Who Speaks for American Jews?

September 05, 1995|By MONA CHAREN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The American Jewish Congress, always among the more liberal Jewish organizations, has shamed itself with a fund-raising letter that appeals to the worst prejudices of its intended audience.

It begins with a quote from the New York Times (the source, be it op-ed, editorial or news story is not specified).

''No longer does the religious right seek to isolate schoolchildren in supposed 'voluntary' classroom prayer. Now it seeks openly to engulf all of us -- treating adults the same as children -- in supporting, with taxes and public space and public resources, the religious observances that Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson think are right for us.''

The looming danger cannot be exaggerated, according to the AJC. ''Today as we approach the 1996 presidential election, the political reality is that in almost half the states, the Christian Coalition controls the apparatus of the Republican Party.'' (False.)

'' . . . But the Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family is more -- much, much more -- than a legislative wish list of the extreme right wing.'' No, it is a ''radical'' vision for ''regulating the private behavior of law-abiding citizens. . . . It consists of nothing less than an attempt to eviscerate the First Amendment of the Constitution'' (by forcing kids to pray in public schools).

The rest of the letter goes on in the same apocalyptic tones. The American Jewish Congress will stand and fight against the ''zealots'' of the Christian Coalition in these ''dangerous'' times, will block attempts to curtail ''abortion rights'' and will stand by // federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation. Join today, and give generously.

As a Jew, I find the letter deeply offensive. By what right do Jews who happen to be politically liberal dress their own preferences and prejudices as Jewish concerns? ''We are fighting for the best and highest interests of the American Jewish community,'' they boast.

Bunk. Page through the Torah and Talmud at your leisure, and you will find no requirements that Jews support the National Endowment for the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- far less the unrestricted ''right'' to an abortion for any or no reason.

The views of most American Jews on abortion are wildly at odds with traditional Jewish teaching on the issue. Jewish sources are quite clear that abortion is permitted only in very rare circumstances. It is sheer religious counterfeiting for Jews to call their pro-abortion stance a ''Jewish'' position.

Similarly, the notion that prayer in public schools represents an ''eviscerating'' of the First Amendment and a dire threat to Jewish interests is, to say the least, overwrought. In the first place, this nation lived with prayer in the public schools for the first 150 years of the republic. Was there no First Amendment worth speaking of during all of those years?

Second, there are plenty of Jews, including the influential Lubavitcher Rebbe of Brooklyn (recently deceased), who actually believe that prayer in schools (voluntary, of course -- it is laughable to suggest, as the AJC letter does, that the Christian Coalition favors compulsory prayers) is both good for Jews and good for America.

Even more offensive than the distortion of Jewish philosophy is the shameless pandering to anti-Christian prejudice shot through this letter. By referring throughout to Christian ''zealots'' and ''extremists,'' the AJC stoops to stereotyping and name calling.

As Ralph Reed noted in a pained response to the AJC, ''How would you have reacted if a Christian group had reacted to the election of Paul Goldman as chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party by decrying the 'control' and 'influence' of Jews? You would have called it bigotry. You would have been right.''

Too many American Jews treat any expression of explicitly Christian political activism as the coming of a new Crusade. They are ripe targets for such as the AJC, which paints a caricature of the Christian Coalition as the vanguard of a new Inquisition. They would do well to read Ralph Reed's sensitive and nuanced speech to the Anti-Defamation League last April and see that the bogeyman they fear is actually a very good friend.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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