The Rev. Jerry Falwell may be good friends with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but he also believes that an apocalyptic whirlwind is about to descend on the world -- and that the ultimate villain in these events will be a Jew.
Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, chancellor of Liberty University and a leading Bibi-booster, laid out his "last days" theology at a pastors' conference in Kingsport, Tenn., last week.
In that speech, he expressed the view that the Antichrist -- an almost superhuman villain who will deceive the world before the ultimate redemption of mankind -- may be alive today, and that he will be a Jew.
Falwell's comments produced consternation among Jewish activists who have been active in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said that Falwell's intent was not anti-Semitic, but worried that his pronouncement "can have a very serious detrimental impact on Jews, in the light of the history of such concepts."
Eckstein rejected Falwell's contention that the view that the Antichrist must be a Jew reflects orthodox Christian theology.
"The concept is not a theological necessity," he said. "Lots of people thought Hitler was the Antichrist, or Gorbachev. So the view that it must be a Jew is not widely agreed on; if it was, we'd have a much more difficult situation."
Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, termed Falwell's comments "radioactive; it's very dangerous material."
He said that surging interest in apocalyptic prophecies because of the end of the millennium "makes this a real problem for American Jews. For many Jews, these prophecies are meaningless, but as we get closer to the millennium, millions and millions of our neighbors will take this very seriously. For someone of Falwell's influence to identify the Antichrist is very disturbing; it plays into latent anti-Semitism and the idea that Jews are the personification of evil."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, agreed.
"The whole concept -- that evil is Jewish -- is fraught with anti-Semitic ideas."
The Antichrist, he said, is an ultimate symbol of evil in the world; by positing this prophetic figure as a Jew, Falwell may be reinforcing a host of age-old anti-Semitic canards.
Foxman said that mainstream Christian leaders have made great strides in understanding Jewish concerns about the literal interpretation of passages in the Christian Bible that have traditionally fueled anti-Semitism. But he warned that that progress could come undone as the new millennium approaches and apocalyptic expectations intensify.
"When the Christian world begins celebrating the birth of Christ, what's surfacing with it is a lot of the ugliness that accompanied the growth of Christianity for 2,000 years," Foxman said. "Falwell's comments remind us that we haven't made as much progress in sensitizing Christian leaders as we thought."