American television evangelist Pat Robertson passed away last Thursday at the age of 93. Interestingly, his death caused as many waves in Israel and the Jewish world as it did among Evangelical Christians in the US.
Robertson hailed from a generation that unabashedly spoke its mind. Kind of like your stereotypical grandfather who says “inappropriate” things at the Thanksgiving table. In our hypersensitive culture, that made him a divisive figure. And sometimes the things he said were considered by some to be antisemitic, earning him harsh criticism. But he also spent a great deal of time, energy and resources promoting Israel and what God was doing through the prophesied restoration of the Jewish nation.
By-and-large, Robertson is remembered by Israelis as a great friend, as expressed over the weekend by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
“My wife Sara and I are deeply saddened by the news of Pat Robertson’s passing. He was a great friend of Israel, second to none. Over the decades he led millions of his followers in supporting the Jewish state. I will fondly remember our many meetings together, his warmth and steadfast friendship which stood the test of time and circumstance.”
My wife Sara and I are deeply saddened by the news of Pat Robertson’s passing.
He was a great friend of Israel, second to none.
Over the decades he led millions of his followers in supporting the Jewish state.
I will fondly remember our many meetings together, his warmth and…
— Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) June 8, 2023
But remember, Israel has a firm conservative majority, many of whom are to some degree religious. So Robertson’s overtly biblical and brutally direct rhetoric, especially when speaking of Israel, didn’t bother them.
Not so with liberal secular Israelis.
They saw Robertson as cut from the same “messianic” cloth as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who Israeli media is now decrying as the greatest threat to the nation.
See related: How Messianic Is Israel’s Government Really?
In 2006, after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke that would leave him in a coma until his death in 2014, Robertson suggested in an episode of his flagship television program The 700 Club that the tragic fates of both Sharon and fellow former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were acts of divine judgement for their surrender of parts of the Land of Israel.
But it is instructive to read the full quote of what Robertson said on air at the time:
“I have said last year that Israel was entering into the most dangerous period of its entire existence as a nation. That is intensifying this year with the loss of Sharon. Sharon was personally a very likeable person. I am sad to see him in this condition. But I think we need to look at the Bible and the Book of Joel. The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, ‘divide my land.’ God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible, he says, ‘This is my land.’ And for any prime minister of Israel who decides he going carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No. This is mine.’ And the same thing – I had a wonderful meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in 1974. He was tragically assassinated, and it was terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless, he was dead. And now Ariel Sharon, who was again a very likeable person, a delightful person to be with. I prayed with him personally. But here he is at the point of death. He was dividing God’s land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, ‘This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.'”
Clearly, he was just reminding viewers of what the Bible had to say about the politics of the Land of Israel.
But for secular Israelis and Americans, that means nothing, and so they were outraged that his Christian leader would dare to label the downfall of an Israeli prime minister as God’s punishment.
Still, to see it as personal enmity for Rabin is disingenuous. Many forget that it was after an interview with Rabin in Jerusalem in 1974 that Robertson describes having his eyes opened to the centrality of Israel in God’s plan, and making a solemn pledge to always stand with the Jewish state:
“I went back to our group that was with me up on the Mount of Olives, where we were staying. And that night, I made a vow that I personally, and any ministry that I was associated with, regardless of the cost, that we were going to stand with Israel.”
Charges of antisemitism
Robertson, like many of his generation (see: President Joe Biden), was prone to off-cuff remarks that others find offensive. And on occasion those remarks were about Jews.
Some, like Shayna Weiss, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, remember those remarks as “antisemitism and hate.”
I first learned of Pat Robertson when he said, on Rosh Hashana, that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews. I was about ten years old and I heard my parents talking about it at synagogue after it was front page news. It is one of my earliest memories of antisemitism and hate.
— Shayna Weiss (@shaynamalka) June 8, 2023
Others, perhaps somewhat more aware of the nuances of Robertson’s Christian concern for the Jewish people, said it was difficult, if not impossible, to brand the man as an antisemite in light of his dedicated support for Israel and the Jewish people.
In response to a 1994 report from the Anti-Defamation League that he said made a broad case for Robertson being antisemitic, Norman Podhoretz penned a Commentary essay titled “In the Matter of Pat Robertson.”
The conclusion is “inescapable that Robertson, whether knowingly or unknowingly, has subscribed to and purveyed ideas that have an old and well-established antisemitic pedigree,” Podhoretz wrote. “Yet everyone, even Robertson’s most dogged prosecutors, recognizes that there is more to the story than that. For if Robertson is an antisemite, he is a most peculiar one.”
Having thoroughly documented the positive things that Robertson said and did for Jews and Israel, and examining the statements that purvey antisemitism, Podhoretz turned to the rabbinic concept of a contaminant becoming “neutralized” at a 1-to-60 ratio, batel b’shishim. “Robertson can and should be absolved on that basis of the charge of antisemitism,” he wrote.
In response to the Commentary article, Abraham Foxman, then national director of the ADL, wrote: “The ADL made no such case. We do not believe Robertson to be antisemitic and did not argue that he is.”
“One can air concerns about troubling statements and views without accusing their source of being an antisemite,” he added. “With regard to Pat Robertson, that is precisely what the ADL’s Religious Right report did—no more, no less.”
But these are seen as matters that concern American Jews and are rarely on the radar of Israelis.
Amongst conservative Bible-believing Israelis, Robertson ranks high on the list of the Jewish state’s genuine Christian allies precisely because of his willingness to cite Scripture and “tell it as it is.”
With reporting by JNS.
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