How can we expect evangelical Christians to support our concerns if we support none of theirs? — David Harris, Executive Director,
American Jewish Committee
(Christianity Today , October 2003
Despite talk of a political realignment, on November 2, 2004, American Jews overwhelming rejected George W. Bush and his commitment to the concerns of the Christian Right. Today Harris’ remark should be an anachronism. Unfortunately, it could prove to be prophetic. American Jewish leaders are divided between those willing to trade domestic communal interests for an alliance with Christian fundamentalists and those who stand with the majority of Jews. Defeat of that majority would smooth the way for a broader conservative Jewish communal agenda and justify the most significant communal backlash in over 30 years.
One week before the election, I led a group of 120 volunteers to Palm Beach County to help get out the Jewish vote. Our experience when meeting Jewish retirees was reflected at the polls: 80 percent of Florida’s Jewish voters cast a ballot for John Kerry. Across the country thousands of Jews put hundreds of thousands of hours into defeating the Bush agenda. My own encounters and the stories of others made it clear that the rising power of the Christian Right, with its dangerous domestic agenda, was a top concern to many American Jews.
Yet throughout the presidential campaign, Jewish leaders repeated that the president had been a great friend to Israel, while Bush partisans proclaimed, “Israel (and the ‘War on Terror’) first!” Ed Koch often campaigned for President Bush, telling Jewish audiences that he supported the president even though “I don’t agree with him on a single domestic issue.” Delegates at this year’s annual AIPAC Conference greeted the president chanting “Four More Years!” and an estimated 70 percent of Orthodox Jews gave him their vote.
The goal of all this barking seems clear: to make Jews single issue voters. The effort was unsuccessful with the voters, but it may still impact the leadership. A triumvirate of Jewish conservatives, Orthodox Jews, and AIPAC loyalists has pushed to make support for Likud the communal bottom line. They argue that with Israel at risk our allegiance is more critical than ever before and a confrontation with the evangelicals will endanger Israel; the Christian Right has protectcia . The Jewish majority, then, must sacrifice abortion rights at the fundamentalist altar; it is the price Jews must pay for a safe and secure Israel.
The effect of our hand-sitting is predictable. Failing to confront the Christian Right will enable a conservative domestic agenda: school vouchers and faith-based initiatives in, separation of church and state out; traditional families and gender roles in, equality for women, gays, and lesbians out; endogamy and the “committed core” in, outreach to the intermarried out; Greater Israel in, land-for-peace in Israel out; halakha in, haskalah out. Conservatives commit, liberal legions lament.
Less than two weeks after the 2004 election, lay leader extraordinaire Shoshana Cardin made headlines for telling the United Jewish Communities General Assembly that the “struggle to adapt to an agenda that is as Christian” as the Republican agenda “is our struggle.” Later, she told a reporter that “the values that are being espoused now by ‘Middle America,’ if you will, are Christian values, and we have to speak up and express our values, which are not identical.”
Cardin’s comment to the G.A. — from a woman who voted for Bush, unlike 75 percent of American Jews — was reported to have elicited words of caution from Jewish leaders at the gathering. Cardin is not alone; it is likely that many of the 25 percent of American Jews who supported Bush oppose the Christian Right’s domestic agenda. After the election, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, NJ noted that while most of his congregants had voted for Bush, “There are those within the community who are very frightened by [Bush’s] association” with the Christian Right. Jewish leaders may, however, prefer to accommodate the Christian Right rather than confront it, ignoring the views of the overwhelming majority of American Jews.
Accommodation has already produced one failure. While Cardin was making waves at the G.A., Jewish Republican Senator Arlen Specter was fighting off a coordinated attack by the Christian Right centered on his support for abortion rights. Despite Specter’s longstanding relationships with Jewish leaders, despite the anti-Jewish nature of many of the attacks, and despite the Jewish community’s overwhelming support for abortion rights, Jewish leaders did not defend Specter. He will take his position as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee having survived the attacks not because he received support from influential Jewish leaders, but because he placated the Christian Right and their conservative allies. Jewish influence in Washington is, thus, diminished and the Jewish majority further alienated from its own leadership.
If Jewish leaders fail to stand up for the political values that the majority of American Jews hold (for example church-state separation, abortion rights, and stem cell research) and fail to confront the Christian Right, they are abdicating their responsibility to the community. If their silence serves to enable a conservative Jewish agenda, the damage may be irreparable.Tens of thousands of American Jews are deeply invested in a campaign on behalf of modernity. Those with the courage to lead the charge against the Christian Right will find large numbers of American Jews ready to follow.email print