A toxic legacy
Jerry Falwell, who died on May 15, would no doubt be pleased by Abraham Foxman's declaration that he was a 'dear friend of Israel.' Throughout his life he was fond of boasting that 'the Jewish people in America and Israel and all over the world have no dearer friend than Jerry Falwell.' Was it true?
Jerry Falwell, who died on May 15, would no doubt be pleased by Abraham Foxman's declaration that he was a "dear friend of Israel." Throughout his life he was fond of boasting that "the Jewish people in America and Israel and all over the world have no dearer friend than Jerry Falwell." Was it true?
Falwell comes out of a pre-millennial Baptist tradition rooted in the teachings of John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century British clergyman who preached a fire-and- brimstone "End of Days" theology. Darby argued that the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land was a fundamental prerequisite to the Second Coming of Christ, the conversion or death of all nonbelievers, and the dawning of the messianic age.
Jews loom large in the pre-millennial mind. As the pre-millennial writer Randall Price expressed it in his 1998 book "Jerusalem in Prophecy," Jews are the essential "players ... for the prophetic drama," whose collective "curtain call" signals that "the End" must be near. There can be no apocalypse, no battle of Armageddon, and ultimately no salvation for Christians without the "ingathering of the exiles" to the Land of Israel.
Falwell's genius was to mainstream this theology. A deft communicator, the co-founder of the Moral Majority harnessed the power of television to bring his blood-soaked eschatology to millions of depressingly credulous Americans. He also preached an uncompromising commitment to the cause of Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank. On the basis of this shared belief, Falwell forged a series of cynical and opportunistic partnerships with leaders on the Israeli right, who understandably saw him as a valuable ally to Israel in a world increasingly hostile to the Jewish state. This calculation has proved to be not only morally deplorable, but politically and strategically dubious.
First, it undermined Israel's standing in America. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism argued recently in the Forward: "The central principle of Israel advocacy for half a century has been that support of Israel must be broad and bipartisan, and this means appealing to the Republican and Democratic mainstream and avoiding identification with controversial minorities in either party." Falwell was the epitome of a controversial minority. He had an insatiable desire to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state in America. For instance, in his book "America Can Be Saved!," he wrote: "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them."
We can be thankful he did not, in fact, live to see such a miserable day. But Falwell's very public embrace of Israel tarnished an entirely legitimate sentiment, recasting it as a bizarre obsession of the theoconservatives.
Second, Falwell typified how philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism tend to coexist comfortably in the same depraved minds. "A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite that loves Jews," wrote the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. Anti-Semitism may be the more menacing of the two belief systems, but philo-Semitism is just as dehumanizing. Anti-Semites detest Jews in the way that one detests an object. Philo-Semites admire Jews in the way that one admires an object.
This helps explain the apparent contradiction that was Jerry Falwell. He could go on "60 Minutes," in June 2003, and say: "It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel's only safety belt right now. There are 70 million of us, and if there's one thing that brings us together quickly it's whenever we begin to detect our government becoming a little anti-Israel." Nonetheless, just four years earlier, Falwell could tell a group of pastors that the Antichrist "will be a full-grown counterfeit of Christ. Of course, he'll be Jewish."
Theological philo-Semites, like Falwell, seem to relate to Jews more as mythical figures from the Bible than as real living, breathing people. Similarly, Falwell was not concerned about Israel the country - the messy, inspiring, infuriating experiment in Jewish democracy on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. To him, Israel was a symbol, the link between the beginning and the end of things.
There will not "be any real peace in the Middle East until the Lord Jesus sits down upon the throne of David in Jerusalem," Falwell said a few years ago. Such a statement reflects a mindset that is explicitly hostile to democratic politics committed to compromise and accommodation, to the push and pull of competing interests and values. Falwell had no use for a prosperous, democratic and Jewish Israel with clearly defined borders living at peace with its neighbors. To the contrary, he was an enemy of this vision, and spent his career giving aid and encouragement to the most illiberal, anti-democratic, self-destructive currents in the Zionist movement. He spearheaded a dogmatic constituency that continues to drown out more sensitive and less rigid elements on the Israeli and American scene.
It remains bewildering why Foxman, who has been at the forefront of challenging menacing Bible-thumpers like Falwell, saw fit to whitewash Jerry Falwell's toxic legacy. The two sparred on many occasions, and the loathing was apparently mutual. (Falwell recently told the journalist Zev Chafets that Foxman was a "damn fool.") And while there is an understandable tendency not to speak ill of the recently deceased, we should be clear-eyed about the damage Falwell has wrought. The jowly pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, was many things over the course of his long life - a bigot and a demagogue are two that come quickly to mind - but he was definitely not a "dear friend" of the Jewish State or the Jewish people. He will not be missed.
Evan R. Goldstein is a contributing editor at Moment magazine.