last Sunday, as Israel was already a month into the largest protest movement seen in the country in decades, possibly ever. Focused on social issues and the cost of living in Israel, the protests gained widespread support across the Israeli political and socio-economic spectrum, and drew over 300,000 Israelis into the streets across the country during a series of mass protests held a mere eight days before Beck's arrival.

On his August 11th show, Beck likened the demonstrators to communists and questioned whether or not they were being financed by some sort of international left-wing organization, asking his producer, "So there's 200,000 people in Tel Aviv, I wonder if there's any financing behind any of that?" He later added "Whatever you do, do not look to see if there's any kind of Islamist movement that is joining them."

He also suggested that massive construction in the settlements of the West Bank could solve the housing shortage and soaring real estate prices that have been driving the protests. Upon his arrival in Israel, Beck backtracked, telling Israeli media outlets that his words were misrepresented and Israel doesn't need outsiders telling it how to run domestic policy. Beck arrived at a turbulent moment for Israel. On Thursday afternoon, eight Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in combined terror attacks launched in southern Israel from the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli forces later killed three Egyptian police while targeting the gunmen, further eroding relations with post-Mubarak Egypt. Finally, Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip targeting the alleged masterminds of the terror attacks were followed by renewed rocket fire on the south of Israel from Gaza terror groups. Within less than 24 hours, Israel again appeared to be on a war footing.

Beck's "mega-events" did not look to be especially popular or anticipated in Israel even before these clashes. Now the rallies -- planned by a man mainly known in Israel among right-wing parliamentarians looking to cozy up to Republican backers of Israel -- are earning even less air time than before. With the escalation on Israel's southern border and Israeli eyes focused elsewhere, there were only a handful of Israeli journalists in a press section that was mainly filled by members of Beck's production crew and independent Christian filmmakers at Sunday's rally. The event failed to garner much TV coverage or public interest in Israel. That said, a visit by actor Jon Voight to a Beersheva hospital to comfort victims of grad rocket strikes on the city was featured prominently on Israel's main online news site Ynet.co.il on Sunday night, around the same time that Voight arrived at the Ceasaria Amphitheatre to a warm round of applause.

The domestic attention received by Beck's visit appeared to be largely negative, with Israeli-Arab Parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi calling him "a bizarre, conservative, neo-fascist comedian who is motivated by a hatred of Islam," according to an article in the Jerusalem Post last Thursday. The next day, the weekend edition of Israel's largest daily Yediot Aharonoth published an article dripping with sarcasm and smirk, describing Beck's visit to the West Bank settlement of Itamar, where he toured the house where five members of a settler family were murdered this past March. In the article, Beck is described as a sort of hapless charlatan crying on cue and traipsing through the West Bank in an armored convoy suitable for a head of state. The left-wing Israeli organization Peace Now announced Sunday that it will be holding a protest on Wednesday afternoon, ahead of Beck's penultimate rally on later that night.

On a certain level, though, the amount of attention paid by Israelis was probably of only limited importance to those present. Beck was performing to an ecstatic, emotional, hometown crowd that had traveled on his call, possessed by the feeling that they were taking part in an historic event, regardless of what critics or indifferent Israelis may think.

The most electric moment of the night came shortly after keynote speaker Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, took to the stage to thunderous applause.

Likening himself to John F. Kennedy visiting blockaded West Berlin in 1963, he said, "Today I stand here when Israel is a tiny island of democracy swimming in a sea of tyranny, I stand here as Israel is surrounded, hounded, and threatened, at this difficult juncture in history allow me to say something to you directly from my heart. Today in a world of freedom, the proudest boast is this: Ani Yisraeli! [I am an Israeli]."

Hagee then led the audience in the chant. The crowd of 3,000, nearly all of them Gentiles, began proclaiming themselves citizens of the Jewish state, finally creating an Israeli crowd to witness Beck's ministry.

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Ben Hartman is a reporter for the Jerusalem Post. Before that he was an editor and writer at Haaretz.com. Originally from Austin, Texas, he moved to Israel eight years ago and lives with his wife in Tel Aviv.

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