The Rev. Jerry Falwell, like his beloved phrase “Judeo-Christian nation,” evinced mixed feeling among Jews: It’s nice you want to get together, but is it a good idea?
Falwell, the televangelist who helped steer America rightward when he founded the Moral Majority nearly 30 years ago, died Tuesday in Lynchburg, Va., on the campus of Liberty University, which he founded. He was 73.
Statements from Jewish leaders about his death were duly respectful of a man who loved Israel, but were qualified also by his embrace of values that alienated most American Jews.
“I admired Reverend Falwell s understanding that despite our differences, there were areas of agreement between us, above all our deep and profound commitment to the safety and well-being of the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
That “despite” cropped up again in a statement from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Despite our many disagreements through the years, we were saddened to learn of the loss of the Rev. Jerry Falwell,” Foxman said. “He was a passionate leader of Christianity in America and a dear friend of Israel.”
Falwell was among the first evangelical leaders to make clear that presidential candidates must show deference to the U.S.-Israel alliance if they wanted his constituency’s support.
“It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel’s only safety belt right now,” Falwell told CBS News in 2002.
In 1999, he pledged that 200,000 evangelical ministers would keep Congress from pressuring Israel to concede more territory to the Palestinians.
Falwell had an especially close relationship with Israel’s prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, who rankled U.S. Jews by embracing the evangelist so readily.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, conveyed his condolences Tuesday to Falwell’s family and! followe rs.
“It was with both shock and sorrow that I learned of the tragic and sudden passing of Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell, whose support for Israel spanned many decades,” Meridor said in a statement.
Falwell’s dedication made him invaluable, said Mort Klein, leader of the Zionist Organization of America.
“Jews should have appreciated his virtually unconditional support more than we did,” Klein said. “We should also have appreciated that his deep support for Israel came from strong belief in the Torah, in the Bible.”
Falwell’s passing means “one less important voice of support at a time when Israel needs all the support it can get in a world hostile toward it and getting more hostile,” Klein said. “It’s a sad day for Zionists and those of us who love Israel.”
Still, even Klein acknowledged that “Falwell made many inappropriate and controversial statements.”
Most notoriously for Jews, in 1999 Falwell speculated that the Antichrist the satanic figure whose presence would presage the return of Jesus was alive and Jewish.
“When he appears during the Tribulation period he will be a full-grown counterfeit of Christ,” Falwell told followers at a Tennessee gathering. “Of course he’ll be Jewish.”
That set off a fierce storm of criticism from Jewish leaders, who said Falwell was appealing to the basest anti-Semitic sentiments.
Falwell apologized and explained that he was simply expressing the theological tenet that the Antichrist and Christ share many attributes.
Falwell went out of his way to reach out to Jews. In 2003 he expressed understanding for the belief of a minority of evangelical preachers that Jews don’t need to convert to get into heaven, though he stopped short of endorsing the view.
Last year he welcomed Yoffie to Liberty University to speak to students about shared causes, especially mutual concern about the debasement of sex in popular culture. When Yoffie made the case for legal prot! ection o f gay couples as a religious value, some students booed. Falwell shushed them, saying he had never been booed in a synagogue.
“He introduced me to his students with real excitement, and when it seemed to him that they were acting inappropriately, he stood up and defended my right to speak, even when I was saying things with which I knew he would disagree,” Yoffie recalled.
Foxman recalled long dialogues with Falwell, saying he was a man who was willing to listen and change his mind. Foxman recalled a meeting in the mid-1990s with a group of Jewish leaders, including himself, when Falwell agreed to stop using “Christian nation” to describe the United States and instead switched to “Judeo-Christian nation.”
Yet even that term rankled many Jews who subscribe to a vision of America that unhitches religion from state, and others who believe that the term tries to bridge unbridgeable theological gaps.
“Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism,” Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits once wrote.
Foxman dismissed those concerns.
“It was certainly better than Christian nation,” he told JTA.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, said the term was of little consequence.
“It didn’t make his vision of the role of religion in America any more palatable,” said Saperstein, who often faced Falwell in televised debates.
“Many Jews were deeply concerned by the divisive rhetoric that he used, the politicization of faith and efforts to Christianize America,” he said.
Falwell’s most notorious comments came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he blamed pro-choice activists, gay activists and civil libertarians for calling down divine retribution.
“I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen,” Falwell said on the “700 Club,” fellow televangelist Pat Robertso! n’s show .
Yet Saperstein credited Falwell for undergoing a change in his later years and expanding his Christian vision to embrace causes that united liberals and conservatives, including ending the Darfur genocide and rolling back the AIDS epidemic.
“That was part of the paradox of who he was,” Saperstein said.