THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.

The Outlook for Peace in the Middle East

What Does it Mean to be Jewish – Winter 1995

Can Israel make peace with her Arab neighbors? That question has been plaguing the Jewish people and many other nations for forty-seven years, ever since the establishment of the state of Israel.

In 1967, the Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser tried to mobilize the Arab nations to crush Israel and failed. Twelve years later the first breakthrough occurred. Egypt, under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, the successor to Nasser, made peace with Israel. But no one else did. Sadat was assassinated. Terrorism contin­ued. War followed in Lebanon. And the fanati­cism of Muslim fundamentalism invaded the Arab world with a fury far worse than any that Nasser invented.

Peace was impossible so long as the Cold War continued. So long as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies in the Middle East, confrontation was inevitable, and weapons poured into the region, encour­aging warlike posturing. But, to everyone’s surprise, Communism fell like a house of sticks. The Cold War ended with more of a whimper than a bang. The Arab world was left without Soviet support. Hating America became impractical. Tolerating Israel became a possibility.

The last bastion of pan-Arab nationalism was Iraq. In an action that defied reason, that nation’s leader, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait, part of the oil empire of the United States. The Gulf War ensued. Iraq was crushed and humiliated. Jordan and the Palestine Lib­eration Organization (PLO), which supported Hussein, also were losers. Jordan lost its American support. The PLO lost its Arab sup­port. Both were ready for peace. The question was: Which would take the first step?

The PLO took the first step. It was bank­rupt, down and out, and bereft of real allies. It was weakened by civil war and defection. Above all, it was confronted by a formidable Palestinian opposition in the form of Hamas. Hamas was the child of Muslim fundamental­ism and the Intifada. It hated Israel. It hated America. But it hated PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with an equal passion. Suddenly the old political principle that the enemy of my en­emy is my friend worked its wonders. Arafat and Israel shared a common enemy. And so they became reluctant “friends.” In Septem­ber 1993, the famous handshake took place. Israeli doves were euphoric. Israeli hawks were depressed. Most Palestinians, desperate for good news, were happy. Fundamentalist Pal­estinians were angry.

The PLO’s action allowed Jordan to take the next step. There were too many Palestin­ians in Jordan to allow King Hussein of Jordan to do what he had wanted to do ever since he became king: to initiate peace with Israel. But now that Arafat, the official leader of the Pal­estinians, had made peace, it was easy for Hussein to shake Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand, too. In September 1994, peace broke out between Israel and Jordan. The fundamentalists growled again. But they were powerless to prevent the second handshake.

While many Israelis were apprehensive about making peace with Arafat, most Israelis were wildly enthusiastic about making peace with Jordan. After all, the agendas of the PLO and Jordan do not coincide. They both want the same thing. They both want the West Bank. They both want control over East Jerusalem. They both want to win the support and loy­alty of the Palestinians in Jordan. While they both share a fear of the Muslim fundamental­ists, they share very little else.

Most Israelis like King Hussein. They see him as a sincere supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist. They see him as the long­time persecutor of the PLO, which he expelled from Jordan in 1970. They see him as a politi­cal alternative to Arafat.

Arafat is very worried. He is squeezed be­tween Israel and Jordan. He knows that Hussein hates his guts. He knows that if Israel and Hussein could get together, they would leave him and the PLO out in the cold. He knows that, in a pinch, he has very few allies in the Arab world.

But Hussein needs to move cautiously. He has thousands of fanatical fundamenta­lists in his country. His population is mainly a refugee West Bank population. He has many enemies who want to overthrow him. His throne is insecure. He relies mainly on the soldiers of his Bedouin army. A betrayal of Arafat would not win him any moderate Arab friends. His survival as the King of Jor­dan has depended on his unwillingness to take any real political risks. The one time he did, by supporting Saddam in Iraq, he suffered bit­ter consequences.

For years King Hussein worried about Syria. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria cov­eted Jordan and Lebanon. He saw himself as the ruler of a Greater Syria, which would in­clude the Palestinians. Assad won the military and political support of the Soviet Union. He offered asylum to Palestinian terrorists and aided them in their ruthless work. He defied

America and the rest of the Arab world. Jor­dan was afraid to make peace with Israel be­fore Syria did.

When the Cold War ended, Syria was left high and dry. Her chief enemy and Arab rival, Iraq, loomed as more and more menacing. Her option to play one great power against the other vanished. Her only radical support came from Shiite Iran, whose fundament­alist rulers despised the secular nationalism Assad championed.

When the Gulf War erupted, Syria repu­diated all her old propaganda by joining the Americans and Israelis as allies against Iraq. By the time the war was over, Syria was ready to talk peace with Israel. Urged on by U.S. Sec­retary of State Jim Baker, she entered into ne­gotiations. The handshake of Rabin and Arafat came as a cruel surprise. Assad wanted no Pal­estinian state. He wanted the Golan back. And he was prepared to sell out the Palestinians to achieve his goal.

Peace with Arafat made it less necessary for Israel to make peace with Syria. The hos­tility of fundamentalists in Syrian-controlled Lebanon was quite manageable so long as the Intifada was extinguished. And peace with Jordan made a rapprochement with Syria even less necessary. Israel had imagined that King Hussein was too cautious to make peace un­less the Syrians did it first. When Hussein grew tired of waiting for Syria (because he was afraid that waiting would allow Arafat to take every­thing Hussein wanted), Assad was furious. Is­rael no longer urgently needed Syrian coop­eration. Israel had Jordan and a friendly eastern border. Finding a solution to the dilemma of the Golan Heights could be shifted to the back burner.

The importance of Jordan to Israel has in­creased with the events of the past few months. The power of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank is growing. Arafat’s control of the Pales­tinians is slipping. Can Israel afford to turn over the West Bank to a Palestinian popula­tion dominated by Hamas terror? Can she leave the Jewish settlements to be protected against Hamas aggressiveness by reluctant PLO police? Most Israelis no longer believe that Arafat is either intimidating enough or necessary. The message of the Likud opposition to the Labor party’s peace policy is to suggest that Arafat be abandoned, the West Bank be retained, and the protection of Palestinian rights be shifted to Hussein. And Hussein does not seem averse to assuming that role.

Peace with Jordan has become more im­portant to Israel than peace with Arafat. It means that Syria can wait for concessions. It means that Arafat may never get what he was promised. It means that what Labor accom­plished — peace with Jordan — may work to the Likud’s advantage.

History features cruel ironies. Peace with Jordan would not have been possible without peace with Arafat first. Rabin stuck his neck out when he stuck his hand out to meet the hand of Arafat. Now he is burdened with Arafat. And Hussein can just as easily shake the hand of Likud as shake the hand of Rabin.

An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

Humanistic Judaism: A Response to Future Shock

SHJ Conference 2004, summer 2004

Humanistic Judaism has a unique role to play in the Jewish world. That role is more than providing an ideological space or a con­gregational home for secular and nontheistic Jews. It is more than providing a cultural Ju­daism for Jews who no longer can accept a conventional religious Judaism.

This role can best be explained by remem­bering the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler. It was Toffler who invented the phrase “fu­ture shock.” Toffler used this phrase to de­scribe the mental and emotional state of mod­ern people who are overwhelmed by the accelerating rate of change. Industrialization, urbanization, capitalism, science, democracy, freedom, and the new technology have arrived in rapid succession during the past two hundred years. They have radically altered the lives of most men and women in the West­ern world. Responding to all this relentless and continuous change produces confusion and anxiety.

Toffler suggested that people have devel­oped a series of defensive strategies to cope with this anxiety. The most powerful one is denial, the refusal to accept that change has taken place. And the most popular form of denial is nostalgia, a hankering after a roman­ticized past that can never be restored. Since people cannot avoid the real world in which they work and play, they create islands of nos­talgia to which they can retreat periodically and pretend that nothing has really changed at all. The institution that lends itself most easily to this strategy is religion. Religion be­gan as the worship of ancestors. The purpose of much religion in modern society is not to help people confront the real world but to en­able them to retreat every so often into a com­fortable past world that no longer exists.

The Jewish people, the most urbanized people in the world, is in future shock. Over the past two hundred years every aspect of its life has been radically transformed. Work, education, family, sex, government, and be­liefs are no longer the same. The break with the past is so dramatic that most Jews cannot even conceive of what Jewish life in the Middle Ages was really like. But this devia­tion from the ways of our ancestors fills us with great anxiety and triggers many troubling emotions. There is the fear that our ancestors disapprove of us and will punish us. There is the guilt of having abandoned what they worked so hard to secure. There is the sad­ness that the past has died and will never re­turn. There is the anger directed to the amor­phous forces responsible for the change.

Denial and nostalgia become the chief strategies for coping with all this discomfort. Synagogues and temples become islands of nostalgia, where for short periods of time Jews can use the language and symbols of the past and pretend for a moment that nothing has changed. They can pretend that reliance on God is the comfort of their life, They can pre­tend that the Torah lifestyle remains at the center of their existence. They can pretend that the texts of the past support the dramatic changes they cannot deny. They can lift quotations out of context and imagine that the past “kosherizes” the present.

Humanistic Judaism is the only branch of Judaism that refuses to practice this denial. That is its unique role in Jewish life. For Hu­manistic Jews the changes are real and unde­niable. They stand in opposition to the pref­erences of the past. The differences are real and cannot be wished away. A good philoso­phy of life helps us to face reality and not to run away from it. Judaism is not an eternal doctrine. It is a strategy for saving the Jewish people in a sea of change.

As Humanistic Jews, our way of coping with future shock is to make five affirmations.

We let the past speak for itself. We do not do what many well-intentioned liberal Jews choose to do. We do not force the past to agree with the present. We know that Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel would not be happy with our present lifestyle. We do not distort their world in order to extract their approval. We let them say what they intend to say. We let them be what they were. We try to under­stand why they made the decisions they did, even though we would not choose to make the same decisions. We listen respectfully to the past because it is the voice of our ances­tors, and they deserve our respect. But we do not try to hide the differences. Where we agree, that is wonderful. Where we do not, that is reality.

We empower the present. Since the cre­ations of the past are human creations, just like the work of the present, they are not su­perior to what the present has to offer. The holidays, ceremonies, and values of the past that fit the realities of the present must be saved and savored. But the present has the same right to create that the past did. The vic­tories and traumas of recent times need to be celebrated and remembered. We give the present its own dignity.

We say what we believe. We can never confront reality if we use words that were in­tended to describe another world centuries ago. A good philosophy of life is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It is a path to truth and reality and must speak clearly and di­rectly to our own convictions. If we have to make a choice between continuity and integ­rity, we always choose integrity.

We find our continuity in the fewish people. It is not God or Torah that are the real foundation of Judaism; it is the Jewish people struggling to find ways to survive and pros­per in a difficult world. This affirmation lies at the heart of the writings of two great hu­manistic Jewish philosophers from Russia, Ahad Ha’am and Micah Berdichevsky. In the end, they said, beliefs, values, words, and ceremonies may change. But the Jewish people in all its diversity remains.

We love the future. It is important to respect the past and to empower the present. But it is especially important to honor the future. In a world of continuous change the future is always with us. When, in ancient times, the priests of Jerusalem allowed only one temple — and that temple had to be in Jerusalem — they failed to imagine that one day the Jewish people would be an international people. They were stuck in the past and present. We must not make the same mistake. It is difficult to imagine what life will be like in fifty years because, given the present accelerating rate of change, it will be very different from what it is now. But it is clear that a Judaism in a global world that is becom­ing one big mixed neighborhood needs more imagination than nostalgia.

As Berdichevsky said in his essay Wrecking and Building, “We can no longer solve the riddles of life in the old ways, or live and act as our an­cestors did. We are not their living monuments…. Through a basic revision of Israel’s inner and outer life, our whole consciousness will be trans­formed: and we shall live and stand fast.”

How Antisemitism Was Transformed

Rise of Antisemitism, Winter 2003

Antisemitism is alive and well, but it has undergone some interesting transformations.

When antisemitism began, it was Euro­pean. Its historic roots lay in the anti-Juda­ism of early Christianity and the Middle Ages. Its trigger lay in the traumatic world of early capitalism.

In 1873 a major economic depression sent millions of Europeans into panic. The collapse of once-powerful banks, the wiping out of the savings of once-powerful people, the specter of unemployment — all combined to raise the question, “Why?” Antisemitism was a pow­erful and convincingly simple answer to this complex question. It thrived on the well- known connection of Jews with money. It won the hearts of both aristocrats and peasants who despised the leaders of the money economy.

While anti-Judaism was directed to the re­ligion of the Jew, antisemitism was focused on the “race” or ethnicity of the Jew. For the “anti- Judaites” the solution to the Jewish problem was the conversion of the Jew. For the antisemite the solution to the Jewish problem was the elimination of the Jew. Most antisemites were not interested in the religion of the Jew. They were absorbed in the social, economic, and po­litical roles that Jews played. For them conver­sion was irrelevant. It could not change the fundamentally evil nature of the Jew. Anti- Judaism imagined that the Jew was salvageable. Antisemitism knew that he was not.

In the end, if the Jew is the devil, if he has invented the evils of both capitalism and socialism, he is intolerable. Extermination flows logically from the premises of anti-semitic ideology. Expulsion and persecution are insufficient to eradicate the social evil that the Jew represents. For the arch-antisemite the Jew is the incarnation of evil. And evil has no right to exist.

The consequence of European anti­semitism was the Nazi debacle and the Holo­caust. So important was the Jewish enemy that his elimination took priority over competing items on the Nazi agenda. Even at the end of the war, when Nazi resources were exhausted, soldiers and trains were made available to execute the Final Solution.

After the Second World War, it seemed inconceivable that antisemitism would find defenders. The horror of the Shoah was so great that Western European governments outlawed antisemitic propaganda and anti-semitic political parties. Nazi symbolswere banned. Public hostility to the Jews achieved the status of a crime. Even the Ger­mans began the long repentance of repara­tions. The revival of antisemitism in Europe seemed unlikely.

Then, only three years after the war, Stalin turned his political power against the Jews of the Soviet Union. Jewish writers were elimi­nated. Jewish Communist leaders were ex­ecuted. Antisemitism shifted its European center from Western Europe to Eastern Eu­rope. If Stalin had not died in 1953, most of the Jews of Russia would have been deported to the gulags of Siberia. After his death antisemitism persisted, but it fizzled down to policies of persecution, all of it rendered lu­dicrous by the official protest that anti­semitism could not possibly exist in the Communist motherland.

Recent developments have shifted the center of antisemitism and antisemitic pro­paganda out of Europe. The reason is ironic. Jew-hatred in Europe triggered the rise of Zi­onism. And the leaders of Zionism claimed that the establishment of a Jewish state would cure antisemitism. Yet, as we know, the es­tablishment of the state of Israel provided a major provocation to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The consequence of this development was the emergence in the Muslim world of a rabid antisemitism. While many Arab anti- Zionists directed their hostility to the Israelis alone, most Arab anti-Zionists made no dis­tinction between Israelis and Jews.

After 1967, the concepts of European antisemitism and its propaganda were adopted by Arabs to explain how it was pos­sible for little Israel to defeat the combined armies of the Arab world. The answer was simple: Israel is the creation of America. And America is controlled by the Jews. American power is Jewish power. The demon of the money economy had now used its enormous political, economic, and military power to enslave the Muslim world and to corrupt its historic culture with the Jewish values of the American consumer society. For most Mus­lim fundamentalists, as well as many “Mus­lim Marxists,” Jews and America go together. And so does their evil.

Today in Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad and Karachi, the assault on the Jews is relent­less. European antisemitism has been dressed up in Muslim clothing, but the heart of the message is the same. The Jews stand at the center of human history as an evil force. Only their elimination, together with their puppets America and Israel, will save Islam and the world. Zionism has managed to generate a hatred in the Muslim world equal in inten­sity to the hatred in Europe that brought it into existence.

The September 11 scenario revealed this obsession. New York was chosen as the main target of the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists because it was viewed as the true capital of Jewish power. The World Trade Center was the temple of money and of the global economy, which represented the corrupt na­ture of Jewish power.

The return of virulent antisemitism to Europe arrived with the Muslim immigrants who are now pouring into Europe. The popu­lations of England, France, and Germany have already been radically altered by this migra­tion. Since the birthrates of native Europeans are low and the reproduction rate of Muslim immigrants is high, the future is clear. Europe will become increasingly more Muslim.

The centers of antisemitism in Europe no longer lie in the aristocracy or in the army or among the intellectuals. In the social sphere Jews are now able to achieve the summits of power and fame. On the contrary, the centers of antisemitism now lie among the poor Mus­lim immigrants and among the Europeans on the left who champion their cause. Anti­semitism has always been as much a disease of the poor as of the rich. For the economic losers of the global economy, antisemitism provides a simple and “credible” answer. The antisemitic violence that took place last April in France was the product of the inflamma­tory antisemitic propaganda that now floats around the Muslim world.

The shift of antisemitism from the Chris­tian to the Muslim world has produced ironic political consequences. The forces in West­ern Europe that hated Jews now also hate Muslims. But they generally hate the Jews less than they hate the Muslims. After all, Euro­pean Jews are committed to European culture. The Muslims represent a darker anti- European force. Plus — using the political principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — the Jews suddenly emerge as useful allies of the anti-Muslim right. Even Monsieur LePen of the racist National Front has said as much. History does have the power to pro­duce absurdities.

It is certainly true that arranging for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will re­duce the hostility of many Arabs and many Muslims toward Jews. But it is also true that for diehard Muslim fundamentalists the war against Western culture is also the war against the Jews and their American “puppets.” While Europe still harbors many antisemites on both the right and the left, the center of Jew-hatred now lies in the Semitic world and in the Mus­lim culture that the Arabs pioneered.

RESPONSA – Conversion

Question: Does Humanistic Judaism provide for conversion? If Judaism is viewed primarily as a culture, what does conver­sion mean?

Responsum: Conversion is a Christian term. It refers to the dramatic transforma­tion of the individual who “sees the light” and is saved. This transforming or “born again” experience is not only the result of personal choice but also of divine grace and intervention. In the broader sense conversion refers to any act of becoming a Christian, whether that transforming expe­rience occurs or not. In both cases there is a theistic component. If the conversion is sincere, the convert comes to believe cer­tain things about God that he or she did not believe before. The sign of conversion is baptism.

Becoming a Jew has been an entirely different experience. First of all, we Jews started out as a nation, not a theological fraternity. Joining a nation is different from joining a religious denomination.

In biblical times, Jewish identity was not tied to the affirmation of any theologi­cal principles. Until the imposition of priestly tyranny around 450 B.C., there was no enforced religious conformity. Both monotheism and polytheism were Jewish. In the absence of formal naturalization, becoming a Jew meant that you were adopted into a Jewish family or married to a Jewish man (since women were the possessions of their husbands).

In the priestly period (450-165 B.C.), great emphasis was placed on racial pu­rity. Non-Jews were discouraged from join­ing the Jewish nation, by intermarriage or otherwise. Male circumcision became a sign of Jewish identity. If a non-Jewish man wanted to become a Jew and was not circumcised, he had to undergo this pain­ful surgery.

The Book of Ruth, which was written during the priestly period but set in an earlier time, was most likely a protest against the racial policies of the priests. Ruth, a Moabite, became a Jew by marrying a Jew. When her husband died, she had to choose between returning to her family and staying with her husband’s family. By choosing to follow her mother-in-law (an interesting development, to say the least), she remained a Jew.

In the rabbinic period (100 B.C.-500 C.E.), very clear procedures for becoming a Jew were defined. Jews had come to equate national identity with religious conformity, especially the conformity prescribed by the rabbis. Moreover, be­cause rabbinic ideology was Salvationist and promised life after death (very much like Christianity, which ultimately imi­tated it), many people were choosing to become Jews for religious reasons and not for national or marriage reasons.

Rabbinic Judaism is what today is called Orthodoxy. Despite the large influx of non- Jews into the Jewish nation for religious reasons, the Orthodox procedure for be­coming a Jew remained profoundly racial. An invidious distinction was made be­tween born Jews and entering Jews. Jews born of a Jewish mother were Jewish for­ever. Even if they repudiated God and the rabbinic religion, they remained Jews. No religious criterion could alter their right to be called Jews. Their tribal and national origin was sufficient. Entering male Jews, on the other hand, confronted three tests. The first was the repudiation of their for­mer religious practices and the adoption of the halakhic lifestyle. The second was circumcision. The third was ritual purifi­cation in a ritual pool (mikvah). Entering women were spared circumcision and now could join in their own right and not merely as attachments to their husbands.

During the Middle Ages, becoming a Jew was not an important issue because both Christian and Muslim governments forbade Jews to accept “converts.” But the emancipation period, with its open society and increasing intermarriage, made “con­version” an important issue in Jewish life.

Conservative Judaism maintained the Orthodox provisions. Reform Judaism, in its most radical expansion, abandoned all three rabbinic criteria and simply required an affirmation of faith (Christian style). But, in recent years, many Reform rabbis have returned to traditional procedures.

Humanistic Judaism welcomes every­body who wants to be Jewish. The process of becoming a Jew rests on premises quite different from traditional assumptions.

 Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. And Jewish identity is a cultural identity.

 Any person who wishes to identify with the culture, history and fate of the Jew­ish people is eligible for membership.

 There are no ideological or theological requirements for membership. However, Humanistic Jews can, with integrity, welcome only other humanists.

 There is no necessity for the potential “convert” to repudiate his or her beliefs or lifestyle. We are wary of people who “suddenly see the light” or who reject the commitments of a lifetime. Loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people is a cultural addition, not a personal trans­formation.

 Entering the Jewish people is not a religious conversion. It is more like being adopted by a family. Perhaps adoption would be a good humanistic substitute for the word conversion.

 Acceptance should be mutual. An indi­vidual cannot unilaterally decide to join the Jewish people. An existing Jewish community must extend the invitation.

Every Humanistic Jewish community is free to establish procedures for adoption. The procedures that now exist usually involve the following activities:

 Studying Judaism and Jewish history from a humanistic perspective.

 Involvement with Jewish culture and a Jewish community.

 Celebration of welcome.

Receiving a Hebrew name as a sign of membership in the Jewish people.

Humanistic Judaism recognizes that the motivation to become Jewish is rarely ideological. People want to become Jews because they are married to Jews, because they are comfortable with Jewish culture, because they like their association with Jewish people. The adoption process ought to reflect these realities.

Islam Today

Islam and the Modern World, Autumn 2005-Winter 2006

Islam has high visibility in America be­cause of what happened on September 11, 2001. But it has low understanding. Most Americans associate modern Islam with violence and terrorism. Their knowledge is limited by hostility and distance. The varieties and complexities of Muslim life are not part of their perception.

Early Islam was a surprising story of phe­nomenal success. Inspired by the teachings of an Arab prophet from Mecca, the armies of Islam went out to conquer the civilized world in 635 C.E. They defeated the Greeks and Persians and boldly annexed most of their empires. Within only one century the Muslim world stretched from India to Spain. It was one of the most amazing conquests in the history of humanity.

Within three centuries most of the con­quered people had become Muslims and had adopted the Arabic language and Arabic culture as their own. An authoritarian govern­ment and an authoritarian clergy, supported by an authoritarian law, unified this vast domain. From the Qur’an[1] to the mosque, a new intensely religious civilization evolved. Although it tolerated Christians and Jews, its outreach and demands were totalitarian.

The religious intensity was bound to spawn division. Establishment Muslims were called Sunni. The dissenters took such names as Kharijites, Shiites, and Druse. All of them were united by mutual hatred and self-righ­teousness. While the wars with the Christian and Hindu worlds dominated politics, the internal wars were equally fierce.

The decline of the Muslim world before the advent of the urban industrial revolution in Western Europe was due to many factors. There was the economic reversal that came with the shift of the trade routes from Europe to Asia, the ocean voyage replacing the camel caravan. There was the trauma of the Mongol and Turkish conquests. There was the absence of a strong and vital middle class. Above all, there were the intransigent clergy, who nixed all scientific inquiry. The Muslim world en­joyed no Renaissance. By the nineteenth cen­tury the Islamic realms were overwhelmingly poor, backward, and passive. The doctrine of kismet (fate) discouraged any notion of hope and progress. The once-mighty conquerors were ripe for conquest.

The trauma of modern Islam was the con­quest of this depressed and volatile world by the great powers of Europe. Within one cen­tury the British, the French, the Italians, and the Russians had occupied almost all of the former Muslim territories. The humiliation of Islam was complete. The Christian world, which had, at one time, cowered before the might of the Muslims, was now the victor.

But there was one major difference in this reversal. The “Christian” powers of Europe were no longer Christian in the way they had been in earlier centuries. They had become the children of the first urban industrial revolu­tion. They were interested in the pleasures of this world, not the rewards of the next. They preferred cheap labor to converts, markets to shrines. If they were missionaries, they were missionaries for capitalism and free enter­prise. If they were educators, they were edu­cators of science. If they were idealists, they were idealists for secular states, industrial freedom, and female liberation. Nationalism had replaced religion as their chief passion. In many ways they were purveyors of a post- Christian civilization.

The encounter of Islam with the post- Christian West turned into both attraction and confrontation. Many Muslims wanted to imitate the West, either because they saw some personal advantage in changing or because they believed that only “modernization” could restore Muslim power. Many of these Muslim secularists shifted from religion to national­ism, imitating the West by becoming ardent Arabs, Persians, and Turks. But most Muslims were traumatized by the encounter. Modern Western secular culture violated the social order that gave structure and meaning to their lives. Individual freedom, secular education, and the liberation of women and children, in particular, were provocative. They simulta­neously envied the West and hated Western culture. And their antipathy was reinforced by the fanaticism of their clergy.

The Muslim secularists were initially successful, despite the conservative masses. They were often supported by the conquer­ing European powers. They had the ad­vantage of Western education. They found many adherents among native army of­ficers who yearned to expel the foreigners. Ataturk in Turkey, Pahlavi in Persia, and Nasser in Arab Egypt led political revolutions that sought to empower their nations through modernization. Later, Boumeddine in Al­geria, Qadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and Hussein in Iraq followed the secularist road. But to no avail. Their modernization plans were foiled by growing populations, corrupt bureaucracies, military dictatorship, and the absence of vital middle classes. In the end their reigns produced some West­ernization — but mainly sullen and disillu­sioned masses.

Muslim fundamentalism is a militant response to the Muslim encounter with the ideas and values of urban industrial civilization. Fundamentalists are more than traditionalists. They are at war with secularism. Secularists are the agents of the Devil and must be eliminated — their beliefs and their values undermine the foun­dations of Islam. Only a holy war, which restores the original faith of the Muslims, can defeat them.

Contemporary Islam embraces three components. The first consists of the belea­guered secularists, who have lost ground over the past thirty years. The second is the militant fundamentalists, who have been winning increasing support in all the nations of the Muslim world. The third is the ambivalent middle, who are the clear ma­jority. They vacillate between the visions of material prosperity offered by the secularists and the militant piety of respected religious leaders. Since they are an amorphous mass without any clear direction, they offer no ef­fective resistance.

Muslim fundamentalists, despite their recent amazing growth, face many problems.

The first is science. Fundamentalists depend on Western technology to maintain their power but cannot produce an educational system that can give them scientists. They rely mainly on “stealing” the technology of the nations they despise. The second problem is the clergy. Economic and social manage­ment by the imams and the mullahs produces lethargic and corrupt regimes. The clergy are wonderful at mobilization; but they are a di­saster when it comes to maintenance (think Iran and Afghanistan). The third problem is internal feuding. Sunni fundamentalists hate Shiite fundamentalists, and both branches of Islam are divided into factions incapable of compromise.

But the main problem is that urban indus­trial civilization is taking over the planet. The global economy, with all its secular choices and freedom, will not easily be crushed. In the end Islam, like Christianity and Juda­ism, will have to adapt to it. The first wave of Muslim secularists may have achieved limited success. But the inevitable second wave will be reinforced by a transformation that is sweeping over China, India, and Latin America. Political and religious terrorism may not cease. But the consumer culture moves relentlessly on. The mullahs in Iran will not conquer poverty. Nor will they be able in the long run to persuade their Muslim adherents to stay poor.


 

Jews and Arabs

Crisis in Israel – Autumn 2002

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the war in the Middle East? Or is the Jewish-Arab war condemned to last forever?

The war between the Jews and the Arabs in former British Palestine has been going on for eighty-one years. In 1921 the first Arab explosion against the Zionist pioneers an­nounced the beginning of the fray. For eight decades the war has waxed and waned. Thou­sands have been killed and maimed. Hatred and suspicion have undermined any success­ful resolution of the conflict.

After the Jewish War of Independence in 1948, the war became a war between the Jew­ish state and external Arab enemies. In that conflict, the Israelis were generally victorious. The Israeli triumph in 1967 crushed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. But in 1987 the Palestinian Arabs chose a new kind of battle: internal rebellion. The intifada was born. And it has grown in fury ever since.

The foundation of the war is the power of nationalism. Jewish nationalism was born out of the defiance of the oppressed Jewish masses in Tsarist Russia. It was fed by racial antisemitism. Diaspora nationalism sought to liberate the Jews of Eastern Europe and give them cultural autonomy. It was destroyed by native resistance and the Holocaust. Zionist nationalism also saw itself as a national lib­eration movement. It naively proposed to solve the Jewish problem of antisemitism by return­ing the Jews to their ancient homeland. Rein­forced by socialist idealism and the revival of Hebrew as a popular language, Zionists estab­lished a Jewish settlement in Palestine. The closing of the doors to immigration in America, the support of the British govern­ment, and the rise of Adolph Hitler provided an impetus that the slaughter of six million Jews was to make irresistible. Zionism became the most powerful movement to mobilize the Jewish masses in the twentieth century.

Arab nationalism was an import from the West, cultivated initially by Christian Arabs as a way of countering their exclusion by Muslims. Propelled by Turkish oppression and by the humiliation of European conquest, the nationalist movement was led by West­ernized Arab intellectuals who embraced secular values and placed nationhood above religion. But since the Arab world never fully experienced the secular revolution that trans­formed European life, the Arab nationalism of the street had difficulty distinguishing be­tween Arab loyalty and Muslim loyalty. Reli­gion inevitably became part of the nationalist package in the Muslim world.

Since the Arab world is vast, divided by regional differences, cultural diversity, and the internal boundaries of twenty-two states created by colonial masters, the unification of the Arab nation has not been easy. Nasser tried and failed. He was defeated both by the Israelis and by the hostility of his political enemies and rivals in the Arab world.

The one issue that has the power of tran­scending the internal state boundaries of the Arab world and mobilizing the Arab masses is Zionism. The Jewish state, whether deserv­edly or not, has become the symbol of Arab humiliation. Perceived as the last and most outrageous example of European colonialism, Israel is the object of universal hate in the Arab world. The defeat of Israel has become the ultimate perceived means of restoring Arab honor. The hatred of Zionism is so intense that it is difficult for most Arabs to distinguish between their hostility to Israel and their ha­tred for Jews.

In fact, the suspicion and hatred between Arabs and Jews is so fierce that dialogue is condemned to failure. Most public and pri­vate encounters between conventional Arab and Jewish leaders degenerate into shouting matches. Each side insists on its rights. And, of course, both sides are “right.” The Pales­tinian Arabs have been invaded, abused, and oppressed. The Israeli Jews are by now mainly native-born residents of the land they defend and the creators of a dynamic, modern, high- tech state, who have no place else to go.

From the Jewish point of view, Arab hos­tility cannot easily be distinguished from antisemitism. The memories of the Holocaust hover over every response. Of course, the popular media in the Arab world reinforce this perception by aping the propaganda of European Jew-hatred. From the perspective of the Arabs, Jewish voices are confused with the voices of Jewish extremists who advocate expulsion and deportation.

There is an abundance of extremists on both sides. The Arab and Palestinian nation­alist and fundamentalist worlds feature many militant groups who advocate terrorism and who call for the destruction of the Jewish state. The Jewish and Israeli extremists are equally militant in their refusal to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist (other than by suggesting that Jordan is already a Palestin­ian state). But, to the credit of the Israelis, Is­rael has a peace movement that has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Both sides see themselves as victims. Jews see Israel as a small, beleaguered state in a vast and petroleum-rich Arab world that does nothing to rescue its Palestinian brothers and sisters from poverty. Arabs see Israel as the agent of American imperialism, supported by the wealth and military technology of the world’s only superpower, a nation beholden to Jewish political power.

The failure of the Oslo peace process is as much the result of intense hatred and sus­picion as of the incompatibility of vested in­terests. The issues of boundaries, Jerusalem, and refugees are surrounded by such levels of distrust that the normal compromises that negotiations bring can never emerge. No ar­rangements can provide the security that most Israelis want. And no “deal” can yield the sense of honor and vindication that most Pal­estinians and Arabs want.

In the search for alternatives to endless war, certain realities need to be confronted.

  • This war is not only bad for the Israelis and Palestinians. It is also bad for the Jews and the Arabs. For the Jews the war has already spread to Europe, where Muslim militants as­sault synagogues and vulnerable Jews. For the Arabs the war prevents any real confrontation with the political, economic, and social issues that confront the Arab world. War continues to justify government by military dictators.
  •  This war is bad for America and the world. The Palestinian issue has provided the fuel whereby Muslim militants have won the allegiance of millions of Arabs and Muslims in their desire to wage war against America and Western culture. A war between the West and Islam is a world war. It is different from a war against Muslim fundamentalist terrorism. In the latter war we enjoy and will enjoy the support of most Muslim governments. The success of our response to September 11 lies in our ability to make the distinction.
  •  Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians by themselves cannot achieve peace — or even an effective truce — by relying on negotia­tions alone. The cycle of vengeance has its own logic. Every terrorist action requires re­taliation. Every retaliation requires counter- retaliation. No antagonist can allow itself to be seen as weak. Revenge is a necessary tac­tic to maintain credibility. The cycle cannot stop itself without outside intervention.
  •  The proposed Palestinian state is no more than three thousand square miles in size, hardly a formula for viability. It is presently a series of urban “doughnut holes” in Israeli- occupied territory. The presence of the Israeli army is justified, not only by the argument for security, but also by the necessity to defend small Jewish settlements, which have been placed in the West Bank and Gaza by religious Jewish settlers laying claim to the land. These settlements prevent peace, add nothing to the security of Israel, and only provide more provocation to Arabs to kill more Jews.
  •  Jerusalem is already divided. Jewish Jerusalem (about two-thirds of the expanded city) has no Arabs; Arab Jerusalem (the east­ern sector) has no Jews. While some Arabs work in Jewish Jerusalem, almost no Jews ever penetrate Arab Jerusalem unless they are on military duty. A unified city is more desir­able than a divided city. But the division al­ready exists.
  •  A bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state (a dream of many peaceniks) is not politically viable even though it would be economically desirable. Jewish and Arab nationalism are realities. They cannot be wished away. Mu­tual hatred and suspicion are realities. They cannot be dismissed. Arguing against nation­alism may work a hundred years from now. It does not work now. A Jewish state is no more a racist state than an Arab state. It is a state where Jewish national culture is the dominant culture and where most people speak Hebrew. It is Jewish in the same way that Palestine will be Arab. Three million Palestinian refugees cannot return to the Jewish state without de­stroying the Jewish national character of the Jewish state.
  • Because outside intervention is required, the only superpower capable of orchestrating a successful intervention is America. Since September 11, Bush has mobilized an effec­tive coalition of world powers, including Eu­rope, Russia, China and India — as well as many allies in the Muslim world. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians has begun to undermine the coalition, especially with Bush’s perceived support of the Sharon government in Israel. Joint intervention, with the approval of the United Nations and with the support of moderate Muslim powers would restore the coalition. This intervention is no different from the intervention that America initiated in Bosnia or Kosovo.

What would be the elements of such an intervention?

  1.  America controls the process of interven­tion. The Israelis do not trust the United Na­tions and will not cooperate with an effort managed by the hostile nations of the Third World.
  2.  America behaves as a neutral “parent.” It does not always praise one side and condemn the other. It creates a setting for negotiations, with the presence of major members of the coalition. The format of negotiations is only a pretense. In the “back room” America dic­tates the settlement. Everybody knows that America has imposed the settlement. Both antagonists protest. But they yield because they have no choice. The imposition gives the leaders of both sides an excuse. They can jus­tify their “surrender” to their constituencies by pleading helplessness. They may even shake hands reluctantly. Of course, Arafat will be there. The latest Israel foray has restored him as the popular leader of the Palestinians.
  3.  The imposed settlement will include the following: 1) the removal of all Jewish settle­ments from the West Bank and Gaza with the exception of those settlements that function as contiguous suburban communities for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; 2} the digging of a ditch and the building of a fence along the adjusted 1967 boundaries between the Jews and the Arabs; 3) the policing of this fence by America and its European allies; 4) the granting of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their national capitol; 5) the demilitarization of the new Palestinian state, with periodic inspec­tions by Americans and their coalition part­ners; and 6) compensation for Palestinian refugees who cannot return.
  4.  Compensation for Palestinian refugees may cost more than thirty billion dollars. It will be covered by America, Japan, and our European allies. If the compensation helps to bring about an effective truce, it will be worth the investment. Rescuing the global economy for peace justifies the expense.
  5.  All that can presently be achieved is an effective truce. Peace will have to await a re­duction in the fury and hatred and suspicion.
  6.  Israel needs to be compensated for its willingness to shrink and to confront the wrath of its right-wing extremists. Since it will not in the foreseeable future be accepted by the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to be regarded as the European power that it is. Israel’s high-tech economy needs the Euro­pean market, just as its European culture needs a European support system. The price that Europe pays for this necessary peace is that it accepts Israel as a member of the Euro­pean Union. Such acceptance is no different from accepting Cyprus or Turkey. Israelis will be better off with euros than with shekels.

After this settlement is imposed, terrorist violence will continue. The war against Mus­lim fundamentalist terrorists also will continue. For the extremists in the Arab and Muslim world — and even in the Jewish world — hatred is a way of life. For the moderates, an effective truce will enable them to join the forces of peace.

The ball is in President Bush’s court. Only he can lead the way. The leaders of the De­fense Department and the religious right will oppose this kind of proposal. But only such action can provide any light at the end of the tunnel in the Middle East.

Jews and the Muslim World

Colloquium 07 – Summer 08

Since the advent of Zionism, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become obsessions in Jewish life. And since September 11, 2001, the world of Islam has become an obsession in American life. Similarly, Jews and Americans take the center stage in the Muslim perception of evil. The demonization of the Jew in Muslim propaganda during the past forty years echoes the strident hatred of German fascist leaders before and during the Second World War.

For most of the past fourteen hundred years the fate of the Jew in the Islamic world has been kinder than his fate in the Christian world. While there are harsh tales of Muslim persecution of the Jews, the steady stream of murderous assaults that defines the experience of Jews in Christian Europe is absent from the Muslim chronicles. Jews were not loved in the countries of Islam, but they were not demon­ized. In Spain and in many other places Jews and Muslims established alliances of conve­nience, which lasted for centuries.

Both Judaism and Islam had Semitic roots. The patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were just like the patriarchs of Arab recollection. The detestation of painting and sculpture, the reverence of unhewn stones, the Bedouin abhorrence of pig meat, the love of animal sacrifices, the attachment to polygamy and secluded women – all of these cultural tastes were shared by Jews and Arabs. There was a compatibility of spirit and practice between the Jewish and Muslim societies that did not exist between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of the Christian world. Even the status of the Jewish and Muslim clergy and their pri­mary role as interpreters of sacred scriptures stood against the functioning of the Christian clergy as masters of ritual and worship. Ac­commodating to Muslim practice was easier for Jews than adapting to the cultural milieu of the Christian nations.

It was in the Christian world that the Jews were demonized. The militancy of the Crusades, the emergence of the aggressive missionary activity of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and the persistent hostility to the banking and commercial activities of the Jews encouraged intense hatred. The Third and Fourth Councils of the Western Church, held in 1179 and 1215, respectively, turned the Jews into devils whom neither conversion nor baptism could cure. It was in the Christian world that Jews become racial pariahs that later secular writers would appropriate for modern antisemitism. The Jewish devil became the Jew­ish conspiracy to dominate the nations of the world. Zionism was a response to the intensity of Christian hostility to the Jews.

But Zionism sought to solve this Jewish problem in the Muslim world. Jewish na­tionalism chose a Muslim territory for Jewish settlement, a territory that had played host to a Muslim majority for more than one thousand years. While Christian antisemites were happy to see the Jews leave Christian Europe for Mus­lim Asia, the Muslims did not share their joy. The arrival of the Zionists reminded them of the arrival of the British and French. While the Jews saw themselves as the victims of Christian antisemitism, the Muslims saw the Zionists as the last invasion of European colonists. They saw no virtue in solving a European problem by transporting the Jews to a Muslim land. The European arrogance of using the whole world as a place to solve European problems infuriated the Arabs and triggered an Arab and Muslim hatred of the Jews that had not existed before.

The Muslim obsession with the Jews is something new. The advent of Zionism was the provocation. A noble and idealistic move­ment to rescue the Jews was perceived by its Muslims enemies as a travesty of justice. Jewish victims became Jewish villains. Jewish settlers were viewed as Jewish invaders. The vision of Jewish suffering was turned into an image of Muslim suffering. No genocide or Holocaust could reverse the confrontation. The victimiza­tion of the Jews was no excuse for the victim­ization of the Arabs.

The 1967 war turned hatred into antisemi­tism. The Jewish victory in the Six Day War was an ultimate humiliation. The Muslim world struggled with the question of how this defeat was possible. Antisemitism provided the an­swer. Straight from Hitlerian Europe came the reply. The Arab and Muslim worlds were not defeated by tiny Israel. They were defeated by a giant world conspiracy organized and financed by the world Jewish community. This com­munity controlled all Western governments and every development in the global economy. Jewish leaders had already sponsored two depressions and two world wars to enrich themselves and to enhance Jewish power. They had initiated the saga of the Holocaust to hide their ruthlessness and to persuade the Gentile world to see them as sufferers and not as conquerors.

After 1967 antisemitism became an im­portant ingredient of Muslim propaganda and Muslim politics. Anti-Zionism was replaced with the detestation and demonization of the Jew. Only the “Jewish enemy” of antisemitism could inspire the terrorist assault on Israel, the Jewish Diaspora, and their perceived allies. The assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 by an enraged Palestinian was the beginning of the Muslim war against the devil. America had become the tool of the Jews. The Muslim fundamentalist assault on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 was a con­tinuation of this war. New York, “the real capital of the Jews,” was to feel the brunt of Muslim revenge.

The Jewish response to this confronta­tion is fear and contempt – fear of Muslim numbers and Muslim power and contempt for the ignorance that allows this antisemi­tism to be believed. With some Jews, fear and contempt have united into hatred. The enemy has arranged for us to turn into mirror images of themselves.

Is this confrontation between Jews and the Muslim world irresolvable? Are we con­demned to eternal war? Or is there a real possi­bility of “shrinking” the hatred, of diminishing the confrontation?

Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Colloquium 2003: Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.