The Jewish National Fund’s Southeastern Region will be honoring Dr. Charles Stanley at the Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast on April 23. Dr. Stanley has a sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions. He has publicly called AIDS God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and called homosexuality “destructive behavior.” He has incorrectly claimed that being gay is a choice and stated that “medical research has proven, absolutely unquestionably, that the person can be free from homosexuality if they want to.” He has said that “God does not agree with the lifestyle of the homosexual” and that accepting gay people is “an act of disobedience to God.” And at one time, acting on his convictions, Dr. Stanley hired armed guards on horseback to roam the streets in order to keep gay pride marchers away from his church and distant from his congregants.
My agency, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity (SOJOURN), worked for many weeks behind the scenes with community members and local Atlanta clergy to persuade JNF to reconsider their decision. We did so quietly so as to give JNF the benefit of the doubt, correct their mistake, and move on. Their response to us was baffling and offensive.
JNF’s Southeastern Region’s co-president, rather than working to correct his agency’s mistake, said he hoped “to see a large turnout from the gay and lesbian community to show Dr. Stanley the diversity of our organization in support of Israel.” As in, “We’re going to be bringing in this guy that hates you, so won’t you come listen to him, justify him, and give us money while he does it?” It would be comical it it weren’t so offensive.
While there are numerous reasons to criticize JNF, we sincerely believe that alienating the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities and their allies shouldn’t be one of them. On April 2, we sent JNF’s professional and board leadership this letter, insisting they reverse their decision.
Rather than publicly admit their mistake, JNF responded by saying that first amendment rights are sacred, and that they stand by their decision to honor Dr. Stanley because he took a large group to Israel during the Gaza War. They responded, by the way, only through the media or through clergy members – we did not receive any direct responses from them until this week.
Since then, more than a dozen rabbis and synagogues have withdrawn their support, including the synagogue hosting the event. While they are honoring their rental contract, none of the clergy or any official of the synagogue will attend. Many other synagogues have withdrawn their support, including the synagogue attended by the family of the late Jack Hirsch, the breakfast’s namesake honoree.
And through all of this, JNF has defended Charles Stanley, and in doing so, they have endorsed his statements of hatred, bigotry, and exclusion.
Much of the media have tried to frame this as “one gay group” being a little offended. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. This isn’t about gay or straight, Jewish or not, or pro-Israel or not.
This is about JNF’s decision to defend and honor a man who believes that AIDS is God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality. This is about JNF celebrating a man who believes there is no place at the table for an entire segment of our population. This is about JNF’s willingness to disregard entire synagogues and and communities in favor of a man who sincerely believes that the only way Jews can avoid eternal damnation is through conversion to Christianity.
JNF’s official response, as released on Thursday, April 16, shows how divorced from reality they’ve become:
We have been apprised that there is some disagreement on our choice for this year’s Tree of Life honoree.
While we respect everyone’s opinion, we stand by our decision. Our honoree represents one of the largest Christian communities in the South which has always supported the Jewish people in times of peace and conflict.
In fact, last summer, in the heat of war during Operation Protective Edge, when few would travel to Israel, hundreds of congregants from the First Baptist Church Atlanta went to stand united with the people of Israel. For such heroic actions, we honor this esteemed community, our neighbors in love.
One of the core tenets of our wonderful democracy is the Bill of Rights which grants Americans the ability to freely speak, worship and assemble as they choose, and Jewish National Fund honors many individuals representative of the fabric of our great country for their support of Israel – the land and the people. While the honorees come from diverse backgrounds, Jewish National Fund remains committed to the values that are part of its core: giving all generations a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people. We welcome all individuals regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation to participate in our sacred endeavors.
SOJOURN also heavily values our first amendment rights and we’re grateful for them every single day. Charles Stanley has every right to be as offensive and disgusting as he wants to be, but JNF has no constitutional requirement to honor him for that or to endorse those views.
We are (im)patiently waiting for a real, thoughtful response from JNF. Until then, we continue our insistence that JNF reverse their decision to honor Charles Stanley. Add your name to our community letter to JNF here.