Radical Islamists, not evangelicals, should be the target of ADL leadership

Devoted to fighting anti-Jewish bigotry, the Anti-Defamation League is America’s most influential Jewish group. So what are we to make of the weird air of unreality in the ADL’s public statements about Christians?

Consider the recent address by Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, at the group’s annual meeting in which he called for a communitywide response to a growing threat.

Foxman spoke this month in New York during a week when disturbing news stories were unfolding around the world. The riots across France by immigrant Muslim youths were building to a climax. These are the same youths who have been terrorizing French Jews for the past five years — assaulting individuals, firebombing synagogues and desecrating Jewish cemeteries.

The same week, Iran’s president was refusing to back down from his call to fellow Muslims to “wipe Israel off the map.” Meanwhile, TV viewers in Egypt had just spent Ramadan enjoying a new drama series based on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the notorious anti-Semitic hoax.

If there is one religion that poses a danger to Jewish interests, it’s worldwide Islam. How strange then, that Foxman held up the terrifying specter of … American Christianity.

“Today,” said Foxman, “we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To save us!”

Foxman warned that mainstream evangelical groups have “built infrastructures throughout the country … intend[ing] to ‘Christianize’ all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“Christianize” all aspects of American life? This must mean that evangelical leaders want to Christianize us either by legal coercion or by inspiration and moral example.

If Foxman means by legal coercion, his accusation is ludicrous. To take a controversial illustration that’s in the news, the concept of intelligent design has drawn support from Christians (as well as others) and condemnation from the ADL. One may disapprove of letting teachers acquaint public-school students with a scientific critique of Darwinism, but intelligent design in biology class is an entirely different thing from “Christianizing” American life — a phrase that calls to mind the Spanish Inquisition.

If Foxman means that evangelicals would “Christianize” by inspiration and example, he’s right — but so what? By definition, to be an evangelical means to wish to influence the culture in what Christians regard as a spiritually healthful direction. Good for them.

Broadly speaking, that direction is one that we Jews traditionally have regarded as healthy and positive. Many classical Jewish sources — the Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides and other authorities — speak of the need to bring humanity closer to the values of the One God.

There is nothing exclusively “Christian” about favoring traditional marriage, lamenting the abortion culture or defending a helpless woman like Terri Schiavo. Christians are only doing what we Jews ought to do.

So why vilify them? Historical Christian anti-Semitic persecution cannot fully explain modern Jewish attitudes. Surely Jews are rational enough to appreciate that we don’t live in medieval Europe, but rather in a time of unprecedented Christian philo-Semitism, especially among conservative Christians.

For the needlessly heightened state of Jewish concern about evangelicals, we can’t blame the ADL entirely. Yet the group has done much to exacerbate Jewish worries. What drives the ADL to stoke our fears?

Let’s be realistic. Naturally, a crusading nonprofit organization needs a bad guy to give a sense of urgency to its fund-raising campaigns. The ADL has more than $52 million in yearly expenses, including Foxman’s $412,000 in salary and other compensation (according to publicly available 2003 tax information). Not bad for a nonprofit.

If these well-meaning folks are directing so much attention to the wildly exaggerated menace of Christian evangelicals, I don’t see an alternative explanation to the financial one. But this doesn’t mean the ADL leadership is corrupt.

Rather, don’t dismiss the Marxist insight that money can shape consciousness. For whatever reason, hyperventilating about Christians makes Jews open their wallets. Very possibly, a dynamic inherent in the nonprofit business molds the attitudes of those who work in this curious industry.

The anti-defamation professionals of the Jewish community are no dummies. Nor, I believe, are they paranoid or cynical.

Not cynics at all, they sincerely come to believe the things they must say to raise money — money, I would add, that would be far better spent on other communal needs such as Jewish education, which is the best assurance of a flourishing communal life.

In more ways than one, the ADL’s success is our loss.

David Klinghoffer, a columnist for the Forward and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author most recently of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.”

We must denounce Christian agendas that limit religious freedom