ADL defends Lieberman letter, takes Shas rabbi to task

JERUSALEM — Some American Jews have indicated to the Anti-Defamation League that they will stop contributing to the organization because of its public chastisement earlier this month of vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman for invoking his faith too much on the campaign trail, said Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director.

"There are some serious people who won't give us money," Foxman said at a Monday breakfast briefing with journalists, when asked by reporters about the fallout from his criticism of Lieberman.

After speaking at a church in Detroit earlier this month and calling for a greater role of religion in American life, the ADL sent Lieberman a letter saying that "candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which the emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours."

The criticism sparked a debate in the U.S. Jewish community, with some being upset that the organization would publicly call the country's first Jewish vice presidential candidate — who is also Orthodox — on the carpet for talking about God.

"There was a mixed response in the Jewish community…a knee jerk response of 'how can we criticize a Jew?' With all due respect," Foxman said, "Jews are not immune to being wrong."

By invoking God, Foxman said, Lieberman "legitimized" the use of religious beliefs to support public policy. "He gives them credibility," Foxman added, referring to those who would want to base American morality on the teachings of Jesus. "He gives them the sense that 'if he [Lieberman] can do it, why can't we? Because we talk about Jesus Christ? So he talks about Moses'."

Foxman said that the beauty of Lieberman is that he got to where he is without flaunting his religious observance. "Take a look at his campaigns in Connecticut," Foxman said. "Did he campaign on this issue? Is that how he made it? It didn't matter what he was. The fact that he was [an observant Jew] also didn't matter…Now all of a sudden what we are finding is 'vote for me because I am God-fearing,' not on the issues. That is not what America has been."

In another development, Foxman also met Tuesday with Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who notoriously made international headlines after suggesting that those killed in the Holocaust may have been the reincarnations of sinful souls, and that the Palestinians were "snakes."

What Yosef said "reverberated in a major way because he speaks as a religious and moral leader and not just as the leader of a community," said Foxman.

According to Foxman Yosef told him he had not meant to be hurtful and his words were taken out of context. Reincarnation, Yosef said, was a respected concept in Jewish thought. As for the remark about Palestinians being snakes, Yosef said he was referring only to those who murdered Jews. In general, he had good relations with Arabs, he said.

Foxman, in his first meeting with the former Sephardi chief rabbi, said he told Yosef that his words had potential to not just hurt his community, but Israel and the Jewish people.

Foxman met with Yosef together with ADL's Israel director, Rabbi David Rosen, and said that in the future, the ADL hoped to keep a channel of communication with Yosef open.