In our new video series, Office Hours, academic experts will discuss topics of interest to the Jewish communal world, including politics, education, nonprofits, religion, leadership, and more.
Our first featured interviewee is Rogan Kersh, Associate Dean and Professor of Public Policy at NYU Wagner. Prof. Kersh is an expert on, among other things, lobbyists in the American national political system. Today we'll hear him explain the place of lobbyists in current national politics. Tomorrow, he'll discuss Israel as a political issue, and Friday he'll evaluate AIPAC and J Street as players in the lobbying scene.
As the fall semester begins here at NYU, we'll be bringing you more interviews with more fascinating academic experts. Stay tuned.
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.
Other recent Islam themed blog posts:
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:
- Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
- 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"?
- 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"?
- If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
- When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
- When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
- 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"?
- 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.)
Hyman Bookbinder, the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, passed away last Thursday, as the Forward and the Jewish Week report. Bookbinder was also involved in founding the National Jewish Democratic Council, although he felt that American Jews should be active in both political parties. In tribute to his memory, an excerpt from "We Jews in the Democratic Process", a Bookbinder essay for Sh'ma from 1989:
In our pluralist society, each group is permitted to advocate and even press its own agenda, but, in the final analysis, it must be able to demonstrate that its interests are compatible with, and dependent upon, the general interest. No groups in America have understood this better than the Jewish community and the labor movement. It has become a political cliche these days to refer to the "powerful Jewish lobby"—too often carelessly called the "Israel lobby." I have often said that the Jewish lobby is not as strong as some think, but not nearly as weak as some would like. Jews have interests. We intend to defend them. We do not apologize for whatever strength and influence we have. Tragically, there were times when our strength—our ability to affect government action —was not effective enough. We had not yet learned how to use the precious right of advocacy; our people suffered dire consequences as a result. We are determined not to let that happen again...
...So American Jews have developed the skills for mobilizing our community and the general community on behalf of the security of our people —in Israel, in the Soviet Union, in our own country. But we have never forgotten that we are only six million Jews—less than 3 percent of all Americans. We must be able to persuade at least another 48% that our case is just, our concerns real, and that America's own ideals and interests are in harmony with ours. Getting this support, I am convinced, is not the job alone of the professional Washington-based Jewish lobby. In a very real sense we must think of the entire Jewish community as that lobby—the totality of Jewish influence in the country exercised by a wide range of secular and religious institutions, and by individuals publicly recognized as Jewish leaders and spokespersons. And in the larger sense we must think of the allies and the friends the Jewish community has acquired across the land—the churches, women, labor, civil rights, education, urban affairs and so many other groups in our society. We have won these allies, these friends, in two ways: by educating and appealing to them on the merits of our case, and by demonstrating our interest and commitment to the broader community's agenda.
There are some in our community who argue against involvement in these broader public issues, believing that our immediate Jewish problems require all of our attention and energies and resources. My response has always been that I am proud that over the years we have defined our Jewishness, our Judaism, as a commitment to justice for all people, to peace for all people, to freedom for all people. Such a commitment to universal justice does not short-change our Jewish interest; it is, in fact, the only way to protect such interests. But as a pragmatic lobbyist, if you please, I see this broader activity also as a necessary strategy to establish credibility, to make friends, to win trust. "How can Zionism equal racism," we want Congressmen and black leaders and journalists to ask themselves, "when Jewish representatives we work with or observe day after day are promoting fair housing and fair employment and fair immigration policies?"
There is no conflict between our great love and great hopes for this blessed land and our deep feelings for Israel and for our Jewishness; not only are such feelings compatible, they are mutally reinforcing.
"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.