Category Archives: Religion

Joseph Massad’s Stunningly Ignorant Al-Jazeera Essay on Zionism and Anti-Semitism

I've been excited about Al Jazeera's expansion in the U.S. market, but this poorly-written, rambling essay by Columbia professor Joseph Massad, calling Zionists anti-Semitic, is as bad as its critics allege. Yes: The Israeli government's repeated claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, worldwide, is deeply problematic, especially given Israel's deplorable ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. But Massad takes this observation and pads it with ignorant misreadings of history and religious belief, as well as a breezy, ahistoric, and anti-Semitic conflation of Zionism with Nazism. I have neither the time nor the inclination to rebut the piece point by point, but here are a few obvious flaws:

1. Massad claims the Jewish longing for Israel dates back only to the 18th century rise of Protestant nationalism in Europe. Hogwash. Much of the Jewish liturgy, dating back two milennia, is built around mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the hope that we will congregate in the Holy Land in a figurative "next year," returning there permanently after the coming of the Messiah.

2. Massad points out that both Zionists and Christian anti-Semites believed Jews did not belong in Europe. Does it follow that Zionists are as anti-Semitic as Nazis were, as Massad shockingly claims? Of course not. Many disempowered people have created separatist movements. In the American context, think of black nationalism and separatism. Were Marus Garvey or Amiri Baraka adherents of the same ideology as 19th century "Back to Africa" whites, like Lyman Beecher? No. Zora Neale Hurston opposed Brown v. Board of Education, not because she felt blacks were inferior to whites and thus should attend separate schools, but because she believed integration would damage "the self-respect of my people" by forcing them to closely associate with racists. 

3. Massad writes that almost all those Jews who opposed or were skeptical of Zionism were killed during the Holocaust, leaving a monolithic group of rabidly Zionist (and also anti-Semitic?) Jews. In fact, a number of prominent Jews and Jewish organizations remained critical of Zionism after the war; Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt obviously come to mind. In his book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart discusses how organized American Jewry was actually rather slow to embrace Zionism as a central cause. Massad also asserts that "Orthodox and Reform Jews, Socialist and Communist Jews, cosmopolitan and Yiddishkeit cultural Jews" were opponents of Zionism. In fact, members of all the aforementioned groups were sometimes strongly Zionist, whether they lived in Europe, Palestine, or the United States. For example, many of the earliest Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine came from European cities and were socialists. They created kibbutzim to reconnect Jews to the land in a communiatarian way. 

Al-Jazeera can do better.

“Unquestioning Loyalty”

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 12.35.52 PM
Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 12.35.36 PMThis is the text of a loyalty oath New York City public school teachers were expected to take in 1917 and 1918. Over the next three decades, teachers across the country were periodically subjected to these sorts of jingoistic fevers. For Quakers and antiwar activists, a particular problem with the pledge was the vow of unquestioning obedience to American military policy, as well as the promise to inculcate such obedience in one's students:

"We, the teachers of the public schools of the City of New York, do solemnly pledge our unqualified loyalty to the President and Congress of the United States in this war with the imperial governments of Germany and Austria. 

 "We pledge ourselves actively to inculcate in our pupils by word and deed love of flag and unquestioning loyalty to the military policy of the government and to the measures and principles proclaimed by the President and Congress.

"We declare ourselves to be in sympathy with the purposes of the government and its efforts to make the world safe for democracy, and believe that our highest duty at this moment is to uphold the hands of the President and Congress in this crisis. 

"We believe that any teachers whose views prevent them from subscribing to such sentiments should not be permitted to teach the youth of our city.”

 Related: Texas state senators object to a curriculum that supposedly sympathizes with socialists, critiques founding fathers.

The Rape Debate is the Abortion Debate

Much of this conversation about "legitimate" or "forcible" rape is really about abortion: trying to convince women that they should never terminate a pregnancy — even if that pregnancy is the result of non-consensual sex — and trying to actually redefine "rape" legally to decrease the number of women eligible for rape exceptions to abortion bans. 

For a window into this worldview, check out what Mike Huckabee said on his radio program yesterday, to which he had invited Todd Akin in an effort to rehabilitate the Senate candidate. The L.A. Times reports:

The former Arkansas governor and onetime GOP presidential contender suggested a couple of cases in which he suggested that rapes, though “horrible tragedies,” had produced admirable human beings.

“Ethel Waters, for example, was the result of a forcible rape,” Huckabee said of the late American gospel singer. One-time presidential candidate Huckabee added: “I used to work for James Robison back in the 1970s, he leads a large Christian organization. He, himself, was the result of a forcible rape. And so I know it happens, and yet even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

So here we had Todd Akin at first suggesting women can't get pregnant from rape, and Mike Huckabee responding by basically saying Of course rape victims can get pregnant, but hey, we can all agree that doesn't make abortion okay! This sort of thinking is far outside the mainstream. When pollsters report that most Americans believe abortion should be available in "some" cases, these are among the cases folks are thinking about. 

In my view, women ought to have the choice of whether or not to carry any pregnancy to term. But certainly, the existence of admirable people conceived through rape does not negate any individual's choice about whether or not to bear her rapist's child. To suggest it does reveals an extreme position that is very much alive within the GOP, despite party leader's efforts to distance themselves from Akin.

In Defense of Peter Beinart

Please head over to The Nation to read my essay on Beinart's important new book, The Crisis of Zionism:

Beinart accurately diagnoses the central challenge for the 21st century international Jewish community: how to come to terms with “the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power.” In other words, if Jews do not learn to wield our newfound military, political, and economic strength ethically—showing the same concern for Palestinian and Arab-Israeli minority rights that we hope gentiles will show for Jews—then we, as a people, have failed to learn the painful lessons of Jewish history.

What I found most revelatory about The Crisis of Zionism was the way in which Beinart appeals not just to Jewish political liberalism, but also to our faith. The holy books of Judaism are filled with portents about what happens when Jews abuse power, Beinart notes. After Persia’s Jews toppled Haman, the anti-Semitic royal advisor, they slaughtered 75,000 people in retribution; our texts recount that both the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jewish empires came in the wake of Jewish moral decadence. “Our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse,” Beinart writes.

Read the whole thing.

In Their Focus on Religious Giving, Romneys are Like Most American Donors

Mitt Romney's tax documents are out, and they show the GOP frontrunner and his wife donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, an amount equal to about 16.4 percent of their income. The Romneys gave to a number of secular non-profits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Center for the Treatment of Pediatric MS, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Homes for Our Troops. But they donated far and away the most money–$4.1 million in cash and $2 million in stock–to the Mormon church. 

In their decision to prioritize religious giving, the Romneys are typical of American donors. When I was working at The Daily Beast in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, we decided to take a close look at how disasters impact American charitable giving. We were surprised at the results of our research: According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about one-third of all American charity–from individuals, foundations, and corporations–directly serves the poor, either within the United States or abroad. Year after year, religious organizations, typically local church groups, take home the biggest slice of American charity, even in the wake of major humanitarian crises. 

For example, Americans donated $100.63 billion to religious causes in 2010, accounting for 35 percent of all giving.

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.34.53 PM

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Americans responded with $2.7 billion in donations over the first year. Yet this swell of support accounted for less than 1 percent of total giving in that time period. A similar pattern took shape after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. In fact, the discrepency between emergency humanitarian giving and religious giving was so large, it was difficult for us to visualize on this chart; imagine the bar on the right as five times higher than it actually is:

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.27.29 PM

Of course, some religious giving does serve the poor, through church-run food banks, homeless shelters, and the like. But Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told me this is not generally the case. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” he said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”

Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, the Tea Party, and Education Reform

Santorum family

Once upon a time, Rick Santorum was a major supporter of federally mandated, standards and accountability-driven education reform. As a senator, he was a high-profile backer of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, even after his amendment mandating the teaching of intelligent design was stripped from the law. When he ran for reelection in 2006 against Democrat Bob Casey, Santorum filled out a questionnaire from the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group. In the document, he boasts about bucking his party to propose "increasing the appropriations for health and education programs by $7 billion in 2007," in order to fund gifted and talented programs and online education options in math and science. 

Fast forward to 2011, and Santorum–like Mitt Romney–can't seem to run away fast enough from his centrist education record. Santorum's new tax plan calls not for protecting education funding, but for cutting all social spending, including spending on schools, by $5 trillion over five years. In a CNN interview last week, Santorum said, "I talk all the time about having voted for No Child Left Behind. And, you know, it was a mistake. You know, it was a … a dumb thing to vote for because it gave more federal control over education, which was something that, you know, I didn’t advocate for, but I voted for.”

What happened? In short: the Tea Party. As I described in an August Slate article, the Tea Party's close alliance with the Christian Right has replaced the bipartisan, standards-and-accountability consensus on education with a stark, ideological battle between Republicans like Romney, who continue to see public schools as important anti-poverty and economic-competitiveness tools, and Republicans like Michele Bachmann, who have long seen schools as potential corrupters of the nation's youth–as institutions that illegitimately challenge the rightful role of parents in shaping children's moral, political, religious, and sexual belief systems. 

Santorum is uncomfortably wedged in the middle of this debate. Like Bachmann, he and his wife homeschool their children, in large part because of their fundamentalist religious beliefs. But Santorum is not an evangelical Christian; he is Catholic. Accordingly, like many Catholics, he has a more sanguine view of government's role in shaping the individual. Instead of railing against the public schools, he has historically fought to inject conservative social values into the curriculum, while arguing for public education to play a proactive role in ensuring economic mobility.  

As more policy contrasts are drawn between Santorum and Romney in the coming days, it will be interesting to see how both candidates speak about education–and if they speak about it at all. Santorum's campaign website never mentions school reform. Romney's site is similary silent on K-12 education, which is conspicuously absent from the sections on "human capital," "labor," and "fiscal policy." Their reluctance to discuss the issue is a sign of a deep divide within the Republican Party.

Madonna, Judaism, and Philanthropy


illustration via New York

Vanessa Grigoriadis' New York exposé of Madonna's ill-fated intervention in Malawi is well worth a read, first for its discussion of the vapidity of celebrity philanthropy, and second for its revelations about the fraudulent and cultish Kabbalah Centre, which seems more interested in bilking rich people and flipping real estate than in teaching the tenets of mystical Judaism.

The whole nasty business reminded me of one of the enduring lessons I learned in Hebrew School: that not all tzedakah, or charity, is created equal. Indeed, the Talmud outlines eight ascending levels of tzedakah, which also means "fairness" and "justice:"

1. Giving begrudgingly
2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully
3. Giving after being asked
4. Giving before being asked
5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Worth thinking about–especially number 7, I think.

A Magazine Article You Should Read

On the subway this morning I finished George Packer's sad and beautiful New Yorker profile of the Israeli novelist David Grossman, an outsized figure in his nation's literary and left-wing political scene, whose young son was killed in the 2006 war in Lebanon.

The piece was so moving I stopped reading at several points just to stare into space and absorb it all. For some reason, I was particularly affected by the section about Grossman's aborted friendship with the Palestinian intellectual Ahmad Harb. The two men would like to translate each other's books, but their respective publics, Israeli and Palestinian, would consider such an effort politically suspect, so they don't. And Grossman and Harb, though admiring, can never truly get to know one another because of the travel restrictions to and from the West Bank. Packer writes:

In a better world, [Harb] and David would be close friends. “I hope, sometime in the future,” [Harb] said. “But it’s like a phantom. You say, ‘At some point I will reach it,’ but then anything will explode everything else, and you are back at square one.”

As I left, Harb gave me an English translation of his new novel, “Remains,” to carry the eight miles from Ramallah to Grossman’s home, in Mevasseret Zion.

I am now very much looking forward to reading Grossman's latest novel, To The End of the Land, which is just out in English. It tells the story of Ora, a middle-aged Israeli Jewish woman who reunites with a former lover as her son is sent to war.

The Latest American Export: Abstinence-Only

The American political climate has been decidedly less friendly to abstinence-only sex-ed over the last several years. As Democrats came to power in 2006 and 2008, they mostly heeded the well-established cache of social science showing that abstinence messaging is less effective in preventing pregnancy and STIs than comprehensive sex-ed. Federal abstinence-only funding didn't disappear, but it dried up significantly.

Yet Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based evangelical Christian group founded by James Dobson, has found another government willing to bankroll abstinence-only education–China's. In a must-read Washington Post article, William Wan reports that thanks to a partnership between the Communist Party and Focus, teenage girls in Yunnan province are being fed many of the same discredited and sexist messages that form the core of American abstinence-only: that it is a girl or woman's sole responsibility to delay sex, and that a boy or man's role in a relationship is to demonstrate chivalry.

The key difference between Focus' work in China and its work in the United States is that in China, in order to satisfy the government, it must not talk about God, Christianity, or ask students enrolled in the program to take a virginity pledge. Wan reports, "government officials quickly stepped in, insisting that the kids pledge to no one but the Communist Party."

This story is discouraging for several reasons. First, one of the few positive outgrowths of China's coercive one-child policy is that birth control has been readily available to poor women. According to the UNFPA (PDF) 84 percent of sexually active Chinese people are using some form of contraception, with many provincial governments providing free condoms to married couples and sex workers.

But China's family planning policies have long been matched by a strong pro-marriage ideology and ideal of pre-marital virginity. The 1980 Marriage Law established minimum ages for marriage of 20 for women and 22 for men. And in a nation with a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, there remains a strong stigma against unmarried women accessing contraceptive services.

The Post talks to a researcher who estimates that despite these barriers, more than half of all Chinese people are now having pre-marital sex. Responding to this reality with abstinence-only, instead of with greater access to contraception for single people, is the same head-in-the-sand mentality that dominates the American right, and only leads to more unwanted pregnancies and higher rates of sexually-transmitted infections.

Why is the Sky Blue?

If you believe Jewish Americans are single-issue voters, and that issue is support for the Israeli occupation, then it makes sense to ask, as Norman Podhoretz does in a new book and Commentary symposium, "Why are Jews Liberal?"

But this is a fundamental misreading of the political commitments of American Jews, 92 percent of whom describe issues other than Israel as their primary concern. According to one election season poll, the top two issues for American Jews are the economy and the Iraq war.

In his Times Magazine profile of J-Street, a PAC seeking to advance progressive views on Israel, James Traub does a good job of describing the difficulty of representing the political opinions of "the dispassionate many" on Israel, as opposed to the "passionate few" represented by AIPAC. So in one sense, Jewish neo-cons will always have a voice louder than more typical Jews when it comes to Israel, because they simply care much more. That doesn't mean they represent the community.

Why are Jews actually liberal? In the the Commentary forum, only Rabbi David Wolpe states the obvious, attributing Jewish liberalism, as I do, to our deep identification with the marginalized and oppressed:

…I suspect until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have a sympathy and practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.

Interestingly, this outlook — the attachment to the Jewish history of oppression — is responsible for both the liberal and conservative strands of contemporary Jewish politics. The liberal strand lends support to programs that help the poor, such as universal health care and immigration reform. The conservative strand uses the reality of anti-Semitism to justify Israel's inhumane policies toward Palestinians and Arab-Israeli citizens.

Read more from Sarah Posner and Jack Ross.

cross-posted at TAPPED