NEW YORK – The American Family Association, a Christian group taking 60 Republican National Committee members to Israel on an all-expenses paid trip, is distancing itself from a former spokesman who has made statements that many critics describe as racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic.
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The former longtime spokesman and director of issue analysis, Bryan Fischer, has also said America is a Christian nation in which Jews and Muslims are not entitled to constitutional protection for their religious expression.
But the AFA has not fired Fischer entirely — he’s still a radio-show host and blogger, and he was still promoting his perspective on the organization’s home page last week. The group’s director of governmental affairs, Sandy Rios, said on her AFA show Thursday that “God does not approve of Israel’s secular government” and is “not fond of atheist Jews” who live there.
On Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC news show Wednesday night, the political commentator linked Fischer’s firing, as she described it, to the Haaretz article that provided details on the junket that began Saturday. This reporter was a guest on that program.
The Israel trip is being hosted and funded by the American Renewal Project, a program under the AFA umbrella. A civil rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls the AFA is “a hate group” and “extremist.” The AFA declined to comment on these remarks.
On Wednesday, the AFA’s general counsel sent a letter to the law center’s chairman emeritus, Julian Bond, listing 10 Fischer assertions that the organization now says it rejects. They include Fischer’s statements blaming gay people for the Holocaust, his view that “the free exercise of religion” in the United States “only applies to Christians,” and that U.S. immigration policy should “model ancient Israel” and “require every immigrant to convert to Christianity.”
But the day after sending that letter, the AFA featured on its home page Fischer’s latest blog article: “The U.S. Should Support Israel Because God Does.” There Fischer says God has blessed America because America, a Christian nation, has “been kind” in hosting the Jewish people.
The Republican National Committee had no comment for Haaretz before the paper's first story. After Maddow focused on the Israel trip, the committee’s national press secretary, Kirsten Kukowski, told Haaretz that “we don’t agree with Bryan Fischer’s comments and are glad AFA has severed ties with him.”
When told about the role Fischer was still playing at the AFA, Kukowski provided no further comment. The Republican Jewish Coalition did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment on the latest developments.
The $400,00 question
David Lane is the American Renewal Project head who organized and is hosting the Israel trip for 98 people all told, at a cost of about $400,000. He did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment after the AFA distanced itself from Fischer. In an interview last week, Lane told Haaretz: “America was founded by Christians for the glory of God and the Christian faith.”
Critics say it isn't enough that the AFA has distanced itself from Fischer while still retaining him and others who make similar statements.
The chief executive of the Southern Poverty Law Center, J. Richard Cohen, wrote to the AFA on Thursday: “We’d like to believe that the AFA’s repudiation of the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and vicious homophobic statements of your spokesman Bryan Fischer is sincere. But to be candid, it’s difficult to see the AFA’s disavowal as anything other than an effort to quell the negative press attention you’re receiving.”
According to Cohen, “The AFA has done nothing to apologize or make amends for the harm that Mr. Fischer has caused. Nor has the AFA distanced itself from the many other bigoted and extremist comments made by its staff, including its founder, Mr. [Donald] Wildmon.”
Rios, the AFA’s director of governmental affairs, said on her show Thursday that criticism of her group’s role in financing the Republican National Committee was unfounded because Israel “could not have a better ally” than the AFA.
Rios said this was the case even though, as she put it, God disapproves of the country’s “secular government” and is not “fond of atheist Jews” who live there. Her comments were first noted by People for the American Way, another liberal civil rights organization, on its Right Wing Watch website.
‘Hatred and bigotry’
The “AFA is still providing a platform to Fischer even given his demotion and their hate extends well beyond just him,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told Haaretz Thursday.
“We’d like to see the group denounce all its past statements of hatred and bigotry to the LGBT and other communities, because it’s not just Fischer. We stand by our request that RNC members not lend their good offices to this organization that richly deserves to be labeled a hate group.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council also says the AFA hasn’t gone far enough and that Republican leaders should not be taking a trip funded and hosted by the group.
“There’s no indication the organization has changed its views, and it’s the views of and actions of the organization that matter,” said Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Rosenbaum, an investor, was chief executive of Empire Kosher poultry until 2012.
Fischer’s article on the AFA home page Thursday has received a prominent place.
“There are many reasons for the United States to support Israel. One is our longstanding history as a nation with the Jewish people,” Fischer writes.
“Judaism has always been — until this recent flood of Muslim immigrants — America’s second religion, after Christianity . You can argue all day if you’d like about whether the United States is a Christian nation. The evidence is indisputable that it is, but one thing no one can dispute is that the United States has been kind to the biological and spiritual offspring of Abraham.”
Fischer says America has magnanimously hosted the Jewish people.
“The United States has historically provided a safe place, a haven, for the physical descendants of Abraham (the Jewish people), who have been able to freely practice their faith here and enjoy the prosperity and possibilities this Christian nation affords to all people of good will,” he writes.
According to Fischer, “if someone is looking for a reason for America’s security and success, he needs look no further: God has blessed America because America has blessed the sons of Abraham.”