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Jewish Journal

Silence on Tolerance Issue Stirs Concern

Is this the image we want to present?


by James D. Besser

April 24, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Jewish leaders were uncharacteristically silent last week as Islamic groups raged against a Department of Defense decision to allow a notorious Islam basher to deliver a Good Friday sermon at the Pentagon.

Part of that silence was an accident of timing: the controversy erupted at the start of the Passover holiday, and many Jewish organizations were not fully operational. However, it also reflected a disturbing inconsistency in Jewish activism today.

Religious tolerance, traditionally a top priority for Jewish groups, seems to be not as much a priority when it comes to a growing, vocal and, according to some, increasingly radicalized Islamic community. In addition, evangelical Christian leaders who trash Islam apparently can be forgiven many sins just because they enthusiastically support Israel at a time when the Jewish State has precious few friends.

The issue came into sharp focus last week when the Defense Department invited the Rev. Franklin Graham to mark the religious holiday at the Pentagon.

Islamic groups quickly protested, and their reasons were compelling: Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and heir to his globe-spanning ministry, characterized Islam as an "evil religion" in the days after Sept. 11. At a time when Muslims feared a backlash because of the terror attacks and President Bush was trying to convince the Islamic world that his war on terror was not a war on their religion, Graham added that Islam is "wicked, violent and not of the same God."

However, the Pentagon held firm, and Graham, who now wants to send relief supplies to Baghdad and, presumably, Bible tracts, appeared as scheduled on Friday.

There was a peculiar silence from the Jewish groups that have been so prominent in the fight for religious freedom -- and not just religious freedom for Jews. In part, that silence was a function of holiday schedules, but it also reflected a growing discomfort with the Muslim groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that were protesting Graham's appearance.

Jewish groups have some good reasons to be wary of their Islamic counterparts, many of which have been too willing to support terrorism aimed at Jews and too unwilling to condemn the extremists in their own community. On campuses across the country, Islamic protests against Israel have veered off into outright anti-Semitism.

But that extremism does not justify condemnations of the entire religion, any more than the Christian religion should be condemned because of its sects that preach violent hatred of Jews.

There's another factor in the Jewish silence that may be more important. Some of those who have been most vociferous in their denunciations of the Islamic religion are also newfound supporters of Israel.

At a time when mainline Christian churches have nothing but criticism for the Jewish State and nothing but sympathy for a Palestinian leadership that abandoned negotiations in favor of terrorism, the evangelicals have aligned themselves with the current Israeli government.

Among Jewish leaders, there may be an understandable unwillingness to criticize a group that has jumped to Israel's defense at a time when the world has gone back to the favorite sport of reflexive Israel bashing.

Some of the Christians who have been most offensive in condemning Islam have also become Israel's staunchest defenders. Consider the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who labeled the Prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" and defended a Southern Baptist leader who called the revered leader a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Falwell may be an ardent fan of the current Israeli government -- he recently appeared at a big pro-Israel rally in Washington -- but he is also the man who publicly proclaimed that the antichrist, a figure of towering evil in Christian Bible prophecy, must be Jewish. In other words, his love for Israel doesn't mean he doesn't sometimes say things that incite hostility against Jews.

To their credit, some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, strongly criticized Falwell's comments about Islam. However, when Graham was picked to speak at the Pentagon, there was nothing but silence.

So there are some questions to ponder:

  • Are Jewish leaders muting their criticism of the Islam bashers because these bigots have become important and influential supporters of Israel?

  • Should this support for an embattled Israel outweigh the traditional Jewish conviction that legitimizing religious bigotry against one minority threatens all minorities?

  • Is this the image that we want to present to the rest of the world -- that Jews oppose religious intolerance but make exceptions for friends of Israel?

  • Do we really want the pro-Israel cause -- a just cause -- associated with the groups that leapt to Graham's defense, such as the antihomosexual Traditional Values Coalition, which called the Graham critics the "anti-Christian crowd?"

Jewish and Islamic groups may be bitter adversaries over the Mideast mess, but that does not change the fact that they have some interests in common -- starting with an interest in making sure religious intolerance is never tolerated.

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