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Jewish Journal

The Christian Right, Conservatism and the Jews

by Joel Kotkin

June 6, 2002 | 8:00 pm

For generations, Jews have viewed religious conservatives with a combination of fear and disdain. Yet the recent events in the Middle East -- and the steadfast support given Israel by religious conservatives -- has gone a long way to correcting many often exaggerated, if not misplaced, assumptions about this large, and politically significant, group.

To the horror of reflexive Jewish liberals, organizations long suspicious of the religious right, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have now been making more of a common cause with them. This adds another dimension to an already strong linkage, based on shared values beyond Israel, between conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews.

Although more secular Jews may continue to conflict with Christian conservatives on many issues, such as prayer in school and abortion, the more pressing concerns over Israel impel our community to develop closer ties to a broad spectrum of this large American constituency. We need also to be aware that there are elements among Christians whose apocalyptic ideological reasons for backing Israel -- largely that it brings them closer to the Second Coming of Jesus -- should be viewed with concern. They often identify overly much with the Jewish messianic elements of the settlement movement, whose fanaticism and state support remain a continuing obstacle to peace.

Yet, whatever our misgivings, this is not a time for Jews and other supporters of Israel to nitpick over motivations. The Jewish state, and one could also say the Jewish people, are under attack, more so than perhaps anytime since the late 1940s. The Middle East is filled with people and governments screaming for Israel's obliteration, and much of Europe seems more than willing to stand by as the Arabs finish Hitler's handiwork.

In such a context, we need to know who our friends are -- and equally important, who they are not. On this score, the Republicans, with the exception of an increasingly isolated and irrelevant Pat Buchanan, and their allies among the Christian conservatives have been exemplary, supporting Israel down the line.

Take a look at the vote on the recently passed "Solidarity With Israel Act." One can quibble that Congress should not have taken this stand while the president and his administration are trying to bring about a peaceful settlement. But the vote was very useful in that it "outed" those whose sentiments toward the embattled Jewish state are at best, lukewarm.

The resolution, which backed Israel and denounced Palestinian terrorism, passed among Republicans 194 to 4, with only two voting "present," which was a somewhat less than forthright way of saying "no." Democrats also supported the measure, but with considerably less unanimity. The party that holds the loyalty of the vast majority of Jews supported Israel by 157 to 17, with a hefty 26 registering a present-but-not-voting stance.

Drilling down more deeply into the vote reveals some disturbing trends. Generally the further the "left" the congressmember, the more likely it was for them to oppose or at least refuse to support Israel. In California, for example, the no votes came from the Bay Area's liberal fringe, including Berkeley Rep. Barbara Lee (a particular heroine of the left) and Reps. Pete Stark and George Miller of East San Francisco Bay. The "present" crowd, who should be held in equal if not greater contempt, include such liberal luminaries as Sonoma and Marin Rep. Lynn Woolsey, as well as Los Angeles Reps. Hilda Solis and Xavier Becerra.

This leftward drift against Israel represents the culmination of successful agitation against the Jewish state by Palestinians, Arabs and their allies. Today anti-Zionism -- sometimes associated with anti-Semitism -- is increasingly de rigueur among the campus and media left here, as it already has become in Europe.

Recent incidents at San Francisco State, where pro-Israel demonstrators were recently harassed with openly anti-Semitic slogans from Muslim students and their allies, reveal an underpinning of intolerance brewing on campuses across the country. Pro-Israel students there last month were surrounded by a mob of students shouting, "Hitler didn't finish the job!" and "Get out or we'll kill you!" Not to be outdone, the English department at my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, is even offering a course on "The Politics and Poetics of the Palestinian Resistance." The course takes an avowed pro-Palestinian position and even urges "conservative thinkers," which may now include those favoring Israel, to "seek other sections."

As time passes since Sept. 11, one can expect the left to become ever more explicit in its anti-Israel position. Already, the Los Angeles Times' ultra-liberal columnist Robert Scheer has weighed in with a highly critical assault against the Jewish state. Liberal Christians have also joined the bandwagon, with prominent Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist worthies asking Congress to adopt a more "balanced" Mideast policies.

The coalition against Israel is also gaining support from anti-capitalist, anti-globalist organizers. Most recently, the leaders of the Bus Riders Union, a group lionized by the Times, has shown its far-left mettle by circulating a proposal to have its members go on record demanding the end of U.S. support for Israel. The Union -- actually a well-financed "anti-corporate" agitprop group and not a union in the sense of representing the bulk of actual riders -- apparently does not feel "solidarity" for Israeli busriders, who risk being blown to bits every day by Palestinian homicidal bombers.

At the same time the left becomes ever more anti-Israel, the Christian right has become more supportive and, one may argue, less and less what we have been brought up to think. Recent research by University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith, for example, shows that, in contrast to their early 20th century antecedents, today's fundamentalists and evangelicals are, on average, better-educated and more affluent than the average American.

Along with their growing affluence and sophistication, notes my Pepperdine colleague Steve Monsma, evangelicals and fundamentalists have also jettisoned the anti-Semitism that characterized some when they were largely ill-educated and rural. "It's become a pretty well-educated and sophisticated constituency, who share in the general American recognition that anti-Semitism is wrong," said Monsma, a political scientist specializing in the study of church and state issues.

Survey work done by Smith supports Monsma's assertion. Even as they hold onto strong positions against abortion and in favor of prayer in school, religious conservatives are actually considerably less likely to oppose, for example, a Jewish president than the American mainstream. They do tend to be far more negative about putting atheists and homosexuals in the highest office than the average American, but are also more open to having an African American in that post.

Indeed, on many issues conservative Christian beliefs may be closer to the Jewish mainstream than those of liberal Christians or "progressive" Democrats. Although we often have felt more comfortable with the ultra-secularism and deconstructionism that dominates the media and, even more so, much of academia, Jewish values about family life, individual achievement, the importance of education and social order actually often far more resemble those of conservative Christians.

Finally, to this, I would like to add my personal experience, which some may weigh against me. For over 15 years I have been associated with Pepperdine University, a school affiliated with the conservative-leaning Church of Christ. Not once in that time have I ever experienced anti-Semitism. There has never even once been an attempt to convert me. In my travels across the country -- much of it in the rural Great Plains and the Bible Belt -- I have never felt any reluctance to reveal my Jewish identity or affinity for Israel. I am not sure I would be so sanguine these days at a place like San Francisco State or among committed "progressive" activists here in Los Angeles.

What does this mean for the future of Jews, and their relations with the left or right? Of course, like most Jews, I am secular and socially liberal enough to expect never to support Christian conservatives in many of their cherished causes. But unlike the reliably graceless Abe Foxman, our self-appointed Jewish pope, who says all we have to do is simply "say thank you," I feel the Jewish community should do quite a bit more.

We need now to honor the conservative Christian community and make our best efforts to understand what they are trying to accomplish. We may never agree on everything, but on the issues that matter most, we may have to acknowledge them as not only temporary allies, but, as something far more important, real friends, which is something that increasingly cannot be said of the left, from which many of us found our earlier political direction.

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