June 26, 2009

The Rev. Billy Graham informed Richard Nixon of the Jewish community’s concern about Jews for Jesus in a private telephone conversation in February 1973. Graham represented the group as being “set up all over the country,” at a time when the organization was in its fledgling stage, with just a handful of workers.

The 20-minute conversation, released on Tuesday as part of 154 hours of tape recordings from the Nixon White House, took place on February 21, 1973, the day Israeli jets fired on a Libyan passenger plane that violated its airspace, causing the plane to crash and killing 108 people on board. Nixon and Graham are concerned that this event will turn world opinion against Israel.

They are also troubled by statements by Jewish leaders, in particular the late Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, then the director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, denouncing Christian efforts to tell others, including Jews, about Jesus. They feel this may alienate the Christian community against the Jewish people.

Nixon and Graham were anticipating seeing Tannenbaum the following week at a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Nixon tells Graham: “You tell him he’s making a terrible mistake, and they’re going to get the darndest round of anti-Semitism here if they don’t behave.” Graham explains to Nixon the concern of Tannenbaum and other Jewish leaders:

“And one of the things they’re terribly afraid of is so many of these Jewish young people are turning away from Judaism. They’re not turning away from Jewishness. They say they’re remaining Jews, but they’re becoming followers of Jesus. Well, that’s just scaring them to death.”

Graham continues, “They’ve set up all over the country, these Jews for Jesus at the various universities…. And this is frightening Jewish leaders, and they’re overreacting in this country. I’m talking about the rabbis.”

Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus and the director of the organization at that time, explains why a handful of staff could appear to be “all over the country.”

“Our traveling musical team, the Liberated Wailing Wall, set up a number of church meetings,” recalls Rosen, “and during the day we would go to the campuses. The group had some meetings in Texas, then traveled to Washington, Boston, and back to our headquarters in San Francisco. We probably appeared on fifty campuses in a three-month period. We were seen by a lot of people, but it was the same group!”

Rosen and Graham traded correspondence beginning in late 1977 after Rabbi Tannenbaum made a speech in which he referred to Graham’s “repudiation of proselytizing of Jewish people through the deceptive techniques of such movements as Jews for Jesus.” An article in McCall’s magazine in January 1978 made a similar claim that “Billy is particularly opposed to evangelical groups such as ‘Jews for Jesus’ who have made Jews the special target of their proselytizing efforts.”

In a letter to Rosen dated January 24, 1978, Graham said, “I regret that alleged statements by me concerning your ministry have caused you one minute’s embarrassment or grief. So many people have reported to me what a blessing you and your group have been to them…. I can never recall ever criticizing your group by name in public or private!… Sometimes texts are taken out of the context to mean something more or less than was meant.”

In the same letter, Graham said, “I have never publicly supported special missions to Jews—I preach to people as people! But you will notice when I give an invitation in my Crusades to accept Christ I usually say ‘whether you are Catholic, Protestant or Jew.'”



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