Friday, January 12, 2007

Dennis Prager's Folly

What was Dennis Prager thinking - if he was thinking - when he scored big in the can you top this contest for foolish statements by challenging the decision of Keith Ellison, a new congressman who is a Moslem, to take the oath of office by swearing on the Koran? Prager, ordinarily a very sensible commentator, did say something about America's Judeo-Christian tradition, a familiar cliche when political vacuity is on display. Doesn't he believe in tolerance, in the obligation to respect diversity, an obligation that is vital to the wellbeing of American Jewry? He surely knows that the Bible used by Christians at swearing-in ceremonies is not the Bible used by Jews. I assume he knows that there are religious Jews who object to being sworn, whether in court or elsewhere, their preference being to affirm. Their objection to oath-taking is based on the biblical prohibition contained in the text that Mr. Prager wants all members of Congress to swear on. Should these religious Jews be reminded that they are violating the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Likely, his folly arose from a Jewish sensibility that was aroused because in the recent period there is much not to like about Islam. The unfortunate incident may serve as a catalyst for a serious discussion of how we American Jews should relate to Islamic Americans. We have tons of material on our relations with Christians, Blacks, Latinos, and other religious and ethnic groups. So far as I know, the pages are blank when it comes to our interactions with American Muslims, surely an important subject, if only because the turmoil in the Islamic world is a matter of transcendent concern to Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. We are in for a prolonged struggle with the violent and irredentist forces that are at the center of the mega-story called Islam.

The issue that I am concerned with here is narrower, it being the question of how to relate to Americans who are Moslems. They already are a substantial presence in the U.S. and their number is, I believe, increasing because of immigration, a relatively high fertility rate and conversions. There is a strong prospect that if not soon then down the road, adherents of Islam will outnumber American Jews. Although Islam is not the force that it is in Europe, its role in the U.S. is certain to grow.

While the subject is interesting and has some relevance to what is happening in the Middle East, there's nothing distinctive about the Jewish-Islamic relationship in the U.S. There is nothing that requires much attention, which is probably why little attention has been paid. We do not rub against each other in the same neighborhoods or compete in any significant way. We are just two groups in the vast sea of American ethnicity. No matter what some may want to think, there have thankfully been very few incidents - hate or violence - involving these groups.

The serious issues arising from Islamic actions or attitudes are essentially American issues. This is true of 9/11 and all that preceded it, as well as what we have learned since about terror cells embedded in this country, fundraising for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and, more generally, beliefs that are hostile to our system of liberty and justice.

U.S. Moslems partake of the diversity that is common to all of this country's ethnic and religious groups. There are differences in nationality, commitment to Islamic principles and much else. Almost certainly, there has been some acculturation and perhaps even assimilation, a process that will continue and probably accelerate.

We should expect that whatever the degree of Islamic commitment, these Americans will have a view of Israel and the Middle East that is substantially different from ours. An Islamic congressman will not endorse AIPAC's agenda. We can expect to hear from Islamic notables sentiments that we will not like. These should not be occasions for pulling out our hair because Israel is being criticized. After all, more than a few prominent Israelis and many American Jews have said similar things.

The campus is the one area where Islamic-Jewish interactions have already been tested. The heightened interest in the Middle East and Israel has resulted in the proliferation of courses, programs and departments that focus on this subject. This has meant, in turn, the recruitment of additional specialists in the field, more than a few of whom are imbued with a measure of hostility to Israel accompanying their scholarly credentials. Universities should strive for balance and fairness, a goal that in many disciplines is far more an ideal than a reality. It's unreasonable to think that along with the other baggage they bring, academicians will be bereft of personal preferences and prejudices. Those who teach about Islam and the Middle East have views about Islam and the Middle East.

At times, we ought to protest against the appearance of bias, as when it affects how students are treated in the classroom or in the grades they are given. When we hear about an objectionable statement from an Arabist, usually the best course is to grin - or grimace - and bear it, to recognize that protest will be futile, if not counterproductive, because of the high value accorded to academic freedom. As with all social intercourse, it is not necessary or right to fight against each presumed wrong. Israel advocacy on campus has an important place in our communal planning, primarily as a vehicle for connecting the mostly assimilated younger Jews with their heritage and not primarily as a tool for counteracting everything said about Israel that we do not like.

The optimum we should strive for in our emerging relations with Islamic Americans is separation, not because they are Islamic, but because I believe this is the approach we should take to Black Americans and generally to other ethnic groups. Separation is preferable because closeness breeds expectations that usually cannot be satisfied.