Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Jewish War Against Religion

Which geniuses at the American Jewish Congress decided that it is a good idea to challenge on First Amendment grounds Notre Dame University's participation in the AmeriCorps national service program for college-age youth? AmeriCorps is a highly-regarded initiative which provides modest stipends to those who perform community service, including teaching. The law establishing the program stipulates that funding cannot be used "to provide religious instruction, conduct worship services, or engage in any form of proselytization."

This is not good enough for AJC's separation of church and state extremists. They hauled Notre Dame, a participating institution, and AmeriCorps into federal court in Washington, getting from a district judge summary judgment in AJC's favor. On March 8, in a decision that has gotten zero attention in Jewish media and little attention elsewhere, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed, ruling in language that strikes me as dismissive that the program does not violate the establishment clause when participants engage in secular activity at an educational institution that has a religious orientation.

Why did AJC go to court against a major Catholic university with a strong liberal tradition and against a program that, at most, has a negligible connection to religion? The organization has shown in recent years flexibility in church-state matters, departing from the rigidity that long was its hallmark. Interestingly, the key lawyer for AJC's Commission on Law and Social Action was not on the organization's brief to the Court of Appeals. Can it be that the decision to litigate was something of a rogue action by some AJCers?

In the reckoning of religious-group membership, the figure usually given for American Jews is between five and six million. This is way off the mark, for half of those who are included scarcely consider themselves to be Jewish. As for the other half, the majority are secular in orientation and increasingly removed from traditional Jewish practices and beliefs. Among those who continue to identify themselves as Jews, quite a few are hostile to religion. The AJC lawsuit is one of many current examples of the anti-religious strain and stain in Jewish life. It's not only that we do not practice and we do not believe, too many American Jews do not respect the right of others to practice their religion.

In the obvious tension between the two religion clauses in the First Amendment - free exercise and establishment - free exercise generally loses out. Organized American Jewry has cared preciously little about this clause and has shirked its obligation to defend this fundamental right.

In the Ten Commandments case now before the Supreme Court, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups submitted briefs arguing against any public display, as if such an innocuous action constitutes an establishment of religion. The Siyum Hashas (completion of the Talmud) ceremony at Madison Square Garden took place the evening before the Supreme Court heard arguments in this case. In a gesture demonstrating how it is truly tolerant of those who go to court against religion, Agudath Israel sat the head of the ADL in an honored place next to Mayor Bloomberg.

In the numerous zoning battles synagogues and day schools have faced in dozens of communities, far more often than not their opponents are secular Jews. In a major zoning case in the New York metropolitan area that is now in federal court, one of the main opponents of a Modern Orthodox day school is a top person at Federation. Fifty years ago, Philip Roth portrayed this reality in his notable story, "Eli the Fanatic."

Today's Jewish fanatics are those secularists who use the First Amendment as both a cover and club for their antipathy to religion. These are people who are on a mission and it is not to advance Jewish life but to harm it. Those who oppose allowing religion a neutral and very minimal place in the public square have not changed their tune for at least two generations, even as secular Jews are willing and eager to jettison nearly all that has enriched and sustained Jewish life for generations.

At a time when on such hot-button issues as gay rights and abortion there is a willingness on the part of many proponents to rethink their strategy and to moderate their message, if only because of what transpired in November, our secularists stay the course, seeking to ferret out every imagined act that might show public tolerance of religion. At least the fellow who brought the Pledge of Allegiance case was open about his anti-religious sentiments.

American Jewry is on a collision course with America. For all of their invocation of religion, most Americans are not a particularly religious people. Like most people elsewhere, they want to have faith in an ideal that transcends their everyday experiences and this somewhat emotional desire is formulated in a mostly symbolic attachment to religion. When organized Jewry opposes this sentiment, we are going against the grain of what most Americans want. In the process, we are becoming marginalized.

A high cost is being exacted as a consequence of our intransigence. Jews have significant influence on the Democratic Party and on the course of liberalism, both of which have lost their way because of an inability to adjust and to understand that man does not live by bread alone, that people want to believe and that the war against religion is alienating many.

The Jewish war against religion is dangerous because it may compromise support for Israel. It could be that no matter how steadfast we are in fighting against religion, social conservatives who are primarily Christian will continue to embrace Israel because the Jewish state is the fulfillment of their theology. This is a big maybe and we are taking a huge risk.