Americans are rightly afraid of radical Islamists who seek to subjugate, behead, and enslave non-believers in the Middle East in the name of their faith. Ours, however, is a country where religious freedom is at the core of our identity as a nation. But many of us are so obsessed with separating religion from the state that we are prepared to go to any lengths to make it harder for individuals to practice their beliefs even when doing so threatens neither our liberties nor interferes with the rights of others. A classic example of this separationism run amok is to be found in Milwaukee where, of all things, the Jewish Federation supported the effort to prevent Jewish students at a local public high school from erecting a sukkah where they hoped to eat their lunch so as to comply with religious law about observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. In doing so, these liberal extremists taught us a lesson about how fear of religion can be almost as destructive of liberty as religious extremism.
The eight-day festival of Sukkot is one in which Jews are instructed by the Torah to eat their meals in temporary huts called sukkahs in commemoration of those used by their ancestors wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Such small structures are, as Tablet magazine points out in their piece about this story, to be found at the corporate headquarters of Google as well as at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the small Sukkah erected at Milwaukee’s Nicolet High School that had existed in previous years was forced off campus in no small measure because the local Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council considered it a violation of the separation between church and state.
The reasoning behind this seeming example of cognitive dissonance is that liberal true believers see any accommodation of belief on public property or in a public education setting as the thin edge of the wedge of theocracy. To their thinking, the mythical wall of separation must be erected so high that government institutions should exhibit no hint of faith. While the Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to ensure that there would never be a state religion in the United States, modern-day liberals have distorted this sensible restriction. Instead of the constitutional prohibition of government favoring one religion over another, contemporary liberals have sought to redefine the Constitution as being hostile to the expression of religious faith in public settings.
This misguided sentiment stems from some real concerns that were dealt with in the past. State-run schools ought not to be promoting religion in the classroom as they used to do, especially when that usually was done at the expense of marginalizing religious minorities. But that justified opposition to state prayers at schools has morphed into an obsessive desire to ban Christmas trees or carols. Rather than seek to ban discrimination against their faith, many liberal Jews wish to marginalize all faiths, a divisive effort that undermines the good communal relations they purport to support as well as creating a naked public square with respect to faith that does far more harm than good. Their fear of faith leads them to invent restrictions against its expression instead of protecting religious freedom.
That is the twisted logic that led the Milwaukee Federation to push for the elimination of the Jewish students’ inoffensive sukkah.
That a group that pretends to represent all Jews would seek to prevent Jews from practicing their faith is more than ironic. It is a travesty. That travesty is only exacerbated when the person responsible for this outrage happens to be Hannah Rosenthal, whose last job before joining the federation was as the Obama State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Rosenthal was the person that Americans would have looked to for leadership and outrage were sukkahs banned by some foreign government. But instead of being an advocate for more religious freedom, in her new guise as communal leader Rosenthal has adopted the liberal separationist faith as her new Torah and led the charge to expunge even the most harmless expression of Jewish practice at a local high school.
Sadly, one Jewish student interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said she felt “a little awkward” because if Christians “put up a Christmas tree or a crèche, we’d feel uncomfortable with that, so why put up a sukkah?”
That, in a nutshell, tells you not only what’s wrong with separationism but also with a Jewish community that is raising its children to fear other religions and to “feel awkward” when they see other Jews practicing their faith in a manner that does no harm to others.
This is, in part, a legacy of a past in which Jews did feel threatened and marginalized by the majority. But at a time when Jews are free to not only express their identity in any place or profession in the United States but to actually practice their faith unhindered by prejudice, such attitudes are not only outdated; they are highly destructive.
The problem here is that liberal Jews fear conservative Christians far more than they do ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban (as Tablet points out, it is unlikely that the federation would have opposed accommodations of Muslim practices). And they are so paranoid about it that they are ready to restrict examples of Jewish faith in the public square in order to forestall any manifestation of Christian faith there.
Hard as it may be for many liberal Jews to accept, Christians don’t threaten Jewish life in this country. But such extreme separationism is a symptom of the indifference to faith and Jewish identity that has created the demographic disaster that does threaten the Jewish future in the U.S. that was revealed by last year’s Portrait of Jewish Americans produced by the Pew Research Center. While some may have hoped that Jewish Federations would provide the leadership to help the community respond to the survey’s results, we find in Milwaukee that they are part of the problem, not the solution.