Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 123 (May 2002): 59-80.
The term hypocrisy is much over–used and much misused. It comes from the Greek, of course, and means to act on the stage, to pretend to be what one is not or to believe what one does not believe. For all of us, and in various aspects of our lives, there is a gap between who we represent ourselves to be and who we really are; between what we say we believe and what we, at least at times, really think. That is not hypocrisy. That is the consequence of human frailty, confusion, cowardice, or, sometimes, a simple desire not to hurt the feelings of others.
Hypocrisy is something much more deliberate and calculated. Hypocrisy aptly describes much discussion, or non–discussion, about the role of Jews in American life. It is commonly practiced among Christians, and my Jewish associates assure me it is as common among Jews. A significant difference is that there is a large literature produced by Jews on Jews in American life, whereas non–Jewish discussions of the subject tend to be confined to the shadowed world of bigotry and conspiracy–mongering. For non–Jews who understand how things are done, Jews in American life is a forbidden subject, at least in public.
Consider the recently released tapes from President Richard M. Nixon’s Oval Office when, in 1972, he and Billy Graham discussed what they obviously viewed as the Jewish problem. Referring to Jewish domination of the media, Graham says, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.” “You believe that?” responded Nixon. “Yes, sir,” said Graham. “Oh, boy. So do I,” said Nixon. “I can’t ever say that, but I believe it.” “No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” Graham said. Mr. Nixon turned the conversation to Jewish influence in Hollywood, and Mr. Graham said, “A lot of Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them.” Nixon replied, “You must not let them know.”
Graham’s office promptly issued a statement on behalf of the evangelist, now eighty–three and ailing, saying that he did not remember the conversation with Nixon and the reported remarks certainly do not reflect his thinking about Jews and Judaism. A source familiar with the Nixon White House and with Mr. Graham says he is sure that the conversation was very specifically about leftist Jews, which, as we shall see, does not quite fit the definition of anti–Semitism. But the press played it as an instance of anti–Semitism, and that does provide an occasion for trying to understand a phenomenon usually obscured by dissembling, evasion, fear, and, yes, hypocrisy.
Anti–Semites—and there really are anti–Semites—think they have a corner on a dirty little secret. Their supposed secret is that Jews have a disproportionate influence in American society. But of course that is no secret at all; it is the obvious fact. About 2 percent of the population, a little over five million people, exercise an influence far out of proportion to their numbers. In certain sectors of American life—notably in media, entertainment, prestige research universities, and to a lesser extent in finance—people in that 2 percent hold 20, 40, or even more than 50 percent of the positions of greatest influence. It is quite astonishing. It is clearly disproportionate. Some say that it is not only disproportionate, which is obvious, but that it is inordinate, meaning that it is excessive and contrary to the right order of things. People who say that are also given to suggesting that the disproportionate influence of Jews is baneful. Certified anti–Semites say out loud, and many others say sotto voce, that America has a Jewish problem.
A recent survey, confirming many earlier surveys, indicates that Jews and Judaism have a very high approval rating. Asked about religious groups in America, 90 percent had a favorable view of United Methodists. What’s not to like about United Methodists? In second place were Jews, at 88 percent. “Only in America,” one might say, and there is truth in that. One might also add, “Only in opinion polls.” I have been critical in this space of Jewish defense groups that are forever sniffing about in paranoid fashion and detecting signs of imminent pogroms. But one need not be paranoid or even inordinately suspicious to be skeptical about such survey research findings. Who except a declared anti–Semite would tell a pollster that he has an unfavorable view of Jews, or even that he does not have a favorable view of Jews? The stigma of anti–Semitism has been so effectively employed that it makes most survey research on the question virtually useless.
What people say over the kitchen table, or even at the more formal dinner party when there are no Jews around, is something else. There is no way or proving it, but I expect that most non–Jewish Americans were not surprised, never mind shocked, by the 1972 discussion in the Oval Office. This does not mean they agree with what was said, only that they have heard it before. I also expect that few Jews were surprised, although many were shocked. It is the shock of being so frontally encountered by a reality that you hoped, but did not really believe, had disappeared.
I had a small part in Charles Silberman’s very useful 1985 study, A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today. Silberman’s conclusions about the Jewish circumstance in America lean toward the optimistic, and he has a kind word about my efforts to deal with our differences in a way that “will strengthen rather than weaken our pluralistic society.” He goes on to say, “Unfortunately, the approach Neuhaus himself proposes would have the opposite effect, for once again it would make Jews strangers in their own land.” The approach he has in mind is my argument that we must come to terms with the fact that America is—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly—a Christian society. Silberman agrees with the Reform rabbi who told me many years ago, “When I hear the phrase ‘Christian America,’ I see barbed wire.” The question of Jewish “at homeness” in America has run through numerous studies over the years by Jewish scholars such as Nathan Glazer, Milton Himmelfarb, Ludwig Lewisohn, and Oscar Janowsky, as well as by non–Jews such as E. Digby Baltzell and John Murray Cuddihy. The Jewish complaint is typically against the slightest suggestion that America is the “host society,” thereby implying that Jews are somehow guests or are here on probation.
In his strongly philo–Semitic book, A History of the Jews, the British writer Paul Johnson puts it this way: “For all these reasons it became perhaps misleading to see the American Jewish community as part of the diaspora at all. Jews in America felt themselves more
American than Jews in Israel felt themselves Israeli. It was necessary to coin a new word to define their condition, for American Jews came to form, along with the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora proper, the third leg of a new Jewish tripod, on which the safety and future of the whole people equally depended. There was the diaspora Jew, there was the ingathered Jew, and, in America, there was the possessing Jew.” Perhaps “possessing Jew” is not the best phrase, suggesting as it does the stereotype of the possessive, or even grasping, Jew. Better to speak of the Jew completely at home, or at least as completely at home as anyone can be short of the Messianic Age.
But is the American Jewish community completely at home? If one can speak of a community feeling, does it feel completely at home? There is reason to doubt it. Not long ago I was invited to a gala dinner at the Waldorf Astoria to honor the head of a major Jewish organization. It was a lavish affair, with about 1,200 of the rich and famous in formal attire in unabashed display of their having made it. There was a sprinkling of goyim (no disparagement intended), and I was the only Christian cleric. The book of tributes to the honoree, placed on each chair, was as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory. Politicians from the President and mayor on down, stars of stage and screen, and numerous other celebrities all paid tribute, either in person or by live video. The tributes went on and on for well over two hours before we got to dinner. Between the speeches were film clips of the skeletal survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, along with heaps of corpses and scenes illustrating Hitler’s rise to power. Almost every tribute included at least one declaration of “Never again!”
Most Americans would, I am sure, have found the evening surreal. Here assembled in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York were over a thousand of the richest, most powerful, and most influential people in America. It was, on the one hand, a community’s exuberant display of its unparalleled success. On the other, the unmistakable message of the evening was that this is a community perilously poised on the precipice of the abyss, of Auschwitz happening again, and this time in America. It was not a community that appeared to be securely at home, or at least did not appear to be for the purposes of that evening.
The last point is critical, I am told by a Jewish friend who was there. After all, he observes, the purpose of the occasion was to celebrate the leader of a Jewish defense organization, and a defense organization is only important if it can fuel the fear of the horrors against which it is defending the community. On such an evening, allowances must be made for hyperbole. Moreover, as many Jewish writers have argued in recent years, a community requires commonalities, and for most American Jews the religion of Judaism no longer provides that. The de facto religion is remembering the Holocaust, commitment to the State of Israel, and keeping alive a sense that, if the community lets down its guard for even a moment, they (whoever “they” may be) will do it again. Rabbi David Novak has famously said, “As a Jew, I do not get up in the morning cursing Hitler but praising the God of Israel.” That is no doubt true of the minority of American Jews who are in any way observant. But, as Elliott Abrams has written (FT, June/July 1997), it is Jewishness and not Judaism that holds together “the Jewish community” in its tribal identity. Praise of the God of Israel was not conspicuous at the Waldorf.
That evening does not tell the whole story by any means, but neither, on the basis of my own experience over the years, was it entirely atypical. It seems that the discordant notes of security and danger, of achievement and vulnerability, of belonging and otherness, are constantly contending in Jewish thinking about the American circumstance. The various notes wax or wane in response to discernments of what “the others” are thinking about Jews. There are those—Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic comes to mind—who make no secret of their contempt for Christianity, and are as offended when the “others” do not think about Jews as when they do think about Jews.
Serving on a university panel discussing Jews, Christians, and the American experiment, I was confronted by a question from the audience. “Do you have any idea,” the woman asked, “how offensive it is to me as a Jew to hear you speak of Jews as ‘them’? In America, we are all ‘we.’” Well, yes and no. Yes, we must affirm as much as possible what we have in common as Americans and, I would add, as children of the covenant. And no, the very fact of a panel on Jews, Christians, and the American experiment assumes differences of consequence. I am not a Jew. As with the Jewish participants in the discussion, there is a “we” and a “them.” The purpose is to understand what and how the other thinks. The alternative to doing that is to accept Richard Nixon’s counsel to Billy Graham: “You must not let them know.”
Until fairly recently, there were those who thought it was the better part of wisdom for Jews to maintain a low profile in public. It seems odd now, but in 1965 when Abraham Beame first ran for mayor of New York, there were prominent Jewish voices publicly fretting that a Jewish mayor might provoke a backlash. (He lost that year, but then ran successfully in 1973.) Since then we have had what seems like a lifetime of Ed Koch as mayor (he frequently appears to think he still is mayor) and now there is Michael Bloomberg, and nobody gives it a thought, at least not in public. In politics, both nationally and in the states, the low–profile days are long past. This is not true in the media, in entertainment, or in the prestige universities, where nobody is supposed to notice the disproportionate Jewish influence. Why does 2 percent of the population carry such weight? Anti–Semites, who think the disproportion is inordinate, and those who flirt with anti–Semitism, typically resort to conspiracy theories of one sort or another. Others refer to a prodigiously achievement–oriented subculture, and yet others (very quietly) to genetic superiority. Then there are those, Jews and Christians alike, who would not discount the importance of Jews being God’s chosen people.
Jewish influence was viewed as a “Jewish problem” when Jews were conspicuously prominent in attacking what was taken to be the American way of life. This was the case with the Old Left in the first part of the last century, when Jews were portrayed as predominant in the leadership of Communist and socialist movements, often because they were predominant. Irving Howe and, more recently, Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz have written compellingly about that Jewish world of the Old Left. The role of Jewish activists and ideologues in defining the newer leftisms of the sixties and onward is also notable. In what is aptly described as the culture wars, and especially in the central dispute over abortion, Jews are overwhelmingly on one side. In electoral politics, Jews tend to be Democrats, and on the left of the party. As Milton Himmelfarb has memorably written, Jews have incomes like Episcopalians and voting patterns like Puerto Ricans. One great Jewish dissent from the left is on affirmative action and quota systems. Jews are, understandably, not enthusiastic about a notion of equality that would limit them to no more than 2 percent of anything. The other great dissent from the left, for obvious reasons, is on support for Israel. (In such generalizations, important exceptions must be made for some of the Orthodox, but they are a small minority.)
On an array of questions that come under the rubric of “church–state relations,” Jews have in the last fifty years been at odds with most Americans. Generally speaking, they have thought the naked public square a very good thing. The more secular the society, the better it is for Jews. That was the rule advanced by the late Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress, for instance, and, beginning in the 1940s, he persuaded the Supreme Court to rule again and again against religious expressions and symbolsChristian in nature—in our public life. Public secularism had not always been the position of Jewish leadership, as is admirably demonstrated by David Dalin and Jonathan Sarna in a study sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience. The older Jewish position, and the position of the Orthodox today, is not in favor of a naked public square but of fair treatment of all religions in the public square. There are signs that that position may be in the ascendancy today, but a half century of what I have called “the Pfefferian inversion”—subordinating the “free exercise” provision of the First Amendment to the “no establishment” provision—is still taking its toll.
Jews have been part of the American experiment since its constitutional beginnings. Until fifty years ago, they were very much viewed as guests in the host society of Christian America. Many older Americans well remember the days when clubs, societies, neighborhoods, and prestige law firms made no bones about being “exclusive,” and when universities such as Harvard and Columbia observed a “Jewish quota” in admissions. It is understandable that most Jews think the secularization of our public life has been good for Jews. Whether or not the connection is causal, over the last half century secularization and full social enfranchisement have proceeded apace. As with other ethnic and religious groups, the Jewish ways of negotiating a relationship with American society have changed over the years. Now it appears that a devotion to public secularism is no longer, if it ever was, a source of Jewish security and flourishing. It has become, rather, a liability that unnecessarily places American Jewry in an adversarial relationship to the culture, provoking the perception that Jews really are, in Silberman’s phrase, strangers in their own country.
We may well be entering a new chapter in the long story of the Jewish experience in America. The promise and complexities of this new period are addressed in a book of essays I have edited that is just out from Eerdmans, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation. I expect historians may designate people such as Will Herberg, Irving Kristol, Milton Himmelfarb, and Midge Decter as the prophets of this new era in the American Jewish experience. Over the years, they and a few others vigorously dissented from the proposition that it was good for the Jews to be a secularizing adversarial culture. They have proposed a more promising way toward unqualified “at homeness.” In this view, anti–Semitism is not the great threat. As Kristol has remarked, “The problem is not that other Americans hate us; the problem is that they want to marry us.” To the very real possibility of complete assimilation leading to the disappearance of the Jewish community, thinkers such as David Novak and Elliott Abrams have argued that the answer is for Jews to become more serious about the religion of Judaism, as distinct from the ethnic habits of Jewishness.
In the fall of 2000, more than two hundred Jewish scholars issued Dabru Emet (To Speak the Truth), proposing a Jewish understanding of Christianity in response to the many statements of recent decades offering a Christian understanding of Judaism. The first purpose of Dabru Emet is to advance religious and theological understanding, but the premise is also that Christians and Jews will live together in greater security and mutual respect if they understand one another as participants in covenantal purpose seeking to be faithful to the God of Israel.
Some Jewish thinkers have reacted to Dabru Emet very negatively. Affirming religious commonalities, they contend, will obscure the differences between Christianity and Judaism, leading to more intermarriages and the loss of Jewish children to Christianity or to religious nothingness. The argument is that a degree of interreligious hostility—even, as one critic puts it, an “instinctive repugnance” toward Christianity—is necessary to preserve Jewish identity. This is what sociologists used to call an “out–group identity strategy.” It has been tried, and it has not produced a very healthy relationship between Christians and Jews. More important, and whatever its sociological merits or demerits, it is not true to how Jews and Christians should understand one another religiously. That at least is the position of the Jewish scholars who produced Dabru Emet, and I am convinced they are right.
Jews should not be viewed, and should not view themselves, as strangers in their own land. It should be obvious to all that this is their land as much as it is our land. Yet, if there is to be a distinct Jewish community, there will of necessity continue to be a “we” and a “them.” Silberman titled his book A Certain People. He could not quite bring himself to use the more biblical phrase, “a peculiar people.” Among the peculiarities of this people is that they will almost certainly continue to exercise an influence dramatically disproportionate to their numbers. Those who think that influence inordinate must just get used to it. It should be viewed as a permanent feature of American life.
As to what the future actually holds, very different scenarios are proposed. One can envision a religious awakening, with more Jews adhering to Judaism, having more babies, and rearing them in the tradition. That, combined with a growing awareness of the spiritual bond between Jew and Christian, and that bond being reinforced by the hostility of radical Islamism to both Jew and Christian, suggests one possible future. Many Jewish leaders see a more doleful prospect: secularizing forces further loosening adherence to Judaism, continued or increasing levels of intermarriage with most of the children and almost all of the grandchildren lost to the community, resulting in a dispirited remnant headed for virtual oblivion. Another prospect little discussed in public but on the minds of many is that, God forbid, the State of Israel could finally fail, with the great majority of Israelis coming here and almost doubling overnight the size of American Jewry.
Then there are the discussions such as that in the Oval Office of 1972, which are by no means a thing of the past. Such ugliness feeds on the secretive presumption of Nixon that “You must not let them know.” The story of The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation has matured to the point where both Jew and Christian can and must let one another know what we think. It is necessary that we do so if we are not to be strangers to one another in our own land.
The mention of his name is usually accompanied by descriptives such as “the distinguished,” “the eminent,” or “the renowned.” Frequently he is simply called “the doyen of Middle Eastern studies.” All such honorifics are amply deserved. Going back many years, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, has been a personal friend and, more than anyone else, my guru on matters Islamic. His new book is What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press). It is a mix of lectures and essays from the 1990s, and a font of wisdom on which to draw in order to put the world after September 11 into perspective. I don’t say Lewis is right about everything, and I know there are scholars who criticize him for over–generalizing, but that is the kind of criticism to be expected from academics who specialize in specializing. Lewis, whose command of his subject nobody can challenge, specializes in making careful and accessible arguments. His exercise of that gift and calling is on magisterial display in What Went Wrong?
For instance, Lewis writes that, during the period that we call medieval, most Muslims viewed Christendom in terms of the Byzantine Empire, “which gradually became smaller and weaker until its final disappearance with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453.” “[In the Muslim view] the remoter lands of Europe were seen in much the same light as the remoter lands of Africa—as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn and little even to be imported, except slaves and raw materials. For both the northern and the southern barbarians, their best hope was to be incorporated in the empire of the caliphs, and thus attain the benefits of religion and civilization. For the first thousand years or so after the advent of Islam, this seemed not unlikely, and Muslims made repeated attempts to accomplish it.”
We understandably view history in terms of the rise of the West, and seen from today’s circumstance, that makes sense. But that is not how, for a very long time, Muslims viewed it. From its beginnings, Islam was on a millennium–long roll. Advancing from Arabia, Muslim armies conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, all of which had been part of Christendom. They then went on to conquer Spain, Portugal, and Sicily, and to invade deep into France. In 846, Arab forces sacked Ostia and Rome. Only then did Christendom begin to organize a counterattack, leading up to what we call the Crusades aimed at recovering the Holy Land. In many tellings of the story, the Crusades were the horrible thing that Christians did to Muslims, and there is no doubt that horrible things were done on all sides. What is frequently overlooked in those tellings, however, is that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression and, very important, that they failed. The Christians were repelled. The Muslims won, reinforcing their sense of invincibility against the infidels.
The Christian powers had occasional successes, such as the great naval battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras in Greece, in 1571. Pope Pius V attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and in gratitude made October 7 the feast of the Rosary. While Lepanto was a crushing defeat for Muslim forces, they viewed it as a setback at the margins of world affairs. Lewis describes Lepanto as “a great shot in the arm in the West, a minor ripple in the East.” Islam was still on a roll. By the eighteenth century, however, the tables were beginning to turn. On numerous fronts—science, politics, economics, military prowess—Christendom increasingly had the initiative. Western travelers began to penetrate Muslim lands, and “experts” of various sorts sold their services to Muslim states. “For Muslims,” writes Lewis, “first in Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea—that one might learn from the previously despised infidel.” Here entered for the first time the problem of how to keep Western influence in check. For a while, the Greek Christians, who deeply resented their treatment by the Catholic West, were a help to Ottoman rule. As the patriarch of Constantinople is supposed to have said, “Rather the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope.”
By the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some Muslims realized that they were falling behind. A few leaders even began to send students to the West in order to learn about the new things—especially military things—to be found there. This raised the religious and legal question as to whether it was permissible to imitate the infidels. “The answer of the religious authorities,” writes Lewis, “was that it is permissible to imitate the infidels in order to more effectively fight against them.” Modernization, understood as catching up, could be endorsed with careful qualifications. Westernization, understood as cultural imitation, was something else. The West was always Christendom, and therefore the enemy of the true faith. More progressive Muslim leaders looked for the secret to success in those aspects of the West that were most different from their own experience and, Lewis adds, “not tainted by Christianity.” This is why there was great sympathy for the French Revolution, which projected itself in the East as anti–Christian. But under the Empire and the Restoration, France lost its appeal. “For the whole of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century the search for the hidden talisman concentrated on two aspects of the West—economics and politics, or to put it differently, wealth and power.”
The Christian “taint” made cultural influence forbidden, with the consequence that Islam also gained little economically. According to the World Bank, Lewis notes, the whole of the Arab world, with about 300 million people, exports less to the rest of the world than does Finland with its five million people. Apart from oil, of course, and its effective exploitation is in Western hands. Unlike the rising powers of Asia—such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, et al., most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East—Muslim countries have not caught on to the rudiments of investment, capital formation, job creation, and productivity. “The difference between Middle Eastern and Western approaches,” Lewis writes, “can be seen even in their distinctive form of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different.” I’m not sure he’s quite right about there being no moral difference. Money influencing power can be corruption, but it is not an evil of the same magnitude as perpetuating grinding poverty or ruling by a system that is aptly described as tyranny tempered by assassination.
The differences between the West and the Near East are evident, Lewis emphasizes, in different attitudes toward women, science, and music. Islam, like most non–Christian societies, permits polygamy and concubinage, and Western visitors to Muslim lands have traditionally evidenced a predictable interest in the harem system and have spoken with ill–concealed envy of what they take to be the rights of Muslim men. “Muslim visitors to Europe,” on the other hand, “speak with astonishment, often with horror, of the immodesty and frowardness of Western women, of the incredible freedom and absurd deference accorded them, and of the lack of manly jealousy of males confronted with the immorality and promiscuity in which their womenfolk indulge.”
There were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious equality—unbelievers, slaves, and women. Lewis does not depict dhimmitude—the system under which non–Muslims, mainly Christians and Jews, live in Muslim societies—in terms as severe as those employed by Bat Ye’or, whose work has been discussed at length in these pages. Yes, he suggests, the infidels were definitely second– or third–class citizens, but for the most part their lot was tolerable, so long as they did not challenge Muslim dominance. Slavery in the Middle East, he also says, was not so harsh as slavery in the Caribbean or North America. Actually, slavery was not officially abolished in some Mideast countries until the 1960s, and still flourishes today in, for instance, Sudan.
Keeping women in what is thought to be their place is deeply entrenched in Arab societies. “Westerners tend naturally to assume that the emancipation of women is part of liberalization, and that women will consequently fare better in liberal than in autocratic regimes. Such an assumption would be false, and often the reverse is true.” Some notoriously oppressive regimes have advanced the legal emancipation of women, while in somewhat more open societies, such as Egypt, the weight of tradition has successfully prevented such change. For radical Islamists, such as the former Taliban in Afghanistan, the confinement of women to their traditional roles is at the top of their agenda. “The emancipation of women,” Lewis writes, “more than any other single issue, is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization.” Modernization is the adoption of technologies, especially those of warfare and propaganda. But the emancipation of women is Westernization. “It must be kept from entering the body of Islam, and where it has already entered, it must be ruthlessly excised.”
There are odd twists and turns here. For instance, in the military, civil service, and often in everyday street wear, men have adopted Western styles of clothing. Even the diplomats of the Islamic Republic of Iran wear Western suits, “with only the missing necktie to symbolize their rejection of Western culture and its symbols.” Why the rejection of the necktie? “Perhaps because of its vaguely cruciform shape,” Lewis suggests. In the final analysis, it all does come back to religion and what Muslims continue to view as Christendom. In its view of the right ordering of the world, Islam has nothing remotely comparable to the Christian understanding of sovereignties in tension, as evident in Christ’s words about rendering what is due to Caesar and to God. Lewis emphasizes that Christianity, until its legal toleration and later establishment in the fourth century, had the experience of three hundred years struggling against authority. “Christianity was a persecuted religion—different from, sometimes opposed to, and often oppressed by the state authority.”
The contrast with Islam could not be more dramatic. Lewis puts it nicely: “Muhammad was, so to speak, his own Constantine. . . . At no time did [Islam] create any institution corresponding to, or even remotely resembling, the Church in Christendom.” There have been and are, to be sure, conflicts between religious and political authorities. But, unlike the case of the Church in the West, there is no institutionalizing of a claim to a distinct sovereignty in tension with the sovereignty of the state. Put differently, the “Constantinianism” of Islam is radically monistic. And again, far from having gone through a long period of struggling and persecution, Islam understood itself from the very beginning to be a force of all–encompassing conquest, and the success of its first millennium powerfully reinforced that self–understanding.
Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime. He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was the supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace. In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition. . . . The state was the church and the church was the state, and God was head of both, with the Prophet as his representative on earth. In the words of an ancient and much cited tradition: “Islam, the ruler, and the people are like the tent, the pole, the ropes and the pegs. The tent is Islam, the pole is the ruler, the ropes and pegs are the people. None can thrive without the others.”
Lewis continues: “Such terms as clergy or ecclesiastic cannot properly be applied to Muslim men of religion. These were in time, and in defiance of early tradition and precept, professionalized, and thus became a clergy in a sociological sense. They did not become a clergy in the theological sense. Islam recognizes no ordination, no sacraments, no priestly mediation between the believer and God. The so–called clergyman is perceived as a teacher, a guide, a scholar in theology and law, but not as a priest.” Nonetheless, and perhaps inevitably, something like a church and a clergy has emerged, at least functionally. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, the government appointed a Chief Mufti who exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction, so to speak, over a city. “One sees it even more dramatically,” Lewis writes, “in the ayatollahs of Iran, a title dating from quite modern times and unknown to classical Islamic history. If the rulers of the Islamic Republic but knew it, what they are doing is Christianizing Islam in an institutional sense, though not of course in any religious sense. They have already endowed Iran with the functional equivalents of a pontificate, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops, and, especially, an inquisition, all previously alien to Islam.” Because the implied distinction of sovereignties has no secure basis in Islamic thought, this is a very fragile innovation and is subject to challenge by monistic purists.
In Islam, the law is already given. At least theoretically, there is no place for debate or legislation. All that is required is submission (submission being, of course, the meaning of the word “Islam”). In the first account we have of a Muslim visiting the British House of Commons in the eighteenth century, the writer expresses his astonishment at the sorry fate of a people who, unlike the Muslims, did not have a divinely revealed law, “and were therefore reduced to the pitiable expedient of enacting their own laws.” The monism of Islam, Lewis suggests, is also evident in its aversion to polyphonic music. In polyphony, voices and instruments—whether in duets, trios, or full orchestra—are “following different routes in a common purpose.” “Different performers play together, from different scores, producing a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Lewis has an extended excursus on this musical dimension of “the difference” between East and West, and, whether or not one finds his explanation entirely convincing, there is no denying that Western music is not well received in the Middle East. “To this very day the Middle East—with the exception of some Westernized enclaves—remains a blank on the itinerary of the great international virtuosos as they go on their world tours.” They are celebrated almost everywhere—even in Japan, China, and India—except in the Middle East. Maybe polyphony is the key, or maybe it is part of a more general aversion to Western culture, “tainted” as it is by Christianity. The Christian West is curious about, and eager to welcome, other cultural traditions. Witness the magnificent Islamic holdings in any Western museum or library of note. Throughout the huge swath of the world dominated by Islam, there are no comparable holdings of Western art, music, or literature, never mind of philosophy or theology. It would seem that the Arab world in particular really is, in the phrase of David Pryce–Jones, a “closed circle.”
The conclusion of What Went Wrong? is grim. After its millennium–long roll of conquest and great cultural achievement, the Muslim world fell further and further behind. Its consolidation in the Ottoman Empire fell apart after choosing the wrong side in the First World War, and the subsequent hegemony of the British and French, and now of the Americans, has left Islam seething with resentments. “Worst of all is the political result,” says Lewis. “The long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to new–style dictatorships, modern only in their apparatus of repression and indoctrination.” The question asked by Muslims is “Who did this to us?” rather than “What did we do wrong?” A few people, however, are beginning to ask the second question, Lewis writes, and in that there is a glimmer of hope. But it is only a glimmer. Lewis concludes with this:
If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self–pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new, expanding superpower in the East. If they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is their own.
If. . . . It seems a wan hope, but hope we must. The better part of wisdom, it would seem, is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
A reader in Princeton, New Jersey, says we are “pandering to anti–Catholic hysteria” by even paying attention to priestly sexual scandals. “Remember the maxim that the Church thinks in terms of centuries. Ignore it and it will go away.” No, I don’t think it will go away anytime soon. And the questions now raised should not go away anytime soon. But one may hope that hysteria will, in time, give way to more careful deliberation. Such deliberation is offered by Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, who has been studying issues such as child pornography and clergy abuse for many years. Jenkins, who is not a Catholic, notes that there is nothing specifically Catholic about the sexual abuse of children. Every denomination and religious group has its share of abuse cases, “and some of the worst involve non–Catholics.” For many reasons, some of them related to anti–Catholicism, the Catholic Church gets the public attention.
Nor, as many allege, is celibacy the problem. “My research of cases over the past twenty years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non–clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported.” But what is the incidence of abuse by Catholic priests? Jenkins writes, “Just to find some solid numbers, how many Catholic clergy are involved in misconduct? We actually have some good information on this issue, since in the early 1990s the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago undertook a bold and thorough self–study. The survey examined every priest who had served in the archdiocese over the previous forty years, some 2,200 individuals, and reopened every internal complaint ever made against these men. The standard of evidence applied was not legal proof that would stand up in a court of law, but just the consensus that a particular charge was probably justified. By this low standard, the survey found that about forty priests, about 1.8 percent of the whole, were probably guilty of misconduct with minors at some point in their careers. Put another way, no evidence existed against about 98 percent of parish clergy, the overwhelming majority of the group. Since other organizations dealing with children have not undertaken such comprehensive studies, we have no idea whether the Catholic figure is better or worse than the rate for schoolteachers, residential home counselors, social workers, or scout masters.”
Jenkins cautions against the careless use of the word “pedophilia,” which is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty. “But the vast majority of clergy misconduct cases are nothing like this. The vast majority of instances involve priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often sixteen or seventeen years old, or even older. An act of this sort is wrong on multiple counts: it is probably criminal, and by common consent it is immoral and sinful; yet it does not have the utterly ruthless, exploitative character of child molestation. In almost all cases too, with the older teenagers, there is an element of consent.”
A man who desires to have sex with an eighteen–year–old boy is ordinarily described as homosexual. The very mention of this obvious fact is condemned as “homophobic” by some gay activists. The press keeps talking about pedophilia when, in fact, that is not the chief problem. According to some experts, real pedophiles are as frequently heterosexual. Of the many true or alleged cases of abuse that have come to light, only a tiny fraction involve pedophilia. The rest have to do with men having sex with teenage boys. But to suggest that homosexuality is the problem is to go up against powerfully influential gay advocacy that homosexuals are no threat to children and therefore should be permitted to adopt, to be Boy Scout leaders, etc., etc. Of course there are homosexuals in the priesthood, which is to say men with dominantly same–sex desires. I don’t know how many, nor, I expect, does anyone else. I have read guesstimates of 50 percent, and others putting the figure at 10 percent. On the basis of years of interaction with hundreds of priests, I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter figure is about right.
If it is as high as 10 percent, it would seem that the great majority of those are fine priests who are faithful to their vow of celibacy. There are gay advocates urging that faithful priests with a same–sex orientation should “come out of the closet,” thus giving the lie to the claim that homosexuals pose a threat to young people. That does not seem like a very good idea. Should the overwhelming majority of priests who are heterosexual then publicly declare their orientation? Catholics are not expected to declare their temptations in public. And homosexual priests coming out of the closet can only focus further attention on the minority that is, in fact, at the heart of the current scandals. That is the bind in which the media and gay advocates are caught. The more they press the sex–abuse scandals, the more attention turns to homosexuality in the priesthood, and to behaviors associated with homosexuality more generally. That is one reason why the current level of public sensation about priestly scandals is not likely to be sustained. What must be sustained, however, is the now powerfully reinforced sense of urgency about the oversight of priests by bishops and heads of religious orders. Priests of whatever orientation, temptations, or feelings must be held to account. If it was not obvious to some before, it now should be obvious to all that there is no alternative to violations of the vow of celibacy except obedience to the vow of celibacy.
For Protestants and some Orthodox, the ecumenical movement began with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. For Catholics and the general public, it dates from the Second Vatican Council some forty years ago. I say it began then for the general public because, until then, it was no big news that Protestants were getting together, whereas friendlier relations between Catholics and Protestants struck most people as a very dramatic change, and it was that. But what about the future of ecumenism? That question is addressed by Walter Cardinal Kasper, now head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. “To a certain degree,” he said, “the crisis of the ecumenical movement is the consequence of its success. . . . The more we come closer to one another, the more painful is the experience of not yet being in full communion among ourselves, which creates a certain dissatisfaction and frustration.”
The other side of that, of course, is that many Christians lack a deep ecclesiology or doctrine of the Church that requires full communion, as in communio with Christ and his Body the Church. For them, friendlier relations was the goal of ecumenism, and that goal has been more or less achieved. In his address, published in the Italian biweekly Il Regno, Kasper notes that “the new generation of faithful and priests has not lived through the council and does not understand how things have changed.” For them, ecumenism is old hat; certainly it does not have the cutting edge excitement of even twenty years ago. Moreover, the results of the many ecumenical dialogues, says Kasper, “have yet to penetrate the heart and flesh of our church and of the other churches.” This is known as the problem of “reception.” It is one thing for theologians to arrive at breakthrough agreements, and quite another for such agreements to make a difference in the life of the several communions.
The situation with the Orthodox, says Kasper, is grim. “We are increasingly conscious of the fact that an Orthodox Church does not really exist. At the present stage, it does not seem that Constantinople is yet capable of integrating the different autocephalous Orthodox churches. There are doubts about its primacy of honor, especially in Moscow.” In a conversation with an ecumenical veteran in Rome a couple of years ago, I was told that the most important thing he had learned over years of working with the Orthodox is that they do not have anything like a Catholic understanding of “the universal Church.” In theory they do, of course, but not in practice. And in both theory and practice, he added, they do not reciprocate our recognition of their ecclesial fullness. Vatican II very deliberately did not say that the Church of Jesus Christ is (est) the Catholic Church but that it subsists in (subsistet in) the Catholic Church. There has been no comparable development in Orthodoxy, he noted. In addition, it is not a simple matter of going back to the formal division between East and West of 1054. As one ecumenical theologian puts it, “A thousand years is, after all, a thousand years, and not being in communion with Rome has become a constitutive part of the self–understanding of Orthodoxy.”
At Georgetown University in 1998, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople flatly declared that the Orthodox have an “ontologically different experience of the Church.” Ontological differences, one notes, are not easily overcome; and it may be that, by definition, they are not resolvable. In his address, Kasper says that relations with the Greek Orthodox have improved since the Pope’s visit there last year, and “in the Middle East, in the territory of the ancient See of Antioch, the situation is completely different, and there already is almost full communion.” The unhappy truth, however, is that probably most Orthodox in the world do not believe that Catholics, never mind Protestants, are even validly baptized.
The larger ecumenical circumstance is further complicated by the fact that theological dialogues with the mainline/oldline Protestant churches have not yet required institutional changes. As the dialogues move on to questions of ecclesiology—including apostolic order and the Petrine ministry exercised by the Bishop of Rome—agreements may run into institutional inertia on all sides. Then too, the mainline/oldline is a declining phenomenon, and ecumenism must now engage the evangelicals and pentecostals who are, far and away, the largest and fastest growing part of non–Catholic Christianity. Nor can it be forgotten that, especially with the mainline/oldline, some of the most divisive questions today have to do with moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and marriage. That was a point “controversially” touched on by John Paul II on his first visit to the U.S. in 1979, and thirteen years later it is even more urgent. This leads some to say that dialogue with the oldline will increasingly require a theologically serious engagement with Christian anthropology, man created in the image of God, male/female differences, and what John Paul II calls “the theology of the body.”
In his address, Kasper concludes that ecumenism in the years ahead will have to move at different “speeds.” “There is no realistic alternative,” he says. Orthodoxy, the oldline, the evangelical/pentecostal insurgency—and each of them engaged in their own internal developments—have all complicated the ecumenical play in unprecedented ways. But as John Paul II has repeatedly declared, the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism is “irreversible,” and it may well be that, with so many unpredictable factors, the cutting–edge excitements of forty years ago will be seen as but the prelude to excitements to come.
There are some questions of which we may be exceedingly weary, but they will not go away. Such a question is, What is anti–Semitism? Hillel Halkin, an Israeli essayist, comes back to it in Commentary under the title “The Return of Anti–Semitism.” His thesis is starkly stated: “One must not give an inch on this point. The new anti–Israelism is nothing but the old anti–Semitism in disguise.” He cites the UN “conference against racism” in Durban, South Africa, last summer, and rightly notes that the nations of the world solemnly assembled to tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirm the notorious formula that “Zionism is racism.” (To its credit, the U.S. withdrew from the conference in protest.) He also cites mainly anecdotal, but deeply ominous, indications that in Europe today it is becoming increasingly “respectable” not only to deride Israel but also to make overtly anti–Semitic remarks in public.
But then he takes his argument a step too far. “One cannot be against Israel or Zionism, as opposed to this or that Israeli policy or Zionist position, without being anti–Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews. To wish it never existed, or would cease to exist, is to wish to destroy the Jews.” Drawing an analogy, Halkin writes that “only an anti–Semite can think the world would be better off without Israel, just as only a Francophobe can think the world would be better off without France.”
Not quite. To be French is inexplicable apart from France. Jews and Judaism, by way of contrast, had a clear identity long before the establishment of the State of Israel only fifty–four years ago. The Zionist belief that Jews should have a state was, until World War II, rejected by most of the world’s Jews. To “wish it never existed,” to believe that the establishment of Israel was a mistake, is certainly not the same as “to wish to destroy the Jews.” It is, rather, a matter of making a historical and moral judgment that the wrong thing was done. One may disagree with those who have arrived at that judgment without accusing them of wanting to destroy the Jews. Some of them argue that it is precisely the establishment of the State of Israel that is putting so many Jewish lives at stake.
To wish that Israel “would cease to exist” is something else. But even that is not necessarily a wish to destroy the Jews, since one might at the same time hope that the minority of the world’s Jews living in Israel would find a secure home elsewhere, notably in the U.S. Halkin admits that Zionism was wrong about one very important thing. It was thought that providing Jews with a homeland would be the end of anti–Semitism, since anti–Semitism could not exist without Jews. “Today we know that it can exist without Jews, or at least without focusing on them—and precisely because there is a Jewish homeland to represent them. But admitting this is tantamount to admitting that Zionism has failed in a central objective,” Halkin writes. Which returns him to the central claim that “the new anti–Israelism is nothing but the old anti–Semitism in disguise.”
There is no doubt that much that is aptly described as anti–Israelism is inseparably admixed with anti–Semitism, and not only in its Arab and Muslim expression. But it is, I believe, a grave mistake to equate criticism of Israel with anti–Semitism. Halkin quotes a 1992 article by Norman Podhoretz, “What is Anti–Semitism?”, in which Podhoretz wrote, “All criticisms of Israel based on a double standard, rooted as this is in the ancient traditions of anti–Semitic propaganda, deserve to be stigmatized as anti–Semitic.” Certainly one wants to reject double standards. At the same time, there is much that is unique to Israel. Halkin acknowledges as much in discussing American support for Israel: “Support for Israel, which is difficult to justify on cold grounds of national interest, ultimately depends on broad public backing—and this is especially true of the United States, where such support entails not only large sums of money but also, more than ever since September 11, large perceived risks. The potential for slippage in the willingness to pay a price for this friendship, should Israel be seen as morally undeserving of it, is there. And at this juncture in history, the moral undermining of Israel is anti–Semitism’s primary goal. Compared to it, such arcane pursuits as Holocaust denial are trivial. Only the isolation of Israel to the point that it might one day have to stand alone against enemies stronger than it can possibly lead to another Jewish catastrophe.”
Precisely. Ninety–eight percent of Americans are not Jewish, and the great majority of them strongly support Israel for explicitly moral reasons, and those moral reasons are inseparable from a religious and theological understanding of the bond between Judaism and Christianity. It is therefore hard to understand why so many Jews and Jewish publications—Commentary very much included—are preoccupied with trivial pursuits such as the fringe phenomenon of Holocaust denial, and with emphatically non–trivial pursuits such as attacks on Pius XII and the Catholic Church, and on serious Jewish–Christian theological dialogue. Such unremitting attacks—which in some cases, such as Daniel Goldhagen and Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, are of a viciously anti–Christian character—can do nothing to enhance “broad public backing” for Israel or positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.
During the Cold War, many made the argument that U.S. support for Israel was justified on the basis of what Halkin calls “cold grounds of national interest.” Israel, it was repeatedly said, is the only democracy and the only reliable friend of the U.S. in that part of the world. The Cold War is over. Today, almost nobody tries to argue that, for the U.S., the tie with Israel is more of an asset than a burden. Most Americans are prepared to bear that burden, and one must hope that will continue to be the case. Toward that end, it is not helpful to suggest that support for Israel requires conversion to Zionist ideology, or that doubts about the wisdom and justice of Israel’s establishment in 1948 are tantamount to the desire to destroy the Jews, or that criticism of Israel is “but the old anti–Semitism in disguise.” Hillel Halkin is certainly right in saying that, after September 11, the perceived risks in U.S. support for Israel are greatly increased. There needs to be a civil conversation about why we should be prepared to accept those risks. It is distinctly unhelpful to poison public discourse with the suggestion that those who disagree or have doubts are, in fact, simply anti–Semites.
Sources: Israel and anti–Semitism, Commentary, February 2002.