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Behind Trump’s moves: A Christian resurgence


As many American Jews and Jewish organizations join in combatting the recent executive order on immigration and refugees, it is important to realize that the anti-Muslim sentiments of the new administration are one head of a two-headed beast. 

The other head is a political agenda forged by a coalition of conservative Christians that is closer than ever to achieving its vision of a “Christian nation.” This linkage between anti-Muslim and “pro-Christian” policies is revealed in the executive order, which couples a thinly veiled ban on Muslims with a thinly veiled preference for Christians from predominantly Muslim countries seeking refuge in the United States.

President Donald J. Trump justified the priority given to Christians over Muslims by stating, “If you were a Muslim, you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.”

That line is lifted directly from the Christian right, which has long promoted the idea that Christians are a — indeed, the most — persecuted minority. The belief that Christians are being subjected to religious persecution in America by intolerant secularists has joined the claim that liberals turn a blind eye to the persecution of Christians by Muslims. Both are staples of the worldview that drives Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and architect of his immigration policies. Bannon’s unorthodox brand of Christian conservatism is reflected in his admiration for traditionalist Catholics who oppose the current pope, as well as for the newly resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, whose combination of Islamophobia and homophobia has proven to be intoxicating to legions of “civilizational conservatives” who view the West as locked in a theological battle to the death with Islam. Bannon’s alliance with conservatives inside the Vatican is likewise based on their shared belief that Western civilization is being besieged from the outside by Muslims and from the inside by the forces of “secularism,” more particularly, by liberals who support an array of decadent values and refuse to recognize a civilizational war between Christianity and Islam.

Bannon’s characterization of the West in his 2014 speech to the Vatican as the “Judeo-Christian” West might lead some to believe his Christian worldview will protect Jews even as it constitutes a clear and present danger to Muslims. This belief is wrong on two counts. First, it reflects an unjustifiable disregard for the rights of the Other. Second, being folded into a homogenized “Judeo-Christianity” now is no guarantee that Jews will not be stigmatized or marginalized later, or that the distinctive harms of anti-Semitism (including Christian anti-Semitism) will not be rendered invisible, as already occurred in Trump’s botched Holocaust statement that omitted any reference to Jews.

The same concerns hold for the rest of the conservative Christian agenda, which aims to expand protections for “religious liberty” and to weaken the wall of separation between church and state. Both of these goals have attracted right-wing Jewish support. Given the Christian right’s newfound influence, it behooves us to ask which parts of this agenda Trump is likely to adopt and to address the time-honored question: “Is it good for the Jews?”

Under Bannon’s guidance, Trump has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will satisfy the religious right, a pledge generally understood to mean that his appointees will be anti-abortion. But overturning Roe v. Wade is just the tip of the iceberg. The larger agenda is to return the state to its role as the upholder of traditional Christian standards of morality.

The larger agenda is to return the state to its role as the upholder of traditional Christian standards of morality.

This agenda can be divided into two general planks. First and foremost, the Christian right is motivated by the desire to stop the erosion of the government’s traditional role as enforcer of Christian standards of morality — especially, sexual morality. The ideal “Christian nation” envisaged by its proponents would enforce prohibitions not only on abortion, but also on contraception, same-sex marriage and homosexual activity, and any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.

In the face of political defeats on many of these fronts, conservative Christians have retreated to a “Plan B,” which is to use “religious liberty” claims to carve out exemptions from laws that dismantle traditional gender and sexual norms. What was originally a shield to protect non-Protestant minorities from laws that inadvertently interfered with their religious practices has been converted into a sword used by conservative Christians to continue their battle against laws enforcing principles of gender and sexual equality. Laws permitting adoption and family service organizations to discriminate against same-sex couples, exempting government contractors from prohibitions on discrimination, and allowing bakers and photographers to refuse to serve participants in same-sex weddings are just a few examples of this weaponized version of religious liberty.

Some suggest this commitment to religious liberty will be “good for the Jews” and for other religious minorities. This “me, too” version of religious equality, according to which government-led prayers and displays of Christian symbols are fine so long as we can erect a menorah on the town square and have a rabbi take a turn at the podium, is seriously misguided. It mistakes a willingness to accord protections to Christians when they find themselves in the position of a minority with a willingness to protect other minority religious groups when their religious practices conflict with Christian values (as conservatives construe them). There is precious little evidence to support such a prediction and ample reason for concern that Christian conservatives who now occupy positions of power are ready to sacrifice the principle of religious liberty when they view another group’s religious values as antithetical to their own, as the willingness to override all Muslims’ rights for the sake of “national security” makes clear.

The readiness to deny non-Christians rights accorded to Christians should not be surprising. The Christian right has made its view that the government can promote Christianity — not just some blanched version of American religion, but Christianity — perfectly plain. So long as non-Christian religions are perceived to be compatible with the nation’s Christianity, they may receive protection, but when there is a conflict between Christian and non-Christian values, the conservative vision of a Christian nation dictates sacrificing the latter for the former.

To what extent Trump will implement this vision under the guidance of Steve Bannon, Vice President Mike Pence and other proponents of a resurgent Christian nation remains to be seen. But Jews and other religious minorities support this movement at their peril. We are better off joining forces with Muslims, the many liberal Christians and Americans of other persuasions who see clearly what the peril of a Christian nation is.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the USC Gould School of Law, where she founded the Program on Religious Accommodation and is a co-director of USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture. 

Your Jerusalem, my Jerusalem


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Jerusalem is a dream and a vision, and at the same time a city where garbage needs to be collected, children go to school, and roads need to be fixed. For some of the 800,000 people living inside the city’s municipal boundary, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, reunited in 1967 after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. For others the city, or at least those parts of it on the eastern side of the Green Line, is occupied territory, land which should one day become the future capital of a Palestinian state. People’s understanding of events in the city’s history are always viewed through the prism of their beliefs and nuanced by what they think is best for the future of the holy city.

This is as true for the plethora of vying non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that live and work in Jerusalem as it is for the city’s residents, visitors and observers. Numerous groups with political agendas conduct tours within the environs of Jerusalem each one highlighting the evidence they believe proves the veracity of their cause. As often as not conflicting NGOs will look at the same piece of evidence and interpret it in two radically different directions.

Keep Jerusalem is an organization founded by Chaim Silberstein in order to advocate for the continued unification of the city. “If you mention the words “east Jerusalem” most people think it is an Arab area, overwhelmingly populated by Arabs, and therefore it’s not a problem to give it away,” Silberstein told The Media Line. “However when you inform people that in fact east Jerusalem is compromised half of Jews and half of Arabs and the neighborhoods are intertwined then people’s attitudes and opinions change drastically,” Silberstein explained in a slight South African accent.

Silberstein, who lives within a Jewish community located in the West Bank, fears that two possible futures lie ahead for Jerusalem: either Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city will become part of  the West Bank and will eventually become home to violent organizations in a similar manner to Hamas’ take over of the Gaza Strip; or Jerusalem will remain united but the Jewish population will find itself eventually outnumbered and outvoted due to higher birth rates among the city’s Arab population – the so called demographic problem.

A third and preferable option, as far as Keep Jerusalem is concerned, is the boosting of the numbers of Jews living in east Jerusalem through government housing and special subsidies.

Taking a different view of the city is Ir Amim, a dovish organization that campaigns to make Jerusalem a “more equitable” place to live for all of its residents.

“Ir Amim works very hard to promote the understanding that the division of the city is an imperative part of a two state solution – meaning that the city must be the capital of two sovereign nations,” Betty Herschman, Director of International Relations at Ir Amim, told The Media Line. Herschman, who emigrated to Israel from the United States, explained that the organization did not see the division of the city as a worthy objective in itself, but as a necessity for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

As can be imagined Keep Jerusalem and Ir Amim do not tend to agree with one another. Although the two groups are not directly in conflict they are representative of the numerous NGOs who disagree ideologically. These groups put much of their efforts into spinning their narrative and conducting tours for those willing to give up their time to come listen.

Although it is likely that there is a certain amount of “preaching to the choir” taking place during these tours they represent a key battleground when it comes to bringing policy makers and opinion leaders into line with an organization’s point of view.

Part of this clash of conflicting narratives is the interpretation of evidence on the ground. In a report earlier in the year the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said that 75% of Arabs living in east Jerusalem are below the poverty line. When asked to comment on levels of poverty among Arabs in east Jerusalem both Ir Amim and Keep Jerusalem’s answers were indicative of the manner in which they could view the same piece of evidence with radically different outcomes.

Herschman argued that the continuation of income inequality between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods was “dramatic enough to constitute a (deliberate) lever of displacement,” pointing out that Palestinians make up 40% of the city’s population but only benefit from 10% of the municipal budget. In Ir Amim’s view the municipality of Jerusalem is slowly encouraging Arabs to leave the city by keeping them poor.

Silberstein, on the other hand, rejected any notion that intentional discrimination was taking place and suggested that the figure of a 75% poverty rate was “vastly inflated.” Any lack of funding towards Arab neighborhoods, he said, was simply because Palestinians, most of whom are residents of Jerusalem but not Israeli citizens, continuously refused to vote in municipal elections and therefore lost out when decisions about funding were being made.

Disagreements over the facts and the use of statistics to blur lines, should not come as a surprise, Professor Eran Feitelson, of Hebrew University’s Geography department, told The Media Line. “In Jerusalem everyone has a different narrative – there are always multiple narratives,” Feitelson said.

An exact definition of east Jerusalem is difficult to define, Feitelson explained, as people mean different things when they use the term – “it depends what you count in and what you count out.” When Israelis say east Jerusalem they are generally referring to the Arab communities, irrespective of geography or political considerations, Feitelson observed.

But the most important thing to remember when listening to an individual or an organization’s narrative – and this, the geography professor said, is something he drills into his students – is always be skeptical of numbers.

As the old adage goes, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Christians in Iraq flee Islamic State


This article orginally appeared on The Media Line.

The Christian community in Iraq traces its roots to the first century. But the continued expansion of Islamic State across large parts of Iraq is sparking a Christian exodus from these countries. There is concern that one of the world’s oldest Christian communities could be eliminated completely from the area.

In 2003, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated at 1.5 million, from several communities including Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians. Among them are Christians who speak neo-Aramaic, the language most similar to what Jesus spoke. Today there are an estimated 200,000- 600,000 Christians in Iraq.

“The Christians are being targeted by Islamic State and face extreme violence,” Renad Mansour of the Carnegie Middle East Center told The Media Line. “The Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq which is the cradle of civilization. The fact that that are leaving is a blow to Iraq.”

Canon Andrew White, the founder and president of The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, and the long-time spiritual leader of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad goes even further.

“Iraq is finished as a country,” he told The Media Line. “There are a few safe towns near the Shi’ite shrines like Najaf and Karbala and parts of Baghdad but about two-thirds of the country is under the control of Islamic State.”

Once Islamic State takes over, it demands that Christians either convert, or pay the jizya, a massive tax levied on no-Muslims. There are also reports of dozens of Christian women being taken captive and forced to be sex slaves for Islamic State soldiers. Houses where Christians live are painted with a red letter “nun” for Nasara, or Christian. Many Christians say they fled, rather than try to live under Islamic State.

The US has paid a heavy price for its involvement in Iraq. From 2003-2010 tens of thousands of US soldiers tried to help Iraq rebuild itself as a democracy after the fall of long-time strongman Saddadm Hussein. More than 4400 US soldiers died fighting in Iraq. Iraqi civilians have paid a heavy price for the fighting, with more than 17,000 killed in 2014 alone. Sectarian attacks between majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni are a daily occurrence.

Some of the Christians have fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish area in northern Iraq, which hopes to become an autonomous state. But says analyst Mansour, many of the new arrivals speak only Arabic, not Kurdish. While they welcome the protection, they are unable to integrate into the area.

Others have fled to Jordan or Turkey, said Canon White, and his organization has tried to set up schools for them and find them housing. Like most refugees, they yearn to return to their homes.

Other Christians have been allowed into the US, either because they already have relatives in the US, or on special student visas. Canon White says they are given enough money to last for eight months and then left to fend for themselves.

The international coalition including Saudi Arabia has launched dozens of air strikes on IS-controlled areas. In the case of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown they successfully drove out IS. They say they hope do the same in Mosul, and to take back more and more of Iraq. But by the time that happens, there may be no Christians left in the country.

U.S. Jews vs. U.S. Christianity


It’s not something that Americans mention in public. And it may not even be something many note in private. But a Jew writing in a Jewish journal ought to point out a fact that, no matter how much ignored, is significant.

On May 5, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in “Town of Greece v. Galloway” that the town’s practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

As summarized in the opening words of the ruling:

“Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too.”

I believe it is significant that three of the four dissenting justices are the three Jews on the Supreme Court — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. So, too, one of the two women (the “respondents” at the Supreme Court level) who filed the original lawsuit against the town of Greece is a Jew. And Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League, had filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the women.

This is all significant because the Jewish justices, the Jewish woman who brought the suit against the New York town and all the Jewish organizations that filed briefs in support of the two respondents represent a battle that many American Jews and Jewish organizations have been waging for decades against public expressions of God and religion. American Jews have become the most active ethnic or religious group in America attempting to remove God and religion from the public square.

Why is this the case? Why have American Jews been so active in fighting any expressions of God and religion in the country that has been the most hospitable to us in our long history?

Nearly every Jew who does so will give this answer: In order to fight for the separation of church and state in America.

But let’s be honest. If there were no such concept in America — and in fact, the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution — most American Jews would be just as opposed to public expressions of faith.

So, then, once again: Why are American Jews so opposed to public religious expressions? Moreover, this opposition exists not only to government-sponsored religious expression. For example, many Jews are avid supporters of substituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” or “holiday party” for “Christmas party.”

I think there are four reasons.

One is antipathy to Christianity. Most Jews just don’t like Christianity. They associate it with centuries of anti-Semitism, and therefore believe that a de-Christianized America will be a much more secure place for them.

Second, many American Jews feel “excluded” when Christianity is expressed in public.

A third reason is antipathy to religion generally. Most Jews are little more positively disposed to Orthodox Judaism than they are to traditional Christianity.

That leads to reason four: a fervent belief in secularism. Most American Jews believe in secularism as fervently as Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah or traditional Christians believe in Christ.

Regarding reason one, it is foolish, and even immoral, to associate American Christians with European Christianity. They have virtually nothing in common. American Christianity has treated Jews not only well, and not only as equals, but has revered Jews and Judaism. European Christianity claimed to replace the Jews as the Chosen People; American Christianity claimed America was a Second Chosen People, the First Chosen continuing to be the Jews. 

A de-Christianized America would be an entirely different America from the one it has been since 1776. And we Jews would not be more secure; we would be less so. The special status we have held as Jews would be gone; and the moral basis of American society — Judeo-Christian values — would be gone. America would be exactly like Western Europe. Ask the Jews of Europe how good that is.

As for feeling “excluded,” I can only say that having lived among Christians most of my adult life, I don’t know on what basis other than ethnic insularity any American Jew would feel that way. 

Reasons three and four represent Jewish tragedies. The people that brought God and God-based morality into the world now believe in man and in man-based values. Instead of bringing mankind to ethical monotheism, most American Jews now believe it is their mission to bring the world to secularism. It is difficult to overstate how sad — and suicidal — that transformation is.

Palestinian non-profit belatedly apologizes for blood libel article


A Palestinian non-profit organization has removed an article from its website that accused Jews of using “the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”

The Miftah organization, founded by Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi and funded by European and Western governments, reportedly apologized for publishing the article, after first refusing to apologize and condemning the Jewish bloggers who publicized the article.

The apology was first reported by Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon.

The apology expressed the organization's “sincerest regret.”

“It has become clear to us after investigating this incident that the article was accidentally and incorrectly published by a junior staff member. The said staffer has been reprimanded and all our staff has been informed as to the disgusting and repulsive phenomena of blood libel or accusation, including its use against Jews. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, as founder, has nothing to do with the day to day management at MIFTAH and was no way involved in this incident,” the apology issued Monday said.

The original article in Arabic by Nawaf Al Zaru was first exposed by the Elder of Ziyon blog. It criticized President Obama for his tribute to Passover, by holding a seder in the White House. 

“Does Obama in fact know the relationship, for example, between ‘Passover’ and ‘Christian blood’..?! Or ‘Passover’ and ‘Jewish blood rituals?!’” read the article posted March 27. “Much of the chatter and gossip about historical Jewish blood rituals in Europe are real and not fake as they claim; the Jews used the blood of Christians in the Jewish Passover.”

Miftah on March 30 defended the publishing of the article in a statement on its website, calling it a “smear campaign.”

Miftah receives government funding from countries including Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Germany, Ireland, and Norway, and from U.S.-funded NGOs that receive government funding, NGO Monitor reported.

Study: Jews are world’s most migratory religious group


A new study found that Jews are the most internationally migratory of all the world’s major religious groups.

“Faith on the Move,” a study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that a quarter of Jews are international migrants, defined as individuals who reside permanently in a country other than the one in which they were born.

By contrast, only 5 percent of Christians—the next most migratory religious group—are international migrants.

Pew found that more than 3.6 million Jews are international migrants. Some 2.76 million Jews have settled in Israel, with another 370,000 residing in the United States, 140,000 in Canada and 70,000 in Australia.

According to Pew, 56 percent of Jewish migrants come from Europe and another 24 percent from North Africa and the Middle East.

Israel to increase number of Ethiopian immigrants


Israel will increase the number of immigrants from Ethiopia for the next several months after bringing in many fewer than it had promised.

Some 1,000 Falash Mura, Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity, will be brought to Israel over the next four months, about 250 per month.

Officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency, the Interior and Immigrant Absorption ministries, and Ethiopian immigrant advocacy organizations met Sunday night and arrived at the plan, Haaretz reported.

The Israeli government in October 2010 reportedly had agreed to bring in 200 Falash Mura each month until the remaining 4,500 approved for immigration were in Israel, but only about 110 have been arriving each month. The government has said it cut the number due to dwindling available space in absorption centers.

The Ethiopians are waiting in a refugee camp in the Gondar province before coming to Israel.

“The Jewish Agency is thrilled by this decision and will do everything in our power to bring this historic aliyah to its completion as quickly as possible,” Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement.

The big tent: Jews, Muslims, Christians celebrate spirituality in a shared sacred space


Whirling Dervishes, an elaborate feast and a lecture by a prominent Muslim scholar – Musallah Tauhid’s joyous celebration of its move to a new home in 2008 heralded good times ahead for the Sufi Muslim worship group. As a friendly gesture, the group invited its new neighbors for the occasion: members of both Village Lutheran Church, whose Brentwood facility Musallah Tauhid would now be sharing, and Ahavat Torah, a small Jewish congregation that also holds its services at the church.

But early in the festivities, a tense moment threatened the mood. As Muslim leaders called the gathering to prayer to bless the establishment, their opening invocation — “Allahu Akbar,” God is great — sent chills through Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Ahavat Torah’s spiritual leader. Those words, she realized with horror, are the same ones that suicide bombers in Israel often shout before detonating themselves.

“When I heard those words again, I started to shake,” Hamrell, a native Israeli, recalled. “It was an immediate physical reaction. I literally looked around the room and thought, ‘Who is going to blow themselves up?’ ”

Images flashed through her mind of two friends from her days in the Israel Defense Forces who were killed in a blast, and of the time she arrived at the scene of a bombing just after an explosion. It all came back — the blood, the smoke, the victims lying injured on the street.

Soon it was Hamrell’s turn to address the group of Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered for the event. She decided to tell them about her emotional reaction and personal history of trauma.

“I believe that a good relationship has to be based on truth. So I have to share with you what just happened to me,” she told them.

Hamrell elaborated later, “I have always felt that fear and struggle should not hold a person back from moving forward or overcome good judgment. It takes time, patience, trust and understanding to build a relationship. It takes keeping your heart open. And sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep your heart open. I told them, ‘I’m working on myself. It’s not easy. I promise and commit to try to overcome this personal struggle.’ ”

Many guests at the assembly, touched by her words, offered their sympathy. One Muslim leader recited a blessing for her: “May it become easier.”

That episode — one of many turning points in an unusual partnership of shared space and shared experience among the congregations of Ahavat Torah, Musallah Tauhid and Village Lutheran Church — marked a profound step toward the understanding and harmony the three faith groups now enjoy. They have built friendships, included one another in holiday celebrations and in the process created a unique interfaith bond based on education and respect. What began as a convenient rental agreement has blossomed into what many call a family.

Each year since 2008, Ahavat Torah welcomes members of Village Lutheran Church and Musallah Tauhid (“place of unity”) for interfaith activities on Tu B’Shevat, Pesach and Sukkot, during which Jewish congregants teach the essence of holidays in accessible language. At the end of Ramadan, the Musallah invites the whole community for an Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. For their part, church leaders host an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration and have created joint Chanukah and Christmas parties over the years.

This communal ministry was something of a happy accident, said the Rev. Janet Bregar, Village Lutheran Church’s pastor for the past 15 years – yet a confluence of elements set the stage. The church, founded in the 1940s, has always had an open-door policy toward other local spiritual and 12-step recovery groups, Bregar said. And she and Musallah Tauhid founder Noor-Malika Chishti had both participated in interfaith work before through Monks Without Borders and the international Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Still, sharing a worship space, the three spiritual leaders found, proved to be a richer and more textured endeavor than any of them could have imagined. They have reaped gratifying rewards both in what they have learned from one another and in lessons they can pass on to their congregations. They have also weathered surprises as the learning curve has dredged up anxieties and preconceptions that have had to be undone.

“It takes courage to go into places where you know you won’t feel comfortable,” Hamrell said. “The question is, how can change occur if you always go where it’s comfortable?”

Three faiths under one roof

Village Lutheran Church is a modest brick building on the border of the otherwise tony Westside neighborhoods of Brentwood and Westwood. Each weekend, its chambers witness three sets of prayers uttered in three different languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic.

On Saturday mornings, Jewish congregants from Ahavat Torah festoon the sanctuary with Israeli flags and set up an ark for Shabbat. Saturday evenings, Sufi Muslim worshippers from Musallah Tauhid spread out carpets and pillows on the social hall floor, remove their shoes and kneel for their weekly communal prayer group. And on Sundays, the church’s Lutheran congregation fills the pews for its own Sabbath service.

The arrangement’s beginnings were serendipitous. When the newly formed Ahavat Torah was looking for a spiritual home in 2003, Hamrell, who was ordained that year at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, had just signed on to lead the 90-member, non-denominational congregation. The group’s cantorial soloist, Gary Levine, suggested they might rent space at a small church he’d heard about a stone’s throw from the 405 Freeway. A committee decided to approach the pastor and inquire.

The rabbi struggled with the prospect at first.

Top, from left: Ahavat Torah’s Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Noor-Malika Chishti, founder of Musallah Tauhid. Bottom, from left: Musallah’s leader, Karima Kylberg and the Rev. Janet Bregar of Village Lutheran Church. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

Meanwhile, Bahauddin and Karima Kylberg were preparing to make Hajj, the Islamic ritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims readying for the journey must first ask forgiveness from their family and friends — much like the spiritual slate-cleaning required of Jews before Yom Kippur. Ahavat Torah’s Sukkot celebration offered the perfect opportunity to do that, Bahauddin Kylberg said.

It was also an opportunity for the Jewish congregation to give a meaningful gift.

When Hamrell heard the Kylbergs were going to visit the Kaaba, the stone shrine in Mecca that is considered one of Islam’s holiest sites, she felt a distinct sense of synchronicity. She ran to find the piece of Jerusalem stone she usually carried in her tallit bag.

“I said, ‘Wow, ancient rock from Saudi Arabia, ancient rock from Jerusalem,’ ” she recalled. “I thought they should have it. Instead of throwing rocks at one another, maybe with these two rocks we could build the cornerstone for our faiths to have a peaceful coexistence.”

An Ahavat Torah member offered her piece of the symbolic limestone to the Kylbergs. They took it with them on the Hajj, bringing it to some of the most significant places in Mecca and Medina. Surreptitious photos – photography is not permitted at many locations – show the stone in front of the Kaaba and at the Rawdah, the site of Muhammad’s tomb.

The couple brought the Jerusalem stone with them as they ascended Mount Arafat, the last stop on the Hajj, known as the “Mountain of Mercy.” There, they placed it on the sacred hill where Muslims believe Muhammad gave his last sermon.

“We believe that on Judgment Day, the places where we pray will witness for us that we did our prayer,” Bahauddin Kylberg said. “We thought, ‘Why not take the stone with us, as a witness for Ahavat Torah?’ Every year, the angels will be witnessing that that stone was there.”

Bahauddin Kylberg showed pictures from the Hajj at the church’s interfaith Thanksgiving celebration last month, which drew about 60 attendees from all three communities to the church’s social hall for a potluck holiday lunch. Kosher and halal cuisine steamed in adjacent glass bowls on a buffet table.

“What I’m going to ask you to do is to not sit with your familiar group,” Bregar told the roomful of guests before the meal. “Find someone you don’t know and sit with them and get to know them.”

Interfaith events give Muslims a chance to learn more about their religion’s similarities to Judaism and Christianity, said Rabiya Zeeshan, who worships at Musallah Tauhid with her husband, Zeeshan Masood, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aminah. Conversely, she added, it’s an opportunity to show others “what is Islam and what are Muslims” beyond what the mainstream media portrays.

“Before coming to this group, we had a lot of misunderstanding,” Masood said. “Usually, people don’t learn much about other religions. We know Judaism from a Muslim perspective — we know the prophet Moses and the ancient stories — but what we don’t know is, what is Judaism right now in its current state? That was a big reason we started coming.”

Masood recalled how the first time he heard the Shema chanted, he was struck by the realization that the Hebrew Adonai Echad and the Arabic Allahu Ahad were nearly interchangeable ways of saying, “God is One.”

“I was in a group, and I was singing the Muslim part and another lady was singing the Jewish part, and I could not hear the difference,” he said.

That isn’t an accident, said Karima Kylberg. “The God that I believe in is the same as the Christian and the Jewish God,” she said. “We are all people of the book.”

But the clergy of the three faith groups don’t try to downplay or whitewash major contrasts between their religions, Bregar stressed.

“There are real theological differences,” said the pastor, a religious studies professor at California State University, Fullerton. “We try to keep our own belief systems intact. But while there aren’t always bridges between beliefs, we can create understanding, and this is what we try to do.”

The letter she wrote designating the church’s annual day of reflection upon wrongs done to other faiths “didn’t happen overnight,” Bregar said. “It has taken years to set the stage for that. That’s why I think this is really a long-term commitment to trying to understand other peoples’ points of view. It’s like building any relationship — it’s a process.”

The Ahavat Torah community has watched Hamrell’s personal transformation with support.

“If you had told her eight years ago where she’d be today, she would have been shocked,” said Michael Stevens, one of the congregation’s first members. “Over all this time, it has been amazing to see how she has opened her mind to untraditional circumstances, bit by bit.”

Rabbi Hamrell herself sometimes can’t believe it, she said.

“I am amazed that these gifts have fallen into my lap,” she mused, shaking her head. “I thank God for putting me in places where I don’t always feel comfortable — for putting me in places where there is a chance to grow.”

Christians, Jews gather for pro-Israel rally at U.N.


Several hundred supporters of Israel gathered near the United Nations to protest the Durban III meeting and oppose the Palestinian statehood bid.

Wednesday’s rally was organized by the pro-Israel Christian group Eagles’ Wings.

Many leading Jewish groups have decided not to mount demonstrations in response to the Palestinian statehood bid or to what they see as the U.N.‘s increasingly irrelevant Durban III meeting.

Some Jewish groups dropped out of Wednesday’s rally due to the involvement of the Jerusalem Institute for Justice, an organization led by messianic Jews.

Roz Rothstein, the CEO of StandWithUs, one of the few Jewish groups to co-sponsor the rally, said that Durban III was worth protesting.

“Even if its one day long, even if it is one paragraph long. We’ll fight them,” Rothstein told the JTA.

Some of the rally’s speakers criticized President Obama’s policies.

“Obama built up the reputation of Mahmoud Abbas, and as a result the Palestinian Authority now believes it no longer needs to negotiate with Israel,” said the deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, Danny Danon.

The remaining speakers were mostly Christian, although Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue also spoke.

Many of the rally attendees were evangelical Christians and messianic Jews.

Amy Liantonio, 25, a messianic Jew who came from Philadelphia for the rally, said she was disappointed that there was not more Jewish support for the event.

“I wish they were here,” she said.

Christians arriving in Israel for Tabernacles event


About 7,000 Christian tourists are arriving in Israel for the Feast of Tabernacles celebration.

The visitors, including the heads of Evangelical Christian communities, will participate in a program of seminars and teaching beginning Sept. 23. The program is sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem with assistance from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

The pilgrims for the feast, a Christian commemoration of Sukkot, will stay more than a week in Israel and are expected to spend between $15 million and $20 million, the Tourism Ministry said.

Participants are coming from tens of countries including Brazil, Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Austria, India, Italy, Nigeria, Finland and Norway. In addition to visiting holy sites around the country, they will join in the traditional Jerusalem March on Sept. 28.

Different Faiths Ignore Differences in Holiday Sharing


When Jewish and Christian holidays converge — like Passover and Easter or Chanukah and Christmas — Southland communities with large Jewish populations often witness a competition between the celebrations, from public schools to shopping centers.

Many Southern California malls now host public menorah lightings with concerts, a public Jewish response to the longstanding tradition of Christmas trees and photos with Santa. Kosher-for-Passover food, haggadahs and candles compete for shelf space with baskets, egg-decorating kits and chocolate rabbits in local grocery stores.

When it comes to L.A. senior homes, many of which are nonsectarian, lobbies greet visitors with a mix of Jewish and Christian decorations around the holidays. And in facilities with a predominantly — but not exclusively — Jewish population, administrators say there is an openness and willingness among non-Jewish residents to participate in Jewish celebrations, including Shabbat. In turn, they say, Jewish seniors respect and honor the holidays and want to learn from their non-Jewish counterparts.

“There is balance,” said Ahuva Bar Zion, executive director at Agoura Hills Senior Retreat. “We don’t ignore them. I emphasize everything. They need [to be] spiritual in their age.”

At facilities such as Agoura Hills and Aegis Living in Granada Hills, where Jews make up between 60 and 75 percent of the residents, all holidays are observed, with each home adding its own special touches.

Bar Zion tells the story of Ruth for Shavuot, dances with the Torah during Simchat Torah, builds a sukkah during Sukkot and holds a Passover seder a couple of days before the holiday.

As for Agoura Hills’ non-Jewish minority, residents are invited to and occasionally attend Shabbat services. Bar Zion tells the residents they “don’t have to believe but they can understand.”

Agoura Hills currently has a non-Jewish resident from Argentina who attends Shabbat because she enjoys the service and a 103-year-old resident who attends for the challah.

“You have non-Jews going to Shabbat. It’s entertainment for them,” said Joyce Roslin, Agoura Hills’ resident council president. “They get challah. They know the songs.”

One woman who attended Shabbat services, however, initially refused to eat challah because she felt it too closely resembled the Eucharist. But once she understood that challah was simply another way to thank God, she started partaking.

Religious programming for Christian residents includes Catholic masses and Protestant services, rosary meetings and Bible study. The homes also arrange to take parishioners to local churches if requested.

A Christmas tree stands prominently in the main dining rooms during December, and carolers are invited to sing during the run-up to the holiday. Residents are seen with a cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday, and Easter brings an egg hunt, ham and mashed potatoes, along with deviled eggs, at Agoura Hills and a brunch at Aegis.

“Everyone is treated fairly,” said Scott Eckstein, executive director at Aegis, which features a Yiddish club and a mezuzah. “If Buddhists were here, I’d [celebrate those holidays]. It’s not in their face. Shabbat services have as much calendar space as Catholic or Protestant services.”

Being in the majority also gives Jews a chance to educate and be educated about other faiths.

One Jewish resident at Aegis said he attends Christian Bible classes because he likes the people, and at Agoura Hills, where Jews recently expressed interested in learning more about Palm Sunday, Mae Eisenberg said she’s popular because she asks numerous questions.

“I want to learn. I’ve been learning the story of my life since the time I was born,” she said. “I’ve wanted to learn all I can.”

Wallace Garwood, also a resident in Agoura Hills, said his years in the Marine Corps taught him to keep an open mind when it comes to study or participating in the traditions of other religions.

“Standing in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” he said.

Kassams land near mayor of Sderot’s house; Interfaith fellowship group denies missionary ties


Qassam Lands Near Sderot Mayor’s Home

A Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in a residential neighborhood of Sderot.

The rocket landed Sunday not far from the home of Mayor Eli Moyal, Ynet reported, and started a fire that was extinguished quickly by firefighters. No injuries were reported.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered all Israel-Gaza border crossings closed Monday in response to the attack.

An Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the terrorist Hamas-run Gaza Strip has been breached by rocket attacks more than 36 times in the past three months.

“Everything is all right at home,” Moyal told Ynet. “The problem here is not a personal one but a political one. People are under the impression that there is a cease-fire, but a few dozen rockets have been fired at Israel since the truce went into effect.

“During the months of the cease-fire the Palestinian groups have armed themselves with thousands of more rockets.”

Eckstein Denies Group’s Money Used to Missionize

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein denied a report suggesting that some money raised by his interfaith group was used to missionize Jews.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Monday that Eckstein’s organization, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, gave $10,000 in 2007 to an evangelical group in Jerusalem that proselytizes Israeli Jews. It also reported that the fellowship sent money to a Protestant group in Massachusetts that Ma’ariv called “a controversial Christian cult.”

Eckstein, the fellowship’s founder and president who has raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel from American evangelicals, insisted the story misrepresented the facts. He said the report was simply a continuation of a smear campaign against him and the information was fed to the newspaper by a source with an axe to grind.

Eckstein said the fellowship used the Jerusalem group, King of Kings, to pass $10,000 to a church in Bethlehem to help provide humanitarian aid to local Christians before Christmas.

“We were informed last year about the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, which has been persecuted by the radical Muslims there to the point that most of them have left. And the Protestant church there and the people there needed funds for basic needs — food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel,” he said. “We didn’t hesitate to respond with a modest gift — at least for us. The only place that could deliver that was this group, King of Kings.”

As to the gift to the Massachusetts group, the Community of Christ in Orleans, Eckstein said it was a $750 donation by the fellowship to the group’s choir after canceling on an event there.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Pope in Paris: ‘To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christian’ [VIDEO]


PARIS (JTA) – Jews and Christians should get to know each other better, Pope Benedict XVI said at a meeting with French Jewish leaders.

On the first day of his four-day visit to Paris, the pope condemned fanatics and anti-Semitism, called for a strengthening of bonds between Christians and Jews, and pushed for more religion in a staunchly secular French society.

Just before sundown Friday, the pope told Jewish leaders that “our fraternal links are a continual invitation to know each other better and to respect each other.”

At the former monastery in Paris where he spoke, the pope added that “the Church rises up against all forms of anti-Semitism” and “to be anti-Semitic is also to be anti-Christian.” Among the Jewish leaders present for the meeting was Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF umbrella organization.

Making his case for a more open view of religion in a country where religion is thought best kept private, Benedict warned that too little “obligation” would serve “the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy shocked France last December—but seemed to have pleased the pope—when he began making his case for “positive secularism” as an alternative to the existing French mantra that demands strict separation of church and state, among other social codes.

On Sunday, the pope led a public Mass in the town of Lourdes, attracting about 150,000 followers.

 

Our image problem: Jews have no ‘big picture’


Christianity has an image problem, and Christians ought to pay earnest attention to it, rather than dismissing it as the product of media bias. That’s the message of a new book that should be of interest to Jews, because it shows the kind of questions that Christians have started asking themselves — questions that we Jews don’t seem to be asking ourselves. Yet we, too, have an image problem.

The book is “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters,” by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007). President of the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, Kinnaman produces data that show how young, religiously uncommitted gentiles view evangelical Christianity.

A conservative Christian leader I admire, Chuck Colson, recommended the book to his radio listeners, commenting: “Let’s be honest. Sometimes we do come across as judgmental, anti-homosexual and excessively politicized.”

Colson thinks it’s worth being frank and self-critical because he sees a bigger picture. Christians sabotage their efforts to reach out to the unaffiliated if simultaneously they are contributing to a negative public picture of their own faith.

Jewish groups take polls to precisely determine how much mindless bigotry against us there is at the idiot fringes of the culture. While the exercise is conducted with all the gravity and attention to precise measurement that you’d associate with having your blood pressure gauged at the doctor’s office, there’s little to learn from it. A population of 300 million will inevitably cast up its share of crazies.

I’m not aware of any source of data comparable to Kinnaman’s book that asks what normal people think about Judaism. I can only surmise, based on many conversations with Jews and Christians. If such data were available, I bet it would reveal, along with many small interesting points, one big point.

While Colson worries that attitudes toward his faith get in the way of a key aspect of Christianity’s big picture — namely, evangelizing — the most worrisome fact that would come out of polling information about us is that people associate Judaism with no big picture whatsoever.

By “big picture,” I mean the answers to basic questions: What did God have in mind in making Jews? What purpose does the world itself have in God’s plan? What meaning is there in a Jew’s life or in the life of any human being? How does Judaism fit into that meaning?

Unlike evangelical Christians, Jews don’t see it as our mission to move others to become Jewish. But having a big picture matters, because all committed Jews care about inspiring our children, along with lost and unaffiliated Jews, non-Jewish spouses married to Jews and, indeed, ourselves.

Though inspiring the rest of the world is no longer widely seen as the overriding purpose of Jewish existence, that was in fact long accepted as being the whole picture itself. Just read the classic Torah commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German Orthodox leader.

He writes about how God established the “Abrahamitic nation” to “save” mankind, which was then “sunk in materialism” — and still is. By materialism, Hirsch didn’t mean consumerism but the conception of reality as purely of physical stuff, physical processes. He meant the ideological outlook that gave us modern secularism, and which, as its chief effect, undermines belief in moral free will.

If asked what Judaism’s “big picture” is, neither most non-Jews, nor most Jews — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — could give an answer worthy of being taken seriously. Substantiating the claim is as easy as doing a quick Google news search on phrases like “Reform Judaism,” “Conservative rabbi,” “Orthodox Jews” and so on.

You’ll find many things in the countless media references to Judaism’s main denominations, but one thing you won’t find is a discernible pattern in the carpet. Here we have Reform Judaism reconsidering its longstanding rejection of the Sabbath, now praising Shabbat as a lifestyle enhancement in a stressful world. Here we have Conservative synagogues fretting about how to make intermarried couples feel welcome without seeming to approve of rampant intermarriage itself. Here we have the Orthodox Union bewailing the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to divide Jerusalem.

Ultimately, what is at stake in Sabbath observance, Jewish marriage and a united Jerusalem? Anything beyond pragmatic, pedestrian considerations of the passing moment? From the public statements of the relevant organizations, it’s far from clear.

Is there anything timeless here? Anything cosmic? Anything that confronts us with the invisible, immaterial reality of God that once preoccupied the Jewish people?

Last year, the Modern Orthodox community on the East Coast was gnashing its teeth over a New York Times Magazine article by an ex-Orthodox Jew who married a gentile woman and went on to become a Harvard Law School professor. Noah Feldman had attended a premier Orthodox day school, Maimonides, and wrote of his disenchantment.

I’m Orthodox, too, but I don’t blame Feldman. Judaism certainly has answers to the big questions about ultimate cosmic meaning, but those answers — whether found in Jewish mysticism or in the moral philosophy of a rabbi like Hirsch — are not much talked about in Modern Orthodoxy, which places more emphasis on fundamental matters like: Can you observe Shabbat and kashrut and still land the plum job teaching at Harvard Law? Answer: Yes. Baruch Hashem, yes.

Feldman stirred outrage because he seemed to call into doubt this foundational belief.

The Orthodox readers of his essay rightly worry about their kids at the Maimonides School and its analogs. Children, like adults, need deep answers to deep questions — and we do an inadequate job of supplying them.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).

Briefs: ‘Christian Nation’ vote; Aid to P.A.


Xmas Resolution Renews ‘Christian Nation’ Debate

A seemingly benign U.S. congressional resolution supporting Christmas has become the latest fodder in the debate over whether America is a “Christian nation.”

Nearly all the members of the House of Representatives, including a majority of Jewish members, voted for the Dec. 11 resolution acknowledging the celebration of Christmas and the role Christians have played in U.S. history.

But the resolution’s author, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), has since lashed out at the nine “liberal Democrats” who voted against the resolution and questioned how they had supported a different resolution supporting Ramadan.

In a Dec. 12 appearance on Fox News, King said: “I would like to know how they can vote yes on Ramadan, yes on the Indian religions and no on Christianity when the foundation of this nation and our American culture is Christian.”

The rhetoric over the so-called Christmas wars has been toned down this year, with Christian conservatives less vocal than in the past about the need to “protect” Christmas from those who would downplay its public and religious significance.

At the same time, the congressional dust-up comes as Jews and others express discomfort with the decidedly central role of faith in the race for the Republican nominee for president.

King had voted “present” on the two other recent religious resolutions, one honoring Ramadan, which passed on Oct. 2, and one recognizing the Indian holiday of Diwali, which passed on Oct. 29.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) was the only Jewish representative to vote against the Christmas resolution. In 2005 he had led the charge against another resolution on Christmas — one to “protect” the holiday.

During that debate, Ackerman publicly wondered whether Santa Claus had been mugged or there had been threats of elf tossings.

“Congress has better things to do than to infringe upon the separation of church and state,” Ackerman said this week.

“If the Christmas resolution did what the Ramadan measure did, recognize the importance of the holiday and denounce hatred, with no reference to Mohammed, or what the Dawali resolution did, recognize the festival and the pluralism and diversity in the Indian and American society, and stayed away from all the religiosity and innuendo that a specific religion and not freedom of religion was a founding principle of America, I would not think it pushed on the separation clause.”

“Make no mistake: I like Santa Claus. I love the separation clause,” he added. “But being that it passed, they owe me eight resolutions for Chanukah.”

Most of the 30 Jewish lawmakers voted for the resolution.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Jan Shakowsky (D-Ill.), John Yarmuth(D-Ky.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) had voted recently for a resolution commemorating the importance of Ramadan, yet did not vote on the Christmas resolution.

Ackerman also had voted for the resolution commemorating Ramadan. Two other Jewish lawmakers, Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), were not present for the Christmas resolution vote.

The ’05 resolution, which strongly disapproved “of attempts to ban references to Christmas” and expressed “support for the use of these symbols and traditions,” had even greater support from Congress than the current Christmas measure.

It was sponsored by Rep. Joanne Davis (R-Va.), who died this year.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) had countered the ’05 resolution by drafting a similar bill honoring Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Israel’s bill died in committee.

Israel voted in favor of this year’s Christmas resolution.

“The resolution in 2005 implied that Christmas was under attack,” Israel’s communications director, Meghan Dubyak, said, adding that Israel believed the current resolution was written in the spirit of the previous two commemorations of Ramadan and Diwali.

Though this year’s resolution makes no mention of other religious holidays, language was added to make clear that the United States was built by people who had “Judeo-Christian” beliefs, not just Christian beliefs.

Winograd Conclusions Due Next Month

The Winograd Commission’s inquiry into the Lebanon war, which were expected out by year’s end, will be published next month, probably after President Bush visits the region, Israel’s Army Radio reported Monday. It was the second such delay after sources close to the commission said over the summer that its conclusions would not be made public before the High Holy Days.

The commission’s preliminary report censured Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the setbacks of the 2006 war against Hezbollah. This prompted some Israelis to anticipate that the final report would recommend Olmert step down. Olmert has defended his handling of the 34-day campaign in southern Lebanon and vowed to see out his term in office.

OU Moves Confab to Jerusalem

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) will move its 2008 convention to Jerusalem. The OU was scheduled to return to the Israeli capital in 2010, but changed next year’s location from New York in large part because it has been at the forefront of the coalition organized to prevent Jerusalem from being divided in Israel’s talks with the Palestinians.

“It was clear to us that since New York was chosen as the site of the 2008 Convention, much had happened regarding the possible division of Jerusalem that made it imperative for the OU to be there in great numbers,” OU President Stephen Savitsky and Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb announced in a statement.

The convention will take place Nov. 23-30.

Bill Pushes Iran to Pay Victims

A major defense bill includes provisions that would limit the ability of terrorist-backing states to protect U.S. assets from litigants. The Defense Authorization bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives, would limit the appeal options for states found liable in U.S. courts for backing terrorism.

The legislation is based on an earlier stand-alone bill authored by two Jewish U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It is aimed particularly at Iran, which until now has successfully resisted dipping into U.S. assets to pay close to $2.7 billion in damages won in courts by families of the 241 servicemen killed in the 1983 Hezbollah attack on a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut. Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. The bill must now be approved by the Senate and then goes to President Bush for signing.

P.A. Raises $7.4 Billion

Representatives of some 90 countries who gathered Monday in Paris pledged $7.4 billion to the Palestinian Authority, topping the goal of $5.5 billion by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. The money is earmarked for Abbas’ administration in the West Bank in hope of building up its institutions and affluence, driving Palestinians in Gaza to vote out Hamas rulers.

When Faiths Jam


At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, “kumbaya.”

Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.

And yes, it began with a drum circle.

But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-“Free to Be You and Me” warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.

And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.

Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong “Let My People Sing” celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: “Passover is about liberation, and we’re enslaved by our hatreds.”

Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham’s Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir’s songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.

Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.

The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.

“This night and nights like this are so long overdue,” Rabbi Levy said. “Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness.” (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)

The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.

Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center’s men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. “We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is,” Turk said.

Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience — standing, kneeling, bowing — just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.

“Oh, he’s an actor,” she said. “He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in ‘Munich.'”

After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.

And afterward came the mingling.

Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?

First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.

Second, the ritual wasn’t dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was — and that’s when he said the word.

“We’re not doing ‘Kumbaya’ where we all get together and hug,” he said. “This is the way a new generation does dialogue.”

What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn’t have to sit in a circle and look into the Other’s eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace — as if we have any say in it.

“It’s just breaking the ice,” Turk told me, “and music goes beyond words.”

Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.

Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani — he’s Lebanese, she’s Iranian — pronounced it good.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Nadim, a 30-something architect. “And it’s about time.”

The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.

“It’s foundational,” he said. “Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that’s when you get goose bumps.”

A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed — “I work in the entertainment industry,” he explained — said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.

“We have to all get together,” he said. “People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn’t even be in this country.”

Now that kind of intolerance? It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Battle Lines Emerge on Marking Holiday


The sound of angry Christians railing against the marginalization of Christmas has become the new tune of this holiday season.

Across the country, from department stores to town halls, battle lines have been drawn over how to mark the winter holidays.

Led by evangelical groups, which say the holiday’s religious significance is being ignored, some Christians are fighting back. They’re threatening to sue school districts that have banned the singing of Christmas carols and other places where “Happy holidays” has replaced “Merry Christmas” as the preferred greeting of the season.

Evangelical leaders don’t cast the Jewish community as Scrooge, yet efforts to highlight Christian themes and celebrations at Christmas historically have come at the expense of religious diversity and tolerance, say some Jewish leaders.

“It is not a movement prompted by an animus against Jews or the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in recent months has spoken out on what he characterizes as the growing evangelical influence in the United States. “But the unintended consequence is that Jews may be blamed for it.”

Rabbi Leah Richman of Pottsville, Pa., received angry letters and phone calls when she called for the removal of a nativity scene in her town square.

“The non-Jewish people in the area are very interested in promoting Christmas and they believe that church and state should be more mingled,” Richman said. “They’re taking my stand as being anti- tolerance and anti-diversity because I’m not tolerant of their nativity scene.”

Instead of opposing the nativity scene, some respondents said Richman should place a menorah nearby. Indeed, much of the evangelical community’s argument has rested on a call for more celebrations of both Christmas and Chanukah, part of a call for a return to “Judeo-Christian values.”

“It just seems to me that what we ought to be aiming for in America is recognizing everyone’s traditions, rather than melding traditions into a homogenized whatever,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an organization associated with the Christian right.

The onslaught of Christmas decorations and programming for years has been a source of quiet frustration for American Jews, but decisions about how to handle it have varied. Some Jewish groups have worked to ensure that religious Christmas displays don’t enter the public square, while others — predominantly the Chabad movement — sought equal treatment for menorahs and other Chanukah decorations.

The inclusion of Chanukah and then the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa has forced retailers and municipalities to seek more generic and inclusive ways of acknowledging all faiths. That has led, in due course, to claims that Christianity has been taken out of Christmas celebrations.

Boston renamed a tree in Boston Common a “holiday tree.” Target, the giant retailer, was criticized for airing commercials in December that did not specifically mention Christmas.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in, declaring this month that a “commercial pollution” of Christmas could alter the holiday’s true meaning. He suggested families erect nativity scenes in their homes.

The pro-Christmas movement comes at a time of growing evangelical political strength, giving their message increased weight and attention. Evangelicals have fought this year against efforts to remove proselytizing from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and to promote the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools. Nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court have been evaluated, in part, on their church attendance and their public proclamations of faith.

Some evangelicals have “come to feel a certain strength in their position in America and in the public that they didn’t feel under President Clinton,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and chairman of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Even the White House has been chastised for writing “Best wishes for the holiday season” on its annual Christmas cards.

Those who perceive a decrease in Christmas observance, including media figures like Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson, both of the FOX News Channel, claim Christmas is being excluded from seasonal decorations in a misguided attempt to be sensitive to minorities.

“It’s mostly guilt-ridden Christians,” said Gibson in an interview. He’s the author of “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought” (Sentinel HC).

Added Bauer: “The Jews I know are not offended by the words, ‘Merry Christmas.’ The controversy doesn’t seem to be coming from believing Jews.”

But some Christian leaders do accuse Hollywood, the media and the American Civil Liberties Union of taking the religion out of Christmas — and all three groups are widely viewed as being run by Jews, Foxman said.

Eckstein warned of a backlash if Jews are perceived as being on the front lines of the fight.

In Coatesville, Pa., Councilman William Chertok was accused by a colleague of voting against an increase in the city’s Christmas parade budget because he was Jewish.

“I understand, Mr. Chertok, that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” Councilwoman-elect Patsy Ray said in a meeting in November. Her comments prompted rebukes from the City Council and the local media.

Chertok said he voted against the increase for budgetary reasons.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been often cast as the lead opponent of Christmas celebrations. He said evangelical leaders are trying to place Christmas and Christianity above other religions.

“There’s a kind of Christian triumphalism; a feeling that Christians have to win every battle,” said Lynn, who commented by telephone while shopping for Christmas presents. “There is a fear that other religions are going to be treated the same as Christmas, and that means Christmas won’t have its special place five weeks of the year.”

Scholar Jonathan Sarna asserts that the Christian evangelicals have some reason to be concerned. Because at some level, they are gradually losing their battle with history.

“What we’re seeing in America today, with the evangelical emphasis, will be looked back on as the last gasp to hold onto an America that is [solely] Christian,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

At the same time, supporters of interfaith dialogue say that as the majority religion in the United States, Christians have a right to see more expressions of their faith.

“It’s a legitimate feeling when 90 percent of the country is for it,” Eckstein said. “I am not threatened by someone who affirms his faith.”

Garbage Mouth


When the controversy over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” first erupted, Jewish leaders like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League angered Christians by coming out forcefully against the movie.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, took umbrage. “A lot of Catholics in this town are saying, ‘Is that how Jews are looking at us,'” he told The Jewish Week, “‘that you scratch a Catholic and out comes a latent anti-Semite?'”

Last week, Donohue provided the answer to his rhetorical question. And the answer is, in his case, yes.

In a Dec. 10 appearance on MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” Donohue railed against the possibility that Michael Moore’s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” would receive an Oscar nomination, while Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” would not.

“Who really cares what Hollywood thinks?” Donohue said. “All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it. That’s why they hate this movie. It’s about Jesus Christ, and it’s about truth. It’s about the messiah.”

Donohue continued: “Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint. They believe in libertinism. We have nothing in common.”

The host for this Jew-bashing fest was — surprise! — Pat Buchanan. Instead of calling Donohue out, he turned to panelist Rabbi Shmuely Boteach and asked why secular Jews hate America and love Michael Moore.

Read the transcript, and you’ll begin to wonder what looking glass you’ve fallen through. Boteach did a superb job in the role of Moses Nachmanides, the 13th-century scholar who was forced into public disputations over religion with Christian opponents.

“I’m amazed that we’ve made this a discussion about secular Jews,” Boteach said. “I have got to tell you that Bill Donohue, who I otherwise love and so respect, ought to be ashamed of himself, the way he’s spoken about secular Jews hating Christians. That is a bunch of crap, OK?”

Donohue’s accusations, goaded on by Buchanan, turned nastier:

Boteach: The fact is that Jewish people are incredibly charitable, good, decent family people.

Donohue: I didn’t question that.

Boteach: Hollywood has become a cesspit because it’s secular, period. Don’t do this — don’t tell us that it’s secular Jews.

Donohue: So the Catholics are running Hollywood, huh?

Boteach: Soon, you’re going to start telling us that the NBA is violent because it’s black people, all right, Bill? No, no, no. When people behave badly, just hold them individually accountable.

Donohue is clearly on the right flank of the Catholic world, but he is far from a fringe character. His organization, based in New York, claims a membership of 350,000 and has some significant mainstream names attached to it.

On the group’s Web site, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, offers this endorsement: “I encourage you to join the Catholic League, which defends not only the interests of Catholics but of all victims of anti-religious bigotry.”

Um, almost all.

So far, Donohue hasn’t apologized, and Mahony and others haven’t publicly chastised him, resigned their memberships or done anything to indicate that blaming “secular Jews” for all that is rotten in contemporary culture is perhaps out of bounds.

The comments buzzed through the entertainment community, evoking equal measures of outrage, disbelief and humor. Suffice it to say that in the wake of the scandals concerning priestly pederasty, Donohue didn’t get a pass for his “anal sex” remark.

It seems indecent to have to point out the obvious, but here’s a quick reality check for Donohue:

1. Jews don’t control Hollywood, corporations do. If you have a problem with smut on TV, tell Rupert Murdoch — not a Jew — to sink “Temptation Island.”

2. Hollywood is profit-friendly and risk-averse. Religion and politics are risky subjects. Knowing what they know now, 99.9 percent of studio execs would have green-lit “The Passion” faster than you could say “Scary Movie 7.”

3. The vast majority of Hollywood movies are positive, uplifting and moralistic, anyway. “Ray,” “The Incredibles,” the upcoming “Lemony Snicket” — great entertainment and great values.

I like the fact that Jews are represented across the political spectrum. But Jews who wave the banners of the left and right have to understand the dangers. On the left, there is a short hop from demonizing Israel to anti-Semitism. On the right, there is a finger snap from lumping together all “liberals” and “secularists” to attacking Jews. Just ask Bill Donohue.

Then ask him to apologize.

Prolific Neusner Takes on Mishnah


 

“Making God’s Word Work: A Guide to the Mishnah,” by Jacob Neusner (Continuum, $29.95).

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a conversation with a Christian who suddenly out of nowhere asked, “What do you think of Neusner?” They don’t even feel a need to mention the man’s first name, which is Jacob, assuming that as a Jew I would obviously be familiar with the rabbi and scholar who, for non-Jews interested in Judaism, is the No. 1 go-to guy.

When a Christian wants to know something about Judaism, which lately more and more do, a typical first course of action is a visit to Barnes & Noble, to the Jacob Neusner section of the Judaica shelves. His singularity is worth pondering.

As the book of Exodus puts it, Jews are meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” educating and uplifting other nations. It hasn’t always worked out that way, particularly when you consider the teachings of Judaic scholars, which tend to be known only to other Jews. In our time, the late theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite with Christians, was an exception. Of rabbinic scholars still living and working, Neusner is pretty much the only other.

When I say he’s still “working,” I mean working. Author or editor of 909 books — yes, 909, that’s not a misprint — Neusner was one of my professors at Brown, before he got thoroughly disgusted with the place and left. A 71-year-old whose critical, owlish expression hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I last saw him, he greets me at the train station in Rhinecliff, N.Y., where he now lives and teaches at nearby Bard College.

He warns, “When you get past asking how I can write so many books, then we can discuss something substantive.”

Prolific, controversial and relevant, he was sometimes alarmingly forthright when I knew him back then. Since then he’s mellowed only somewhat. So let’s get past the matter of the books, mostly dealing with the period of about 500 years following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

He has translated the encyclopedia-length Babylonian Talmud — twice — plus the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishnah and every midrashic work you can think of. His own works of scholarly investigation, many for a popular audience and many not, include “Judaism: An Introduction,” “Introduction to Rabbinic Literature,” “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” “Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era,” “The Classics of Judaism: A Textbook and Reader,” “Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah,” “Rabbinic Political Theory,” and so on and on. His latest, “Making God’s Word Work,” illuminates the philosophy he finds coded in the Mishnah’s seemingly dry and abstract rendering of Jewish law.

Neusner would seem to embody the Mishnah’s injunction to “say little and do much” — except that he somehow finds ample time, apart from doing much, to say much as well in a variety of media. Sometimes his sayings are in acidic tones that haven’t always won him the affection of other scholars, whose denunciations of him can depart sharply from the sleep-inducing norms of professorial discourse.

Perhaps the only other Judaic scholar with a semifamiliar name outside academia, NYU’s Lawrence Schiffman, explains that this partly stems from the fact that Neusner seriously shook up the field early on, defining the major questions that other professors would have to deal with for the rest of their careers.

“I had to invent what the field would look like,” Neusner says.

Schiffman doesn’t deny the credit-taking. In American university religion departments before Neusner, Schiffman says, “The missing element was Talmud, the real core of Judaism. You went right from the Bible to the Middle Ages.”

Neusner upset Israeli academics, among others, by arguing that the teachings given in the name of individual rabbis in the Talmud couldn’t, as a rule, be attributed to those individual rabbis. Schiffman, best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, also speculates that “there are some who disdain him because he’s not a philologist,” an expert on the technical aspects of the definition and history of words.

Maybe so, although hating Neusner because he’s not a philologist calls to mind Lenny Bruce’s explanation of why the Jews killed Jesus: “We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor.”

One suspects it wasn’t anything to do with philology that made his years at Brown such a frustration. Over lunch with his wife, Suzanne, she remembers how faculty wives were always saying, “Oh, your husband said something controversial!” Neusner recalls finding certain faculty colleagues to be neither “cordial nor welcoming,” nor productive in their scholarship: “They were not book writers or continuing book writers. There was a sense that if you published a book you had to apologize.”

Probably, however, it wasn’t simply jealousy either that caused Neusner to be trailed for years by acrimony.

Whatever the case, there remains the man’s relevance, both to non-Jews and to Jews. Of his popularity with Christians, Neusner thinks “That’s because I work in the first couple of centuries. Their interest in Judaism ends about the year 33 A.D. [when Jesus died], but I’ve been able to persuade people that they should also take an interest in Judaism through its classical period. They respect me because, while I’m not asking them to stop being Christians, I do so say ‘I think you’re wrong. When your religion reaches its fulfillment, you’re going to adopt Judaism.'”

What he has to say specifically to Jews is crystallized in “Making God’s Word Work.” He recounts how in 1953, having graduated Harvard, he was a 21-year-old grad student at Oxford University. There he came across Gerald Reitlinger’s book “The Final Solution,” which brought the full extent of the Holocaust, with the resulting urgent need to recover and rebuild, into Neusner’s consciousness.

He realized that the “the age closest in its principal issues to the one in which I would make my life, an age of reconstruction and renewal, was late antiquity, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewry reconstructed its life on the foundations of hope.”

Lucky the person who discovers at age 21 the single “question that would define my life,” as Neusner puts it. In his case it was, “What next? Can there be another chapter in the biography of God’s people?” Starting with rabbinic school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Columbia, Neusner has been working on the question ever since.

What’s his answer? The overarching theme of the Mishnah — a book edited at a time (200 C.E.) when the Temple was long ago demolished but describing a system of laws for a time when the Temple stands again — is an almost defiant insistence that Jews can be masters of their own fate.

But not only Jews, “the human being, through will and deed, is master of this world…. But the world in which the human being is the measure of all things is within: in intellect, imagination, sentient experience.”

At a time like ours when some Americans assert that human beings are morally free and thus responsible for our actions, while others deny it — which is the culture war in a nutshell — those are fighting words.

Neusner writes, “In the aftermath of the two world wars and defeats of millennial proportions, the message of the Mishnah cannot have proved more pertinent.”

Of his own message, you could say the same thing.

David Klinghoffer’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March by Doubleday.

 

Letters to the Editor


In late May 1948, when faced with an embargo on weaponry in defending the new born State of Israel, Provisional prime-minister David Ben-Gurion received an offer of assistance from an unlikely source. Czechoslovakia, then under the firm control of Soviet Russia, offered the Provisional Government a small number of tanks, a handful of fighter planes and three bombers. Furious debate was entered in the Knesset, contesting the Czechs’ motives and sincerity and questioning whether Israel would become a pawn of the Soviet Union in the fast unraveling Cold War. Banging his fist on the table, Ben-Gurion silenced the room. ” We will all be dead by the time we finish this debate! We must have the arms now! “When one is drowning,” he might have added proverbially, “only a fool questions the motives of his rescuer.”

Although today Israel is no longer drowning or short of arms, the fact that the country has become isolated while a battle with a nihilistic campaign of terrorism rages, should become clear to anyone who regularly reads the European, Asian or Middle East press. Unfortunately what has happened to Israel in the court of world opinion is now being flagrantly transferred to Jews. The Israel Christian Nexus was formed as a response to this isolation. Neither a political nor religious organization, it has one purpose only: to consolidate and strengthen relationships with those in the Christian community who regard themselves as Israel’s friends.

Attacks on our organization have come from variety of sources, but none quite as misinformed as that of Professor David Myers and Daniel Sokatch in last week’s Jewish Journal. While proferring “evidence” of the Christian evangelical movement’s intent to convert us all, they ignore entirely the extraordinary impact evangelical Christian lobbying and support can have in shaping American attitudes to Israel and the very necessity of allying ourselves with friends who offer invaluable moral, political and financial help while asking for nothing in return.

This being the case, their article does raise a genuine concern about Christian missionary work and it must be addressed. In this regard it should be made clear that missionary work has always been fundamental to the ethos of Christianity. Sharing their faith – whether it be with Jews, Buddhists, Bahai or Muslims has been the mission of Christianity for 20 centuries and should come as no surprise to anyone. The question for us all becomes what tactics will the Christian community employ to advance their cause and when do those methods cross a threshold that is unacceptable?

To this end it is vital to understand that the Evangelical community in the United States is reputed to be 70 million strong – is neither monolithic nor homogenous. It is splintered into ideologies and divisions as stark as those found in the Jewish community itself. There is similarly a marked difference in approach to missionary work in the Christian community. All of the Church groups with which we have been involved have shown clearly that they have no intention of missionizing to us either as individuals or as a community. Nor have we ever encountered a full scale program or campaign that announces an intention to convert Jews en masse to Christianity. We have never been engaged in a dialogue that has suggested to us that that there is anything but unconditional love for Israel and the Jewish people motivating Christian support for the Jewish state.

Our meetings have also been marked by regret for the centuries of Christian persecution of Jews and the utmost respect for Jewish practices and beliefs. In fact, when we hold lunches at churches, the churches themselves insist that not only should the food be kosher but it should attain the highest possible standard of kashruth. At no meeting, even those in churches, have we heard the name Jesus spoken by a Christian.

Skeptics may well argue that these displays of Christian sensitivity are simply a subterfuge, designed to beguile us into believing that we are safe from Christian theological influence. And while there may be a handful of pastors who have lent their name to more extreme efforts, it is spurious to suggest that this implies that they are themselves undertaking concerted, fully funded campaigns of their own to convert Jews or that they are attempting to either” eradicate Judaism” or ” seek our disappearance as Jews.” This is simply not the case and amounts to the kind of wild speculation the authors deny.

This does not obviate the need for scrutiny and caution. Simply put, if we were to discover an attempt by any of the groups with whom we are associated to missionize in our communities, we would immediately distance ourselves from them.

But of course no one needs to accept my judgments. Indeed, since Professor Myers and Daniel Sokatch have chosen to use the words and research of Shawn Landres, a fellow at the University of Judaism, let me now refer to them as well. On February 20, 2004, writing in the Jewish Journal about the forthcoming release of “The Passion,” Mr. Landres declared that there is an alternative path to public criticism of Christians: “For most Christians,” says Landres, ” Jesus’ message was about faith, hope and love, not fear or hatred (therefore) ask your Christian friends to introduce you to their religious teachers and leaders so that you can convey your concerns personally.”

Amen.
Avi Davis

Christian Allies

I read the information provided in the recent opinion piece written by my friends, professor David Myers and Daniel Sokatch, concerning speakers at the recent Israel Christian Nexus program held at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Oct. 14 with great interest (“Apparent Allies Might Not Be Our Friends,” Oct. 15).

It is a stretch to assume that participation in a program of this type is an endorsement by the Jewish participants of active evangelical proselytizing and conversion. Let’s hope we can continue to broaden the group of Christian leaders who will support our desire for a strong, safe Israel without other agendas.

John Fishel
President
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

We share concerns raised by Myers and Sokatch regarding missionizing and the need to carefully scrutinize those with whom we associate. Our Christian friends know that we are concerned. StandWithUs has an interfaith coalition, and supports the work of the Israel Christian Nexus (ICN). And so, we greatly appreciate the lengths the ICN goes to in relationship building and educating, and the guidelines it has set for the gatherings with which we have been involved.

We have been pleased and relieved that at no time during any ICN gathering has there been any mention or hint by an individual or group targeting Jews for conversion. Rather, all pastors involved have simply expressed their solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people. The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation are to be commended for their support of the ICN.

If we look for groups of supporters who think as we do, politically as well as religiously, as suggested by Myers and Sokatch, we will be left standing alone. Using this litmus test, we would distance ourselves from one another, as Jews with differing political and religious views as well. Yes, we must keep our eyes wide open, reevaluate our associations as needed and proceed with appropriate caution. In this process, we have already found many friends of the Christian faith, including Presbyterians who disagree with the national decision to divest from Israel and will help to campaign against it.

We must appreciate that in this time of unprecedented anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment around the globe, Israel cannot afford to shun entire groups of active supporters.

Esther Renzer and Roz Rothstein
StandWithUs

Israel and world Jewry have enough real enemies. We are hardly in a position to reject people who have demonstrated, in words and deeds, that they are our friends and allies.

There is scant evidence to support the contention that the true objective of evangelicals is to proselytize Jews. And if any Jews are converting, then shame on us for failing to instill a true sense of Jewish identity in our own people.

Ira Mehlman
Marina del Rey

Professor David Myers is concerned that these people are only trying to convert us Jews and could not possibly be in support of Israel for other moral reasons.

I wonder if Myers is aware that the Rev. [Jack] Hayford every year leads a group from his church to Israel. Even when many American Jews were afraid to go to Israel, his group continued to go. The Jewish National Fund has a forest named after him, and his church has become supportive spokespeople for Israel.

Next time, prior to criticizing a rally for Israel, it may be more appropriate to actually go to the rally and see what is being said.

Myers, keep an open mind.

Scott Howard
Woodland Hills

It is ironic that Daniel Sokatch and David Myers fear Christian support of Jews in Israel, rather than their own “progressive” left that abandoned Israel years ago. The discomfort of the writers on this matter can be seen in their careful use of terminology. They refer to the Presbyterian church that has urged divestment of Israel as “Christians of a different political persuasion.”

The obvious truth is that the Presbyterian church is extremely left on the spectrum and ironically shares many similar views to Sokatch and Myers themselves. They should rephrase their article as: The political and religious left – are not our friends.

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

Yom Kippur in Chad

I was deeply moved by Rabbi Lee Bycel’s article about his recent trip to Chad (“Yom Kippur in Chad: Fasting a Way of Life,” Oct. 8). I have known Lee for many years and have always respected his willingness not only to preach tikkun olam but to take action on his beliefs.

His trip to Chad is a moving tribute to the central tenet of Jewish ethics that we are more than a people of faith. We are, as Lee has shown us, a people of action.

Thank you for providing a forum for Lee’s mission.

Jim Linden
Long Beach

Happy Campers

I agree with your article about Jewish camps being the most influential thing we can do to raise our children with Judaic awareness (“Happy Campers,” Sept. 3). I attended Camp Ramah and learned so much more about Judaism there than I ever did at Hebrew school.

I actually had a unique experience that explains why I love Camp Ramah. During the summer when I was 15, I had a crush on a boy named Matthew in my edah. We were close friends, but he never knew I wanted him to be my boyfriend. After camp, we kept in touch over e-mail.

Three years ago, he needed a date to his company’s party, so he invited me. Of course I accepted. I never forgot about his beautiful singing voice when he would lead morning tefillot for our edah or about his intelligent opinions during ethical debates.

Three months ago, Matthew and I got married. For our Saturday night rehearsal dinner, we included a camp-style Havdalah under the stars.

We are planning to raise our family to be very aware and active in Judaism. Thank you, Camp Ramah, for providing me with activities, Judaism and the place where I met my husband.

Robin Kaufman
Los Altos

Comfort Converts

The recent article on the Embracing Judaism Shabbaton (“A Retreat to Comfort Converts,” Oct. 8) was a thoughtful piece, made even more so by highlighting the comments of our own Lorna Lembeck, a cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Lorna’s deep commitment to and love of Judaism, combined with her tremendous talent, should serve as an inspiration to other Jews by choice, as well as those of us born into the faith. We are proud that Lorna has chosen the academy to pursue her dream of serving the Jewish people.

Hazzan Nathan Lam
Dean
Cantorial School
Academy for Jewish Religion
California

Jewish Wasteland

Liel Leibovitz laments that there are “only a handful of characters … openly and identifiably Jewish” on television (“Fall Season’s New Jewish Wasteland,” Oct. 15). Her concern is that Jewish characters this season, such as Jason Alexander’s Tony Kleinman are “far from being a complex and layered adult.” Memo to Leibovitz: If you’ve never met a shallow and boorish co-religionist, you don’t get around much.

What Leibovitz and others want is idealized, politically correct Jewish characters, never mind the reality of human nature, Jewish or otherwise. After all, “The Sopranos” portrays a Jewish gangster named Hesch. As a Jew, I’m not proud of him, but then again, I’m not proud of denial, either. And what about the Emmy Award-winning show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” starring Larry David? Jewish, but not Leibovitz’s kind of Jew?

And by the way, programming note: Far from “being no more,” “Seinfeld” is shown in reruns three or four times a day in Los Angeles alone; “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and “Law and Order” are seen maybe only twice a day in this market.

There is no danger to the portrayal of Jewish characters on television, only the danger of Jewish provincialism.

Leopold Rosenfeld
Beverly Hills

Go West, Young Couple

I would like to thank you for your acknowledgment of the new couple who will be serving as Torah educators for Jewish students at the UCLA campus (“Go West Young Couple,” Oct. 8). The Orthodox Union is very proud of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and the opportunities it opens up for Jewish students to engage in sophisticated Jewish learning and exploration.

However, the announcement overlooked the strong partnership with Hillel that makes the placement of a couple at UCLA possible. At UCLA, the Kaplans [Rabbi Aryeh and his wife, Sharona] serve as fully integrated members of the Hillel staff, and, indeed, the program would not exist at UCLA without the encouragement and support of Hillel.

Moreover, the program marks a conscious decision on the part of Hillel to enhance the resources available for Orthodox student life on campus. It is no small thing when disparate Jewish organizations join together in partnership for the greater good of the Jewish community, as Hillel and the Orthodox Union have done with regard to the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President
Orthodox Union

Breast Cancer Tips

I enjoyed reading Wendy Madnick’s article on breast cancer (“Breast Cancer Tips Doctors Don’t Share,” Oct. 15). I was one of the 217,440 diagnosed in 2004. I have finished chemotherapy, am halfway through radiation and look forward to my hair growing back long enough to wash.

A few things worth mentioning: Chemo makes you lose not only your hair and sense of taste but also your fertility. Depending on how close you are to natural menopause will determine whether it returns.

Jewish women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and are premenopausal should contact Sharsheret, an organization of young Jewish women living with breast cancer, for invaluable peer support and information. They can be reached at www.sharsheret.org or (866) 474-2774.

Also, The Wellness Community provides free support to all types of cancer patients and their families through a variety of support groups and programs. The West Los Angeles group can be accessed at www.twc-wla.org or (310) 314-2555.

Name withheld by request
Via e-mail

Gaza Claim

Mort Klein’s column on the Jewish history of Gaza cites several biblical references to make his point (“Rich History Backs Claim to Gaza,” Oct. 8).

But there is one I discovered a few years ago that he overlooked. Ezekiel 47:13-23 not only supports his view, but in fact it goes much further. As near as I can tell, it accurately describes the boundaries of the State of Israel immediately after the Six-Day War.

Michael Lifton
Pasadena

The Mamaloshen

For the record: I am the daughter of the Zylbercweigs who were the creators of the “Yiddish Daily Program” (“Behind the Mamaloshen,” Oct. 8). They did not conduct their broadcast from the garage but from their studio in their home. The program ran from 1948 to 1968. Their 50,000 listeners – of middle age and older – enjoyed their daily programs with music, guest speakers, actors, composers, authors, poets, personalities of the Jewish stage, rabbis, politicians and the like. All the programs were conducted in Yiddish, their mamaloshen. The program was loved, admired and respected by the entire community.

My late mother, Celia Silver, was also a noted Jewish actress; my father, Zalmen Zylbercweig, was the sole writer of seven volumes of the “Lexicon of the Yiddish Theater” and many other books.

Shirley Fair
Encino

While I found “Behind the Mamaloshen” nostalgic and informative, I feel that there were areas that could’ve been expounded upon even further and others that were omitted entirely.

When speaking of Mickey Katz, why was there no mention of his talented son, Joel Grey, who received an Academy Award for “Cabaret”? And Billy Gray’s Band Box, besides featuring Katz on occasion, was the only semblance of Borscht Belt-Catskills entertainment on the West Coast, particularly with the show, “My Fairfax Lady,” which had a record five-year run. And I loved Katz’s Sunday night radio show in the 1950s, where one of the sponsors was Canter’s.

Last week I enjoyed the play, “The History of Fairfax, According to a Sandwich,” on the Fairfax High campus.

Still and all, Naomi Pfefferman did a good job of “bringing me back”… nu?

Eddie Cress
Sylmar

Liberal Academics

Ari Davis’ “Liberal Academics Blind to Terror Threats” article (Oct. 15) hit very close to home. I may not have attended Harvard University, but I did recently graduate from a California university with professors who projected a very “liberal” attitude.

California’s campuses are becoming increasingly anti-Israel. By the time I was a senior in college, I had been approached by every type of anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian group on campus. Even American Jewish kids were preaching about what a “disgusting Zionistic program Birthright Israel is.”

How did this happen? How did American universities begin producing such liberal academics so quick to forget the past?

Muslim extremists are not portrayed as terrorists but instead as poor, innocent human beings with no choice left but to blow themselves up in order to save themselves and their families.

It’s a disturbing thought that many of today’s professors don’t see the similarities between Hitler’s war against the Jews and today’s intifada, as Davis explained.

Davis is definitely not the first person to have seen the disgraceful level that many intellectuals that teach in universities has clearly fallen to. Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hillel are more crucial now than ever before. As Jews, as Americans, as students, we must clearly define our cause – and never stop fighting for it.

Lindsey Lache
Valley Village

Beyond Israel

I would like to respond to Bill Boyarsky’s essay urging Jewish voters to look beyond Israel in the presidential election (“Look Beyond Israel,” Oct. 1) and Dina Adler’s rebuttal saying that Israel is the only true priority for the Jewish voter (Letters, Oct. 15).

Despite the tradition and wisdom of our tribe, I find it simply astounding that so many Jews are so shortsighted. After 5,000-plus years in the Diaspora and a more than 50 years in modern Israel, one would hope the Jews would have studied Jewish history and learned from it.

As a child, I remember asking how the Holocaust could have happened. No one, except my dear Aunt Ida, could really answer that question. She brilliantly explained the Shoah in terms that a 5-year-old could understand.

She said, “Anti-Semitism is a monster. It goes to sleep for a long time. And everyone forgets it’s there. But once it wakes up, there’s no stopping it. It’s a giant fire monster that burns up everything.”

I trembled. “Why does it wake up? Why can’t we make it go back to sleep?”

“Money,” Aunt Ida said. “The money doesn’t work anymore, and once the money doesn’t work, nothing works. And that’s when they blame the Jews. That’s when the monster wakes up.”

Whether you are a Jewish Republican, Democrat or independent, a vote for George Bush is a quiet nudge at that sleeping monster. Of course it’s thrilling to listen to George Bush tell those barbarians at the United Nations to stuff it. It’s gratifying to watch a maniac like Kaddafi beg for forgiveness. Who didn’t enjoy seeing that fiend Saddam Hussein come crawling out of his hole? But these are short-lived pleasures.

What is our country going to be like after another four years of Bush deficits? What is the United States going to be like once the dust settles after a possible eight-year reign of Bush-Cheney? How does the United States pay for this worldwide fight against terror without taxing the people that this fight is supposedly protecting? What are our dollars going to be worth if Bush and Cheney are given another term in the White House?

My fear is that this divisive administration is tearing the monetary fabric that holds our society together. Once those ties that bind us are torn apart, all hell will break loose. The monster wakes up again. Chaos is never good for the Jews. Study history – and then vote for John Kerry.

Ellen Switkes
Sherman Oaks

In almost every issue of The Journal there are one or more letters indicating that the welfare of Israel transcends that of America. They proclaim that the most important issue in the election for president is who is better for Israel, not who is better for the United States.

We Jews have been accused of having a “dual loyalty” when it comes to Israel. Sadly, it’s very true in too many cases. And, in some cases, the primary loyalty is for Israel.

It’s understandable that Jews should be concerned about the welfare of Israel. But, I feel very strongly that all Americans’ primary concern should be for what’s best for America and should vote with that in mind.

Melvin Reier
Northridge

Mordechai Gafni

It was with great sadness that I learned you chose to publish Gary Rosenblatt’s article in The Jewish Journal about Rabbi Mordechai Gafni (“Unforgiven?” Oct. 1).

As his student, I have learned so much and grown so much Jewishly. He is a brilliant and energetic teacher who has enriched the lives of all his students.

What possible purpose could there be to this article other than to bolster Rosenblatt’s career? His article was all about accusations from the distant past, and nothing has happened to justify revisiting this subject.

It is destructive to Gafni and hurtful to all those associated with him. Imagine how upsetting this was to me when my grown son called me with concerns, because he read the article. Does Rosenblatt realize how many people he is hurting? Does he care? He should just leave it alone.

Jeanette Perkins
Slingerlands, N.Y.

It is expected that in the political arena, opponents of great men will dig up old dirt and throw it around. However, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni does not traffic in the political arena but in the spiritual arena.

One hopes that in the Jewish world, we would have a greater awareness of shmirat lashon and conduct ourselves accordingly. An attempt by a third party to damage the reputation of another through innuendo and rumor is the greatest of sins.

Indeed, as editor Gary Rosenblatt has previously written, there is only one valid reason to air such private accusations in a public arena, and that is if continued silence would create a clear and present danger to others. Since that is clearly not the case with Gafni, it was very wrong for The Jewish Journal to publicly air these ancient allegations.

Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer
spiritual leader and kol bo
Bethesda Jewish Congregation
Bethesda, Md.

Recently, I learned of some unfortunate comments about my respected teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni. From my own experience and observation, I know that in addition to being an overwhelmingly inspiring teacher, Mordechai exhibits all of those characteristics that our sages have told us constitute a full human being.

I have personally witnessed Mordechai working with those in need into the early hours of the morning, difficult as that is for the cynical to comprehend. He truly loves the Divine spark in all of his students.

And yet, even when he overflows in love – hugging all around him men and women, young and old – he is scrupulous about boundaries, meeting people only in public space. As he has told us time and again, hurt by old false accusations, he does not take on women for long-term counseling.

In my personal encounter with him, I, who am not easily trusting, have found his character, trustworthiness and integrity above reproach.

Dr. Maury Hoberman
West Chester, Pa.

Christians and Israel

Dr. Wayne Grody dismisses the fundamentalist Christian right by asserting, simply that their “entire world view is antithetical to … mainstream Judaism” (Letters, Oct. 8).

How so? We both believe in the Ten Commandments and capitalism. Most Jews are more socially liberal, but many Orthodox Jews think like conservative Christians on social issues – are they antithetical to mainstream Judaism?

Our parents’ generation resented Christian America (remember “goyim” jokes), and many of us reflect that resentment, even though Christian thinking has changed.

Unlike their European counterparts, American Christians made a conscious effort after World War II to rid themselves and their liturgy of anti-Semitism (skinheads aren’t Christians) and give absolute support to Israel.

They comprise nearly 80 percent of the majority of American voters who consistently support Israel’s multibillion dollar foreign aid allotment, as well as America’s unfailing defense of Israel in the United Nations. They visit Israel in comparable percentages to Jews and seldom cancel their trips when there’s trouble.

For some reason, this support makes many Jews so uncomfortable they’ve sought to delegitimize it. They accuse Christians of basing it on the Book of Revelations, hoping to convert the Jews or see them destroyed at Armageddon, which is nonsense. Revelations is as strange and undecipherable to most Christians as it is to Jews.

American Christians support Israel today because it’s a holy land to them, too, and most have evolved a sincere respect for Jews, and especially Israelis, in their David vs. Goliath battle against the Muslims. Dismissing them as anti-Semites and fools is unfair, insensitive and beneath us as Jews and Americans

My girlfriend is a devout Christian who regularly prays for Israel, as do her fellow congregants at the Vineyard Church in Van Nuys (we’re past child-bearing age and both my daughters from previous relationships are Jews). She attends Jewish functions with me, lights Shabbat candles and helps me serve seder dinners, and occasionally I’ve accompanied her to church and chatted with her Christian friends.

No one has ever tried to convert me or even hinted at it, and I’ve never heard Revelations discussed.

We of all people should avoid judging others on generations-old prejudices. Without American support, Israel might perish, and despite the gravitas of the Jewish community, our outsized political contributions and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in this majority-ruled nation, that support rests on the shoulders of 60 million dedicated Christians.

If they abandoned Israel, so would America, but rest assured, they won’t. Why are Jews contemptuous and dismissive of them? We should be grateful.

Rueben Gordon
North Hollywood

Quiet Debut for ‘Passion’ DVD


When Rabbi Harold Shulweis learned that the DVD of "The Passion of the Christ," which debuted on Aug. 31, would be just a bare-bones, no-frills copy of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, the spiritual leader of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom said, "That’s very good. I don’t think the Jewish community has to repeat, regurgitate, all the anguish, all the anger."

The DVD and video release of "The Passion" by Fox Home Entertainment will arrive in stores quietly, a change from the loud, once seemingly never-ending ecumenical controversy that surrounded the film’s Ash Wednesday theatrical release in late February. The film’s midnight premiere at Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas found Christians leaving the theater in tears; at least one Christian viewer argued politely afterward with a Jewish patron, telling her, "I’m gonna pray for you right now."

None of that greets the film’s DVD/video arrival. Gibson is not doing interviews. The $29.98 DVD has no director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes feature or any other add-ons that usually accompany the DVD release of a film that enjoyed a $375 million U.S. box office.

What Jews may remember most is not a blockbuster film, but some insensitive — to some anti-Semitic — movie images of Jewish leaders living under Roman occupation. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, said he would not have changed anything about his response to the film.

"If you’re asking me if we have changed our positions, absolutely not," said Hier, who said he still feels "The Passion" depicted those ancient Jews who did not become Christians in the first century C.E. "in a very negative manner."

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) considered "The Passion" an interfaith outreach tool rather than a continuing controversy, and in Houston the AJC worked with Gibson on a Jewish-Christian "Passion" preview screening. By contrast, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman spoke out continually against the movie until its premiere, but the DVD release is not prompting new comment because, he said, "The issue plays once. DVD is not the event the film was."

The February opening prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a collection of Catholic documents about Jews and Jesus’ death. While some bishops commented publicly on the film, the bishops collectively did not issue prominent statements or hold national press conferences to warn against possible anti-Semitism or tell millions of non-practicing Catholics that "The Passion" should not cause people to blame the Jews for the death of Christ.

After seeing the film in Rome, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper The Tidings last March 19, "Did hints of anti-Semitism creep in?" But the question was raised without being answered.

"Not every bishop felt it was necessary to issue a public statement," said Eugene J. Fisher, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

"There are resources and materials aplenty," he said. "The system worked to deliver the teaching to the Catholic community."

But not seeing bishops on television expressing concern about Gibson, an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, disappointed Jewish leaders; Hier believes the bishops were getting mixed signals from the Vatican about whether or not the pope liked the movie.

"More could have been done. Absolutely more could have been done," Hier said. "When there were the confused signals of what the pope said, I think Catholic cardinals and bishops were confused as to what the pope did think."

Hier and Foxman both were accused of helping promote the film by talking about it repeatedly. Hier points to the best-seller status of Christian end-of-time/rapture books as proof that without Jewish criticism, Christians see movies and buy books that may not portray Jews positively.

"The ‘rapture’ books — they’re hardcover best-sellers," Hier said. "There were no protests, no controversy. There is a constituency to buy such books as there is a constituency to see such movies."

The DVD is expected to sell well; Wal-Mart will discount the R-rated movie similar to the Family Christian Stores’ $19.95 DVD price. Aug. 31 also heralded some "Passion" bandwagoning as studios released fresh DVDs of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," plus ABC, NBC, BBC and PBS will release religion documentaries and a documentary on Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews.

On the humorous side, this week, Paramount released a DVD of religion-mocking "South Park" episodes titled "The Passion of the Jew."

Looking back on what once was an exhaustive debate over Gibson’s movie, Foxman said, "Would I do it again? The answer is yes. I don’t think we had a choice not to react. None of us prophesized the burning of synagogues. If we hadn’t been out in front, the Catholic bishops wouldn’t have put out a compilation of essays. [Gibson] put it out there. He made the issue. We didn’t have the luxury, based on history, to be silent. I don’t think I took us anywhere that we shouldn’t be."

Community Briefs


Opera Collaboration Continues to2005

The New Israeli Opera of Tel Aviv and the Los Angeles Opera will extend their ongoing collaboration with a production of Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” during the 2005 season.

Academy Award-winning film director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “The French Connection”) will direct the opera, which will premiere at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center in June, and in Los Angeles in October.

Placido Domingo, general director of the L.A. Opera, will sing the role of Samson in Los Angeles for one night only, to mark the company’s 20th anniversary season.

Another well-known movie figure, actor Maximilian Schell, will direct the production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” due in Los Angeles in May 2005 and in Tel Aviv the following year. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Muslims Ally With Christians in Ads

The large advertisement in five California weekly newspapers has a photo of Jerusalem’s Old City, showing a Christian cross in the foreground, fronting a nearby mosque.

Its headline is, “More in Common Than You Think,” and the text proclaims Islam’s reverence of Jesus, ending in the paragraph: “Like Christians, every day, over 1.3 billion Muslims strive to live by his [Jesus’] teachings of love, peace, and forgiveness. Those teachings, which have become universal values, remind us that all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all others have more in common than we think.”

The ad is part of a long-term campaign, launched after Sept. 11 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to correct “misconceptions” about Islam and present a kinder, gentler image of American Muslims.

Future ads may well cite the Quran’s respect and reverence for Abraham and Moses, to show Islam’s kinship to Jews, said Sabiha Khan, communications director for CAIR’s Southern California chapter, which initiated the current Jesus ad.

CAIR, which describes itself as “America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group,” is headquartered in Washington and has 25 regional chapters in the United States and Canada.

Its national spokeswoman, Rabiah Ahmed, speaks of CAIR as a “Muslim NAACP,” referring to the African American civil rights organization.

Founded in 1994, CAIR’s declared purpose is “to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America and to empower the Muslim community through political and social activism.” Critics have charged that this benign mission statement hides more militant attitudes and policies.

But according to Ahmed, “the American media now generally presents a negative picture of Muslims and we are trying hard to correct the misconceptions.”

CAIR’s ad campaign, which up to now has appeared mainly in the New York Times, runs under the overall motto, “We are Americans and we are Muslims.”

Its skillfully produced ads generally feature attractive young Muslims, of different ethnic backgrounds, contributing to American society as Girl Scouts, nurses, teachers and parents.

“We have received very positive feedback, but we still have much work ahead of us,” Ahmed said.

The current ad, appealing directly to Christians, owes some of its inspiration to the popularity of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” and has been limited so far to five small weeklies in Burbank, Claremont, Anaheim, Irvine and Sunnyvale.

Amanda Susskind, Southern California director of the Anti-Defamation League, said she had not received any comments about the ad so far.

CAIR enjoys a generally respectable reputation and its leaders have been invited to the Bush White House and have testified before Congress.

However, CAIR’s aura of moderation has been sharply questioned by critics, who say that the organization has consistently defended Islamic terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.

CAIR’s particular bete noire is Dr. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and author of four books on Islam.

In numerous articles and lectures, Pipes has charged that CAIR has regularly promoted anti-Semitism, intimidated moderate Muslims and served as apologist for extremists.

In return, CAIR bitterly fought Pipes’ appointment by President Bush to the federally funded U.S. Institute of Peace, but lost its battle. — TT

(www.cair-net.org/html/jesusad.html)

Passion of Pesach


In my junior year at UC Berkeley, I brought an Egyptian
co-resident from International House named Khalid to Purim services.

This was my gesture toward international understanding and
cultural appreciation between Muslim and Jew. What a disaster!

As my co-religionists carryied on every time they heard the
name of the dreaded Haman, Khalid leafed through the Shabbat prayerbook.

When he got to the “Mi Kamocha” blessing and the celebration
of Egyptian soldiers drowning at the bottom of the sea, he turned pale. He
turned to me and said, “After all the progress made at Camp David, how can you
still have such anti-Egyptian propaganda in your prayerbooks?”

I explained to him that the prayerbook, compiled 1,200 years
ago, was referring to ancient Egyptians during the time of Pharaoh and that
Jews are very grateful to modern Egyptians for the Camp David peace accord. For
Jews, after all, the third blessing of the “Shema” is about God’s redemption
from slavery, not ancient Egyptian cruelty.

I had never looked at the “Mi Kamocha” the way Khalid did,
and I am not sure if I completely put his mind at ease. After viewing “The
Passion of the Christ,” which felt like a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride, I
wonder if my reaction to the film mirrored Khalid’s reaction to the “Mi Kamocha.”
I wonder if our Christian neighbors are playing my role in the Khalid story:
“Those were ancient Jews, we have nothing against modern Jews.”

What Christians really think of us takes on greater
importance as we enter what they call “Holy Week”: the period that spans Palm
Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. During this time, Christians focus on Jesus’
triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper (the seder), the betrayal,
Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and resurrection.

Christians are supposed to go through their own spiritual
transformation as they ponder the last days of Jesus’ life, meditate on his
ultimate sacrifice for humanity’s sins and the hopeful message of his
resurrection. The more Christians can actually experience these events, the
more spiritually meaningful is the message.

The story of Jesus’ last hours has been used by some
European Christian leaders to murder Jews, most notably by Adolf Hitler. Yet
for the modern Christian who is mostly ignorant of the relationship between the
Passion story and wholesale pogroms against Jews, the story of Jesus’ suffering
is profoundly spiritual and moving.

During the same time period as Holy Week, Jews prepare for
the equally spiritually transformative holiday of Pesach. I wonder if there are
spiritual lessons Jews can take from their Christian neighbors. For many Jews
Pesach is a perfunctory, meaningless, highly abridged reading of the haggadah,
followed by a huge meal with traditional unleavened culinary favorites of the
season. Of course the primary mitzvah of the experience is for us to see
ourselves as if we had been personally freed from slavery.

The matzah, maror, charoset and shank bone are all supposed
to transport us back to our past, to a time of peril and Divine redemption. But
I do not think any of us, even the most devout who read the entire haggadah in
Hebrew/Aramaic, really experience the “passion” that the holiday demands. We
try to make the seder cute. We try to be innovative so the kids will stay
interested. But we never really get to the sense of life and death, of the real
dread of Egyptian slavery and the miraculous Divine redemption, which all the
foods and text try to recapture for us.

What we really need to do is get Mel Gibson to make a new
movie, “The Passion of the Pesach.” Our parents had Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten
Commandments” and DreamWorks brought our children “The Prince of Egypt.” But
neither film is the real passion that Gibson understands in the Christian
story.

It is hard for Jews to relate to the Jesus Passion story and
what it means for Christians. In part, Jews are used to relating to stories in
the collective, while the Jesus story happens to an individual, with
ramifications for all humanity. Jews are born with a visceral rejection of Divinely
sanctioned human sacrifice because of the binding of Isaac story told every
Rosh Hashanah. God tells Abraham not to harm the boy. Instead, a ram replaces
Isaac, and the shofar (the ram’s horn) becomes an enduring symbol of the New
Year. We are taught that God sanctioned animal sacrifices to atone for human
sin, and after the Temple was destroyed, tefillah (prayer), teshuvah
(repentance) and tzedakah (bringing justice through giving of time and money)
were the three ways to achieve Divine salvation.

Yet, for all our fear of an anti-Semitic backlash from Mel
Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” there is a wake-up call for us to
rediscover the passion of our own Passover story. As we once again face the
challenge of making our seders and Passover experiences meaningful, we would
achieve much to make “passion” the leitmotif and goal of this holy season of
transformation from slavery to freedom.

Chag Sameach. Â

Michael Beals is rabbi of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester.

The Simple Son


When I was in college in New Hampshire, the pastor of anearby church asked our Hillel rabbi to send over a Jewish student who couldhelp his parishioners learn about Passover. I volunteered.For all the fuzzy, feel-good reasons that a liberal arts education supplies inabundance, I felt it was important to teach others about my faith and culture.

Plus, I figured, I actually knew something about Passover.Like most American Jews, I had grown up oblivious to most aspects of my faithexcept the rabbi’s High Holiday sermons, Chanukah and the seder. For me,Passover was a good time, full of food, family, laughing — of course the peopleof Lebanon, N.H., should experience it.

I went to the local small grocery store to buy matzah. Theelderly woman who ran the place listened as I described the flat, unleavenedbread. She said she knew just what I talking about, then guided me back to theRyKrisp. I told her that wouldn’t do, because it’s made with yeast. “You saidflat,” she said. “It’s flat.” I bought several packs.

The pastor and I spoke by phone. His church was going tosupply the festive meal, he said. I mentioned wine. There was a pause. “Willapple juice work?” he asked. Alcohol was forbidden at church functions. Sure, Isaid, apple juice.

The night of the seder, the rabbi gave me a shank bone, apiece of celery, a roasted egg and his car, and I drove, for the first time,through a snowstorm. Somewhere between Hanover and Lebanon, the snow built upunder my rear tires, and I got the funny feeling the back of the car was goingoff in a direction all its own. I skidded off the road into a snow-filledculvert. The car was unscathed, as was I, and the first set of headlights Iwaved down was a four-wheel drive pickup with a winch and hook.

The church was in a plain, working-class neighborhood. Thebasement was set up with rows of long tables, and every seat was full. Thesewere the people who cleaned and served at my fancy college town and on campus,but who seemed to vanish once the sun set. If I was their first Jew, they weremy first crowd of Christians.

When I asked how many people were familiar with the story ofthe Exodus, every hand went up. It was clear to me that these people believedin the Bible as deeply as I doubted it. I was a dilettante missionary preachingto the seriously faithful. I told them, proudly, that the Passover seder is atime to ask questions and engage in debate, but no one did. Removed from myfamily’s festive table, at which just being together was enough to invest aholiday with meaning, I didn’t know enough about the holiday to give itmeaning. The words of the haggadah were lifeless in my mouth.

We blessed the four cups of apple juice and the RyKrisp, andthen, finally, arrived at the festive meal. The women rose and unveiled sheetcakes, Jell-O molds and huge bowls of macaroni salad, liverwurst and ham salad.The pastor apologized for all the pork. I explained that, actually, pasta wasalso forbidden on Passover. “Why?” a woman asked. I turned to see it was theelderly woman who ran the local grocery store — the RyKrisp lady — standingthere, dressed in her church clothes. “Macaroni doesn’t have yeast in it,” shesaid. I searched my limited Jewish knowledge for an easy and convincing answer.In the meantime, I stammered. It hadn’t occurred to me when I encouraged peopleto ask questions that I’d actually have to answer them. Back at her store, Isaid the woman’s crackers weren’t right because they had yeast; now I wassaying the macaroni wasn’t right, but it had no yeast. The woman seemed to besizing me up: Was I a liar? Was I difficult? Was I an idiot? Do these peoplemake it up as they go along?

The woman had no more use for me and moved away. After a bitI thanked the pastor and excused myself to return to campus. The rabbi waswaiting up when I dropped his car off. He figured I’d have problems drivingsince he had already exchanged his snow tires for his regular ones. “Imanaged,” I said.

Then he asked how the seder went. I said, “I managed.”

My big moment to contribute to cross-cultural understanding,to bring the peoples of the earth closer together, and all I had done was offera dull reading and contradict myself. My only comfort was having proved to theChristians of Lebanon, N.H., that Jews could not possibly be smart enough to controlthe media or take over the world.

But the evening was my revelation. I decided it was time toget serious about learning about my heritage, thinking through my faith,challenging my ignorance. Even if my tradition couldn’t be mastered, itdeserved more than just being managed. Being Jewish was a pale imitation oflearning Judaism, and it was time for me to begin.

Happy Passover.  

Evangelical Media Gather Around Israel


"FIree soup’s on us!" That was the invitation David Suissa’s Los Angeles-based charity Meals 4 Israel extended to all 5,000 participants of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Charlotte, N.C. last month — and it was pastors and ministers who made their way to the booth to sample some soup and learn more about the charity.

Suissa started Meals 4 Israel after reading an October 2003 Ha’aretz article that said that one in five Israelis live below the poverty line. He decided he could let the soup kitchens concentrate on making soup while he raised money for them.

And he turned to the Christian community to do it.

"We really want help from anyone," Suissa said. "But we felt that the Christian community was a huge group with a visceral connection to Israel and a special, biblical affinity to problems like hunger."

So Suissa teamed up with the Christian Coalition of America, a lobbying group affiliated with thousands of evangelical churches, to harness the fundraising potential of the Christian community. Meals 4 Israel went down to North Carolina to set up a booth at Feb. 13-18 event to capitalize on Christian love for Israel and raise more money for needy Israelis in the process.

Meals 4 Israel was only one of several Jewish or Israeli related booths at the convention, which brought together more than 250 publishers, radio and television stations, programs and ministries from across North America. But the largest booth was not a Christian one: it was Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The preponderance of Jewish- or Israel-related booths appearing among those featuring crosses and the Jesus paraphernalia made it clear that there is a dichotomy in the alliance Israel has with the American Christian community. While Christians attending the conference are ready to invest millions of tourist dollars in Israel and support Israel-related charities, they are also eager to evangelize Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

The Israel Ministry for Tourism sponsored both the Israel booth and a breakfast for about 1,000 convention participants, at a cost of almost $200,000.

"We view the evangelical Christian market as a powerful mechanism to increase tourism in the land of Israel," Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon said. "Evangelicals are visiting Israel in tremendous numbers, and we want to continue to increase tourism to the land of the Bible."

Other booths capitalized on Christian love for Israel. Holy Land Gifts sold Christian-friendly products made in Israel, such as shofars and tallises used in some evangelical services, while Mount of Olives Treasures, a Jewish-owned company, sold biblical teas and biblical oils that contain fragrances mentioned in the scriptures.

For all the goodwill toward Israel, there was an evangelical counterbalance. Jews for Jesus had a small booth but a big presence at the convention, with many people walking around carrying their distinctive red-and-white bags. Chosen People Ministries sought to attract young evangelists with a snappy brochure titled, "Jewish Evangelism — Who, Me?," featuring cute coeds. The brochure promised "exciting outreach" opportunities: "Our short-term Missions Department can show your church group the needs of the Jewish community through outreach, cultural understanding and prayer. Our experienced missionary staff will train and lead you in outreach to the different Jewish communities of New York."

Bible Voice Broadcasting, lead by a "spirit- filled believer," Rabbi Moshe Laurie, announced its inaugural Hebrew broadcast to Israel. The Messianic Prophecy Bible sought sponsors to create a Jew-friendly Bible that would "emphasize the messianic prophecies and explain how Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled those prophecies" and would help save the "14 million unsaved Jewish people worldwide."

Herschel W. Gulley of the Gulley Foundation, who has traveled to Israel dozens of times, told The Journal, "I get a little flutter in my heart every time I hear about Israel."

Gulley has plans for Israel: By the end of the year, he wants to set up free ultrasound clinics in Israel to stop abortions — "No woman who has ever seen her baby has aborted it," he said — and then go into poor communities and give residents presents, like free computers. "Then, they will say, ‘Tell us about this God of yours,’ and then we will tell them about Jesus," he said.

Also disturbing was the response that "The Passion of the Christ" got when it was screened at the NRB Media Awards. In what was possibly a veiled reference to the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a spokesperson from the Alliance Defense Fund, who spoke prior to the film, railed against "the groups who have done everything in their power to keep this film from ever being seen. [These ] groups would like to silence all of us."

Paul Lancer, the film’s public relations director, introduced the film saying, "This movie has been operating on a God level. [This film] is a work of God."

The sobbing and heaving of the 5,000 people attending the screening augmented its soundtrack. Afterward, various clerics and others told The Journal that the portrayal of the Jews was not negative per se, but "historically accurate."

"In the scourging scene, every time the whip dug into his skin, I was thinking, ‘That was for me; that was for me,’" said Sharon Hodde of the Proverbs 31 Ministry in Matthews, N.C. "The Jews are not portrayed positively in the film, but that was historical."

Nevertheless, evangelism and "Passion" fervor are not the main issues facing the Jewish community.

"The real unholy alliance," said Elon, the Israeli tourism minister "is the one between the radical leftists who sit in Hyde Park and the Jew-haters who look to destroy the state, instead of the alliance between people who love the land of Israel and love the land of the Bible."

We Should Not Reject Evangelical Alliance


The lesson to be learned from recent differences between many American Jews and conservative Christians — on Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” and on equal rights for gays — is not to walk away from relationships with evangelicals.

It is not to reject evangelical support for Israel. It is not to view the evangelical community in a simplistic way. It is not the lesson Arlene Stein offers in her op-ed piece (see above).

It is, rather, to reinforce a dual approach: working for and welcoming conservative Christian support for Israel at a particularly difficult time for the Jewish state, and, at the same time, never backing off or toning down our principled positions on social issues about which we vehemently disagree with evangelical approaches.

One of the fascinating manifestations of the turmoil over Gibson’s film has been to observe many on the left in the Jewish community saying, “We told you how bad evangelicals are,” while many on the Jewish right, in a foolhardy effort to placate the religious right, defend a film with the potential to set back Christian-Jewish relations and to generate anti-Semitism.

There is too much at stake — Israel’s security and the well-being of Jewish life in America — to be blinded by narrow ideological approaches.

Israel needs the support of America today more than ever. The threats to the Jewish state from Islamic extremists, the bias of the international community and the poisoning of young people’s minds have never been greater.

The role of the United States is critical not only in standing with Israel, but also in influencing others — particularly the Europeans — toward some fairness vis-a-vis Israel.

American support for Israel rests on many pillars. Most importantly, it is bipartisan.

There is no doubt, however, that evangelical activity on behalf of Israel is among the most significant elements in that support, not least because of that community’s influence with President Bush. Whether it is in congressional initiatives, administration positions or public opinion polls, evangelicals matter. It behooves us to act accordingly.

On the other hand, for many of us, conservative Christian perspectives on social issues that are critical to a healthy American society and Jewish life within that society are disturbing. Whether it is church-state separation, which is at the heart of the comfort level that Jews enjoy in this country, or opposition to any religious group imposing its views on society — as seen in the struggles to maintain choice on abortion and equal rights for gays — we are deeply concerned about conservative Christian views and policy initiatives.

And we don’t pull any punches in our opposition. We engage fully to prevent those religious-right policies from predominating in legislation, in the courts and in executive decision making. Moreover, when some evangelical leaders articulate prejudicial views toward any religious group, as several did in anti-Muslim stereotyping, we speak up.

During the current controversy about the Gibson movie, we have been unhappy that more evangelical leaders have not acknowledged Jewish pain, the history of anti-Semitism associated with the deicide charge and the potential for recurring hatred of Jews.

But we shouldn’t rush to judgment on the impact of the film on evangelical Christians. We need to be clear where we stand and encourage sensitivity and education about Jews and Jewish history.

The bottom line remains what it has always been: Evangelical Christians have never demanded a quid pro quo from American Jews for their support of

Israel.

If they were to say that they would only work on Israel’s behalf if American Jews halt their activity in opposition to them on social issues, would say, “Sorry, no thanks for your support.”

That has not happened.

They stand with Israel for theological reasons and because, as Christian activist Gary Bauer has said, the United States and Israel are on the front line together in the current struggle for freedom and democracy.

That’s good enough for us.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is the author of “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism.”

Gibson Film Is a Frontal Assault on Jews


Mel Gibson’s film is nothing less then a frontal assault and a collective indictment of the entire Jewish community during the time of Jesus.

For two hours during "The Passion of the Christ," not a single Jew opposed to Jesus utters an intelligent sentence. Gibson’s Jews are unkempt, pushy, greedy, looking at us through sinister eyes, many with Rasputin-like features.

Not once is a rabbi or a high priest allowed even a theological explanation like, "We are monotheists and can’t accept a G-d of the flesh." One hears only the mantras of the Jews crying out "crucify him, punish him."

Contrast this with his sympathetic portrayal of the Roman authorities from Pontius Pilate to his officers. Pilate is presented as timid, fearful of bucking the demands of the high priest, as if the high priest, and by extension the Jews, controlled the Romans, rather then vice versa.

"Why are we doing this? Hasn’t this man suffered enough," argues Pilate and his generals and captains. Only the four Roman soldiers who whip Jesus come off as cruel and sadistic.

Then there is the nearly one hour of inhuman torture inflicted on Jesus, first with whips and then with iron bars wrapped with barbed wire, because Gibson believes that every lash is essential to the understanding of the Passion.

I am fully aware of the centrality of the crucifixion to Christian theology and that Gibson, in his interview with Diane Sawyer on "Primetime," has said that his film is about Jesus dying for the sins of mankind. Regrettably, however, this is not a dominant theme in his film and would hardly, if at all, be noticed by the millions who view it.

What they will see, however, clearly in Gibson’s film is that it was the Jews, all the Jews, except the disciples of Jesus, who were responsible for his death. That is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church since Vatican II and the position of the Protestant Church over the last 30 years.

As the Most Rev. Stefan Sarowka, the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, who watched the film with Gibson, said, "If you want to see over two hours of cruelty, intense torture and lots of blood, you might want to sacrifice your time and money to see this film. The shallow presentation of the high priest and his role, as well as the close association of evil journey with him, will give viewers an inaccurate portrayal of Jews and Judaism and may contribute to fuel the ugly passion of anti-Semitism."

Our issue is not with the church or the New Testament. They did not produce this film. This is Gibson’s film, and he has crossed the line by presenting a film that condemns all the Jews.

In Hollywood, many less controversial films with outstanding directors reached out to consult with interfaith groups for their perspective. Gibson rejected that approach and did it his way. That is his right.

But it is not his right to expect silence from those whose ancestors he has denigrated. He is not entitled to a free pass because he is a Hollywood star.

To remain silent at a time like this would be like turning the other cheek and thanking Gibson for the disrespect he has shown to the Jewish people. Yes, it is possible that the controversy is helping him with the ticket sales.

But there are always risks when one takes a stand. When we criticize the European community for doing nothing about anti-Semitism, we run the risk that they will be even less friendly to Israel. When we criticize suicide bombings and give the perpetrators more publicity, we make it easier for them to attract more recruits. But we do it nonetheless, because history has taught us that when confronting tyranny, there is no greater sin than the sin of silence.

Some of Gibson’s spokesmen keep reminding us that the story of Jesus at the time of the Passion is about the Pharisees, as if that lessens the pain. But the Pharisees happen to be our ancestors.

All Jews, whether Einstein, Herzl, Buber, Wiesel, Heschel or Soloveitchik, are all descendants of the Pharisees. It was their concepts of righteousness, charity, communal responsibility that guaranteed our survival as a people. When you say Pharisees, you mean us, the Jews.

One final thought: Gibson’s film is a reality and millions of people will see it. Now we need our friends and leaders of the Christian community to do their part in reminding their parishioners about the false charge of deicide and vehemently speaking out against anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

What Jews Need to Know About Jesus


Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” became controversial long before its release when learned critics, Christians as well as Jews, who had been invited to read a draft of the script objected that the film was, if not actually anti-Semitic, then all too apt for anti-Semitic exploitation. The initial response of the Gibson camp to these charges included a lawsuit charging the critics with a malicious attempt to sabotage the film.

From the sidelines, industry insiders speculated that the controversy was a publicity stunt engineered to pump up the audience for a film that had cost its producers more to make than any Jesus movie was likely to earn at the box office (for a review of “The Passion,” see page 25).

Be that as it may, here, for moviegoers who might not keep a Gospel (or a Torah) at bedside, is a crib sheet for — you should forgive the expression — the post-mortem.

Q. This movie is supposedly based on the New Testament. What is the New Testament anyway?

A. In literary terms, the New Testament is the Christian Bible’s epilogue to the Jewish Bible or Tanakh. Like the Tanakh, the New Testament is almost entirely the work of Jews1. Only one of its authors is definitely known to have been a non-Jew.

The term testament is itself something of a linguistic fossil. It is an English descendant of the Latin word testamentum, which in antiquity translated the Hebrew brith, meaning “covenant.” Inconveniently, testament no longer means “covenant” in English.

Imagine Covenant or Brith as the title of Judaism’s Bible. Christianity’s new brith — memorialized in its enlarged Bible — sought to extend Israel’s covenant with God to the entire human race. That is what was new about its “new covenant.” Mind you, the whole human race wasn’t exactly begging for inclusion. Who but Jews would ever have had the chutzpah to think up such a thing and declare it the salvation of the world? But chutzpah they had, those first-century Jewish dissidents, and the non-Jews went for it.

Besides letting everybody into the Jewish country club, here’s what else was new about the Christian New Covenant. In place of Jews sacrificing animals to God to atone for their sins or ransom their firstborn or otherwise set things right between the Creator and themselves, God now sacrificed himself — in the person of Jesus — to himself and thus set everything right for all time and for everybody in one fell swoop. Thereafter, animal sacrifice could be dispensed with. The animal-sacrifice equivalent for the children of this new covenant would be simply a memorial reenactment of God’s once-and-for-all self-immolation at the crucifixion. The core of traditional Christian worship, beginning with the Catholic Mass, consists of this ritualized reenactment.

As St. Peter, whom Christian tradition honors as the first pope, saw the matter, the human beings involved in the death of Jesus were all just a part of God’s eternal plan. Speaking as a Jew to his fellow Jews in the first big-time sermon of his career, he said:

“Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; but this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18).

So, then, whatever the historical answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” the overriding Christian theological answer is, in effect, “God killed him.”

Q. Why did the Jews reject Jesus?

A. Is it any surprise that not all Jews were charmed at the notion of obliterating the distinction between Jew and non-Jew? Was this not a distinction set up and sanctified by God himself? Though Jewish ethnicity survived as such under Christianity (Christian Jews were still Jews), it survived as no more than that. What had made being Jewish so special — a special relationship with God — was now transferred to a “New Israel” to which everybody and his brother was invited. Maimonides had reason to say that “Jesus of Nazareth … interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment.” In his own way, St. Paul had said the same thing.

And there was a deeper reason. Jewish intellectual accommodation could be made, if just barely, for an Incarnate Word of God2. But for a Messiah defeated as horribly as the Jews themselves were in the catastrophic, six-decade Roman-Jewish wars? That was too much to bear. You can easily imagine a Jew in Peter’s audience objecting: “Take another look at the Prophets, Pete. Our Messiah is supposed to be King David redux. He is supposed to rescue us, not suffer for us, much less substitute himself for our sacrificial animals. What a cockamamie notion! A lot of good that does us!”

On the other hand, beware of anybody who tells you that “the Jews” accept or reject anything. In the time of Jesus, there were many Jews who went to war against Rome believing that as God had done to Pharaoh, so he would do to Caesar. But not all shared this suicidal faith. Before fighting the Romans, the Jewish rebels had to fight those of their fellow Jews who correctly foresaw a holocaust and wanted no part of it. Meanwhile, there were a few Jews who had long since concluded that their God would never again come through for them on the battlefield and who had begun, daringly, to imagine him suffering alongside them instead: a crucified God for a crucified people. These were the Jews who founded Christianity.

As for the privilege of being Jewish, what exalted some Jews discomfited others just as it does today. This question seems to have been particularly pressing for the Jews of the Greco-Roman Diaspora precisely because like the Jews of America, they were thriving spectacularly in the international culture of their day. Significantly, the New Testament was not written in parochial Aramaic. It was written in the international Greek spoken by this relatively comfortable Diaspora and, at the start, mostly for this Diaspora as well. The Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora were not less Jewish than the Jews of Palestine, but they were definitely different. Think of synagogue life in Israel and in the United States: neither is “more Jewish” than the other, but who can deny that they are different? It was through Diaspora synagogues that Christianity spread around the empire.

In sum, then, there were some strong and obvious Jewish reasons to reject Jesus as a divine, pacifist, crucified Messiah enlarging God’s covenant to include the whole world, but there were a few emotionally powerful reasons to accept him in this role as well. The latter reasons may have been particularly persuasive in the Jewish Diaspora.

Q. OK, but now what about that historical question that you hurried past a moment ago? What was Jesus’ life like before the crucifixion? What is the backstory here? Does anyone know?

A. Historically, the time of Jesus was a time of steadily mounting Jewish resistance to Roman rule in Judea. The Romans tried to rule through Romanized local proxies — above all, through the dynasty of Herod. But when its proxies couldn’t quite handle things, the Empire was fully prepared to move to direct rule, even to military occupation.

Jewish resistance to Roman rule went hand in hand with apocalyptic religious thinking, a kind of thinking unknown in the Jewish Diaspora. Apocalyptic scribes and preachers read the older Hebrew scriptures as a key to the future, and the future they saw was one in which God would inflict catastrophic punishment on his foes before restoring Israel to its ancient glory. Apocalypticism was only too suitable, then, as background music for militant, violent resistance to Roman rule.

And yet not every apocalyptic thinker was an armed rebel. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and wonder-worker who believed that he was destined to be the star player in God’s final, definitive intervention in human history. Yet Jesus renounced violence. The Galilean rabbi may well have thought he was Messiah. He probably did not think he was God incarnate. After his death, his followers saw and wrote things about him that went beyond his own words. But none of them ever remembered him as a warrior, though his Hebrew name — perhaps by a deliberate irony — was Joshua3.

Josephus — a sometime Jewish soldier writing in Greek about the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second century — mentions various prominent religious leaders of his day, including Jesus. He has least to say about those whose methods vis-à-vis the Romans were peaceful, including the earliest sages of the rabbinic tradition; but the background historical information that the Gospels indirectly convey is quite consistent with the world that he describes. Jesus, just one rather obscure preacher in a crowded landscape, would be little more than a bit player in Josephus had Jesus’ followers not told his story to the entire known world.

There was a clear conceptual distinction, in any case, between Jesus and the kind of apocalyptic preacher who most worried Rome and the Jews collaborating with Rome. But there was also a dangerous rhetorical similarity between the two. When Jesus left provincial Galilee and began attracting large street audiences in Jerusalem with his special kind of apocalyptic preaching, the Romans’ Jewish collaborators were predictably alarmed at what the Roman reaction might be. To quote the Gospel of John:

What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish (John 11:47-50).

The irony of this key passage is that, ruthlessness aside, Caiaphas’ willingness to acquiesce in Roman rule was matched by Jesus’ own. Not only was Jesus not a militant, he was a radical pacifist, a Joshua who would not fight; and his position regarding Rome was the scandalously compliant: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Imagine Moses saying “Render to Pharaoh the things that are Pharaoh’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and you have some sense of the change that Jesus and his Jewish followers were prepared to make.

In historical terms, then, Jesus can be regarded as the victim of either a tragic mistake or a cynical calculation. But in either case, it was not the Jews but some Jews who made the fateful first move against him. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem days before his death, he was greeted by an adoring Jewish throng, according to the Gospels. When he was condemned to death, he faced a bloodthirsty Jewish mob, according to the same Gospels. Same Jews, different day? Different Jews?

Who knows? Ancient Jewish as well as ancient Christian sources attest that Jesus had influential Jewish enemies. Strikingly, however, in view of early Christian fear of hostile Roman attention, the words of the most ancient summary of Christian belief blame the Roman governor if they blame anyone. The key words of the “Apostles’ Creed” state that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

Q. But what about the long history of Christian persecution of Jews as “Christ killers”? Haven’t even some Christian commentators proposed excising certain anti-Semitic lines from the Gospels? And if Gibson is true to Gospel anti-Semitism, then isn’t he just serving up a Hollywood version of the anti-Semitic Oberammergau Passion play?

A. The smoking-gun line for the claim that the Gospels are anti-Semitic — a line now reportedly4 deleted from Mel Gibson’s film — is Matthew 27:24-25:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

Most scholars recognize in the Gospel of Matthew the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. It was almost certainly written by a Christian Jew for other Jews like himself and against their Jewish opponents. Imagine, if you will, the anger of secular Israelis about the ultra-Orthodox Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed. Intense as it was, that anger was not an anti-Semitic anger, for all parties to the transaction were equally Jewish. So it may have been here as well — originally.

Alas, when a Gospel containing such anger migrates out of its initial all-Jewish context into other contexts where Jews are a minority, the notorious line takes on a fearsome new anti-Semitic potential. In my judgment, it retains that potential down to our own day. Theologically, the death of Jesus is not a wrong that could be set right if his murderers could somehow be brought to justice. Theologically, Jesus’ passage from death to life in his resurrection is a new Exodus, bringing the human race as a whole to the new promised land of immortality. Theologically, those who killed Jesus, even if they sinned, were tools in God’s hands; and God’s enemy was not his people Israel but Satan. Theologically, it was Satan and Satan alone who was defeated when Jesus rose from the dead: Paradise lost, paradise regained. But when have anti-Semites ever cared, really, about theology?

I hope that “The Passion” does not live up to the worst of its advance notices; but if it does, the result will be more a pity than a peril. Anti-Semitism is not best confronted by bowdlerizing “The Merchant of Venice,” censoring Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” expurgating the Gospel according to Matthew 5 or editing the latest Jesus movie to come down the pike. To think this way is to treat anti-Semitism as something like the genitals of human thought and of ourselves as a frail Victorian damsel who might faint dead away if her innocent gaze ever fell on the dread organs. We are stronger than that, I dare to think — strong enough, if you will, to stare the obscenity down. The anti-Semites among us only rejoice when we act otherwise.


Jack Miles, senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (Vintage Books).


END NOTES

1 The Israelite authorship of a few books of the Tanakh — notably Job and Ecclesiastes — has long been in question.

2 Though it is commonly claimed that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is an “un-Jewish idea,” its nearest theological kin is actually ancient rabbinical memra or “Word” theology — a kind of religious speculation that arose from the Tanakh’s way of speaking of God’s Word (Aramaic memra) as endowed with something like a life of its own. Without a Jewish initiation, pagan Greeks would scarcely have known what to make of what the Gospel of John has to say about the divinity of Jesus.

3 Greek Isous, which yields Latin Iesus, translates Hebrew Yehoshua or Yeshua — alternate forms of the name Joshua. It has become common enough for New Testament scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, to refer to Jesus as Yeshua. Yeshua, however, though it has the merit of reinforcing Jesus’ Jewishness, otherwise says nothing. Joshua speaks volumes.

4 New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004. According to The Times, the film placed the now-deleted line in the mouth of the high priest, Caiaphas. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four New Testament gospels to include the line, attributes it to Jewish demonstrators outside the palace of Pontius Pilate. Though the change is typical of the sort of liberty that screenwriters take in turning a book into a shooting script, it would have had the effect of making the assumption of responsibility for the execution more nearly official. In the Gospels, as noted, different Jewish crowds hold different views about Jesus and sometimes engage each other in public dispute.

5 It was reliably reported to me, some years ago, that a Christian professor in a prestigious Eastern liberal arts college was proposing in class that the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua be purged of their “anti-Semitic” portions, these being those portions in which God commands genocide against the Canaanites, and Israel obeys. One can imagine, of course, how Palestinians might quote these passages against Israelis. One can imagine, in other words, how in contemporary context the passages could be used to anti-Semitic effect. But the claim being made, apparently, was that the ancient authors of these works were writing to disgrace their Jewish contemporaries — in other words, that the authors were anti-Semitic. This I found, and find, quite incredible, but note well: The expurgatory genie, once out of the jug, may not stop where Aladdin would have him stop.

Will Jesus Film Poison Christian-Jewish Ties?


Jesus will appear on the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday — thanks to Mel Gibson.

The Hollywood star directed and financed the $25 million epic "The Passion of the Christ," which is emerging from a nearly yearlong media storm and is due to hit 2,000 screens nationwide Feb. 25.

That Gibson’s "The Passion" will premiere is certain. The big question is how a reportedly gory film about the last 12 hours in Jesus’ life, in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles, will play at the local multiplex.

Many Jewish organizational leaders also are waiting to see if a movie they say scapegoats the Jews for the crucifixion will produce legions of Jew-hating moviegoers and poison Christian-Jewish relations for years to come.

"It makes the Romans look like lambs who are being forced [to punish Jesus], and it shows the Jews as bloodthirsty and vengeful and unending in their desire to see him crucified," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said after emerging from a preview last week.

The movie debuts at a sensitive period in Catholic-Jewish relations. It also reflects a larger struggle within the Catholic Church over whether to continue promoting 40-year-old reforms that include renouncing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, an issue Gibson apparently brings to the silver screen.

"Tied loosely to the film, there is enormous concern on both sides" of the Catholic-Jewish divide "about which direction the church will be going in the post-John Paul II era," said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a Seton Hall adjunct professor and longtime interfaith advocate. "There is contradictory data out there."

Last week, some signs of hope about those ties surfaced in New York, where the World Jewish Congress (WJC) hosted a two-day gathering that brought together 12 cardinals and six chief rabbis from nations as diverse as Angola and Ukraine with a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars.

But even as the interfaith talks took place, the Gibson movie continued to inflame new tensions.

David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, also saw the Jesus movie last week at one of the nation’s largest evangelical churches, in a Chicago suburb.

The movie shows the Jews as a "mob spitting, scratching, yelling, pummeling [at Jesus], their faces contorted," Elcott said. "This movie is an assault on our commitment to interreligious dialogue and respect."

Such bitter reviews echoed earlier warnings by a few rabbis who had seen earlier film drafts. They saw them at previews Gibson’s associates staged, which largely preached to the converted — that is, evangelicals and political conservatives.

Running the carefully orchestrated public-relations campaign surrounding the film is a Christian group called Outreach, which runs a Web site promoting the movie and points to rave reviews from Christian clerics and Michael Medved, who is identified as a "Jewish film critic."

Meanwhile, even as the bishops met with rabbis in New York, and the pope met with two top Israeli rabbis last week, another dispute erupted over whether the pope himself endorsed the movie.

A Wall Street Journal columnist was the first to report that an Icon producer succeeded in getting a copy of the movie to the pontiff, who viewed it and, according to an unnamed Vatican source, said, "It is as it was."

Other reports echoed that account, but a senior Vatican aide to the pontiff later dismissed the report, saying the pope "does not give judgments on art."

Ironically, Gibson is a member of a Catholic fundamentalist sect that rejects Vatican authority and opposes its reforms, though Gibson has insisted he is not anti-Semitic.

Gibson "is as mensch as they get," said Icon spokesman Alan Nierob. "He’s a wonderful person who’s just trying to make a good film."

Nierob also dismissed any apparent contradiction between Gibson’s opposition to the Vatican and Icon’s apparent quest for the church’s imprimatur.

"It’s just a matter of building support," he said.

In fact, the past year’s worth of media scrutiny has only helped "in terms of interest awareness" for the movie, Nierob said, and the Outreach Web site is even taking advance ticket orders.

Some think the Jewish attention to the film has only aggravated the situation.

Some Jewish groups "blundered" by helping generate such buzz for a movie that would likely have found few fans, said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the WJC.

"I don’t remember the last blockbuster in Aramaic," Steinberg said.

Some signs of goodwill have cropped up in the past year related to the movie.

A group of Catholic and Jewish scholars who specialize in the study of the historical Jesus, and whose views Gibson rejects, criticized the movie as retrograde.

While the furor over the movie is likely to continue, interfaith activists remain confident that it won’t adversely affect progress in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Catholic-Jewish ties "will continue," Korn said. "There are partners on both sides who want it to."

Israel Links With Cyberkids


Get them while they’re young. The Israeli embassy has just launched a new Web site, and the hasbarah — an Israeli word which means public relations as well as propaganda — is aimed at children.

Two years in the making, the colorful animated site (