The more things change the more they remain the same.
As Jews read the story of the Exodus in synagogue during these weeks, our people living in France, Britain, Turkey, Belgium, and elsewhere find themselves confronting rising anti-Semitic passions stoked by radical Islamists and classic under the radar Jew-haters.
How ought we Jews to respond?
I am not one who believes that there is an anti-Semite lurking under every bed, nor do I believe that the world wants all us Jews dead. We have lots of friends and I believe that we are ill-advised to over-react. France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last Saturday: “France without Jews is no longer France.”
Yes, there has been an increase in aliyah to Israel in the French Jewish community in the last two years, and it is likely that more will do so this next year, but most French Jews are staying put and have no intention of leaving.
European anti-Semitism, of course, is nothing new, though this year’s spike since the Gaza War and Israel’s growing isolation internationally is of increasing concern. At the same time, we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that anti-Semitism in Europe today is anything like it was in the 1930s when anti-Jewish riots were government sponsored and backed. They aren’t today.
What is new is the spread of Islamic fanaticism around the world. Here too we have to be careful not to over-react. The truth is this – the vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are peaceful, non-violent and want what all people want: employment, a decent living, education for their young, healthcare, and safety.
I have heard it said that since Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have sacred texts justifying killing, we can’t judge Islam differently than we would judge Judaism and Christianity. Though there are indeed such texts in all three religions, to ignore each religion’s separate and distinct historical and religious development is not only willful ignorance but dishonest.
Judaism’s most violent era occurred between two and three thousand years ago (1200 BCE to 70 CE) during the conquest of Canaan, the period of the Judges and Israelite kings, and foreign rule over the land of Israel culminating in the destruction of the Temple by Rome. From then on, Jews were victims until the establishment of the state of Israel which has been forced to defend itself against those who have sought its destruction. Though many harshly criticize Israel, wars of self-defense are morally justifiable in Jewish tradition and everywhere in the world.
Christianity too has a long and violent history beginning in the time of Constantine (3rd-4th century CE) and stretching through the period of the Church Fathers, the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, medieval Europe, and into the twentieth century.
Islam after Mohammed (7th century CE) conquered with dizzying speed at the edge of the sword most of the peoples of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain killing anyone who didn’t convert. In the last half of the 20th century, some estimate that 10 million Muslims have been killed at the hands of other Muslims throughout the world.
Indeed, facts cannot be ignored. Since 9/11 more than 24,000 terrorist acts have been committed around the world in the name of Islam. In the past twenty years, there has arisen a fanatic, extremist, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that has inspired thousands of cult-like loyalists to kill anyone they regard as infidels and strive to undermine and crush western democracies that they consider morally corrupt.
Though the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are themselves not violent, Tom Friedman of The New York Times wrote this week that there seems to be ambivalence among too many “moderate” Muslims who may be partially sympathetic with the jihadists thus accounting for their silence in the face of so much terrorism.
What is needed now, Friedman wrote, is not a million person march of French citizens in support of tolerance, free speech and basic freedoms, but a one billion Muslim person march in protest against Muslim jihadist murderers.
I don’t know much about Islam, but a world religion that spawns so much violence has to be questioned.
Whereas both Judaism and Christianity have undergone religious reformations, Islam has not, and that fact combined with despotic rule over Muslims by oppressive regimes, a preponderance of poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment in many Islamic nations, make for a dangerous cocktail.
Ahmed Vanya, a courageous American Muslim and a fellow with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has written:
“Classical Islamic law…is definitely not peaceful or benign, and …not suited for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny … Islamism and jihadism … it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.”
This weekend we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and we read our story of the Exodus in synagogue. I welcome Ahmed Vanya’s voice and those like him in the Muslim world who speak in the true spirit of the prophetic tradition that is basic to all three great religions, for Vanya is clear as a true moderate and unafraid to stand up to the jihadists while affirming that the future need not be like either the present or the past.