NEW YORK — The Rev. Jerry Falwell's recent statement that the Antichrist is probably a Jewish man alive today is anti-Semitic and could potentially ignite widespread anti-Semitism, according to officials at Jewish organizations.
It has also done serious damage to the dialogue between Jews and evangelical Christians, they add.
Falwell's statement "borders on anti-Semitism at best and is anti-Semitic at worst," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Calling Falwell "an influential voice among evangelical and charismatic Christians," Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the ADL, said his remarks reflect his "lack of understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people in God's design."
"He sees us only as the ones who prepare the coming of Jesus," he said. "It is a great disappointment after more than 30 years of dialogue; he's still in the Middle Ages."
Last week Falwell told about 1,500 people gathered in Tennessee that he believes Jesus will return within a decade.
Before that event can take place, Falwell and others believe, a figure known as the Antichrist will arise and spread universal evil, but will be conquered at the Second Coming of the Christian messiah.
Is the Antichrist "alive and here today?" Falwell asked his parishioners and millions of viewers who see the service broadcast by television and radio during Sunday morning services at his Lynchburg, Va., church.
"Probably," he said, "because when he appears during the tribulation period he will be a full-grown counterfeit of Christ. Of course he'll be Jewish."
Falwell was quoted as saying that he did not intend his remark to be anti-Jewish. He said that he meant only that the Antichrist must be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew.
That idea is a "hateful myth," said Foxman of the ADL. "Reverting back to a distorted interpretation of the text of the New Testament, he revisits the worst in intolerance that resulted in the persecution of the Jewish people and inquisitions."
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, along with Jack Rosen, president of the group, issued a statement saying that Falwell's view "will have an inevitably incendiary and degrading effect on Christian attitudes toward Jews."
Falwell's view is "a common theological position," Klenicki said, "although it has been put aside in the last few years because of the ongoing dialogue we have with the evangelicals trying to explain our position."
His latest statement "sets all that back," the rabbi added.
As part of the dialogue, Klenicki has addressed students at Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg several times over the past few years.
Concern is also spreading among leaders of Jewish groups that Falwell's will be the first of many such remarks as the millennium approaches.
In the past, Falwell has been a strong supporter of the state of Israel and has met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"He supports Israel for his own Christological ends," Klenicki said. "My concern is that when the year 2000 comes and he realizes that the Jewish people will not convert to Christianity, that he'll be critical of the state of Israel."
Baum and Rosen of the AJCongress are urging Falwell to look to the example of the Catholic Church, which, through theological and educational policy statements, "has demonstrated its sensitive awareness of the great harm that can be caused by the careless spread of doctrinal anti-Semitism."