I'll Put Down My Institution if You Put Down Yours

Writing for eJPhil, Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin point out that we have, in the United States, "Too Many Jewish Institutions".

As a community, we have funneled untold billions of dollars and other human capital into constructing Jewish institutions – museums, hospitals, social service agencies, arts and cultural entities – that in too many cases would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities rather than as “stand alone” entities...

... It is not our role to state which institutions hold the most value, reputation or prestige. That is the role of stakeholders, constituents and leaders. However, our logic tells us that if your city already has millions of dollars invested in a Jewish art museum, you probably don’t need to build a new institution nearby that could feature exhibits and collections housed elsewhere.

We should also address the specialization of each institution. If there is a strongly-supported American Jewish history museum, does there need to be a Russian-American Jewish history museum, a European-American Jewish history museum, a Spanish-American Jewish history museum or can we cover them all under one set of four walls?...

...Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing? By putting these entities all into one building, we are preserving precious resources and reflecting on cooperation and other efficiencies.

I can just imagine the meeting between all those "stakeholders, constituents and leaders." Somebody starts the meeting off noting that a lot of the institutions represented in the room, in the words of Evans and Lapin, "would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities." "Sure," another leader will respond, "some of us need to be subsumed. Fine. You go first." The egos of leaders can be annoying, but the egos of leaders do not constitute an entirely harmful force. When leaders feel like big shots of organizations, they're more invested. Spreading around the ego-boost is a very real way to spread around engagement.

But this isn't really about leaders' egos. Another quibble: the authors seem to assume the existence of a certain, stable-sized pot of funding which can either be divided among many institutions or given to fewer of them in larger portions. This is a false assumption. Perhaps there are certain donors who will donate generously to a Russian-American Jewish history museum, but who will not give anything at all for an American Jewish history museum. In such a case, the separate museum is not necessarily as inefficient as one might assume. How much of the redundancy really represents money that could be consolidated, and how much represents money that will be spent either redundantly or not at all? It would seem quite difficult to say.

Let me not belabor this point, however. I fully concede that inefficiency is rampant in American Jewish communal life. The real problem is that human life is not all about efficiency. The most efficient meal would be a perfectly calibrated nutritional concoction delivered intravenously, but I think most of us would rather have a nice meal. Consider: how many of the best days of your life could be best described by the word "efficient"? I don't mean to say that efficiency counts for nothing -- just that it only counts as much as it counts, because other things count too.

Some of those things that count are the vast diversity of views and ideologies in American Jewish life -- differences that sometimes require institutions with divergent missions, values, and operational guidelines. To the authors' rhetorical question, "Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing?" I answer: what kind of synagogue complex? Whose shul gets the community's art, and what does that say to the people who daven across the street?

The countless throngs of Jewish organizations that have sprung up from generations ago to the present tell the story of a people unlikely to fall suddenly into lockstep with one another, and I'm not ready to say that's a bad thing. Evans and Lapin make a point worth considering, and I'm sure there are many cases in which they're right. But in a world of declining civic engagement, do we really want to say that fewer of us should be starting organizations? Maybe we do. Maybe we need more joiners, more humble servants, and fewer egotistical leaders. But I do hope we conduct the conversation rightly started by Evans and Lapin on grounds far broader than efficiency alone.

David Elcott on Faith in Academia

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses the place of religion in an academic setting.

David Elcott on Interfaith Mideast Peace Work

Prof. David Elcott discusses the decline of interfaith work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Part of our Office Hours series.)

Negotiating with Terrorists: Shalit May Be Coming Home

Gilad Shalit

Jews worldwide are doubtless thrilled to hear that Gilad Shalit may be on his way home soon. The prayers of millions may be on the verge of being granted.

Amidst the elation, however, many are doubtless also wondering how and why it is that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has agreed to swap prisoners with the terrorist group Hamas, apparently breaking, bending or changing Israel's long-standing policy: you don't negotiate with terrorists.

[W]e - Israel, the legitimate Palestinian government, the Arab world, and the entire international community - cannot afford to appease or reward Hamas.  (Tzipi Livni)

 Israel has never, nor will it ever, negotiate with Hamas, as long as it refuses to accept the three principles set forth by the international community. (Ehud Olmert)

No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. (President Obama)

 Yet PM Netanyahu has just run afoul of all three of these pronouncements from leaders who can hardly be accused of being more right-wing than he.

Questions upon questions present themselves. Will the Israeli public be so ecstatic to have Gilad back that they approve of this deal? If so, how will they respond the next time international leaders demand that Israel sit down with a Palestinian Authority leadership team that includes Hamas? How then could anyone simply say, we don't negotiate with terrorists? Is there to be an exception for hostages, and if so, what if this causes Hamas to take more hostages? Or what if they don't? Could it not be said that every Israeli and every Palestinian is already, in a way, a hostage to this war?

These are not easy questions, and they deserve a conversation beyond easy responses. It would be useless simply to declare that this deal proves that nations should always be willing to negotiate with terrorists who murder civilians, and equally useless to dismiss this particular deal in this particular situation out of hand, merely because it cuts against the grain of a general principle. Geopolitics is chess, not checkers, and the search for an answer that works in every situation is a search destined to fail.

Yet this kind of simple-minded attitude, it seems to me, generally characterizes American Jewish discourse about the Middle East. Either you're an Israel-booster, eager to refute any criticism, eager to show that Israel is always right, and that the answer to all provocations must be strength, or you're a peacenik convinced that Israeli military action is always wrong, and that all violence is one simple, easily comprehensible "cycle of violence." The missing voices are the voices of nuance and complexity -- voices held hostage within our minds to the natural desire of all of us to fit into a pre-packaged political camp.

This development -- a hardline Prime Minister negotiating with Hamas and agreeing to a deal that releases a thousand Palestinian prisoners -- may turn out to have been brilliant, or it may turn out to have been disastrous. (Only time, and perhaps an enormous amount of it, will tell.) Either way, I think this news should upend our habits of knee-jerk reaction in dialogue on Middle East questions. It should remind us to examine each question in its particulars, and not just in its abstractions.

And either way, if and when Gilad Shalit returns to Israel alive and free, it should be a cause for enormous celebration.

David Elcott on Interfaith and Interethnic Coalition-Building

For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.

 

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Galliano Receives Slap on Wrist for Anti-Semitic Ramblings

Bigot Olympian

In honor of New York Fashion Week, it only makes sense to doff our caps to a former great, made social pariah, fashion designer. A man who could design a fabulous handbag but who thought being friends with Gisele made him G-d's gift to the world.

John Galliano, former head designer of Christian Dior, was recently sentenced by a Paris court to a suspended fine and zero jail time after his now-famous expletive-laced rant was videotaped and went viral. In it, Galliano derided Jews, praised Hitler, and in general won himself a first place ribbon in the Bigot Olympics. When Mel Gibson did the same in his puzzling diatribe, his only punishment was to have his less than flattering mugshot blasted on every TV and computer screen worldwide. Galliano, on the other hand, faced court time.

As much as I would have loved to see Galliano be served a harsh punishment from a judge for acting like an imbecile, it is pretty surprising to my American mind that he went to court for expressing his idiotic thoughts. Our first amendment rights are (usually) a wonderful thing. If you want to celebrate Festivus, fine with us. Petition the government for every American to be given a free puppy? Why not. Go off on a racist diatribe? Eh, not as cute as a puppy. But we'll let you get away with it.

Europe, it seems, has other ideas. I don't find their hate speech laws too restrictive, per se. But from a practical standpoint it does seem like a colossal waste of time and money to place every racist moron in court for running their mouths. (See this Institute for Jewish Policy Research report arguing that these laws are also ineffective.) Then again, if Galliano had made the same comments at a cafe in America, he would have walked away from there scot-free.

What do you think?

Post-Irene: Intellectual Looting

I've been a culprit. Most bloggers have. Most of us have been a culprit in the most common post-disaster/mishap crime of opportunity: intellectual looting.

You know how it works. In the wake of some disaster or other, the airwaves, print pages, blogosphere and social media landscape are full of commentators on the rampage -- running hither and yon, eager to get their paws on any aspect of the story that will fit into their pre-existent narratives. Without any regard for sensitivity or dignity, without any regard for the fact that the stories they plunder might belong to Nuance and Complexity rather than to anyone with arms to carry them, the pundits stuff every vignette that isn't nailed down into the pre-fab frames they've been carrying for years -- no matter how ill the fit.

You can always count on Pat Robertson to get into this game. See his response last week to the earthquake damaging the Washington Monument:

It seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it... Is that sign from the Lord? ... You judge.

Given his track record, I fully expect to see a story over the next few days in which Robertson comes up with a neat and tidy theological reason that New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachussetts and Vermont got it worse than New York.

But we don't need to wait for future intellectual looters to take advantage of Irene. It began before the storm even arrived.

Rabbi Lazer Brody knew on Friday exactly why the storm was heading for North Carolina:

When Jonah tried to run away from Hashem, he boarded a ship at the Jaffa port. At sea, the ship was tossed and turned by monstrous waves... Hashem doesn't do things at random. Why is hurricane Irene advancing toward the good and decent folks of North Carolina? It's simple - North Carolina has its own Jonah: Jonathan Pollard...

...The USA could save itself billions of impending damage and lives as well by freeing Pollard right now. There's no doubt in my mind or heart that Irene will just disappear if Pollard walks out of Butner.

See? Simple as that. We all bought water and batteries when we should have been staging a prison break. Of course, this Friday revelation to Rabbi Brody was a revision of the Thursday revelation, which explained the geopolitical-meteorological intersection we are witnessing:

In Israel, we have the constant threat of Iran. Now, the USA is being threatened with Irene. "Irene" and "Iran" are spelled with the same letters in Hebrew - aleph, yud, resh, nun. If you scrabble those letters, you get nun-yud-resh-aleph, which means we must fear.

Of course, if you rearrange the English letters in "Lazer Brody" you get "Dry zeal, bro." Also "Led by razor" and "raze by Lord." Is Rabbi Brody's own name a message from the Lord? You judge.

GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann has also been blessed with the gift of prophecy. "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians," spake the Congresswoman. "We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'"

Let us not indulge any fantasy, by the way, that only the religious, or only the politically conservative, play this game. Saturday's New York Times saw this Op-Ed by Frank Bruni, who sagely declared that "Nature hammered home the message that the Dow was sending as well. We had only so much control over our fates, and better hunker down."

Yes, Frank. Tell the families of nearly two dozen who have died that their loved ones have not died in vain -- no, they have died so that capital-N Nature can join the mighty god Dow Jones in endorsing ("hammer[ing] home") your summary judgment of the nation's summertime ills.

Timelines for these news cycles being what they are, I expect to see many more examples of post-Irene intellectual looting before this week is out. I expect to see them from left and from right, and certainly from Jewish communal leaders. Let's watch for them together, shall we? But as we do, let me stipulate that not every use of the storm as an opener to conversation is inappropriate. Sometimes there's a legitimate connection to be made.

For example: during the storm, a lot of Twitter users seemed angry that Fox News published this opinion piece stating that the National Weather Service is unnecessary. They may be right or wrong about the issue, but I must say this: it seems to me that this is a perfectly fair use of the storm to open a policy conversation which is genuinely and unambiguously related. Conversations about under- or over-preparedness in various locations, it seems to me, are likewise natural and necessary.

But for the most part, I fear we are in for an oratorical nightmare in days to come. Hide your anecdotes and lock your rhetorical doors. The intellectual looters are coming.

From the J-Vault: Sharing the World with "the Mongolian, the Negro and the Hindoo"

J-Vault logo

On May 15, 1923, Dr. Alexander A. Goldenweiser a (presumably Jewish) professor of sociology and anthropology, gave a lengthy  lecture on race and culture to the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, and took questions from the audience. The speech, and the Q&A session, were transcribed and presented in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service. In addition to discussing race generally, he discusses the racial identity of Jews in particular.

This week, from the J-Vault: Race and Culture in the Modern World (1923)

"Race," says Goldenweiser, "is a state of mind. It is an attitude. We are replete with it... [T]he problem of race and culture refers to all of us." The professor strikes a tone that must have been progressive at the time. But his treatment of racial origins and development are bound to strike 2011 ears with significant dissonance. Goldenweiser criticizes biased tests which found African-Americans ("Negroes") to be less intelligent than whites. These tests "measure many things, but they do not in any real sense measure intelligence," he notes. Yet he does not object to the principle of testing for inherent racial difference -- only the execution of this idea:

I do not say that there are no psychological differences between the races (and please understand me with reference to this point), I do not say that the races are all psychologically identical. I think, in fact, that it would be very strange if this proved to be the case. We s aw that from the physical standpoint the races have become greatly differentiated after their dispersion over the surface of the globe, and that these differentiations were deep-rooted. To assume that no psychological changes accompanied these physical changes would be, to say the least, unreasonable. I think, therefore, that we are on the safe side when we assume that when we shall know more about racial psychology, when we shall have improved the methods of investigating brains, we shall find that in psychological dispositions of one sort or another—this is as closely as we can put it today—there are differences between the separate racial groups. But this belongs to the future. The particular racial differences in psychological disposition often assumed today, on the other hand, usually prove to be illusions, upon critical examination.

Prejudice isn't wrong in principle, he implies. Rather, we simply don't have advanced enough knowledge to be accurate in our prejudice. Meanwhile, "We might as well be prepared to share the world in the future with the Mongolian, the Negro and the Hindoo."

From the Q&A, an answer on the nature of being Jewish:

[T]he Jew is a race but there isn't much in race, meaning by this that the Jew is no more of a pure race than other races, and that in relation to the other races—we speak, of course, here of sub-racial types in Europe—the Jew is more conspicuously mixed...

There is a great deal more in this document. Read the entire piece for an amazing glimpse into the history of American (and Jewish) thinking about race.

Download this publication.

J-Vault logo

Crown Heights Riot Anniversary

 

Friday, August 19, is the twentieth anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. A number of interesting articles have already appeared marking the milestone, and I imagine more are forthcoming. See especially this by Jane Eisner and this by Josh Nathan-Kazis, but if you read only one article on this anniversary, read Ari L. Goldman's "Telling It Like It Wasn't":

My job was to file memos to the main “rewrite” reporters back in the Times office in Manhattan about what I saw and heard... Yet, when I picked up the paper, the article I read was not the story I had reported. I saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, I read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue: “Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.”

In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions...
... On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.”..
...Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

“You don’t know what’s happening here!” I yelled. “I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”

I didn’t blame the “rewrite” reporter. I blamed the editors. It was clear that they had settled on a “frame” for the story. The way they saw it, there were two narratives here: the white narrative and the black narrative. And both had equal weight.

On the anniversary of this low point in the African-American and Jewish relationship, here are some selected publications from our Black-Jewish Relations topic:

Rogan Kersh on AIPAC and J Street

Lobbying expert Prof. Rogan Kersh of NYU Wagner examines AIPAC, J Street, and Israel lobbying, in this installment of our Office Hours video series.

Gov. Christie: Shari'a Concerns Are "Crazy"

The video below demonstrates that not every popular Republican has jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, best known for his (to put it mildly) bluntness, reacts to criticism of his appointment of a Muslim judge to the state bench:

We've had something of an anti-anti-Islam theme going on this Jewish policy blog for the past few weeks, but I think that's appropriate. It's not only that Muslims and Jews share key values, as the JTA reported this week. It's also, naturally, that American Jews have a strong communal knowledge of what it's like to be a vilified religious/ethnic minority. The fact that our two communities are so bitterly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues makes it all the more important to recognize these and other points of commonality.

Background:

BJPA Publications on Islam
BJPA Publications on Jewish-Muslim relations
BJPA newsletter on Jewish-Muslim relations, September 2010

Other recent Islam themed blog posts:

July 18
July 28
August 1

Cain's Incomplete Apology, and Religion in Politics

After offending Muslims (and at least one Jew) last week by saying localities have the right to ban mosques because Islam includes the concept of shari'a law, Herman Cain has now met with Muslim leaders and released an apology:

...While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

As I expected, we discovered we have much more in common in our values and virtues. In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes. Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists...

Cain's apology is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, he ought to have stated specifically that he now realizes that localities do not have the right to ban mosques, if in fact he has come to that realization.  If he has not, and he still believes localities may ban mosques, then his apology for causing offense is utterly hollow. If he has changed his position, then he should say so directly; dodging the specific issue just leaves him looking weaselish. (Speaking of weaselish, see also the phrase "..any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution...")

Second, Cain again makes the problematic assertion that shari'a has no right to "interfere" in the American legal system (see the first sentence excerpted above). It is actually quite tricky to pin down what this might mean, and once again a glance at parallel concepts in other American religions is instructive. Does Cain believe that shari'a should be held to a different standard than Jewish halakhah and Catholic canon law? If so, he continues to favor bigotry. Even if this is the case, I can't imagine he'll be up front about it, so let's assume he would say he believes that religious legal systems should all be held to the same standards. How, then, would Herman Cain define interfering, and how precisely would he seek to curb it?

I have emailed the following questions to Herman Cain's campaign:

  1. Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
  2. If a Muslim citizen believes shari'a law reflects God's will, and that shari'a prohibits gay marriage, and so votes for a candidate who opposes gay marriage, does that count as "interference"?
  3. If a Jewish citizen believes halakhah reflects God's will, and that halakhah requires a middle ground between the standard pro-life and pro-choice abortion positions, and so votes for a candidate who is centrist on abortion, is that "interference"?
  4. If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
  5. When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
  6. When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
  7. When, today, pro-life Christian clergy instruct their flocks that God wants the United States to protect unborn life by force of law, is that "interference"?
  8. Please provide a clear, specific hypothetical example of something that would be "interference": an example for shari'a, for halakhah, and for canon law.

We'll have to see whether or not some campaign staffer sends answers.

(As I mentioned last week, the gold standard for addressing these questions, in my opinion, is Prof. Stephen L. Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.)

The Anti-Boycott Bill and the Double Standard

Censorship

Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich argues in the Jerusalem Post that the outcry against Israel's recent law banning the organization of boycotts is mistaken, and guilty of a double-standard:

There is no universal code of free speech. Determining what gets protection involves trade-offs between the very real harm that speech can cause and the benefit of free expression. Among liberal Western democracies, how that balance is struck varies significantly, depending on legal traditions and circumstances. The United States has far more robust constitutional speech protections than almost any Western country. Most European nations – and Israel – have numerous laws criminalizing speech that would not conceivably pass muster under the First Amendment. This does not mean these countries deny freedom of speech; merely that there are competing ideas...

...Great Britain has strong libel laws that prevent people from truthfully condemning public officials. While the law is widely criticized, no one has suggested Britain has thereby lost its democratic status. Critics of Israel’s anti-boycott law denounce it as fascist. In Europe, calling others fascist has gotten prominent politicians prosecuted – prosecutions that have not provoked lectures on free speech from the EU or America’s State Department...

...The anti-boycott law prohibits speech intended to cause economic harm to businesses solely because of their national identity. Nondiscrimination laws commonly ban plans to deny business to specified groups of certain national or ethnic origins. Israel’s new law bans discrimination against businesses because they are Israeli. Most European states – and Israel – have laws prohibiting speech that is perceived as “hateful” or which simply offends the feelings of particular groups. Often such speech expresses important viewpoints. A boycott of Israel promotes hatred of Israel, and certainly offends the vast majority of Israelis...

...[T]he law has a characteristic crucial for free-speech scrutiny – it is “viewpoint neutral.” That is, it applies to boycotts of Israel whether organized by the left wing or the right wing.

Like most European democracies, Israel’s constitutional protection of speech has long been narrower than America’s. One example is that speech restraints have long been used against right-wing groups. Just recently, a prominent right-wing activist has been prosecuted for “insulting a public official,” after denouncing those responsible for expelling Jewish families from Gaza in 2005. In recent weeks, police have arrested several rabbis for authoring or endorsing obscure treatises of religious law that discuss (allegedly too leniently) the permissibility of killing enemy civilians in wartime...

...Israel’s current practice is clearly well within the limits of an open democracy. Singling out Israel for laws that are identical to, or just as restrictive as, laws on the books in America and Europe manifests the very problem that exists with the boycotts themselves – the application of an entirely different set of standards to Israel than to the rest of the free world.

Kontorovich makes an extremely compelling case that Israel's new law is completely in line with the range of speech laws exemplified by many democratic countries. I, for one, am convinced that it is completely unfair to claim that Israel is undemocratic for passing this law.

That being said, the law remains a terrible idea. Kontorovich is right that Israel is being held to a risible double standard, but the answer isn't to lower the standard of freedom for Israel, it is to raise the standard of freedom for everyone else. Other democracies with restrictive speech laws, including Europe, Canada and others, should pass new laws permitting the expression of any opinion, even offensive and harmful opinions, because that's the right thing to do. The goal shouldn't be matching precedent, it should be doing what is right.

The dodge of right and wrong by fleeing to precedent is a common pattern when Israel is unfairly singled out (i.e., depressingly frequently): critics point out something Israel has done wrong, and Israel's defenders immediately shout to the high heavens that every other country does it and nobody ever complains, and that's unfair in a very sinister way.

They're absolutely right: it's monumentally unfair, and often sinister, and the use of the double standard as a stealth weapon in the PR war against Israel must be exposed and combated. That important conversation, however, (the one about fairness and double standards) ought to be separate from conversations about specific criticisms of specific actions. Responding to a specific criticism by pointing to the double standard is a dodge, and a mistake.

When it comes to a specific criticism, the crux of the matter is always this: either the action Israel did was wrong, or it's right. If the action was right, then the double standard is a red herring; respond to criticism by demonstrating that the action was right. If the action was wrong, then the double standard remains a red herring; respond to the criticism by acknowledging that the action was wrong, and figure out how to fix it.

In the case of this anti-boycott law, the idea that the state can stop people from advocating that their fellow citizens use their purchasing power to make a political statement is just wrong, even if that political statement is despicable. If freedom of speech means anything, it means freedom of advocacy.

Herman Cain Would Ban Mosques; Why Not Synagogues?

Herman Cain

"Let's  go back to the fundamental issue," said Herman Cain, while arguing that localities have a right to ban mosques. "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

Mr. Cain, does traditional Judaism count as "any one of our traditional religions"? If so, you've got a problem.

Cain apparently defines "religious purposes" as being inherently different from legal purposes. This conception of religion, however, carries a blatantly Christian (not to mention Protestant) bias. For many religious believers, true religion requires submission to Divine law, and for these groups, establishing a religious community requires establishing local religious courts.

This is certainly true of traditional Judaism, in which Halakhah (Jewish law) regulates every detail of Jewish life -- ritual, ethical, economic, civil, and quotidian. Not a single moment of the traditional Jew's day, no matter how seemingly trivial, is free from countless strictly defined mandates. Since disputes are bound to arise, the rabbinic court (bet din / beis din / beth din; pick your transliteration) has been a central institution for thousands of years. This has held true even in modern America. While the separation of religion and state has required the abandonment of the European model of state-supported rabbinic institutions, rabbinic courts operate on a voluntary basis in all American cities with significant Orthodox Jewish populations, and many Orthodox Jews make use of such courts to settle disputes within the community in accordance with Halakhah. The New York-based Beth Din of America, for example, handles not only ritual and family issues such as conversion, marriage, and divorce, but also civil and economic cases, all in accordance with Torah injunctions.

Nor do these institutions operate with complete independence from the secular legal system. Parties to rabbinic cases can enter into binding arbitration agreements, mandating compliance with rabbinic decisions by force of secular law. New York and Maryland have both instituted secular laws intended to help Jewish women avoid becoming agunot-- a problem which exists only within the framework of Jewish law -- "wall of separation" notwithstanding.

In the first half of the 20th Century, some Jews sought out rabbinic courts specifically in order to avoid prejudice in the secular legal system. That was an era during which being Jewish was seen as being foreign, and Jewish religion was seen as inherently sinister. Today it is Islam which is seen, quite unfairly, as being inherently foreign and sinister. (Yes, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but lumping the world's billion Muslims in with a tiny, extremist fraction is foolish.) At a time when Presidential candidates score points by demonizing Islam, some American Muslims must see local Shari'a courts and local Islamic communal institutions as being more necessary than ever.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written that "If the religious community cannot define itself, cannot set rules for membership, including rules of behavior, then it is not, in any realistic sense, a religious community. This implies that protection of religious freedom requires a high degree of deference to the definitional process within that community..." (God's Name in Vain, 176.) Herman Cain and others who support anti-Islamic legislation are free to argue that Prof. Carter is wrong, and that religion must be prevented from operating as a legal system in any form. But if they wish to maintain that their position is not motivated by an unfair demonization of Islam, then they must apply this principle consistently, across the board. They must be willing to take a stand against Jewish legalistic practice and Jewish legal institutions as well. They must protest outside the Beth Din of America, and rail against rabbis sneaking Halakhah into the secular legal system.

If they will not do so (and I cannot imagine that they will), their supposed concern for the separation of religion and state will stand revealed as a fig leaf for simple prejudice.

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