These are troubled times for Jewish-Christian relations. In November, two influential American Jewish leaders, representing large swaths of the Jewish community, gave major speeches vilifying politically conservative Christians. As an Orthodox Jew who has long worked with evangelicals, Catholics, and other serious Christians, I would like to propose an ameliorative measure aimed at furthering inter-religious peace and friendship: Let every Christian gently ask a Jewish friend for a moment of his time. Tell him you’ve been following the news about some of the statements issuing from Jewish organizations in regard to conservative Christians. Tell him you’re confused and concerned. In a spirit of affection and respect, ask your friend if he would be willing to answer six simple but puzzling questions.
Preface this by giving the relevant recent background information. Mention that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, the country’s largest Jewish denomination, called Christians and other religious conservatives “zealots” and “bigots.” Harshly attacking opposition to gay marriage, Yoffie remarked, “We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations.”
Yoffie, whose movement includes 1.5 million members, spoke on the heels of comments from Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. “Today,” Foxman said, “we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To save us!” Foxman warned that evangelicals in particular have “built infrastructures throughout the country,” intending “to ‘Christianize’ all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate, and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.”
In view of these provocations, here are the questions I’d suggest that Christians ask:
• Is it not true that Jewish leaders have better things to worry about than the spiritual fate of SpongeBob SquarePants? Let’s say, about radical Islam? Or secularism? At a time when radical Muslims threaten Jews and others around the world, why vilify American Christians?
Yoffie and Foxman spoke at a time when fellow Jews were worried about disturbing news from across the Muslim world. In France, Arab youths rioted—the same youths who since 2000 have been harassing French Jews, burning synagogues, and desecrating Jewish cemeteries. In Egypt, television viewers had just enjoyed a month-long dramatization of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The president of Iran called on Muslims to “wipe Israel off the map.” Meanwhile, the number of Jews lost to any form of Christianity is minuscule compared to the number lost to nothing, to secularism. If the ADL’s institutional purpose is to safeguard the existence of the Jewish people, if the Reform movement cares about Jewish souls as well as Jewish bodies, why has neither group ever campaigned against the threat posed by secularism?
• If conservative Christians were less politically powerful, would this help or hurt the security of the state of Israel?
No nation has been a better friend to the Jewish state than the United States, and for this, our country has earned the enmity of Israel-haters around the globe. In shaping American policy, domestic Christian pro-Israel sentiment has been at least as influential as Jewish support. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that some of them really are looking forward to Armageddon, in the manner of the Left Behind books, with a global war centered upon Israel playing a key role in the unfolding of events at the End of Days. However distasteful you might find that view, please consider: If these same Israel-loving conservative American Christians all retired from political activism now, would Israel be better off or worse? Safer from attack or less so? Would America be a more faithful defender of the Jewish state or a less faithful one?
One prominent religious conservative, Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association, has said forthrightly that attacks on conservative Christians endanger Israel’s safety. In a December 5 radio interview, Wildmon said of Foxman’s latest salvos, “You know, he’s got himself kind of in a bind, because the strongest supporters Israel has are members of the religious right, the people he’s fighting. He’s got himself in a bind here. Because the more he says that ‘you people are destroying this country,’ you know, 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.’”
• Practically, what positive ends could anti-Christian attacks possibly accomplish?
Presumably Foxman and Yoffie, in provoking Christian conservatives, had in mind some positive and practical goal of benefit to the Jewish community. They hoped to accomplish a goal beyond provocation. But what that goal could be is hard to discern. When the Anti-Defamation League and other liberal groups campaigned against Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Gibson refused to change his film. Yet the anti-Semitism the ADL warned the movie would spur never even began to materialize. Clearly that ADL campaign benefited no one—except possibly the ADL. What are the chances that the latest insults will convince Christians to give up their political goals and moral principles? If the chances are slim, why risk alienating friends and fellow citizens?
• If evangelicals seek to “Christianize America,” a phrase implying legal coercion, when is the last time anyone tried to Christianize you?
Whenever I ask fellow Jews to explain their support of leaders such as Yoffie and Foxman, the most frequent response I get is that these men defend us against those who would pressure Jews to convert to Christianity. Yet no one I know can point to a personal experience of having been pressured to accept Jesus. Is it possible that Jews think that “Christianizing” is rampant only because the Yoffies and the Foxmans tell us so? True, Foxman can always trot out a quotation from someone in the fever swamps that are supposed to somehow represent the perspective of conservative Christians as a whole. Thus, he points out, something called the Alliance Defense Fund says “court victories are vital steps to . . . reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ.” But in a big country like America, you can always find some organization that articulates any political or other philosophy that one can possibly imagine. Quote that marginal group and—bingo!—you’ve now “proven” that its bizarre ideology represents a significant threat just because it has been written down somewhere and nailed up on a website. But honestly, does this tell us anything about the sentiments of the majority of American Christians?
• How do you explain the fact that “bigoted” Christian political positions mirror the traditional views of your own religion, Judaism?
Judaism, as understood for millennia, mostly agrees with conservative Christian views on abortion, euthanasia, religion in public life, and other issues. If it’s “Nazi”-like to oppose gay marriage, as Rabbi Yoffie argues, then Jewish tradition must also be Hitlerian. The Hebrew Bible forbids homosexual intercourse, and Jewish rabbinic thought warns against tampering with the institution of marriage. Indeed, a classical rabbinic midrash explains that one of the reasons God was so disgusted with the original inhabitants of the land of Canaan, and caused the land to disgorge them in favor of the children of Israel, was that the Canaanites wrote marriage contracts for members of the same sex. Why are these views evidence of “zealotry” when held by Christians but not so when held by every generation of Jews universally down to about a hundred years ago?
• Have you considered the economics behind these anti-Christian attacks?
A self-perpetuating loop of disinformation feeds Jewish fears: Jewish leaders scare us with the bogeyman of the Christian Right. That causes Jews to open their wallet. If questioned about this, Jews explain that they need to support the Yoffies and the Foxmans because, after all, look at what the Christian Right is up to! The fact that Foxman’s organization has $52 million in yearly expenses, including Foxman’s own $412,000 in total compensation (according to publicly available 2003 tax information), is not irrelevant. The dynamics of a non-profit organization make it imperative that the group continually prove to funders that it remains relevant.
Some non-profits demonstrate their relevance by offering thoughtful commentary on current events or other vital information. But are anti-Christian provocations the best way to spend tens of millions of dollars? Remember that we live in a time of massive Jewish assimilation into the wider secular culture—a disappearance of Jewish families driven in large part by Jewish cultural impoverishment and ignorance of Jewish faith and tradition. Imagine if Abraham Foxman’s salary alone were spent on sending Jewish kids to Jewish schools. Given the goal of preserving the Jewish people, would that be a better or worse allocation?
These are fair questions, and millions of thoughtful Christians must have wondered about them since the early 1990s when Jewish groups like the ADL started lambasting religious conservatives. There is nothing threatening about a Christian politely requesting some clarification. So go ahead, Christians, ask away. Frankly I would be curious to know what answers you get.
But beyond satisfying curiosity, can the disinformation loop actually be broken? I believe there is value in Christians—as distinct from me, a fellow Jew—politely questioning their Jewish friends. When the questions come from outside the seemingly airtight bubble of Jewish-American culture, perhaps the startling fact of actually being confronted by a real Christian will force Jews to rethink our community’s reflexive support of irresponsible leaders. It might just work.
David Klinghoffer is a columnist at the Forward and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His most recent book is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.