by Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, JewsOnFirst.org, December 11, 2006
I despaired of finding the perfect real-life example for framing a Hanukah message until radio talk host Dennis Prager unexpectedly burst on the scene with his insistence that newly elected congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, take his oath of office using a Christian Bible. Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, had said he planned to take the oath on a Quran.
Prager, who styles himself a Jewish thinker and defender of American values, came to my aid when he wrote, in his November 28, 2006 column for Townhall.com, that Ellison's should not be allowed to use the Koran: "He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization."
Prager was "out-chauvanizing" the Christian nationalists (or, at least, beating them to the punch). In another age, he would have been said to be "Hellenizing" -- adopting the notion that Greek cultural domination is ordained by the gods and the political order. (Hellenizing is the equivalent among Jews of calling some one an Uncle Tom.)
Ellison is not to be allowed to hold the Koran? It would undermine American civilization? Really!?
Prager claimed that if Ellison would not take the oath using a Bible he would be "damaging to the fabric of American civilization."
The Anti-Defamation League called Prager "intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American." Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center asked Prager "to rethink his position and apologize."
The history of Hanukah
Jewish historical memory recalls numerous times when our loyalty was doubted, and the question asked: can you trust the oath of a Jew?
Dennis, perhaps you remember the history of Hanukah, the first struggle for religious tolerance and distinctiveness against the forces of majoritarian religious conformity. Alexander the Great's Greek culture spread to India largely because it was so uncompromisingly brutal in demanding conformity. Everywhere Greek culture built city-states and introduced the world to a civic organization known as the polis. In the city-state or polis there were many important cultural benefits --but available only to free citizens -- to enjoy: athletic competition and games, theater, and philosophy circles. But no cultural diversity was allowed. The polis achieved unity through cultural disdain (and by domination of women and slaves.) .
After the death of Alexander the Great death in 323, two of the Greek successor empires -- the Seleucids in Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt -- vied for power and influence in Israel through their stooge Jewish proxies. Each demanded increasing conformity of Jews, insisting that they express their ritual loyalty and political fealty -- by offering a pig sacrifice to the Greek gods.
This was certainly the equivalent of an oath.
And, by the year 167 B.C.E., Jews refusing to accede to the public behavior demanded by the ruling Seleucid Greeks were branded as disloyal and ungrateful to Greek civilization -- barbarians! Refusing to accept Greek cultural dominance additionally branded a Jew as a misanthrope -- one whose hate for others was evidenced by a refusal to share in the worship of the Seleucids' gods.
The Maccabean heroes -- a family of country "bumpkin" priests -- refused to bend Jewish monotheism to the Hellenistic masters' cultural imperialism while others chose to go along with the demands of Greeks culture. They led a revolt, keeping Judaism alive by not going along with the majority.
Hanukah reminds us of the need to retain our religious integrity even when we are challenged by a culturally aggressive majority. Perhaps we should see in Prager's challenge to Keith Ellison a parallel to how we Jews have so frequently been regarded as the distrusted "outsider"
I believe that this strongly suggests that the first duty of a Jew who is historically conscious is to see parallels to our past situation and not indulge in unfair demands.
The problem of oaths is age old. How do we know when some one is telling the truth? Moral trustworthiness and transparency are important, especially in a multi-ethnic society. But casting suspicion on people's differences – thus implying untrustworthiness -- is an old demagogic technique. Why is Dennis Prager indulging in this kind of baiting?
The oaths of "outsiders"
What does fear of being not trusted do to you? Many Jews and non-Jews sought to remove from the prayer book the Yom Kippur prayer, Kol Nidre , for fear that gentiles might misunderstand the words as a repudiation of promises, vows, bonds and obligations.
In American history many of the states instituted laws against "Jews, Turks (Muslims), and Infidels" precisely because they were not Christians. Their word was not to be trusted since they didn't hold the same religious views as the Christian majority group.
In 1776 Maryland, a former colonial haven from religious persecution founded by Lord Baltimore to protect persecuted Catholics, drafted a new state constitution requiring that public officials make "a declaration of belief in the Christian religion." It was not until 1826 that the "Jew Bill" passed, permitting a Jewish Marylander to hold office if he would "make and subscribe a declaration of his (sic) belief in a future state of rewards and punishments." While the belief in an afterlife provision is no longer enforced it remains on the books.
In England, closer to our own time Lionel Rothschild was elected three times by the citizens of his district to serve in Parliament. He was not seated, so could not serve, because he refused to swear a "Christian oath." Only on the third attempt, in 1858, was Rothschild allowed to take the oath of office using a Hebrew Bible.
Often the issue of oath taking arose for Jews in the context of efforts to humiliate them and declare them as untrustworthy and disloyal. Allowances have been made for Jews in America, but Muslims' particular needs remain unaddressed. So it is shocking that a Jew would seek to make this an issue for a Muslim.
For Prager, questioning Ellison's oath grows out of Prager's astounding belief that the congressional oath is "the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal -- Islamization of America."
Prager does not have an exclusive on this shamefully bigoted paranoia. An assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, Gordon Kromberg, wrote in opposition to delaying a Muslim professor's grand jury testimony until after Ramadan. "If they can kill each other during Ramadan they can appear before the grand jury," Kromberg wrote, according to Chris Hedges writing on Truthdig. Kromberg also wrote: "I am not going to put off Dr. Al-Arian's grand jury appearance just to assist in what is becoming the Islamization of America."
Lastly, I cannot help but reflect upon the legacy of my recently deceased mother's sensibilities and teachings. She survived numerous concentration and death camps and remained attuned to the "games and tricks" of anti-semites even when they were re-played on Blacks and others in this country. I can't help but hear her voice invoking what I have come to call discipline by "super-ego principle." "I expect more of you," she would say. "You should maintain a higher standard of compassion and historical consciousness because of who you are: a child of Holocaust survivors."
Orchestrated suspicion towards Muslim, gays, and others should be enough to give Jews pause when they hear the same racket being promoted against others. In Biblical terms, it is a reminder: "You were slaves in the land of Egypt therefore you know the heart of the stranger."