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Church and State literally intersect in Penns Grove, NJ, and in Mertztown, PA.

Thomas Jefferson, Meet Abbott and Costello
Jews on First.

-- Alan Tuttle

Have Jews at last found a permanently safe haven after 2,000 years of exile? Is it possible that the experiment in democracy in the United States, anchored in the Bill of Rights, has forever rendered our experience in the world as "post-exilic?"

There has been an ongoing debate about these questions in the Jewish community. Some believe that with the exception of occasional visible acts of anti-Semitism, such as vandalism of a synagogue or the painting of swastikas on public buildings, there is no real threat to Jews in this country. Others believe that as a minority group, even in a relatively liberal democracy, there is never real security.

Perhaps a third position is exemplified by the online publication, Jews On First, a serious website with a name that plays on the old Abbott and Costello routine and also refers to the First Amendment. Its position could be summed up as: "Yes, our country and constitution protect us from threats as we have never been protected before. But to remain safe, we must be vigilant in enforcing the First Amendment, which pronounces the need to separate ‘church’ and State."

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello perform the classic "Who's on first?" baseball sketch in their 1945 film "The Naughty Nineties" first performed as part of their stage act.

Jews On First (JOF), founded by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak and journalist Jane Hunter, features the byline, "Defending the First Amendment against the Christian right . . . because if Jews don’t speak out, they’ll think we don’t mind." JOF offers a varied and animated voice to the public debate about the integrity of the Constitution. Recent articles have included discussions of the Christian right in the military, funding of faith-based initiatives, prayer in school, attacks on gays and lesbians, threats to reproductive choice, and attacks on the judiciary. Most recently they have highlighted the relationship between a Presidential candidate and his support from a controversial religious leader. No, not Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright, rather John McCain and Rev. John Hagee.

One can see some political leanings here: Jews On First, asks essentially, "Why have the major media been so restrained in challenging John McCain for not repudiating the endorsement of Rev. Hagee?" (Rev. Hagee has assigned the cause of Hurricane Katrina to God’s decision to stop a Gay Pride parade in New Orleans, has blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and accused the Catholic Church of "thirsting for the blood of Jews.") To JOF, Hagee epitomizes the kind of religious, specifically Christian, meddling in the political sphere that needs to be challenged in the name of the First Amendment, and specifically by Jews, who are among those with the most to lose should the Church-State barrier continue to shrink.

In contrast, JOF appears satisfied with Senator Obama’s handling of the Reverend Wright controversy: "Barrack Obama dealt frankly, openly and intellectually with the issue of his complex relationship to Jeremiah Wright. Contrast that with John McCain's embrace of Christian Right leaders Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley. . . . John Hagee is not only an anti-Catholic bigot. He repeatedly stokes the fires of hatred toward Islam, telling his national television audience that there are between 200 and 800 million Muslims who are jihadists. His crusader-like talk makes Reverend Wright look like a piker." This discounting of Rev. Wright’s views, it should be noted, are in contrast with the views of some organizations, including ADL’s Abraham Foxman, who considers Wright’s views significantly racist.

Jews On First may have many fellow travelers in its mission to defend the First Amendment: Americans for the Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union, to name the two most prominent. Although there are many Jews involved in these two organizations, they don’t approach the issue from a specifically Jewish perspective. Jews On First does, and is vigilant in spreading its net wide to catch all instances of public acts that diminish the primacy of the First Amendment in keeping our country from being the domain of any one religion. It may not gain sympathy among some Jews who dismiss this vigilance as unnecessary (perhaps even causing more harm than good for Jews in the U.S.A.) but it is making sure that no one can assert that Jews looked the other way when the Christian right was trying to put its stamp on the government of this country.

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