Activists Prepare for New Church-State Battles
By E.J. KESSLER
March 17, 2006
As a liberal advocacy group tries to link prominent conservative Christian leaders to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Jewish activists at both ends of the political spectrum are organizing for the next round of battles in the fight over church-state separation.
A veteran left-wing activist and a Reform-trained rabbi recently launched a Web site, JewsonFirst.org, in order to expose what they argue is the "intimidation" practiced by right-wing Christian groups that are agitating for a conservative judiciary and culture. The Web site describes such conservative efforts as a danger to First Amendment-guaranteed religious freedoms.
On the right, meanwhile, activists associated with Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation - formed last year for the purpose of countering what Jewish conservatives say is a war against Christians in America being led in part by the Anti-Defamation League - are set to take part in a Washington conference March 26-27 on "the war on Christians and values voters in 2006."
The ferment among Jewish activists comes as a more politically oriented liberal group, the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, or DefCon, has launched a campaign of print and television s that attempts to link some of the Bush administration's major Christian conservative allies to Abramoff's corruption.
Abramoff pleaded guilty recently to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges in connection with an investigation of his work representing Indian gaming interests. An Orthodox Jew and longtime conservative activist, Abramoff had been a proponent of the idea that the Jewish community should ally itself with evangelical Christians on Israel and other issues.
DefCon, whose motto is "Because the Religious Right Is Wrong," describes itself as an "online grassroots community" and claims 38,000 members; its advisory board sports a number of left-wing activists and writers, including some liberal clergy members and Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Its funding comes from the left-liberal Tides Foundation.
DefCon's ads allege that some prominent Christian-right figures, including Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the anti-gay Traditional Values Coalition and Ralph Reed, a Republican lobbyist who formerly served as executive director of the Christian Coalition, are "knee deep in the Jack Abramoff scandal" and have been "exposed as supporting gambling interests and casinos."
The three men - staunch religious opponents of gambling - supported an anti-gambling measure in Louisiana that hurt a rival of Abramoff's tribal clients. Dobson, the most prominent of the evangelicals named, denies knowing that Abramoff was a source of funds for the anti-gambling campaign.
A DefCon spokesman, Max Blumenthal, told reporters that there is "no proof" showing that Dobson knew the origin of the funds and said Dobson likely was "manipulated" by Abramoff. Even so, the ads piqued the interest of conservative Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who grilled Dobson about his supposed Abramoff connections during a broadcast March 8, the day the DefCon ad campaign was launched. Dobson has called the attacks false and "slander."
Some right-wing Jews are rising to Dobson's defense. "Eventually, every person who voted Republican they're going to try to link to Jack Abramoff," said Don Feder, president of Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation and communications director of Vision America, the group sponsoring the "war on Christians" conference.
Feder will speak on a panel at the conference "to talk about the war on Christians from a Jewish perspective" and to "answer critics like the ADL."
He told the Forward that "secular left" groups, including the ACLU, People for the American Way, the ADL and others seek to purge Judeo-Christian morality from our legal system and government.
In November, the ADL's national director, Abraham Foxman, called in a speech for Jewish organizations to undertake a joint effort to counter Christian conservative groups, which he said were seeking to "Christianize America" to the detriment of Jewish interests and freedoms.
Feder, syndicated columnist and former editorial writer for the Boston Herald, thinks that the ADL and other church-state separation champions want to impose immorality on America in the form of "abortion on demand, complete sexual liberation and homosexual marriage."
"Once the vestiges of faith have been swept aside, they can fashion the America they long for - one that will make San Francisco on a Saturday night seem like a Baptist revival meeting on Sunday morning," he wrote in a FrontPage Magazine article, "ADL v. Jesus."
Foxman did not return a call seeking comment.
Vision America was founded by Pastor Rick Scarborough in order to mobilize conservative pastors to register and exhort their "Bible-believing" flocks to vote for candidates who embody "Judaeo-Christian values" and to "stop activist judges."
"There are those in America, whose goal is nothing less than the transformation of our country in their own image, who openly ridicule and belittle people of faith," the site says. "They seek to silence our witness and to banish Christianity from the public square." The conference is drawing the participation of a host of high-powered evangelicals and conservative politicians, including former GOP presidential candidate and Reagan administration aide Gary Bauer; broadcaster Janet Parshall; two Republican senators, John Cornyn of Texas and Sam Brownback of Kansas and former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican embroiled in the Abramoff scandal.
Feder is expected to be joined on his panel by Michael Horowitz, a scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute, and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, a New York radio talk-show host and president of Caucus for America, which describes itself as being dedicated to "unmasking the true intentions and motivations of a cynical, elitist corps working to transform America into a variant of European secularism and socialism." Jeff Ballabon, a Republican activist and founder of the Center for Jewish Values, a right-wing think tank, will moderate.
Feder said that Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation is not a membership organization and has no paid staff. It does, however, list a number of prominent figures on its advisory board, including syndicated columnist Mona Charen, Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein, talk-show host Michael Medved and comedian Jackie Mason.
JewsonFirst - the left-wing Web site - was launched precisely to expose and counter the people who will be appearing at the Vision America conference. The site is the work of Jane Hunter, a one-time Pacifica Radio journalist and longtime leftist organizer, and Rabbi Chaim Dov Beliak, rabbi of Temple Beth El of Whittier, Calif. The two paired up on an earlier project, Stop Moskowitz, dedicated to shedding light on the activities of Irving Moskowitz, a proponent of buying land in the Arab section of Jerusalem who also owns a controversial California casino. JewsonFirst's goal, Hunter said, is "to persuade the middle" that Christian-right attacks on church-state separation constitute a danger to Jewish religious freedoms. The site highlights Christian-right attacks on judges, including former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and a liberal Jewish judge, Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit.
Hunter said she and Beliak started the site because they were alarmed by the controversy over religious coercion at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and what they felt was the passivity of Jewish defense organizations on the issue.
"We were glad to see ADL jumped in" on the controversy at the academy, Beliak said. "When we started this past summer, we were astounded no Jewish groups were doing this."
Beliak said that far-right forces are at work in Christian conservative organizations. "We perceive there's a family relationship between the militia folks and Christian-right politics," he said.
Interestingly, Hunter opposed the DefCon ads targeting the evangelical leaders. Hunter said that instead, DefCon should focus its fire on issues, such as the Christian right's attempts to "legislate against the First Amendment" and "intimidate" its opponents.
Dobson et al. "are using [the ads] to great advantage" with their flocks, she said, by capitalizing on "disingenuous claims of victimization."
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