In an emotional address to the ADL's annual meeting here, Abraham Foxman said he is more troubled by the silence of Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson and others than by anti-Jewish cartoon strips and controversial remarks by basketball players.
"If I am troubled, it's not because there is prejudice or bigotry or racism or anti-Semitism," Foxman said. "It's because I begin to hear the silence of good people."
A handful of troubling incidents in the past few weeks has put Christian-Jewish relations in a precarious position. Together, Foxman said they have made Jews feel uneasy despite unprecedented successes for the Jewish community.
The troubles started on Easter, when "B.C." cartoonist Johnny Hart used his Sunday comic strip to illustrate a Jewish menorah being gradually snuffed out with the last words of Jesus, leaving the last box showing a cross.
At the same time, New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward drew controversy for remarks made during a Bible study group, where he and fellow players blamed Jews for the death of Jesus and said Jews are persecuting Christians around the world.
Underlying all these events is an ongoing ad campaign by Jews for Jesus which features Holocaust survivors testifying about their Christian faith. Foxman has called those ads "deceptive and offensive." Taken as a whole, Foxman called the unrelated incidents "traumatic," but said even more disturbing were the Christian leaders who did not speak out against them.
Foxman said the incidents show that anti-Jewish sentiment continues to fester, despite attempts by Pope John Paul II and leading Protestants to clear up historical "perversions" of Christian teaching.
Still, relations with Catholics continue to be tense, as shown by a testy exchange on Sunday with Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, a leading interfaith liaison in the U.S. church. Keeler criticized Jews for protesting the beatification of Pope Pius IX, who allowed a Jewish boy to be taken from his Italian family and raised as a Catholic.
That criticism did not sit well with either Foxman or the rest of the ADL. It's also a personally sensitive issue for Foxman, who was sheltered during the Holocaust by a Catholic family and baptized, only to face a custody struggle when his parents survived the concentration camps in Poland.
"We respect your right to do what you do, but we also have a right to say we don't like it," Foxman said in a follow-up interview.
On Tuesday, the Vatican and a leading Jewish umbrella group launched a new round of talks on interfaith matters, with both sides warning that it could be the last round if the other side pushes its own agenda. While Foxman said he appreciates the high-level talks and gestures, he said the message has not gotten to the people in the pews.
"We assumed that ... with all these directives from on-high, the message had filtered down," Foxman said. "I think we were wrong. The message has not filtered down."