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'Weird and wonderful'

"'Weird and wonderful'" Continued...

Issue: "Ideal Idol," June 2, 2007

Evangelical Zionists are unconditional allies. They aren't vulnerable to charges, often made against American Jewish Zionists (especially "neo-cons"), of "dual loyalty." Many support Israel because they feel God commands it. They will support Israel until the End of Time. You'd have to be nuts not to welcome wartime allies like that.

WORLD: Why do American Jews generally "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans," and why is George W. Bush-despite his strong support for Israel-so unpopular among American Jews?

CHAFETS: American Jews arrived as socialists; Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate, won a plurality of the Jewish vote in 1920. FDR was the first American president to welcome Jews into his inner circle, and made Jews members in good standing of the Democratic coalition. This kind of inclusion, especially in the '30s, an era of anti-Semitism in America, was a great relief to Jews.

Starting in the '60s, barriers fell for Jews in America. Before that, there were restrictive quotas in Ivy League schools and many industries and institutions. Baby boom Jews grabbed their chance to join the elite and made the most of it. A lot of boomers, whose greatest lifetime achievement was getting into Yale or Harvard, feel mocked by Bush's rejection of the Ivy League dream.

WORLD: I can understand that. He's saying that Ivy League folks aren't so smart, at a time when Jews are taking leadership positions in what was a Protestant stronghold. And then there's Texas . . .

CHAFETS: A lot of Jews don't like Bush's macho Texas style. But the main thing is, Bush is a Republican and American Jews are, overwhelmingly, Democrats. The ideology and attitudes of the party are shaped primarily by Jews. They took Bush's defeat of Gore and Kerry as a rejection of "Jewish" (i.e., liberal) values.

WORLD: The relationship of African-Americans and Jews has been close but sometimes difficult. Regarding support of Jewish causes, how did the attitudes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson differ?

CHAFETS: Martin Luther King was a Zionist for reasons of morality and pragmatism. In the post-Holocaust, pre-Six Day War period, King-like many liberal Christians-understood the justice of allowing Jews self-determination and a safe haven. But King also understood that northern Jews were the most reliable white allies he had in the civil-rights movement. Jews moved the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in King's direction. They contributed a great deal of money and manpower to the cause. Some studies say that more than half of all the white freedom riders and civil-rights volunteers in the segregated South were Jews. King was a great coalition-builder, and support for Israel was an obvious means of coalition-building with the Jewish community.

Jesse Jackson belongs to a different era. He rose to prominence in a period of black power, in which Jews weren't especially welcomed in the ranks of the black struggle. He is a believer in "liberation theology," which tends to see Israel as a white, colonialist country. Jackson, more than any single figure except, perhaps, Louis Farrakhan, has hurt Israel's image in the black community-and the black community's relations with American Jews.

WORLD: You did an interview earlier this year with Terry Gross of NPR; she seemed shocked that you had kind things to say about people who believe in the Second Coming and oppose homosexuality. Do you get that reaction a lot from liberals, and how do you respond?

CHAFETS: Sure, I get it all the time. I tell them that I am a social liberal myself; I disagree with a lot of the domestic evangelical (and Orthodox Jewish) social agenda. But that doesn't mean that I can't cooperate on common issues-especially in wartime. The same people who can't imagine making a pro-Israel alliance with Falwell against Ahmadinejad were glad to join hands with Stalin to defeat Hitler.

I don't think Jews need to become Christians, or even Republicans. They (we) simply have to stop being so hostile, superior, and harsh to people who are extending a hand of friendship. A lot of Jews don't know that Jews, too, can be bigots.

WORLD: What would you recommend to evangelicals who want to discuss religious questions with Jews?

CHAFETS: Evangelicals have tried, from time to time, to save me. Frankly, I appreciate the effort-I wouldn't want to belong to the only category of nonbelievers who don't merit a shot at salvation.

Here's a confession: I like going to church, especially black gospel churches. There's a good feeling there, the music is great, and you meet nice people. For me it's like visiting a very cool foreign country. But I have never been tempted to become a Christian. It seems to me that a lot of Jews who feel threatened by proselytizers are really unsure of their own identity and beliefs-their own essential Jewishness.

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