The recent cooperation of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) with Delaware Valley freethinker and civil libertarian groups uniting to oppose the sectarian devotions that open Interboro, Pennsylvania school board meetings is one of many signals of a fundamental shift in the attitude of Jewish civic groups toward the Religious Right.
From the rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority to national prominence in the late 70s until last year, the relationship between American Jews and conservative Christians appeared to be one of forbearance and accommodation. American Jews welcomed strong political support for Israel coming from occupants of a sector of the political spectrum that used to belong to anti-Semites. Never mind that this support was predicated on end-of-the-world rhetoric involving either the gathering of all Jews in Israel so that they could be converted en masse to Christianity in some scenarios, or all killed in the battle of Armageddon in others.
Last summer, the ADL published The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance & Pluralism in America. After many years of concentrating its attention on overtly anti-Jewish groups like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and so-called Identity Christians, the ADL now openly criticized Pat Robertson, Jay Sekulow, Ralph Reed, Donald Wildmon, and Phyllis Schlafly, among others.
The ADL was soon joined by other Jewish civic groups, including the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, in sending out fundraising letters identifying the Religious Right as a threat to be combatted. With remarkable unity, the Jewish community ended its virtual moratorium on such criticism and crossed the Rubicon in its relations with the Religious Right.
There was no obvious reason for this change to come at this particular time. The people I know in the Jewish community had never lost their traditional mistrust for Christian evangelization. For them, to go back to having their children be subjected to Christian devotions under duress in the public schools would be the moral equivalent of requiring Black children to go back to drinking from separate water fountains.
Since the change came before the Newt Gingrich revolution and the accompanying reactivation of the school prayer amendment issue, these could not have been the precipitating factor. American Jews had long been liberal, inclined to vote Democratic, and strong supporters of reproductive rights. They had little in common with the Religious Right except political support for Israel. Every domestic element bearing upon Jewish attitudes toward the Religious Right remained as it had been. The Jewish civic organizations could have struck a responsive chord with their constituencies by going after the Religious Right at any time. But until the summer of 1994 they did not do so.
In my opinion, relations with Israel precipitated the change. (Other commentators I have spoken with are skeptical about this conclusion.) During the Reagan-Bush years, Religious Right leaders got VIP treatment from the right-wing Likud party leadership of Israel. The Religious Right, like Likud, favored an intransigent stand toward Muslims. When the Labor Party came to power and Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, the peace initiative with Yasir Arafat commenced. The welcome in Israel for Religious Right leaders with their malignant prattle about blowing up the Dome of the Rock so that the Third Temple could be built and animal sacrifices resumed, cooled.
An important clue on the "700 Club" of January 7, 1994, passed unnoticed. Ralph Reed, the head of Pat Robertson's political arm, the Christian Coalition, was visiting Israel, and lobbied peripheral members of Rabin's governing Knesset coalition. Reed gleefully announced in a telephone interview that Rabin's coalition was about to split. The Rabin government would fall, and Likud would return to power, disavowing the peace agreement and bringing the peace process to a screeching halt. The implication was that Reed's lobbying was responsible for this suppositious result. (More than a year has passed without the fall of the Rabin government. This was far from the first time that a purported scoop on the "700 Club" turned out to be wrong.) My inference is that the Likud leaders found American Religious Right representatives to be useful pawns, and the former used their influence with American Jewish leaders to obtain their forbearance toward those pawns. The Labor Party, on the other hand, has found the Religious Right to be an impediment, and so is likely to have left American Jewish leaders to do what they thought was right.
Another factor in the relationship of the Religious Right and the Jews has been Pat Robertson's 1991 book, The New World Order. Even though the book was on The New York Times bestseller list for a number of weeks, the mainstream media ignored it. But it has been conspicuously revisited in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. The New York Review's article shows how the conspiracy theory Robertson spins out not only resembles anti-Semitic diatribes of the past, but cites some of those diatribes in its bibliography. It calls the purported conspirators by different names than the overtly anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists of yore did. Since Robertson is the prime mover of the Religious Right in the 1990s, those who make common cause with him must take some responsibility for the sheer madness of the views he has often expressed.
The current Republican revolution in Washington has had an ironic effect on the Religious Right — and on Pat Robertson in particular. So long as Republicans remained opposition voices crying in the wilderness, they had no problem with Robertson as a player with a place at their table. Now that they have power and respectability to lose, Robertson becomes an embarrassment to the leading Republicans. I have enjoyed watching Dole, Gingrich, Armey, and others treat him gingerly these past few months.
During the same period, ADL leaders met with Reed: non-apologies were tendered and accepted on both sides. But I gather that it was made clear that neither the fiction of voluntariness, nor the pretense of student initiation could make a school prayer amendment to the United States Constitution palatable to American Jews. In recent weeks, I have heard Robertson, Reed, and Sekulow all declare their intention not to push for a school prayer amendment. (The Christian Coalition did not, however, stop raising contributions on the promise of pushing for such an amendment.)
Robertson made it clear that he felt that Republican leaders were offering the Religious Right a mere sop by lofting a school prayer amendment knowing it would never pass. In his many recent talk show appearances, Reed has disavowed many of Robertson's oft-expressed views. To hear Reed tell it, Christian Coalition stands only for the stock conservative political and economic issues, and it has only been the predacious liberal media which have made it seem that his organization ever stressed the social agenda.
The discrepancy between Robertson's views and the more moderate image Reed attempts to project was underscored in two recent Frank Rich columns in The New York Times. The question is whether or not, in its rush to affect mainstream respectability, the Coalition will lose its constituency to more militant competitors.
The overall result is not devoid of comfort, even in these adverse times. Even if Likud does return to power in Israel, the breach between the influential American Jewish community and the Religious Right will not be healed. That community will continue to help counterbalance the Religious Right. As we have always insisted, the underlying ideas do matter.