“Wise men be cautious with your words” is the admonition of the Talmud.
Even a wise man can say foolish things. Dennis Prager is no fool, but
he certainly made a foolish remark in insisting that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) take the oath of office on a Christian Bible.
Permit me to tell you why.
First of all, his point is undemocratic. Ellison was elected by his constituents who clearly knew that he was a Muslim and chose him despite his religion or regardless of it. Whom they elect is their constitutional right. Who is Prager to impose an extra democratic requirement for one to serve in Congress?
Can one call it chutzpah?
Secondly, Prager’s statement goes against more than 200 years of efforts by American Jews to eliminate a religious requirement for office. From the earliest days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, American Jews have pushed that there be no religious requirement for office. George Washington’s letter to a Newport Rhode Island synagogue, which only repeats its letter to him, said it best: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
In the 19th century, a few states required that officeholders be practicing Protestants; New Hampshire did not repeal its test for religious office until 1877. The march of rights for Jews entailed that there be no religious test for office. Why impose one now?
Thirdly, while American values owe much to the values of the Hebrew Bible, the notion of Judeo-Christian tradition is a contemporary American invention, with the most limited of historical roots. Jewish theologian Arthur A. Cohen, of blessed memory, wrote an entire book titled, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” and any scholar of religion understands that the invention of this tradition was a generous effort by Christians to find a way to include Jews and Judaism to minimize their dissent from Christianity and to advocate their inclusion graciously.
Fourthly, his principle would disqualify many Jews from Congress. I know that I would not swear on a Christian Bible. It is not an American symbol for me. It is a religious symbol. I remember the howls of protest and disappointment that followed Henry Kissinger’s swearing in ceremony on a Christian Bible as the first secretary of state of “Jewish origin,” to use his term of the time.
Fifthly, Prager leaves us unprepared for the American future.
Jews, who constitute 3 percent of the American people, were considered for most of the past half century 33.3 percent of the American religious experience, and this reflected itself in civic ceremonies, such as presidential inaugurations, when priests, pastors and rabbis were invited to participate.
Those times have passed.
The United States has become more diverse; Jews are a diminishing percentage of the American population, and American religion will have to reflect changing demographic realities and include Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Islam and many other religions, including many so-called new religions. Americans have a stake in including these more recent immigrants in the American family.
It would be unwise of us to replicate the European condition, where Muslims are in France but not of France, not shaped by French values, not integrated into French society. This is a considerable source of tension throughout Europe, where Muslims constitute a significant percentage of the population and where they are maintained as a nonassimilated, nonacculturated part of the society.
As to his membership on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, appointment to the council is by the president of the United States and not the council or its chairman. The president alone has the power to remove a member of the council.
The value of a presidential appointment board is the prestige of such an appointment. The cost is that allegiance is owed to the president and not necessarily to the museum.
It is not incumbent on any member of the council to adhere to the museum’s mission nor to participate in its meetings or contribute to its work. The best of the appointees embrace the museum’s worthy mission and seek the appointment because they value its work.
Prager does not speak in the name of the council. He speaks in his own name and for the causes he embraces.
Nevertheless, the criticism Prager has provoked poses an important challenge for the Holocaust Council.
On the one hand, there is a fundamental problem in presuming that any member of the council speaks in the name of the council or in the name of the museum, and that the Holocaust Museum is responsible or should be responsible for his or her words. Such an assumption would preclude scholars and poets, playwrights and writers from serving on the council, because no one of stature would want to clear their writings with the museum.
On the other hand, Prager has clearly embarrassed himself. He misrepresented the oath of office for Congress. He displayed unbridled audacity. He was wrong.
Prager has also embarrassed the museum. He may wonder whether he can be of any future service to the museum and hence consider resigning from its governing council. Ironically, he has yet to attend even one meeting.
I for one would not ask for his resignation. I would defend the principle that no member be presumed to speak for the museum unless they are truly speaking in the name of the museum by its authorized processes.
Without this protection, men and women of talent and dedication, of provocative views and innovative scholarship would not contemplate membership on the council, for it would silence their voices and that would truly be shameful.
And yet, Prager can no longer do the museum any good. Having someone on the council who was so foolishly intolerant and stubbornly unapologetic will undermine the museum’s message and mission. So if he has embraced the museum’s mission and not just the prestige of a presidential appointment, he should leave.
Michael Berenbaum was a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council from 1998-2003. He is the author of the “Report to the President of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust,” which initiated the Holocaust Museum. A professor of theology, he is also director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, at the University of Judaism, where he will appear in dialogue with Dennis Prager on March 5.