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Op-Ed

Though They Liked 'The Passion,' Christian Evangelicals Are Our Friends

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in JTA on March 8, 2004

The lesson to be learned from recent differences between many American Jews and conservative Christians — on Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" and on equal rights for gays — is not to walk away from relationships with evangelicals. It is not to reject evangelical support for Israel. It is not to view the evangelical community in a simplistic way. It is not the lesson Arlene Stein offers in her JTA Op-Ed piece.

It is, rather, to reinforce a dual approach: working for and welcoming conservative Christian support for Israel at a particularly difficult time for the Jewish state and, at the same time, never backing off or toning down our principled positions on social issues about which we vehemently disagree with evangelical approaches.

One of the fascinating manifestations of the turmoil over Gibson's film has been to observe many on the left in the Jewish community saying, "We told you how bad evangelicals are," while many on the Jewish right, in a foolhardy effort to placate the religious right, defend a film with the potential to set back Christian-Jewish relations and to generate anti-Semitism.

There is too much at stake — Israel's security and the well-being of Jewish life in America — to be blinded by narrow ideological approaches.

Israel needs the support of America today more than ever. The threats to the Jewish state from Islamic extremists, the bias of the international community and the poisoning of young people's minds have never been greater.

The role of the United States is critical not only in standing with Israel, but also in influencing others — particularly the Europeans — toward some fairness vis-a-vis Israel.

American support for Israel rests on many pillars. Most importantly, it is bipartisan.

There is no doubt, however, that evangelical activity on behalf of Israel is among the most significant elements in that support, not least because of that community's influence with President Bush. Whether it is in congressional initiatives, administration positions or public-opinion polls, evangelicals matter. It behooves us to act accordingly.

On the other hand, for many of us, conservative Christian perspectives on social issues that are critical to a healthy American society and Jewish life within that society are disturbing.

Whether it is church-state separation — at the heart of the comfort level that Jews enjoy in this country — or opposition to any religious group imposing its views on society — as seen in the struggles to maintain choice on abortion and equal rights for gays — we are deeply concerned about conservative Christian views and policy initiatives.

And we don't pull any punches in our opposition. We engage fully to prevent those religious-right policies from predominating in legislation, in the courts and in executive decision-making.

Moreover, when some evangelical leaders articulate prejudicial views toward any religious group, as several did in anti-Muslim stereotyping, we speak up.

During the current controversy about the Gibson movie, we have been unhappy that more evangelical leaders have not acknowledged Jewish pain, the history of anti-Semitism associated with the deicide charge and the potential for recurring hatred of Jews.

But we shouldn't rush to judgment on the impact of the film on evangelical Christians. We need to be clear where we stand and encourage sensitivity and education about Jews and Jewish history.

The bottom line remains what it has always been: Evangelical Christians have never demanded a quid pro quo from American Jews for their support of Israel.

If they were to say that they would only work on Israel's behalf if American Jews halt their activity in opposition to them on social issues, we, of course, would say, "Sorry, no thanks for your support."

That has not happened.

They stand with Israel for theological reasons and because, as Christian activist Gary Bauer has said, the United States and Israel are on the front line together in the current struggle for freedom and democracy.

That's good enough for us.

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