Goode-Ellison affair reveals Jewish myopia

Predictable but depressing. Given the current popularity of “dual loyalty” insinuations against American Jews (even in supposedly progressive cricles), you’d think there’d be a little Jewish outrage over essentially identical arguments being used against American Muslims. This Dec. 28 column by Jonathan Tobin from Pennsylvania’s Jewish Exponent (barely) pays lip service to such concerns, but ultimately (and idiotically) cannot contain its glee that the loyalty of a Muslim congressman is being questioned:

In late November, radio talk-show host and columnist Dennis Prager penned an article criticizing an incoming member of Congress for announcing that he would take the oath of office in January by swearing upon a Koran.

Prager is a respected Jewish author who was recently added to the roster of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which governs the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But he was publicly spanked by a wide variety of commentators and groups (including the Memorial Council) when he wrote that Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to serve in Congress, ought not to be allowed to substitute a Koran for a Bible.

Prager’s argument was that even though the swearing-in ceremony itself was symbolic (members are legally sworn without benefit of texts to swear on), the act of substituting a Koran for a Bible would be a rebuke to “the unifying value system that has formed this country.”

But Prager was skating on thin rhetorical ice. He claimed he was not trying to create a religious test for office, but that is exactly what his polemic seemed like. Many Jewish groups joined with others to rebuke the talk-show personality for making it seem as if a Muslim was somehow unwelcome on Capitol Hill.

Free to Swear

Having spent centuries fighting for the right of religious minorities to serve in government without giving up their own faith, it hardly behooved a prominent voice of Jewry to be found saying that a Muslim could not choose to swear on his own religious book. Incredibly, Prager went as far as to say that Jews who choose to swear their oaths on Bibles without the Christian New Testament included were also wrong.

Though Prager is correct about the central role of belief in Christianity in creating and protecting our freedoms, his attempt to treat a religious text as a requirement was out of line. Ellison — and anyone else — ought to be free to swear on anything he or she likes.

Rather than provoke a debate about the legitimacy of rejection of the Bible, the firestorm Prager ignited merely served to reinforce a politically correct backlash against anyone who might question Ellison.

Yet as wrong as Prager was about the oath, the dust-up over the Koran obscures a far more interesting and more important issue that lies beneath its surface. The unease about Ellison ought not to be obscured by a foolish argument that smells like bigotry to the average fair-minded American.

The ascension of the first Muslim to Congress is a notable achievement, and one which all Muslim-Americans ought to take pride. One cannot any longer speak of our public square being inhabited by “Protestant-Catholic- Jew,” as writer Will Herberg did half-a-century ago in his famous essay of that name. Now, we must add “Muslim” to that formulation, along with, perhaps, “and others.”

That such a moment would come at a time when so many of Ellison’s co-religionists are waging war on the United States abroad is an irony that speaks volumes about the seriousness of American democracy’s commitment to religious pluralism.

But while neither Prager nor Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who later echoed the columnist’s stand, has the right to dictate a swearing-in text, it’s not unfair for us to ponder whether this congressman or others are prepared to defend the values that our system is set up to protect.

Unlike the current perilous situation in France and Britain, the demography of immigration to this country is not dominated by those with ties to Islamist foes of the West. The conquering spirit of jihad that has cowed so much of Europe into silence via intimidation (such as the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch critic of Islam, or the suppression of European newspapers who sought to print Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad) has not yet found a foothold here.

But it would be foolish to pretend that Americans can remain immune to such conflicts.

Though America largely knows Ellison today only through the free (and overwhelmingly favorable) press that Prager’s jibes brought him, the Minnesotan actually has a checkered history worth examining.

In fact, Ellison was long associated with people who represent the worst in American Islam, such as the Nation of Islam’s despicable leader Louis Farrakhan (whose “Million Man March” Ellison helped to organize). Though he now disavows such ties, in this sense, Ellison is typical of the leadership of American Muslims.

Though the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support radical Islam, the groups — such as the ubiquitous Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR — that purport to speak for them are riddled with apologists for Islamism and the terrorism with which it is rightly associated.

Yet in the name of pluralism and an abhorrence of being put in the same kind of spot that Prager recently found himself, many of us fear to take them on. Indeed, as long as our primary response to proponents of Islamism in this country is to treat them as alleged victims of persecution — rather than as the proper target of federal prosecution — then we will be missing the real issue.

And on it goes in this repulsive mode. At least, in contrast, the Philadelphia Inquirer in its Dec. 28 editorial seems aware of the cognitive dissonance of extolling the superiority of Western values while acting like an intolerant zealot:

House can stand diversity; it’s bias that’s the affront
Rep. Virgil Goode Jr. (R., Va.) stooped to a new level in bigotry by ranting about the nation’s first elected Muslim congressman, who wants to use the Koran for his ceremonial swearing-in next month.

In a letter to colleagues, Goode referred obnoxiously to “the Muslim representative from Minnesota,” Democratic Rep.-elect Keith Ellison.

A Minnesota lawyer, Ellison converted to Islam as a college student.

Goode warned of more Muslims being elected to Congress unless lawmakers get tough on immigration.

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America,” he wrote.

Conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum board, entered the fray, saying Ellison should give up his post if he would not take his oath on a Bible. But after the museum board passed a resolution chastising Prager, he said he had misspoken.

President Bush, who in pushing immigration reform has spoken so eloquently about America as a melting pot of cultures and religions, has been urged to admonish Prager and Goode. He should comment, but has so far declined.

Congress, confronting a global war rooted in religious conflict, certainly has room for its first Muslim representative. What there is no room for is the blatant bias fostered by Congressman Goode.

Regarding the San Francisco Indymedia story on anti-AIPAC protests we cited above (“supposedly progressive circles”): Please note that we have no problem whatsoever with protests against AIPAC, which are always well-earned. Our problem (as we have said before) is with “dual loyalty” arguments that play into reactionary America-first nationalism—and conspiratorial thinking that makes AIPAC culpable for rather than complicit with the Iraq invasion. This is the historic role of anti-Semitism: providing a Jewish scapegoat for the crimes of imperial power. Maybe one day Jews will figure out which side their bread is buttered on…

See our last posts on resurgent Islamophobia and resurgent anti-Semitism.

  1. Poetic justice
    From AP, Jan. 5:

    First Muslim sworn into Congress using Koran once owned by Jefferson

    Keith Ellison made history Thursday, becoming the first Muslim member of United States Congress and punctuating the occasion by taking a ceremonial oath with a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

    “Look at that. That’s something else,” Ellison, a Democrat of Minnesota said as officials from the Library of Congress showed him the two-volume Koran, which was published in London in 1764.

    A few minutes later, Ellison took the ceremonial oath with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, at his side. So many of Ellison’s family members attended the ceremony that it was done in two takes.

    Ellison had already planned to be sworn in using a Koran, rather than a Bible. He learned last month about Jefferson’s Koran, with its multicolored cover and brown leather binding, and made arrangements to borrow it.

    Although the Library of Congress is right across the street from the Capitol, library officials took extra precautions in delivering the Koran for the ceremony. To protect it from the elements, they placed the Koran in a rectangular box, and handled it with a green felt wrapper once they got it inside the Capitol.

    Instead of using surface streets, they walked it over via a series of winding, underground tunnels – a trip that took more than 15 minutes. Guards then ran the book through security x-ray machines at the Capitol.

    The Koran was acquired in 1815 as part of a more than 6,400-volume collection that Jefferson sold for $24,000 to replace the congressional library that had been burned by British troops the year before, in the War of 1812. Jefferson, the United States’ third president, was a collector of books in all topics and languages.

    The book’s leather binding was added in 1919. Inside, it reads, “The Koran, commonly called ‘The Alcoran of Mohammed.”‘ Jefferson marked his ownership by writing the letter “J” next to the letter “T” that was already at the bottom of pages, according to Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress’ rare book and special collections division.

    Ellison, the first black member of Congress from Minnesota, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college. He said earlier this week that he chose to use this Koran because it showed that a visionary like Jefferson believed that wisdom could be gleaned from many sources.

    In a brief interview Thursday on his way to a vote, Ellison suggested he had tired of the whole issue of his using the Koran.

    “It was good, we did it, it’s over, and now it’s time to get down to business,” he said.

    Asked if he was relieved to have it behind him, Ellison said, “Yeah, because maybe we don’t have to talk about it so much anymore. Not that I’m complaining, but the pressing issues the country is facing are just a little bit more on my mind right now.”

    Ellison’s mother, Clida Ellison, said in an interview that she thought any controversy over her son’s choice was good, “because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about.”

    She described herself as a practicing Catholic. “I go to Mass every day,” she said.

  2. Akiva Elder warns Wolfe, Feith about “dual loyalties”
    Haaretz; Nov. 13, 2004:

    Perles Of Wisdom

    by Akiva Eldar

    Saturday night’s TV audience for the weekly foreign affairs show “Ro’im Olam” on Channel One saw Prince Hassan, King Abdullah’s uncle, starring at a London assembly of the Iraqi opposition in exile. Ever since the Bush administration ordered the CIA to nurture the exiled Iraqis, nothing happens to them by accident. Prince Hassan didn’t just happen to drop in because he was in town. The Hashemite dynasty has never given up its dream to revive the Iraqi throne. It could be a great job for Hassan, whose older brother denied him the Jordanian kingdom at the last minute.

    It’s true that restoring a monarchy in Iraq does not exactly fit the Bush administration’s vision of a democratic Middle East. But there are signs that it fits some old dreams of a few of the key strategists around the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triangle running America’s Iraq policy. A few weeks ago, Richard Perle invited the Pentagon chiefs to a meeting with researchers from a Washington think tank with particularly close relations with the Defense Department.

    According to information that reached a former top official in the Israeli security services, the researchers showed two slides to the Pentagon officials. The first was a depiction of the three goals in the war on terror and the democratization of the Middle East: Iraq – a tactical goal, Saudi Arabia – a strategic goal, and Egypt – the great prize.

    The triangle in the next slide was no less interesting: Palestine is Israel, Jordan is Palestine, and Iraq is the Hashemite Kingdom.

    The former Israeli security official met two weeks ago with a very well-connected Republican member of one of Perle’s Policy Board. The Israeli asked if the Bush administration intended to pick up where the Carter administration left off, “when it swapped the Shah’s democracy for Khomeini’s.” The Israeli warned the American about an all-out war with the entire Arab world, and added that the Perle plan would create “an impossible strategic environment” for Israel. He mentioned Algeria as an example of democratization in the wrong place. The Republican promised he’d pass it on to the White House.

    Redefining Iraq

    In 1996, Richard Perle and Doug Feith joined a small group of researchers who were asked to help Benjamin Netanyahu in his first steps as prime minister. They could not have known that four years later that the working paper they prepared, including plans for Israel to help restore the Hashemite throne in Iraq, would shed light on the current policies of the only superpower in the world. The document, prepared by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, with offices in Washington and Jerusalem, appears at the institute’s Web site, http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm, and has been mentioned in the American press.

    The current Israeli and Iraqi connection, and the key role Feith and Perle play in the Bush administration, make the document a treasure trove. Perle heads the Defense Department’s Policy Board and is considered one of the most important strategic thinkers in the American establishment. Feith is the deputy defense minister – No. 3 in the Pentagon’s hierarchy. The document presents an ambitious plan for a “U.S.-Israeli partnership based on self-reliance, maturity and mutuality – not one focused narrowly on territorial disputes.”

    The new partnership drawn up by Perle, Feith and five other researchers, has interests in all sorts of directions in the region.

    “Jordan has challenged Syria’s regional ambitions recently by suggesting the restoration of the Hashemites in Iraq,” the group writes. “Since Iraq’s future could affect the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly, it would be understandable that Israel has an interest in supporting the Hashemites in their efforts to redefine Iraq, including such measures as: visiting Jordan as the first official state visit, even before a visit to the United States, of the new Netanyahu government; supporting King Hussein by providing him with some tangible security measures to protect his regime against Syrian subversion; encouraging – through influence in the U.S. business community – investment in Jordan to shift structurally Jordan’s economy away from dependence on Iraq; and diverting Syria’s attention by using Lebanese opposition elements to destabilize Syrian control of Lebanon.”

    The experts advised Netanyahu to pull Turkey into the brew, with diplomatic, military, and operational support for Turkish actions against Syria. They say that “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” One way to do it: “… Securing tribal alliances with Arab tribes that cross into Syrian territory and are hostile to the Syrian ruling elite.”

    Since Syria prefers “a weak, but barely surviving Saddam,” if only to foil Jordanian efforts to topple him, Perle, Feith and company are recommending diverting Syria attention from the Hashemitization of Iraq. How? “By using Lebanese opposition elements to destabilize Syrian control of Lebanon.”

    Quote Peace Unquote

    At this point the two Jewish experts, eventually to become key Pentagon players, are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments (including the Reagan administration, in which Perle played a key role) and Israeli interests. They say, “Given the nature of the regime in Damascus, it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’ and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program, and rejecting ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights.”

    Perle and Feith were among the leaders of the campaign to push Congress not to support the idea of sending American peacekeeping troops to the Golan, which came up as an idea in the U.S.-mediated negotiations Yitzhak Rabin conducted with the Syrians. The group decides that “Israel’s new strategy – based on a shared philosophy of peace through strength – reflects continuity with Western values by stressing that Israel is self-reliant, does not need U.S. troops in any capacity to defend it, including on the Golan Heights, and can manage its own affairs.

    “To remove a significant lever of pressure used against it in the past,” Perle and Feith recommend the new prime minister declare on his first visit to Washington that Israel “is now mature enough to cut itself free immediately from U.S. economic aid and loan guarantees at least, which prevent economic reform.” Indeed, Netanyahu did use the occasion of his first visit to Washington as prime minister to announce a gradual reduction of civilian aid and turning some of it into defense aid. The experts believe that way Israel will improve its cooperation with the U.S. against genuine threats to the region and Western security.

    The position paper, which includes sections marked like crib sheets with “TEXT” for Netanyahu to use in his speeches, proposes some tactical methods the Israeli prime minister can use to foresee U.S. reactions and how to manage them. They give Netanyahu tips on how to maneuver congressmen, for example. They say Netanyahu should phrase his policies and emphasize those issues important to him in a language familiar to Americans and to use terms that occupied the attention of the American administrations during the Cold War and are relevant to Israel. They even recommend the timing for “winning American support” – before the November 1996 elections.

    The document’s writers propose Netanyahu press for cooperation on anti-ballistic missile defense, because “it would broaden Israel’s base of support among many in the United States Congress who may know little about Israel, but care very much about missile defense.”

    Such broad support could be helpful in the effort to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a subject that interests many in Congress, “including those who know very little about Israel.”

    And how does all this fit into the concept of the peace process, which was then facing one of its darker periods? The term ‘peace process’ appears in quotes in the document. So does the phrase ‘new Middle East,’ which, said Perle, Feith, et al “undermines the legitimacy of the nation and leads Israel into strategic paralysis.”

    1. Eric Alterman on “dual loyalties.”
      The Nation, April 3, 2003

      “This is all very confusing to your nice Jewish columnist. My own dual loyalties–there, I admitted it–were drilled into me by my parents, my grandparents, my Hebrew school teachers and my rabbis, not to mention Israeli teen-tour leaders and AIPAC college representatives. It was just about the only thing they all agreed upon. Yet this milk- (and honey-) fed loyalty to Israel as the primary component of American Jewish identity–always taught in the context of the Holocaust–inspires a certain confusion in its adherents, namely: Whose interests come first, America’s or Israel’s? Leftist landsmen are certain that an end to the occupation and a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state are the best ways to secure both Israeli security and American interests. Likudniks think it’s best for both Israel and the United States to beat the crap out of as many Arabs as possible, as ‘force is the only thing these people understand.’

      “But we ought to be honest enough to at least imagine a hypothetical clash between American and Israeli interests. Here, I feel pretty lonely admitting that, every once in a while, I’m going to go with what’s best for Israel. As I was lectured over and over while growing up, America can make a million mistakes and nobody is going to take away our country and murder us. Israel is nowhere near as vulnerable as many would have us believe, but it remains a tiny Jewish island surrounded by a sea of largely hostile Arabs. Perhaps it was a strategic mistake for America to rush to Israel’s aid in 1973, but given the alternative, I really don’t care. As Moshe Dayan told Golda Meir at the time, the ‘third temple’ was crumbling. Tough luck if it meant higher gasoline prices at home.

      “I can’t profess to speak for the motivations of others, and by the numbers, American Jews seem no more prowar than the US population, and maybe even a little less. But I’d be surprised if the Administration’s hawkish Likudniks were immune to the emotional pull of defending Dayan’s ‘third temple.’ Our inability to engage the question only forces the discussion into subterranean and sometimes anti-Semitic territory. If the Likudniks played an unsavory role in fomenting this war (and future wars), and further discussion will help illuminate this unhappy fact, then I say, ‘Let there be light.’ If something is ‘toxic’ merely to talk about, the problem is probably not in the talking, but in the doing.”