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WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (JTA)--One of the nation's most-watched television hosts has run afoul of the American Jewish community and launched a debate over whether pervasive Christmas celebrations may offend Jews.
Bill O'Reilly, host of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel and a national radio program, angered some Jewish lawmakers and organizational leaders earlier this month when he suggested that a Jewish radio caller angry that Christmas is celebrated in public schools should ``go to Israel."
The Anti-Defamation League, among others, demanded that O'Reilly apologize. The pugnacious host responded by calling the ADL's national director, Abraham Foxman, "a nut."
O'Reilly is no stranger to controversy; in fact, he practically has built his audience around it. Despite allegations of O'Reilly's private pecadilloes, his radio and television shows are wildly popular with Christian conservatives, and the latest controversy highlights a growing divergence between the Jewish community and conservatives, who are buoyed by November's presidential election results that suggested increasing numbers of Americans support conservative values.
One of the first post-election faith battles surrounds the celebration of Christmas, with conservative Christians angered that the holiday has been secularized, in their view, as a response to complaints from Jews and other non-Christians.
O'Reilly was discussing the secularization of Christmas on his Dec. 3 radio show when a Jewish man called to complain that he felt Christians were trying to covert him in school when he was growing up. He said the gift and card exchanges in public schools suggest inappropriate state support for Christmas.
O'Reilly told the caller, identified only as "Joel," that he was taking things too seriously.
"You have a predominantly Christian nation," O'Reilly said. "You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus and you don't want to hear about it? Come on, Joel. If you're really offended, you've got to go to Israel then."
O'Reilly's comments angered several U.S. Jewish officials, and their responses started a heated exchange between Jewish and conservative Christian leaders.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to congressional colleagues Wednesday, asking them to demand an apology from O'Reilly.
"Your remarks show an utter disregard for the diversity of religious belief in this country, and a fundamental insensitivity toward Jews and other non-Christians," Lowey said in a letter to O'Reilly. "By suggesting that Jews do not have a place in American society unless they accept without comment its 'predominantly Christian' nature, you are brushing aside the basic freedoms guaranteed to all by our Constitution."
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs also asked O'Reilly to apologize. But it was ADL's letter that got the host's attention.
O'Reilly has talked about Foxman in the past, even praising Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ," by noting that Foxman said it wasn't anti-Semitic per se.
Now, however, he apparently sees Foxman as "a nut" for saying O'Reilly's recent remarks to Joel crossed the line. O'Reilly last week described the ADL as an "extremist group that finds offense in pretty much everything."
ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum said it was important to take O'Reilly to task.
"Millions of people heard it. He's a celebrity," she said. "To let the comments go unchallenged is wrong."
O'Reilly has asked Foxman to appear on his show, but Foxman is in Turkey. Calls to the radio program's office were not returned.
The controversy is part of a larger trend of backlash among Christian conservatives against decisions they see as anti-Christian.
Conservative commentators Pat Buchanan and Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote columns last week expressing anger at decisions to minimize Christmas celebrations in favor of more generic seasonal and inclusive greetings.
For instance, Federated Department Stores no longer use "Merry Christmas" in their signage, the columnists said. And Target stores do not allow Salvation Army volunteers to seek donations in front of their stores because the Salvation Army is a Christian organization, the commentators say.
After November's election showed greater support for traditional family values, Christian conservatives are perceived to be seeking more influence over public policy, which could set the stage for battles with liberal Jewish groups.
"ADL is being accused of trying to ban Christmas," Shinbaum said. "We're not trying to ban Christmas."