Anti-tolerance ad sparks debate

WASHINGTON, July 3 (JTA) — A primarily Jewish group is calling for an end to modern “tolerance,” saying it has led to increased pornography, hostility to faith and families and an assault on the dignity of human life.

In an ad placed on The New York Times Op-Ed page last Friday, the conservative interfaith group Toward Tradition said society was “terrorized by tolerance” and urged a return to biblical morality.

The ad confused and riled many American Jews. It also challenged the notion that Jewish organizations speak in a united voice for the Jewish community when it comes to issues like tolerance and pluralism.

Toward Tradition is a coalition of Jews and Christians that supports traditional, faith-based and American principles of constitutional and limited government. Its Web site states it supports the rule of law, representative democracy, free markets, a strong military and a moral public culture.

Founded in 1991, the Mercer Island, Wash.-based group has grass-roots chapters of activists throughout the country and distributes a regular newsletter and policy papers on topics such as taxation, education and other social and cultural issues.

Yarden Weidenfeld, national director of Toward Tradition, said the rhetoric of groups that claim they are fighting racism and anti-Semitism are really masking a liberal political, moral and social agenda, and that very agenda is dangerous to the Jewish community.

There is a tendency in the Jewish community to be on the anti-traditional side of debates, Weidenfeld said, and conservative groups get demonized and delegitimized.

“There’s a lot of closed-mindedness in the name of open-mindedness,”

Weidenfeld told JTA.

“In 2001, you can’t say anything is right or wrong anymore, except for vaguely defined intolerance,” the ad said.

This situation is “especially ominous for Jews,” the ad said, because it undermines “respect for all moral values, including respect for minorities.”

The ad drew some harsh criticism from Jewish figures.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Toward Tradition a “fringe group” that gets attention by attacking majority Jewish opinions in an exaggerated fashion.

While the ad argued that the Torah isn’t particularly tolerant Foxman countered that the concept of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” an important principle of Judaism, is the highest form of tolerance.

In 1994, Toward Tradition rejected the ADL report, “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance & Pluralism in America,” objecting to the study’s conclusion that there is a conservative Christian threat to Jewish security.

If Toward Tradition is suggesting that mainstream Jewish groups support the drift to moral relativism — including hostility to police officers and contempt for free enterprise, as listed in the ad — then that is “utter nonsense,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Saperstein said it was hard to figure out what the strongly worded ad was aiming to achieve.

But Saperstein acknowledged that Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the group’s president and founder of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif., has credibility in some circles on the right so he can do things that are helpful to common visions of the Jewish community, such as security of Israel, fighting anti-Semitism and preserving religious freedom.

Lapin was one of a few Jewish thinkers who was invited to meet with President Bush in the early transition days of the administration about the White House plan to fund religious groups that provide social services.

By placing religious values at the core of the incoming administration, Bush will do a great deal to help unify the country, Lapin said at the time.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said Toward Tradition is right: The word “tolerance” has often been twisted into a weapon for use against those who embrace traditional morality.

The tone of the ad was “a little harsh,” Shafran said, but the group’s increased visibility is a sign of the respectability of the conservative approach.

“It’s important there be conservative voices in the Jewish world,” Shafran said, adding he hopes the Jewish community gets to hear all sides of an issue and doesn’t have to think a Jewish approach means a liberal take.

There is a certain political correctness in the Jewish community that is troubling to American Jewish conservatives, said Murray Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center of American Jewish History at Temple University.

“If you deviate from the mainstream, you are questioned,” Friedman said, and some in the community see conservatism as reactionary and even fascist.

But Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the ad indicates that the group is trying to reach out to non-Jewish conservatives.

“Toward Tradition does not even reflect the views of neo-conservatives in the Jewish community,” Sarna said.

Toward Tradition said it had received hundreds of phone calls, most of them positive, about the ad.

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