Think Again: Picking on friends

jonathanrosenblum88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
This past November both Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Eric Yoffie, head of the American Reform movement, launched sharp attacks on the Christian Right at the national conventions of their respective organizations. Foxman accused the Christian Right of plotting "to Christianize America," and warned darkly of the disappearance of the American society in which Jews have prospered. He called for a national summit of Jewish groups to plan strategy for combating the Christian Right. Triggering Foxman's fears was the Christian Right's "opposition to our positions on church and state separation." By that measure, Agudath Israel of America also seeks "to Christianize" America. Two weeks later, Yoffie accused the Christian Right of everything from bigotry to blasphemy. Turning religious terminology on the Christian Right, Yoffie proclaimed: "When people cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy." For good measure, Yoffie linked the Christian Right to the Nazis, comparing opposition to the "gay rights" agenda to Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Again, his strictures would have applied equally to Agudath Israel. Foxman and Yoffie's attacks did not go unnoticed. At least one prominent evangelical leader warned: "The more [Foxman] says that 'you people are destroying this country,' [the more] some people are going to begin to get fed up... and say, 'Well, all right then. If that's the way you feel, then we just won't support Israel any more.'" Other Christian Right leaders were quick to disavow those threats, and it is doubtful that there will be an immediate decline in Evangelical support for Israel. Yet as John Green of the University of Akron, a leading expert on Christian Evangelicals, points out, Evangelical opinion is neither as monolithic nor as unchanging as is commonly thought. And nothing motivates the Christian Right more than the feeling that "they are the one group that's fair game for ridicule and criticism," according to Marshall Wittman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Foxman and Yoffie's attacks were perfectly calibrated to arouse that sense of grievance. EVANGELICALS ARE Israel's staunchest supporters in the United States, and at least 15 times more numerous than American Jews. Opinion polls consistently show Israel's security to be at the top of their concerns as voters, unlike American Jews, for whom issues like easy abortion and gay marriage often rank higher. Why, then, didn't Foxman and Yoffie direct their attacks at the real sources of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish animus in American society: the mainstream Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches and the elite university campuses? The answer is that American Jews worship at the holy grail of an Ivy League education, and are comfortable with their tony Protestant neighbors. It's Evangelicals that give them the heebie-jeebies. While Foxman and Yoffie's broadsides against the Christian Right might have been ill-advised from Israel's point of view, they were carefully calibrated for their audiences and dictated by the internal needs of their organizations. Foxman makes a handsome living scaring American Jews about the next outbreak of anti-Semitism. And they want to be scared. "If I am hated, therefore I exist as a Jew," is American Jewry's Cartesian formulation. To raise the ADL's annual budget of over $50 million, Foxman must garner a lot of headlines and find a lot of anti-Semites. Unfortunately, the search for the former is often calculated to breed the latter. Taking the lead in condemning Mel Gibson's The Passion, for instance, gained Foxman a lot of ink. But those headlines came at the cost of Jews being perceived as attacking the Christian gospels. There were plenty of Christian scholars ready, willing and able to criticize the movie based on Christian scriptures themselves. (By the way, I do not know of one anti-Semitic incident in the United States attributed to viewing The Passio.) Similarly, Foxman's public criticism of Israel's chief rabbis for not participating in Pope John Paul II's funeral created religious tension with Catholics where none had existed. YOFFIE'S SALVOS against the Christian Right won the warmest applause during his lengthy speech. He also knew his audience's favorite red meat. Regardless of their strong support for Israel, the evangelicals are perceived by most Reform Jews as the bulwark of the Republican Party, and thus the enemy. The resolutions adopted at the convention, including one opposing the war in Iraq and another against the appointment of Samuel Alito, Jr., could have passed for the Democratic Party platform. Defending himself against criticism from those who questioned the wisdom of a frontal confrontation with the Christian Right, given Israel's paucity of friends in the world, Yoffie replied: Christian supporters "shouldn't get a veto over what we do." That is true. Support for Israel is not a blank check. If Christian supporters of Israel were attempting to advance their eschatological vision through missionary activities in Israel, for instance, the price of their support would be too high. Nor should the American Jewish community remain silent in the face of efforts to proselytize Jews by military chaplains paid from the public purse. But the issue raised by Foxman and Yoffie's broadsides is not whether the Christian supporters of Israel should have a veto over the politics of American Jews. They have not sought to condition their support on American Jewry's political positions. Rather the issue is the wisdom of American Jewish leaders demonizing Israel's most ardent supporters in America, and lumping them all together as the great enemy. By that standard, Foxman and Yoffie have failed the test of responsible Jewish leadership. Click here for more articles by Jonathan Rosenblum