American diversity


2nd largest religionIf you ever needed proof of the ethnic and religious diversity of America….and perhaps something that scares the pants off of many who maintain their privilege you need look no further than this map provided by the Washington Post.

Christianity is by far the largest religion in the United States; more than three-quarters of Americans identify as Christians. A little more than half of us identify as Protestants, about 23 percent as Catholic and about  2 percent as Mormon.

But what about the rest of us? In the Western U.S., Buddhists represent the largest non-Christian religious bloc in most states. In 20 states, mostly in the Midwest and South, Islam is the largest non-Christian faith tradition. And in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast, Judaism has the most followers after Christianity. Hindus come in second place in Arizona and Delaware, and there are more practitioners of the Baha’i faith in South Carolina than anyone else.

So, What did the Muslims do for the Jews?


according to David J. Wasserstein, plenty in an essay he wrote for of all things, The Jewish Chronicle OnLine

Jewish subjects of the Ottoman Empire, sevente...

Jewish subjects of the Ottoman Empire, seventeenth century. From the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain. Category:Jewish Encyclopedia images (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Islam saved Jewry. This is an unpopular, discomforting claim in the modern world. But it is a historical truth. The argument for it is double. First, in 570 CE, when the Prophet Mohammad was born, the Jews and Judaism were on the way to oblivion. And second, the coming of Islam saved them, providing a new context in which they not only survived, but flourished, laying foundations for subsequent Jewish cultural prosperity – also in Christendom – through the medieval period into the modern world.

By the fourth century, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman empire. One aspect of this success was opposition to rival faiths, including Judaism, along with massive conversion of members of such faiths, sometimes by force, to Christianity. Much of our testimony about Jewish existence in the Roman empire from this time on consists of accounts of conversions.

Great and permanent reductions in numbers through conversion, between the fourth and the seventh centuries, brought with them a gradual but relentless whittling away of the status, rights, social and economic existence, and religious and cultural life of Jews all over the Roman empire.

A long series of enactments deprived Jewish people of their rights as citizens, prevented them from fulfilling their religious obligations, and excluded them from the society of their fellows.

This went along with the centuries-long military and political struggle with Persia. As a tiny element in the Christian world, the Jews should not have been affected much by this broad, political issue. Yet it affected them critically, because the Persian empire at this time included Babylon – now Iraq – at the time home to the world’s greatest concentration of Jews.

Here also were the greatest centres of Jewish intellectual life. The most important single work of Jewish cultural creativity in over 3,000 years, apart from the Bible itself – the Talmud – came into being in Babylon. The struggle between Persia and Byzantium, in our period, led increasingly to a separation between Jews under Byzantine, Christian rule and Jews under Persian rule.

Beyond all this, the Jews who lived under Christian rule seemed to have lost the knowledge of their own culturally specific languages – Hebrew and Aramaic – and to have taken on the use of Latin or Greek or other non-Jewish, local, languages. This in turn must have meant that they also lost access to the central literary works of Jewish culture – the Torah, Mishnah, poetry, midrash, even liturgy.

The loss of the unifying force represented by language – and of the associated literature – was a major step towards assimilation and disappearance. In these circumstances, with contact with the one place where Jewish cultural life continued to prosper – Babylon – cut off by conflict with Persia, Jewish life in the Christian world of late antiquity was not simply a pale shadow of what it had been three or four centuries earlier. It was doomed.

Had Islam not come along, the conflict with Persia would have continued. The separation between western Judaism, that of Christendom, and Babylonian Judaism, that of Mesopotamia, would have intensified. Jewry in the west would have declined to disappearance in many areas. And Jewry in the east would have become just another oriental cult.

But this was all prevented by the rise of Islam. The Islamic conquests of the seventh century changed the world, and did so with dramatic, wide-ranging and permanent effect for the Jews.

Within a century of the death of Mohammad, in 632, Muslim armies had conquered almost the whole of the world where Jews lived, from Spain eastward across North Africa and the Middle East as far as the eastern frontier of Iran and beyond. Almost all the Jews in the world were now ruled by Islam. This new situation transformed Jewish existence. Their fortunes changed in legal, demographic, social, religious, political, geographical, economic, linguistic and cultural terms – all for the better.

First, things improved politically. Almost everywhere in Christendom where Jews had lived now formed part of the same political space as Babylon – Cordoba and Basra lay in the same political world. The old frontier between the vital centre in Babylonia and the Jews of the Mediterranean basin was swept away, forever.

Political change was partnered by change in the legal status of the Jewish population: although it is not always clear what happened during the Muslim conquests, one thing is certain. The result of the conquests was, by and large, to make the Jews second-class citizens.

This should not be misunderstood: to be a second-class citizen was a far better thing to be than not to be a citizen at all. For most of these Jews, second-class citizenship represented a major advance. In Visigothic Spain, for example, shortly before the Muslim conquest in 711, the Jews had seen their children removed from them and forcibly converted to Christianity and had themselves been enslaved.

In the developing Islamic societies of the classical and medieval periods, being a Jew meant belonging to a category defined under law, enjoying certain rights and protections, alongside various obligations. These rights and protections were not as extensive or as generous as those enjoyed by Muslims, and the obligations were greater but, for the first few centuries, the Muslims themselves were a minority, and the practical differences were not all that great.

Along with legal near-equality came social and economic equality. Jews were not confined to ghettos, either literally or in terms of economic activity. The societies of Islam were, in effect, open societies. In religious terms, too, Jews enjoyed virtually full freedom. They might not build many new synagogues – in theory – and they might not make too public their profession of their faith, but there was no really significant restriction on the practice of their religion. Along with internal legal autonomy, they also enjoyed formal representation, through leaders of their own, before the authorities of the state. Imperfect and often not quite as rosy as this might sound, it was at least the broad norm.

The political unity brought by the new Islamic world-empire did not last, but it created a vast Islamic world civilisation, similar to the older Christian civilisation that it replaced. Within this huge area, Jews lived and enjoyed broadly similar status and rights everywhere. They could move around, maintain contacts, and develop their identity as Jews. A great new expansion of trade from the ninth century onwards brought the Spanish Jews – like the Muslims – into touch with the Jews and the Muslims even of India.

A ll this was encouraged by a further, critical development. Huge numbers of people in the new world of Islam adopted the language of the Muslim Arabs. Arabic gradually became the principal language of this vast area, excluding almost all the rest: Greek and Syriac, Aramaic and Coptic and Latin all died out, replaced by Arabic. Persian, too, went into a long retreat, to reappear later heavily influenced by Arabic.

The Jews moved over to Arabic very rapidly. By the early 10th century, only 300 years after the conquests, Sa’adya Gaon was translating the Bible into Arabic. Bible translation is a massive task – it is not undertaken unless there is a need for it. By about the year 900, the Jews had largely abandoned other languages and taken on Arabic.

The change of language in its turn brought the Jews into direct contact with broader cultural developments. The result from the 10th century on was a striking pairing of two cultures. The Jews of the Islamic world developed an entirely new culture, which differed from their culture before Islam in terms of language, cultural forms, influences, and uses. Instead of being concerned primarily with religion, the new Jewish culture of the Islamic world, like that of its neighbours, mixed the religious and the secular to a high degree. The contrast, both with the past and with medieval Christian Europe, was enormous.

Like their neighbours, these Jews wrote in Arabic in part, and in a Jewish form of that language. The use of Arabic brought them close to the Arabs. But the use of a specific Jewish form of that language maintained the barriers between Jew and Muslim. The subjects that Jews wrote about, and the literary forms in which they wrote about them, were largely new ones, borrowed from the Muslims and developed in tandem with developments in Arabic Islam.

Also at this time, Hebrew was revived as a language of high literature, parallel to the use among the Muslims of a high form of Arabic for similar purposes. Along with its use for poetry and artistic prose, secular writing of all forms in Hebrew and in (Judeo-)Arabic came into being, some of it of high quality.

Much of the greatest poetry in Hebrew written since the Bible comes from this period. Sa’adya Gaon, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Ibn Ezra (Moses and Abraham), Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Yehudah al-Harizi, Samuel ha-Nagid, and many more – all of these names, well known today, belong in the first rank of Jewish literary and cultural endeavour.

W here did these Jews produce all this? When did they and their neighbours achieve this symbiosis, this mode of living together? The Jews did it in a number of centres of excellence. The most outstanding of these was Islamic Spain, where there was a true Jewish Golden Age, alongside a wave of cultural achievement among the Muslim population. The Spanish case illustrates a more general pattern, too.

What happened in Islamic Spain – waves of Jewish cultural prosperity paralleling waves of cultural prosperity among the Muslims – exemplifies a larger pattern in Arab Islam. In Baghdad, between the ninth and the twelfth centuries; in Qayrawan (in north Africa), between the ninth and the 11th centuries; in Cairo, between the 10th and the 12th centuries, and elsewhere, the rise and fall of cultural centres of Islam tended to be reflected in the rise and fall of Jewish cultural activity in the same places.

This was not coincidence, and nor was it the product of particularly enlightened liberal patronage by Muslim rulers. It was the product of a number of deeper features of these societies, social and cultural, legal and economic, linguistic and political, which together enabled and indeed encouraged the Jews of the Islamic world to create a novel sub-culture within the high civilisation of the time.

This did not last for ever; the period of culturally successful symbiosis between Jew and Arab Muslim in the middle ages came to a close by about 1300. In reality, it had reached this point even earlier, with the overall relative decline in the importance and vitality of Arabic culture, both in relation to western European cultures and in relation to other cultural forms within Islam itself; Persian and Turkish.

Jewish cultural prosperity in the middle ages operated in large part as a function of Muslim, Arabic cultural (and to some degree political) prosperity: when Muslim Arabic culture thrived, so did that of the Jews; when Muslim Arabic culture declined, so did that of the Jews.

In the case of the Jews, however, the cultural capital thus created also served as the seed-bed of further growth elsewhere – in Christian Spain and in the Christian world more generally.

The Islamic world was not the only source of inspiration for the Jewish cultural revival that came later in Christian Europe, but it certainly was a major contributor to that development. Its significance cannot be overestimated.

From the people of humanity to the rest of humanity


It’s awe inspiring to see the oldest religious tradition known to man exert the universal principle that began with that tradition that we must love and honor one another.  That’s the message of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America which they have delivered juxtaposed with the hate spewed message of the Islamophobes that has recently graced New York City billboards.  I salute such people of faith and courage who are taking a clear stand against the trends of today’s America where  hate filled  drenched  intolerance for people different from the norm has become the order of the day.  It’s encouraging to see faith still matters to enough of us to speak out, and that there are people who are compelled by their faith into positive action for all of humanity.  To the Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, kudos!

A tale of two faith based communities


American Atheists president David Silverman, left, wanted to erect billboards in a predominantly Muslim worshipping neighborhood and a Jewish neighborhood proclaiming his belief that there is no God and challenging the faiths of those two religions.  The response of the two faiths was dramatically different and the story is really in how they reacted.

Silverman wanted to put up a billboard written in Hebrew and English questioning Judaism in Williamsburg’s Hasidic community, a community in New York City that read, “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice,” but liberal New York and it’s traditionally liberal Jewish community would have none of it.  Attempts by the people who put up billboards were blocked by the owner of the building upon which the offending billboard would have been placed and that was just fine with some of the residents of the predominantly Jewish community.  Silverman a “former” Jew himself said he was surprised and shocked at the reception his plans received in the neighborhood…..but it was feigned indignation at best.  He knew, as a Jew what others in that community already know, ‘The name of god is very holy (to us and) to the whole world’ as it is with any religion.  Yet Silverman’s in your face approach to freedom of speech was denied among the residents of the area and even among some politicians.

‘(t)he content of the message is conveyed in a disrespectful manner…This does not appear to be a genuine attempt to engage in a dialogue, but is here merely to insult the beliefs of this community,

said one NYC councilman, and he’s right, but freedom of expression is something we’ve been led to believe exists even if that speech is offensive to some.  Not so, say the residents of Williamsburg and members of the Hasidic community who’ve let others talk for them.  Ok, fine.

Silverman did put up a billboard in Paterson, NJ, a block away from the Islamic Center of Passaic County the largest place of worship for Muslims in that area.  The sign written in Arabic and English says:

but it seems to have angered more Christians than Muslims.  Even the writer of the article calls the billboard a “provocation” which is how the Christians in the community perceived it.  The fact that Silverman waited across the street from the mosque, not the nearest church,  to gauge Muslim reaction to his billboard further underscores that perception.  However, there was no noticeable outrage on the part of those who prayed at the  mosque and saw the billboard; rather their response seemed to emphasize that time honored right of freedom of expression.

“It’s a knock on the door,” Abdul Hamid, 40, said as he crouched to get his shoes after noon-time prayer at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. “If they want to come and have an open dialogue with us that’s great.”

Anes Labsiri, a 39-year-old plumber, said he was happy people can question religion in public.

“Some people might see it as a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. I love that you have this freedom in this country,” said Labsiri…….

After prayer, the imam, Mohammad Qatanani, came outside to talk with Silverman, who was hanging around the neighborhood to watch for reactions to the sign.

The two discussed religion and tolerance; humanity and God.

“We have to accept everyone — we are all from dust and become dust,” Qatanani said. “Right?”

Silverman nodded his head, but added, “Well, yes, we’re all from raw matter.”

Silverman wants to be contrary and incendiary, no doubt, but he was not able to get the kind of reaction from Muslims that everyone has come to expect.  Perhaps maybe the reason is because it is a manufactured reaction that has no basis in reality, at least as far as the Muslim community in America is concerned.  In fact, Silverman’s billboards got the kind of reaction we’ve come to expect from Muslims from Jews and Christians whose outrage at his disrespect for their religious beliefs bordered on censorship and fury.  There has been no call yet, on the part of Muslim leaders, to stop Silverman from putting up his billboard, even  in his in-your-face confrontational manner in Muslim communities unlike other religious groups who  have actively opposed Silverman’s billboards. Is this an example of Muslims practicing good citizenship?  No doubt.  Is it an example of Christians and Jews practicing good citizenship?  No doubt. Two different responses to the same provocation.  Which one do you find admirable?

 

Who is driving the anti-Shariah legislation in state legislatures


We’ve often spoke here about people whose views and opinions about their fellow Americans are so outdated and beyond the pale such dialogue belongs in the dust bin of American relics.  David Yerushalmi’s name needs to be added to the list.  He is one of the forces behind the emergence of this latest American phenomenon popping up in state legislatures across the country, called anti-Shariah legislation.  Yerushalmi and his minions have managed to frighten people in state governments into thinking their citizens want to “impose” Islamic law on others, the US Constitution notwithstanding, and therefore a clear and definite curtailment of the rights of Muslims to practice their religion is necessary to stop a threat that only exists in the minds of Yerushalmi, et.al.  The et.al who agree with this xenophobe is the Republican Party who has taken up the banner of Islamophobia in trying to enact this legislation.  If anyone has any misgivings about the GOP, they should dispel them now; it has gone over to the dark side and become the party of racists and war mongers.  How else can you account for them embracing someone as avidly racist as Yerushalmi.

this is a guy who endorses the principle that “Caucasians” are superior to blacks and that Jewish liberals are a cancer in the U.S. body politic.  The nearest Jewish “intellectual” antecedent I can determine would be Meir Kahane.  But Yerushalmi’s views are far more radical than Kahane’s.  The only difference is that Kahane embraced violence as a tool in his campaign against Arabs and anti-Semites.  The latter-day Jewish Islamophobe, an attorney, is far too slick for that.  He merely suggests that all non-citizen Muslims in the country be deported and many of the rest thrown in concentration camps. In Yerushalmi-world, any Muslim who espoused Sharia would earn him or herself a 20 year stay in the federal pen.

But there’s more

Stop the Madrassa leader David Yerushalmi also condemns democracy in the United States and, in comments that evoke classical anti-Semitic stereotypes, says he finds truth in the view that Jews “destroy their host nations like a fatal parasite.”

Yerushalmi, a national advisory board member, counsel and de facto treasurer for Stop the Madrassa, wrote regarding conservative criticism of Israel, Zionism and Jews: “Much of what drives it is true and accurate.” Conservatives’ primary “critique,” he said, “is that the Jews of the modern age are the most radical, aggressive and effective of the liberal Elite.”

“One must admit readily that the radical liberal Jew is a fact of the West and a destructive one,” he wrote. “Indeed, Jews in the main have turned their backs on the belief in G-d and His commandments as a book of laws for a particular and chosen people.”

In Israel, he said, other than the ultra-Orthodox, “Most Israelis are raging Leftists, and this includes the so-called nationalists who found a home in the ‘right-wing’ Likud political bloc or one of the other smaller and more marginal right wing parties.”

In Yerushalmi’s world, there is no room for dissent, even from his anti-semitic, fascist ramblings.  His  organization, Society of Americans for National Existence, SANE, declares, it  ‘is dedicated to the rejection of democracy and party rule and a return to a constitutional republic’.  You can read more about this darling of the Republican party who is more worthy of legal remedies to stop the spread of his anti-democracy message than even the strongest al-Qaida operative, here and here.  The fact that his ideas have found traction in todays America is both troubling and an indication of how backwards American politics have gone.

The impetus behind today’s Islamophobia


The misguided notion that the presence of Islam in the West is a threat to western values has been gaining a lot of traction lately. Its roots arise from a group of people who have attached themselves to a religious doctrine, Christian-Zionism that is completely at odds with itself, for on one hand it is driven by those who believe Jesus is the Savior of Mankind and by others who don’t share that belief at all. They have come together to form this unholy alliance against a group of people, Muslims, whose only objection to either of them is their military presence, which in many cases is an illegal presence, or their disrespect for their territorial sovereignty, in Muslim dominated countries.

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