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The last straw
Focus and friends pushing Jewish leaders’ patience
by Terje Langeland

Rabbi Moskowitz of Temple Shalom.
Photo By File Photo
The recent scandal over Christian proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy has done more than just shake things up at the prestigious school north of Colorado Springs.

For some Jewish groups, it also has proven the last straw in a series of incidents that have strained relations between them and powerful evangelical organizations.

Complaining that the religious right has gone too far in pushing to "Christianize" America, some prominent Jews now say enough is enough.

The issue was brought to the forefront last month by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. In a highly publicized speech, Foxman blasted a "sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized, and organized coalition of groups" for trying to "implement their Christian worldview."

Among the groups Foxman singled out was Focus on the Family, the powerful evangelical ministry in north Colorado Springs whose founder, James Dobson, has called for restoring America's "biblical foundations."

"Make no mistake," Foxman said. "We are facing an emerging Christian right leadership that intends to 'Christianize' all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism -- representing 900 Reform synagogues in North America -- has joined Foxman in his criticism, warning that Christian "zealots" are trying to "make their religion the religion of everyone else."

Fighting back

A few weeks ago in New York, Foxman, Yoffie and other Jewish leaders met behind closed doors to discuss how to fight back. Participants since have said that although they disagreed on many things, they agreed recent developments were worrisome.

Asked which specific incidents sparked the concern, Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, brings up the recent debacle at the Air Force Academy.

Dozens of complaints, and a lawsuit by a graduate, allege that the academy routinely coerced cadets to participate in Christian prayers and ceremonies. The complaints caused the Pentagon to issue new guidelines to encourage religious sensitivity and restrict proselytizing. However, evangelical groups have attacked the new guidelines as "anti-Christian."

The Jewish leaders also have complained about the Christian right's efforts to dictate George W. Bush's appointments to vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The leaders say their disagreement is with certain evangelical groups, not all evangelicals.

"In no way are we launching a full-scale attack on evangelicals," Jacobson says. "But we are saying that these are issues that need to be discussed."

Harassed at school

In Colorado Springs, Rabbi Anat Moskowitz of Temple Shalom says she shares the concern about intolerance toward non-Christians.

Children in her congregation often are harassed in school by Christian kids, she says.

"They get attacked in public schools by other kids, who tell them they are going to hell because they don't believe in Jesus," says Moskowitz, adding she's had to do emergency counseling sessions with children who were "kind of freaked out" by the experience.

The Air Force Academy scandal also upset Moskowitz. Christian proselytizing "simply doesn't belong there," she says. "This is a public school; it's paid for by the government. We have this thing called separation of church and state."

Moskowitz says she'd like to start a dialogue with local evangelical leaders to promote religious tolerance in the community.

"I am getting more and more angry as time is going on, about this whole thing," she says.

Through a spokesman, Christopher Norfleet, Focus on the Family declined to comment.

-- Terje Langeland



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