The Righteous Brothers

Tom DeLay goes over the top with the Zionist Organization of America

By the time Tom DeLay arrived at the head table in the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Hilton on November 16, his obvious intention to succeed Denny Hastert as Speaker of the House seemed too modest by half. A man standing in line at the Zionist Organization of America awards banquet said DeLay made Sam Rayburn look like a lightweight because DeLay stands up to a popular president in his own party. A young telecommunications consultant who had driven over from Englewood, New Jersey, said that more than anything he wanted to get his picture taken with “the man who really is the Speaker of the House and ought to be looking for something bigger.†Morton Klein, president of the Zionist group that brought DeLay to New York to receive an award, said that he had wanted to see DeLay elected president of the United States. Now, he said, in his remarks from the speaker’s platform, he wants Tom DeLay to become prime minister of Israel (a career option Democrats in the Texas congressional caucus would probably support).

DeLay was compared to the Lamed Vav, the “36 just men†in Jewish tradition, whose very existence sustains mankind. But DeLay is a gentile—and a man with a temperament, voting record, and fundraising list that makes him as likely to be designated one of the Lamed Vav as Michael Jackson is to be father of the year. So Klein reached into the Old Testament for a comparison that better suited his subject. “Moses wanted to know if there were any righteous men in Canaan.†DeLay, he said, was far more than the “go-to person for the ZOA and other pro-Israel groups.†Tom DeLay is “a righteous gentile.†The sort of righteous gentile Moses sought. Maybe even more so. For Klein, the congressman from Sugar Land has earned his place on a very short list of righteous gentiles who have at great risk defended the Jewish people. Klein ran through the list: Emile Zola, Arthur Balfour, Oskar Schindler, and now Tom DeLay.

Here I wanted to ask the earnest young man who asked me if I knew any Yiddish how he would translate “over the top.†The Zionist Organization of America’s annual awards banquet might have been billed as “Over the Top on Tom DeLay.†Almost 800 people paid $360 to eat a plate of convention chicken and listen to a speech by the majority leader. Three others were receiving awards, but DeLay was the star—both the keynote speaker and recipient of the ZOA’s Defender of Israel Award.

“We’re here to show our support for the congressman,†said an elegant Park Avenue matron. She also wondered if DeLay would be bringing “any of his Christian group with him.â€

Small potted barrel cacti with Israeli, American, ZOA, and Texas flags planted around each cactus served as table centerpieces. Signs on each pot compared Israelis and Texans to cactus: “tough on the outside, sweet on the inside.†(While sweetness is not an attribute that comes to mind when someone mentions Ariel Sharon or Tom DeLay, DeLay’s one soft spot is foster children. Three days after he spoke in New York, he raced from a Capitol negotiation session on Medicare legislation to a Ways and Means hearing in the Longworth Building—literally too winded to speak as he began his testimony as a witness arguing for legislation to protect foster children.)

The ZOA’s banner hung behind the dais, above which images of Israel were projected on a huge screen. A small shofar sat on the head table, not to be blown to signal the beginning of any religious observance, but rather to be awarded to Joseph Farah, a columnist who, according to the biography in the award banquet’s program, co-wrote See, I Told You So, with Rush Limbaugh and who is also, by ZOA standards, a staunch defender of Israel. (Last year’s recipient was Christian right columnist Cal Thomas.)

If the praise for DeLay was over the top, the evangelical Christian majority leader had earned his award. He stood up to G.W. Bush on Middle East policy, called Yassir Arafat a terrorist, and on the very day Ariel Sharon was flying to Washington to meet with President Bush, DeLay traveled to Israel where he dismissed Bush’s “roadmap for peace.†The Palestinian state proposed in the plan would be “a terrorist state,†DeLay said. (Sharon delayed his departure for Washington long enough to welcome DeLay to Israel).

DeLay was also being awarded for his bold cartography. Not the creative cartography he resorted to when he redrew the maps of his home state’s congressional districts. Regarding Israel, DeLay is a defender of old borders. Not the “pre-1967 borders†supported by advocates of the “policy of appeasement.†The majority leader who has staked a Middle East policy far to the right of anything George W. Bush would find acceptable is a staunch biblicist; his map of Israel is informed by the Bible. His speech to the ZOA might have been flat and not nearly as emotional as his July speech before the Knesset. But it was what DeLay said that turned on the crowd. He charted an Israel with a border far east of the Jordan River. “When I stood on the Golan,†DeLay said, “I didn’t see any occupied territory. I only saw Israel …. I saw Judea and Samaria.†Arafat, DeLay said, “is a terrorist and should be treated as a terrorist.†And with or without Arafat, the United States is not a neutral party negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Never again should we imagine that we are an honest broker … We are on the side of freedom.†The U.S., he said, is an ally of Israel. The two countries, he said, “are two democracies at war bound together by freedom.â€

With this crowd, there is no middle ground on Israel. The U.S. State Department is a threat to the security of Israel, as is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was singled out by the speaker presenting Farah his award: “Thomas Friedman will never win the ZOA Ben Hecht Journalism Award!†As is billionaire George Soros, for advocating a more moderate Israeli-Palestinian policy. DeLay said his photo is hanging with Klein’s on the State Department dart board in Foggy Bottom: “In case you need definitive evidence that I’m a defender of Israel, there it is,†he said. The president and the State Department would impose conditions on the Palestinians as a prerequisite to a Palestinian state. DeLay defined a higher standard. “Certainly the creation of a Palestinian state will follow, not precede, wholesale political reform in the Arab world … Events continue to suggest there is nothing to negotiate.â€

The ZOA was founded in 1897, when the state of Israel was still a gleam in Theodor Herzl’s eye, and today is a real player on Capitol Hill, where Klein frequently appears before House and Senate committees, and ZOA members regularly work their representatives and senators. Its membership—if the crowd gathered at the Hilton was reasonably representative—is a mix of (politically) conservative and progressive, urbane Jews who are ardent supporters of Israel—unlikely subjects to embrace the theology of the Christian Zionists who inform DeLay’s Middle East policy. Strange things are happening in what some Christians call “End Times,†yet it was hard to imagine too many people in this room feeling at home in the sanctuary of John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, where Tom DeLay was one of two featured speakers at last year’s “Night to Honor Israel.†(See “The End is Nigh,†December 6, 2002.)

Rev. Hagee is a pre-millennial dispensationalist, whose theology focuses on selected apocalyptic passages of the book of Revelations. In order for Christ to return, by this interpretation, certain biblical prophecies must be fulfilled: The Temple must be rebuilt for a third time on the Temple Mount; the anti-Christ must manifest himself and be defeated by Christ, who will then keep the Devil bound for 1,000 years of peace; the biblical kingdoms of Israel—Judea and Samaria—will be united; and the Jews, having done their part, will either convert or perish. (Actually, 144,000 Jews will survive the Battle of Armageddon, 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.) Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli who wrote The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, compares the Christian Zionists’ end times theology to a four-act play in which Jews play their part in the first three acts then disappear at the end.

How do these urbane, northeastern Jews reconcile the deal they cut with southern Christian Zionists and a theology that turns anti-Semitic at the end of End Times? Hagee raised $1.5 million last year to relocate Russian Jews to Israel, and there seems to be a careful attempt to separate the sacred from the profane. “Israel needs help from wherever it can get it,†said one woman. “We don’t have to accept their beliefs to accept their support,†said a man at the Young Jewish Leaders table, before enthusiastically referring me to Pat Robertson’s website. “What happened on 9/11 has made Jews and Christians much closer,†said a woman who had driven up from Philadelphia.

Klein, who is an eclectic genius who has committed the Torah to memory and is known for his ability to remember long strings of numerals and recite them back an hour later, has a pat answer. “I promise them that if Jesus comes back like they prophesize, I’ll convert. My more immediate interest is that they support us and see Israel as a holy Jewish land.†Klein didn’t seem too worried about the advent of the End Times: “Their praying for it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.†Meanwhile, Tom DeLay prays it does.

Former Observer Editor Lou Dubose divides his time between Austin and Washington, D.C., where he is working on a book.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST