Israel trip embroils GOP group in controversy

Former AFA spokeman and director of issue analysis, Bryan Fischer.  Photo by Dave Weigel
Former AFA spokeman and director of issue analysis, Bryan Fischer. Photo by Dave Weigel

A trip to Israel by members of the Republican National Committee this week is stirring controversy because of its sponsor, a fundamentalist Christian social issues organization whose rhetoric on non-Christians, minorities and homosexuals by its leaders and staff has been characterized as hate speech.

Sixty members of the RNC are currently in Israel for a Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 trip that was paid for by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The SPLC, an  organization dedicated to monitoring and exposing what it considers hate speech and bigotry, raised concerns about the trip in a Jan. 19 letter to the RNC from SPLC President Richard Cohen.

“Given the AFA’s public statements – including the false contention that gay men were responsible for the Holocaust, an idea undoubtedly offensive to Israelis – political leaders should not lend the prestige of their office to this event or to this organization,” Cohen wrote.
Many of the comments cited by the SPLC came from the AFA’s then-spokesman, director of issue analysis, blogger and radio show host, Bryan Fischer, who made statements about non-Christians and homosexuals on his organization-affiliated radio show, Focal Point, and in prolific blog posts.

On its web site, the SPLC lists some of Fischer’s comments, including his branding of Muslims as “demonic;” his demand that immigrants to the United States be forced to convert to Christianity; and his declarations that America is a Christian nation created for Christians and that the First Amendment of the Constitution does not apply to any other religion. “I have contended for years that the First Amendment, as given by the Founders, provides religious liberty protections for Christianity only,” and “we are a Christian nation, and not a Jewish or Muslim one,” he is quoted as saying.

Fischer and the AFA have long railed against what they term the “homosexual agenda.” For example, Fischer has written that “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and 6 million dead Jews.”
Fischer has since been removed from his spokesman and director positions but remains a show host and blogger.

In the wake of the controversy, AFA’s general counsel, Patrick Vaughn, sent an email Jan. 28 to the SPLC renouncing some of Fischer’s statements and clarifying his new position with the organization.

According to Vaughn’s email, the organization has not completely cut ties with Fischer.
“Bryan is no longer a spokesperson for AFA, nor will he continue as AFA director of issue analysis,” wrote Vaughn. “Nevertheless, in following AFA’s policy of allowing unity and diversity, Bryan will continue to host the Focal Point radio program and continue blogging.”

The RNC is maintaining that the AFA has cut ties with Fischer despite Vaughn acknowledging that Fischer was removed from only some of his roles with the AFA.

A spokesman for the RNC claimed that because of Fischer’s apparent “firing,” the RNC felt that it was still appropriate to have the their members go on the AFA’s trip.

“We had no idea about [Fischer] and some of the things he had said. Obviously, we don’t agree with anything he had to say,” said James Hewitt, an RNC spokesman. “We’ve been informed they’ve cut ties, so therefore we don’t really find a problem going with these people. We think it bodes well for the party.”

Asked whether anyone on the RNC staff had vetted the AFA, which has a history of incendiary and offensive advertising, events and comments besides those of Fischer – whose apocalyptic, ranting blog posts still feature prominently on the AFA’s website – Hewitt had no answer.

“Members of our committee were invited on a trip to Israel, and we saw it as a good opportunity to show that we stand with the state of Israel and the democracy that they represent. And that’s all I can really say,” he said.

When asked if the group would accept such an invitation from any other organization, hypothetically a neo-Nazi group, Hewitt replied, “I’m not getting into hypotheticals about neo-Nazis.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition has remained silent on the issue and has not responded directly to the controversy despite numerous requests for comment by Washington Jewish Week.

RJC spokesman Mark McNulty told WJW in an email Monday that he has not had time to look into the issue.

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