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Just weeks before the COVID pandemic threw a wrench in global travel, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) and his wife took an all-expenses paid trip to Israel with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and his significant other. But even though Johnson and Jordan filed ethics reports stating that a small nonprofit group would cover all the costs, it’s still unclear how the trip was funded.
The weeklong 2020 visit, which came on the heels of the unveiling of then-President Donald Trump’s controversial Middle East peace plan, captures the strangeness of the alliance between Christian Zionist politicians in the United States and far-right Israelis, a politically expedient partnership that is premised on the literal end of the world.
According to filings with the House Committee on Ethics, the total costs for the tour—which Johnson later said felt to him like “the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy”—came out to about $18,000 for the Johnsons and more than $16,000 for the Jordans. Costs included $450 nightly stays at the five-star King David Hotel in Jerusalem, chosen for “location and availability,” according to the nonprofit behind the trip.
That obscure nonprofit, called “12Tribe Films Foundation,” paid for the trip in full, according to the affidavits that the group provided to the congressmen. But the trip doesn’t appear in 12Tribe’s tax return that year. In fact, the nonprofit claimed that it incurred no travel costs at all in 2020, and made no payments for “travel or entertainment expenses for any federal, state, or local public officials.”
The detailed itinerary, filed with the Ethics Committee, was almost exclusively helmed by 12Tribe’s leader—Avi Abelow, a right-wing Israeli social media activist who lives in a West Bank settlement. The trip, as previously reported by Haaretz and Mother Jones, was heavy on Zionism. And while the congressmen met with far-right Jewish political and academic figures, they didn’t meet with any Palestinian leaders.
“You hear in the U.S. about how the Palestinians or the Arab people are oppressed in these areas, and have these terrible lives. None of that is true,” Johnson said during the visit, his second to Israel. “We didn’t see any of it.”
While the agenda was clear, what’s less so is who paid and how.
12Tribe’s tax statements show that the group spent a total $119,994 in 2020. The spending was further broken down into $52,399 in grants and $67,595 in other expenses. Those other costs were almost entirely split between “information technology” ($23,030), “contract services” ($21,768) and “project fees” ($21,000). (The group’s stated mission is “production of educational videos.”)
According to the tax form, the $52,399 in grant money went to a single foreign entity in the Middle East/North Africa region, which 12Tribe said was for providing “financial assistance.” The document does not disclose the date of the grant or the name of the recipient, but claims that the money was wired to an entity recognized as a charity by either a foreign government or the Internal Revenue Service.
12Tribe Film Foundation registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charity in June 2019, less than a year before the trip. And the group reported $357 in donations for 2019, according to its 2020 return. In 2020, the group raised about $134,000, and $118,000 and $164,000 in the following two years, according to ProPublica data. Its 2021 tax return isn’t publicly available, but the group reported a $41,359 grant in 2022, also to an unidentified organization in the MENA region.
Phil Hackney, a nonprofit law expert and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, told The Daily Beast that if 12Tribe paid for the trip, that should have appeared in its tax filing.
“I would have expected that that line would have been filled out regarding those two congressmen under the situation that we see here,” Hackney said.
The Daily Beast reached out to the nonprofit and its officials, including Abelow, but received no reply. Spokespeople for Johnson and Jordan did not provide comment.
The 2020 trip was Jordan’s first sponsored visit to Israel, but the second for Johnson. His prior visit, in August 2017, was funded by the American Israel Education Foundation. The group is a sister organization of the powerful AIPAC lobby, and it has poured millions of dollars into chauffeuring congressional leaders around the Holy Land for more than a decade. Online House Ethics disclosures, which dated back to 2017, show that AIEF has sponsored a combined 439 trips for congressional officials and their staff, for both Democrats and Republicans. AIEF has also covered visits for two top Johnson staffers, one in 2022, and another this September.
Interestingly, however, 12Tribe hasn’t sponsored any other congressional trips—just the pilgrimage of the Johnsons and Jordans to Israel in 2020.
It’s unclear how the congressmen connected with the low-profile group. 12Tribe primarily produces a small podcast and YouTube videos (mostly on Abelow’s personal channel). But 12Tribe hasn’t posted a video in six years.
Still, Johnson and Jordan appear to share the spirit of Abelow’s religious zeal for Israel. Upon their return to the states, the two congressmen appeared on Abelow’s podcast to discuss the religious importance of the historical sites surrounding Jerusalem.
Abelow, described as an “arch-Zionist” in Mother Jones’ report about the trip earlier this month, is a member of Israel’s extreme right wing, and Johnson’s association with him made headlines in Israeli news after the Louisiana fundamentalist was elevated to House Speaker last month.
Both Johnson and Abelow belong to fundamentalist sects that share a messianic vision of Israel’s future, where a “restored” Israel is necessary to bring about the arrival of the messiah. Of course, that shared vision carries distinctly different outcomes for the two faiths. In the Christian version—the End Times—all non-believers, including Jews, either convert or get damned eternally to hell.
Central to this vision is the restoration of what Jews call the Temple Mount, a site in Jerusalem that is also home to the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock—the third-holiest Muslim site in the world. It’s one of the most sensitive cultural flashpoints in the Middle East. For centuries, Jews have been banned from praying there, a government policy which an Israeli court upheld last year, with one judge noting that the site is “one of the most explosive places in the Middle East if not the whole world.”
Abelow, as Mother Jones reported, is a Temple Mount restorationist. He previously made news when he guided another congressional visit, in 2017, and engaged the wife of Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) in a discussion about retaking Temple Mount. He took Johnson and Jordan to the Temple Mount, along with right-wing rabbi and former Israeli parliamentarian Yehuda Glick, who was arrested for allegedly harassing the police when he returned later that day.
On Abelow’s podcast about a week after the trip, Johnson said he “didn’t sense a lot of tension” at the Temple Mount. Johnson also said that, from his perspective as a constitutional lawyer, the prayer ban was a “jarring thing to see” and “very sad.”
“Hopefully one day that can change,” he said.
That fantastical and seemingly oxymoronic belief—support of Israel is designed to quite literally wipe Jews off the face of the Earth—is central to the fervid Zionism of American religious fundamentalists. The belief also informs the decisions of evangelical elected officials—Iran military policy, for instance, or the War on Terror. When it comes to Israel, fundamentalist Christianity has been considered more powerful than any lobbying group, and gave rise to what has been widely seen as a cynical political alliance between far-right pro-Israel factions and Christian radicals in the United States.
That rapturous cadre includes Johnson, a Christian nationalist whose ties to far-right fundamentalist groups have been well-documented. But it also reached top foreign officers during Donald Trump’s presidency—in the Christian Zionism of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—and before that as the animating moral force behind the calamitous Middle East policy of George W. Bush’s administration.
Trump himself marveled at the irony. During a 2020 campaign rally, Trump said that his controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was to appease his Christian supporters.
“That’s for the evangelicals,” Trump said. “You know, it’s amazing with that—the evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people.”
Christian Zionism, seeing Israel as a means to an end—including the end of Judaism—has also bred and fueled antisemitism. The founder of the large Christian Zionist group Christians United for Israel—televangelist John Hagee—has been routinely accused of antisemitism. One sermon, where Hagee said that “God sent Hitler to help Jews reach the Promised Land,” compelled the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to denounce Hagee’s endorsement during his 2008 presidential bid. (Hagee later apologized and said he did not support Hitler or the Holocaust.)
Last month, Hagee spoke at the March for Israel in Washington, D.C.—as did Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NJ), and Speaker Johnson.
Source: The Daily Beast
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