Op-Ed: Secular Idolatry in American Jewish Leadership
On any given day, the headlines are brimming with news of existential concern for Israel and the wider Jewish world. From Islamist takeovers facilitated by the “Arab Spring” to anti-Jewish hate-speech on college campuses and in the Occupy Wall Street movement, there are daily reports in which anti-Semitism features prominently.
Yet, responses from many quarters of the Jewish establishment have ranged from tepid and meek to apologetic and misdirected. Rather than present a unified front against those who justify terrorism through moral equivalence, delegitimize Israel as a pariah state, or promote Sharia in the West, many secular Jewish leaders have been addled by their slavish devotion to an ideological agenda that in the name of tolerance has excused hateful rhetoric masquerading as political discourse – particularly when that rhetoric comes from the Left. Clearly, the secular Jewish preoccupation with progressive politics has become a modern form of idolatry that is inconsistent with traditional Jewish beliefs and principles.
The compulsion of many liberals to compare criticism of Sharia to antisemitism, their willingness to validate questionable Muslim advocacy groups, and their pathological embrace of a Palestinian narrative that repudiates Jewish national claims, all suggest ambivalence toward traditional Jewish priorities and an abdication of common sense. Moreover, the constant promotion of progressive ideals as synonymous with Torah values betrays an ignorance of Jewish law, tradition and history.
Whether it is interfaith cooperation between the nontraditional movements and Islamic advocacy groups, the reluctance to chastise a left-wing that blames Israel for the lack of Mideast peace, or the knee-jerk support for Barak Obama despite his disgraceful treatment of Israel, the behavior of many in positions of leadership actually threatens Jewish continuity and Israeli integrity. These leaders often claim to be guided by universal ideals and the spirit of Jewish introspection, but their multicultural vision leaves little room for Jewish autonomy or self-interest, particularly when these are seen to conflict with liberal agendas or the Left’s intellectually dishonest endorsement of the Arab-Muslim worldview.
The tendency to treat progressive ideals as the embodiment of Jewish values – and to regard liberal social and political programs with holy reverence – begs the question of whether Jewish leaders who do so are engaging in secular idolatry. And this is a fair question considering the innate, visceral aversion to any form of idolatry in traditional Jewish thought and practice. As discussed by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim (Avoda Zarah), Chapter 1), even monotheists can descend into idolatry by using objects to assist in the worship of G-d, because material things, or even abstract concepts, have the propensity to become the focus of prayer or a substitute for real worship. According to the traditional sources and as further elucidated by the Rambam, idolatry encompasses the act of worshipping through a manufactured thing, or of substituting philosophical precepts for Torah principles. The Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah broadly defines idolatry as any practice or belief that interferes with or disrupts the Jew’s relationship with the Almighty.
Does secular Jewish devotion to liberal principles constitute a form of idolatry? One could certainly argue so when devotion to the secular interferes with traditional observance or contravenes Jewish self-interest. The degree to which traditional values have been disrupted by secular concerns is evident from the popularization of tikkun olam as a liberal imperative and its transformation into a mitzvah that trumps all others – although it is not one of the 613 commandments enumerated in the Torah and, therefore, not a mitzvah at all.
Tikkun olam is misconstrued as a commandment by secular progressives in order to elevate social and political platforms that they support, and is often regarded as more important than ritual observance by constituents of the nontraditional movements. However, while Jews as political beings are certainly free to support whatever causes their consciences may dictate, they cannot claim the sanction of Jewish tradition regarding political choices that are inconsistent with Jewish law and history. Secular priorities cannot be transformed into mitzvot under the umbrella of tikkun olam, which as a concept has been perverted beyond its mystical roots into a clearinghouse for any program that secular Jews wish to portray as intrinsically Jewish.
One of the areas in which secular leaders consistently trample Jewish priorities is in their apologetic approach to Islam and Islamism. They routinely tout Islam for its supposed tolerance and peacefulness, despite its history of violence, subjugation and discrimination against those whom it considers “infidels.” The information they feed their constituents is often drawn from the same revisionist repository used by Islamists and their left-wing allies for the purpose of dissimulation. Their political connections to Muslim advocacy groups that have ingratiated themselves to liberal society undercut any incentive to research the veracity of Muslim claims of moderation, as was suggested by ADL National Director Abe Foxman’s condemnation of the anti-Sharia movement.
In an editorial published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Foxman criticized the anti-Sharia movement as being driven by baseless paranoia. Like many liberal Jewish leaders, Foxman seemed oblivious regarding the intolerant aspects of a totalitarian religious system that disparages Jews and Judaism as a matter of doctrine, and which rejects democratic values and the concept of permanent peace with a dhimmi nation. In his Op-Ed, “Shouting Down the Sharia Myth Makers,” Foxman said among other things the following:
“It is true that Sharia is being used elsewhere around the world in dangerous ways...It raises more serious concerns when it comes to implementing Sharia law in its entirety, as can be seen with the examples of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban. But that certainly doesn’t apply to America, where concerns about a ‘creeping Sharia law’ are the stuff of pure paranoia.
(JTA, August 10, 2011.)
Foxman echoed the now familiar refrain of secular liberals, and many uninformed conservatives, who laud Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance in spite of its history of conquest and oppression. In spite of the disingenuous attempts to analogize Islamophobia to anti-Semitism, violence and bias crimes against Jews in the United States and Europe truly are on the rise, particularly within the Arab and Muslim communities that ironically claim to be targets of ethnic and religious bigotry – regardless of hard evidence to the contrary.
And then there is Jewish Theological Seminary (“JTS”), which under the leadership of Chancellor Arnold Eisen sponsored an interfaith forum entitled, “Judaism and Islam in America Today: Assimilation and Authenticity.” The forum’s panel was moderated by a representative of the Islamic Society of North America (“ISNA”). This was troubling given ISNA’s inclusion on a list of “unindicted co-conspirators” in the U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development trial, a criminal prosecution of an Islamic charity found to have ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The trial judge in the underlying proceedings had refused to strike the names of CAIR, ISNA and NAIT from the list, “[finding that their inclusion] on the List is appropriate in light of the evidence proffered by the Government.” The court further found that “the government ha[d] produced ample evidence to establish the associations of CAIR, ISNA, NAIT, with NAIT, the Islamic Association for Palestine, and with Hamas.” On appeal, the Fifth Circuit declined to remove their names from list, finding only that the prosecution had erred procedurally in failing to file the list under seal, but had committed no error in “its decision to try to characterize the scope of the charged conspiracy.”
Apparently, JTS was untroubled by its involvement with an organization that was found to have a connection to a charity determined by the government to be a front for Hamas, a terror organization whose reason for existence is to destroy Israel. The effort to establish dialogue with such groups seems like an exercise in cognitive dissonance, particularly as the program’s announcement was greeted with criticism by some well-known authorities on Islam and interfaith relations, including Professor Richard Rubenstein, author of “Jihad and Genocide,” among other works.
Consistent with the thinking that seemed to underlie the JTS forum, there is now a chorus of Conservative rabbis who, when speaking of Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, insist on presenting the efforts of Muslims as comparable to those of Christians. However, of the 23,788 Gentiles honored as “righteous among the nations” at Yad Vashem, only 70 were Muslims – mostly from Albania. It is difficult to reconcile this paltry showing with the vastly greater numbers who willingly assisted the Nazis, as in Bosnia where Muslim Waffen-SS Hanjar units personally recruited by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem assisted in exterminating most of Bosnian Jewry. The uncomfortable fact remains that few Muslims acted to save Jews from the Nazis – or for that matter to protect them from the Mufti and other Arab leaders who collaborated with the Nazis on the Final Solution and who, according to documented plans, would have implemented genocide in the Mideast had Rommel not been defeated at El Alamein.
In trumpeting the saccharine myth of Islamic tolerance, these rabbis ignore the truly precarious history of Jews in Muslim society, where they were subjugated, often confined to ghettos, and generally denied most basic human rights. Since the early Islamic period, when Jews were forced to wear distinctive badges and clothing and were often branded, they have been repressed, abused, and periodically subjected to forced conversions, pogroms and massacres. Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen in the Twelfth Century addressed the issue of Arab-Muslim persecution at a time when Yemenite Jewry was suffering horribly at the hands of the Arab host society. This is the history that JTS should be discussing. However, the institution glosses over the grittier history of Muslim-Jewish relations, and thus abdicates any rightful claim to leadership.
By engaging in Muslim-Jewish apologetics, or jumping to dismiss the counter-jihad movement out of hand, or belittling Jewish activists who speak fluent Arabic and actually know the scriptural underpinnings of Islamic antisemitism, liberal Jewish leaders have largely followed the lead of the Obama Administration, which has demonstrated antipathy and animus toward Israel since the President’s inauguration. They are certainly aware of the disrespect Obama has shown Israel, and how he has been an erstwhile proponent of the revisionist Palestinian narrative.
Yet, rather than challenge Obama for consistently maligning America’s only stable ally in the Mideast, or castigating him for his dubious associations over the years with antisemites and Israel bashers, they seek to quell critical discussion of his record in order to prevent Jews from breaking with the Democratic Party in the upcoming presidential election.
Among those attempting to shore up Jewish Democratic ranks that have been shaken by Obama’s repeated attacks on Israeli sovereignty and integrity is Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D. Florida), who stated rather incredibly that, “[t]he president has a rock-solid record on Israel.”
In light of Obama’s actual record of overbearing hostility, however, this statement is patently absurd. Realizing that Obama’s documented conduct toward Israel undercuts the claims of Wasserman and others that his support is “rock-solid,” some establishment organizations have tried to take his record off the discussion table for the 2012 campaign.
Perhaps most notably, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee jointly issued a “National Pledge for Unity on Israel” in October, which stated
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have joined together in an effort to encourage other national organizations, elected officials, religious leaders, community groups and individuals to rally around bipartisan support for Israel while preventing the Jewish State from becoming a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign season. Join the ADL and AJC in taking the ‘National Pledge for Unity on Israel.
Considering the President’s horrendous record on Israel – including his demand that she cease all construction in Jerusalem, his collective identification of “settlements” as the stumbling block to peace, his failure to condemn Arab-Muslim rejectionism and incitement, and his refusal to acknowledge Jewish historical rights in Israel – the pledge would seem to be nothing more than an attempt to squelch legitimate criticism of a duplicitous foreign policy during the campaign season. Despite strenuous attempts to present this pledge as somehow necessary for promoting bipartisan support for Israel, its real purpose seems to be to discourage debate of Obama’s shoddy record in and among voting populations for whom Israel is still a priority.
Interestingly, those who would suppress criticism of Obama’s Israel policies are often the same people who strain to paint all conservatives as right-wing extremists, and to promote the image of all liberals as mainstream moderates despite national polls indicating that only 20% of Americans identify as liberal. They routinely claim that conservatives promote class warfare and ethnic hatred, and persist in accusing the Tea Party of blanket racism – all the while ignoring the antisemitic vitriol on full display in signs, banners and comments seen and heard at many Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Those who ignore antisemitism in political movements with which they otherwise find common cause cannot plausibly claim to be guided by Jewish values. Rather, the elevation of secular political ideals (whether liberal or conservative) over traditional Jewish values fits the Rambam’s definition of idolatry; and those who promote such ideals to the exclusion of traditional beliefs have no moral claim to the mantle of leadership.
Community leaders lose all credibility when they advocate or excuse policies that compromise the safety of Israel or threaten Jewish survival. Such figureheads cannot claim to be acting in accordance with Jewish values. There is nothing within Jewish law or tradition that requires Jews to sacrifice their beliefs, to deny their history, or to accept as fact the national and religious myths of those who wish to subjugate and destroy them. T
Those who claim otherwise are blinded by a secular, political idolatry that is inconsistent with traditional Jewish goals and aspirations. Real leaders are those who recognize this and are willing (either to stay neutral as the Satmar rabbi suggested, ed.) to invoke the principles and beliefs that ensured the Jews’ survival in Diaspora, and which facilitated the rebirth of modern Israel in the ancient Jewish homeland.