Attack On Right Reveals Fault Lines

Posted on December 9, 2005 In Press Releases

Attack On Right Reveals Fault Lines
Jewish groups differ on Evangelical ‘threat’ as they try to hash out consensus going forward.
James D. Besser – Washington Correspondent
12/09/2005. The Jewish Week

A meeting of Jewish leaders called to hash out common strategies for dealing with the Christian right instead pointed to Jewish factions that are moving in opposite directions on the issue.

Still, participants said Monday’s session, called by Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman as part of his controversial blast at groups he said were using the government to help “Christianize” the nation, may have clarified where Jewish leaders agree on relations with the Evangelicals — and where they disagree.

“There was a consensus that there are elements of the religious right that are doing things that are disturbing,” said Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress. “But there is disagreement about how significant this is politically, on whether it is an imminent or long-term threat to the Jewish community.”

Stern said “there was an active discussion of the red lines we can agree on. And there was very active discussion of those areas in our own approach to church-state relations that we need to re-examine, to avoid giving the impression of hostility to religion.”

Nathan Diament, political director for the Orthodox Union, said most Jewish groups agree on issues like “the inappropriate use of government power to coerce religious belief or activity. But in many other areas, including religious expression in the public square, we will continue to disagree.”

Foxman said that while groups like the ADL have been concerned about the growing power of the religious right for years, there is a difference today. “More and more, we see them wanting to make the government a partner in religion,” he said. “More and more, they want the government to facilitate their religious activity. There’s no element of American life they don’t want to impact.”

Several participants said the meeting helped clarify why the confrontation with the Evangelicals has suddenly burst on the national scene.

“Clearly, Abe’s speech said there is something new going on with respect to the religious right,” said Marc Stern. “And I think that’s true — it’s no longer preachers in the backwoods, it’s powerful activists like [Dr. James] Dobson who seem utterly oblivious to the concerns of others.”

In his speech, Foxman cited Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” ministries, widely regarded as one of the most effective and influential forces on the religious right. Stern said that while the religious right is far from monolithic, several recent events have ratcheted up tensions in the Jewish community over its rising power.

“What makes the issue particularly salient now is the fight over the Supreme Court, and the fact that when [White House counsel Harriet] Miers beat a retreat, the administration went out of its way to find a nominee more to the liking of the religious right,” he said.

Stern said the reaction of major Christian right leaders to new Pentagon guidelines on religious expression at the Air Force Academy was “truly scary.”

Those guidelines were meant to end religious coercion at the Colorado Springs school and set clear rules for appropriate religious activity. But many Evangelical leaders and their friends have attacked the guidelines as “anti-Christian.”

Stern also cited the dramatic transformation of Congress. No longer can the Senate be counted on to block radical legislation passed by the House.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the leader of a Conservative synagogue in the Washington suburbs and a member of the board of the Interfaith Alliance, a group that opposes the political agenda of the religious right from a religious perspective. Rabbi Moline said recent events — including the brutal battles over judicial nominations — have jolted the Jewish community back to a more skeptical approach to the religious right.

He cited the scandal surrounding Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican forced to step down as House Majority Leader, as raising Jewish concerns about the power of the religious right.

Several Jewish activists said that this year’s furor over Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose right-to-die case became a crusade for the religious right, also set off communal alarm bells.

“Before, the idea that religious extremists were influencing national policy was all sort of abstract, and it was easy to ignore,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “But in the Schiavo case, we had the [Senate] majority leader trying to intervene with a remote control diagnosis; we had Tom DeLay making all kinds of extreme statements. Suddenly it all became very real to a lot of people. I think this really had an impact on our community.”

University of Akron political scientist John Green, who studies the religious right, suggested another factor in the flurry of attacks on the religious right by Jewish leaders.

“Bush’s domestic problems, scandals, the war in Iraq and so forth may suggest the Christian right’s position is weakening — and so it is an opportune time to rally opposition to them,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the Reform leader who criticized the religious right in a speech to his group’s convention several weeks ago, said that part of his motivation was to correct an imbalance in Jewish life. Too often in recent years, he said, even liberal Jewish groups have muted their opposition to conservative Christian political efforts because of fears of an anti-Israel backlash by a group that was becoming a bulwark of support even as “mainline” Protestant churches were becoming Israel’s harshest critics.

But concern about Israel “should not be sufficient to silence us on a range of issues, and particularly those—like Israel—that touch on our fundamental values and interests,” he said. Christian Zionists “shouldn’t get a veto over what we do.”

Akiba Covitz, a University of Richmond political scientist, said that Israel’s Gaza withdrawal this summer may have been a turning point for Jews who welcomed Evangelical support for Israel even as they opposed their domestic positions.

While a majority of American Jews supported the unilateral Israeli action, leading Evangelical supporters of Israel were among its harshest critics — and lobbied the administration to oppose the policy.

“That was a wake-up call,” he said. “It showed that our purposes in supporting Israel were very different … American Jews understood that what happened in Gaza was sad, but we accepted that Sharon had Israel’s interests in mind. The Evangelicals didn’t believe that. They believe Israel will be protected through faith in this God we don’t believe in.”

Disillusionment with the nature of Evangelical support for Israel, he said, contributed to a new “critical mass” on the issue within the Jewish community.

But as Monday’s ADL meeting demonstrated, there are powerful factions in the Jewish community that want to expand, not limit, coalitions with the Evangelicals — and not just on Israel-related issues.

Diament, the OU Washington director, said criticisms like those voice by Rabbi Yoffie and Foxman do not recognize significant differences that exist between conservative Christian groups.

“There are elements of the Christian community that do cross important lines in some of their rhetoric,” he said. “But the mainstream, more prominent Evangelical leaders are pretty responsible and work in good partnership with us.”

That encompasses issues such as government funding for religious charities and help for parochial school parents, as well as support for Israel, he said. It also includes opposition to efforts to bar religion from the public square.

Jeffrey Ballabon, an activist who hosts a weekly conference call among Jewish conservatives, said groups that continue to lash out against the religious right risk losing a younger generation of Jews who are more conservative than their leaders.

“The more groups like ADL and the Reform movement focus on this issue, the faster they will become irrelevant to American Jews,” he said. “The ADL population is aging because its message of fear does not resonate with younger Jews, and there’s no question the Reform base is evaporating.

Rabbi Yoffie’s comments are just an effort to “beef up the numbers for a movement that has very little to offer American Jews,” he said.

But most polls suggest that Foxman and Rabbi Yoffie were reflecting a widespread, although far from universal, concern in the Jewish community.

“There’s a reason John Kerry got 75 percent of the Jewish vote, and it’s because Jews continue to be terrified of Evangelicals,” said an official with a major Jewish group. “There really is a growing sense that this group is starting to change the nature of our democracy, that they are starting to pull down the church-state wall. Elements in our community agree with a lot of their positions, but they are a very small minority.”