In 1984, the United States rectified a diplomatic anomaly when it formally recognized the Vatican and agreed to exchange ambassadors with the papal mini-state in Rome.
But when Congress held hearings on the measure, at least one discordant voice was heard in dissent. Rev. Jerry Falwell, by then already a familiar figure as the head of the "Moral Majority" group, hustled to the Capitol to testify against the move.
One might have expected Falwell's position to be based in the sort of theological antagonism between Baptists and Catholics that had its roots in the Reformation. But the roly-poly evangelical had another agenda that day: He was mad about the church's foreign policy in the Middle East. He urged the Senate not to recognize the Vatican until it extended the same courtesy to the State of Israel.
That was an issue that was also of concern to Jewish groups. The Vatican eventually did recognize Israel a decade later. But the idea of the Jews publicly campaigning against the church in this manner was simply out of the question.
Falwell's intervention in this issue is barely a footnote to this chapter in history, but it is symbolic of much of his interactions with the Jews over the years.
He was always among our most zealous allies on the question of Israel, its security and its place in the world. But his efforts in this regard were not merely unbidden. They were, for the most part, regarded with incredulity by Jewish audiences and groups, and thus not merely unappreciated, but often met with outright rejection. As such, he was always American Jewry's most unwavering and yet unwelcome ally.
Falwell's death last week at age 73 set off a wave of retrospectives in the media about the rise of Christian conservative politics. But no discussion of his impact on the culture of this country is complete without a discussion of his iconic position as the bête noire of liberal Jewry who regarded his noisy support for Israel — and the willingness of Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace him for it — with a combination of disgust and horror.
Leading the Counterattack
The reason for that horror wasn't hard to explain. As one of the leading figures of the right's counterattack on both liberal politics and cultural values, Falwell was deeply hated by liberals. His sanctimonious demeanor and willingness to voice his antediluvian views on just about everything — including the possible sexual orientation of one of the "Teletubbies" — made him a ripe subject for satire.
But what made Falwell, who avoided the sort of personal and financial scandals that make it easy to discount many of his fellow televangelists, really scary to liberals was the fact that his mobilization of Christian conservatives helped change American politics. Although the "Moral Majority" itself had a short shelf life (it was disbanded in 1989), Falwell's influence will live on long after him.
But what must be understood is that his movement was not an attempt to undo democracy. Rather, it gave life to the well-founded fear on the part of religious conservatives that they were losing control of American culture. Despite the fact that they won a fair share of the election battles they picked, that verdict is unchanged. Take a look at the content of virtually any network television drama or comedy — let alone contemporary major feature films — and it won't be hard to discern the fact that Falwell's views about abortion, sex and gay rights have not only not prevailed, but, in fact, have lost considerable ground.
As more than a few of his allies on the right noted in the wake of the public's unwillingness to support the impeachment of President Clinton, maybe the majority in this country wasn't so "moral" after all. And given the fact that a pro-abortion rights candidate such as Rudy Giuliani has a shot at the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, it may well be that the tide has turned on these issues in the GOP itself.
But none of that explains why his enthusiastic support for Israel was always something that many Jewish liberals felt ought to be treated with disdain. The excuses for this attitude always centered on the notion that his motives were tainted by his intention to evangelize among Jews or notions about his wanting a Zionist triumph to set off the second coming of Jesus.
But few who made these charges understood much about his actual beliefs. While Falwell was honest about the fact that he considered his own faith to be the truth, he always denied that his love for Israel was anything but unselfish. And given the fact that most Jews never gave him anything but abuse for it, his critics ought to concede that point.
Nor did his willingness to open up the pulpit of his Liberty University to figures like Reform movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie convince liberals that he was as committed to the free flow of political debate as they were. To the day he died, liberal groups used his waning presence on the national scene to rally their faithful, and were unwilling to make common cause with him even on a principle many shared with him: the safety of Israel.
This unwillingness to accept conservative Christian support for Israel remains the great contradiction of modern American Jewish politics. Contrast this attitude toward Falwell with the enthusiasm with which many Jews continue to make coalitions with liberal Protestant denominations that have often joined efforts to wage economic warfare on the Jewish state via disinvestment schemes.
Jews didn't have to agree with Falwell on abortion or anything else on which they differed any more than they do with liberal Protestants. But what they ought to have done is to recognize his willingness to expend his own political capital in the defense of Israel.
During crises, such as the 2002 terror war waged against Israel by the Palestinians, Falwell and his allies were capable of putting aside their other agendas, and putting the Bush administration's feet to the fire in order to ensure that it backed up Israel's measures of self-defense.
Perhaps the main disconnect came from the fact that for Falwell and his friends, Israel was not the marginal point that it has become for many Jews who who place its survival far below domestic issues on their list of priorities. Though he never harmed a single Jew in his life, most of us still seemed to be more afraid of him than we were of Hamas.
At a time when Israel is under increasingly vitriolic attacks seeking to delegitimize Zionism as well as physically assaults, this reluctance to extend the hand of friendship to an ally remains, at best, short-sighted.
One imagines that few synagogue sermons were devoted to Falwell's memory this past week, but before the dust settles over his grave, it might be appropriate if more Jews took a moment to recognize his friendship. The rise of international anti-Semitism and left-wing anti-Zionism should remind us that — whether we like it or not — we are going to need a lot more unwelcome allies like Jerry Falwell in the years to come.