As Christian television’s most prominent Middle East specialist, Erick Stakelbeck conveys a core message to his audience: He says the terror threats Israel faces also threaten America. He believes Christians owe a great debt to the Jewish people. And he can’t stress this one enough: Israel is awesome.
Stakelbeck, 41, hosts “The Watchman,” a weekly TV series sponsored by Christians United for Israel, and featured on the global Christian network TBN. The show filters Middle East news through a right-wing Christian Zionist lens, and both unabashedly promote a pro-Israel perspective.
“People need to know what Israel is up against and that Israel is the first line of defense for the West,” he said in an interview during a visit to the Bay Area. “If Israel goes down, we all go down.”
For his series, Stakelbeck has crisscrossed Israel, reporting from the borders of Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. He also interviewed senior Israeli leaders, from Natan Sharansky to former IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz.
In each segment, he tries to point out Israel’s strategic predicament, given its proximity to radical Islamic terror groups such as Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south and ISIS to the east. He doesn’t let Palestinians in the West Bank off the hook, either.
“Not only does the radical Islam reject Israel’s right to exist, but so does the secular movement of [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas. Until these forces recognize Israel’s right to exist, these problems will continue. When it comes to the radical jihadists, these are genocidal organizations. There can be no negotiations with these groups. They mean what they say.”
It’s not all gloom and doom on “The Watchman.” Stakelbeck also reports on Israeli advancements in medicine and technology. And for his Christian audience, he tries to convey a sense of biblical history and the Jewish people’s ancient ties to the land of Israel.
Moreover, he says as an evangelical Christian he is ashamed of the long history of oppression Jews faced under Christian rule, and he wants all followers of Jesus to acknowledge their debt to the Jewish people.
“[Jews] are the most persecuted people in the history of the planet,” he said. “Look at the ugly history of pogroms and persecutions, sometimes done in the name of Christ. There is understandable feeling [among Jews] that, hey, Christians have not exactly showed us the love of Jesus the last 2,000 years. I hope we are moving past that.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Stakelbeck says his organization strives to atone for those past sins. With more than 3 million members, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the world, he says, and premised on “unconditional love for Israel and the Jewish people.”
Founded in 2006 by San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, CUFI has met with some Jewish skepticism, largely because of controversial statements Hagee has made. He wrote in his book “Jerusalem Countdown” that it was “the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God’s chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day… Their own rebellion had birthed the seed of anti-Semitism that would arise and bring destruction to them for centuries to come.”
Some Jews have worried that under Hagee’s influence, CUFI founders might have a hidden agenda of working to entice diaspora Jews to return to Israel, where they could fulfill Christian prophecy about the ingathering of the Jews to Israel in order to usher in Armageddon and end times.
Stakelbeck vehemently denies this, citing the many Israelis and American Jewish leaders who have spoken at CUFI events as proof that his organization is sincerely devoted to the Jewish people.
As for his own passion for Israel, he points to his working-class upbringing in Philadelphia. His father, a factory electrician by trade, was an autodidact who loved to study biblical history.
“There was a reverence for Israel and the Jewish people in my home from a young age,” he recalled. “Dinner-table conversations with my dad had such a profound influence on my life. Listening to him talk about the Entebbe raid, Stalingrad, King David, he imparted that passion on to me.”
Stakelbeck found himself increasingly drawn to studying the roots of Islamic terror, especially after 9/11. He turned his passion into a profession, writing articles for David Horowitz’s right-wing journal FrontPage Magazine and, later, for journalist Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism. He later became an on-air reporter for CBN (Pat Robertson’s Christian TV network), appeared frequently on Fox News and wrote three books on the subject of radical Islamic terror.
He joined CUFI early last year to launch “The Watchman” web series, which has uploaded more than 60 episodes.
Noting that support for Israel is slipping among Jewish millennials, Stakelbeck says the same phenomenon is trending among young evangelicals. It’s a trend he says CUFI addresses, in part, by taking young emerging Christian leaders on missions to Israel.
“They see the real challenges Israel faces on a daily basis, and they see what Israel is doing to try to coexist peacefully,” he said. “They’re coming back Zionists.”
Does he expect peace between Israel and its neighbors anytime soon? Not with the chaos rampant across the Muslim Middle East today. But he has faith in the promises he reads in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible.
“We’re a Genesis 12 organization,” he said, referring to CUFI. “We truly believe God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel. History bears that out. Even a secular person cannot deny all Israel’s enemies end up on the ash heap of history. Where are they today? And the Jewish people live.”