The Jewish community today praised the Rev. Billy Graham, the influential Baptist minister who preached to tens of millions of people during his career and befriended a dozen U.S. presidents, as a friend of Jews and Israel who two decades ago apologized for anti-Semitic remarks he had been taped making during a meeting with Richard Nixon.
Rev. Graham, who had suffered from cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, died today at 99 in his Montreat, N.C., home.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, AJC’s senior interreligious adviser, who had dealt with Rev. Graham and other leaders of faith communities, called the preacher “a strong international Christian leader in the successful struggle to bring freedom to Jews in the former Soviet Union and well-known interfaith ambassador.”
Rev. Graham, who rejected the ministry to Jews favored by many fundamentalist Christians who sought to convert members of the Jewish religion to Christianity, drew wide criticism in the Jewish community when a White House conversation he had conducted with President Nixon in 1972 became public two decades later.
In that conversation with the president, who had made a series of negative comments about Jews, Rev. Graham spoke of a “satanic Jew,” Jews’ “synagogue of Satan,” a disproportionate Jewish control of the pornography industry and a Jewish “stranglehold” on the media.
Jews “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country,” he said.
Rev. Graham first denied that he had made those comments, then subsequently apologized for making them.
“Billy Graham later regretted his highly negative remarks about Jews and Judaism,” Rabbi Rudin said. “He publicly apologized for them and asked for forgiveness during his 2002 ‘Crusade’ in New York City. I had a private conversation with him at that time, where he expressed deep personal remorse and asked me to convey his sincere apologies to the entire Jewish community.”
“Even great men have flaws — Billy Graham was a great American. His flaw was that he was an anti-Semite,” said Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Because of Rev. Graham’s influence on a succession of U.S. presidents, in front of whom he may have expressed anti-Semitic opinions, “who knows how much damage he did? Who knows how many seeds were sown? That is a very serious question.”
Foxman, who added that Rev. Graham “made an effort to reach out to the Jewish community, speaking out on issues that are important to us,” asked rhetorically if he has forgiven Rev. Graham for his anti-Semitic remarks.
“It’s not for me to forgive,” Foxman said. “God has to forgive him for being anti-Semitic.”
In an op-ed essay published on The Jewish Week website, Gerald L. Zelizer, emeritus spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., said Rev. Graham’s anti-Semitic comments “should not blind us Jews to his constructive words which benefited all religions, including my own. Many of his statements and actions were in sync both with many enlightened Jews’ own attitudes to religion, and to role that religion should play in the town square.”
Jews also “admired” presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, “who themselves harbored some pretty nasty stereotypes of Jews,” Rabbi Zelizer said. “We Jews managed to look beyond … hurtful utterances of these two presidents and even elevated them to iconic status. We understood that these underlying biases were typical of that generation. We concluded that on balance, their overall accomplishments overall negated their anti-Semitic murmurings. Let’s do the same as we recall Reverend Billy Graham.”
Rabbi Rudin worked with Rev. Graham on a variety of projects and programs, including “His Land,” a 1973 film that praised Israel. “The film has been viewed by millions of people since its release in 1970,” Rabbi Rudin said.
Rev. Graham was an early and avid backer of Israel. A tour of the country in 1960 raised the country’s profile among American evangelicals, establishing the seeds of strong pro-Israel support that persist in that community until now. In 1967, he urged Israeli leaders not to yield to diplomatic pressures that could endanger the country’s security; such entreaties, commonplace now on the American right, were unusual at the time.
In 1973, during the evangelical-sponsored “Key ‘73” conversion campaign in the United States, Rev. Graham hosted Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, the then-director of the AJC Interreligious Affairs Department, and Gerald Strober, an AJC staff member, at his home in North Carolina. At that meeting, he released an historic public statement that criticized Christian proselytizing efforts specifically directed at Jews.
Rev. Graham declared: “I believe God has always had a special relationship with the Jewish people. … In my evangelistic efforts, I have never felt called to single out Jews as Jews. … Just as Judaism frowns on proselytizing that is coercive, or that seeks to commit men against their will, so do I.”
As a prominent religious leader, Rev. Graham was the subject of intense public scrutiny. During the civil rights movement, he was not a social activist and never joined marches, which led prominent Christians such as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to publicly condemn him as too moderate.
Nevertheless, Rev. Graham ended racially segregated seating at his Southern crusades in 1953.
JTA contributed to this report.
This article was updated on Thursday morning to include the comments of Abraham Foxman.