Posted on July 25, 1994 in Washington Watch
The increasingly powerful role played by the Christian fundamentalist movement in the Republican party poses a serious problem for the organized Jewish community in the U.S. During the past month this issue has stirred up a vigorous public debate within the organized Jewish community. While the debate was first played out in the Jewish press, it has recently made its way into the opinion pages of mainstream U.S. press.
For at least the past two decades, American Jews have been divided over their view of Christian fundamentalism. Liberal Jews were repulsed by the “fanaticism of the true believers.” They were concerned not only about the intolerance of the movement in its rejection of the liberal social agenda espoused by a majority of the Jewish community, but also by the claim of many fundamentalist Christians that only believers in Jesus Christ would be saved by God.
So, as liberal Jews led the fight for maintaining the separation between Church and State (including the effort to keep prayer out of public schools and removing Christian symbols from publicly owned property), they ran up against those Christian groups which would argue that religion is an important part of public life and state their firmly held belief that this is a “Christian country.”
On the other side were those pro-Israel strategists who, as early as the 1970s, saw right wing Christians as an ally in their struggle against the Arabs. Many Christian fundamentalists were virulently anti-Communist, and saw Arabs as surrogates of the Soviet Union in the Middle East.
But belief in the state of Israel was also for many fundamentalists a matter of theology. Made increasingly popular by the Reverend Pat Robertson in the 1980s, this belief taught that the Old Testament prophecies were to destined to be replayed in the modern world, leading to the Day of Judgment and the Final Battle of Armageddon as proclaimed in the New Testament.
According to this school of thought, the ingathering of the Jews into Israel in 1948 was part of God’s plan to bring on the Final Battle, in which the forces of Good (which fundamentalist Christians see as the U.S. and its allies) would confront the forces of Evil (correspondingly seen as the Soviet Union and its allies – Arabs and Muslims). This battle would lead to the destruction of the earth, which for this theology is a necessity before Jesus can return to save “the select, the believers.”
This Christian fundamentalist view maintained that, although all Jews must ultimately be converted to Christianity in order to fulfill the prophecies, Israel must be supported at all costs.
It was this last belief which led several right-wing Jewish strategists to cultivate fundamentalist Christian support to shore up their political power in the U.S. They arranged trips for fundamentalist leaders to visit Israel and meetings for them with Israeli government officials. Jewish groups also helped arrange for these fundamentalist Christian groups to open offices in Israel and even a Christian television station in South Lebanon. In return, the Christian fundamentalists supported the right-wing Jewish pro-Israel agenda in the U.S.
Many of these right wing Jewish strategists formed the backbone of the neo-conservative movement that provided quite a number of foreign policy experts to the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. It was they who formed the unholy alliance of right-wing Jews and Christian fundamentalists supporters of Israel within the Republican party.
The intensity and success of this relationship can be best understood by the example of 1988, when Arab Americans took pro-Arab and balanced Middle East peace process resolutions to Democratic party state conventions across the U.S. A coalition was formed of Arab Americans, progressive Jews, African Americans and peace activists. In every state where this coalition entered Democratic conventions, they won. And, for the first time, this same coalition succeeded in getting the issue of Palestinian statehood debated at the Democratic National Convention.
On the other hand, the power of the neo-conservative and Christian fundamentalist alliance was so strong on the Republican side that, in 1988, Arab Americans were unable to win or even secure a debate on any Middle East platform language in any state. Even in 1992, when Arab Americans sought to change the very strong pro-Israel language of the Republican party by adding language supportive of the Madrid process started by the Republican Administration of President Bush and Secretary of State Baker, every attempt was defeated by this right wing alliance.
So, today, as liberal Democrats, including many Jewish Democrats, have begun a campaign to warn about the strong influence of the Christian right in the Republican party, it is not surprising that neo-conservative Jews have rushed to the defense of their right-wing Christian Republican allies. This has set off a firestorm of debate within the Jewish community.
Compounding this debate is a recently published report by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL), “The Religious Right: Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” a study of the growing influence of the Christian fundamentalist movement. While the ADL steadfastly maintains that their report is non-partisan and should not be confused with the Democratic campaign against the Christian right, the timing of its release has fanned the flames of debate in the Jewish community.
The sides in this debate currently line up something like this: On the one side are liberal Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress and moderate Jewish Republicans like Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). On the other side are Likud-supporting groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel (ASI) and former Reagan and Bush Administration officials like former Reagan Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams and Vice President Quayle’s former Chief of Staff William Kristol.
(The role of the ADL in the midst of this dispute is, at best, confusing. A once-liberal civil rights organization, the ADL has moved to the right, finding “anti-Semitism” in every liberal and left-wing group in the U.S. – African Americans, the liberal press, the mainstream Protestant National Council of Churches, peace organizations and all Arab American groups. It is the ADL which is responsible for creating the equation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitism.)
The liberal side warns that the Christian fundamentalists are “anti-pluralist and intolerant,” and that their growing influence threatens the liberal social agenda on issues like separation of Church and State, abortion rights, and the rights of minorities including women and homosexuals. “The religious right is very, very dangerous,” claims Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “When pluralism is challenged, ... most of us in the Jewish community are going to stand up and say `no.’” Despite recognizing the value of their support for Israel, Gutow says that “most Jews are understandably mistrustful of the radical right.”
The conservative Jewish response is straight-forward. The spokesperson of ASI said, “the greatest friends the state of Israel has in America are the Christian conservatives” and he goes on to note that “conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews share beliefs on many social and moral issues.”
Elliot Abrams goes further, accusing many in his community of holding a “deep-seated fear of Christian Evangelical groups” that he says is a form of bigotry.” William Kristol adds, “It is just so short-sighted and self-destructive for an Jewish organization like the ADL to unjustly and gratuitously alienate Christian conservatives.”
While the debate rages on in the Jewish community over the issue itself, and over the ADL report, the Republican party leadership has apparently decided not to distance itself from the Christian right – a powerful bloc of votes which the Republicans feel are central to their electoral ambitions of 1994 and 1996. At the same time, the party leaders and 1996 presidential hopefuls are attempting to reach out to the broader Jewish community in an effort not to lose their votes, as they seek to win upcoming elections.
In an interview with Jewish editors, the national chairman of the Republican party, Haley Barbour, characterized the attack on Christian fundamentalists as “without doubt an organized political strategy. A cynical organized campaign of Christian bashing.” He then went on to appeal to Jewish voters saying that he believed that Republicans “deserve more than [the] 15 percent” of the Jewish vote that George Bush won in 1992 (recalling that, as a result of neo-conservative support, Ronald Reagan won 35% of the Jewish vote in 1988.).
Barbour went on to pledge strong Republican support for Israel, saying, “I don’t think there can be any question that Jerusalem should remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty.” The Republican party chairman also noted that “if you look at most Republicans, you’ll see overwhelming support for foreign aid to Israel.”
The Democrats have succeeded in creating a national debate over the role that the Christian right wing plays in the Republican party. But while the expected debate between Democrats and Republicans may now be subsiding, the debate within the Jewish community seems to be far from over. The bottom line in this debate is simple: is support for right wing Israeli policy more important to the Jewish community than the social agenda of pluralism, tolerance and liberalism they have long espoused?
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