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Jewish ‘affair’ with evangelicals misguided

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J., July 16 (JTA) — Six years ago, the Anti-Defamation League issued a scathing report entitled “The Religious Right: The Assault on Pluralism and Tolerance in America.” But in a stunning reversal in May, it ran full-page ads in The New York Times and other publications, reprinting a strongly pro-Israel opinion piece by former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed. And last month, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, joined forces with Reed in “Stand for Israel,” designed to mobilize 100,000 evangelical churches to raise money and support for Israel, leading Reed to proclaim that the burgeoning Jewish-Christian coalition for Israel is today as potent as the Jewish-black coalition for civil rights was in the 1960s. It’s not the first time that support for Israel has led to political realignments among American Jews. In 1980, my father, a Holocaust survivor and lifelong Democrat, cast his lot for Ronald Reagan, convinced — along with more than a third of the Jewish electorate— that Reagan’s pro-Israel stance was “good for the Jews.” But never before have moderate American Jewish leaders embraced the Christian right so enthusiastically. Defending their budding love affair with conservative Christians, some Jewish leaders, like the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, say the religious right has changed, and the declining influence of groups like the Christian Coalition means that it is “less adversarial.” If this is true, though, it’s the product of a shift in style rather than ideology. Christian conservatives are softening their pitch, reaching out to conservative Jews, Mormons and Catholics, but their political project — to win new converts, gain power and influence in the public arena, erode the barrier between church and state, shrink the public sector and increase their presence on the world stage — is more ambitious than ever. In the 1980s and 1990s, energized by their crusade against moral decline, politicized Christians built bases in local communities: running candidates for school boards, sponsoring local ballot measures against gay rights, abortion and comprehensive sex education, and successfully taking over the Republican Party in many states. In the process, they polarized scores of communities, pitted neighbor against neighbor around “culture war” issues, and made as many enemies as friends. Stung by criticism of their divisive tactics, and inspired by Ralph Reed’s call to “cast a wider net,” during the late 1990s Christian activists throughout the nation toned down their rhetoric and looked for other places to strut their stuff. Some ran for local office, or joined anti-tax and anti-immigration campaigns. Others entered the arena of foreign policy, organizing to save “persecuted Christians” around the globe. Today, many are captivated by the Middle East crisis. Joseph Farah, a Lebanese American who is the co-author with Rush Limbaugh of the best-seller “See, I Told You So” edits a daily Web site that specializes in spinning conspiracy tales about Bill Clinton, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and supporters of stem-cell research — whom he likens to Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele. Recently, Farah chastised “radical Muslims” for constructing “an illegal prayer tent” from which they taunt worshipers and ridicule the Christian beliefs of those who visit Nazareth. But it’s not just Nazareth that’s at stake, he suggests. “The Muslim campaign in Nazareth is part of an overall strategy to neutralize or eliminate Christian sites and Christian believers from the Middle East.” Farah’s pro-Israel stance is motivated by the belief that Christian sites are safer in Jewish than in Muslim hands, and by the biblical prophecy that Jews, ultimately, will facilitate the return of Christ. It’s also motivated by a generalized antipathy toward Islam — a sentiment that is shared by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, a national alliance of Jews and Christians dedicated to “family values and the free market,” who recently proclaimed that “conservative Christians are the natural allies of the Jewish community.” “It may be attractive,” Lapin suggests, “to think of Christians, Jews and Muslims as forming one great ‘Abrahamic’ civilization . . . but the truth is that today we are witnessing two distinct religious civilizations in conflict: that of the Koran, allied with the believers in no God, violently challenging the civilization of the Bible, of Christianity and Judaism.” Gary Bauer, a leading voice of the Christian right, agrees. “Western civilization is being challenged again and Israel and the United States share a civilization based on Western and Judeo-Christian values.” If this sounds curiously like the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric post- 9/11, it should. Armed by the belief that the “civilized world” is engaged in a battle for the preservation of humanity against Islam, conservatives suggest that the new fault line isn’t between communism and capitalism, it’s between Judeo-Christian culture and the godless other — namely, the followers of Mohammed. So why have some American Jews joined this bandwagon? For ultra-conservatives like Lapin and Eckstein, the answer is pretty clear. Like their Christian brethren, they believe that “secular humanism” can only be kept in check through traditional morality‹and the free market. (Lapin: “I am far more concerned about the threat that sexual promiscuity poses to my children than I am about the threat of second-hand smoke.”) Eckstein and Lapin, two Orthodox rabbis, have been knocking around Christian right circles for a while, appearing on such forums as Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.” Until recently, many mainstream Jewish leaders considered them marginal figures, dupes at best of a Christian right public relations campaign designed to burnish its image among American Jews. The benefits they reap from this alliance — including a ready audience of perhaps 50 million evangelical Christians connected via an enormous media empire — are certainly not immaterial. On his Web site, Eckstein hawks Dead Sea bath salt and other tempting gift items. For his part, Lapin has a syndicated radio talk show, as well as a management training and consulting firm that claims to “help organizations apply the ancient wisdom used over centuries by Jews to excel in business and translates it into modern day management tools for enhanced organizational performance.” A more vexing question is why moderate Jews — who have long opposed the Christian right on such fundamental issues as church-state separation and civil rights — have joined up with book banners, opponents of abortion, activists whose support for Israel is based on inflexible theological and sometimes prophetic explanations for Israel’s right to exist — and people who are more than willing to express their unabated hatred of the Muslim religion. Jewish leaders from groups like the ADL say the alliance is a strategic one, that since Republicans are in power and conservative Christians comprise the base of the Republican Party, it makes strategic sense. But like many hastily conceived romances, the Jewish alliance with Christian conservatives is bound to spawn some unanticipated — and unwanted — offspring. It could potentially alienate large sectors of the Jewish community, driving them away from the fold — particularly socially liberal baby boomers, who are likely to be turned off by the right’s anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-democratic agenda. Advocating that religious doctrine rather than democratic debate should guide policymaking, the Christian right lobby — and the Jews who love them — are also likely to push Sharon’s government and their American allies further to the right. Are these “natural allies” really doing what’s best for Israel or for American Jews? The answer is yes if one imagines Israel as a repressive, theocratic state, and if one sees the American Jewish community as essentially conservative. But in fact, there are many who believe that a more democratic vision is still possible and that Jews should be building coalitions with liberal Protestants, Catholics and especially moderate Muslims who support Israel — not those who view a complicated world in theologically black-and-white terms.
Arlene Stein is the author of “The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith and Civil Rights (Beacon 2001). She teaches sociology at Rutgers University.