Jewish leaders are divided over whether Republican presidential frontrunner John McCain should reject a recent endorsement from the Rev. John Hagee, with one prominent rabbi taking the leader of the Anti-Defamation League to task over his refusal to criticize the GOP candidate.
Hagee, an evangelical Christian minister from San Antonio, Texas, has long courted controversy with fiery denouncements of immigration, homosexuality and Catholicism. His endorsement of McCain last week has spurred an array of critics — including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, as well as the Democratic National Committee and a number of liberal bloggers — to call for the Arizona senator to reject the endorsement, as Democratic hopeful Barack Obama did recently when he received unsolicited support from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
“We’re saying to McCain, ‘Listen, Obama denounced and rejected Farrakhan’s antisemitism, yet McCain hasn’t even brought himself to acknowledge what it is about Hagee that he may not agree with,’” Kiera McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for the Catholic League, said in an interview with the Forward. According to statements released by the Catholic League, Hagee has called the Catholic Church “the whore of Babylon” and other derogatory terms, and has misrepresented the Church’s treatment of Jews historically — charges Hagee refutes.
McCain has been working to win over his party’s wary base of religious conservatives, and so far he has refused to disavow Hagee’s endorsement. But the political dust-up has put him on the defensive — particularly with Catholics, who constitute one-quarter of the national electorate. At the same time, the controversy has posed a dilemma for Jewish leaders, who have found in Hagee, founder of the lobbying group Christians United for Israel, an ironclad supporter of Israel who has marshaled financial and political support for the Jewish state.
In recent days, McCain’s chief critic in the Jewish community has been Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Kula said he sees a direct parallel between what he calls Hagee’s “record of virulent anti-Catholic statements” and remarks by Farrakhan, who once infamously referred to Judaism as a “gutter” religion.
“Just as Jews and other people of good will have appropriately demanded that Barack Obama unambiguously renounce and reject the endorsement of Minister Louis Farrakhan because of his bigotry and rabid antisemitism, so Jews and other people of good will should demand that John McCain renounce and reject the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee because of his vicious and inflammatory anti-Catholicism,” Kula wrote in a statement released February 29, two days after Hagee made his endorsement.
But other Jewish leaders who spoke with the Forward took issue with this assessment.
“The comparison doesn’t hang, it just doesn’t hang,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical assembly. “I think each has to be seen in its own way,” Meyers said. “Hagee has said some things that, as a person of faith who’s Jewish, I kind of cringe, but other fundamentalist leaders have said things I’ve cringed at, too, so I understand that world and that religious milieu.”
He added, “From the perspective of the Jewish community, Farrakhan has said some terrible things about Judaism and the Jewish people; Hagee hasn’t.”
Meyers found agreement from the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, who had drawn headlines in recent months for his public calls for Obama to disavow views expressed by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, including praise for Farrakhan.
Hagee’s endorsement “is not a Jewish issue,” Foxman told the Forward. “Are we troubled by Hagee’s support of McCain and McCain’s acceptance? The answer is no, and that’s where it ends for us.”
The difference “between Farrakhan and Hagee is self-evident,” Foxman said. “So to compare the two and to say: ‘Well, if you ask Obama to distance from Farrakhan — well, Farrakhan is a black racist, an antisemite, anti-Israel, consorts with America’s enemies. Hagee is a supporter of Israel, an advocate of Israel, opposed to antisemitism, and there are issues on which members of the Jewish community and some organizations disagree with, and so from time to time they or we have indicated our disagreement, but it’s not of the same nature or category or being.”
One of the most prominent critics of the Jewish community’s recent collaborations with Hagee, Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, declined to comment on the fracas because it was overtly political, according to a spokesman for the URJ.
In an opinion editorial published in the Forward last spring, Yoffie criticized the decision of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to give Hagee a prime speaking slot at its March 2007 national convention in Washington. While stressing that he favored dialogue with Hagee and other Christian evangelicals, Yoffie also questioned the wisdom of the recent collaborations between local Jewish federations and CUFI.
“The pattern has been that in return for federation sponsorship of dinners hosted by the lobbying group, contributions are made by Christians United for Israel to our federation fundraising campaigns,” Yoffie wrote in the Forward. “The conclusion that our young people are most likely to draw from this arrangement is that we are simply selling our souls.”
Kula said that while he does not fault Aipac for working with Hagee, given that the lobby’s sole mission is marshaling American support for Israel, he faults Foxman for making a “political calculation” to put support for Israel ahead of the ADL’s broader mission to fight bigotry.
“You can bet your life if there was a liberal Christian who supported a more left-wing position vis-à-vis Israel who said something about Christians or other religious groups that was like what Hagee said about Catholics, Foxman would say something,” Kula told the Forward.