Friday, April 4, 2008

When Clerics Say Outrageous and Offensive Things

What do Pastor Reverend James Wright, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu, and Imam Sheik Yunus al-Astal share in common? Well, among other things, a penchant for making outrageous and offensive comments. Here is Chief Rabbi Eliyahu's latest pearl:

"Even when we seek revenge, it is important to make one thing clear – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs.

"The Talmud states that if gentiles rob Israel of silver they will pay it back in gold, and all that is taken will be paid back in folds, but in cases like these there is nothing to pay back, since as I said – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs," added Rabbi Eliyahu.

And Sheikh Yunis al-Astal, from Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas's anti-Judaism in the Times.

"The reason for the punishment of burning is that it is fitting retribution for what [the Jews] have done,” Mr. Astal wrote on March 13. “But the urgent question is, is it possible that they will have the punishment of burning in this world, before the great punishment” of hell? Many religious leaders believe so, he said, adding, “Therefore we are sure that the holocaust is still to come upon the Jews."

And as for the Reverend Wright...well, I don't have to cite his statements, do I?

The reactions to these statements range from enthusiastic support to unrelenting condemnation of the statement and the speaker, including calls for silencing him in some way. Somewhere in the middle, trying to juggle conflicting values and conflicting loyalties, thinking people may be found. How should they react to hatred and to offensive statements?

As somebody who defines himself as liberal and orthodox (hence, a fundamentalist), here are some of my thoughts:

1. Don't assume that the speaker is articulating a well-thought-out and consistent ideology. Religious folks, like everybody else, hold inconsistent beliefs. That is because they are generally not that sophisticated and because their sources speak with many voices. The Talmud teaches "Righteous gentiles merit a place in the World-to-come" as well as "Kill the best of gentiles." What you hear depends on what best serves the immediate interests of the speaker.

2. Religious rhetoric is particularly inflammatory -- but don't assume that the cleric buys into the implications what he is saying, even when he says it. "Rabin is an informer"; "The Arabs are Amalek"; "The Jews are apes and pigs," etc., are not harmless statements; they can lead others to kill. But they are said all too often in the way reserved for unthinking people (or politicians.)

3. Try to find out about the context of the remarks. There is a big difference between a Palestinian making an anti-Semitic remark during the Second Intifada and a German making the same one during the Holocaust. Both are to be condemned, but the second is to be condemned more. It is one thing for Eliyahu to stand up at a funeral service and make an anti-Arab racist slur. That is bad -- but it could be worse were he not to make it at a time of stress, but at a time of relative peace and coexistence. I am not saying that anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than is strictly necessary (the bon mot attributed to Isaiah Berlin). But I do believe that what is particularly invidious about German anti-Semitism, besides its racism, is that in no way could the Jews be objectively viewed as responsible for the troubles of the Germans.

4. Avoid the human tendency to self-righteousness and smugness. Haaretz used to regularly feature on Sunday mornings some of the outrageous pearls of former Chief Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef in his public lecture the night before. Such statements reaffirmed the moral values and Jewish identity of the secularists, but were counter-productive in trying to engage his community in dialogue.

5. Realize that the inflammatory quotes are the result of cherry-picking. In Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas' anti-Judaism, several quotes appear to have been supplied to him by Jewish and Israeli watchdog associations like MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch. Itamar Marcus and Yigal Carmon, both rightwingers, hunt the statements of Hamas as assiduosly as the Clinton campaign hunts the statements of Rev. Wright. It makes for good copy, but does not spread a lot of light.

In my opinion, Steven Erlanger's piece on Hamas was a disappointment. He did not talk to a single expert on Hamas or on religious fundamentalism. Rather, like other liberals, he cherry-picked quotes that put Hamas in a very negative light. Is Hamas anti-Semitic? You bet you it is. Just read the charter. But is anti-Semitism at its core? No, at its core is Islamic fundamentalism and a Palestinian national movement. And anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism are not anti-Semitism.

The way to dampen the anti-Semitic fervor of Hamas is to force it to confront the images of other Jews besides that of Occupier. And if that fails, do what one can to minimize their influence. Right now, Israel adopts policies that ensure the growth of Hamas.


Anonymous said...

Havnt posted here in a while.

^In effect, are you saying what Amos Gilad and intelligence always said, that Arafat planned everything?

"Right. Everything that was done in the intifada was done according to Arafat's instructions, but he didn't need to tell us the things explicitly. We understood his message."

I know this has nothing to do with your post, just showing more evidence that Arafat was behind the 2nd intifada.

regarding wright, didnt he give farakahn a lifetime achievement award or something?!

ross said...

I don't think that it is fair to compare Jeremiah Wright to people who justify violence and who believe that X number of A people are equal to Y number of B people. Wright is just not like that. By perpetuating this idea you are contributing to the swift-boating of Rev. Wright and of Senator Obama through guilt by association.

Jerry Haber said...

Ross, there are many differences between Jeremiah wright and Mordecai Eliyahu, some quite profound. My post was on how to respond to inflammatory statements of certain clerics, including Wright. ("Inflammatory" is Obama's word.) Clerics often make outrageous statements that are not understood by secular folks, or people on the outside. My post called for contextualizing the rhetoric and understanding where it comes from.

I do indeed think that some of the statements made by Wright were inflammatory and outrageous. Obviously, many people disagree with this, but Obama (who used the word before I did) and I do not.

gbacharach, welcome back. For Rev. Wright's attitude towards Minister Farakahn see the article in the current New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh

Jerry Haber said...

oops, the link was cut off. Paste these two together


Anonymous said...

Read Quran 5:32 and watch who quotes the first part about if you save one life- and who quotes the second part about the Jews still reject this--

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land!.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read your link about Wright and Farrakhan, so there might be some outrageous stuff there, but the comments that have been condemned in the past few weeks were at worst silly, at least in my opinion. The AIDS conspiracy theory is silly, for instance, but based on a somewhat justifiable paranoia given the sorts of things the US government used to do. (See the Tuskegee experiment, for instance.) The criticisms of US foreign policy are on target and the "God damn America" sermon was a criticism of America for not living up to its ideals. Not at all the same as what either this rabbi or the Hamas clerics say.


Jerry Haber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Interesting post here, Jerry. If you'd allow me to, I'd like to relate an experience: In 1999 I was in Israel/Palestine on one of those peace tours that Americans sometimes go on -- meeting with Israeli and Palestinian peace groups, etc. At one point our hosts took us to Gaza for a couple of days (this was of course before it became a massive prison). We got to see the settlers cavorting in the waves of the Mediterranean, and walked around a bustling if impoverished Gaza City, meeting with PA officials and NGO workers to hear about the situation. Then we got on a bus to a "suprise" stop our hosts had just cleared for us -- the next thing we knew we were all sitting in Shaykh Ahmad Yassin's small and modest living room. Yassin was brought out -- in his wheelchair -- with a bodyguard and an assistant beside him, and he welcomed us with that peculiar and rather unforgettable smile of his. He made a few comments about our group's visit to Gaza and then invited questions "on any topic at all". One or two of our group were observant Jews, and I was impressed that one of them directly asked Yassin about claims of Hamas' anti-Semitism and how Hamas would view the rights of Jews who live in historical Palestine if a single democratic-Islamic state (what Yassin had earlier said was his ideal solution) would come to pass. Yassin didn't flinch or hesitate in his reply -- this in turn was also impressive, I thought. He expressed sorrow about the history of the Jews in Europe and for the holocaust but said that Palestinians could not be made to suffer as a result of this. He also said that he understood that Jews who live in Palestine should remain if they chose to, although he was clearly not willing to say they had a "right" to. But he spoke with respect for Judaism, which he recognized as indigenous to Palestine. While he didn't sugar the political implications of many of his views (such as defending suicide bombings), he seemed very genuinely upset by the implication that Hamas would be viewed as being in any way anti-Jewish. Now I know all about the Hamas charter and the rest, but I'm just noting that in this fairly unique encounter with the ideological founder Hamas I saw no display of anti-Jewish feeling. I am no fan of Haman or of Yassin, really, but he struck me as being quite intelligent, and fairly sincere in his feelings about religious tolerance. I have little doubt that his assassination served to only enhance the negative tendencies to be found within Hamas' membership.

ross said...

As you know, rabbinic tradition is filled with critiques of the Patriarchs and Moses. But these are done in a loving way from people who realized that they were sustained through the merits of the Patriarchs and who revered Moses as their master.

But when I read a critique of Moses by Paul in one of his letters in the NT, it upsets me because I think of Paul as critiquing Moses from the outside (although Paul would probably have taken issue with me on that.)

I think the anger against Wright is that so many in our society see black people as outside America so any critique of America from a black person is not seen as a loving one from the inside but a hateful one from the outside.

DafKesher said...

Jerry, two errors:
1. The mishna you refer to is not in avot but in Sanhedrin (4,5).
2. The original version is as in Maimonides (cf. eg. MS Kaufmann A50, MS Parma 138 - both italian), thus making the observation you attribute to Kellner false.

Jerry Haber said...

Note: this comment has been corrected following dafkesher's remark above

Thanks, Donald. By the way, there is an interesting article by Prof. Menachem Kellner of Haifa University which suggests that the Qur'an you cite provides unexpected testimony of the original version of the saying from Sanhedrin ("Whoever saves a life is as if he saved the entire world").

That the original version lacked the qualifier "mi-Yisrael" (i.e., a life of a Jew) was already argued by Urbach in Tarbiz, and by others.

Could Maimonides have been familiar with the Qur'anic ayah (itself perhaps indirectly based on Sanhedrin?) Possibly; that boils down to the extent of his knowledge of the Qur'an, which is debated among scholars.

Donald, one's man "silly" may be "inflammatory" to some (Obama) and "outrageous" to others (Haber). If I have sinned in throwing Wright in with the others, I am sorry. Surely there is a limit to the slack I am willing to cut clerics (such as Rabbi Meir Kahane).

But folks have been pointing out that Wright's comments should be understood within the perspective of the African American church and liberation theology -- and that doesn't cut the mustard with your average Joe who hears "God damn America" because he doesn't think of the conventions of religious rhetoric when he hears statements like these. I haven't heard other critics of US policy like Noam Chomsky say "God damn America".


Thanks. I have got to stop posting comments late at night.

I didn't mean to imply that the original text in Sanhedrin was the particularistic one. Urbach's article in Tarbiz is "shanah alef" stuff, and I certainly knew about that.

Where I blew it was in misremembering Kellner's little note in Tarbiz. Actually, I am still not sure I got it right, since I am once again writing late at night and relying in my failing memory. If I got it wrong, I will rewrite this tomorrow.

Anyway, thanks for catching it.

Tikkunknitter said...

With Pesach around the corner, it's hard to avoid being overwhelmed by the desire to be liberated from the arrogant, intolerant and oppressive forces within the greater Jewish community, to find a way to exorcise the "pharoah within" the body Jewish.

Thank you for another important essay. "Ethnic chauvinism" has become a staple of my vocabulary.