By: Jacob Kamaras
Latin gospel singer Ingrid Rosario, accompanied by a four-piece band, belts out impassioned ballads before a captive audience, hands clasped or in the air, eyes transfixed on the stage or closed in a meditative state. Is this scene from church? A Christian rock concert? Hardly. It’s a prayer session at a staunchly pro-Israel event.
The Jewish state was front and center at the April 28-30 annual convention of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC)/CONEL in Houston. On the first day of the gathering, NHCLC/CONEL—the world’s largest Hispanic Christian organization, representing more than 40,000 American churches and another 500,000 globally—launched an initiative called the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition (HILC), which will seek to galvanize the energy of the world’s nearly 150 million Hispanic Evangelicals to drum up support Israel.
“NHCLC has its own initiatives, and Israel was one of their focuses, but we felt so strongly about Israel that we needed to start a specific organization for the Hispanic Evangelical in the pro-Israel movement,” Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of HILC, told JNS.org. “We work with many different organizations, including AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and CUFI (Christians United for Israel). Both of those organizations are great, and they have their own Hispanic outreach, but this (HILC) is exclusively a Hispanic pro-Israel organization.”
“We want to build the Hispanic Evangelicals to be a firewall, a protection against this rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric,” he added.
The Israel issue’s importance to the Hispanic Evangelical community was evident at the NHCLC/CONEL convention when former Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Jeb Bush, in an April 29 speech mostly devoted to education and immigration, got the loudest applause for his remarks on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“We (the U.S. government) need to be focused and engaged in the world so that our friends know that we have their back, and our enemies fear us a little bit. There is no better place to start this journey than re-establishing a stronger relationship with Israel. It will create stability in the Middle East, it will create a sense of moral purpose of our foreign policy, and it is important to re-establish in short order,” Bush said.
HILC will advance its pro-Israel mission through conferences and other events, meetings with pastors, education, college campus programs, social media campaigns, radio and television advertisements, and a weekly Israel-focused program on the TBN Salsa television network. The Jewish leaders on HILC’s advisory board include Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy at The Jewish Federations of North America; Betty Ehrenberg, executive director in North America for the World Jewish Congress; and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.
Hoenlein called HILC “a landmark achievement” with “immense potential.” He recalled being “really surprised” when he first found out that one-third of American Hispanics are Evangelicals.
“I think it opens up doors to a very significant segment of the American population,” Hoenlein told JNS.org regarding HILC. He said that in many respects, Hispanic Evangelicals are “natural allies” for the Jewish community due to shared values “in terms of family, education, and other things, and their strong affinity for Israel.”
While the organized Jewish community also reaches out to Asian Americans, African Americans, and other sectors of U.S. society, Hoenlein pointed to the fact that when the Conference of Presidents undertook a demographic study of Americans five years ago, the Hispanic community stood out as a growth opportunity, and Evangelicals are the fastest-growing segment within that community.
Asked whether HILC will focus on making a biblical, political, or moral case for Israel, Pastor Bramnick said the approach will encompass “all of the above.”
“We’ll start obviously as Evangelicals with Genesis 12:1-3, the biblical mandate of Israel and supporting Israel. We will obviously discuss the importance of U.S.-Israel relations, Israel being the only beacon of democracy in a sea of all kinds of racism, radicalism, and terrorism,” he said.
The widespread persecution of Middle East Christians, said Bramnick, means that Jews and Christians “now have a common enemy, Islamic radicalism, and we believe that this is an important facet of [HILC’s] mission as well, that we need to be proactive on the persecution, to raise awareness and funds, and to help our persecuted Christian brethren in the Middle East.”
Yet no current events, according to Bramnick, change “our understanding of the biblical mandate for the Land of Israel, which was given by God, through a covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as an eternal covenant. With the miracle of 1948, God restored the nation of Israel back onto the land, for the Jewish people not to leave the land again.”
The NHCLC/CONEL convention’s April 30 morning program was devoted entirely to Israel, the Middle East, and Jewish issues. Speakers included Reuven Azar, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC; Jürgen Bühler, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; Iranian-born Pastor Mani Erfan, co-founder of Christ for the Crescent Moon Evangelical Ministries; Egyptian Christian activist George Michael; Leah Soibel, director of The Israel Project’s Spanish Media Program; Sammy Eppel, director of The Commission for Human Rights at B’nai B’rith Venezuela; and Paul Paino, church relations representative for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Bühler said that “you don’t have to be a great theologian to see that God is dramatically changing the way he is dealing with Israel,” given that the Jewish people were dispersed for 2,000 years but have now resettled the Land of Israel.
“If God is passionate about the restoration of Israel, you need to be passionate about the restoration of Israel,” said Bühler, who challenged any pastors in attendance to recall the last time they gave a full sermon about the restoration of Israel and the Jewish people, or the last time they visited Israel. He said he believes a day will come when “the majority of the churches all over the world will have a passion for Israel.”
Michael and Efran focused on the persecution of Mideast Christians.
“Jews and Christians are in the same boat. … Israel is the frontline,” Michael said. “Israel is surrounded by some of the most horrible terrorist organizations in the world. And there is no mistake or doubt about it, our (Christians’) enemies are the enemies of Israel. Israel is the first line of defense.”
Efran conveyed what he believes is a silver lining to a dark time for Christians in Muslim-majority countries, arguing that the worst moments in Christian theological history were simultaneously the greatest moments.
“Without the cross there is no resurrection [of Jesus], and without the cross there is no life after death. … Without death there is no life, without persecution there is no growth,” he said.
Jeb Bush was not the only expected presidential contender to speak at the NHCLC/CONEL convention, which was also addressed by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—who has since officially announced his candidacy. The Hispanic vote was considered a major factor in the 2012 presidential election, and as the 2016 race takes shape, HILC will be ready to bring Israel to the table as a major issue.
“The Hispanic community is a growing demographic in the United States, a growing minority with more and more of a voice… and I think that it’s important that Congress, the White House, and so forth realize that [HILC] is a major thrust and initiative for the Hispanic leadership and Hispanic community,” Bramnick told JNS.org.