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The conservative war over Ted Cruz, Middle Eastern Christians, and Israel

A summit dedicated to the proposition that Middle Eastern Christians should be defended from genocidal violence inflicted by ISIS and other jihad groups doesn't sound like a very controversial undertaking in American conservative politics. But the In Defense of Christians summit last week became the grounds for conflict, as Sen. Ted Cruz delivered a speech that got him booed off the stage by some members of the audience. The event then set conservative pundits at war with each other, with some condemning Cruz and others praising him. The contretemps provides an interesting window into both the complexity and contradictions of Middle Eastern politics, and also the conservative movement's mixed feelings about Cruz's star status.

But both the controversy itself and the geopolitical issues underlying it are rather tangled. Here's a guide for the perplexed.

Why did In Defense of Christians become controversial?

The summiteers (In Defense of Christians)

The controversy actually began a bit before the conference started, when Alana Goodman of the Washington Free Beacon published a piece headlined "Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters."

Specifically, Goodman wrote that "the roster of speakers includes some of the Assad regime's most vocal Christian supporters, as well as religious leaders allied with the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah." She cited several examples of pro-Assad statements and activities by some of the Syrian Christians in attendance, as well anti-Israel statements by some Lebanese Christian attendees who are aligned with Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. Goodman's article called out several politicians for their involvement in the conference and noted that it was "funded by a controversial Clinton donor," but she very much highlighted Cruz's role. Cruz and his staff, meanwhile, were apparently aware of the links to Hezbollah even before the Free Beacon article ran.

What did Ted Cruz do?

Faced with a potential political problem, Cruz staged what Slate's David Weigel characterized as a Sister Souljah moment. Instead of backing out of the conference, Cruz stepped up to the plate and delivered a speech that veered off the topic of the plight of Middle Eastern Christians into a strident defense of Israel:

Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target Jews for their faith, for the same reason.

At this point, Cruz got booed — either because audience members disagreed with the substance of his remarks or because they disliked his hijacking of the event to talk about Israel. Cruz responded by saying that he cannot "stand with" Middle Eastern Christians who refuse to stand with Israel.

Why are some Middle Eastern Christians supporting Assad and Hezbollah?

The political movement against Bashar al-Assad's government rather quickly began to take on somewhat sectarian overtones. The fundamental dynamic is that Assad and many of his key supporters are members of the small Alawite sect, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Many members of Syria's Christian minority feel they're better-off living under an undemocratic regime run by a religious minority than they would be living under an empowered Sunni majority. That's especially because many Syrian opposition groups — not just ISIS, but also al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, and many of the more moderate rebel groups the United States works with — have an explicitly Sunni religious agenda. Assad's key regional allies are Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, both of which are dire enemies of Israel. Consequently, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq have tended to place those countries' Christian populations in objective alignment with Hezbollah.

The Lebanese political situation is very complicated. But currently, the highly diverse country is polarized between a Sunni-led faction supported by the Persian Gulf states and a Shia-led faction that includes Hezbollah and is aligned with Assad. Lebanese Christian groups are found on both sides of the divide and currently the group affiliated with General Michael Aoun is aligned with Syria and Hezbollah. Lebanese perceptions of Israel are also deeply influenced by Israel's ill-fated involvement in Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s.

There is also a substantial Christian population in Israel and the Palestinian territories, most of which identifies with secular versions of Palestinian nationalism and is critical of Israel and the Israeli occupation. In recent years, the growing influence of Islamist movements in Palestinian politics has had a deleterious effect on Palestinian Christians and there is now a small pro-Israel movement among Christian Arabs with Israeli citizenship.

Who is attacking Cruz?

Ross Douthat (Susan Etheridge/NYT)

Cruz's remarks attracted the ire of a number of conservative (mostly Catholic) writers. His most prominent critic in the American media is probably New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote that Cruz's "logic shows not a scintilla of sympathy for what it's actually like to be an embattled religious minority, against whom genocide isn't just being threatened but actually carried out." Douthat says that Cruz "could have withdrawn from the event" if his conscience truly forbid him from addressing the assembly, and "the fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts."

Pascal Emmanuel Gobry wrote in the Week that "Cruz tarred and attacked one of the most powerless and beleaguered minorities in the world, solely for personal political gain." His colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty went somewhat further, not only scolding Cruz for his bad manners but acknowledging that Arab Christian dislike of Israel has some rational basis. "Last year Israel bulldozed the home of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal," he wrote, while "Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories don't have free access to Christian holy sites."

Mollie Hemingway at the Federalist argued that Cruz had overlooked the case for Christian solidarity even in the face of geopolitical disagreements. "Hopefully we can all recognize the importance of dealing with this huge problem of Christians being killed and oppressed," she wrote "even if our politics aren't all the same, right? Perhaps especially if our politics aren't aligned?"

Who is defending Cruz?

Hemingway's colleague David Harsanyi wrote a piece titled "Ted Cruz Was Right," arguing that "there's only one country in the Middle East that doesn't persecute — or allow the persecution of — Christians." That country, according to Harsanyi, is Israel. So "if you believe there's a 'greater ally' in the Middle East name it."

The Free Beacon itself followed up with a second Goodman piece that was critical of the conference and supportive of Cruz's approach to it. Ramesh Ponnuru mounted a strong defense of Cruz, arguing that "his reaction to the booing seems to me justifiable — and the attacks on him much too heated."

But it was Lee Smith at the Weekly Standard who offered perhaps the most fulsome praise of Cruz, saying that he had "helped unmask an organization ostensibly founded to protect a Middle East minority" but in fact full of "supporters of the Iranian axis in the Middle East."

What is this argument really about?

Alex Wong/Getty

Ted Cruz (Alex Wong/Getty)

You can think of the Cruz dispute as playing out along two separate axes of disagreement.

One is a disagreement about Middle East politics. Some conservatives, such as Goodman and Smith, view Iran and its allies — including the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and several Syrian and Lebanese Christian groups — as a primary geopolitical threat. They worry, in Goodman's words, that the Christian cause could become a stalking-horse to "bolster Washington's support for the Syrian regime in its ongoing civil war and help Bashar al-Assad restore his legitimacy and power." On the other hand, you have people like Hemingway and Gobry who feel that the Christian cause stands on its own merits and it's wrong to inject the divisive Israel issue in a way that undermines it.

The other is more of a disagreement about Cruz. Since arriving in the US Senate, Cruz has become a controversial figure in Republican circles, with some seeing him as a conservative hero and others as someone with a taste for grandstanding and self-aggrandizement.

Douthat and other conservative writers such as Byron York and Timothy Carney, who cheered his criticisms of Cruz, are likely in part trying to signal a general disapproval of Cruz and his tactics, not just a specific disagreement about Syria policy. Conversely, Ponnuru's pro-Cruz column starts with the observation that "Cruz is a friend of mine" and seems more dedicated to a defense of Cruz as a person than to trying to advance any contentious ideas about foreign policy.

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