The Hebrew School, the Holocaust and Why the Kids Rebelled

 

Until January of last year I wrote a regular column for the Muslim newspaper InFocusNews, about Islamophobia, religious liberty, and the culture wars, which I generally sent out to a list of 300 or so readers each month, and published on this blog. Sadly, however, the newspaper went broke, so I let the blog slide and instead concentrated on finishing my latest book. But during this violent Autumn I thought it a good idea to publish the piece below on my half-forgotten but still extant blog. What may disturb people most about this piece is that it flies in the face of the current belief that Israel only became a hellish place of murder, torture and collective punishment of Palestinians in the OPT rather recently. As this piece demonstrates, there was something radically wrong with Israel right from the gate, something that was already apparent in the 1960s.  I didn’t want to see it anymore than anybody else, of course. This piece tries to explain in part why that was so. Lawrence Swaim

 

1.

It was the 1960s in San Francisco, and almost everyone thought of themselves as cultural and political progressives. My young wife and I didn’t want to send our children to any regular school, public or private, and there were a lot of non-traditional schools, including Waldorf Schools, open classrooms and educational experiments of every description; but we decided on a private but affordable school that was based on a multicultural model, a school that taught mainly in English, but also did language instruction. The four languages they taught were Cantonese, Hebrew, Spanish and Swahili; for us the core language instruction would be Hebrew, since my wife was Jewish. (You got lowered tuition under certain conditions, and we qualified for that.) We signed up our son for preschool and our daughter in the equivalent of elementary school, as I remember; and since it was in part funded by a local Jewish Social Service agency, and located on the grounds of a former Jewish orphanage, it had very good and well-attended Hebrew-language instruction. It was, in everything but name, a Hebrew school that also taught a smattering of other languages.

The school got its Hebrew-language teaching materials from the American publisher of such materials, which I later learned was owned and managed by right-wing Zionists. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. Most of the Hebrew was taught at this school by an individual who had lived in Israel, and had perhaps been born there—he had a thick accent, and clearly hadn’t learned English as a first language. He seemed like an efficient but businesslike young man, with nothing extraordinary about his personality one way or the other. Later on there were other teachers, all of them rather uncommunicative. My guess is that they weren’t getting paid that much. They weren’t particularly interested in talking to parents, either.

My wife and I thought of Hebrew-language instruction as a great opportunity for our two children to learn a second language early in life; an added incentive was that some kids received scholarships that made it quite inexpensive. (I can’t remember whether this scholarship was offered for all kids learning languages, or wholly or mainly for the Hebrew students.) The school also taught some Jewish history and culture, all from a secular point of view. I was reading Yiddish authors in translation, and often found myself wondering why the children were being taught Hebrew instead of Yiddish, since Yiddish had, after all, a much larger literature than Hebrew. What I kept hearing from people in the school was that Yiddish was a “dead language,” whereas Hebrew was the language of a vibrant young country that was increasingly influential in the world.

I remember that my wife hadn’t liked the Israelis she’d met, and I distinctly remember her saying that she found them “arrogant,” and not to be trusted. As for myself, I simply accepted all the things that Americans were being told at that time about Israel, beginning with the idea that Israel was “a land without people, for a people without a land.” Founding a new country seemed an incredible accomplishment, all the more compelling since it had been brought about in large part by refugees from the world’s worst genocide.

I came from a progressive middle-western tradition that began in 19th-century Kansas with my great-grandfather, Cicero Demosthenes Swaim, a vigorous Democratic legislator who cooperated with the populists and fought the eastern banks on behalf of the farmers. My grandfather and his many siblings were stalwart supporters of the New Deal, and both my parents were liberal Democrats who pulled themselves up from the rock-bottom poverty of the Depression. They were fanatical believers in education, which they saw as the key to a better life, and a better world; my father, amazingly, earned a Ph.D. at Kansas University attending mainly night classes. My mother was a gifted composer and piano teacher who held piano recitals every couple of months at our house, with catered refreshments afterwards.

My wife, the scion of progressive German Jews, greatly admired my parents and held them up as examples of what Christians ought to be. She was more than willing to raise our children as Episcopalians—odd, given her identification with German-Jewish culture—but I insisted that they ought to have some idea of the Jewish part of themselves. They would get most of their Jewish values by osmosis, through the attitudes and ideas of their mother; still, I thought it a sound idea for the kids to have some practical Jewish education to put it all into historical perspective. So the Hebrew instruction continued apace at the multicultural school, along with all the other kinds of instruction offered there.

The problem arose when my daughter, a bright and very savvy child, showed me some of the school’s Hebrew-language instructional materials. One book featured cartoons and illustrations of scowling, hook-nosed Arabs engaged in plotting mayhem against Israeli Jews. Another—this one was actually on the cover of one of the Hebrew-language booklets—showed an equally hideous Arab throwing a bomb into the United Nations. (The bomb was one of those round jobs with a lit fuse, like 19th-century newspapers used to show anarchists throwing.) Apparently the main occupation of Arabs was throwing bombs and scowling threateningly, and their main feature was their huge hook noses. My daughter was delighted to show me this exercise in stereotyping, partly because she lived for any opportunity to challenge the adults; but also because she never doubted for a moment that there were better Hebrew books out there, and that I could get some for her class. She was simply alerting us to the inappropriateness of the current books, so that the responsible adults could find better ones.

“Daddy, look, that’s racism, isn’t it?” she asked triumphantly, pointing to an illustration of a threatening, hook-nosed Arab.

What I didn’t know at that time was that she and the other children were discussing this dire situation among themselves; and some of the others were even starting to talk to their parents. One must remember that these were precocious children whose parents thought of themselves as progressives, liberals and radicals, many of them in the arts; and here we were, smack dab in the middle of the 1960s. The kids listened to their parents, and in objecting to the racism in the Hebrew books they accurately reflected the political and cultural values their progressive parents had taught them.

“Yes,” I said,” these cartoons are without question racist. It’s statistically impossible that all Arabs could look so hideous, harbor such evil intentions, or have such large noses. Clearly, by disseminating such a cartoon in a Hebrew-language book, the people who created these materials sought to create negative thoughts and feelings about Arabs, and to suggest that they are all fundamentally violent.”

“They’re making people hate Arabs,” my daughter said. It was open and shut to her. “Why do they always show Arabs doing bad things in this book?”

“Probably because they want to make people afraid of Arabs, so they’ll be prepared to fight them.”

“Why?”

I explained what little I knew about the problems faced by the Israelis, but my daughter wasn’t having any of it: “Some of the Arabs may be bad, Daddy, but not all of them. That’s what you told us: that there’s good and bad in every group. So why do they always show Arabs as bad?”

My daughter was awash with glee, in the manner of precocious children of all times and places who are able to confound their parents regarding something important. Also she didn’t, for a moment, see why the persecution of Jews should justify racism against Arabs. “Aren’t they doing to the Arabs what the Bad Guys did to them?”

I had no idea that most of these “Arabs”—whom we today call “Palestinians”—had actually, many of them, become refugees when they were systematically driven out of their villages, farms and neighborhoods. That would not become known until the 1980s, when the Israelis opened up their military archives and the New Historians began to write about it. And it would continue to be vehemently denied by many Jewish leaders, except in Israel, where everybody knew the truth.

My wife remarked that it served mainly to confirm what she had always felt about Israelis. As for myself, I tried to find out more about the language materials. Very shortly after this first discussion, I sat down and went through all the booklets the kids were using. They were filled with the most racist kind of propaganda imaginable. I would find out decades later, speaking to Noam Chomsky when he was a source for a story I was writing, that these Hebrew-language materials were widely acknowledged to be outrageously biased against Arabs and Palestinians; but they had never been challenged publicly, apparently because everybody was afraid to talk about it. (That is, Jews were afraid of being called self-hating Jews, and non-Jews were afraid of being called anti-Semites.)

And there was something else. These Hebrew instructional booklets constantly encouraged the children reading them to write a letter to an Israeli soldier, praising him for his bravery on behalf of Jews everywhere. The publishers would even deliver the letter. But why a soldier? Why not a dentist, a farmer or somebody’s grandmother? Or a writer, a poet or a musician in the Israeli symphony? Best of all: why not have children studying Hebrew write to other children living in Israel? That seemed like a much saner approach than haranguing kids to write a letter to an Israeli soldier, with whom they had nothing in common. In fact, everything in these Hebrew-language booklets seemed to be nothing more than a particularly transparent form of ideological indoctrination, with a heavy dose of militarism; and—worst of all—the most blatant kind of anti-Arab racism. It was all the more reprehensible, I thought, since it was aimed at children, and was supposed to be part of a classroom teaching experience in a multicultural school.

What was immediately noticeable was my daughter’s touching tendency to repeat exactly the same things—often using the same phrases—her mother and I had taught her regarding racial and religion stereotyping. But as far as my daughter was concerned, the question always came back to this: Why was the Hebrew school using racist instructional materials, and when would we get materials without hateful cartoons of buffoonish Arabs, and without the noxious right-wing ideological hard-sell? In the meantime, there had been a mini-revolt at the school. Children using the Hebrew-language materials were rebelling against the painfully obvious bigotry in the text and graphics of the instructional materials. The kids knew what was being done to them, and they were mad as hell about it. It was the parents, teachers and administrators who were befuddled and unsure about what to do about it.

 

2.
I went out of my way to talk to other parents about the anti-Arab racism in the Hebrew-language instructional material, but they seemed oddly evasive. Anybody who has had this experience will know the creepy vibes that immediately manifest themselves when anybody tries to talk about Israeli racism. Even allowing for some subjectivity on my part, it was obvious, almost from the beginning, that the subject made everybody uncomfortable, and that I was to some extent seen as “causing trouble” by bringing it up. The Jewish parents at first agreed with me that the cartoons and graphics were racist; it was sad, they said, but look at what the Israelis were going through. After all, they had never done anything bad to the Arabs, and the Arabs attacked the Israelis solely because they hated Jews. Considering that, the racist illustrations, while not admirable, were at least understandable, the Jewish parents seemed to be saying. These conversations were accompanied by a distinct undertone of resentment that I had brought it up at all, and continued to bring it up.

It wasn’t going to go away by itself, I thought, any more than concerns about fascism and Stalinism had gone away in preceding generations; and sure enough, most of the parents now began to internalize (or “contextualize,” as they might have said) the racism of the instructional Hebrew booklets, through the expedient of a thousand and one rationalizations for it. Now I was starting to hear the parents and teachers say things like, “Yes, of course it’s bad, but since when was the world fair? Isn’t fighting segregation in the American south and stopping the Vietnam War more important, because they’re so much more immediate? Isn’t it likely that the Israelis themselves will come to terms with their own racism someday?” And so on.

The Hebrew-language materials were cheesy and biased against Arabs, I kept hearing from parents, but what choice did any of us have? “We’re lucky to be getting language instruction so cheaply,” I heard from many parents, including those whose children were receiving instruction in other languages. (I have to admit that the same thought occurred to me.) But why had my wife and I wanted our two children to be conversational in Hebrew to begin with? Because we wanted to open up to them the world beyond our little neighborhood in San Francisco (Potrero Hill), but at the same time we wanted them to envision a world based on what we would today call universal human rights. Yet here we were, sending our kids to a so-called multicultural school, where they were being indoctrinated with what seemed like an almost medieval form of ethnic hatred. Putting up with that, it seemed, was the price we had to pay to stay in the school. (After all, we couldn’t expect our kids to suddenly start studying Cantonese, after making a good start on Hebrew.) Furthermore, a great many people I respected made weird excuses for the instructional materials, for reasons that didn’t make sense to me.

I gradually became aware that the other parents didn’t want to think about the Hebrew books, and at a certain point they politely refused to talk to me about it. The demonstrable racism of these Hebrew instructional booklets was different than any other form of racism, it seemed, and for that reason had to be justified with complicated excuses and explanations—in other words, denied. It was about this time that uncritical American supporters of Israel began to call anybody who was critical of Israel anti-Semites. (This may have been one reason why the parents didn’t want to talk about the racism of the Hebrew books, that they didn’t want to be denounced publicly as self-hating Jews and anti-Semites.) Compared to the fate of being stigmatized in that manner, racism against a bunch of Arabs didn’t seem so bad.

It was different with the kids. They continued to be offended by the Hebrew books—they could see exactly what the materials were trying to do, which was to indoctrinate them with a really dumb racist ideology, which they didn’t like. (Why? Because it was radically contrary to the values they had learned from their parents—or at least, the values their parents had verbally espoused).

So, I took it up with a couple of the people in the administration of the school. They seemed a shadowy bunch, not because they consciously kept a low profile, but because—like so many other things in the sixties—they were making everything up as they went along, with the school seemingly lurching along from one carefully-cultivated donor to the next. Such policies as they had arose from intense ad hoc discussions among whoever happened to be on staff at the time; people came and went.

Finally I got an interview with a woman whose face I cannot recall, almost surely because I have since repressed it; but I remember well the nature of our discussion about the Hebrew-language teaching materials. “Yes, some of the pictures and text are undeniably racist, from our middle-class American point of view,” she began. “But the Israelis, you know, don’t have the luxury of being nice to their adversaries. It’s not like in America, where the whites are in a large majority, and are therefore in a position to make significant concessions. In Israel, the Jews are a small minority in the Middle East, surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs, who are already on record as wanting to push them into the sea. The Arabs hate Jews, and would gladly wipe them out if they could. So it’s understandable that the Israelis would portray them as less than friendly.”

It occurred to me that if the Israelis were surrounded by millions of Arabs, they might wish, eventually, to integrate themselves into that part of the world; and I couldn’t see how this kind of cartoonish bigotry against Arabs could help them lay the groundwork for that.

“The Arabs aren’t portrayed as less than friendly,” I said, “they’re portrayed as violently evil, people who are almost exclusively engaged in scowling, throwing bombs and lurking about in the shadows waiting to kill Jews.”

“Don’t they, to some extent?”

“Some, maybe,” I said, remembering how I had taught my children not to generalize about an entire group. “But I don’t believe all Arabs could be that evil. Besides, isn’t it possible that the Israelis may have been less than friendly to them?”

She bristled. “What? Israeli Jews never did anything to the Arabs. The Arabs are poor and backward. After all, didn’t most of them leave Palestine at the first opportunity, when the Jews set up the state of Israel?”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know the history. But I know racism when I see it, and it is invariably contemptible, and indicative of unresolved emotional conflicts in the personalities of those that disseminate it. There’s always a kernel of truth in stereotypes, but only a kernel. Do you think Jews should put up with pictures that portray them as having huge hook noses, throwing bombs and hurting people?” (I was especially appalled by the hook noses, since it was looked so much like anti-Semitic newspaper cartoons from Europe in the 1930s.) “Someday the Israelis will want to make peace, if they have any sense, and integrate themselves into the rest of the Middle East. This kind of hatred and venom surely isn’t going to make it any easier. How can the Israelis have peace someday, when they disseminate these kinds of inflammatory gutter images in their Hebrew books?”

At this point she drew herself up. Here it comes, I thought, even though I didn’t yet know what was coming. “Surely you must be aware that Jews have suffered the most devastating genocide in human history. I refer to the Holocaust.”

“I know what the Holocaust is.”

“You must realize that Jews have been persecuted forever in Europe, and the Holocaust was the tipping point.” Now she began to talk at length about the Holocaust, and what it meant to her, and what it meant to the world, and what it ought to mean to me. I can’t remember all that she said, but it was mainly about the power of the Holocaust; and the gist of it was that the Holocaust had changed everything, and now everything we thought about right and wrong had to change.

We now had to do things that may have seemed wrong before, but now that the Holocaust had happened, we had to do those wrong things anyway. “Jews had to find a way to protect themselves, and having their own country was the only way to do it. The creation of the state of Israel was a historical necessity. Yes, I’m sure people get hurt in such a process, I’m sure that have been excesses throughout this historical process, and still are—but Jews have the right to defend themselves, don’t you see?” In her tone was absolute moral certainty. “They have done wonders with the land, too.”

“But these Hebrew booklets studied by the kids are still full of racist propaganda.”

She sighed. “It’s inevitable that such feelings would be present so soon after the founding of a new country, particularly when you consider how much opposition there’s been. I’m sure that the more extreme feelings will fade after awhile.”

Even then I knew that racism and religious bigotry are like an addiction, and that addictions always get worse unless confronted directly. And even then, although I was young and somewhat immature, I knew that what you had to do with racism was simply not cooperate with it, despite all the mitigating circumstances that might be trotted out to justify or explain it. That was what briefly living in the south as a teenager had taught me.
“What if these more extreme feelings don’t fade after awhile?”

Now she was starting to get impatient. For her, the conversation was already over, now that she had made her main points. My role was to understand the emotional verisimilitude of what she was saying, agree respectfully, and go away. “That’s up to the Israelis themselves,” she said firmly. “If you don’t share the same dangers and problems of the Israelis, you can’t judge them. Anyway, who knows what the future will bring?”

“Can’t we look for better instructional materials, materials that don’t portray Arabs in almost exactly the way that people in Europe used to portray Jews?”

“We have to use those particular materials, because the company that produces them is the only Hebrew-language publisher in the USA.”

That thought alone was terrifying. I had a sudden vision of tens of thousands of kids studying these booklets, and actually internalizing the racism that they contained. “Look, I just don’t like my kids using these materials.”

“Do you want to withdraw your children from the Hebrew class?” she asked after a pause.

I asked to talk with my children about it again; but my daughter felt strongly that it was simply a case of finding Hebrew-language materials without racism. Except for the lousy instructional materials, the kids were enjoying learning Hebrew—along with the smattering of other languages the school taught—and they had made a lot of friends in the multicultural school.

What to do?

The people in the administration at the school, at least those that I talked to—as well as almost all of the other parents—now began to bring up the Holocaust every time I pointed out the undeniable racism in the Hebrew instructional materials; the idea that I kept hearing was that Jews had been persecuted more than any other group, so they had to take extraordinary measures. Although the Israelis weren’t crazy about Arabs, they said, such racism was understandable, or perhaps even necessary, in the short run. It seemed that the Holocaust was a kind of emotional and social Kryptonite that had completely turned the world’s understanding of morality upside down. No longer was there such a thing as right and wrong, at least where the thought, speech and behavior of Israelis was concerned. Because of the Holocaust, you had to support the Israeli state, no matter what it—or its proxies—did or said, even when they were clearly wrong.

If the Holocaust had that kind of power, it seemed to me, it could be used to inspire hatred of anybody, and not just Arabs.

I quickly learned that the Holocaust was still going on, in the form of a traumatic memory, and that it was a profound emotional and social force; and that it was kept alive by people who wished to use it to enhance their personal power, usually by suppressing discussion. Most of all it gave them the right to exist beyond good and evil, beyond the normal moral reference points. References to the trauma of the Holocaust had to be invoked whenever the Israeli state did something violent, or when those violence things had to be rationalized. The lady I talked to at the multicultural school was clearly under the influence of it; I could tell by the way he voice dropped and her eyes widened when she talked about it, and she always talked about it when she was trying to justify the racism in the Hebrew instructional materials. It was like a drug, this traumatic memory, which could make people say that black was white, that right was wrong, that up was down; specifically, in this case, it could justify racism because the almighty Israeli state said so.

I knew that this particular drug had to be terribly addictive, no matter how much you tried to rationalize it; and I thought my kids were spot-on right to challenge it, when it appeared in their instructional materials. As for the adults, there was something grievously off-balanced and skewed and just plain wrong in the thinking of just about every person I talked to about it. There was a tremendous tendency to try to justify the racism when Jews did it, even when it was clearly despicable. Yet when my kids, especially my daughter, complained about it, I couldn’t seem to do anything to change the situation myself. This odd inability to think, speak or act also appeared to drive the attitude of the school’s administration: it was sad, the racism in the Hebrew books, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And after all, when you got right down to it, the Arabs were a little backward, weren’t they?

Now I wish more than anything that I’d simply taken my kids out of the school, and gone public to all the other parents about why I was doing so. I think maybe I would have done that, eventually; but I’ll never know for sure, because the problem was resolved for all of us in a manner nobody would have anticipated.

 

3.

The problem was resolved by the implosion of the school, brought about by a sensational but pitiful sex scandal that shook San Francisco to its foundations. A well-known, married San Francisco Supervisor was found to have been having a torrid affair with an equally well-known woman involved with the Jewish organizations that funded the school. Furthermore, the two lovebirds had been meeting on the mainly abandoned grounds of the Jewish orphanage, where the multicultural school was located; and the kids attending the school, it turned out, had known about their supposedly secret get-togethers long before the parents and administrators did. (As I said, the kids were a precocious bunch.)

There were public charges and counter-charges from the stricken and infuriated adulterers, who had declared war on each other; the married Supervisor hinted darkly that his lover had been unduly influenced by, and perhaps sleeping with, a “progressive Arab” man (I’m not making this up), since apparently that was the most damaging thing he could think of to say publicly about her; and the whole ridiculous, ugly mess ended up on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The school announced that it was sorry it was closing, but that it would certainly notify us when and if it re-opened. Our little family’s experiment with multicultural education and language instruction was finished, terminated, kaput, verschimmelt.

The experience also taught me, for the first but not the last time, about the power of the Holocaust, and the power of systemic evil. Most terrifying was the manner in which people used the Holocaust to justify new evil, to virtually guarantee that the circumstances that first created the Holocaust—nationalism, patriarchy, racism and militarism—would be replicated and acted out in new venues. What I was learning was that those who were most traumatized and disoriented by a shared memory of the Nazi Holocaust were often the most likely to identify with the negative social dynamics that had first caused it.

It is perhaps this same dangerous psychological tendency that causes the West to stand by, as it stands by today, while the Israelis continue to conduct their slow and tortuous ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, whose main crime is mainly to have been born into the wrong race and religion; although the West sees the horror of it, it refuses to act. Perhaps it the same moral distortion that allows Americans to accept the fact that a majority of their elected legislators receive money to vote as the Prime Minister of Israel wants them to. It is an odd and malignant kind of moral autism that grips all Western societies, and particularly America: those who see corruption most clearly are often those most likely to make excuses for it. Having nothing to lose, the children at the multicultural school in San Francisco saw evil, and rebelled against it. In so doing, they raised a troubling question: if children could see evil and rebel against it, and their much more educated parents couldn’t, what exactly is the good of education?

What few of us really understood was that we’d run smack up against the simultaneous operation of some highly emotional and unpleasant realities. First, we were being confronted by one of the most powerful and dangerous ideological systems of the last part of the 20th century, which was the religious nationalism released by Zionism. (Granted, it happened to be a particularly right-wing form of Zionism, but that was the only form that these children were likely to encounter, at least in their Hebrew instruction.) Secondly, we were witnessing—and to some extent participating in—the systematic corruption of the entire Jewish people, a corruption that continues today. Third, we were witnessing a major corruption of American thought and sensibilities, by the dissemination of an anti-Arab fantasy that would someday encourage Americans to embrace the most loathsome kinds of Islamophobia, religious nationalism and gutter racism. I would not know the true malignancy of this until much later, when—with a different partner—I became the parent of a Muslim daughter.

Fourth, we were seeing the opening rounds of the degradation of American religion generally—social-justice Catholicism would be swamped by Republican bishops, liberal mainstream Protestants would be overwhelmed by right-wing evangelicals, and the G-d of the Torah would be replaced in many Jewish sensibilities by the worship of the Israeli state. Finally, we were experiencing the fallout from the West’s unwillingness to unpack the causes of the Holocaust, and grapple meaningfully with the violent contradictions within Christianity that caused anti-Semitism to arise in the first place.

But for those young students of Hebrew, sorting it all out was a lot easier. They knew that the racist pictures and texts they’d been given were stupid and wrong, and they responded by protesting against them. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of them; I think also of the parents’ moral paralysis, in which I include my own. Now certifiably old, and speedily approaching the wild dotage for which I have so long waited, the powerful memory of those amazing kids looms larger each day; across the half-century that separates us, I salute them for their clarity, courage and moral imagination.

Lawrence Swaim                                                                   August  2014

 

 

The Israel Lobby and the Power of Traumatic Memory

Former NSA operative and super-leaker Edward Snowden speaks of an electronic “architecture of oppression,” based on the mania of our national security state to control the communications of all of humankind. But there are other systems of control—emotional and cultural rather than digital—whose mechanisms of control are no less capable of being abused. The most effective of these are the overlapping systems of influence and control set up by the Israel Lobby. This is a generic term referring to disparate people and institutions that believe that Americans should not be allowed to publicly criticize the government of Israel, even when (or especially when) it does bad things.

The Lobby consists mainly of the leadership of three important organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Lobby’s most well-known public figures are Abraham Foxman, Director of the ADL, and Alan Dershowitz, an American attorney and political commentator. They are backed up by an even larger contingent of right-wing Christian evangelicals, the largest and most active constituency in the Republican Party, many of whom believe that a religious war would bring about the Second Coming of Christ. All of the above-mentioned people have one thing in common: they attack American critics of the Israeli state, usually by calling them anti-Semites or self-hating Jews, often trying to ruin their reputations or drive them from their jobs.

In Congress the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does pretty much the same thing, with one major difference: they have at their disposal immense amounts of money. Currently an actual majority of elected officials receive money from AIPAC to vote as the current government of Israel wants them to, at least on issues having to do with the Middle East. There’s nothing illegal about it—it’s called ‘bundling,’ and is basically a form of legal bribery. But it’s rather odd–not to mention unprecedented–that the Prime Minister of a foreign country would participate in the distribution of money through his US proxies to the American Congress, to ensure that its members vote as he wants them to. From the point of view of American sovereignty, not to mention political morality, it’s an astonishing situation.

But why do people and organizations in the Israel Lobby behave in this manner, and why do so many supposedly free Americans follow their dictates? Why do they cooperate in suppressing criticism of the Israeli state, when everybody knows that self-criticism and robust debate are necessary to the health of the state, any state? Why do so many people who say they love Israel embrace doctrines that ensure Israel’s eventual destruction? And why do so many people feel constrained to think, speak and act according to the dictates of a Lobby that is often irrational? They do so because attitudes toward Israel are deeply intertwined with ongoing efforts to deal with the traumatic memory of the Nazi Holocaust, and likewise to suppress the gnawing awareness of the systemic evil that drove it. That is both troubling and dangerous, because you cannot suppress that kind of trauma (by which I mean the traumatic memory associated with the Holocaust), you can only manage it. And you can only manage it by deconstructing the aggression internalized along with it. And that means accepting the ghastly but universal capacity of all human beings for evil.

Some institutions, especially the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, actually encourage and seek to enhance traumatic memory associated with the Holocaust, insisting that identification with Holocaust victims should be the basis of Jewish identity, rather than identifying with those who tried to stop the Holocaust. In my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, I call attention to the extreme danger of this approach: “To live in the same world in which the Holocaust occurred, the Wiesenthal Center is saying, you must accept it both as history’s biggest crime and the most important determinant of Jewish identity. But that is a mistaken strategy, because it gives too much power to the Holocaust. You cannot base identity on the Holocaust without internalizing its aggression, because you cannot take in one without the other.”[i]

This creates a trauma bond, which bonds the victim not to the aggressor, but to his aggression. This process, in which victim internalize the aggression of the aggressor, is why so many victims appear to imitate and act out the kind of aggression with which they were once victimized. This is why, for example, the abused child grows up to be an abuser.

It is this internalization of Holocaust aggression that one meets at every point in the Israel Lobby, and in the people who follow its cultural and political dictates, even when those dictates are disastrous for Israel. Managing traumatic memory of the Holocaust also means managing the internalized aggression that inevitably accompanies it. That is not to say that all people who uncritically support the Israeli state are affected by multigenerational trauma, nor are all the Christians and Jews who obediently do its bidding. The trauma associated with the Nazi Holocaust often affects people who have no connection whatsoever to Europe, or the historical period when the Holocaust occurred; and that is, for the most part, because the Holocaust confronts people with the problem of systemic evil in a way they cannot ignore or avoid. Modern people are so unused to confronting the omnipresence of evil that even trying to do so can be traumatizing, because modernity has no philosophy, no theology, and no detailed explanation whatsoever, that can explain why aggression and evil are so powerful in human affairs. And while institutional religion tries to identify evil, it can’t stop it, and often makes it worse.

Acknowledging the existence of evil often leads people to realize—including a great many that are horrified by it—that evil can be more powerful than good, and usually is. This realization is by itself quite disorienting, because it goes against what enlightened people have believed for the last three centuries. It is not based on mere philosophical speculations, but arises as the result of excruciating psychological upheavals in which people discover that the world they knew before, no longer exists. This process creates an anxiety so profound that the only way some people can suppress it is to create an imaginary system in which comforting delusions replace unpredictable realities, and the reactions of other people must be endlessly manipulated and controlled through a kind of emotional totalitarianism. The manipulation of negative emotions—fear, guilt, aggression and shame—can be used to make people avoid taboo subjects, and even encourage people to censor themselves, and to suppress dangerous thoughts that might lead to dangerous conclusions.

This is a big part of the cultural system that the Israel Lobby has set up, but there is another component to it, one that is hidden. At a very deep level uncritical supporters of the Israeli state suffer from a gnawing fear that Israel is not the perfect place that the Lobby says it is; they may even fear that the Israeli state does cruel and contemptible things. To control their suppressed fears, they must strive to control what everybody else thinks and feels about Israel, often by ritually punishing unrepentant American critics of Israel in conspicuous, public and sometimes surreal ways.

That brings up the phenomenon of ex post facto scapegoating, an expedient widely practiced by visionaries when their shimmering dreams morph into nightmares; consider, for example, the pathologies associated with Stalinism. Why were there show trials, assassinations, people sent by the hundreds of thousands to the gulag? Because Communism could not deliver on its promises: therefore scapegoats had to be blamed and punished. In the case of Israel, the ideals of generations of liberals, social democrats and socialists toward a Jewish state have been mainly contradicted or abandoned; so someone, or some group of people, must be blamed and punished for this failure. Thus the suppressed fury at Israel’s moral collapse is seamlessly displaced onto the critics who document that same collapse. This may partially explain the over-the-top, buffoonish nature of the accusations hurled by the Israel Lobby at those who criticize the current government of Israel: that such critics are secret crypto-fascists; that they long for the destruction of Israel; that they are planning another Holocaust; and so forth.

If you’re still wondering why people in the Israel Lobby behave as they do, consider also the following dynamics from the point of view of a Holocaust survivor, or someone who lost family members in the Holocaust. Where was God at the moment of greatest peril to his people, when 10,000 Jews were being murdered every day in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau? God was not there for his people when they needed him—no, God was nowhere to be found. Likewise the secular faith in liberal, social democratic and progressive ideas embraced by secular Jews since the Enlightenment: all of them made not the slightest difference once the Endloesung, the Final Solution, was in place. The result was a largely unconscious loss of faith in God, in liberal democracy, and in any solution to political problems except military force. Many survivors ended up believing—unconsciously more than consciously—that those who survive in this world do so only by hurting others.

This led to a process in which worship of the Israeli state slowly replaced a Torah-based God, not to mention a secular belief in progressive political solutions. People who increasingly saw God as little more than a ancient metaphor could now worship something far more concrete: the Israeli state’s victorious army, its active diplomatic corps, its vast propaganda initiatives, not to mention its Shin Bet interrogation centers and 200-400 nuclear weapons—all the furnishings of a successful theocratic state! And instead of feeling close to a mainly absent and intangible God, they could now experience tumultuous feelings of religious nationalism, the strongest and most dangerous force on the planet. Indeed, this constitutes the real secular religion of Israel, and many of its uncritical supporters in the US: the worship of religious nationalism in the service of the Israeli state.

Yet religious nationalism feels like God, because it is so powerful—and considering what Jews have gone through in the past, certainly Jews need power to protect themselves. But what the Israeli Jews have done to the Palestinians, and what they continue to do to them, is the wrong kind of power. They have embraced a form of systemic evil, the addictive nature of which they are only now beginning to comprehend. The Israeli political class has internalized the aggression of the European anti-Semites, aided by the almost daily references to the Holocaust by Israeli media and right-wing politicians, the social outcome being that they now hate the Palestinians in much the same way as the Christians in Europe once hated them.

But if Jews struggle with aggression that they cannot acknowledge, so do Christians wrestle with a shame that dare not speak its name. After all, it was Christians who carried out the Holocaust, which was but the final act in a thousand years of Christian antisemitism. If Christians thought seriously about this last fact, it might occur to some of them that Christianity has been, and is, by its own standards, a failed religion. Thus there is a built-in incentive to declare the Israeli project a smashing success, along with enough unacknowledged guilt to make the Christians give the Israelis whatever they want—for along with the guilt is a generalized fear of being publicly vilified as anti-Semites (which Zionists quickly learned to do to get what they wanted). Thus anything having to do with Israel/Palestine is hedged about with elaborate taboos, for Christians as well as Jews, to the extent that people dare not talk publicly, or even think privately, about the moral and political implications of impunity for Israel’s crimes and misdemeanors.

All of which should help us understand why Israel must be represented as perfect by the Israel Lobby, and why, according to the Lobby, it must never be criticized. The Nazi Holocaust must be morally repudiated, and its traumatic memory suppressed—but not in a way that would require anybody to make any changes or do anything; so only a Holy State, a perfect state, an exalted and utopian state thousands of miles away (that is to say, an imaginary state) can in a quick and efficient manner redeem the shame of Christians, and help to suppress the anger and internalized aggression of Jews. If the Nazi madness was pure evil, the Israeli state must now be perceived as wholly and perfectly good; only the most transcendent and eternally perfect State could help people repress the traumatic memory of the six million dead in Europe, and in so doing suppress all thought of the human evil in the present moment. (Because if the Holy State is perfect, Christians and Jews that support it are likewise perfect, and need not make any changes or do anything.)

The result of this malignant, self-exculpatory fantasy is a wholly dysfunctional system in which legislators are paid to sign off on proclamations they don’t really believe, Christians and Jews are obligated to do obeisance to flagrantly mediocre leaders, and intellectuals are browbeat into pretending that they love Israel when most of them secretly wish that the state of Israel and its power-hungry supporters would go away.

Of course, it isn’t as though Western civilization has not seen fanatical, power-obsessed lobbies before. As George Orwell documented in the 1940s, the intellectual classes of Britain and Europe were obsessed for a time by the Soviet Union, which Orwell understood to be a covert form of power worship. But the Communists in the US were never strong institutionally, being confined mainly to a small following among creative intellectuals and a handful of trade unionists. The Israel Lobby, on the other hand, possesses enormous wealth from its billionaire donors, and its influence is very strong at every level of institutional life in America—furthermore, its evangelical followers constitute the most dynamic constituency in the Republican Party. The conviction that Israel cannot be criticized isn’t just the fancy of a few highly-paid fanatics in the Israel Lobby, although they define fanaticism in our time; they are also supported by what seems to be a majority of the American people.

But the fact that irrational and immoral beliefs and behavior have a great following doesn’t make those beliefs and behaviors right. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not about politics, nor religion, nor even geopolitics. It is about pathology; and ultimately it is about systemic evil. The evil of the Holocaust, like the traumatic memory it generates, is by definition a wound that will never heal; it cannot be suppressed, but only acknowledged and managed. And the only way to really manage it is to deconstruct the trauma bond—the emotional bondage to aggression as the supreme arbiter of history—at its heart.

In the meantime, the real state of Israel and its apartheid system (not the fantasy that people are supposed to believe in) keeps moving to the right, the politicians of American and Israel continue to lie about what is really happening, and the use of targeted assassinations, mass internment, torture and collective punishment of Palestinians continues. What the state of Israel really needs is what every state needs, which is educated critics denouncing what is wrong about it and supporting what is right, and working to confront injustices and correct them. But the message of the Israel Lobby, like so much American cultural and political expression, is not about reality, but about an apocalyptic idea of perfection that its apparatchiki must ram down everybody’s throat in order to suppress their own trauma—in this case, the traumatic memory of humanity’s worst crime, and their own creeping doubts about the real nature of the Holy State begotten by it.

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organization that opposes Islamophobia and advocates religious liberty for all. His latest book, Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil, was published in March by Psyche Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishers, Ltd. It is available at Amazon.com.

Notes.

[i] Lawrence Swaim, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World (Winchester UK and Washington DC: Circle Books, John Hunt Publishing, Ltd., 2012), 169.

A Definitive Modern Theory of Evil, Coming to a Bookstore Near You

For several years I have been writing a regular monthly column on religious liberty and the culture wars for ‘Infocus News,’ a Muslim newspaper in California. Sadly, ‘Infocus News’ has suspended publication—it never quite found enough donors to stay afloat. It is nonetheless my fervent hope that very shortly the needed donors will manifest themselves, and ‘Infocus News’ will once again be a vibrant and ongoing journalistic concern.

I’ve also been engaged the last few years in completing the book that every political-literary journalist dreams of writing—the ‘big book’ that fearlessly confronts the major issues of the day and either vanquishes them, or reduces them to manageable proportions. Therefore it is my great pleasure to announce that my book Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil is coming out on March 16, 2013, and will thereafter be available at all major bookstores and on Amazon.com. (It is being published by Psyche Books, which in turn is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Ltd.) It consists of my theory of aggression and evil—particularly the thorny problem of systemic evil—and is in part the result of twenty-five years of working as a counselor doing psycho-social rehab in various mental health programs, in addition to being the Executive Director for the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.

Think the world’s becoming a more violent place? It’s not your imagination. Leaders refuse to learn from their mistakes—instead they get better at rationalizing the harm they do. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil shows how one can help break society’s cycle of aggression, beginning with oneself.
Trauma Bond is an audacious, ground-breaking psychological theory about how aggression replicates itself in the world. What causes aggression? One thinks of low tolerance for frustration, cultural traditions, and people born with excessive latent aggression. But there’s another and much more important cause: people exposed to violent events—as victims, witnesses or even perpetrators—internalize the aggression they experience. They often act it out later, without understanding where the aggression comes from. Women tend to act it out against themselves; men act it out against others. Trauma Bond explains in detail how this dangerous mechanism works.

When people conceal, dissemble or glamorize aggression, it becomes a form of evil. When enough people engage in unacceptable aggression simultaneously, and the state takes on the role of concealing and facilitating it, mass aggression is likely to become a form of systemic evil. When aggression becomes evil, it becomes an extraordinarily dangerous and malignant force that could destroy civilization. Trauma Bond explains how we can break free of this toxic cycle of psychological and physical violence. We can begin this process today, in order to make the world safer, both for ourselves and for our children.

Trauma Bond calls for a ‘moral psychology,’ promising neither happiness nor gratification, but personal authenticity based on the development of an informed, life-affirming moral code.

Lawrence Swaim

Encountering the Jewish Future, by Marc H. Ellis

A Review by Lawrence Swaim — January 15th, 2013

      This review of Marc H. Ellis’ Encountering the Jewish Future deals with issues taken up in my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World. Many of these same issues will be again taken up in my new book, Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil, to be published in March, 2013, by Psyche books.

Lawrence Swaim, Interfaith Freedom Foundation     

ENCOUNTERING THE JEWISH FUTURE WITH WIESEL, BUBER, HESCHEL, ARENDT AND LEVINAS
by Marc H. Ellis
Fortress Press, 2011

These five Jewish thinkers are not as concerned about theology as they are with modern history. And it’s no wonder. No religion on this planet has suffered what Judaism endured in the twentieth century. After a millennium of unremitting efforts by Jews to be good Europeans came the Nazi Holocaust, and just four years after Auschwitz was liberated, the state of Israel was founded. These two colossal, mind-boggling events of the 1940s are what this book is really about, with the Holocaust taking precedence. The Holocaust changed the way the West views itself; the founding of Israel, which was in many ways a response to the Holocaust, radically altered the Middle East. It is this vivid and dangerous subtext that informs the thinking of these five thinkers, as each tries desperately, with varying degrees of success, to respond to what has happened.

“Our images of God, man, and the moral order have been permanently impaired,” wrote Richard Rubenstein, Professor Ellis’ first important teacher, in 1966. “No Jewish theology will possess even a remote degree of relevance to contemporary Jewish life if it ignores the question of God and the death camps.” Everything Jews thought they knew about themselves, human nature, and morality was completely turned upside down. To put it bluntly, where was God when six million Jews were asphyxiating in the gas chambers of Europe? If God had a covenant with Jews before, what could possibly be left of it, and why should anybody care?

Ellis first tells the story of Elie Wiesel, whose autobiographical memoir, Night, raised consciousness about the Holocaust. Wiesel sees God’s abandonment of European Jews in their hour of need as a kind of incomprehensible moral failure. Yet the absence of God in the gas chambers is balanced off by the founding of the state of Israel, which to Wiesel is a transcendent miracle that in some sense atones for God’s silence. But there is clearly a problem with this. To say that the Israeli state is a miracle from God is very close to saying that it is God, or at the very least an outcome of God’s will. But if God loves Jews so much that he wants them to have their own country, why did he previously abandon them to Hitler?

Wiesel isn’t inclined to think this through. His personal need to identity with Israeli power is too strong, but he clearly believes that Israel is in some sense a divine work, or at the very least beyond human criticism. And although such intuition is no excuse for a real position, it is probably typical of the feelings of a great many American Jews. Having lost their connection to God – where was God in the gas chambers? – many have unconsciously replaced God with the worship of the Israeli state, which implies uncritical acceptance of Israel’s crimes and misdemeanors, as well as Israeli’s escalating racism and defiance of international law. If the Israeli state is God, everything it does must be good, even though it may not appear so to the unbeliever. This identification with the state of Israel may be an expression of pure religious nationalism, but also the inevitable result of an unconscious sense that God may be dead, mad, or morally deranged.

 But God did not commit the evils of the Holocaust. Those evils were committed by European Christians, who have a long history of committing just such outrages. Indeed, the only reason it had not been done before was probably because Christians lacked the organization and technology to carry it out. The Holocaust, whatever else it was in terms of systemic evil, was also the culmination of sixteen centuries of Christendom’s persecution of Jews. So why cannot Elie Wiesel articulate this simple truth? Because he is a favorite of the American Establishment (in both its political and cultural incarnations) which rewards him well for his role, even passing a resolution in Congress demanding that he receive a Nobel Prize. In a celebrity culture such as America’s, Wiesel seemed well-cast to play the role of an elder statesman of human rights: a gaunt but tragic face, a serious demeanor, and a perhaps overly-praised but still impressive literary reputation.

Furthermore, Wiesel could always be counted on to play a reliable ideological role on behalf of the American Establishment. He would never criticize America’s many human rights violations abroad, and he would reliably deflect criticism of America’s special relationship to Israel as probably motivated by anti-Semitism. Most importantly of all, he could be depended on to never very seriously criticize Christian beliefs and behavior, and would never embarrass his American sponsors by forcefully pointing out that the Holocaust was carried out entirely by Christians.

That is too bad, because Christianity needs such a candid analysis. The Protestants of Germany made a beginning with their “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt” of October 19, 1945, beginning with these somber words: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and cultures….” But this promising beginning was not followed up. It soon became clear that Christian anti-Semitism was deeply connected to the belief in substitutionary atonement, by which Christ’s crucifixion supposedly redeems the sinner. If Christ’s bloody death redeems the world, then violence is redemptive, which is why historically anti-Semitic acts escalated during Easter Week. But if Christians took responsibility for the Holocaust, however retroactively, no one could claim that it was God’s malevolence or deliberate absence that caused the Holocaust, but the misuse of religion by European Christendom, a misuse, critics would say, that has been going on in one form or another since the fourth century. To consider this would be good for Christianity, and also Judaism.

Hannah Arendt, who Ellis also writes about, took a different tack in dealing with the Holocaust, in her case by banishing its unfathomable evil to the much more manageable realm of the banal. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that it is possible for some people to participate in systemic evil without any very great consciousness of personal evil. At the same time, Arendt agreed that it is precisely the casual boredom of the criminal toward his crime that makes mass murder so difficult to understand. None of this is news of earthquake proportions. Evil is defined not by emotions or even intentions, but by outcome – that is, what it does, which in Eichmann’s case was to murder millions of innocent people because they were Jews.

Furthermore, Eichmann’s own statements contradict Arendt’s thesis. He was not only aware of the evil he was committing, he was proud of it. As for Arendt, one has a back-handed admiration for her willingness to take on the leaders of the organized Jewish community in America, as well as her insistence on seeing Jewish victims as people, rather than martyrs or proto-Zionist heroes. But her idea that evil itself can be banal doesn’t fly. People can act out radical evil as casually as they wish – indeed, that is exactly how sociopaths operate – but the effects are still catastrophic. That is why we punish the criminals responsible for them. Even Adolph Eichmann must have realized that something had gone terrible wrong as the day of his execution loomed closer.

Arendt and Wiesel were in Jerusalem at the same time covering the Eichmann trial, and each had an instant dislike and distrust of each other. Ellis explains that Arendt, as a trained political scientist, simply wanted to analyze the Holocaust and find out what happened. Wiesel, on the other hand, bristled at the idea that it could ever be analyzed or understood. To understand would be to make in an ordinary human phenomenon, whereas Wiesel wanted to see it as outside of history and incomprehensible. Anybody who tried to understand it was minimizing its enormity and also minimizing the special role of Wiesel himself, who over time set himself up as a kind of high priest or archbishop of Holocaustianity, with all the special privileges and responsibilities inherent in such an important role. Gradually it became a sin for anybody to even try to understand the Holocaust or place it in a recognizable human or historical context. To do that would suggest that all people are capable of such evil, even in places such as the state of Israel. Wiesel was one of the first and most egregious examples of the painful reality that all who use the Holocaust for personal or organizational gain are invariably corrupted. Over time, Wiesel became simply another American celebrity and a reliable advocate of uncritical approval of anything Israeli.

Of all the five intellectuals Ellis examines, Rabbi Abraham Josehua Heschel is the thinker who seems at first to embody the best response to the Holocaust: let us build a better world as an alternative to the horrors of the past. Heschel correctly warns against too much introspective examination–what is important is not being, he says, but behavior. And indeed, for a very long time Heschel seemed to be choosing a robust and even heroic opposition to various forms of systemic evil in American life. He was a close associate of Martin Luther King, bringing him to denominational conventions and introducing him to key members of his community. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, but most forcefully against segregation in the South and racism in general in the United States. There is little doubt that he saw Southern segregation and institutional racism generally as first cousins to the Nazi anti-Semitism that killed his mother and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

Ellis quotes Heschel in prophetic mode, in which he could deliver stinging indictments of American Jews and others with epigrammatic fury. Here is a short selection written in capital letters from a telegram Heschel sent in 1963 to President Kennedy, insisting that he intervene on behalf of Martin Luther King:

PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLUMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE THE RIGHTS OF NEGROES, CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE.

To the Council of Jewish Federations, he said: “Our institutions maintain too many beauty parlors. Our people need a language and we offer them cosmetics.” Likewise, he denounced the American worship of the Almighty Dollar. “The most urgent task is to destroy the myth that accumulation of wealth and the achievement of comfort are the chief vocations of man.” He referred to religious and racial bigotry as “Satanism, a blasphemy.” When asked why he marched to stop the Vietnam War, he said, “What does [God] condemn above all? Murder, killing innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam? In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Thus it is with enormous disappointment that one discovers that in his writings about Palestinians and Arabs, Heschel takes a sharp right turn into a highly self-serving version of Orientalist fantasy. In Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Heschel strikes out at Arabs for not welcoming Zionists into the Middle East, since the Jewish settlers wished only to help Arabs reach a higher level of civilization. There was no ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – according to Heschel’s Disney version, Zionist settlers manfully tried to “arrest this exodus” of Palestinians leaving their neighborhoods and villages, the better for Jew and Arab to dwell together in peace. Heschel writes of Palestinians much like British Americans in the 1640s wrote of tribal societies: since they were too primitive to know their own best interests, it was impossible to negotiate with them; they were therefore fated to remain shadowy and sometimes demonic stick figures, alternately childlike and threatening, forever getting in the way of the white European’s God-given task of redeeming Arabs by building the good society.

Heschel thought the Palestinians should “embrace” the Zionists, because of the obvious advantages of living in the same neighborhood with all those educated Europeans. But if you run away from a massacre or battle zone, and the Israelis close the border and steal your house, what’s to embrace? The Israelis closed the borders and aren’t letting you go home, so you can’t get close enough to any Zionists to embrace them, even if you wanted to. Of course, Heschel died in 1972, long before the military archives in Israel were opened (in the 1980s), but even scouring primary sources might not have persuaded him to accept historical fact. Heschel instinctively understood the dilemma of African-Americans, but the demonstrable fact that he could so quickly and effortlessly deny and gloss over the pain of Palestinians is testimony to the lethal danger of religious nationalism. In fact, it reminds us that religious nationalism is without question today the most destructive force in the world, whether of Likudnik settlers in the West Bank, Christian evangelicals such as George Bush (who thought God wanted him to invade Iraq) or the religiously-motivated suicide bomber in Iraq or Pakistan.

 It was Martin Buber, the psychologically-acute mystic and student of Chassidism, who arrived at a completely workable way of looking at – actually looking through – systemic evil such as the Holocaust, recounting its horrors while arriving at a way to live with its aftermath. This vision bloomed in den Goldenen Zwansiger Yahren, during the creative explosion of scholarship, science, and the arts in Germany of the 1920s. Ich und Du (I and Thou) was published in 1923, and quickly established itself as a highly detailed tutorial on the sudden luminescence of the sacred that often appear in one-on-one human relationships. Almost without trying, Buber resolves a problem that had haunted both Christianity and Judaism, of the essential opposition of a vertical faith (between person and God) that must be acted out in a horizontal world (between person and person). Yet we know that religion must be both, or it is hardly more than entertainment. Behavior is both proof and test of religion; our relations with others must be the arena where religion is acted out. Furthermore, as Buber demonstrated in a German language both practical and mystical, filled with invented words, it is in our relationships with others that we can encounter the divine, sometimes far more often, and far more deeply, than in prayer, liturgy, or worship. These unexpected sacred moments are the flashes of lightning in which we see the world illuminated in a stunning phenomenological unity, but experienced in strikingly personal terms. Or to put it another way, behavior is not just the test of religion, but its most intimate experience. It was a new idea in both religion and philosophy.

Interestingly, Buber’s intense engagement with human relationships provides the best way to know the Holocaust, because there is in Buber’s method an implicit idea that people are what is important, so when we confront systemic evil, we must make an attempt to find out which people are more evil, and which less so. Then we make contact with those that resisted the evil, or who were guiltless of systemic evil. Those contacts are the way to carry on a historical continuity and if we do not use this simple rule to understand the Holocaust, or something very much like it, we will not be able to provide an alternative to the Holocaust. People tend to get stuck in the trauma of the Holocaust; what can then happen is that they internalize its aggression and act it out in new ways. That is arguably what has happened to Israel’s political class: the Holocaust is used not only to justify violent acts after the fact, but to rationalize future ones.

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is clearly Ellis’ favorite Jewish thinker. He traveled in an entirely different direction than the other Arendt and Buber, toward a mystical humanism that deals with the Holocaust by coolly distancing the reader from it with endless philosophical speculations about it. At times Levinas seems at pains to show his readers how well he knows the modern philosophical tradition, demonstrating with admirable precision exactly how many phenomenological angels can dance on the heads of any number of post-modern pins.

Levinas’ philosophy led neither to mysticism nor to an exclusively Talmudic interpretation, but to a very French and very intellectual form of humanism in which he sought to reconcile phenomenology, ethics, and post-modernism through a rebirth of the prophetic Jewish voice. For Jews this reconciliation through the prophetic voice raises an old question in a new way. Levinas recounts how in the past Jews have raised a prophetic voice for “intransigent justice” both against the world’s injustice, and against injustice in their own Jewish communities. This has been accompanied by a dialectical process of rebellion against Judaism, followed by a return to it, which taken together has created the modern Jewish temperament. But Ellis remarks: “It may be that Hebrew, ostensibly the Jewish language par excellence, is so tainted with injustice and atrocity that it needs to be abandoned in order for Jews to be faithful today.” Ellis also sounds a relevant warning:

What may be different today is that the long-hoped-for return to Israel has occurred, while the disappointment in that return has engendered another exile. On the face of it, this might mean an exile without return to Israel or to the Jewish community anywhere else. This could be the final exile in Jewish history, the expiration date par excellence.

If “intransigent justice” is denied within Israel, many Jews will have to find renewal somewhere else. But what will that renewal lead them to become? Ellis sees the crisis in Judaism as similar to what has happened to Christianity:

When do we simply conclude that so much of Christian history has been involved with colonial and imperial domination that its essence now includes these aspects of its history? The time is coming when we may need to ask the same question [of] Jewish history. The question Jews face is whether or not this assimilation to power and injustice has already permanently marked the Jewish world.

Indeed, this writer would say that in Israel the political class seems to be creating a volatile new ethos including many of the most violent aspects of Christianity, including an addiction to redemptive violence.

Levinas sometimes employs irritatingly self-conscious forms of irony, some of which finally comes off as the exquisite product of a gifted and self-consciously French humanist who is unfortunately capable of stupid ideas. Best evidence of this trait is his highly questionable practice, in one essay, of referring to the Holocaust as the Passion of the Jews. (This came in a lecture to Christians in a Muslim-majority country.) Is he suggesting that the Christian obsession with the crucifixion might have something to do with Christian anti-Semitism, and hence the Holocaust? Absolutely true, I believe, but how much better, then, if he simply came out and said so! As it is, he makes it far too easy for Christians to change the subject.

Levinas’ default highlights the central problem of these thinkers. They do not deal persuasively with the dilemmas of human evil, particularly systemic evil, although Arendt tries to do so. That is partly because evil had before been an exclusively religious concept, which Christendom could supposedly identify and redeem, and was accepted as part of the naturally-occurring world because its presence was not too disruptive. Indeed, because of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century breakthroughs in medicine, education, and social justice, a sense was created that, thanks to such marvelous progress, the Promised Land was just around the corner. But then, as the twentieth century progressed, evils of an unimagined ferocity were unleashed upon the world, starting with the horrors of trench warfare, then the Second World War and the Holocaust, an entire generation of brutal Japanese warriors that worshiped a bumbling Emperor-God, ending up with the radiated hellfire of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the mass manufacture of nuclear weapons, it became quite clear not just that humanity might destroy itself, but that it was quite likely to do so. Religion seemed singularly unable either to redeem evil or to stop it; indeed, it simply redirected and rationalized aggression, making it worse. But no secular moral philosophy arose to explain why and how this happened, and what to do about it. The lack of a coherent philosophical approach to the problem of evil mars all of the thinkers that Professor Ellis studies.

And now that at last Jews have some political power, both in Israel and in Western lobbies for Israel, what is to keep them from replicating the hideous mistakes of the Christendom with its fondness for torture, war, and imperialism? Nothing, of course, but the idea that Jews are capable of systemic evil themselves is likely to invoke screams of outrage in the U.S. Israel Lobby, not to mention charges of anti-Semitism. But if Jews are human beings first, as I believe, and not cut-outs in a Christian drama, what is to stop them from making the same mistakes as Christianity? Given what has happened to Jews in the past, power for Jews is a good thing, not a bad thing. But what kind of power will it be? The real role of the prophetic Jewish voice in our time is the same as it has always been: not to gain power, but to oppose power when it is misused, and to support it when used wisely.

None of these five thinkers give very many clues as to how this kind of relationship to power is to be managed. In the meantime, many in the Israel Lobby seem to believe that no matter what Israelis do, they are best served by operating out of a kind of permanent, built-in victim status. Victim status is useful, to be sure, since it can be used to justify anything, past, present, and future. Above all, the victim is always right, and he never has to make any changes or do anything. But how long can grown-up people continue to use that as an excuse for Israel’s continued drift to the right, and its gratuitous brutality toward Palestinians? And at what point does uncritical support begin to set the stage for Israel’s self-destruction?

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. His latest book Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil will be published by Psyche Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Ltd, on 16 March 2013. 

 

Blatant Islamophobia at US Commission on Religious Freedom

  

     When Safiya Ghori-Ahmad applied for a job with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, it rather quickly became clear that she was the most qualified of 300 applicants. USCRF needed a policy analyst for India, and Safiya spoke Urdu and Hindi, had a JD, an MA in International Development, as well as a BA in political science. Furthermore she had traveled extensively in South Asia and written often on policy there, and although she was raised in Arkansas was the descendant of Indian immigrants. On June 1, 2009, Executive Director James Standish offered Ghori-Ahmad the policy analyst job. She accepted, and proceeded to quit her job at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, where she’d been working as a government relations director.

     A success story, right? Not quite. Director Standish informed her that there were things about her “background” that might anger certain people at USCRF. Shortly afterwards Knox Thames, who replaced Standish as Executive Director, rather mysteriously asked Ghori-Ahmad to meet him at the Au Bon Pain café at Union Station for a private discussion. Thames explained that although the professional staff was uniformly in favor of Ghori-Ahmad’s hiring, there was a problem with USCIFR Commissioners, unpaid volunteers who were supposed to support the work of the agency. 

       According to the lawsuit Ghori-Ahmad later filed, Thames told her that two of the Commissioners, Nina Shea and Felice Gaer, were opposed to having Muslims on the Commission, especially Shea. Thames suggested that they push back Ghori-Ahmad’s starting date until July 17, which would minimize the chance of her running into Nina Shea. Ms. Ghori-Ahmad was advised to “play down” the fact that she was a Muslim, and Thames also suggested that Ghori-Ahmad “call in sick” on days that Shea and Gaer were in the office. At no time did Thames explain why he was so afraid of Shea or why she should be involved in hiring at all, since she was an unpaid volunteer. Nor did he find it odd that Shea was promoting religious bigotry at an agency supposedly fighting bigotry.  

      When Shea found out the new hire was Muslim, she launched into an Islamophobic rant, insinuating the Ghori-Ahmad was a “plant” for a Muslim organization. Under pressure from Shea, Knox Thames wrote to Safiya Ghori-Ahmad on Saturday, June 27, asking her to write a paper on issues of religious liberty in Pakistan—informing her that she was to submit it by midnight the next day! Despite the blatant unfairness of such an odd weekend request, Ghori-Ahmad proceeded to write a highly-nuanced paper on persecution of minorities in Pakistan, including Hindus, Christians, Shi’a and Ahmadis. 

      But to Nina Shea, the high quality of the paper, and the fact that Ghori-Ahmad wrote it in only 24 hours, was simply more evidence of her malicious and subversive intent. Ghori-Ahmad was just faking it, Shea insisted—since Ghori-Ahmad was Muslim, she would by definition be unable to do good or unbiased work on Pakistan! The high quality of her paper was just a clever attempt to fool them into thinking differently.    

       Despite the fact that she was only an unpaid Commissioner with no authority regarding hiring, Shea now launched a full-bore campaign against Ghori-Ahmad, in the Commission and evidently in Washington at large. She allegedly wrote that allowing Ghori-Ahmad to analyze religious liberty issues would be like “hiring an IRA activist to research the UK twenty years ago.” After several days, three Commissioners—Leonard Leo, Felice Gaer, and Nina Shea—announced that the Commission needed to rescind the job offer to Ghori-Ahmad, and told Knox Thames to do so. But he was also instructed to lie to Ms. Ghori-Ahmad about the real reason for the retraction.

      Thames dutifully set up another meeting at the Au Bon Pain café, at which time Ms. Ghori-Ahmad demanded to know the real reason for the job retraction. Thames admitted it was because she was Muslim. The next day Ghori-Ahmad called Thames and requested a formal letter of retraction. She also began to correspond with others in the Commission requesting clarification of the situation. All requests were ignored—but Thames, perhaps uneasy that she made requests at all, fell back on the time-honored gambit of hiring Ghori-Ahmad in a temp position for 90 days. It would be easy enough for Thames to let her go after 90 days, since the temp job had nothing to do with the original hiring. The Commission posted a brief bio of Ghori-Ahmad during the 90 days, but Nina Shea demanded that it be taken down—and Thames dutifully did so. 

      Ghori-Ahmad wisely decided that it was time for a chat with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When this was discovered, the reaction bordered on hysteria. One Commissioner suggested that Ghori-Ahmad be “immediately escorted from the building.” Nina Shea wrote emails to several people advocating the Safiya Ghori-Ahmad “be isolated since she has taken an adversarial position against us.” Despite a last-minute effort by some staff to save her job, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad was let go on October 27, 2009.

      Astonishingly, the USCIRF defended itself by saying that it had the right to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion since that wasn’t covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Partly as a result of this shocking acknowledgement of its own bigotry, reforms were initiated by Sen. Dick Durbin, who sponsored legislation making it illegal for USCIRF to discriminate—and the penalties for discrimination are retroactive. Commissioners were limited to two years service, causing Nina Shea to lose her position. (But as soon as she left, Republicans appointed “Anti-Islamist” neo-con Zuhdi Jasser to the USCIRF.)

      On June 7, 2012, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad filed a lawsuit against the USCIRF, demanding a jury trial, back pay, compensatory damages and any relief found to be “just and proper.”  (Those who wish to read the lawsuit will find it online.)

      The biggest mystery in this horrific series of events is why and how a very aggressive bigot—and an unpaid volunteer at that—ended up virtually running the USCIRF. She certainly could not have done so without some behind-the-scenes political assistance. Nina Shea managed to wangle her way into the agency as a Commissioner in 1998, the year the agency was chartered, and simply never left. She was extremely well-connected inside the beltway with neo-cons, the Religious Right and ultra-conservative Republicans, her relationships to neo-con foundations going back at least 30 years. By 2006, she was the Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the wildly Islamophobic Hudson Institute, and held that position through the last six years of her USCIRF tenure. In some manner she managed to leverage her connections among neo-cons in an ongoing campaign to transform the USCIRF into an outpost of the Hudson Institute, in order to promote her personal Islamophobia as well as the Institute’s extremist message of worldwide religious war against Islam. 

       Where was the political oversight during these years (and where were Standish and Thames?) when this extremely aggressive individual was establishing her power, and why didn’t more whistle-blowers go public about what was going on? During her illicit reign at the USCIRF, Nina Shea regularly discredited the US by supporting virtually every attempt to limit the rights of Muslims in the West. Among other things, she supported the Swiss ban against minarets and the ban against headscarves in France, and defended Dutch neo-fascist and Islamophobe Geert Wilders. She opposed the Park51 interfaith center in New York (which she insisted on calling the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’), which was in fact the most important religious liberty issue in modern American history. That USCIRF allowed her to use the good offices of the American government to embarrass America in this manner—and to personally and viciously devastate the life of an idealistic young American solely because of her religion—represents a violation of the public’s trust of unprecedented and historic proportions.

 

      InFocus News is a Muslim newspaper in California.

      Lawrence Swaim writes a regular column on religious liberty, and also comments on religion, politics and the culture wars. The column is written from a Christian or Interfaith point of view. Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, which defends the rights of religious minorities and advocates religious liberty for all. The Foundation exists solely on grants and donations, which may be sent to Box 6862, Napa CA 94581.

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Denominations Challenge Israel Lobby

 

     The showdown started earlier this year when two mainstream Protestant denominations, Presbyterian and Methodist, discussed but ultimately rejected the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel. Few doubted that strong condemnation of Israeli behavior would again be raised—and that day arrived on October 5, when fifteen Christian denominations delivered a strongly-worded letter to Congress on Israeli human rights violations. Because of these violations, the letter pointed out, Israel was probably in violation of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits sale of arms to human rights violators.

The letter-writers appended a well-documented account of Israeli human rights violations, and made it clear what they wanted: “We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance [with the laws], and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.” In other words, the denominations—which included the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church and the United Methodists—want Israel to follow the same laws as everybody else, and wants the US to document any refusal to comply. If Israel continues to violate Palestinian human rights, military aid would be ended.

The American Jewish Committee declared itself “outraged” at this modest proposal; and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman predictably declared in classic Foxman-ese that the letter had done “serious damage to mutual respect.” (Foxman’s definition of respect evidently applies only to those who agree with him.) But the faux outrage comes a little late, because there hasn’t been any real interfaith dialogue between Christian and Jewish leaders for some time now. How can you have dialogue when one party declares that the most important issue is permanently off the table?

Much of the blame for this unseemly situation can be summed up in the single word, “impunity.” The so-called ‘international community’ has sat on its collective backsides while the IDF has continued slow ethnic cleansing in the Territories, using settler theft and violence, torture and indefinite detention. Similarly, the US Israel Lobby has been able to get away with tactics that lowered the level of civil discourse and ruined a fair number of lives and careers. This impunity from normal standards is caused mainly by the West’s guilt about the Holocaust; but the West—in a spectacular demonstration of its patented imperial hypocrisy—has managed to compound its own worst crime.

By not holding Israel to the same standards as everybody else, it has created a situation that empowered the most demagogic and rightwing elements, both in Israel and in the US. Netahyahu’s far-right Likud party is now merging with the venomously racist Israel Beiteinu party, consolidating the power of proto-fascist ideology in the Israeli political class. These toxic ideas have percolated down to its proxies in the American Israel Lobby, which accounts in part for its undemocratic behavior, semi-hysterical tone and irrational demands. It is both defined and driven by Likud demagoguery.

The rightwing Israeli leaders have carefully kept the excruciating trauma of the Holocaust alive in Israel by constantly referring to it. They have managed to create the idea among both US and Israeli Jews that every objection to Israeli behavior is based on a desire to destroy the Jewish people. Thus both Israelis and their proxies in the US Israel Lobby have come to feel that any contradiction of their wishes is based on a subtle plan to engineer a new Holocaust. Furthermore, there has been a crisis of faith among Jews. Where was God when six million innocent Jews perished in Hitler’s gas chambers? There is a widespread feeling among Jews, even those that don’t like to talk about it, that God is in a kind of eclipse. Thus the state of Israel comes easily to fill the space left by an absent God, and the feeling of God’s closeness has been replaced by religious nationalism and the collective emotional experience of newfound national power.

Considering what happened to Jews in the past, there is nothing wrong with Jews wanting power—they need it to protect themselves. The problem is that power in Israel/Palestine is based on a form of systemic evil, in which the democratic privilege of Israeli Jews is denied to Palestinians. Furthermore, with the growth of a proto-fascist state ideology, there are increasing religious attacks accompanied by an unwillingness to allow Muslims to administer their own sacred sites, typified by the shameful Israeli disinterment of Muslim remains in Jerusalem’s Mamilla Cemetery. It is Israel’s misfortune that the proto-fascist ideology of its political class causes them to egregiously violate religious sites that should be the pride of all three Abrahmic faiths—worse, it seems to demonstrate clearly that its current leaders have no desire to integrate their nation into the Middle East, but seek rather to insult and dominate it.

We’ve seen this movie earlier in the 20th century, but with a political plot and a different cast of characters. In 1918 many intellectuals saw the Russian Revolution as the hope of the world—but over time they came slowly to see that their dream was becoming a nightmare. Something similar has happened with Israel. The difference is that followers of Marxism-Leninism never had much power in the US, whereas the pressure groups than constitute the US Israel Lobby have enormous economic and political resources. And underlying their frequently irrational allegations is a tragic and unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust, which is often acted out in highly aggressive and self-destructive ways.

It is natural for some people to be obsessively devoted to events in other countries, of course. Irish-Americans have long done it; the Bangladeshis and Filipinos in my extended families do the same. On the other hand, there would be a real danger if they began to form political “factions” in the US, as Alexander Hamilton warned us. Even George Washington warned his listeners in his Farewell Address about “[s]ympathy for a favorite nation facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest where no interest exists.”  I’ve never heard a better description of the Israel Lobby.

First, the Lobby doesn’t represent a government that is admirable and democratic, but a government that continues to subject racial and religious minorities to a brutal and unremitting repression. Secondly, there is a sovereignty problem. By giving money to a majority of our elected Congresspersons through its proxies to vote as Netanyahu tells them to, Israel interferes in American politics and violates our nation’s sovereignty.

It a 2006 essay in Commentary magazine, from which I take the Washington quote above, Gabriel Schoenfeld argued that dual loyalties might be permissible if a group’s foreign loyalties were acted out “in terms of standards that had universal currency among all their fellow citizens—the spread of democracy through the world, the self-determination of nations, international action for peace, the desirability of aiding small peoples against great oppressors.” And that is precisely the argument against the Israel Lobby: the current Israeli government violates those standards on a daily basis. It is wrong for interfering in our political process, but it is also wrong because its rampant immorality violates and offends the consensus values of most Americans.

Lawrence Swaim writes a regular column on religion, politics and the culture wars for InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper in California. The column is written from a Christian or Interfaith point of view. Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, which defends the rights of religious minorities and advocates religious liberty for all. If you liked this column, read Swaim’s latest book, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, published by Circle Books.

 

Why Islamophobia Isn’t Really About Islam

I don’t blame the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) for pointing out in their recent report that almost all of the nation’s most hateful Islamophobes have no training whatsoever in the scholarship of Islam, or even in comparative religion, which is an important academic discipline these days. But in a way this validates what I’ve always said—that serious Islamophobia really has nothing to do with Islam, any more than anti-Semitism has to do with Judaism. Of course, ignorance plays a role in public perceptions, and such organizations as MPAC and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) are always looking for an opportunity to educate people, and rightly so. Advocacy groups can also play an important role in bringing people together, which can make a big difference on the local level. But the hard-core hate-mongers have already made up their minds. They see Islam as something to hate in the West, and their role, as they see it, is simply to fan the flames of the prejudice and ignorance that already exist.

Who they are is fairly well-known. There are those rightwing evangelical Christians who believe it is God’s will that Americans launch a crusade against Islam—some even believe that a big religious war will bring on the Second Coming of Jesus. There are also those who mistakenly believe that Islamophobia helps Israel, whereas it actually hurts the cause of peace in Israel/Palestine. There are the well-financed neo-cons, who think that worldwide religious war will make America stronger and help the Likud party of Israel. And there are the angry fans of AM Hate Radio, who simply take pleasure in persecuting a religious minority in America because they are bullies.

If you examine the motives behind all these attitudes, you will discern a common thread—all the people who think like this are basically angry about something, very often because they are struggling with some problem they can’t resolve. The rightwing Christian evangelicals are losing cultural power in the US, and are trying to make up for it by seizing a measure of political power. But since they try to use political power to impose their beliefs, rather than finding common ground with others, they are increasingly seen as idolatrously fixated on temporal power. And instead of addressing this and other deficits, their frustration drives them to search for scapegoats.

Likewise those who uncritically support the rightwing government of Israel also struggle with an excruciating—if unspoken—problem. Israel was created by early Zionists to be a haven for Jews around the world, a place where they could be safe. Yet by ethnically cleansing the Palestinians rather than cooperating with them, they guaranteed that Israel would be perpetually beset by war, which will continue until Israel gives Palestinians the same rights as Jews. Instead of creating a safe haven for Jews, this makes Israel/Palestine one of the most dangerous places in the world, for Jews, Palestinians and everybody else. This failure of the Zionist promise is deeply frustrating. It causes many to make scapegoats of Muslims, and to believe that war against Iran is the answer. But the real problem is one only Israel can fix, by making peace with the Palestinians, either by giving them their own country or granting them the same rights as Jews.

With the Anti-Muslim bullies it’s the same deal, only on a more personal level. The fans of AM Hate Radio hate their own lives—but instead of facing their personal deficits, they’d rather marinate in loathing of someone else. Instead of getting more education, seeking spiritual growth or working with others for communal improvement, they focus on hating some imaginary bogeyman. That’s the big problem with religious bigotry. When people start putting all their energy in hating some religious minority, they stop growing emotionally, intellectually and socially, because they lose their ability to confront their own weaknesses, and forget how to work with others to fix those weaknesses.

Anti-Semitism became such a big thing with European Christians that they lost the ability to think critically about European society, and about their own religion. That left them with no religious alternatives to the idolatry of militarism, nationalism and imperialism, not even a religious response to the exploitation caused by rapid industrialization. And when fascism arrived on the scene, only a small minority of Christians had a sufficiently powerful faith to resist. The result was the Nazi Holocaust, history’s greatest crime.

That leads me to my next point, which is that there is another and quite dangerous dynamic at work in America, one that could likewise encourage Islamophobia. A major portion of America’s most profitable basic industry, an industrial capacity that was once the envy of the world, has been shipped overseas. (Or “off-shored,” as Mitt Romney puts it.) With the exception of the auto industry, there’s not that much factory work left except as ancillaries to the so-called service economy, which means good pay for a few and marginal jobs for the rest. Meanwhile American conservatism has taken a mean right turn toward a sustained effort to get rid of the social safety net. The result is frustration. People know something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what to do about it.

Some people in our new corporate upper class are willing to encourage scapegoats to distract ordinary Americans from their main problems, which at this point are mainly economic. The classic example of this was the multimillion dollar attempt, in 2008, to circulate a flagrantly Islamophobic DVD concealed as a free insert in certain newspapers. This occurred in the swing states, where the vote could go either way. The objective wasn’t just the dissemination of religious bigotry—the whole operation had a clear political objective. The political far right was promoting the idea that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim at that time, and the DVD was calculated to influence people to vote against him.

Students of history know that this was the way fascism first got traction in Europe, with corporate types bankrolling hate-mongers among the people. It may not get that far in America, of course—the Republican Party’s southern base keeps moving to the right, but it is also shrinking. Jon Huntsman, Jr., may run a third-party race in 2016, while Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum fight it out for possession of the GOP. Either way, the Republicans may start to fracture, pulled asunder by theological purists, on the one hand, and corporate types who want to win elections no matter what. That will probably diminish the prospects of Islamophobic activity by extremists in the Republican base, and will tend to discredit it among the broad public.

Protecting religious liberty will be an ongoing struggle for at least the next two generations, however. The major factor generating Islamophobia is the lack of a settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although there, too, there is a growing public awareness that Islamophobia is harmful to everybody involved in that conflict, and to America as well. The big danger is the possibility that Netanyahu might lead the US into a war with Iran. The Michelle Malkin-type fanatics would immediately try to mainstream their advocacy for internment camps for US Muslims (Malkin has written a book attempting to justify incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II), but this will be defeated if we respond strongly.

The irony, of course, is that the problems mentioned above really have nothing to do with Islam. To the extent that all of us help in the resolution of America’s pressing economic and foreign policy problems, we will minimize the dynamics that drive Islamophobia. But whatever the causes, the eradication of religious bigotry has become necessary if America is to continue to grow and prosper, because religious liberty in America is not, and never will be, negotiable.

Lawrence Swaim’s regular column on religious liberty, “An Interfaith View,” appeared Oct. 15 in InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper published in California.

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective. The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. It operates solely on grants and donations from supporters. The Foundation can be contacted at P. O. Box 6862, Napa CA 94581.