Political Antisemitism

TJH May_June 1996, vo. XXX11, number 10.

“Political Antisemitism” 

Holocaust Day has a special significance in this election year. Political antisemitism is abroad in the Republican Party.  

Modern anti-Semitism is different from traditional anti-Judaism. Traditional hostility to the Jews is primarily directed to the religion of the Jews. Economic and racial themes are secondary. Modern antisemitism is primarily directed to the “race” and economic role of the Jews. Religious ideas are secondary. Neither Hitler nor Coughlin was interested in Judaism. They were obsessed by Jews. 

Capitalism is the most popular of available economic systems. It is responsible for wealth, technological development and rising standards of living. But it also produces decaying families, violent cities and unemployment. Relentless competition produces both winners and losers. For the winners the system is the best of all possible worlds. For the losers the system appears uncaring and heartless. It takes only a little paranoia to turn that accusation into antisemitism. The world of money becomes the world of the Jews and the world of money is the evil oppressor of the innocent patriot. 

Hitler did not invent modern antisemitism. The change, uncertainty, expectations and trauma of capitalism did. The very system that fostered the prosperity and the liberation of the Jews also spawned their most vicious enemy.  

Antisemitism will not go away so long as economic anxiety remains. It is a chronic disease of an urban, anonymous, detribalized, and money-centered world. When the economy is strong it is tolerable. When the economy goes bad it becomes intolerable. Right now technology, automation and thinking machines are wreaking havoc with the lives and employment of millions of workers and middle-class people. Most young people are pessimistic not optimistic about their economic future. Industrial workers, blacks and Hispanics, are feeling abandoned and resentful. Jews become the personification of all the forces they fear and do not control.  

Modern anti-Semitism comes in two forms. The mild form is social antisemitism. This hostility excludes Jews from social intercourse with non-Jews, especially the power elite. While social antisemitism is morally deplorable, it is easily handled. Jews simply create and perpetuate the familiar institutions which enable them to socialize with each other.  

The virulent form is political antisemitism. This antagonism seeks to seize political power and to use that power to deprive Jews of their status, property and lives. Political antisemitism is what the deadly virus of European Jew-hatred was all about. From Dreyfus to the Holocaust it was driven by a vision of the “Jewish Peril” that justified expulsion and extermination. Often political antisemitism starts off with mild rebukes and develops, through economic turmoil, to broad programs of oppression.  

Political antisemitism features political leaders, politicians eager to use hostility to Jews as a vehicle to power.  

Many European leaders chose this path. In America, there was very little political antisemitism until the First World War. 

In the Twenties Henry Ford publicized the vicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the Depression Thirties, Charles Coughlin preached a message of hate for capitalism, communism and Jews. The Second World War and economic prosperity terminated this threat. 

But, of course, the troubled Nineties has revived it. Pat Buchanan has arrived on the Republican stage to denounce Wall Street, the brokers of the money world, foreign exploiters, corporate greed and the inordinate power of Israel and the Jews over American life.  

Of course, his voice is a minority voice. Of course he will not be the Republican nominee. But it is also true that the Republican leadership has not openly repudiated him for his public hostility to Jewish influence. His position is very much the same as that of Louis Farrakhan in the Black world. He disparages the Jews. He courts racist supporters. And he knows that he is immune to expulsion. He has too many powerful devotees. Pleasing the Jews is less important than hanging on to any potential voter.  

I do not imagine that the economic future of America will allow the triumph of either fascism or political antisemitism. I do not believe that either Dole or the mainstream leaders of the Republican party or anything but embarrassed by the public rantings of Pat Buchanan. But I will not support a political party whose leadership refuses to condemn this voice of hatred.  

(Just as I will not condone the authority of Black leadership that fears to confront Farrakhan.) 

The poor, the oppressed and economic “losers” of the world deserve our sympathy and help. But they are not necessarily the moral voices of humanity. If sufficiently provoked, they will embrace ideologies that will produce political repression. America and the world of economic change are vulnerable to self-destructive voices. Right now, Buchanan, despite Dole’s victory, is a dangerous voice of the evil.  

Jewish votes should not support any political party that does not condemned the purveyors of antisemitism in its midst 

Israel Independence Day. It Came and Went.

TJH May 1977, vol. 14, no. 9.

Israel Independence Day. It came and went. 

Twenty-nine years of Jewish independence. 

How many more? 

David’s kingdom lasted for 400 years. The Maccabees’ dominion survived for 100. What about the Third State? 

I don’t know. All I know is that it is important for Israel to survive. The destruction of the Jewish state would undermine the existence of the Jewish nation as a world people. With the center dead, the periphery would be hard put to endure. 

Zionism has been the most successful Jewish response to the age of science and secularism. In an era when theological belief and ritual practice were no longer appropriate to individual survival, Zionism shifted the basis of Jewish identity from religious activity to Hebrew secular culture.  

The state of Israel is more than a refugee center for desperate Jews. It is a place where it is possible to be Jewish without being religious. The sign of Jewishness is not a set of outmoded theological statements and absurd ceremonial rites. It is the use of the Hebrew language, the celebration of national holidays, the creation of secular poetry, music and dance. Israeli culture is a viable alternative to Talmudic culture. It can be indulged full-time within Israel or part-time in the Diaspora. 

Unlike Yiddish secular culture (the national expression of Ashkenazi Jews), it has a territorial center where the national language can be used in everyday life. And unlike classical Reform Judaism it provides specific and concrete behavior-patterns instead of vague religious cliches. 

Israeli culture is not superior to other national cultures (After all, in a technological world personal lifestyles become International). But it is linguistically and aesthetically different. 

Hebrew culture is a twentieth century expression of the Jewish collective will to live. From the humanistic point of view, it adds one more ethnic style to the universal potpourri.  

But Hebrew culture will not live unless Israel lives. Israel will not live unless she makes peace with the Arabs.  

Israel has to make peace soon. The Jewishness of the Jewish state is at stake. If the present rate of Jewish emigration from Israel continues to increase because of inflation and war anxiety, and if the overwhelming numbers of Arabs in the occupied territories continue to remain within the unofficial boundaries of Israel, the Jewish state, by default, will turn into an Arab state. Like Detroit its ethnic character will be radically transformed.  

The time for making peace is now.  

Now the Arab world is deeply divided between the Arab Left and the Arab Right. The Arab Left is led by Gaddafi’s Libya, with its oil billions. The Arab Right is led by Khalid’s Saudi Arabia with its even greater wealth. Both sides despise and fear each other more than they despise and fear Israel.  

Now the Arab Left has suffered an enormous defeat. Syria has defected to the Right. the Palestine Liberation Organization was decisively defeated in Lebanon. Algeria and Iraq have suffered loss of face because of their failure to adequately support their Palestinian allies. 

Now all the Arab states on the borders of Israel belong to the Arab Right. For the first time in Israeli history, the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are politically compatible and are able to act in unison.  

Now the Arab Right is willing to accept the reality of Israel and to recognize its political existence. This recognition is no Act of charity. The leaders of the Arab Right know that if they do not make peace with Israel, the continuing militancy will feed the terrorism which will enable the Left to underline the government of the Right.  

Now the Arab Right has tamed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat and his allies are willing, because they have no other choice, to accept a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza federated with their old arch enemy, Hussein’s Jordan. This Jordan-Palestine state is the best ultimate deal the Israelis can achieve on their eastern frontier.  

Now Israel does not have to negotiate with the Soviet Union. The Russians hold no power base on the Israeli frontier. Syria still uses Soviet arms, but it has passed over to the American camp of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  

Now American public opinion is still strongly pro-Israel. Continued energy crises may make the American public more impatient with the Middle Eastern controversy.  

The public price of the Arab Right for peace is the return of the Israelis to the 1967 frontiers. The private price may be lower.  

The risk of peace without defensible frontiers is great. But, as Sadat appropriately point outs, the concept of defensible frontiers is Irrelevant in the age of missiles.  

The risk of continued war is even greater. If the failure of the peace initiative fails, new impetus will be given to the Arab Left. And the Arab Left is unequivocally committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  

Israel needs courageous leadership now. The courage to make peace is sometimes more important than the courage to fight.  

Purim and Haman Make Us Think Of Antisemitism

TJH March_April 1992, vo. XXVII, no.5.

Purim and Haman make us think of antisemitism.  

In America socially antisemitism has been on the wane over the past four decades.  More and more Americans each year indicate that they view Jews either favorably or indifferently.  More and more are willing to share clubs and work with Jews and even to vote for a Jewish president. 

 But, in the past year, political antisemitism has made a nasty reappearance.  Pat Buchanan and David Duke have entered the presidential race.  And their antipathy to Jews is quite obvious. At a time when most Americans fear for their economic future, the image of the evil Jew who manipulates the world to his parochial means is not the kind of political propaganda that makes Jews feel very comfortable. 

Antisemitism has changed in the last century and a half.  Before the French Revolution it was primarily anti-Judaism. People hated Jews because of their religious beliefs. If Jews were willing to convert to either Christianity or Islam, conversion canceled out the hate. Although there was a high price to pay, there was an escape from persecution and destruction. 

But antisemitism today is “racial”. Antisemites despise Jews because of their birth.  Jewish beliefs and behavior are irrelevant to the enemy. Conversion makes no difference. It only turns an ordinary Jew into a Christian Jew. There is no escape from Jewish identity. 

Antisemitism is also different because it has been turned into a complete philosophy of life.  The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, first published in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, explained all the evils of the world in terms of Jewish behavior.  Earlier anti-Jewishness saw the Jew as a malign force but not as the malign force. For the modern antisemite, there is a worldwide Jewish cabal which conspires to take over the world.  The Jews have invented both Capitalism and Communism to confuse the masses and to set them up in hostile confrontation.  Gentile kills Gentile and only the Jews benefit. As Hitler said, the morally bankrupt Semitic tradition stands against the morally pure Aryan path.  Only a war to the death can resolve the issue. For the believers in this theory, persecution of the jews is never enough. Only a Holocaust will do the job that justice requires.  

For many many people antisemitism is a substitute religion. It explains all evil in a clear and simple way. It offers a clear and simple solution. Few existing political philosophies enjoy that charity. 

The emergence of David Duke to political prominence is indeed frightening. A Nazi racist and a Ku Klux Klan Grand wizard, he is the kind of political “kook” that you expect to find on the unsuccessful political fringes.  Instead he changed his label, abandoned the Nazis for the Republicans, and came within a political inch of becoming governor of Louisiana. For such a way out “bigot” to achieve the success that he did, his “defeat” was really a victory.  He is now ready to peddle his hate message in other states. Bolstered by a new face, new money and an adoring audience, he is raring to take on as many presidential primaries that he can get his hands on. 

Pat Buchanan is not the man for southern rural whites. His constituency is the reactionary right that draws its energy and inspiration  from the Irish Roman Catholic World before Vatican Council II. Both Charles Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy came out of this milieu.  book the Kennedys and the Buckley’s climbed up from its parochial depths. Anti-communism, Catholic piety and the hatred of the British with their internationalist agenda characterize this group. 

Buchanan has been an advisor and ghostwriter for both Nixon and Reagan.  An idealogue of the New Right, he never liked Bush and always suspected, quite appropriately, that he was an opportunistic traitor to conservative principles. The Gulf War was the trigger for the separation. For the old Right (as opposed to the libertarian internationalist Right)  the war against communism was justified. But a war to get rid of dictators, especially fascist dictators, is absolutely unjustified. Trying to create a new world order to ensure democracy, human rights and free trade is a violation of America’s best interest in a naive pie-in-the-sky ambition which will fail.  

For Buchanan the Gulf War with the sign that American patriots were no longer in charge of America. Jewish and Israeli interest had manipulated the Bush Administration into risking the lives of non-Jewish boys to defeat a Jewish enemy. And all of this talk was accompanied by statements about the exaggerated estimates of Holocaust victims. The inspirational leadership of Adolf Hitler and the determination to defend Catholic rights in Poland against insidious Jewish assaults. Jewish neo-conservatives like Kristol and Podhoretz have obviously repudiated Buchanan. Even Buckley chastised him at length in the pages of the National Review. But the frightening reality remains. A “respectable” Republican idealogue is sporting antisemitism and is running for president.  

What does it all mean? 

It means that a powerful political message has been tied to an antisemite.  Buchanan advocates “America first” and protective tariffs. In a nation which is rapidly de-industrialized and where hundreds of thousands of workers are losing their factory jobs, Buchanan’s message crosses the conventional boundaries between Right and Left and makes an appeal to angry union supporters. Buchanan’s chauvinism has the power to mobilize blue collar malcontents. 

It means that antisemitism is now politically “respectable” and is now an integral part of a political platform. Buchanan can disavow his Jew hatred as much as he wants, but his statements of hostility are a public record. Social antisemitism is annoying, but never dangerous. Political antisemitism is frightening. 

It means that Buchanan and Duke will be harmless if there is a fairly speedy economic recovery. There will be a peril to Jews and to democracy if this recession turns into a long- run depression. Desperate economic times sponsor desperate political alternatives. 

It means that the Democrats have a chance to win the presidency, if they can take full advantage of the present division in the Republican ranks, and if they can come up with a half-way credible candidate. Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades are not the most auspicious beginning to a serious campaign.  

Hopefully, “prosperity” is around the corner and Buchanan and Duke will fade into the woodwork. But then… 

Leadership

TJH March 1991, vo. XXV11, number 8.

“Leadership” 

Many people ask me about the future of Humanistic Judaism. What are the realistic prospects for our future? What do we need to do to spread the word, to recruit new people to our movement?  

There are many things we need to strengthen our future. We need more literature. We need more publicity. We need more money to pay for both. But, above all, we need more professional leaders.  

The heart of our movement are local communities and congregations. Without them there is no movement. Most communities begin with volunteers who have much enthusiasm but little expertise for serving the needs of their members. In time, volunteers get exhausted and, even if they are not exhausted, they are not trained to be ceremonialists, philosophic counselors and Jewish educators.  

Communities without professional leaders “plateau”. They cannot grow because they cannot serve the holiday, life-cycle and identity needs of prospective joiners, especially the needs of families with young children. Their philosophy is attractive to many. But their ability to reach out to others is limited by the absence of skilled people who are both able and willing to do what needs to be done.  

The first professional leaders of our movement have been rabbis. Both Daniel Friedman (Chicago) and I have served as the spiritual and philosophic leaders of the two largest and most important communities in our national association. Both of us have tried to pioneer the idea of a rabbi without God. Just as the Reform movement pioneered the concept of a rabbi who rejects the authority of orthodox law, so has our effort been an attempt to develop the legitimacy of a non-theistic and “secular” rabbinate. 

The rabbinate is an important profession for Humanistic Judaism and needs to be cultivated. It provides both status and legitimacy for humanistic communities seeking a link with the past. The role of the rabbi as a philosophic leader and teacher corresponds very well to the traditional role of many rabbis.  

One of our most important movement tasks is to recruit and train new rabbis for our communities, both established and emerging. Recruitment of already ordained rabbis is not easy. Both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements have taken a turn to the right. Their younger rabbinic graduates are often more conservative than the graduates of earlier decades. They are not interested in becoming radical “renegades” or mavericks. The number of potential “defectors” is close to zero. 

Training our own rabbis is, therefore, an urgent task. For this reason a rabbinic program was recently established by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The program envisions a five year post-graduate course of study with a PhD in Judaic Studies from a secular university, courses on Humanistic Judaism with the faculty of the Institute and  an appropriate internship with a movement community. Hopefully, bright young men and women, who would never have contemplated the rabbinate because they are humanistic, will find this opportunity an attractive option. 

But rabbis are not enough to serve the leadership needs of our movement. There are small communities that cannot afford a rabbi. These are small communities that cannot afford a full-time leader. There are large communities that need assistants. There are needy communities that require professional leadership right away.  

Out of this pressing circumstance a new Jewish profession has emerged. It is called leader in English. It is called madrikh (men) or madrikha (women) in Hebrew. 

A madrikha is a professional community leader. She performs an important role somewhere between the work of the volunteer non-professional leader and the work of a rabbi. She is a ceremonialist who performs weddings and conducts funerals. She is an educator who can teach Humanistic Judaism to adults and children. She is a counselor who can offer appropriate ethical advice to people seeking her help. She is an administrator who can manage the affairs of a small community.  

A madrikha undergoes a three-year training program. This program includes training seminars, academic study and field work. Before the International Institute was established candidates received their education at the Humanist Institute in New York. Now the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism has created a complete training program for madrikhim and madrikhot. They define professional standards, arrange for continuing education, and provide certification. There are presently eleven members of the Conference.  

As you may have noticed, the programs and service of our own Birmingham Temple have been enormously enhanced by the talents and efforts of our resident madrikhot. Without the skills and dedication of Carolyn Borman, Miriam Jerris, Janis Levin-Gorelick, and Marilyn Rowens, much of the important work of the Temple would never be completed. For me, personally, they have been wonderful associates, who have assisted me in the carrying out of my own responsibilities.  

Madrikhot have become a significant part of the landscape of Humanistic Judaism. They perform an indispensable service. And they deserve our tribute and recognition. 

Please join me and the congregation on Friday evening, March 22 at 8:30 PM to celebrate their achievement and to hear their own reflections on the work they do.  

One Side of Purim Is Fun and Laughter. The Other Side Is Haman

TJH march 1990, vol. XXVI, no. 8.

One side of Purim is fun and laughter. The other side is Haman.  

Haman is the arch-figure of Jew hatred, called anti-Semitism in modern times. He is the symbol of a social disease so dreadful and so powerful that it killed 6 million innocent people in this century.  

What is the future of anti-semitism?  

After World War II we hoped that it would disappear. We hoped that the trauma of the Holocaust would make it impossible for respectable people to be openly anti-Semitic in respectable society.  

Certainly, in the Western world this hope seemed to be fulfilled. Overt anti-Semitism became unpopular. Bigoted demagogues, like Coughlin & Smith, were silenced. Numberless schools, corporations and clubs open their doors to Jews who have been excluded. Jewish culture and Jewish themes made their way into the movies and television. Jewish identity took on a positive public Image. But in other parts of the world, hostility to Jews was either revived or invented. In the Soviet empire Stalinists decided to reinforce their tyrannical rule by catering to the historic bigotry of their nations. Jews were purged from government. Jewish culture was suppressed. And leaders of the Jewish community were executed. Although most Jews were allowed to retain their homes and their jobs their safety was precarious. Communist propaganda reminded them that they were aliens.  

In the Arab world, where most of the people were Semites like Jews, anti-jewish feeling emerged where it had never really existed before. The conflict in Palestine in the establishment of the state of Israel prompted a vicious anti-semitism reminiscent of Nazi assaults. Thousands of Jews fled their homes and came as refugees to the Jewish state. hostility to Jews was disguised as opposition to Zionism. But the anti-zionism of the Arab world contains the same vicious stereotypes that filled the propaganda of European fascists.  

When the recent revolutionary changes began in Eastern Europe, many observers imagined that at least one of these two centers of anti-Semitism would vanish. Official Soviet and Communist hostility would disappear with the disappearance of Communism. The emergence of popular democracy would free the Jews and end the threats to their safety. 

This expectation proved naive. The collapse of Communist power has not undermined it. It has revived it in a more virulent form than Communism ever allowed. The new freedom means freedom not only for liberal democracy but also for authoritarian fascists. End European fascism has long used anti-Semitism as an ideological strategy to mobilize the masses.  

Jew hatred and Eastern Europe has deep roots. Both Catholic and Orthodox christianity cultivated the image of the Jew as Satan incarnate. (In fact Jews were excluded from Russia until the Russian conquest of Poland.) The pre-capitalist structures of countries like Poland and Romania stimulated Envy in suspicion of urban life in urban entrepreneurs. And the Jews were overwhelmingly town and city people.  

The dismantling of the Communist power structure has terminated Communist anti-Semitism. But, in the new chaotic political environment, it has made it possible for the old bigotry to rear its ugly head. In Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Russia political parties with anti-Semitic agendas have been organized. Their program runs from the elimination of Jewish influence in public life to the expulsion of Jews. Although these parties are not large, they are growing.  

What does their presence tell us about the nature of anti-Semitism?  

Anti-semitism is a chronic disease. The historic role of the Jew to serve as a scapegoat for social ills is so deeply embedded in the European psyche that it cannot be eliminated either by education or by democracy. Since we cannot destroy it we must learn how to restrain it.  

Anti-Semitism flourishes where there is economic distress. The growing inflation, unemployment and shortages of the former socialist countries sponsor mass insecurity. The mass insecurities and helplessness motivate the people to embrace traditional and simplistic explanations for the economic crisis. The longest survival issues dominate the political scene, hostility to the Jews will continue to grow. 

 Anti-Semitism originated, to a large degree, in religious prejudice. But its present complaint about the Jews is not religious. Jews are detested for their economic role. They are seen as economic and cultural conspirators who have invented both market capitalism and Marxist socialism to exploit the masses. Jewish religious beliefs are unrelated to the fantasy. 

 Anti-Semitism is unrelated to Jewish power. In most of these countries, with the exception of the Soviet Union, there are now very few Jews. The Holocaust remove the bulk of the Jewish population. Despite that reality, the fear and hatred of Jews continue. Unlike the Jews of Western Europe in the United States who have real power, the Jews of Eastern Europe are envied for what they do not have. 

 Anti-Semitism is a strategy of both the Left and the Right. Both the Communists and the fascists have used it. Both the working class and the bourgeoisie can share its view of the world. Both sides are capable of initiating violence against the Jews. What both sides share is chauvinistic nationalism which views the Jew as an alien intruder. This reality makes the motivation for Zionism very clear. Sometimes the only effective response to Gentile nationalism is Jewish nationalism.  

 The belief that the Jew is both smart and evil is an old one. It will not be easily dislodged. We need to be less naive than the people who believe it.  

The Birmingham Temple Will Be 30 Years Old

TJH January 1993, vol. XXIX, no. 6.

The Birmingham Temple will be 30 years old. 

 In August 1963 eight families and I took the plunge and organized a new temple in suburban Detroit. At the time we were unaware that, within one year, we would be espousing a new outlook on Jewish identity called Humanistic Judaism and that we would become the center of a growing religious controversy. 

Our beginnings were quite humble. There were services and the cafetorium of Eagle School. There was the office in the living room of Sue and Harry Velick. There were the late night meetings in the back room of Howard Johnson’s. There were the heated discussions in overcrowded family rooms which lasted until midnight. Even our first name, the Birmingham Temple Society, seemed transitional. (Where was the ubiquitous Beth or Bnai something or other?) 

 We tried hard to be normal.But we failed because the demands of personal integrity pushed us along a path we had not planned to follow. We were simply tired of old religious games. We were no longer prepared to say what we no longer believed. The struggle for honesty made us bolder day by day. We searched for a world that would do justice to the way we felt about life and being Jewish. Rational seemed too cold and limiting. Naturalistic seemed to abstract and philosophic. Secular sounded too negative and anti-religious. Humanistic won the day because it was “warm” and spoke to our hearts.  

The second year brought public attention to what we were doing.  Crowds of curious Jews filled the meeting hall of the Birmingham Masonic Temple to find out whether the rumors were true. Was it true that Sherwin Wine had announced that he was an atheist and that God have been abruptly fired?  On some Fridays there was standing room only. Even my mother had a hard time finding a seat. 

 One day in December 1964 the Detroit Free Press published a front-page article by Hiley Ward, its religion editor, which revealed that an ignostic rabbi I was leading an ignostic temple in the Detroit area.  The Jewish establishment was appalled. The Gentile world was puzzled. Even Time Magazine was intrigued enough to write about this “new” religion. 

By January 1965 people all over North America knew about us. Many of them wrote us letters. Some of them were filled with Jewish or Christian curses. Others were warm letters of support and congratulations. A few asked us how we could replicate ourselves in Chicago, Denver or Los Angeles? The glare of public scrutiny lasted for about two years. The attention and hostility was both exciting and exhausting. Some members left. But fresh troops always arrived to strengthen our community and to help us grow. 

 Along the way we discovered that we had begun a new movement, a movement with only one congregation. Yeah we were undaunted. We had confidence in our message and in our community. Missionaries found their way to Westport and Chicago. By 1970 we had established the Society for Humanistic Judaism. 

The first year gave us external enemies that reinforced our solidarity and loyalty. We would never give our opponents the satisfaction of expiring. We were determined to survive and succeed. We wrote services. We invented curricula. We sang and danced. We built a Temple home, horizontal enough to be humanistic and contemporary enough to be a symbol of what we believed in. 

 Are middle years were years of consolidation. We settled down to “normalcy”, fully aware that we had weathered ideological storm. We had not achieved respectability. But we were no longer pariahs. Our energies could now move from defensive strategies to more creative pursuits. We had so many more children to educate. We had so many more adults to inspire. 

 The ‘80’s arrived with new opportunities for outreach. An historic trip to Israel in 1981,  to a conference at the seaside kibbutz of Shefayim, led to the formation of the Israel Association of Secular Humanistic Judaism. In five years representatives from eight nations assembled at the Birmingham Temple to form a coalition and to make an international federation of Jewish humanists possible.  

 And, now, in our thirtieth year, the major program to guarantee the future of our temple and our movement has been initiated. Three students have enrolled in our new rabbinic program. If we will have Humanistic rabbis, we will have a Humanistic Jewish future. 

 I was 35 when the Temple began. I am now 65. What has taken place in the intervening years has convinced me that we play an important role in the Jewish world. We have refined a message that the Jewish needs to hear and that an increasing number of Jews are now prepared to receive. 

 We have taken a secular, humanistic and cultural Judaism and turned it into a living community with traditions of its own and bonds of friendship to make it strong. Ideas have turned into the flesh and blood of human connection. 

 There are many things that we have not done that we need to do. But there are many things that we have done that are uniquely significant. 

 We have every reason to celebrate.  

We Are Twenty-Five Years Old

TJH Jan. 1998, vol XXV, no 6.

We are twenty-five years old. 

 This year – 1968 –  is an important year for us. It is our silver anniversary celebration time. 

 Our Temple is no ordinary temple. From the very beginning we chose to publicly  Embrace and ideology different from that of the Jewish establishment. From the very beginning we were embroiled in a controversy that most budding congregations do not have to confront. 

 The reason for our existence and growth was never that we were a convenient suburban temple –  nor that we were socially chic –  nor that we provided physical amenities second to none. People came to us because they believed, despite all the difficulties of public exposure, in what we taught.  

 In other congregations the initial traumas have to do with finding a place for services, recruiting people to teach children, developing a sense of belonging and commitment. We had these problems too. But they were always less important than translating our stated convictions into a viable congregational format. Was it possible to abolish prayer and worship and still create an institution with a clear Jewish identity? 

Out of the challenge to find an answer to this question came the Birmingham Temple. And the answer that emerged –  even twenty-five years later –  later still defines the reason for our existence. 

 We succeeded because we said certain things that had never really been said before very clearly in the North American Jewish community. 

 We said that there was no need for Jews to pretend to believe what indeed they did not believe. There was no need to recite prayers that were meaningless simply because they were Jewish. There was no need to subscribe to convictions that were incredible simply because they were traditional. Our Jewish identity was not a function of any belief system. It was independent of any creeds. It arose out of family roots and family connection. 

 We said that there was no need to be kosherized by the past. Old Jewish statements were no more valuable than new ones simply because they were old. Ancestors were no more authoritative than contemporary simply because they were ancestors. The test of Truth was not antiquity;  it was the promotion of human dignity. The test of Jewishness was not in the Bible and the Talmud; it was a sense of identification with the culture and the fate of the Jewish people.  

We said that there was no need to separate the secular and the religious. Congregations, Shabbat meetings and holiday celebrations were not the sole possession of theistic people. Bar mitzvahs and confirmations were not, of necessity, attached to prayers and Torah readings. Religion was more than the worship of God. It was in the broadest sense, a philosophy of life turned into the morality and celebrations of an organized community. “Secular” was non-theistic, not non-religious. 

 We said that there was no need to assume that nostalgia was the only warm emotion. Loyalty to the past may be just as cold as any set of prayers that are mumbled without emotion. And creativity for the future may be just as “hot” as the dancing of Hasidic devotees. The warmth of belonging in solidarity is more likely to exist in community where shared ideas and values bind people together than in a congregation that is a neighborhood convenience or a family inheritance. 

We said that there was no need to lie to children. There was no need to assume that children required beliefs that we as adults no longer required. There was no need to teach children to believe what indeed we knew they would ultimately reject when they grew up. The hypocrisy of well-intentioned parents was unnecessary. The greatest gift that we can give our children is our honesty and integrity. When mouth and action come together than healthy religion begins. 

 We said that there was no need to be timid about necessary change. Cautious, piecemeal reform does not serve consistency well. Life is too short to be the prisoner of foolish contradictions. We do not exist to fit the forms of the past. The forms of the past exist to serve our needs and the needs of future generations. Sometimes only bold action will enable us to make things right. 

 All these things we said we are still saying. They define the reason for our existence. 

Sherwin Wine 

Meir Kahane

TJH December 1985, vol. XXIII, no. 5

Meir Kahane.  

Some Jews adore him and revere him as a modern day prophet. Many Jews fear him and hate him. Most Jews regard him as a continuing embarrassment.  

Whatever the response to his programs and policies, all Jews are agreed that his publicity skills are extraordinary. Hardly a day passes without some reference to his activities in the media. He obviously has the power to keep himself in the limelight for a long period of time and to force the Jewish establishment to deal with him publicly.  

Although today Kahane is the only representative of his right-wing party in the Knesset, polls indicate that should an early election be held he would capture 10  percent of the vote. His bite may almost be as bad as his bark. 

How do we explain the emergence in Israel of a successful political figure who advocates the expulsion of all Arabs and who pleads that democracy is an inappropriate political structure for the Jewish state?  

There is no single cause. The continuous 40-year battle with the Arab world has created a war mentality that views all Arabs as the hated enemy. The frustration over persistent Palestinian terrorism feeds the hostility. The disillusionment that followed the inconclusive struggle in Lebanon searches for some Arab victim to receive the energy of its despair. The nearly impossible task of absorbing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza feeds the creation of dramatic action and fantasy solutions. The decay of the Likud, Begin’s conservative coalition, which has now consented to share the government with its more liberal opponents, encourages opportunities on the right to recruit the devotees who represent the compromise. The long-standing Sephardic anger against the old Ashkenazic establishment expresses itself in a direct attack on the patriotism of the ruling class. Above all, the new immigration of ultra-Orthodox Jews from North America provides troops and fanatic fury for the street thugs of the Kahane movement.  

Whatever the causes, the Kahane phenomenon is real and dangerous.  

What is its significance? What does it say to us about the present and the future of the Jewish state?  

The Kahane phenomenon is a vivid proof that racism and fascism are just as Jewish as universalism and socialism. The call for the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state is no different from the demand of German Nazis for the eviction of the Jews from German soil. There are many elements in traditional rabbinic Judaism that encourage chauvinism and a violent hatred of outsiders. Given the privilege of majority status, the victim becomes the victimizer.  

Kahane, as a traditional rabbi turned politician, is an example of the danger in marrying nationalism with religion. The original pioneers of a militaristic nationalism, like Vladimir Jabotinsky, regarded the superstition and fanaticism of the traditional religious sector with as much disdain as their socialist opponents. Although it encouraged violence, it was free of the Messianic foolishness which now characterizes the new conservatives. Begin, with politicial astuteness, encourafged the merger of two previousy incompatible Zionist trends. The result is the Jewish version of the army of Ayatolla Khomeini. A militant chauvinism receives religious sanction.  

Kahane, like Hitler, derives much of his success from saying out loud what many people are thinking, but which most of them are too embarrassed to proclaim publicly. By speaking racism without inhibition, he makes it respectable. If politicians dar utter the forbidden words of racism, ordinary citizens certainly have the right to do the same. What was formerly clandestine, associated with shame, now becomes an accepted part of the political dialogue. Like the proclamations of the ancient Persian king, the sentiment, once uttered, cannot be recalled.  

The Kahane phenomenon is a testimony to the emergence in Israeli politics of violent confrontation. Although Begin’s rhetoric often encouraged spontaneous physical attacks on opponents in the streets, the recruitment of thugs to engineer personal assaults and public disturbances is something new and frightening. Especially the use of provacative insults like “traitor” and “blasphemer” gives ordinary criminals the right to pose as the self-righteous defenders of the faith.  

Kahane demonstrates the irony of Arab-Jewish relations. Its propoganda encourages the very Arab alienation which the racists claim justifies the expulsion of the Arabs. The more Kahane speaks and is publicized, the more do Israeli Arabs and their West Bank Palestinian brothers feel that they can find no comfortable place within the Jewish state. The more Arab alienation, the more Arab violence. The more Arab violence, the more the Kahane demand for Jewish counter-violence.  

The Kahane upsurge certainly reflects the weakening of the Likud coalition. Originally a small right-wing party controlled by Menachem Begin, the Likud emerged as a marriage between militaristic nationalists and the capitalist opponents of Zionest socialism. With the socialist decline in the mid-’70’s. Likud assumed political power in 1977 and expanded its security base by forging an alliance with the religous right. However, the retirement of Begin  and the revival of the Labor opposition, has left the coalition in disarray. No longer finding resolute leadership within the major conservative party, many right wingers are turning to the new fringe groups on the right for political expression. The more Likud decays, the stronger will Kahane grow.  

Kahane has been a catalyst for the Israeli left. There is nothing like a terrifying enemy to mobilize the indifferent. The one positive consequence of Kahane’s emergence to prominence is that he, like Jerry Falwell, forces lazy liberals to take political action and to patch up old quarrels for the sake of effective confrontation. By simply being the monster that he is, he fuels the energies of reluctant secular Zionists and their liberal religious friends.  

What should be done about Kahane? 

The answer is not one that orthodox civil libertarians like. But freedom of speech and political organization can never be absolutes. They are functions of the preservation of social order and a democratic political system.  

Kahane’s political party, like all political parties that preach racism, needs to be banned. Israel is not America. Israel is a vulnerable bi-national state at war with its neighbors. It cannot afford the luxury of racist incitement to violence. Just as West Germany appropriately forbids the establishment of openly Nazi political organizations, so must Israel forbid the right of Kahane to sit and preach in the Israeli parliament.  

Political bans cannot ban the convictions that give rise to the crisis. But they do remove the political respectability that enhances the prestige of organized racism and makes it more difficult to operate.  

A democracy that believes in survival does not masochistically allow itself to be used for its own destruction. At this time when Arab-Jewish reconciliation is so essential to Israel’s survival, absolute political freedom is less important than peace.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1997, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2

Colloquium ‘97.  It will be an extraordinary event. Eleven Jewish historians of international fame are coming to the Birmingham Temple to spend the Simhat (sic) Torah weekend with us. They will speak, dialogue with each other and open our eyes to the realities of the Jewish experience. 

We Jews are an extraordinary people, with a saga that continues to fascinate even our enemies. But the story of our past has been in the hands of a religious establishment that chooses to hide or distort the truth to serve a messianic ideology. Unlike the story of most nations and civilizations Jewish history is presented as sacred history. Sacred history is no longer a tale of human striving and human ambition. It is the story of gods, supernatural miracles, divine interventions and holy missions. It is the revelation of divine reward and punishment and the rescue of chosen peoples. The normal standards of scientific inquiry are never applied. Faith and tradition are the final judges. And they are supported by centuries of propaganda. 

In such an intellectual environment the stories in the Torah , the Tanakh and the Talmud are assumed to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The legitimacy of traditional Judaism rests on the presentation of Jewish history.  If this presentation is not true – and if ‘believers’ come to believe that it is not true, the foundations of traditional Judaism will crumble.   

A credible Humanistic Judaism in the end rests on the real experience of the Jewish people.  But its perception of that experience is quite different from that of tradition.  Fortunately, modern science, archaeology, textual criticism and naturalistic approach to the human experience have produced a radically different version of the Jewish saga.  Unfortunately, most of this information is locked up in scholarly journals where it never reaches the general public.  Because of this ‘seclusion’, even the most liberal congregations continue to present the ‘old’ version of the story. 

Colloquium ‘97 will be one of the first opportunities for the general public to come face to face with the new evidence and the new story.  For those who are not familiar with the ‘discoveries’ of the last century, encountering them can be mind-boggling.  The Jewish experience takes on a radically new human dimension.  Familiar tales are no longer credible.  Familiar interpretations are no longer viable.  We are liberated to embrace a new vision of Jewish evolution. 

Our eleven historians will explore at least nine areas of Jewish development where ‘mythology’ prevails. 

  1. The origins of the Jewish people: It may be the case that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the presentation of the Torah at Sinai are invented tales.  The Israelites may have been a hill-country Canaanite people who did not emerge onto the Near Eastern stage until shortly before the time of King David. 
  1. The origins of the Bible:  If God did not write the Torah who did?  Was the author Moses? Or were the Torah and Bible put together some seven or eight hundred years after the death of Moses by writers and editors who projected their contemporary issues back into ‘ancient’ times? 
  1. The Greeks and the Jews: The common vision that the Maccabees stood against Greek culture and rescued Judaism from the insidious influence of Greek paganism may be a distortion of the truth.  The Greeks profoundly altered Jewish culture, provoking an internal debate that set the defenders of reason against the devotees of faith.  The Jewish world was divided into many religions and political parties.  The roots of a humanistic Judaism can be found here. 
  1. The origins of Orthodox Judaism:  The rabbinic establishment maintained and still maintains that Orthodoxy is a reflection of a continuous tradition that can be traced back to Moses.  All other versions of Judaism are newer and, therefore, less authentic.  But it may be the case that ‘traditional’ Judaism is less traditional than it pretends to be.  The historical vision of the Talmud may not accurately reflect what really happened. 
  1. The experience of the medieval Jew:  The connection of the Jews to money, commerce and the beginnings of capitalism is often an ‘embarrassing’ subject for many contemporary Jews.  They are more comfortable viewing the Middle Ages as a time when Jews were the primary victims of religious persecution.  A large slice of the Jewish experience and of Jewish creativity may be ignored in the process. 
  1. The legacy of Hasidism:  In modern times the culture and spirituality of the Hasidic movements have been romanticized.  They are often equated with the new spiritual search of the contemporary Western world.  What is often neglected is the assaultive politics and the cruel superstitions of Hasidic daily life, which have nothing to do with either human dignity or spiritual serenity. 
  1. The significance of the Enlightenment:  In the contemporary world it has become fashionable to blame the revolutions of science and reason for the decline of Jewish identity and for destructive assimilation. Modern secular culture becomes the enemy of Jewish fulfillment. But this critique misses the positive transformation of the life of the Jew through personal freedom, female liberation, secular education and the openness of a democratic society.  
  1. The origins of modern anti-Semitism:  The terrible Holocaust has riveted Jewish attention on the phenomenon of Jew hatred.  Most commentators find its beginning in the hostility of the Christian world.  Others see the beginnings in the unique economic role which Jews assumed in the Western world.  But the truth may be different from either speculation. 
  1. The significance of Zionism:  There is no doubt that the establishment of the state of Israel is the most important Jewish achievement of the twentieth century.  The founders of the state imagined that Zionism would provide for a liberal and secular future for Jewish nationalism.  But recent developments can easily lead us to a different assessment. 

Jewish history is no fixed story which ‘tradition’ presents to us for study.  It is in the process of being re-created (sic) and re-conceived.  If you want to experience the ‘cutting edge’ of this debate do not miss Colloquium ‘97. 

October 23-26.  A unique and wonderful opportunity. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1988, Vol. XXVI, Number 2

At the end of September, during the festival of Sukkot, a special conference will be held in Brussels-which, in a very important way, is part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Temple. 

The second biennial meeting of the new International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews is the special event.  It was founded in Detroit two years ago.  And, to a large extent, it grew out of the pioneer efforts of our own Temple to develop a humanistic alternative in Jewish life.  Today seven national organizations from America, Canada, France, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina and Israel are joined together in a common effort to promote a secular approach to Jewish identity.  Hopefully, this international connection will provide a worldwide voice for our philosophy and for our decisions on important issues. 

One of these issues is the question of who is a Jew.  Although, on the surface, it appears to be a perfunctory issue, the answer to the question has aroused intense controversy in the Jewish world.  The persistent attempts of orthodox Jews in Israel to force the Israeli government to exclude from Jewish identity and Jewish privileges all citizens who do not conform to the orthodox vision of what a Jew is has dramatized the question. 

The orthodox criteria for Jewish identity are an odd mixture of racial and religious requirements.  All people born of Jewish mothers, regardless of their religious beliefs, loyalties or cultural attachments, are Jews.  But men and women who want to join the Jewish people must be converted by orthodox rabbis and pledge their commitment to orhodox practice.  This apparent inconsistency is defended with great passion by traditional Jews. 

The consequences of this traditional position, if it is applied uniformly throughout Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora, is the exclusion of large numbers of people who want to be Jews.  In an age of inreasing intermarriage there are thousand of Jewish children who have Jewish fathers but no Jewish mothers.  In a time of religious diversity there are thousands of potential “converts” who like Judaism but who cannot stomach orthodoxy.  In a world where millions of Jews are secular and find their Jewish identity in cultural loyalties, an identification of Jewish legitimacy with orthodox law and orthodox practice makes a majority of the Jewish people feel like second-class citizens. 

Neither conservative nor reform authorities have responded adequately to this controversy.  Conservative Jews follow the orthodox timidly, only demanding that conservative rabbis have the same privileges as the orthodox.  Reform Jews have been bolder acknowledging that Jewish fathers confer Jewish identity just as well as Jewish mothers.  But they still insist on some form of theistic conversion process for newcomers. 

What is needed is a bold repudiation of the orthodox position.  We need a definition of Jewish identity which will embrace all the people who think they are Jews, are acknowledged as Jews and who want to be Jews. 

We need a definition that will give the same rights to Jewish fathers as the orthodox give to Jewish mothers. 

We need a definition that will proclaim Judaism to be more than a religion, and Jewish identity to be far more than religious identity.  Cultural Jews are as much Jews as religious Jews. 

We need a definition that offers admission to secular people.  Secular newcomers who want to identify with Jewish history and Jewish destiny should be as welcome as the smaller minority who seek to be sincere orthodox Jews. 

We need a definition that tells the truth about the Jewish people and enables Jews to be honest about who they are and what they are. 

And once we have arrived at this definition through public discussion on an international level we need to speak loud and clear with one voice to the Jewish world.  It may be the case  that our proclamation will be welcomed by thousands of Jews who have been uncomfortable with the traditional monopoly of official definitions. 

What follows is the resolution approved by the International Executive of the Federation to be presented for discussion, amendment, and approval by the Brussels conference. 

Who is a Jew?  After more than thirty centuries Jews continue to debate this question. 

This debate is no academic exercise.  At stake is the integrity of millions of Jews who do not find their Jewish identity in religious belief or religious practice, but who discover their Jewishness in the national experience of the Jewish people.  At stake, also, is the Jewish identity of thousands of men and women, in Israel and in the Diaspora, who want to be Jewish, but who are rejected by the narrow legalism of traditional authorities. 

We, the members of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, believe that the survival of the Jewish people depends on a more generous view of Jewish identity than traditional religion allows.  We welcome into the Jewish people all men and women who sincerely desire to share the Jewish fate, regardless of their maternal ancestry and regardless of their religious beliefs.  We challenge the assumption that the Jews are primarily a religious community and that certain religious convictions and behavior are essential to full membership in the Jewish people. 

On the contrary, the Jewish people began as a nation, a nation with many diverse and opposing beliefs and personal convictions  It evolved into an international people, with a culture and civilization all its own.  Judaism, as the national culture of the Jews, is more than theological commitment.  It is language, a vast body of literature, historical memories and ethical values.  It is a treasure house of many options. 

We Jews have a moral responsibility to embrace all people who seek to identify with our culture and destiny. Will the children and spouses of intermarriage, who desire to be part of the Jewish people be cast aisde because they do not have Jewish mothers and do not wish to under conversion? 

Therefore-in response to the cruel and self-destructive definition of the Jews now proclaimed by the orthodox authorities-and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people-we affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent, or any person who declares himself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, civilization, community and fate of the Jewish people.