There are many reasons to applaud this month’s back-to-back speeches by Abe Foxman and Eric Yoffie on the dangers of the religious right, but here’s the most important: They have given voice to something their constituents have been thinking and feeling for a long time. American Jews need a voice that articulates their concerns on the national stage. Foxman, speaking as national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Yoffie, in his capacity as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, provided that voice this month. In doing so, they were doing their job and serving their community.
There’s real cause for alarm. True, conservative Christian groups have long been active in promoting ideas and causes that most Jews disagree with; such debate is healthy in a democracy. But the debates have lately taken a disturbing turn. From persuasion and witness, many on the Christian right have begun raising their sights and seeking to use state power to impose their views. Some major groups have coalesced around a goal of a Christian America, as Foxman carefully documented in his speech.
In noting what Yoffie and Foxman said, it’s important to note what they didn’t say. Foxman was careful to insist that the right’s new assertiveness is “not motivated by animus, and certainly not by antisemitism.” Christians feel a religious obligation to evangelize. Jews feel just as deeply that they have a right to be left alone. The debate, Foxman said, must be conducted “carefully, delicately, respectfully.” Moreover, as Yoffie noted, there are important areas where Jews and Christian conservatives can find common ground, from human rights abroad to charity at home.
Not surprisingly, the speeches have drawn a hail of criticism. Foxman himself noted in his speech that Jews are “a lot less united than we were 15 years ago.” Some Jews openly worry that “it is unsafe to confront Christians,” that Jews need to keep their heads down and avoid provoking their neighbors. Others fear jeopardizing evangelical support for Israel, regardless of other considerations. Still others want access to the state funding that they see opening up if the wall of church-state separation comes down.
Those sorts of fears have helped keep the major Jewish organizations quiet for the past four years, as the Bush administration has pursued a war against Islamic extremism abroad while promoting Christian extremism at home. Fearful of angering the administration or jeopardizing its support for Israel, most major agencies have failed to speak up on issues their constituencies care about deeply. It could be a sign of the administration’s declining political fortunes that this Jewish debate has reopened, or it could be a sign that grass-roots impatience has finally filtered up to the leadership.
American Jews have achieved considerable security in the past half-century. That’s due in no small part to the efforts of Jewish civil rights groups to preserve a neutral public square. Much ground has been lost in the past four years. It’s the right time to speak up.