PAT ROBERTSON, the founder of the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network, has long been a bogeyman to much of the American Jewish establishment.
When the Anti-Defamation League published The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America in 1994, a third of its 193 pages were devoted to Robertson and the Christian Coalition. "Robertson's repeated references to America as a Christian nation," it said, "insults not merely Jews but all who value religious freedom."
Writing in The Forward a year or so later, Leonard Fein, a prominent Jewish activist, allowed as how "it would be frightfully upsetting, but not very surprising, were [the Christian Coalition] one day to propose that Jews ought not be hired as teachers in the public schools." Going even further, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism denounced the Christian Coalition in 1997 for trying to "diminish fundamental constitutional liberties" by "undermining the Constitution" and "blurring -- or erasing -- the precious separation of church and state."
So when Robertson agreed to speak at Temple Beth Sholom in Framingham, Mass. last month, it came as no surprise that a number of local Jews complained. "It's scary," Renee Abramson told the MetroWest Daily News. "I mean, this guy uses his show to wage war on whomever he chooses." Outside the synagogue, Robertson was greeted by protesters carrying signs that read "Jews saying No to the Christian Right" and "Robertson is no friend to the Jewish people."
But the Jewish people inside the synagogue certainly seemed to regard Robertson as a friend. They repeatedly interrupted his remarks with applause, and gave him a standing ovation when he finished. That may have been because they heard him say things like this:
"I had a praying mother who was an evangelical Christian, and I can remember her always saying . . . we must love and support the Jewish people."
"I went back to the Mount of Olives" -- he was speaking of a 1974 visit to Israel -- "and I said before God and the assembled group: 'I am making a personal vow. However difficult it may be for me, however unpopular it may be for me, I and those with me are going to stand with Israel in her time of distress and we will be a faithful friend of Israel from this moment on.'"
"The love that evangelicals have for Israel does not depend on [politics or foreign policy]. We feel that we are part of the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that we share the same faith and the same principles and the same commandments and the same heroes as the people of Israel."
Remarkable? Not at all. Millions of American evangelicals and fundamentalists -- the so-called "religious right" -- are among the most tolerant and respectful friends the Jewish people have. And when it comes to support and sympathy for Israel, America's beleaguered democratic ally in the Middle East, Christian conservatives are if anything even more ardent and unshakable than American Jews.
Skeptics sometimes claim that evangelicals only support Israel because they believe it will hasten Jesus' second coming. But when that challenge was put to Robertson, he didn't hesitate to repudiate it. "I'm sure some people think that -- but I'm not one of them," he replied. "I think there's a visceral, heartfelt love in the heart of evangelicals for Israel and the Jewish people."
Indeed, evangelical solidarity has become a hallmark of pro-Israel activism. For instance, this weekend's important Interfaith Zionist Leadership Summit in Washington, a project of Boston's Zionist House, is being co-sponsored by a phalanx of conservative Christian organizations. In addition to the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network, the list includes the Apostolic Congress, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and the Religious Roundtable. Among the speakers are such prominent American evangelicals as Gary Bauer and Janet Parshall.
Likewise, hundreds of Christians will be taking part in Sunday's "Adopt-A-Family" walkathon in Framingham to raise funds for Israeli families victimized by terrorism. A project of the same synagogue that hosted Robertson, the walkathon is co-sponsored by 17 Jewish organizations -- but also by nine Christian ones, including Grace Evangelical Christian Church of Framingham, Christian Renewal Church of Salem, and New England Aftercare Ministries.
Evangelicals are not the only Christians who support Israel or reach out to Jews, of course. (Three Catholic churches are involved in the Framingham walkathon, for example, and one of the sponsors of the Washington summit is the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance.) And no doubt there are some on the Christian right who are indifferent or even hostile toward Jews and the Jewish state.
But there is no denying the obvious: Devotion to Israel and warmth toward Jews are powerful forces in American evangelical life. At a time when antisemitism is on the rise around the world, the friendship of the Christian right is something every Jew should cheer.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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