Mus­lim an­tisemitism is be­com­ing our fetish


SET­TING PRI­OR­I­TIES in keep­ing with your val­ues is a daily task for us all. I may, for e x a mple, f e e l t he need to spend two h o u r s e x e r c i s i n g ev­ery day. But if that con­flicts with my fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, I have to con­sult a n o v e r a l l world­view, a scheme of val­ues, to de­cide which im­per­a­tive comes first.

So it goes in pub­lic life no less than in private. The world Jewish com­mu­nity is united in few things, but a rough con­sen­sus has emerged that our great­est worry, our top pri­or­ity in need of be­ing ad­dressed, is the threat posed by Mus­lim ex­trem­ists. With some hes­i­tancy about ap­pear­ing to be a rav­ing heretic, I would like to share with you my rea­son for doubt­ing the wis­dom of this con­sen­sus view.

Jewish val­ues would, I be­lieve, di­rect us to fret about Is­lamic ter­ror a good deal less than we should about other, much more Jewish causes of con­cern. What is a Jewish value, a Jewish cause of con­cern? How can we de­cide what stan­dard a Jew should use in or­der­ing his pri­or­i­ties?

In the Jewish com­mu­nity, there are two dom­i­nant ways of ap­pre­ci­at­ing what it means to be a Jew. One way pro­fesses pride in be­ing Jewish even as it fol­lows the lead of sec­u­lar ma­te­ri­al­ist dogma. It turns Jewish iden­tity into what I re­gard as a sorry and pa­thetic thing: a mere tribal af­fil­i­a­tion, a func­tion of DNA.

The other way sees the To­rah, the con­sti­tu­tion of the Jewish peo­ple, as a grand state­ment of eter­nal cos­mic truth, whose value casts race, tribe, and blood as purely sec­ondary mat­ters. The choice is be­tween tribe and truth.

If you were to fol­low the tribal way of think­ing, then a threat from an­other tribe, that of an­tisemitic Mus­lims, must be seen as tak­ing first place among the com­pet­ing needs of our peo­ple. They threaten our lives. Case closed.

Jewish trib­al­ism is a bit like fit­ness-fa­nati­cism. The fa­natic for phys­i­cal health de­mands of him­self and ev­ery­one else that we do all in our power to stave off death. We can do this by eat­ing and ex­er­cis­ing ac­cord­ing to rigid, ex­act­ing stan­dards. That makes sense in the cal­cu­lus of sec­u­lar ma­te­ri­al­ism, whose value struc­ture in­sists above all on cling­ing to phys­i­cal life, for death is the end of all things.

How­ever, the health fa­natic can­not ex­plain why ex­tend­ing life by a few years mat­ters in the end. He can­not ex­plain why ex­is­tence it­self mat­ters. Sim­i­larly, the im­pov­er­ish­ment of Jewish trib­al­ism lies in its fail­ure to of­fer any com­pelling an­swer to the ul­ti­mate ques­tion: why does the ex­is­tence of the Jewish peo­ple mat­ter? Tribal Jewish­ness fol­lows the im­per­a­tive of self-pro­tec­tion with mind­less de­vo­tion, by a crude in­stinct like that of wolves or dogs de­fend­ing the pack.

One finds a dif­fer­ent out­look in the re­li­gious per­son, who val­ues health and life but only be­cause they make pos­si­ble the en­joy­ment of eter­nal goods, those that ac­com­pany us into the next world af­ter death: love of God and fam­ily, care for friends, the pur­suit of time­less truths.

If ex­is­tence has any mean­ing that tran­scends our phys­i­cal ex­is­tence, which is my hope, I see no al­ter­na­tive to the con­clu­sion that this mean­ing must be sup­plied from out­side our phys­i­cal uni­verse. The Be­ing who stands in that unimag­in­able place, be­yond time and space, is God. In the Jewish con­cep­tion, He speaks to us through writ­ten and oral rev­e­la­tions, the cryp­tic He­brew Bi­ble and its tra­di­tional ex­pla­na­tions recorded in the Talmud, Midrash, and other rab­binic teach­ings.

In the tribal con­cep­tion, it makes per­fect sense to throw the lion’s share of Jewish com­mu­nal re­sources into the strug­gle against “Is­lam­ofas­cism”. Which is what you see our com­mu­nal lead­ers do­ing, for in­stance, in the cur­rent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Iran’s fa­natic pres­i­dent and his coun­try’s ap­par­ent race to at­tain the ca­pac­ity to wage nu­clear war. Ah­madine­jad’s re­cent visit to New York City was at­tended with fas­ci­nated at­ten­tion by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Thus, Ah­madine­jad’s Holo­caust-de­nial is the ob­ject of end­less ob­sess­ing by Jewish jour­nal­ists and com­mu­nal lead­ers. But to deny God — to ful­mi­nate specif­i­cally against the God of Is­rael, as, for in­stance, the best-sell­ing New Athe­ist au­thors do — is re­garded in the Jewish world as no big deal.

One of those au­thors, Ox­ford bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins, spews par­tic­u­lar venom at the He­brew God in his book The God Delu­sion. God is “ar­guably the most un­pleas­ant char­ac­ter in fiction: jeal­ous and proud of it; a petty, un­just, un­for­giv­ing con­trol­f­reak; a vin­dic­tive, blood­thirsty eth­nic cleanser; a misog­y­nis­tic, ho­mo­pho­bic, racist, in­fan­ti­ci­dal, geno­ci­dal, fil­i­ci­dal, pesti­len­tial, mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal, sado­masochis­tic, capri­ciously malev­o­lent bully.”

About this vi­o­lent, hate­ful, wildly sim­plis­tic and dis­hon­est tirade, I am un­aware of a peep of protest from a Jewish group.

Mean­while, since the at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, a new species of Jewish ac­tivists has sprung up that spe­cialises in ex­ul­tantly re­mind­ing both Jews and Chris­tians of the evil and anti-West­ern words and deeds of the Ira­ni­ans, the Pales­tini­ans, the Syr­i­ans, the Saudis and oth­ers. I be­come un­easy lis­ten­ing to fel­low Jews ex­ul­tantly broad­cast­ing the wicked­ness of our Arab and Is­lamic en­e­mies to the world.

I asked a friend who at­tends the syn­a­gogue I do if he did not find it a lit­tle an­noy­ing the way some Jews seem to de­light in tak­ing ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to re­mind Chris­tians friends and neigh­bours, now that we have their at­ten­tion thanks to 9/11, of how evil the Mus­lim world can be. “Oh, I do that all the time,” said my good-hu­moured friend, who is a health pro­fes­sional. “Ev­ery time the Mus­lims do some­thing [that is, com­mit a ter­ror at­tack or en­gage in ex­treme rhetoric against Amer­ica or the West], I’ll tell my col­leagues, ‘Well, that’s the ‘re­li­gion of peace’ for you!’”

We have fi­nally found a way to stir up the goyim against our tra­di­tional tribal en­e­mies, the Mus­lims, and some of us are seiz­ing it with a barely con­cealed glee. It is all so un-Jewish. If any­thing de­fines the au­then­tic Jewish world­view, it is the He­brew Bi­ble, speak­ing in the voice of the He­brew prophets. The prophets were familiar with the most ter­ri­ble dan­gers to the sur­vival of the Jewish peo­ple, dan­gers posed in their time by Assyr­i­ans and Baby­lo­ni­ans. But read­ing their in­spired words, you find that the em­pha­sis lies not in call­ing at­ten­tion to the of­fenc- es of for­eign en­e­mies. That is a side point, at most. Rather, the prophets again and again urged the Jews to look to their own moral back­slid­ing. They pri­ori­tised do­mes­tic, not in­ter­na­tional, con­cerns.

The prophets mourned the preva­lence of sex­ual im­moral­ity and eco­nomic ex­ploita­tion. Above all, they stressed the hor­ror of idol­a­try, which to­day we would iden­tify with rel­a­tivism. The ar­gu­ment that Amer­ica and her al­lies are called upon to fight “World War IV” against “Is­lam­ofas­cism”, and that this is the weight­i­est re­spon­si­bil­ity of West­ern lead­ers and cit­i­zens, would leave Isa­iah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel be­wil­dered.

They saw the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of their na­tion to out­side at­tack as a func­tion of in­ter­nal moral cor­rup- tion. If the na­tion was faith­ful in its de­vo­tion to God, He would pro­tect us. Oth­er­wise, not.

The is­sues that held the at­ten­tion of tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tives be­fore 9/11 — the clas­sic cul­ture-war ques­tions such as gay mar­riage, abor­tion, in­ter­net pornog­ra­phy, the sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of women and the like — are the is­sues that would stir the out­rage of the He­brew prophets if they were alive now.

If Jeremiah sub­scribed to a right-wing Zion­ist Jewish news­pa­per to­day and saw, week af­ter week, front pages full of head­lines be­wail­ing the naiveté of Is­rael’s gov­ern­ment in their deal­ing with the Pales­tini­ans, but few or none analysing the cul­tural degra­da­tion and de­mor­al­i­sa­tion in Is­rael it­self, along with the other coun­tries of the West where Jews live, he would be filled with dis­gust. I sub­scribe to an Amer­i­can Jewish news­pa­per that fits that de­scrip­tion. Ev­ery week, its front page fills me with dis­gust too.

You do not have to be Jewish to ap­pre­ci­ate this. I have come around to the view of the con­tro­ver­sial Catholic jour­nal­ist Di­nesh D’Souza. In his re­cent book, The En­emy at Home, he blames left-lib­er­als for pro­vok­ing rad­i­cal Mus­lims into com­mit­ting the at­tacks of 9/11. D’Souza’s point is that not only rad­i­cal but also tra­di­tional Mus­lims re­sent Amer­ica not for our free­dom (as Pres­i­dent Bush has ar­gued) but rather for “what we do with our free­dom”.

As early as the 1950s, a Mus­lim lit­er­ary-man­turned-the­olo­gian, Sayyid Qutb, lived in Amer­ica and prophet­i­cally fore­saw the West’s in­creas­ingly deca­dent way of life. Qutb was not a ter­ror­ist, but he in­spired ter­ror­ists. Though he was ex­e­cuted by Egypt’s Nasser in 1966, he be­came posthu­mously the rebbe of Al Qaeda. Qutb warned that West­ern sec­u­lar cul­ture threat­ens to displace that of the Ko­ran. What dis­turbed him chiefly was not ex­actly our ir­re­li­gious­ness, but the way we put re­li­gion in a box, safe from harm, to be opened only on Sun­day — revered but oth­er­wise ir­rel­e­vant in daily life. The un­com­fort­able truth is that the He­brew prophets would find much to agree about with Qutb.

As Osama bin Laden charged in Novem­ber 2002, Amer­i­cans (and Euro­peans too) “sep­a­rate re­li­gion from your pol­i­tics”, re­sult­ing in a cul­ture of “for­ni­ca­tion, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, in­tox­i­cants, gam­bling” and other vices. It was be­cause of our temp­ta­tion to com­part­men­talise faith, a temp­ta­tion many Mus­lims would like to see their cul­ture re­sist, that the West was at­tacked on 9/11 and on sub­se­quent oc­ca­sions.

I do not mean to im­ply that Jews and our Chris­tian fel­low cit­i­zens should be un­con­cerned with the dan­ger posed by Is­lamic ter­ror. Of course we should be con­cerned. I, for one, con­tinue to sup­port Amer­ica’s strug­gle to pacify Iraq. But we should not turn the Is­lamic peril into a fetish.

The Jewish lan­guage, with its math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion, has ex­actly the right word for such a dis­or­der­ing of pri­or­i­ties. The 19th-cen­tury Ger­man philol­o­gist and rabbi Sam­son Raphael Hirsch dis­tin­guished two sim­i­lar He­brew roots, dif­fer­en­ti­ated in their spell­ing by just one let­ter: sha­gah and sha­gag.

They both mean “to err”. But while sha­gag has the con­no­ta­tion of erring through mere care­less­ness, sha­gah means to err by “a blind at­tach­ment of the mind to one par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion or to one ob­ject [by which] it is drawn away from ev­ery­thing else, and has no con­sid­er­a­tion of any­thing else”.

Hirsch points out that the sin of she­giah, as dis­tinct from shegi­gah, is linked in the To­rah specif­i­cally with the er­ror com­mit­ted by the Jewish lead­er­ship, the San­hedrin (Leviti­cus 4:13). It was, and is, a fault to which lead­ers are par­tic­u­larly prone.

Our lead­ers set an ex­am­ple not of true Jewish lead­er­ship, but of a spe­cial kind of er­ror as­so­ci­ated with Jewish lead­ers. The To­rah pre­scribes a method of aton­ing for this fail­ure, if our lead­ers would care to study the pas­sage and its com­men­taries in or­der to find it. But that they would do so I strongly doubt — which, you might say, is the prob­lem in a nutshell. David Klinghof­fer is a se­nior fel­low at the Dis­cov­ery In­sti­tute in Seat­tle. His new book is Shat­tered Tablets: Why We Ig­nore the Ten Com­mand­ments at Our Peril (Dou­ble­day)

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