Commentary Magazine


Topic: Judaism

A Disgraceful Smear: Blaming Judaism for Israel’s Fallen

I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

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I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

The piece centers on Max Steinberg, a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces who was killed by terrorists in Gaza this week. Steinberg is from Los Angeles, and after attending a Birthright Israel trip, felt connected enough to make aliyah. He joined the IDF. Benedikt strings these basic facts together and comes up with a creative, and thoroughly repugnant, theory: Birthright shares the blame in Steinberg’s death.

Here’s the crux of Benedikt’s case. You’ll notice two problems:

Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.

The first is that she leaps to quite a conclusion while admitting she has no data to back it up, as the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur notes:

Let me help. The answer is “exceedingly few.” Fewer than 3,000 Americans make aliyah each year across all age groups — from a community of six million Jews. Only a few hundred are young adults, and only a fraction of these (excluding religious women, health problems, anyone over 26, among others) join the IDF.

Then there are those who join the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens via a program known as Mahal, a program that predates Birthright by decades. Hundreds of Mahal soldiers fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Max was a Mahal soldier, one of an estimated 400 young people from English-speaking countries who join the IDF each year through Mahal to serve a shorter service of 1.5 years instead of 3. While Mahal fighters number in the hundreds, only a fraction could have been Birthright participants. At least one-third are classified by the army (based on their own self-identification) as “religious,” meaning that they had been raised in religious educational frameworks, and thus are unlikely to have gone on Birthright. Most Jewish religious schools take their students to Israel during high school, making them ineligible for free college-age Birthright trips.

But the focus on the data misses the other problem with Benedikt’s essay. Benedikt doesn’t have the data on Birthright alumni joining the IDF because she doesn’t need or want it. She’s making a more philosophical argument. She’s saying Birthright connects Jews to Israel, and the “ultimate expression” of this connection must be, in Benedikt’s mind, to pick up a gun and put on a uniform.

The real clue to why Benedikt’s piece is so repulsive is her closing. She writes:

You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not about Birthright per se. It’s about connecting Jews to their ancient homeland–their historical identity, in other words. And that connection, if successful, leads–not always, but logically, in Benedikt’s mind–to Steinberg’s tragic end. “This is what you get,” she says. War, death–this is what happens when you help Jews connect to a crucial part of Jewish life, history, practice, and identity.

It’s not Birthright that killed Max Steinberg, in Benedikt’s telling. It’s Judaism. Compartmentalize your Judaism by separating yourself from the global Jewish community and from Eretz Yisrael–keep your people’s history hidden–and you should be OK. “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it,” Benedikt offers, trying to explain Steinberg’s Zionism by ascribing it to mental weakness, to emotional instability, or to a moral naïveté that his fellow Jews took advantage of.

To teach a Jew about his people and his history, according to Benedikt, is to play a dangerous game. And this, she says, pointing to the death of a 24-year-old soldier, is what happens; “This is what you get.”

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Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

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By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

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Why the Left Resents Israeli Democracy

Israel’s tradition of marking Yom Hazikaron before Yom Haatzmaut–Memorial Day followed by Independence Day–has always served as a crystal clear demonstration that no matter the success and the progress of the Jewish state, Israelis never forget the price the Jews have had to pay for their own security. So it takes a special kind of chutzpah to not only accuse Israelis of ignoring the costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs, and the responsibilities of statehood, but to do so on the weekend of Yom Hazikaron.

Yet that is precisely the sucker punch the American Jewish left hit their Israeli brethren with over the past few days. To be sure, American Jews don’t (necessarily) intend it to be the pernicious cheap shot it unquestionably is. The emotionally and politically and religiously complex question of how much Israeli state policy reflects a general consensus in the Jewish world has often led the American left into the same thought-cocoon to which they retreat when Republicans win national elections. Their fellow voters, they reason, must have been fooled.

Both the Forward newspaper editorialists and Harvard’s Yochai Benkler are out with recycled versions of this–a kind of What’s the Matter with Kansas for the Jews of Israel. The Forward’s weekend editorial is based on the demonstrably untrue claim that Israelis have crafted a situation in which they are blissfully unaware of the statelessness of the Palestinians next door:

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Israel’s tradition of marking Yom Hazikaron before Yom Haatzmaut–Memorial Day followed by Independence Day–has always served as a crystal clear demonstration that no matter the success and the progress of the Jewish state, Israelis never forget the price the Jews have had to pay for their own security. So it takes a special kind of chutzpah to not only accuse Israelis of ignoring the costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs, and the responsibilities of statehood, but to do so on the weekend of Yom Hazikaron.

Yet that is precisely the sucker punch the American Jewish left hit their Israeli brethren with over the past few days. To be sure, American Jews don’t (necessarily) intend it to be the pernicious cheap shot it unquestionably is. The emotionally and politically and religiously complex question of how much Israeli state policy reflects a general consensus in the Jewish world has often led the American left into the same thought-cocoon to which they retreat when Republicans win national elections. Their fellow voters, they reason, must have been fooled.

Both the Forward newspaper editorialists and Harvard’s Yochai Benkler are out with recycled versions of this–a kind of What’s the Matter with Kansas for the Jews of Israel. The Forward’s weekend editorial is based on the demonstrably untrue claim that Israelis have crafted a situation in which they are blissfully unaware of the statelessness of the Palestinians next door:

We recognize that, thanks to the separation barrier, a thriving economy and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (though who knows how long that will last), most Israelis outside the military don’t have to deal with Palestinians. Even those Jews living among them in the West Bank can travel on separate roads to gated communities. The occupation is largely invisible. It can be easily denied.

One cringes at the sight of this kind of nonsense, because it defies the most basic knowledge of Israel as well as plain old common sense. In fact, the Forward editorial is self-refuting, for those paying attention. Note the important phrase “most Israelis outside the military.” It is a country with a national military draft. The military is one of the unifying elements of a diverse Israeli society, and even those who aren’t currently in the military probably have relatives and friends serving.

The idea that Israelis “outside the military” are so disconnected from what the military sees and knows is absurd, not to mention insulting. And the idea that Israelis need American leftists to remind them of the military experience on or near Yom Hazikaron is devoid of any merit or seriousness. Yet it is presented as brave truth telling.

But the left’s self-deluding is also understandable on some level. The Israeli electorate does not share their penchant for self-flagellation nor their belief that Israelis should take unreasonable risks to salve the sense of guilt that pervades the offices of their Manhattanite critics. Israelis shouldn’t take specific offense; this is how the American left engages in political debate these days. If you don’t agree with them, you must be ignoring the truth.

An even more bizarre argument comes from Benkler in the New Republic. Benkler writes that the rejection of J Street’s membership by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is reflective of the broader trend that will doom American Jewry the way observant Jews are “dooming” Israel. (The idea that Judaism will be doomed by those who practice Judaism is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest piece of analysis.)

One obvious mistake Benkler makes is to equate J Street’s rejection from the Conference with J Street’s rejection from the American Jewish community. All that happened was J Street established itself with a particularly vicious personal campaign against the American Jewish establishment and those groups, many of which stayed quiet while Jeremy Ben-Ami pointed fingers at them, simply declined to do J Street any favors. You burn bridges, don’t expect others to rebuild them at your command.

After musing about how much he likes people-watching from Tel Aviv beach cafes, Benkler gets to the heart of his concern. The demographic time bomb is not the Palestinians, apparently; it is the Jews:

The Israel I grew up in was a secular democratic state whose self-image was captured by Paul Newman’s image in Exodus, with a strong ethnic national identity, a respected Zionist orthodox minority, a smaller and more controversial anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox community, and about 20 percent of the population Arab, both Muslim and Christian. In Israel’s most recent education statistics, about half the Jewish kids enrolled in elementary school are enrolled in ultra-orthodox and nationalist-orthodox schools. Only half the Jewish student population is enrolled in the general, secular public education system. This trend is ongoing and rapid.

Now if you’re an Israeli reading American leftist publications, you’ve learned that liberals think Israel is doomed because of the pace of reproduction of the Palestinians and of the Jews. What Benkler wants is for everyone to stop reproducing except a fictional character played by the late Paul Newman.

What unites those like Benkler and those like the Forward editorial board is that they view Israeli democracy as a kind of Frankenstein and the current political consensus as its monster. They like the idea of Israeli democracy, but are aghast at what it has produced. They have yet to come to grips with the fact that Israelis are making informed choices about their lives–and that means the entire country does not look like a beachside café in Tel Aviv.

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Anti-Semitism and False Moral Equivalence

Yossi Klein Halevi is an admirable Israeli thinker, writer, and Jew, who recently authored Like Dreamers, a terrific book about Israel. I don’t know much about Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, except that Mr. Halevi counts him as a “beloved friend,” so I therefore trust that he is admirable as well.

That is why it is puzzling that Halevi and Antepli jointly posted an article last week entitled “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis,” on The Times of Israel blog. In their piece, they extol Brandeis and its president for rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom they call a Muslim “renegade.” Halevi and Antepli claim that Brandeis’s president provided Muslims and Jews with an “essential teaching moment,” inasmuch as “one of the ugliest expressions of the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is the tendency within both communities to promote each other’s renegades.” 

This is preposterous. Given the tsunami of anti-Semitism propagated by Muslims all over the world, whether through Jewish “renegades” or otherwise, the moral equivalence the authors posit could not be more misplaced. And this, in an article published just a few days after one of the latest “expressions of antipathy”–the terrorist murder of an Israeli Jew while he was driving his wife and children to a Passover seder.

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Yossi Klein Halevi is an admirable Israeli thinker, writer, and Jew, who recently authored Like Dreamers, a terrific book about Israel. I don’t know much about Imam Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, except that Mr. Halevi counts him as a “beloved friend,” so I therefore trust that he is admirable as well.

That is why it is puzzling that Halevi and Antepli jointly posted an article last week entitled “What Muslims and Jews should learn from Brandeis,” on The Times of Israel blog. In their piece, they extol Brandeis and its president for rescinding the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom they call a Muslim “renegade.” Halevi and Antepli claim that Brandeis’s president provided Muslims and Jews with an “essential teaching moment,” inasmuch as “one of the ugliest expressions of the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is the tendency within both communities to promote each other’s renegades.” 

This is preposterous. Given the tsunami of anti-Semitism propagated by Muslims all over the world, whether through Jewish “renegades” or otherwise, the moral equivalence the authors posit could not be more misplaced. And this, in an article published just a few days after one of the latest “expressions of antipathy”–the terrorist murder of an Israeli Jew while he was driving his wife and children to a Passover seder.

To be sure, Halevi and Antepli disingenuously acknowledge, in passing, that the Muslim assault on Jews is “hardly comparable” to what they call the “public campaign in America by some Jews to discredit Islam.” That could and should have been the point of any intellectually and factually responsible piece on the subject. Instead, the entire point of Halevi and Antepli’s piece, beginning with its title, is precisely to compare the two. 

Moreover, calling Ms. Ali a Muslim “renegade” on a par with Jewish “renegades” is an equally false moral equivalence. Halevi and Antepli surely know Ms. Ali’s history. She was genitally mutilated at age 5; she would have been forced into a marriage had she not escaped eventually to Europe; her film-making colleague was stabbed to death in the Netherlands; she is continually threatened with her own murder–all in the name of Islam–and she has heroically devoted her life to trying to stop these kinds of outrages. That’s why she deserves to be honored, and that’s why it was cowardly for Brandeis to withdraw her honor. Are there Jewish renegades with anywhere close to a comparable history? Of course not. To omit these facts is disingenuous at best. 

In any event, for Halevi and Antepli to focus on what they claim is Muslim sensitivity to Ms. Ali’s statements supposedly “demonizing Islam”–statements that, as Ms. Ali says, her detractors take out of context–instead of the outrages that, as anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows she is trying to stop, is disgraceful. Given who she is and what she has gone through and what in totality she says, would Brandeis’s honoring her really have sent a message of “contempt” to Muslims, as Halevi and Antepli claim, or would it instead have sent a message of support to those millions oppressed in and by Muslim countries? And as long as we’re comparing, it is impossible to imagine that Halevi and Antepli believe that, as she is accused of advocating, Ms. Ali or anyone else will succeed in destroying Islam–the religion, as they say, of over a billion believers (who, according to them, are exquisitely sensitive to what one woman says); on the other hand, it’s unfortunately not too hard to imagine that, heaven forbid, Israel and thus Judaism itself could be destroyed.

To be worth anything, “civil dialogue” and “profound discussion,” as Halevi and Antepli say they want, must be based on the truth, and truth is absent from their piece.

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Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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Preserving Burma’s Last Synagogue

Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

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Voice of America picked up a fascinating story about efforts to preserve Burma’s (Myanmar’s) last synagogue:

The Mesmuah Yeshua synagogue is in a neighborhood typical of colonial Rangoon. Mosques, Hindu temples, churches, and Buddhist pagodas dot busy streets of markets, hawkers, and hardware shops. The protected heritage building dates back to 1896, and has been under the care of a member of the Samuels family for generations… Author and historian Thant Myint-U heads the Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization dedicated to saving Rangoon’s heritage buildings. He says the synagogue’s preservation effort is about more than just the building: it’s about recovering Burma’s past, to help people understand the city’s rich multiethnic history.

The whole story is worth reading, especially against the backdrop of the destruction of Java’s last synagogue earlier this summer, the razing of the Jewish quarters in both Sulaymani and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, the end of the Jewish community in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the start of what might well become a Jewish exodus from an increasingly intolerant Turkey. Sixteen years ago, I watched the Jewish community in Tajikistan build a guest house near the Jewish cemetery to prepare for the end of what they assumed would be that country’s permanent Jewish community.

Religious intolerance is spreading across the Middle East and many places in Asia as populist and radicalized clergy urge their followers to make life intolerable for Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist minorities. Traveling over the years in Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Iran, I have heard older generations describe the cosmopolitan atmosphere of their youth, playing with friends of different religions. One former associate remembers how he was taught the Lord’s Prayer in Peshawar, Pakistan, by a Muslim babysitter because she figured since he was Catholic and it was bedtime, he should learn to pray as Catholics do. That she would know Catholic prayer was simply the result of growing up in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment that is now a faded memory.

The story out of Rangoon seems a good idea not only for Burma but for other countries as well. To allow the tolerance and diversity of past generations to be forgotten simply confirms the victory of radicals, populists, and forces of intolerance. Three cheers for Thant Myint-U and the Yangon Heritage Trust, which provide a model that should be replicated.

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Norway Moves Against Circumcision

Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”

Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”

Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.

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Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”

Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”

Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.

The Norwegian developments follow the October vote by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 47-member body that is not institutionally linked to the EU, recommending restrictions on ritual circumcision. The ensuing outcry among European Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians led a nervous Thorbjorn Jaglund, the council’s secretary-general, to assure the Conference of European Rabbis “that in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the circumcision of boys.” But given that the Council of Europe has no control over national legislatures, that statement is essentially toothless.

The abiding question here is why hostility to ritual circumcision has become such a hot topic in European states. When it comes to circumcision, the kinds of survivors groups that push for tougher legislation on, say, child sexual abuse or violence against women simply don’t exist. Hence, if the vast majority of men who have undergone ritual circumcision aren’t clamoring for a ban, why the insistence on portraying them as victims?

According to Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, the anti-circumcision campaign is an integral component of a continent-wide “offensive” against Muslim communities, in which Jews represent “collateral damage.” There is some merit to this view, yet it ignores the fact that legal measures against Jewish ritual have a long and dishonorable pedigree in Europe. It’s widely known that the Nazis banned shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, three months after coming to power in 1933, but they were beaten to the punch by Switzerland in 1893 and Norway in 1930–and you don’t need to be an expert on European history to know that there were no Muslim communities of any meaningful size in these countries when these legislative bills were passed. 

Moreover, it can be argued that by grouping male circumcision with the horrific practice of female genital mutilation, which in Europe mainly afflicts women from Muslim countries, the Council of Europe was going out of its way not to target Muslim communities specifically. In a classic example of the cultural relativism that plagues European institutions, its resolution on the “physical integrity of children” listed as matters of concern, “…female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children, and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.”

As this week’s edition of the Economist argues, this categorization is nonsensical:

Our intuition tells us that the circumcision of baby boys is probably okay, at worst harmless and culturally very important to some religions, while the excision practised on baby girls in some cultures certainly is not okay.

The same piece observes that, in any case, the determination of European leaders to prevent a ban on circumcision will likely foil any parliamentary legislation to that end. A similar point was made in a recent Haaretz piece by Anshel Pfeffer, who derided fears among Israeli legislators of a ban on circumcision as just so much hyperbole.

However, what’s missing here is the understanding that a practice doesn’t have to be proscribed for it to be frowned upon. Large numbers of Europeans already regard circumcision as a backward ritual, and the current Norwegian debate is likely to persuade many more that circumcision should be opposed in the name of human rights. Over the last decade, European Jews have watched helplessly as their identification with Israel has been stigmatized: with a similar pattern now emerging over Jewish ritual, an adversarial political climate that falls short of actual legislation may yet be enough to persuade them that their future on the continent remains bleak.

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To Fight Assimilation, Stop Dumbing Down Judaism

A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

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A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

But in the non-Orthodox community, Jewish education never comes close to the intellectual rigor of secular studies. Almost every American Jew who has attended a non-Orthodox Hebrew school can attest to this; just last week, the Forward ran a piece by an associate professor, Michah Gottlieb, deploring the lack of opportunities for serious Torah study at his childhood synagogue. My own experience is equally typical: During 12 years of Hebrew school, the numbing boredom was punctured by only two classes that offered comparable intellectual stimulation to my secular public schools–and both were taught by Orthodox rabbis. The difference was that they took classic Jewish texts seriously, insisting that we read, analyze, and debate them with the same rigor I encountered in secular history or literature classes.

The good news is that, given a chance, Judaism can easily compete with the best secular thought has to offer. There’s a reason why Jewish sources have inspired some of the greatest non-Jewish writers and thinkers throughout the ages–including many of the 17th-century political theorists who laid the foundations of modern democracy. As Herzl Institute President Yoram Hazony noted in a 2005 essay, “Hobbes was learned in Hebrew, and his magnum opus Leviathan devotes over three hundred pages to the political teachings of Scripture. Locke knew Hebrew as well, and the first of his Two Treatises on Government is devoted to biblical interpretation … [John Selden’s] 1635 treatise on the law of the sea, Mare Clausum—one of the founding texts of international law—argued for the concept of national sovereignty on both land and sea on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.”

In Israel, serious study of classic Jewish sources has exploded in recent years–not because secular Jews are becoming Orthodox, but because they’ve understood that these texts are their heritage, too. American Jews need to offer their children similar opportunities. For without being exposed to Judaism’s intellectual riches, they will never consider it worth a lifetime’s commitment.

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Representing Those Who Care

Kudos to the ADL’s Abe Foxman for having the guts to say the obvious. After a Pew Research poll released earlier this week found that only 38 percent of American Jews think Israel “is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians,” the Jewish Daily Forward concluded that American Jewish organizations have a problem: Since “American Jews are far more critical of Israel than the Jewish establishment,” shouldn’t the establishment change its positions to better reflect those of its constituency?

Most Jewish leaders the Forward interviewed rejected that position. But Foxman demolished it in two short sentences. “You know who the Jewish establishment represents?” he said. “Those who care.”

Foxman, of course, is exactly right. The 38 percent who believe in Israel’s peacemaking bona fides is statistically indistinguishable (since the poll’s margin of error is 3 percent in either direction) from the 43 percent who deem “caring about Israel” an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” and actually exceeds the mere 28 percent who consider “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity.  Belonging to a Jewish community, incidentally, was outranked in American Jews’ list of Jewish essentials not only by “remembering Holocaust” (the chart-topper at 73 percent), “leading ethical/moral life” (69 percent) or “working for justice/equality” (56 percent), but even by “having good sense of humor” (42 percent) and “being intellectually curious” (49 percent). Only “observing Jewish law” and “eating traditional Jewish foods” came in lower.

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Kudos to the ADL’s Abe Foxman for having the guts to say the obvious. After a Pew Research poll released earlier this week found that only 38 percent of American Jews think Israel “is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians,” the Jewish Daily Forward concluded that American Jewish organizations have a problem: Since “American Jews are far more critical of Israel than the Jewish establishment,” shouldn’t the establishment change its positions to better reflect those of its constituency?

Most Jewish leaders the Forward interviewed rejected that position. But Foxman demolished it in two short sentences. “You know who the Jewish establishment represents?” he said. “Those who care.”

Foxman, of course, is exactly right. The 38 percent who believe in Israel’s peacemaking bona fides is statistically indistinguishable (since the poll’s margin of error is 3 percent in either direction) from the 43 percent who deem “caring about Israel” an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” and actually exceeds the mere 28 percent who consider “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity.  Belonging to a Jewish community, incidentally, was outranked in American Jews’ list of Jewish essentials not only by “remembering Holocaust” (the chart-topper at 73 percent), “leading ethical/moral life” (69 percent) or “working for justice/equality” (56 percent), but even by “having good sense of humor” (42 percent) and “being intellectually curious” (49 percent). Only “observing Jewish law” and “eating traditional Jewish foods” came in lower.

But organized Jewry can’t plausibly represent people with good senses of humor or intellectual curiosity, or who “work for justice/equality,” since the vast majority of Americans in these categories aren’t Jews. Indeed, no organization can claim to represent anyone who has no interest in belonging to an organized community. Hence the only people Jewish organizations can reasonably claim to represent are that alarmingly small minority who care about “being part of a Jewish community.” They are the people who provide these organizations with the cash and volunteer hours needed to run them, and they are the people whose views these organizations exist to represent.

But they are also the people most likely to care about Israel, and as the American Jewish Committee’s Steve Bayme noted, they “are also [the] most knowledgeable” about it. Thus they are less likely to believe simplistic narratives of the conflict such as that settlements are the main obstacle to peace. Indeed, even the Forward’s reporter admitted that the 22 percent of self-identified Jews who said they had “no religion”–who are far less Jewishly committed than other Jews by every criterion Pew measured, including such basics as raising Jewish children–are also “far less likely to believe that the Israelis are sincere in their peace efforts than those who said that their religion is Judaism.”

Left-wing critics of Israel like Peter Beinart have recently been pushing the narrative that Israel’s behavior, and the Jewish establishment’s failure to criticize it sufficiently, are driving young Jews away from Jewish life. That was the implicit point of the Forward article as well. But what the Pew poll shows is that the opposite is true: The problem isn’t that Israel is driving Jews away from Jewish life; it’s that Jews for whom “being Jewish” means nothing but the Holocaust and a sense of humor are inevitably less pro-Israel. In contrast, those who care about Jewish communal life are far more supportive. And as Foxman said, Jewish organizations represent the latter group–“those who care.”

Thus contrary to Beinart, J Street, and their ilk, the problem committed American Jews ought to be losing sleep over isn’t how to increase pressure on Israel. Rather, it’s how to produce more Jews who actually care about being part of the Jewish community.

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Poland Bans Kosher Slaughter

Back in April, when the imposing Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opened its doors in Warsaw, there was much talk of how the relationship between Jews and Poles had been transformed for the better in recent years. The sentiments expressed by Jan Kulczyk, a wealthy Polish businessman who helped finance the museum, seemed to encapsulate a new era: “When the Jewish nation and the Polish nation, when we are together, when we look in the same direction, it is great for us, great for Poland and great for the world.”

The news that the Sejm, the Polish parliament, has rejected a government-sponsored bill to protect ritual slaughter, in both its Jewish and Muslim variants, suggests that, sadly, Jews and Poles are facing opposite directions when it comes to religious freedom. As a result of the vote, which comes on the heels of last year’s supreme court ruling that ritual slaughter, or shechita, is no longer exempted from requirements to stun animals prior to killing them, the production of kosher meat has effectively been banned in Poland. All the excitement about the revival of Jewish life there now seems rather misplaced, given that, as Poland’s American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich bemoaned on his Facebook page, Poland has become a country “in which the rights of the Jewish religion are curtailed.”

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Back in April, when the imposing Museum of the History of the Polish Jews opened its doors in Warsaw, there was much talk of how the relationship between Jews and Poles had been transformed for the better in recent years. The sentiments expressed by Jan Kulczyk, a wealthy Polish businessman who helped finance the museum, seemed to encapsulate a new era: “When the Jewish nation and the Polish nation, when we are together, when we look in the same direction, it is great for us, great for Poland and great for the world.”

The news that the Sejm, the Polish parliament, has rejected a government-sponsored bill to protect ritual slaughter, in both its Jewish and Muslim variants, suggests that, sadly, Jews and Poles are facing opposite directions when it comes to religious freedom. As a result of the vote, which comes on the heels of last year’s supreme court ruling that ritual slaughter, or shechita, is no longer exempted from requirements to stun animals prior to killing them, the production of kosher meat has effectively been banned in Poland. All the excitement about the revival of Jewish life there now seems rather misplaced, given that, as Poland’s American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich bemoaned on his Facebook page, Poland has become a country “in which the rights of the Jewish religion are curtailed.”

In any country, such a decision would be strongly protested; in Poland, the weight of history gives objections to the ban an added urgency. During last year’s debate over the supreme court ruling, Piotr Kadlcik, head of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland, opined that “[T]he outrageous atmosphere in the Polish media surrounding shechitah reminds me precisely of the similar situation in Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.” This time around, the historical analogies are no less visible.

Kadlick again voiced his warning about the patterns of the last century repeating themselves, adding that “populism, superstition and political interests won out.” Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, paid an official visit to Poland just last month, was equally sharp in its condemnation. Decrying the “rude blow to the religious tradition of the Jewish people,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry asserted that the Sejm‘s decision “seriously harms the process of restoring Jewish life in Poland.”

Reacting to the Israeli statement, Poland’s centrist prime minister, Donald Tusk, sounded almost wounded. “Especially the historical context is, to put it mildly, off target and is not applicable to the situation,” he said. Isn’t it? One of the reasons why Jews are especially sensitive to legal measures against ritual slaughter, as Tusk surely knows, is that the Nazis banned it in Germany only three months after they came to power in 1933. And like many of today’s animal rights activists, the Nazis depicted the methods of shechita as a gruesome, needless celebration of animal suffering.

Even so, the historical parallels don’t overlap completely. The two main Polish political parties that opposed the government bill are not, as might reasonably be expected, populated by snarling right-wing skinheads. One of them, the Democratic Left Party, or SLD, was co-founded by Alexander Kwasniewski, who served as Poland’s president from 1995-2005. Throughout his time in office, Kwasniewski was feted by Jewish groups, particularly in the United States, for his strong stand against anti-Semitism; after leaving office, he was one of the backers of the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation, an organization that is unlikely to share the SLD’s revulsion for shechita.

The other party, the Palikot Movement (named for its founder, Janusz Palikot), is variously described as liberal, even libertarian. The party’s support for gay civil unions and the legalization of soft drugs are noteworthy in a country that remains socially conservative and devoutly Catholic. Yet one of Palikot’s leaders, Andrzej Rozenek, sounded like a traditional anti-Semite when he declared that “there is no permission for animal cruelty in the name of money”–the implication being that what really worries Jewish defenders of shechita is the loss of a $400 million dollar regional market for kosher goods produced in Poland.

Poland is not the first country to ban shechita–European states from Norway to Switzerland have also prohibited its practice–but its historic position as the cradle of the Holocaust means that extra scrutiny of any legal measures against Jewish rituals is inevitable. Preventing shechita in a country where, as Rabbi Shudrich noted, hunting remains legal, renders the concerns about cruelty to animals laughable. It also opens Poland up to an accusation last leveled against Germany, where an effort to ban circumcision was recently defeated: namely, that for all of its Jewish museums and memorials to the Holocaust, the country finds the task of being nice to dead Jews far more appealing than guaranteeing the rights of living ones.

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“Afghan Genizah” Documents Unveiled

A fascinating story from Britain’s Daily Mail:

A collection of manuscripts from caves in Afghanistan has provided the first evidence of Jewish communities living in the devoutly Muslim country 1,000 years ago. The cache of Hebrew documents are thought to have originated from the country’s northeast region, a Taliban stronghold. The documents, which include biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records, were unveiled by Israel’s National Library after being purchased from private dealers… The collection of documents has provided scholars with fascinating details into the lives of early Jewish communities in ancient Persia….

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A fascinating story from Britain’s Daily Mail:

A collection of manuscripts from caves in Afghanistan has provided the first evidence of Jewish communities living in the devoutly Muslim country 1,000 years ago. The cache of Hebrew documents are thought to have originated from the country’s northeast region, a Taliban stronghold. The documents, which include biblical commentaries, personal letters and financial records, were unveiled by Israel’s National Library after being purchased from private dealers… The collection of documents has provided scholars with fascinating details into the lives of early Jewish communities in ancient Persia….

The whole article—with photos of some of the manuscripts—is worth a read. The notion of Jews in Afghanistan in ancient times should not be new. Sir John Malcolm, Britain’s ambassador to Persia in 1801, cited oral tales linking the Afghans to the Babylonian exile of the Jews in 586 B.C. And folklore among some Pashtun traces their lineage back to Jewish roots. (I detail some of my conversations with Taliban about Judaism and Jews, here). Regardless, let us look forward to the scholarly study of these latest documents, and their translation and publication soon.

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Why the GOP Doesn’t Trust Philly Dems

One of the sidebars to the story about the passage of the voter ID law in Pennsylvania was the fact that most of the state’s Republicans think Democrats, particularly those in Philadelphia, cheat with impunity. Democrats claim this is all nonsense, but those who know the city’s political history understand that this is one place where machine politics is not something confined to the history books. That law won’t be enforced this year as a result of a court ruling that more time is needed to prepare voters. However, suspicion that Democrats are up to no good lingers and a partisan email blast from the city official who supervises elections isn’t helping matters.

Stephanie Singer is the chairman of the City Commission, the body that supervises, among other things, Philadelphia’s Board of Elections. In a normal city where such an office is a non-partisan or civil service post, it would be inconceivable that the person who is in charge of ensuring a fair vote would be involved in partisan politics, but when it comes to civics or ethics, Philadelphia remains mired in the bad old days of machine politics. Therefore, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Singer sent out an email blast urging citizens to vote to re-elect Barack Obama, the city of Brotherly Love merely shrugged. That Singer also went on in the email to claim that Judaism demands its adherents vote for the Democrats illustrates the way Jewish liberals have attempted to politicize their faith. But the willingness of the city to accept a situation where the elections commissioner is a rabid partisan tells us a lot about why there is so much distrust in Pennsylvania about the honesty of the elections system in the state’s largest city.

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One of the sidebars to the story about the passage of the voter ID law in Pennsylvania was the fact that most of the state’s Republicans think Democrats, particularly those in Philadelphia, cheat with impunity. Democrats claim this is all nonsense, but those who know the city’s political history understand that this is one place where machine politics is not something confined to the history books. That law won’t be enforced this year as a result of a court ruling that more time is needed to prepare voters. However, suspicion that Democrats are up to no good lingers and a partisan email blast from the city official who supervises elections isn’t helping matters.

Stephanie Singer is the chairman of the City Commission, the body that supervises, among other things, Philadelphia’s Board of Elections. In a normal city where such an office is a non-partisan or civil service post, it would be inconceivable that the person who is in charge of ensuring a fair vote would be involved in partisan politics, but when it comes to civics or ethics, Philadelphia remains mired in the bad old days of machine politics. Therefore, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Singer sent out an email blast urging citizens to vote to re-elect Barack Obama, the city of Brotherly Love merely shrugged. That Singer also went on in the email to claim that Judaism demands its adherents vote for the Democrats illustrates the way Jewish liberals have attempted to politicize their faith. But the willingness of the city to accept a situation where the elections commissioner is a rabid partisan tells us a lot about why there is so much distrust in Pennsylvania about the honesty of the elections system in the state’s largest city.

It should be stipulated that what Singer did is not illegal according to city law. She is herself a former Democratic ward leader who was elected to the post she now holds by defeating another longtime member of the party machine. As the Inquirer explains, her partisanship is not supposed to influence matters because in addition to the chair, the City Commission has both a Republican and a Democratic member. But such a scheme could only breed confidence in the system if a non-partisan chair supervised the two partisans. But since the system allows the majority party to be able to control the leadership of the commission, the result is 2-1 Democrat hegemony. It is hardly surprising that Republicans don’t feel the system guarantees fairness.

Singer has posed as a good-government type but even Zach Stolberg, a liberal and the former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News who heads the city’s election watchdog group, the Committee of Seventy, was dismayed by her action. Stolberg told the Inquirer, “It seems inappropriate for the person who runs elections in Philadelphia to have such a partisan message so close to the election.” That is the understatement of the year.

According to Singer’s email, the top issue facing the country is free birth control:

As a woman, and as a Jew, I am horrified at the prospect of Republican control of government. If you are glad to see me doing the work I am doing, please consider this: it would have been much harder to dedicate myself to work through my entire adult life to date if I had to either prepare for the prospect of unplanned motherhood or forego that natural, healthy source of joy and comfort, sex. Republican policies would keep women down by denying them affordable, safe birth control. This is bad for America.

While I’m sure everyone is very happy to know that Singer has not been deprived of the joy and comfort she sought, the issue she references has nothing to do with access to contraception. Rather it is the ObamaCare mandate that requires religious institutions and believers to pay for practices that their faith proscribes. The question there is not birth control, which may be obtained at any doctor’s office or drug store, but protecting the religious freedom of many Americans who have different views about sex than Ms. Singer.

As the Inquirer notes, she went on with more generalized arguments about the election and the two parties saying,

Her Jewish faith emphasized the “obligation to repair the world around us.” In contrast, she said, “Republicans deny responsibility — they like to use the phrase ‘personal responsibility,’ which means, ‘if a person fails it is that person’s fault.’ Republicans excuse themselves from the adverse effects of their policies on individuals.”

The mind boggles at such simple-minded theology and political theory but suffice to say that while Jews can be liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, if Judaism is anything, it is a faith that promotes personal responsibility. One can just as easily argue that the welfare state liberals constructed has done as much if not more harm to individuals, and that Democrats like Singer excuse themselves from the adverse effects of their policies on those who have become dependent on the system they created and the devastation it has wrought, especially in a city like Philadelphia where poverty remains endemic. The difference between the parties is not whether they want to help people, but how best to do so. On that, reasonable persons may differ, but the infusion of bowdlerized religion into the equation does nothing to promote understanding of the issues let alone civility.

It is bad enough for a garden-variety politician to indulge in this sort of low political discourse and partisan invective. But it is nothing short of a scandal for the person entrusted with the responsibility to ensure honest elections in the city to do so.

Throughout the past year, liberals have expressed incredulity at the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s charges that Philadelphia’s elections are crooked. Stephanie Singer has just given the lie to their claims of innocence.

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Days of Reflection and Rededication

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

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Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate what can be done to do better. Indeed, as Americans contemplate the final weeks of the presidential campaign it is an apt moment for all of us to look at the issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though we refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that elected leaders must be judged by the voters. While Republicans and Democrats debate whether we are better off than we were four years ago, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to better our fate. Appeals to fear and mindless defense of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh — or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform.

For those in both parties who have sought to demonize their political opponents, the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that attempts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale or even questioning the wisdom of democracy itself — that is to say, questioning the right of the voters to override the dictates of the politicians and the intellectuals — has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting but should do so without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate. It also requires us to not try to evade the necessity to confront problems or threats. In the coming 12 months, one very specific threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, it is vital that Americans not let the voices of isolationism or hatred cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters have the last word on this subject.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back on Wednesday after the conclusion of the holiday.

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A Victory for Anti-Semites in Berlin

The controversy over efforts by some Germans to ban circumcision has gone from bad to worse in the months since a Cologne court deemed the procedure illegal. Prosecutors have charged two rabbis for carrying out the procedure, though the one who was being investigated for merely saying he would on television is now to be left alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed that the country’s parliament will act this fall to ensure that it is legalized, but the discussion this vow has engendered has only complicated matters. That was made plain today when Berlin, one of the country’s 16 states in a federal system as well as Germany’s capital, issued a ruling declaring circumcision legal but only if a doctor performs it. This means that the brit milah ceremony — an integral part of Jewish identity — is still illegal and therefore constitutes a severe abridgement of religious freedom.

As the Associated Press reports, State Justice Minister Thomas Heilman said the measure was meant to allay fears in this “difficult transitional period.” But the refusal to allow circumcisions to go on as they always have under the supervision of Jewish religious leaders and according to traditional ritual is a defeat for those seeking to end this controversy. Though the use of mohels may be protected by national legislation, the Berlin decision may serve as a precedent by which the country as a whole may limit circumcisions and stop their performance under traditional Jewish auspices by mohels. These limits are a victory for those disingenuously arguing that the practice is unsafe, and means future debate in Germany on the issue will be conducted on an uneven playing field for the Jewish community.

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The controversy over efforts by some Germans to ban circumcision has gone from bad to worse in the months since a Cologne court deemed the procedure illegal. Prosecutors have charged two rabbis for carrying out the procedure, though the one who was being investigated for merely saying he would on television is now to be left alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed that the country’s parliament will act this fall to ensure that it is legalized, but the discussion this vow has engendered has only complicated matters. That was made plain today when Berlin, one of the country’s 16 states in a federal system as well as Germany’s capital, issued a ruling declaring circumcision legal but only if a doctor performs it. This means that the brit milah ceremony — an integral part of Jewish identity — is still illegal and therefore constitutes a severe abridgement of religious freedom.

As the Associated Press reports, State Justice Minister Thomas Heilman said the measure was meant to allay fears in this “difficult transitional period.” But the refusal to allow circumcisions to go on as they always have under the supervision of Jewish religious leaders and according to traditional ritual is a defeat for those seeking to end this controversy. Though the use of mohels may be protected by national legislation, the Berlin decision may serve as a precedent by which the country as a whole may limit circumcisions and stop their performance under traditional Jewish auspices by mohels. These limits are a victory for those disingenuously arguing that the practice is unsafe, and means future debate in Germany on the issue will be conducted on an uneven playing field for the Jewish community.

The effort to ban circumcisions, which has spooked hospitals throughout the region to ban the procedure, is being represented as a health issue. However, this is a thin veil for the prejudice against minority religions and non-German natives. The rulings affect Muslims as well as Jews, but there’s no escaping the conclusion that a willingness to both limit the practice of Judaism and offend Jewish sensibilities in this manner demonstrate that the rules about anti-Semitism are changing in Germany. Such a decision would have been impossible in the past, because any German judge or official would have feared to be associated with a campaign that reeks of anti-Semitism in the country where the Holocaust was perpetrated. But 67 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Germans, and especially German intellectuals who have bought into the demonization of Israel, have no such compunctions.

It needs to be understood that if the Berlin ruling becomes the national standard for circumcision for all of Germany it will be more than a blow to that country’s post-war tradition of religious tolerance. It will be the end of the revival of Jewish life in Germany. Chancellor Merkel must act quickly to spike this trend and ensure that traditional Jewish practices are protected if she wishes to avoid seeing her nation being labeled as a beachhead for the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

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Thinking About If Romney Were Jewish?

At Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg wonders whether Mitt Romney’s religion would be treated differently in the media if he were Jewish. While Goldberg doesn’t completely answer the question, he does try to parse out why the Romney campaign has been so quiet on Mormonism:

So what does the Romney camp find so frightening? In talking to my Mormon friends (some of my best friends are Mormons), the answer is clear. The practices and origin stories of most religions, when viewed by outsiders, all seem fairly strange. But Mormonism seems just a bit stranger than the rest. The great fear is not that Americans will see a Mormon politician as too sinister to lead the country (the way that some Baptist leaders once saw the Catholic John F. Kennedy) but that Americans will see a Mormon as too bizarre to be president.

They point to the issue of “sacred underwear,” the derisive term for undergarments worn by some Mormons to remind themselves of their religious responsibilities. Many find the concept odd, but should they? Is Mormonism really that much stranger than other religions?

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At Bloomberg, Jeffrey Goldberg wonders whether Mitt Romney’s religion would be treated differently in the media if he were Jewish. While Goldberg doesn’t completely answer the question, he does try to parse out why the Romney campaign has been so quiet on Mormonism:

So what does the Romney camp find so frightening? In talking to my Mormon friends (some of my best friends are Mormons), the answer is clear. The practices and origin stories of most religions, when viewed by outsiders, all seem fairly strange. But Mormonism seems just a bit stranger than the rest. The great fear is not that Americans will see a Mormon politician as too sinister to lead the country (the way that some Baptist leaders once saw the Catholic John F. Kennedy) but that Americans will see a Mormon as too bizarre to be president.

They point to the issue of “sacred underwear,” the derisive term for undergarments worn by some Mormons to remind themselves of their religious responsibilities. Many find the concept odd, but should they? Is Mormonism really that much stranger than other religions?

Goldberg is probably right that anti-Mormonism is more likely to take the form of ridicule than conspiracy-laced paranoia, but strains of both have still been given credence in the mainstream media. Last November, for example, the New York Times published a nasty attack on Mormonism by Harold Bloom, who argued that a Romney presidency would mean “a further strengthening of theocracy.” Later, a Salon article hinted that Romney was part of a plot for Mormon theocratic takeover.

The mockery, by the way, tends to be just as disturbing as the theocratic takeover theories. In April, Lawrence O’Donnell spewed out the following on his show:

Now, part of Romney’s religion problem is that he’s a part of a new religion. Established religions like Judaism, which is about 4,000 years old, and Christianity, which is about 2,000 years old, don’t easily warm up to new religions like Romney’s, which is only 182 years old. Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.  Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it. Which Mitt Romney says he believes.

Imagine if an MSNBC anchor launched into a nationally televised rant denying the religious legitimacy of Judaism while criticizing a Jewish politician. Would he still be on the air? Would MSNBC at least have issued an apology?

Unlike anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism is still considered an acceptable — some would say fashionable — prejudice in many circles. Recent polls show that it is actually increasing among those supposed pillars of enlightened tolerance, self-proclaimed liberals like Lawrence O’Donnell.

It would be fantastic if Romney would talk freely about his religion with the media, but his reluctance is understandable, considering his political history. As Seth wrote recently, anti-Mormonism stung Romney in his Senate race against Ted Kennedy. In a 1994 C-SPAN interview, current Romney strategist Stu Stevens — who was a GOP consultant at the time — said that “the Kennedy campaign very insidiously played the Mormon card in Massachusetts, by simply saying over and over again they weren’t going to talk about the fact that Romney was a Mormon.”

If Romney broaches the issue, it gives others — liberal pundits, columnists, Democratic strategists — an opening to talk about the religion in a pernicious way. And because many people aren’t aware of the problem of anti-Mormonism, because it’s tolerated by liberals and academics, and because there is no comparable Mormon version of the Anti-Defamation League, there won’t be a serious outcry.

So yes, Romney should have confidence in his religion. But it also isn’t Romney’s responsibility to challenge and fend off the prejudice, mockery and paranoid theories that his religion is faced with daily.

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The Kernel of Truth in Liberal Complaints About American Jewish Leaders

I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.

Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”

The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.

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I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.

Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”

The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.

Consequently, the people who do choose to devote their lives to Jewish organizations – and who, as a result, become “American Jewish leaders” – tend to be precisely those who think Judaism is about something more than just progressive politics, and who consider that “something more” important enough to devote their careers to it, or at least sizable chunks of their spare time. And that is why, even though many are also committed liberal Democrats, these leaders are more focused on traditional Jewish concerns than Goldberg deems proper: Study after study has shown that the more one cares about Judaism – in its traditional sense, rather than as a mere synonym for liberal politics – the more one cares about issues like Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Hence, it’s precisely those who become American Jewish leaders who are most likely to, for instance, defend Israel even when they disagree with its policies, or think that just as your own family takes precedence over strangers, helping fellow Jews in need may take precedence over helping non-Jews.

And in that sense, Goldberg’s second complaint – that American Jewish leaders don’t represent their communities’ real views, and are in fact often well to the right of their communities – contains an important kernel of truth. This plaint, increasingly heard from many left-wing American Jews, clearly overstates the case: Many liberal American Jews agree with their leaders that Judaism is not solely about progressive politics, and thus have no problem with these leaders’ focus on Jewish communal concerns.

But American Jewish leaders are indeed unrepresentative of that specific segment of American Jewry which, like Goldberg, thinks that Judaism is solely about progressive politics. And moreover, they always will be. Because only someone who cares deeply about Judaism in its traditional sense – as a religion and a people – rather than merely as a vehicle for liberal politics will opt to devote his life to Jewish causes rather than generic liberal ones.

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Must Liberalism Exclude Judaism?

J.J. Goldberg’s Forward column today is bound to give the Israeli Absorption Ministry a measure of satisfaction. In late 2011, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s office released a series of videos depicting American Jews as overly secularized, bereft of a religious Jewish identity, and having essentially surrendered any Jewish connection in the name of total assimilation. The ads were offensive and obtuse–any country with Tel Aviv within its borders has some nerve lecturing foreigners about embracing secularism–and were roundly condemned and pulled off the air.

But Goldberg’s column this morning is the boldest defense of the thesis of those ads–albeit unintentionally and too late for the ad campaign. Ostensibly, the column is about the supposed “silencing” of Jewish voices by the Jewish right, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of a speech by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Florida synagogue. Leave aside the fact that the real reason the ill-conceived speech was called off was because shul members were told no Republican voices would be permitted to speak as well. (An actual silencing, by which Goldberg isn’t bothered.) And leave aside the incongruity of Goldberg touting the Jewish communities’ “national struggles for tolerance” while in the same column dismissing non-liberal Jews as a “noisy minority” that should not be catered to. The most telling line in the piece is when Goldberg says that integrating non-leftist concerns into the community, thereby diluting the social action efforts of America’s Jews, presents us with the following threat:

We are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.

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J.J. Goldberg’s Forward column today is bound to give the Israeli Absorption Ministry a measure of satisfaction. In late 2011, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s office released a series of videos depicting American Jews as overly secularized, bereft of a religious Jewish identity, and having essentially surrendered any Jewish connection in the name of total assimilation. The ads were offensive and obtuse–any country with Tel Aviv within its borders has some nerve lecturing foreigners about embracing secularism–and were roundly condemned and pulled off the air.

But Goldberg’s column this morning is the boldest defense of the thesis of those ads–albeit unintentionally and too late for the ad campaign. Ostensibly, the column is about the supposed “silencing” of Jewish voices by the Jewish right, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of a speech by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Florida synagogue. Leave aside the fact that the real reason the ill-conceived speech was called off was because shul members were told no Republican voices would be permitted to speak as well. (An actual silencing, by which Goldberg isn’t bothered.) And leave aside the incongruity of Goldberg touting the Jewish communities’ “national struggles for tolerance” while in the same column dismissing non-liberal Jews as a “noisy minority” that should not be catered to. The most telling line in the piece is when Goldberg says that integrating non-leftist concerns into the community, thereby diluting the social action efforts of America’s Jews, presents us with the following threat:

We are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.

Ironies abound. Judaism’s increasingly “noisy minorities” consist of politically conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews, though there is a fair amount of overlap. So in Goldberg’s telling, integrating observant Jews into the conversation will risk American Judaism being “about nothing.”

Religion, while communal, has a personal element to it, and in a free country it is certainly up to each person how he chooses to practice (or not practice). But the idea that traditional Judaism would destroy American Judaism is a shockingly poisonous concept, as is the implication that those who observe Judaism’s laws and traditions and those who have gravitated toward political movements and parties that respect those traditions–instead of, for example, those who write columns attacking them–haven’t the same right to be heard.

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Obama’s Jewish Friends in Chicago

John has already responded to President Obama’s absurd claim about being a Judaism genius. But that may not even be the most offensive argument Obama made at yesterday’s meeting with Conservative Jewish rabbis, according to the Haaretz report. When asked about his personal views on Israel — the kishkes question again — Obama reportedly went for the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews defense:

There were some questions directed at the president concerning his thoughts on the role of religious leaders in a more civil political dialogue, which then lead to the inevitable question – how does he feel about Israel? Obama joked that [Chief of Staff Jack] Lew always warns him it will get to “the kishkes question.”

“Rather than describe how deeply I care about Israel, I want to be blunt about how we got here,” Obama said, reminding his guests that he had so many Jewish friends in Chicago at the beginning of his political career that he was accused of  being a puppet of the Israel lobby.

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John has already responded to President Obama’s absurd claim about being a Judaism genius. But that may not even be the most offensive argument Obama made at yesterday’s meeting with Conservative Jewish rabbis, according to the Haaretz report. When asked about his personal views on Israel — the kishkes question again — Obama reportedly went for the some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews defense:

There were some questions directed at the president concerning his thoughts on the role of religious leaders in a more civil political dialogue, which then lead to the inevitable question – how does he feel about Israel? Obama joked that [Chief of Staff Jack] Lew always warns him it will get to “the kishkes question.”

“Rather than describe how deeply I care about Israel, I want to be blunt about how we got here,” Obama said, reminding his guests that he had so many Jewish friends in Chicago at the beginning of his political career that he was accused of  being a puppet of the Israel lobby.

Ignore the overwhelming ignorance and offensiveness of that argument for a second. The one person I can recall who has actually accused Obama of being an AIPAC puppet is Rev. Wright — though his theory was that Obama didn’t turn into a lapdog for the Jews until he started running for president. I don’t doubt the president hung out with plenty of Jews in Chicago, but considering that some of the most vile Israel bashers out there are Jewish, that says absolutely nothing about his own views on Israel. Plus, if we’re now supposed to judge Obama’s support for Israel based on his Chicago friendships, that’s not exactly comforting. Two of his close friends in the city were an anti-Semitic pastor and a famed anti-Israel academic — oh, and there was also his domestic terrorist buddy who participates in anti-Israel activism on the side. What are we supposed to glean from that?

These friendships were one of the reasons why the pro-Israel community was initially unsure about Obama’s true personal feelings on Israel during his 2008 campaign. Since then, those early concerns have been substantiated again and again by Obama’s own public actions and statements on Israel. The American public still supports the Jewish state, which means Obama grudgingly supports it when necessary, but it’s clear his heart isn’t there. His lame response when questioned on his true feelings — citing knowledge of Judaism and friendship with Jews — is just the latest example of that disconnect.

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Obama’s Absurd Claim About Judaism

Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

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Apparently, Barack Obama told a visiting contingent of Conservative Jewish rabbis that he probably knows more about Judaism than any other president—on the same day that he referred to “Polish death camps.” For that last remark he apologized, but the one about Judaism is far more telling. In the first place, the claim is transparently absurd. We can quickly pass over the fact that John Adams and James Madison, among the most educated men in the world at the time, knew Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek and just say that the president is, to put it mildly, punching above his weight here. So let’s move on to the fact that every president until the modern era knew more about Judaism than Barack Obama because the Bible was the one book every literate person knew, and the Bible includes the books Christians call the “Old Testament,” and a working knowledge of the Old Testament certainly is the best introduction to “Judaism” there is.

Earlier presidents did not learn the Talmud, of course, but if Barack Obama ever has, that would come as news to me. There is no indication from Obama’s own writing that he is especially Bible-literate, and we can presume that his notorious pastor of 20 years used the Bible primarily as flavoring for his political duck soup. I have no doubt that, among presidents closer to our time, Jimmy Carter was far more conversant in the lore of Biblical Judaism, for all the good it did his corrupted soul when it comes to the Jewish state.

Perhaps what the president meant is that he’s known more Jews than other presidents. This too is an absurdity, as Ronald Reagan spent 30 years in Hollywood and had Jews coming out his ears. In fact, chances are Barack Obama knows less about Judaism than most presidents, except that he knows a lot of liberal Jews.

What the president does, without question, know a great deal about is the act of preening.

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Beinart’s Universalists Strike Back

The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

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The discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote. It has morphed into what I believe is a much more useful conversation about the conception of Judaism that lies at the core of Beinart’s worldview and what I take to be his assault on it. In my review of his book in the Jerusalem Post, I suggested that part of what makes Beinart so uncomfortable with Israel is the fact that for Beinart and many like him, for whom the erotic draw of the sirens of universalism are too powerful to resist, Israel is a reminder of Judaism’s people-centeredness. In his book, Beinart used the word “tribal” for “people-centeredness,” so I did the same in my review. And I showed that every single time (not most times, but every single time) that Beinart used the word “tribal,” it had a distinctly negative connotation.

In his inevitable response, Beinart insisted, “I am a Zionist and a tribalist.” He did not explain why, if that is the case, every use of “tribal” in the book was negative, but such is invariably the nature of the “you said I said but I really said” of book reviews and responses thereto. Nothing particularly noteworthy there – except that Beinart has thankfully acknowledged that Judaism is tribal, and that (at least now) he thinks that’s a good thing.

But that is not so for Peter’s amigos. A brief glance at some of the responses to my response affords a sense of just how raw that universalist nerve is. “You can critique Beinart’s book all you want,” they essentially say, “but if you dare suggest that my abandonment of Jewish particularism is a departure from one of Judaism’s core values, well, then, I will come after you.”

And “come after you” they have. J. J. Goldberg, in a recent column in the Forward, says that I’ve become “unhinged.” But then he proceeds to illustrate what writing is like when context is ignored and honesty is no longer a value. He says I believe Judaism “mandates a xenophobic rancor” against non-Jews, when, in fact, I specifically asked whether the tribal-orientation of Judaism’s classic texts might contribute to “illegitimate Jewish senses of supremacy.” What I had written, then, was precisely the opposite of what Goldberg said that I said.

Goldberg also says, “Gordis even quotes approvingly the Talmud’s claim that ‘converts are as burdensome to [the people of] Israel as leprosy.’” But that, too, is completely false. I cite the phrase, but not approvingly. I simply note that Judaism’s classic sources are conflicted about converts, because there is something counterintuitive about people joining a tribe. Goldberg knows that my description of the phrase in the context of Jewish tradition is correct, and he surely knows that just days before my review of Beinart’s book I co-wrote a piece for the Times of Israel specifically advocating a warmer welcome of converts.

Distortions such as these make this a nasty piece of work, but if there is comfort in company, Goldberg should be feeling good. Shaul Magid, professor at Indiana University and until 2003 a member of the philosophy faculty at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, responded to Beinart’s book by essentially claiming that Beinart was too tribalist:

Intermarriage is a reality American Jews will have to deal with. It’s not going away nor, I would argue, should it. American Jews intermarry at a rate commensurate with many other minority populations in America (excluding blacks and Latinos), so is Beinart suggesting ethnic groups should only marry one another? Or is he saying that intermarriage between a Polish Catholic and a Korean Presbyterian is fine but that Jews should only marry other Jews? It may be that the intermarried Jew cares less about Israel, but rectifying this reality by making an exceptionalist claim about the Jews, making them “anomalous” (a label with ominous anti-Semitic coattails) is not the answer.

That’s an astounding claim for someone committed to a rich Jewish future. Magid then resorted to name-calling on Facebook. Responding to a Facebook posting about my upcoming debate with Peter Beinart at Columbia University, Magid wrote: “Why give voice to Gordis’ tribal fascism? Oh yeah, free speech.”

So, for having claimed that “tribalism” is a central facet of classic Jewish thought, and for having cited a relatively obvious laundry list of sources that make that clear, Magid decided that I’m a “fascist.” When I wrote Magid on Facebook saying, “You know I’m not a fascist, you know I advocate a two-state solution, you know that I’ve gone to protect Palestinians as they harvest their olives, you know that I’ve testified against settlers in Israeli court,” he responded by saying, in part, “It looks like I’m not the only one to use the ‘f’-word in response to your response to Beinart.” There’s a principled position: other people did it, too.

And with that, Magid referred me to a column by Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University. Braiterman does, indeed, use the “f”-word, but he also borrows some tactics from Goldberg’s playbook, namely, saying that I said what I didn’t say. For example, referring back to my review of Beinart, Braiterman says, “Gordis cites political philosopher Michael Sandel to claim that liberal American Jews feel no attachment to Jewishness and Judaism.” But that’s patently false. I cited Sandel to make a claim about human beings and the importance of ancestral moorings. Sandel’s quote says nothing about Jews, and I said nothing to imply that it did.

In a refreshing moment of honesty, though, Braiterman at least has the courage to admit that he knows that the “fascist” moniker is unfair. “I really don’t know what Gordis means by ‘tribalism.’ Are we going to see the distinguished American born rabbi joining the ‘death to Arabs’ crowd or the hill-toppers or price-taggers? I don’t know. I know I’m being unfair. But this is one possible endpoint to which this logic of tribalism leads.”

Ah, so there’s the issue. We’re afraid of … ideas? Tribalism has many dangers, as does the absence of tribalism. So because anything that could be taken to an extreme could be dangerous, these academics will label those who raise the idea as “fascists”?

For good measure, though, it’s worth noting that for Andrew Sullivan, “fascist” isn’t enough. No, in a column that might well have been requested by Beinart (both of them write at the Daily Beast, so this surely seems like a favor called in), Sullivan, who I’m sure has never read a word I’ve written, writes “Perhaps the most dishonest McCarthyite review was written by Daniel Gordis. … But Gordis is at least not hiding behind bullshit like so many of his fellow travelers. He wants an Israel, dedicated to survival as a Jewish state by means of ethnic and religious cleansing. He is a proud tribalist: ‘Do we aspire to America’s ideal of a democracy? Not at all. We’re about something very different.’”

So, because I defended Jewish particularism (using the tribal word that Beinart himself employed), I’m not only a fascist. I’m a “McCarthyite.” The mere notion that the very purpose of the re-creation of the State of Israel and its survival might be the revival of the Jewish people (and not simply “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) must mean that we’re heading right for ethnic and religious cleansing.

Even allowing for the likelihood that Sullivan was coming to the defense of his buddy and didn’t have a moment to read anything that I’ve written about Jewish particularism, we have here a not terribly flattering picture of the state of writing and thinking in our world. Goldberg distorts the truth. Magid invokes the “fascist” label and then, challenged on it, defends himself by saying that he’s not the only one who did it. Braiterman uses it but can’t help but admit that he knows it’s unfair, and Sullivan, without having read a word I’ve written beyond the Beinart review, lurches from “fascist” to “McCarthyite.”

Not a terribly promising foundation on which to build serious discourse, is it? Israel, the settlements and even Peter Beinart’s book may be the least of the problems we need to address.

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