Many Jewish groups already were uneasy about the major pro-Israel rally planned for Friday by the Christian Coalition as part of its biennial Road to Victory conference.
That discomfort mushroomed this week with controversial comments on Islam by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a keynote speaker at the conference and, according to some reports, a scheduled speaker at the pro-Israel rally.
But this week, Rev. Falwell’s name disappeared from the Christian Coalition’s materials promoting the event, and a spokesman for the group denied that Rev. Falwell was on the program.
“Jerry Falwell will speak to the Road to Victory conference, but he has never been part of the program for the Israel solidarity rally,” the spokesman said.
But last week Michael Brown, a top Christian Coalition official, listed Rev. Falwell
as one of the confirmed speakers for the rally, and earlier press announcements highlighted his presence.
The outspoken Rev. Falwell created a firestorm this week when he appeared on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” and called the prophet Mohammed a “violent man, a man of war.”
“Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses,” Rev. Falwell said. “I think Mohammed set an opposite example.” He went on to say that “I think Mohammed was a terrorist.”
That prompted an outcry from Muslim groups around the world and unease among Jewish leaders, who worried that the pro-Israel cause would be tainted by Rev. Falwell’s defense of the Jewish state.
The Anti-Defamation League quickly blasted the talkative televangelist.
“The Rev. Jerry Falwell has once again demonstrated his intolerance by his outrageous charge about the Prophet Mohammed,” the group’s leaders said in a statement. “He owes an apology to the millions of good people who follow the Muslim faith.”
But ADL director Abraham Foxman declined to criticize the Christian Coalition for its inclusion of Rev. Falwell in its conference and rally this week.
“The rally is theirs, not ours; they have to make the decision who is acceptable to them,” he said. “But I do believe that anybody from our community who appears before these groups has a reasonability to distance themselves from people who make those kinds of statements.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the controversy points to the dangers of courting some religious right leaders.
“It is in the Jewish community’s interests, and Israel’s interests, for support for Israel to be mainstream, broad-based and bipartisan,” he said. “While I understand that with Israel under siege our response to anybody who is supportive tends to be, ‘well, thank you very much,’ I think we all understand the danger of support for Israel being linked in a public way with extremist figures and extremist statements.”
Rev. Falwell also is listed as an endorser of the Oct. 20 “Day of Prayer and Solidarity” being organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who will keynote the Christian Coalition rally, also is in hot water with some Jewish activists because of his willingness to appear before groups devoted to the conversion of Jews.
Olmert goes from the Washington rally to San Diego, Calif., where he will be honored by the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner.
According to the anti-missionary group Jews for Judaism, the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship is “an Evangelical Christian church that believes in proselytizing.”
The Web site advertising the event states that “this event will serve as a fund-raiser for the victims of terrorism as well as for putting the Word of God up throughout Israel,” and that this will “turn the hearts of Israel to the Lord.”
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the Jews for Judaism director, said “our independent investigation of this Evangelical church has revealed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are already actively proselytizing to Jews in Israel and specifically to Russian immigrants in the West Bank city of Ariel.”
Stealth Charitable Choice
President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, already reduced to just a package of tax breaks to encourage charitable giving, remains caught in the gridlock that has gripped Congress this fall.
But the plan is surging forward within the administration, where executive agencies are using the authority they already have to bypass Congress and open the door to extensive funding for religious groups that provide social and health services.
Last week the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave $30 million in grants to religious organizations, mostly from the administration’s Compassion Capital Fund.
“With today’s awards, we begin a new effort to help faith- and community-based organizations get a fair and equal opportunity to compete for HHS funds,” said HHS secretary Tommy Thompson in announcing the grants.
Included on the list: the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing International, which assists hunger programs across the country.
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said “they’re just implementing things that were passed during the Clinton administration.” Diament said his group, which supports the charitable choice concept, is pleased that “the grants show that some smaller and newer players are being allowed into the funding game.”
But Marc Stern, legal director for the American Jewish Congress, said the new round of grants goes much further than existing charitable choice laws.
“The charitable choice bills passed during the Clinton administration were very limited to particular programs, and they came with safeguards,” he said. “As far as I can tell, there are no safeguards built into these new programs.”
Among the safeguards that Stern said are missing in the new administration grants: prohibitions against proselytizing. Stern also said that Thompson’s admission that “the grant process was colored by the desire to give religious groups money makes these grants vulnerable” to legal challenge.
Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said the use of executive action to help church-based service groups would accelerate.
“Executive action is the route of choice, if not necessity, in the absence of legislation,” he said. “The administration already has considerable flexibility to implement their proposals through the agencies, rather than through legislative action. It seems they’re beginning to employ that discretion.”
Wittmann said the administration is actively seeking faith-based grantees, and that “faith-based groups that never applied for grants in the past now see an opportunity, not a closed door, so they are applying in greater numbers.”