A Friend of the Jews

Despite decades of antisemitic theology and conspiracy theories, we are still being told that Pat Roberston was a friend of the Jews. Is support for Israel enough to forgive the rest?

A Friend of the Jews

“AIPAC mourns the passing of Pat Robertson, who was a great friend of Israel and a pioneer in the modern Christian Zionist movement,” tweeted the pro-Israel lobbying organization, joining a chorus of other right-wing Jewish organizations echoing similar sentiment. Robertson’s death at 93 marked the end of the line for one of the most controversial figures in American politics, someone who helped launch Christian conservatism into the influential role it now holds in the GOP. Robertson’s ideas were not simply a recitation of Biblical fundamentalism, but rather complex, mixing eschatology, frantic anxiety and conspiracy theories into a miasma that was at one time novel and, today, is a common brand of right-wing politics. His ideas centered on the notion that a poisonous cabal was out to destroy the lives of hard-working Christian Americans, who he frames as the only truly morally righteous proletariat that he is allegedly the representative of. But while Robertson’s antisemitism has been well documented for decades, why is he continuing to be referred to as a proven friend to the Jewish people?

Robertson was one of the primary (and lasting) figures from the Moral Majority and the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1980s, a politically self-conscious merger of Christian nationalism, Reconstructionism, and a hodgepodge of fringe “culture war” issues that refashioned conservatism during that period. The politics of the Christian Right comes less out of a shocking reaction to increased secularism and from responses to desegregation and the “white flight” that followed. Many who were frightened of integration framed their resistance to state interference as a defense of “Christian values,” even though it was racial anxiety rather than scripture that was motivating them. When the fight against desegregation was largely lost, this latent political force, led by figures like Jerry Falwell, began to craft other wedge issues to drive interest, turning to abortion, queer rights, and, eventually, stalwart support of Israel’s most egregious excesses to build a committed base of followers.

By the mid-1980s Robertson was a primary celebrity for their cause as his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) reached millions of viewers and reaped hundreds of millions in revenue, making Roberston a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who had a direct line to Christians, and voters, around the country. For those born in the 1980s, we always lived in Robertson’s world, so it's hard to see how this Christian counter-culture, which includes everything from television channels like CBN to music labels, schools, and publishing houses, was rather new and innovative when it began. Robertson knew in advance that this was an emerging market, and he treated his Church audience as a kind of voluntary venture capital. His donors were his customers, his prayers, his product, his preaching, his sales pitch. The consequence of his invention cannot be measured just in dollars, or even in elections, but is visible in literally any politicized debate, where Robertson’s brand of anxiety, suspicion, and blame have become ubiquitous.

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Robertson’s Christian Coalition drew political activists radicalized through the anti-Communist conspiracism of the John Birch Society, which Robertson helped to spread across the party. Robertson took points from the Bircher playbook that would be familiar to those watching the Right today, such as claiming that teachers were injecting socialism into the minds of students in classrooms around the country. This is eerily similar to the hundreds of incidents listed on websites like Campus Reform where teachers are covertly recorded in an effort to prove that students are being poisoned with “Critical Race Theory” or “trans ideology.”

More than anything, Robertson focused on the Bircher’s belief that international collaboration and diplomacy, whether through the United Nations or the Council on Foreign Relations, was a covert plot by shadowy “elites” to undermine American sovereignty. A plan was afoot, whether in the name of communists or humanists or feminists or queers, and it would corrode the American dream if right-minded activists didn’t take action to stop it.

Robertson’s political acumen hit its stride when he ran against then Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 Presidential Primary, where he tried his best to code his religious ideas in more secularized political jargon. This may have been where the influence of the Birchers was most visible as Robertson used messianic and apocalyptic language to garner support from desperate constituents, and where he promised to either cleanse, protect, or revolutionize this country, depending on the audience. Robertson’s supporters contested delegate selection in Georgia and boycotted North Carolina’s GOP over what they declared was mistreatment, all of which now feels like a dress rehearsal for Trump. Robertson’s rank-and-file army owed a lot to the organizing model of the Birchers, too, hopping from church to church, conversation to conversation to build grassroots support. When Robertson ultimately lost he did so rather graciously, knowing that he would have more influence on American politics by remaining a part of the GOP establishment rather than a perennial outsider. That Bircher model merged with the Republican Party as figures like Newt Gingrich turned the GOP into a sideshow, and conspiracy theories and moral panics drove dissident movements like the Tea Party. Through all of this, Robertson remained an important piece of the chain in the continuity of America’s far-right.

Robertson's ideas peaked in 1991 with his release of The New World Order, a book titled after the phrase used by then-President George H. W. Bush to describe the neoliberal world he intended to build. That phrase became the calling card of the next generation of conspiracy theorists, filtering through the militia movement and all the way into Alex Jones' InfoWars and the MAGA army. Robertson took Bush’s words to mean that a conflagration of elites were conspiring to enrich themselves at the cost of the millions, a relatively accurate assessment of the Bush plan. The difference is that rather than seeing this in terms of class, wealth, and capitalism, he saw it as the latest move in a generational war by tenebrous figures with otherworldly intentions to refashion society through almost occultic means. The New World Order detailed a global conspiracy that began with the Illuminati and the Freemasons and then turned towards Russian Bolsheviks of a particular ethnic and religious persuasion, which he saw paradoxically both as challenging the capitalist system and as occupying its towering heights.

Robertson looked to well established conspiracy tracts like Secrets of the Federal Reserve, which used Rothschild conspiracy theories (Robertson also allegedly referred to magazines like The Economist as “Rothschild publications”) to draw a picture of a people who shall-not-be-named pulling the strings of financial policy. The Rothschilds allegedly bridged the secret societies of the Illuminati and Freemasons, the lynchpin of a global system operating from behind the scenes. Robertson went on to cite books like antisemite Nesta Webster’s World Revolution, then repackaged Nester’s “Judeo-Masonic '' plot in New World Order, using dog whistles and Jewish stereotypes to sketch the image of a crepuscular coalition of sweaty-palmed gentry. Robertson also cribs a lot of this rhetoric from Robert Welch, the founder of the Birchers, who believed that the Illuminati had been controlling governments from around the world since its formation in 1776 and that communism was simply the ultimate result of their scheme. In the end, Robertson said Bush himself was “unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.”

Roberston never names Jews explicitly, and when confronted over the book’s antisemitism he reacted with coy rage. While many assumed Robertson’s anger was a tactically astute attempt to deflect criticism, it often appeared more sincere than that. In his 1990 book, The New Millenium, Robertson had an entire chapter on antisemitism, citing it as a serious concern that was definitely rising across the world. He even tried to rope Jews into his religiously stifling vision, attempting to connect right-wing Jews and right-wing Christians on social issues and suggesting that only Christians and Jews should be allowed to hold office (a type of Judeo-Christian nationalism). Robertson’s concern for Jews was an adjunct to his aggressive philosemitism, where Jews were placed on a pedestal precisely because they played such a central role in his theology. Jews, as the apple of God’s eye, remained chosen, destined to return to Eretz Yisrael, to rebuild the Temple, and to trigger Jesus’ return. The wool would then fall from Hebrew eyes, resulting in either their extermination or their conversion to what Robertson sees as the correct conclusion of the Israelite Temple religion. In other words, fate would demand Jews to cease to do anything that made them Jews.

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Robertson continued, across his career, to have one antisemitic misstep after another.. In a 2014 program, Robertson asked an orthodox rabbi "what is it about Jewish people that make them prosper financially" before saying that the rabbi was likely "polishing diamonds, not fixing cars." Robertson allegedly called Jews "spiritually deaf" at a 1980 CBN employee meeting, and has been caught repeatedly suggesting that leftist Jews were betraying their religious ideals. The frequency of these comments and their congruence with his larger political and theological worldview suggests that these are not passing remnants of a bigoted past or regrettable slips of the tongue, but that they are part of what drives his Biblical sensibility.

Just as importantly, Robertson was essential for reviving the occult-conspiracy theories that adapted the Blood Libel accusation, refashioning it for contemporary sensibilities and paving the way for Q-Anon. Robertson frantically pushed ideas that were broadly in line with the “Satanic Panic,” a conspiracy theory that, while proven to be untrue, still ruined a lot of lives and continues today in the form of anti-trafficking and Illuminati-tinged conspiracy tracts shared around image boards and Facebook Groups. While Robertson did not make some of the more outlandish claims of the period, his belief that Satanic occult influence was everywhere (particularly in Dungeons and Dragons) helped to give weight to the fears and acted as a validation for the worldview that motivated them. If we think about antisemitism as an intellectual scaffolding that filters through our culture, then the Satanic Panic was part of how we normalized the religiously-colored conspiracy theories we now see fully realized in Q-Anon. Robertson fortified antisemitic ideas by coding them and embedding them across his ideology, ensuring that they would stay alive even as the culture changed.

Even the broader strokes of Trump’a far-right populism has Robertson’s fingerprints, someone who, like Pat Buchanan, streamlined the belief that international collaboration and diplomacy were a part of a New World Order that was using crypsis to exploit hard-working Christians. Robertson established this model as a way to hijack real concerns over working-class disenfranchisement, imperialism, and wealth inequality and recast it using a series of mirages, thus dashing any hope we could solve those problems and protecting the very systems that caused them. Trump, and the antisemitic conspiracy theories that undergird the worldview of the larger MAGA movement, was the result of decades of figures who transformed American politics, and Robertson was perhaps the essential figure in radicalizing evangelicals.

It’s easy to see Robertson’s antisemitism, but nonetheless he still created a tactical relationship with parts of the Jewish establishment. He received awards and celebration by Jewish Zionist organizations like the Zionist Organization of America and the lobbying group AIPAC, often crediting Robertson as a champion for the Jewish state. "[At] a time when left-wing antisemitism is on the rise, Robertson’s peculiar blend of odd theories about Jews and ardent love for Israel needs to be understood as not presenting any sort of threat to Jewish life," wrote Jonathan S. Tobin in the Jewish News Syndicate after Robertson's death, suggesting that Roertson's defense of Israel was enough to forgive his nearly constant antisemitism.

Trump's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, called Robertson a "brilliant orator and faith leader and an extraordinary friend of Israel and the Jewish people." Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu also expressed a mournful sadness at the passing of Robertson, calling him a "great friend of Israel," and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews said that Robertson helped them "carry out [their] holy work" of "building bridges of faith and understanding between Christians and Jews." While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) did famously lob criticism at Robertson with regards to different incidents, from Robertson’s claim that God didn’t hear the prayers of Jews to Robertson’s suggestion that Yitzhak Rabin (who he had hosted on the 700 Club) was killed as punishment by God for relinquishing the Gaza Strip, former ADL CEO Abe Foxman still admitted that they held an alliance with him over one particular shared interest. In 1995, amidst a flurry of anger over Robertson’s antisemitism, partially triggered by a New York Review of Books piece, Norman Podhoretz wrote in Commentary that while Robertson clearly had been producing antisemitism, we should give him a polite pass since he has thrown his entire weight behind Israel and, presumably, the central mechanism of Jewish safety. This negotiation can be seen most clearly in the headline of a Mosaic article published at the time, “Pat Robertson: A Problematic Friend of the Jews, but a Friend Nonetheless.”

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In the book chapter “BDS, Antisemitism, and Israeli Identity” by Shlomo Abramovich, the scholar discusses the recentering of anti-Zionism in discourse on antisemitism. The changing definition of antisemitism, where definitions like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHCA) focus mostly on behaviors related to Israel, does not just help to redefine antisemitism, but Jewishness itself. If the most pernicious form of antisemitism is that directed at the seeming “Jewish collectivity” in the form of the State of Israel, then that same state must then be understood as the center of Jewishness. If Jewish safety, identity and continuity are tied directly to the persistence of Israel, then those who defend the country are necessarily those who defend the Jews. This has been at the heart of the shifting definitions of antisemitism, from the “New Antisemitism” that allegedly centers on criticism of Israel to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition (which Robertson supported). Since fighting antisemitism has become one of the key forms of secular Jewishness that seems to matter, and with Zionism acting as the primary discourse on Jewish safety, then this necessarily shifts the core of Jewish life away from ritual, tradition, or even Jewish history, and onto the allegedly anti-lachrymose militarism of Israel’s future. If someone like Robertson takes action to increase military aid for Israel, he is understood by this definition as a defender of the Jewish people, regardless of what fantasies persist in his church. And while there are certainly pieces of the Israeli far-right that would love to have him and his lot excommunicated from Eretz Yisrael, Christian Zionism is perhaps the most important American political force defending the Israeli project, including the growing Settlements.

This has allowed Robertson and organizations like Christians United for Israel (CUFI) to remain insulated from accusations of antisemitism, while at the same time a cottage industry of accusations exist against anyone vocally supportive of Palestine. When Fatima Mohammed delivered a May 12th commencement address at the City University of New York, she was roundly labeled an antisemite from parts of the Jewish establishment for leveling relatively common criticisms of Israeli state policy. “Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshipers, murdering the old, the young, attacking the funerals and graveyards as it encourages lynch mobs,” said Mohammed. Compare that to passages from Robertson's New World Order, such as the claim that “Communism was the brainchild of German-Jewish intellectuals” or that the Rothschilds work with Freemasons to construct a global conspiracy (with occult overtones). J

What do we mean when we say antisemitism? Do we mean anything that can be understood as an affront to Jews in the abstract, or against specific Jews and specific Jewish organizations? Is it a complex and bigoted conspiracy theory with specific contours, or anything that undermines agreed upon communal principles? If Jews are existentially unsafe, and Israel is the only vehicle to that safety, is criticism of that safety mechanism necessarily an attack on Jews? Would it then, serve to reason, that any person who helps to fortify that structure must be considered a friend of the Jews, the antithesis of an antisemite?

This evolution of logic has marked the last fifty years of discourse around antisemitism, shifting our conception of Jew-hatred so significantly that it has both invisibilized very pressing threats to Jews and reframed Jewishness so as to center the State of Israel. Robertson’s use of antisemitic conspiracy theories, particularly employing well-worn codes and dog-whistles, has become ubiquitous in American politics: it is the lynchpin of the Right’s worldview. The kind of antisemitism that Robertson offers is both on the rise and the most threatening to Jews and marginalized communities targeted by conspiracism, but the single minded focus on anti-Zionism has meant that the vast “anti-antisemitism” resources have been turned away from where they could make a difference. Instead, Robertson’s brand of conspiracy theories has been marked kosher through its proximity to Israel, weakening our ability to confront it. Our inability to identify and understand antisemite, or to stop its growth in both coded and explicit forms, has led to bizarre sights, like Charedim joining the capitol insurrection alongside people with Camp Auschwitz shirts.

The redefinition of antisemitism has not simply had the effect of fortifying right-wing, pro-Israel institutions and marginalizing pro-Palestinian activism, it has thus acted as an atom bomb on our shared understanding of antisemitism. And without a coherent view of who and what presents a threat to Jews (and everyone else harmed by conspiracism), we allow it to steamroll and grow without opposition. In a world where antisemitic conspiracy theories like Q-anon or claims about George Soros or the Rothschild are common in well over half of Republican voters, what has Zionist activism done to undermine antisemitism?

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In a 2020 study by sociologists Paul Djupe and Jacob Dennen, over fifty-percent of non-denominational Christians, the type that Robertson mobilized, believed in at least part of the Q-anon conspiracy theory. The more strongly they agreed with Robertson’s vision of Christian nationalism, the more likely they were to believe in Q-anon’s core claims. For those living in the diaspora, and everyone who does not think that a highly militarized Israel is the solution for all Jewish safety needs, the shifting definition of antisemitism has disarmed our defensive capacity. This is happening amidst a paradox, with accusations of antisemitism flying incredulously on the one hand, and real and potentially threatening antisemitism being uttered by our alleged friends.

There is a certain fear that Jewish concerns over antisemitism could be read as a type of navel gazing, and it certainly could. But what does it mean when the conspiracy theories that motivated the shooters in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, El Paso …. are repeating talking points found not on the back channels of the Internet, but from the mouths of politicians and pundits? Robertson may have been instrumental in normalizing this type of conspiracism, but this may not be his greatest innovation. Instead, by attempting to offer an olive branch in the form of support for the Settlements, criticism of the Iran-Nuclear deal, and an additional voice to demonize Palestinians, he pioneered the antisemite-as-friend. And if the Christian Right are the Jews’ best friends, who are our enemies?

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