One word sums it up: Israel.
Probably no group, outside of the Jews themselves, has been more steadfastly, dogmatically unwavering in its support for the Jewish state than the Christian Right—a position that has kept many Jews, while fearing the Christian Right, relatively quiet about those fears. After all, with much of the world hostile to Israel, with many liberal Protestant churches openly, unabashedly pro-Palestinian, how nice to have a powerful ally so fervently supportive of what is for many Jews their primary concern. Sure, the Jews might disagree with the Christian Right on a host of domestic issues, but what's a manger scene with a few reindeer in a public square compared to the potential destruction of the only Jewish state since the Bar Kokhba rebellion in A.D. 135?
Not much. Which is why the Jews, despite their deep-seated differences with the Christian Right, have kept quiet.
Until now. Late last year two well-known Jewish leaders spoke out strongly, even harshly, against their erstwhile allies in the Christian Right. Both Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, launched into unnuanced attacks on the Christian Right and the potential danger they believe the movement represents to America and, particularly, the Jewish people.
The Two Witnesses
Though tensions have been fomenting for years within the Jewish community, things came out more in the open when Foxman, at an ADL National Commission meeting last November, lashed out at the Christian Right, calling it "the key domestic challenge" to the Jewish community in America. He warned about the trend "to throw out the constitutional balance that protects our public square for something quite different: an effort to Christianize America." Then, pulling no punches, he openly challenged the Christian Right, naming groups such as Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund, American Family Association, and Family Research Council.
Two weeks later in Houston, at the Union for Reform Judaism 68th General Assembly, Rabbi Yoffie, in a sermon delivered to about 5,000 people, spent part of the time in open criticism of the Christian Right's political agenda in the name of religion.
"We are particularly offended," he said, "by the suggestion that the opposite of the Religious Right is the voice of atheism. We are appalled when 'people of faith' is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. "What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?"
Then, more bluntly, he continued: "So we ask our neighbors on the Religious Right to take note: We are religious Jews, gathered in Houston to study, pray, and commit ourselves to God. And yes, we are generally liberal in our politics. But our liberalism flows directly from our religious commitments. And we worry that you don't understand what this means, or what it means for anyone to be a liberal religious believer.
"What it means is this: that we bring a measure of humility to our religious belief. We study religious texts day and night, but we have no direct lines to heaven, and we aren't always sure that we know God's will. It means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy."
Finally, after castigating them on their position toward gay marriage, he expressed a wish to dialogue, but only if it were understood that "religion is far too important to be entangled with government; that we need beware the zealots who want to make their religion the religion of everyone else; and that we all need to put our trust in America, the most religiously diverse country in the world."
Though Rabbi Yoffie wasn't as direct, or confrontational, as Foxman, the message of both was understood. And not everyone, whether Jewish or Christian, was happy with it either. Writing in Salon.com (November 29, 2005), Michelle Goldberg said that Foxman and Yoffie "have enraged some evangelicals and opened a fissure in the larger Jewish community. Some leaders are worried about provoking a conservative backlash and ushering in a new era of anti-Semitism. Others rejoice that someone has finally articulated what so many ordinary American Jews have been thinking. Either way, the culture wars have suddenly taken on an overtly sectarian cast."
Whether a shift in Jewish thinking, or merely a few garlicky burps in what's never been a lovefest at best between the two groups, their warnings have caused harsh rhetoric on both sides. Plus, as Goldberg said, they have caused a fissure in the Jewish community between those who want other Jews to back off criticizing Israel's most loyal supporters and those who, despite the Christian Right's pro-Zionist stance, believe that the movement poses a threat. In one case Jewish author David Klinghoffer mocked Foxman's rhetoric, arguing that with the president of Iran talking about the need "to wipe Israel off the map," the head of the ADL is sounding a dire warning. . . about James Dobson and Focus on the Family?
"So," wrote Klinghoffer, "what are we to make of the weird air of unreality in the ADL's public statements about Christians?"
Some evangelicals didn't respond fondly either. Going right for the jugular, Don Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, one of the groups specifically named by Foxman, warned that statements like these could endanger Christian support for Israel. Said Wildmon: "The more [Foxman] says that 'you people are destroying this country,' [the more] some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, 'Well, all right then. If that's the way you feel, then we just won't support Israel anymore.'"
The Prophetic Factor
This ugly kind of sectarian rhetoric, Jew versus Christian, is exactly what many Jews want to avoid, especially since they're vastly outnumbered, in every way, by the Christian Right. Plus, why alienate Israel's most fervent, and powerful, Gentile supporters in the United States?
On the other hand, Wildmon's words were pure bluff. How could evangelicals not support Israel when, according to their own interpretation of Bible prophecy, God has called the Jews back to the land? To stop supporting Israel would be, in their thinking, tantamount to fighting against God's will, something they're not likely to do, at least not until the time is right (see below).
Here's where things get complicated. Jewish enthusiasm for the Christian Right's fervid pro-Israel stance remains tempered by the fact that this support is based on a theology that predicts, among other things, the destruction of millions of Jews in the Holy Land during the final battle of Armageddon. Almost 20 years ago, in the pages of Liberty (November/December 1987), I wrote an article, "The Religious Right and the Destruction of Israel" (subsequently reprinted by the Baltimore Jewish Times on January 29, 1988), in which I warned that the Christian Right's support of Israel is based on a skewed interpretation of Bible prophecy that, according to the various scenarios, predicts the death of millions of Jews, all part of end-time events to precede the second coming of Jesus. Meanwhile those Jews who aren't slaughtered will accept Jesus as the Messiah and become, in the words of Hal Lindsey (one of the best-selling purveyors of this theology), "144,000 Jewish Billy Grahams turned loose at once!" That was their theology then, when I wrote the article, and with little modification it remains their theology today, as well. In the end, before Jesus comes, the Jews will face disaster because, they say, it's all been predicted in the Holy Scriptures.
What's most disturbing, and what I pointed out back then and believe is worth pointing out again, is that should persecution of the Jews arise again, should Israel really be threatened in a big way, how much support should the Jews and the Jewish nation expect from, I wrote, "those whose greatest hope—the second coming of Jesus—is predicated upon another Holocaust?" Sure, the support's solid now, but what happens when events unfold and people start saying, "Wow! This [the impending destruction of Israel and the Jews] is prophecy being fulfilled before our eyes! Hallelujah!"
Already the brouhaha caused by Foxman and Yoffie has subsided, even if the underlying distrust remains, and no doubt will for at least as long as the Christian Right is around and wielding power. And, from all indications, they aren't going anywhere soon. On the contrary, having made incredible strides in the past few decades, they're firmly ensconced in the American political arena, all but taking over the Republican Party.
Not bad for some Bible-thumping hicks.
In fact, that's precisely what the Christian Right isn't, at least anymore. Long gone are the days when, coming into Washington, D.C., on the heels of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the movement's leaders loudly threatened electoral damnation to any politician who didn't vote the "biblical" position on everything from Star Wars, to aid to the Contras, to taxes. Instead, as Foxman said, they are "a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized, and organized coalition" than ever before; and with their stranglehold on the Republican Party, they're in for the long haul, which means their best days are probably still ahead.
And if their best days are still ahead, what does that mean for the Foxmans, the Yoffies, and for all Americans, Jew or Gentile, who don't fit into their version of a Christian America? However scary the prospect, if we stick around long enough, we'll probably all find out.
Clifford Goldstein is a formaer editor of Liberty magazine and a prolific author. He writes from Mount Airy, Maryland
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.