Untimely Observations

The Myth of "Judeo-Christian Values"


Reading Larry Auster's website over the years, I find there is much in his spirited commentaries that I agree with. Larry's attacks on liberals and neoconservatives, his stress on the enormous overlap between these two only minimally different groups, his focus on the immigration issue, and his critical examination of the government's war on traditional social relations and religious morals are invariably of high quality. Larry dares to say things that one would rarely see in mainstream liberal and neoconservative publications, and therefore we on the real right owe him a debt of gratitude for these efforts.

An issue, however, that he and I strongly disagree about is his conception of a Judeo-Christian war against Islam. First, I have never shared Larry's fierce revulsion for all Muslims as bearers of violence and hatred. I have known practicing Muslims for most of my life, and among them I have numbered personal friends. I have also never perceived any signs of violence or malice in dealing with these Muslims. Last Sunday my wife and I were with a young Turkish couple in a Turkish restaurant in Allentown, PA; and I found nothing off-putting about the Muslims I saw coming in to eat Halal food. They looked, acted, and ate like the Orthodox Jews whom I have known, and I felt much safer in their company than I would have felt among the inner-city minorities, who may be Pentecostal Christians. Such non-Muslims, in any case, were doing drug deals outside the restaurant in which we were dining.

Although I agree with Larry about the need for a moratorium on immigration, particularly from Latin America, and although I share his view that decadent, childless Europeans are committing physical and demographic suicide by repopulating their countries with lower-class Muslims, who often incline toward Islamic Fundamentalism, I strongly dissent from his unqualified generalizations about adherents of Islam.

Moreover, I think that there is something other than a sense of emergency that has fueled Larry's call for a Judeo-Christian front against Muslims as a collective enemy. To be very blunt (and I may be in view of the fact that Larry has scolded me more than once as a self-hating Jew), my friend may be addressing a personal problem when he grasps for conceptual straws, as a Jew who converted to Christianity. In order to bridge the poles in his hyphenated existence, he appeals to a desirable but (alas) fictitious unity. To say that Christians and Jews are both being targeted by Islamic Fundamentalists does not mean that they share a close friendship based on common religious convictions.

Larry may wish that such a community of belief in fact existed. And so do the Christian Zionists and the Christian employees of the neoconservatives, who share Larry's rhetorical habit when they refer to "Judeo-Christians." Admittedly one could describe Jesus, Peter, and Paul as Judeo-Christians but they may have been the last Jews who would answer to that description. In the first century total war broke out between two rival Jewish sects, the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians. While the Jews had the upper hand, which they didn't for very long, they went after the Christians, and from the High Middle Ages on, the Church paid back the Jews in a more devastating way, from a greater position of strength.

Significantly, the issues Jews had and still have with Christians are theological and cultural, as well as the result of persecutions inflicted on Jews by some European societies in the past. The central Christian beliefs, that God became man in Christ and atoned on the cross for human sins, are utter blasphemy from a Jewish or Muslim perspective. And the Rabbinic attacks on Jesus that are found in the Talmud are directed against the founder of Christianity as a blasphemer. David Gordon revisits all these facts in detail in a review of George Weigel's Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism. But let me add other facts. The Rabbinic attacks against Christian beliefs were not a response to Christian persecution since they were produced in Babylonia, in what was then a predominantly Zoroastrian society. The only Christians whom the authors of the Talmud were likely to have encountered were Monophysites, who rejected the Trinitarian statement formulated at Chalcedon and who were living in Babylonia as a powerless minority.

Second, Muslims have never represented for Jews the religious problem posed by Christianity because the theological and ritual differences between Jews and Muslims are far less significant. As Maimonides pointed out in the 13th century, Jews may pray to Allah because the Muslim and Jewish conceptions of the Deity are the same. The Muslim dietary and ritual laws and the strict separation of the sexes also resemble their Jewish equivalent, although Muslims are less strict than Orthodox Jews in dietary matters. Unlike Orthodox Jews, observant Muslims will eat meat slaughtered by a Jewish ritual slaughterer, but Orthodox Jews will not return the favor by eating Halal meat. While some Jews fled from the Catholic Inquisition by going to Calvinist Holland and Dutch New Amsterdam, far more Jews left for the Ottoman Empire, where they were allowed to live for centuries in peace.

Until the eruption of hostilities between Jews and Muslims over Israel, Jews in the West continued to speak far more favorably about Muslims than they did about Christians. I myself noticed this difference in my youthful contacts with Jewish institutions, which always treated the Muslim world in a far kinder way than the Christian West. My students, who have read the historical writings of Bernard Lewis, noticed the same characteristic in this Jewish author. Whenever he compares the two universal religions, Christianity and Islam, Lewis favors the Muslims at the expense of the Christians. A distinguished Jewish historian already in his 70s, he reflects traditional Jewish attitudes toward the core religious beliefs of the two religions in question.

Until the mid-1980s when the neoconservatives started building an alliance with the Christian Zionists, Commentary featured scathing invectives against the Christian belief system as well as the "crucifixion myth" as the source of the Holocaust. Larry might wish that Jews thought differently about Christian believers since he himself is one, but alas most of them don't. Jewish organizations here and in Europe view Christians as people whose exaggerated guilt over the Holocaust can be channeled into support for the Israeli government. Prominent Jewish groups, such as the World Jewish Congress, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League, show nothing but indifference or hostility to the continued existence of Christian institutions in what used to be Christian countries.

Such behavior is not restricted to countries in which established Christian churches once persecuted Jews. It is equally present in predominantly Protestant countries, which have no significant histories of anti-Semitism. Why do most American Jews loathe the Philo-Semitic Christian Right, a religious force that only a lunatic would mistake for the anti-Jewish Russian Orthodox Church of the 19th century? In surveys about religious intolerance in America, as Norman Podhoretz rightly notes, Jews seem inordinately upset about Evangelical Christians, a group whose ethical positions are the same as those taught by Hebrew Scripture and who adore Israel almost as much as Larry.

My explanation, which Larry may not want to hear, is that Jewish distaste for Christianity is so deep-seated that it can not be written off as a legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. This unfortunate hostility actually seems to grow in intensity or expressiveness as Christians try to reach out to Jews. Christophobia may be weakest among Jews in Muslim countries, who have only minimal dealings with Christians, or among Israelis, who view Christians as a distant ally. But these Jews would not be likely go about celebrating Larry's "Judeo-Christian" values, although they might use and have used Christian Zionists as a link to Republican administrations, when the occasion presents itself.

I must also dissent from Larry's tendency to blame Jewish thinking about Christians on the effects of liberalism. Jews helped create and propagate this particular ideology largely as a protective device against an older Christian civilization. There might well be problems with the liberal ideas that Jews have supported until now, but it is simply wrong to pretend that Jewish liberals act from liberal motives that have nothing to do with their Jewish fears and hostilities. I've never met a Jewish liberal whose leftist politics was not in some way connected to his self-identity as a Jew. Larry might believe (and I wouldn't dispute his judgment) that this typically Jewish ideological stance is inappropriate for Bible-believers or incompatible with long-range Zionist interests. But it is the way that Jews have responded to their anxieties in the Christian West.  And mixed with this anxiety at some level is a sense of marginality grounded in theological difference. Here we come back to Larry's existential problem, which is his need to avoid confronting the Judeo-Muslim rejection of core Christian teachings.

These remarks are not intended to minimize the gravity of certain differences. Needless to say, I'd be delighted if Jews thought differently about the Christian world, which might end their tiresome attachment to what has become the cultural Marxist Left. But expressing this pious wish may be like wishing that elephants could fly. What seems unlikely, however, is that one could bring about an alternative reality by demonizing all Muslims. Indeed it is no longer even possible to be a crusading anti-Muslim, as the two Richards point out, without having to consort with Christopher Hitchens-secularists, feminists, and pro-gay rights liberals. Larry's holy crusade is certainly not going forth as a Christian, or "Judeo-Christian," enterprise. It has turned into a tacit alliance with the very people he professes to despise.