Weeks ago, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Fund gave George W. Bush a standing ovation. But ever since news broke that the former president would address an evangelical group dedicated to converting Jews to Christianity in preparation for the End Times, some Jewish leaders and groups have responded with rather strong criticism. That includes at least one of the umbrella group's member organizations — the Anti-Defamation League — which expressed its "disappointment" with the former president's decision to address an evangelical group in a statement on Monday.
Bush is booked to speak on November 14 in front of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, as Sarah Posner first reported in Mother Jones last week. He's the featured speaker at a fundraiser that was headlined last year by Glenn Beck. The organization, in case you're not familiar, is probably best known as part of the "Jews for Jesus" movement. While some evangelical groups (particularly those with an End Times-focused mission), along with members of the Messianic Jewish movement insist that "Jews for Jesus" is simply a sect of Judaism, most Jewish people and leaders strongly disagree, and consider the group to be Christian. It's a very contentious debate.
The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute has since removed all reference to the event from its site, though organizers have confirmed to Mother Jones that it's still happening, with tickets ranging from $100 to $100,000. It's not clear whether Bush is receiving a speaking fee for his time. Notably, news of Bush's commitment to the Texas-based group was immediately condemned by David Wolpe, an extremely influential conservative (the branch of Judaism, not the political category) Rabbi. In an op-ed published at the Forward on Monday, Wolpe elaborated on the reason why Bush's association with so-called "Messianic Jewish" groups will trouble many American Jews:
What is so bothersome about the group that President Bush has chosen to address is that to speak of “Jews for Jesus” makes as much sense as saying “Christians for Muhammad.” A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. When the first Christians left the Jewish community, and all the billions of Christians who followed recognized that their belief in Jesus made them a distinct religion, were they all deluded? Only today people have realized that division was a mistake after all? The sudden rise of ‘Messianic Jews’ owes more to a clever way of misleading untutored Jews than to making theological sense. It should not receive the imprimatur of a former President of the United States.
Criticism of Bush's speaking gig includes groups and individuals who would see Bush as a political and ideological ally, too. Take the short, contextual criticism of Bush's decision in Commentary, a conservative magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee. Jonathan Tobin noted that Rick Santorum faced similar criticism for his 2010 speech at a conference hosted by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Speaking on the conservative, particularly Jewish, reaction to news of Santorum's decision, Tobin wrote, "the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush."
The ADL, in their Monday statement, called Messianic Jewish Bible Institute's assertion that Jewish individuals who accept Jesus as their messiah are still Jewish "false and offensive." Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, added:
We were disappointed to learn that former President George W. Bush has decided to move ahead with his plan to speak at a fundraising event for an evangelical proselytizing group whose stated goal is to convert Jews to Christianity.
President Bush is a friend who has an abiding love and respect for Israel and the Jewish people. I know that he does not represent or embrace the purpose or the mission of this group, and therefore I wish he would not speak there.
Foxman's assertion that Bush is a "friend," both of the organization, and of Israel, is not off the mark. Politically, Bush fits comfortably among the pro-Israel neoconservative wing of the GOP, and has continued to do so even after leaving office. In October, he expressed skepticism, for instance, in Iran's recent willingness to negotiate with the international community over its nuclear program. “The United States’ foreign policy must be clear eyed; and understand that until the form of government changes in Iran, it is unlikely that their intentions toward Israel will change,” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Fund. That more or less matches with Israel's reaction to the new rounds of negotiations, along with American legislative hawks (see also: Lindsey Graham right now).
As Tablet pointed out, Bush will have a hard time pleading ignorance here if the criticism becomes too much. Bush's chief of staff Josh Bolten previously told the magazine that the Bush family is "very open to and respectful of faiths of all kind, but particularly Judaism." This decision, to say the least, complicates that reputation.
Photo: George W. Bush, touring the historic fortress of Masada in Israel, 2008.