Judith S. Jacobson Reviews Herbert London’s: “America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion”

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Judith S. Jacobson Reviews Herbert London’s:  “America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion”
Americas Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion (Brief Encounters). Herbert London. Published by Encounter Books, 2008. $18.00 pp.100

Herb London is a member of SPME.

In this little hardcover book (only 97 pages from Preface through Conclusion), Herbert London argues that Judeo-Christian culture, American values, and scientific truth play a vital and positive but currently unappreciated role in our world. He also argues that those who can be loosely categorized as secularists blind us to the serious threat Islamism poses to western civilization, excusing Islamist aggression as a response to exploitation of third world populations by the western countries, denouncing as “Islamophobia” any attempts to hold Islamists responsible for their crimes, and denying the reality of death threats against the United States.

As his title implies, he is particularly critical of those who, in the name of separation of church and state, strive for “the wholesale removal of religion from public life,” while simultaneously romanticizing Islam.

The book is, of course, brilliantly written. In the right hands, it could be a fine jumping-off point for group discussions, and an excellent choice as assigned reading for entering college freshmen. Unfortunately, not many colleges have faculty who would lead seminars about the book without bashing it for its conservative bias. Perhaps instead, churches and synagogues could conduct the seminars for students who are about to leave for college, to prepare them for what they will face when they get there. But even those seminar leaders would probably need help beyond the book.

I am in agreement with 90% of London’s argument. Like him, “I, a Jew,… appreciate the role that Christianity plays in buttressing Western democracies.” And I have fond memories of the public elementary school I attended in New England in the 1950s. Every morning we read a psalm and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. In a school system where 80% of students were Jews, 90% of teachers were Christians, and they made glorious events out of Thanksgiving and Christmas. To this day I know more verses of carols than most of my Christian friends, and my sister and I embarrass our children every Thanksgiving by singing the hymns of our Puritan “forebears” at the dinner table.

In the 1960s, the college I attended had an assembly called Convocation every Tuesday at noon. Attendance was taken, and I somehow got a job as an attendance taker; perhaps the distraction of taking attendance accounts for my failure to remember anything of what must have been nonsectarian sermons. I did learn that Convocation had previously been called Chapel and that failure to attend had been penalized in some way. The name change is evidence that secularization had already begun, even in elite institutions that originated as seminaries.

Previously, and elsewhere in the United States until quite recently, more aggressive expressions of Christianity were common. Jews, Christians of the wrong denomination, and others were insistently proselytized, expected to conform to the dominant form of observance, and shamed, persecuted, or otherwise placed at a disadvantage if they did not. Compulsory attendance at Chapel was probably the least of it.

In other words, contrary to what London implies, the pre-secular era was no Garden of Eden. But it did not occur to me that the benign forms of Christianity to which I had been exposed could be perceived as threatening until one December in the 1970s. The Israeli mother of one of my children’s friends started complaining bitterly about having to listen to Christmas carols in department stores. When I tried to point out how beautiful the music was (in the 1970s, we heard more Bach and Adam and less Alvin and Rudolph than now), her face froze; our relationship was never quite the same.

Flash forward to 2007, when the placing of a ham on a table where Somali Muslim students were eating lunch in a public middle school in Lewiston, ME, was designated a “hate incident.” The perpetrator, who had been dared to place the ham on the table, was briefly suspended from school and made to apologize. A parody of the incident was widely reported as fact, and the ensuing public uproar gave clear evidence that living in a pluralistic society is not as easy as we thought.

At best, we are bound to get on one another’s nerves. Can we at least live together without infringing one another’s rights? Secularism is a mindless response to that problem. Another response is to display menorahs and Kwanzaa candles alongside Christmas trees. But how far are we willing to go in the direction of multiculturalism? Are we prepared to have Mohammed’s daddy come to school and slaughter a lamb for the edification of first graders? If not, are we Islamophobic? Can we somehow find our way back to the pre-secular era, but purge it of its oppressive and discriminatory features? London does not really address these questions, nor do I have answers for them, but they badly need to be addressed.

London also does his case no service by off-handedly equating late-term or partial-birth abortion with infanticide. He seems not to be aware that a rare medical procedure intended for use only where the birth of a non-viable hydrocephalic fetus would endanger the mother’s health and future ability to bear children has become politicized by anti-abortion activists. Unwanted or high-risk pregnancy in general is a unique case of rights in conflict, one that deserves principled and detailed consideration but does not receive it in this book.

London raises important issues, but many of them cry out for more substantive treatment. The book is too short. I am glad he wrote it, but without something along the lines of a seminar leader’s manual, it is largely a sermon for the choir.

Judith S. Jacobson Reviews Herbert London’s: “America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion”

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Judith S. Jacobson

Universities have never been perfect, but they were not always the way they have become in the past decade or so. I graduated from Brown in 1964. In my day, old-fashioned anti-Semitism was not quite dead. After World War II, Brown and other ivies had increased their admissions of Jewish students. There was still some discrimination about financial aid, which Jews were thought not to need, but in the classroom, we had a kind of freedom and openness that is rare now. And for a while, things got better.In the 1960s because of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, faculty and students brought advocacy into the classroom. We believed that professors should express their opinions instead of hiding behind a façade of objectivity. We believed, and I still believe, that honest and open exchange facilitates the pursuit of truth. Students as well as professors had freedom of speech, and all ideas were up for grabs. It seemed like a good thing. But it was hijacked by people with a different agenda.My friends and I were civil rights activists, and then anti-Vietnam war activists. We thought every leftward leaning person wore a halo. Some of us still think that. But in early June 1967, my friends and I were all worried about Israel; a bunch of young men I knew were ready to head over to Israel to help, and then, before they could get on a flight, the Six-day War was over.Wonderful, I thought. Now I can relax, right? Wrong. Within days, it seemed, the left had turned against Israel. The Israelis were doing terrible things in Ramallah, my friends told me.I concentrated on the Vietnam War until my buddies on the left started supporting North Vietnam. Wanting the United States to get out of Vietnam seemed to me very different from encouraging people to kill American soldiers.So then I concentrated on the Women’s Movement, but luckily, before that got too weird I got married and started having babies. And then the babies grew, and I went to graduate school in public health at Columbia. In 1996, a few weeks before my younger son graduated from college I got my doctorate and joined the Columbia faculty in the Mailman School of Public Health.But in the 1970s, before I was on the faculty and while I wasn’t paying attention, the brilliant and charismatic Edward Said came to Columbia. His special mission was to use the tools of liberal education to undermine western civilization. From his base in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, he dispensed what is now called postcolonialism to a generation of academics and students in the humanities and social sciences. He was full of charisma and Euro-Palestinian radical chic, and he argued that being an American of European descent makes one incapable of understanding the terrible suffering and oppression experienced by the Third World, especially Palestinians. He also said, famously, “Facts don’t count; only emotions count.”Thereafter, postcolonialism and the demonization of Israel and the United States spread through university departments of literature, history, anthropology, and the social sciences, with disastrous consequences for the pursuit of truth.Those of us who love Israel tend to take its bashing personally. We either fall into soul searching, asking ourselves if we really did those bad things in a fit of absent-mindedness, or we start sputtering defensive denials - no, we are not an apartheid state, no, we don’t do genocide. Neither response does any good or addresses the real problem.Israel, however much we love or hate her, is one small country. The time that professors spend on Israel-bashing is time not spent on the actual politics, cultures, economics, geography of the vast and complex Middle East. It is time not spent on honor killings or slavery; on the differences between Iran and Iraq, or the cultures of the Kurds, the Copts, and the Assyrians. It is also time not spent on Dante or the deforestation of the Amazon or the role of the geisha in Japanese business. However, postcolonialism and Israel-bashing have had relatively little impact on the medical schools, the public health schools, most of the other professional schools, and the hard sciences.So in the spring of 2002, I was studying the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients when a friend who had college-age children asked me to join an on-line listserv called Professors for Peace. When I asked why, he replied, So you can respond to the lies about Israel. Within minutes of subscribing, I was being deluged by poisonous anti-Israel nonsense emailed by my fellow academics.Over the next few weeks, a few of the lies were so preposterous that I lost control and let out a little squeak of outrage on the internet. For example, someone quoted a Columbia professor, Gayatri Spivak, about the beauty of suicide bombing. I could not help responding that that was not my idea of beauty. But I kept wondering, Where are all the other Columbia professors who know the truth about Israel? Why aren’t they on the job here?After a month or so, someone named Ed Beck from Harrisburg PA emailed me off the listserv and suggested that we start our own listserv. I asked, Wouldn’t we be preaching to the choir? He said, If we are going to have no impact, preaching to the choir will be more fun than being preached to by the devil. That was the beginning of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.Since then, SPME has grown from an email list of some 300 academics to a global organization reaching more than 30,000. Our growth has made it possible to respond to some of the lies disseminated by Israel’s enemies. We have worked both behind the scenes and in public to preserve the integrity of academic institutions.We have been misrepresented as an organization of knee-jerk right-wing Palestinian-oppressing Zionists who seek to suppress the free speech of anyone who implies that Israel is not perfect. We concede that Israel is imperfect, but we do not believe it is so much less perfect than, say, India or Italy that it does not have a right to exist. No serious efforts are being made to promote boycotts of or divestment from other countries, however much they violate human rights.It is important to remember that although much of the Middle East is undeveloped, it is not poor. Even the Palestinians, or at least their leaders, are not poor. If you are not really trying to provide services for your population, and you are getting handouts from the European governments, you can put together enough cash even after your suicide bomber expenses to fund several professorial chairs, as well as to send to American universities a number of students whom you have trained in the fine art of propaganda.The sources of funding for the Edward Said chair at Columbia, now occupied by Rashid Khalidi, include, in addition to the United Arab Emirates, a number of sources close to the Palestinian Authority. Khalidi’s Middle East Institute has also received funding from the Saudis. (Of course, as Martin Kramer points out, people without a specific interest are unlikely to fund Middle East studies.)The source of the problem on campus is:1. A systematic and well-financed effort to use educational institutions to undermine public support for Israel and, to the extent possible, the United States2. A widespread bias among academics in the humanities and social sciences against anything the US government or Israel is associated with; all such causes are termed right-wing and are therefore anathema3. Even among academics and students who support Israel and are aware of the problem of anti-Semitism on the campuses, a kind of cognitive dissonance, a refusal to see that the left does not have a halo (neither does the right, but it is not useful in this context to classify things as left or right), and a tendency to deny or minimize the problem.However, little by little, we have helped to make faculty aware that the enemies of Israel are also the enemies of academic freedom. With support from those faculty, we hope to preserve the integrity of our academic institutions. That is our mission.

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