My husband and I were among the nearly 300participants from 34 states who attended the conference, sponsored bySeattle-based Toward Tradition and held at the Capital Hilton. TowardTradition's founder, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, has labored for the past sixyears to create a coalition of Jews and Christians who share acommitment to bringing back a God-based morality into American lifeand politics.
Rabbi Lapin has fought an uphill battle. Many Jewshave disagreed with Lapin's premise of working with Christians on thegrounds that Christians must, by definition, want to convert Jews. Heresponds: "Only Jews who are insecure in their own Judaism will havetrouble with a polite 'No, thank you' to any attempts at evangelism.Besides, any sucess they enjoy is less a tribute to the appeal ofChristianity than it is an indictment of American Jewisheducation."
This second Toward Tradition conference, titled"Toward a New Alliance: American Jews and Political Conservatism,"was an enthusiastic gathering of Reform, Conservative, and OrthodoxJews along with Christians and Catholics. I dare say that thisecumenical gathering was far more harmonious and warm than any singlegroup of Jews meeting alone. Many of the non-Jews were relieved thatthe fervently secularist Jewish groups, who leap to join lawsuits tokeep menorahs off public parks and deny even silent, voluntary prayerat school, do not reflect the thinking of all Jews. Jewish attendees,for their part, were grateful to be in an environment whereconservative ideology was not considered freakish.
Gary Polland, an attorney and Republican activist,spoke at the conference about his disillusioning experience with theADL, for whom he used to serve as Southwest regional chairman.Polland was asked to resign from his post after adding his name to anadvertisement that ran in The New York Times protesting the ADL'sdistribution of a book titled "The Religious Right: The Assault onTolerance and Pluralism in America."
"They had taken many quotes [from Christianleaders] out of context in that book," Polland said, "and made itseem like anyone who was part of the Christian Right wasautomatically anti-Semitic. It wasn't fair or true." At a meetingwhere Polland was supposed to have had a chance to defend his case(he had brought 27 pages documenting the errors in the book and itsconclusions), he was told flatly by a national ADL officer, "We'renot interested in what you have to say." Two years later, this bookis still in circulation and is available for purchase, according to alocal ADL representative.
When groups such as the ADL need to demonizeIsrael's and Jews' staunchest supporters in order to justify theirown existence -- and employ the very discriminatory tactics they arecharged with rooting out -- they reveal the hollowness of their ownmission. In fact, several speakers at the conference, includingformer Reagan administration official Elliot Abrams, noted that thereal enemy of American Jews today is not external anti-Semitism atall but a lack of spiritual connection with Judaism. Abrams' newbook, "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America,"argues this very point.
The Jewish "alphabet" groups took a well-deserveddrubbing at the conference, though many other issues were discussed.Jewish groups rushing to "remove God from the public square," asRabbi Lapin is fond of saying, do far more damage to the Jewishcommunity even than the occasional vandal. There's no better way tofoster anti-Semitism, Rabbi Lapin insists, than having people withJewish surnames from the ACLU or the AJC suing to remove the TenCommandments from their town's classrooms. As Dennis Prager, also aconference keynote speaker, has noted on his show, "Jews gave theworld the Ten Commandments and are now in the forefront of trying totake them away."
As more examples of this kind of extremesecularism envelop our society, it's no surprise that more peoplefind Toward Tradition's message compelling. Arthur Fass, a Jewishphysician from the San Fernando Valley, is a good example. Althoughhe belongs to a Reform synagogue, Arthur sends his children to aprominent Catholic private school where 30 percent of the studentbody is Jewish. When I asked him why, he responded with severalreasons: The school fosters the moral values that he and his wifeshare (as distinct from theological values), the quality of theeducation, the modesty and seriousness of the girls hishigh-school-aged daughter meets there, and -- are you listening,Federation leaders? -- the affordable tuition. (Arthur told us thattuition at this school is half that of the Conservative Jewish schoolin their area.)
He told us that he planned to share some of whathe learned at the conference with his temple men's club, despiteknowing that most of them were politically liberal and theologicallyindifferent. He explained: "You know, there are simply consequencesfor believing in God and consequences for not believing in God, andthose consequences for not believing are coming back to haunt us....There's a liberating effect on the human spirit from knowing clearlyright from wrong."
The conference attendees -- whether they woresidecurls and black hats (as some did), knitted yarmulkes (as severaldid), or even crosses (as some did) -- clearly share Arthur's view:that in the twilight of this millennium, the human spirit andAmerican culture have been damaged by the moral relativism thatstates that nothing is absolutely right or wrong anymore (with thepossible exception of cigarette smoking). We believe that ournation's financial wealth counts for little in the face of ourspiritual sickness. And we are coming together to pronounce --unapologetically -- that we reject the liberal dogma that hasfostered this moral confusion.
As Jews and conservatives, we also believe in theconcept of tikkun olam, (healing the world). We just think that we need to followGod's advice more closely on how to achieve it.
Judy Gruen is a writer living in Venice. Herwritings have appeared in the Washington Times, the Chicago Tribune,the Los Angeles Times, and many Jewish publications.
I Hear Mermaids Singing: Listening to theRight
Like Judy Gruen (above), I, too, recently attendeda forum organized by Jewish conservatives. Mine took place at the endof September in San Diego, and the sponsoring group was the JewishPolicy Center, a nonprofit Washington-based think tank.
Actually, the JPC is an outpost for intellectualJews who take a conservative approach to most political and religiousissues and whose fellows and sponsors are articulate JewishRepublicans.
The links with Rabbi Daniel Lapin's organization,Toward Tradition (based in Seattle), are multiple and overlapping.For example, Rabbi Lapin and talk-show hosts and authors DennisPrager and Michael Medved were speakers at both forums, rounded outin San Diego by the addition of Barry Farber, billed as the "Fatherof Conservative Talk Radio," and author and political activist DavidHorowitz. Both men could have easily appeared at the Washingtonconference.
Unlike Gruen, I found the tenor and tone of mygathering discouraging and somewhat discomforting. It left me withthe sense that, while the panelists seemed engaging and friendly,pleasant enough to spend an evening with, what they were cobblingtogether was a nasty, thuggish mix of politics and religion, thelines often blurring between the two.
It was not the issues themselves that weredisturbing. They were familiar enough: Vouchers and educationalchoice for parents, the bankruptcy of welfare policies, the need fora moral society, and the error of keeping school prayer and religiouseducation out of the schools. I agreed with the speakers on somepoints, disagreed on others.
But these were just headlines as bait, earnestmoney for the real sport that lay ahead. The point of the evening,echoed and restated throughout, was the game of "get the Jew," inthis instance, the liberal and the secular Jew. It was not anennobling performance, though I must admit that the 200 or so Jewsgathered at the Hilton Hotel on San Diego's Mission Bay lapped itup.
Liberalism is a secular religion and a destructiveforce, according to Horowitz, whose recent autobiography, "RadicalSon," chronicled his journey from a teen-age communist to amiddle-aged proponent of right thinking.
Liberals lie and resort to deception, pronouncedmoderator Medved, a nationally prominent film critic and a talk-radiohost in Seattle who is soon going national. His tone was genial andeven jocular, but there was little doubt that the hyperbole was themessage.
Prager intoned solemnly that some of his goodfriends are liberals and that they are nice people -- yes, nicepeople, he emphasized, before anyone could contradict him. It is justthat their policies have evil and disastrous consequences.
Rabbi Lapin could barely contain himself. If apolitical movement to ban circumcision on grounds of child abuse orif one to end kosher practices because of cruelty to animals werelaunched in this country, the liberal and secular Jews would be atthe forefront. They are ignorant of Judaism and, he implied, areopposed to its religious and moral practices. It is not too great aleap to see them as the enemy.
Who then will save kashrut and circumcision, whowill preserve Judaism in the United States from the attacks ofliberals and secular Jews, and serve as Rabbi Lapin's allies? Noneother than the religious Christians. I assume that this was either anemotional response or one based on impressions Rabbi Lapin hadgathered from meetings with evangelical leaders. But there was noevidence offered for his conclusions. (I wondered, too, how Horowitzwas feeling on the panel, for he is a secular Jew. He remainedsilent.)
I must admit that it took me awhile to find mybearings. Why did all the speakers sound so angry and so much like aminority under attack, I wondered. According to Medved, Lapin andHorowitz, liberals seemed to be everywhere and to be in control. Ifyou did not attend to reality closely, you might think that liberalswere running the country, despite our Republican-controlled Congressand the majority of conservatives on the Supreme Court. "After all,"I said to Medved, "you and Prager and Lapin alone must reach millionsof people every day on your radio programs. I can't think of manyliberals with audiences like yours. Why do you sound sobeleaguered?"
It's the Jewish community we are worried about, Iwas told, not the nation. Jews still seem swayed by what Gruen refersto as the "alphabet" organizations, still tend to vote Democratic innational elections, still hold to past shibboleths and earlier(generational) political beliefs.
In one important way, this concern of thepanelists made sense. If the Jewish conservatives are going to allythemselves with religious Christians -- and this certainly is true ofLapin's movement, Toward Tradition -- then they will need to bringtroops to the field. Otherwise they are the "token Jews" trotted outbefore Christian groups to offer prayers and religious homilies fromthe Hebrew Bible. It is little wonder that we are warned about peoplewith Jewish surnames who exercise their right of free speech onbehalf of causes that anger the Christian right. There is no betterway to foster anti-Semitism, says Rabbi Lapin.
Still, I wondered, who are these destructiveliberals? Are they the same people who helped secure voting rightsfor African-Americans? The same people who advocated positions andequal pay for women in law firms, universities and on newspapers? Orare the JPC conservatives creating some mythical scapegoat, caught insome outdated time warp when being anti-communist meant something?Their cry might better be: Communists of the world, where are you nowwhen we need an actual foil?
Indeed, the buzzword "liberal" has taken on someof the coded meaning that "fellow traveler" used to have. Only, ofcourse, it often stood for "Jewish fellow traveler," nowtransmogrified into Jewish liberal.
The difficulty with this line of reasoning is thatliberals vs. conservatives no longer is relevant. The complex issuesthat beset us today -- vouchers, affirmative action, abortion, moralrelativism and the weakening of family ties -- require analytic andpragmatic solutions, almost on a case-by-case basis, rather thantired, old political labels.
If this is what passes for political rhetoric onthe right, it is not very impressive. This was brought home to mewhen Horowitz declared that liberals were pushing a peace policywhich was suicidal for Israel.
I know people who share that point of view, but,more importantly, I know many, many Jews who endorse the peace policy-- an overwhelming majority, Republicans and Democrats. Are these theliberals who need to be overcome?
But soon it became evident that Horowitz'sopinions on Israel were not quite so solid. It turns out that theywere derived from second- and third-hand sources (which, I hasten toadd, does not make them necessarily invalid). He has never been toIsrael.