Jews & the GOP

April 10, 1995|By Mona Charen

IN THE WEEKS preceding the 1994 mid-term elections, Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, launched a fear-mongering attack on Republicans that focused on something called the "radical right." The president and vice president echoed the theme.

With most American voters, the attempt to make a bogeyman of religious conservatives flopped. It may even have backfired -- 65 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who addressed America's moral decline than for any other. But with one constituency, the scare tactics worked beautifully -- American Jews.

Jews are always a reliable constituency for Democratic candidates, usually handing them 60 percent or more of the Jewish vote. (Those of us who have always voted Republican are a minority within a minority.) But in recent years, that loyalty has become a bit frayed. The influence of Jesse Jackson within the Democratic Party alienated some Jews, as did strains between blacks and Jews over affirmative action.

If some Jews not thoroughly steeped in liberalism might be inclined to vote Republican for the same reasons other Americans do -- concern about crime, taxes, the nation's moral decline -- there is one thing that sends them flying back into the arms of the Democratic Party -- fear of the Christian right.

When I speak to Jewish groups, there are always several questions about the religious right. Though every Jew knows a Republican, perhaps even has one in his family, the advent of assertive, politically active Christian conservatives fills many Jews with memories of persecution.

I have always been at pains to point out that America is not Europe; that though Jews have suffered some anti-Semitism here, it has never approached the scale of what Europe inflicted; that most evangelical Christians have truly renounced their anti-Semitic pasts; that modern Christians have their own legitimate complaints about their treatment; and that secularism PTC is no refuge from trouble -- not for Jews and not for America.

But in recent months, the efforts by some to forge conciliation between the Christian right and American Jews suffered a setback with the publication of Pat Robertson's book "The New World Order." Pat Robertson was accused of recirculating hoary anti-Semitic myths about conspiracies, "European bankers" and the money supply.

The dismay in Jewish circles about Mr. Robertson's book was at high tide last week when Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition, took the podium at a meeting of the Anti-Defamation League in New York and delivered an extraordinary speech. Mr. Reed acknowledged that Christian conservatives have sometimes been maladroit -- as when they refer to a "Christian nation" -- and sometimes downright offensive -- as when one prominent minister said, "God does not hear the prayers of a Jew."

Mr. Reed acknowledged that Jewish fears of Christian activists were rooted in history -- histories of beatings and abuse, histories of being called "Christ killers," histories of hiding in cellars on Easter Sunday, histories of sewing yellow stars on sleeves and histories of fleeing the Gestapo. Mr. Reed told the group that one of his most painful moments, in a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, was viewing an exhibit chronicling the indifference of U.S. officials to the slaughter. And he pledged that "we will do all in our power to ensure that Jews are never again the target of hatred and discrimination."

But while conceding a painful past, Mr. Reed also quoted Rabbi Joshua Haberman, who said, "America's Bible Belt is its safety belt."

Ralph Reed is a gifted politician who had the wisdom to follow the advice of the Hudson Institute's Michael Horowitz, as described in the book "Disciples and Democracy." A former Reagan administration official, Mr. Horowitz is sympathetic to the religious right. But as a former freedom rider, he also has a keen ear for how conservatives sound to the other side. His road map for rapprochement -- originally outlined at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in December 1993 -- was followed almost to the letter by Mr. Reed, and the results have been striking. The ADL audience was moved. Stereotypes were smashed and prejudices undermined. It could be the start of a new day.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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