Breaking Down Anti-Gay Dogma

Evangelicals remain one of the principal obstacles to the full acceptance of gay Americans as people deserving equal rights and equal respect. But even in those religious circles, pressure from more tolerant Evangelicals especially the young is breaking down the barriers, Rev. Howard Bess writes.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

American culture is moving rapidly toward full acceptance of gay people, but Evangelical Christians remain one of the last strongholds of anti-gay attitudes with the standard line among the Evangelical faithful still that the practice of same-sex sexual relationships is sinful.

Yet within Evangelical colleges, pro-gay student organizations are emerging and intolerance toward gays is ebbing. Though there are still too many Bible-misquoting Evangelicals, respected Evangelical scholars have stopped writing books about the Bible’s rejection of homosexuals. Many Evangelicals now admit that neither prayer nor reparative therapy can change sexual orientation. Reparative ministries and counseling centers have largely disappeared.

At what may be the Evangelical flagship college in America, Wheaton College outside Chicago, there is now a thriving organization of Wheaton graduates putting pressure on the college to rethink issues related to sexual orientation. Membership now tops 500 and includes gay graduates and gay supporters.

I am one of those supporters though I am not gay. Wheaton College is my alma mater and I am proud to be a Wheaton graduate. I found Wheaton to be a home for a rigorous academic education, and Wheaton’s student body and faculty comprised the greatest group of people I have ever known. They were dedicated, hard-working and highly principled. To them, Christ was Lord; nothing else was so important.

Wheaton College was the birthplace of 20th Century Evangelicalism. Billy Graham was our most famous graduate. Its campus, nestled safely in Chicago’s west suburbs, was where I learned to think. I still wear a Wheaton College sweatshirt, and I still claim the Evangelical identification.

When I was a Wheaton student I pledged that I would not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, dance, play cards or attend movies. During my time there, I kept the pledge faithfully, though I know believe the Wheaton pledge was on the wrong side of culture. Those old standards have long since disappeared, but behavior is still a matter of great importance at Wheaton College. In recent years, opposition to same-sex sexual behavior has become a leading issue.

When I was a student at Wheaton College, I was not aware of any gay classmates. That was the case until my 40th class reunion. Then, a female classmate came out of the closet. Now, I know there were others. The closet was closed tight in the 1950s. Not so today.

As in all movements, there appears a voice that speaks the mind of the entire movement. That voice belongs to Steve Slagg, a recent graduate of Wheaton. He has written an epistle to Wheaton College and it is a masterpiece of truth-telling with high emotion. He loved being at Wheaton, but his presence was a four-year experience of high-level stress.

In his story, Slagg wrote two words that force the issue. We exist! Those two words have become the slogan for gay students at Evangelical colleges all across the country. We exist!

While not recognized by the college, support groups for gay students now meet on or near the campus. So, a piece of the truth is now out in the open. There are a significant number of gay students on the campus of Wheaton College. The response of the Wheaton College administration has been conciliatory, but unyielding in its position that all same-sex sexual activity is wrong, wrong, wrong.

What is happening at Wheaton College is happening all across the country. Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is another highly respected Evangelical institution. Calvin has been a bit more responsive to their gay students. Without relinquishing the stated policy about same-sex sexual behavior, the college provides open forums at which sexual orientation and practice is discussed. The school is attempting to welcome its gay students. Attitudes have become casual and for students it is no big deal.

At another leading Evangelical university, Seattle Pacific, the approach is a bit different. Recognizing the rising tide of acceptance for gay people among the nation’s youth, Seattle Pacific has an unofficial club called Haven. It has been organized by students and meets on campus, though it has been turned down twice for official recognition.

The University administration has been friendly, but an official embrace is not yet in sight.  A University official told a Christianity Today reporter that the school wants to make the University a safe place in which open discussion can take place. Across the nation from Westmont to Baylor to Cedarville, the word is out. We exist! 

Evangelicals can no more resist full gay acceptance than Wheaton College could maintain its standards from 60 years ago of no card playing, no dancing and no watching movies.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.     




Waking Up to Iran’s Real History

Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of Iran and what has driven that country’s political change over the past six decades. This false history has become the backdrop for a possible new war, as David Swanson notes in reviewing a new book, Waking Up in Tehran.

By David Swanson

According to one theory, U.S.-Iranian relations began around November 1979 when a crowd of irrational religious nutcases violently seized the U.S. embassy in Iran, took the employees hostage, tortured them, and held them until scared into freeing them by the arrival of a new sheriff in Washington, a man named Ronald Reagan.

From that day to this, according to this popular theory, Iran has been run by a bunch of subhuman lunatics with whom rational people couldn’t really talk if they wanted to. These monsters only understand force. And they have been moments away from developing and using nuclear weapons against us for decades now. Moments away, I tell you!

According to another theory — a quaint little notion that I like to refer to as “verifiable history” — the CIA, operating out of that U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1953, maliciously and illegally overthrew a relatively democratic and liberal parliamentary government, and with it the 1951 Time magazine man of the year Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, because Mossadegh insisted that Iran’s oil wealth enrich Iranians rather than foreign corporations.

The CIA installed a dictatorship run by the Shah of Iran who quickly became a major source of profits for U.S. weapons makers, and his nation a testing ground for surveillance techniques and human rights abuses. The U.S. government encouraged the Shah’s development of a nuclear energy program. But the Shah impoverished and alienated the people of Iran, including hundreds of thousands educated abroad.

A secular pro-democracy revolution nonviolently overthrew the Shah in January 1979, but it was a revolution without a leader or a plan for governing. It was co-opted by rightwing religious forces led by a man who pretended briefly to favor democratic reform. The U.S. government, operating out of the same embassy despised by many in Iran since 1953, explored possible means of keeping the Shah in power, but some in the CIA worked to facilitate what they saw as the second best option: a theocracy that would substitute religious fanaticism and oppression for populist and nationalist demands.

When the U.S. Embassy was taken over by an unarmed crowd the next November, immediately following the public announcement of the Shah’s arrival in the United States, and with fears of another U.S.-led coup widespread in Tehran, a sit-in planned for two or three days was co-opted, as the whole revolution had been, by mullahs with connections to the CIA and an extremely anti-democratic agenda.

They later made a deal with U.S. Republicans, as Robert Parry and others have well documented, to keep the hostage crisis going until Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s government secretly renewed weapons sales to the new Iranian dictatorship despite its public anti-American stance and with no more concern for its religious fervor than for that of future al-Qaeda leaders who would spend the 1980s fighting the Soviets with U.S. weapons in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Reagan administration made similarly profitable deals with Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, which had launched a war on Iran and continued it with U.S. support through the length of the Reagan presidency.

The mad military investment in the United States that took off with Reagan and again with George W. Bush, and which continues to this day, has made the nation of Iran — which asserts its serious independence from U.S. rule — a target of threatened war and actual sanctions and terrorism.

Ben Affleck was asked by Rolling Stone magazine, “What do you think the Iranians’ reaction is gonna be?” to Affleck’s movie Argo, which depicts a side-story about six embassy employees who, in 1979, avoided being taken hostage. Affleck, mixing bits of truth and mythology, just as in the movie itself, replied:

“Who the FUCK knows who knows if their reaction is going to be anything? This is still the same Stalinist, oppressive regime that was in place when the hostages were taken. There was no rhyme or reason to this action. What’s interesting is that people later figured out that Khomeini just used the hostages to consolidate power internally and marginalize the moderates and everyone in America was going, ‘What the fuck’s wrong with these people?’ You know, ‘What do they want from us?’

“It was because it wasn’t about us. It was about Khomeini holding on to power and being able to say to his political opponents, of which he had many, ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the Americans’ which is, of course, a tactic that works really well. That revolution was a students’ revolution. There were students and communists and secularists and merchants and Islamists, it’s just that Khomeini fucking slowly took it for himself.”

The takeover of the embassy is an action virtually no one would advocate in retrospect, but asserting that it lacked rhyme or reason requires willful ignorance of Iranian-U.S. relations. Claiming that nobody knew what the hostage-takers wanted requires erasing from history their very clear demands for the Shah to be returned to stand trial, for Iranian money in U.S. banks to be returned to Iran, and for the United States to commit to never again interfering in Iranian politics.

In fact, not only were those demands clearly made, but they are almost indisputably reasonable demands. A dictator guilty of murder, torture and countless other abuses should have stood trial, and should have been extradited to do so, as required by treaty. Money belonging to the Iranian government under a dictatorship should have been returned to a new Iranian government, not pocketed by a U.S. bank. And for one nation to agree not to interfere in another’s politics is merely to agree to compliance with the most fundamental requirement of legal international relations.

Argo devotes its first two minutes or so to the 1953 background of the 1979 drama. Blink and you’ll miss it, as I’m betting most viewers do. For a richer understanding of what was happening in Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s I have a better recommendation than watching Argo.

For a truly magnificent modern epic I strongly encourage getting ahold of the forthcoming masterpiece by M. Lachlan White, titled Waking Up in Tehran: Love and Intrigue in Revolutionary Iran, due to be published this spring.

Weighing in at well over 300,000 words, or about 100,000 more than Moby Dick, Waking Up in Tehran is the memoir of Margot White, an American human rights activist who became an ally of pro-democracy Iranian student groups in 1977, traveled to Iran, supported the revolution, met with the hostage-takers in the embassy, became a public figure, worked with the Kurdish resistance when the new regime attacked the Kurds for being infidels, married an Iranian, and was at home with her husband in Tehran when armed representatives of the government finally banged on the door.

I’m not going to give away what happened next. This book will transport you into the world of a gripping novel, but you’ll emerge with a political, cultural, and even linguistic education. This is an action-adventure that would, in fact, make an excellent movie — or even a film trilogy.  It’s also an historical document.

There are sections in which White relates conversations with her friends and colleagues in Iran, including their speculations as to who was behind what government intrigue. A few of these speculations strike me as in need of more serious support. They also strike me as helpful in understanding the viewpoints of Iranians at the time.

Had I edited this book I might have framed them a little differently, but I wouldn’t have left them out. I wouldn’t have left anything out. This is a several-hundred-page love letter from a woman to her husband and from an activist to humanity. It is intensely romantic and as honest as cold steel. It starts in 1977.

On Nov. 15, 1977, at the White House, our human rights president, Jimmy Carter, was holding an outdoor press conference with his good friend the Shah. The police used pepper spray on the protesters, including Margot White, in front of the White House. But then the wind shifted. Carter and the Shah ended up in tears as their wives fled indoors.

Later that day, White and an Iranian friend were attacked with a knife, chased by spies, and occupied with hiding the wallets of anti-Shah protesters in a D.C. hospital from pro-Shah forces eager to identify them.  In December, White was off to Iran to meet with the opposition, including those who had backed Mossadegh a quarter century before.

She learned the size and strength of the movement and came to understand its power to overthrow the Shah better than did the U.S. government or the U.S. media. White was followed by the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, during her stay.

In 1978, White spoke in Europe and the United States about the growing revolution and its members’ certainty that the Shah would be thrown out. She returned to Iran. She met with greedy Americans there who believed the Shah secure on his throne. She met with the opposition, including a grandson of Mossadegh, who believed the Shah was doomed and who saw the revolution as secular. He saw the mullahs as a danger and as a force susceptible to U.S. manipulation.

White was followed and chased by SAVAK. The NSA (yes, the one based in Maryland) had wiretapped the whole country (yes, the Iranians’ country) — an abuse that would later come home to the United States, as such things do.

White met with torture victims. She visited Eagle City, a colony of the U.S. military industrial complex and its spouses and children. She met with many activists in the revolutionary movement, all of whom, in the summer of ’78, saw the movement as secular. No one ever brought up the Ayatollah Khomeini, and if she brought him up (responding to his prominence in the U.S. media) they attributed no importance to him.

White described the state of U.S. media coverage: “The ‘benevolent monarch’ image was fast disappearing as the reality of the Pahlavi police state became widely exposed. Unfortunately, despite this, Iran’s protestors were being referred to as ‘mobs,’ instead of the courageous, unarmed, exhausted and determined citizens that they were. Their demands for social justice and political participation were barely mentioned, leaving the impression the protests were senseless and inexplicable, some sort of collective ‘over-reaction’ to the Shah’s ‘excesses.'”

The movement was depicted as Islamic. White quotes one of her friends’ reactions at the time:

“We think it’s a conscious decision, from several sources. It makes the Revolution seem ‘anti-West’ instead of ‘anti-US/Shah.’ It blurs the significance of Washington’s responsibility for most of the repression in Iran. It makes it sound like an ‘ideological’ movement, instead of a political one, like Iranians have some abstract, philosophical problem with Western ‘culture,’ rather than very concrete problems with jailing writers, torturing teenagers, and condemning millions of children to an early death from lack of clean water!”

White learned that Khomeini’s senior advisor in his exile in Paris was an Iranian-born American citizen named Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi, a close friend of Richard Cottam of the CIA.

By January 1979, the Shah was gone, and that spring White was back in Iran where Khomeini was consolidating power and turning against the movement that had toppled the Shah. There were huge protests on Women’s Day and May Day and on the anniversary of Mossadegh’s death.

When one of the largest newspapers in Iran reported that the Islamic Republic was being run by men with ties to the CIA, the government shut down the newspaper. It banned the pro-democracy groups that had led the revolution. It sent U.S.-made airplanes to bomb Kurdistan. Activists began organizing within the Iranian military to resist orders to attack the Kurds.

After the embassy was seized in November, a crowd of reporters gathered daily outside the gates, many of them new to Iran. White spoke to some of them and tried to educate them about Iran’s past and present. They encouraged her, as an American living in Iran, to hold a press conference and express her views. She did so, and hundreds of reporters came. She pointed out that the students said they had seized the embassy as a protest against current, not just past, CIA presence and interference.

She noted the “elaborate cameras, surveillance technology and radar equipment” they had found in the embassy, photographed, and publicized. She said Iranians had good reason to want “no further CIA presence in their country, having suffered years of political repression, torture and surveillance carried out by CIA-trained SAVAK state police.”

White’s statements were front-page news in the International Herald Tribune and big news around the world. The next day, Walter Annenberg, a wealthy Republican backer, placed a full page ad in the New York Times denouncing her. Also that day, the students in the embassy asked to meet her.

White was allowed into the embassy, where she met the students but not the hostages. Some of the students had studied in the United States and very much liked the United States, just not its government’s interference in Iran.

During her meeting with the students, a mullah came into the room briefly. He clearly exercised authority over the students without actually holding their loyalty. The relationship fit with accounts of the mullahs having co-opted an action they did not initiate. The students told White they wanted the Shah returned to stand trial. They wanted his money returned.

They gave White some of the many documents they were piecing back together following their shredding by the embassy staff. In Argo we see photographs of the six employees who escaped being pieced back together. In Waking Up in Tehran we learn that the documents given to White included U.S. plans to bring the Shah to the United States three months before he was actually brought there for medical care, as well as documenting the CIA’s presence in the embassy.

The hostage-takers in White’s telling were, among other things, an early version of WikiLeaks. They “continued to publish reconstructed Embassy documents, eventually producing 54 volumes of evidence of CIA operatives … manipulating, threatening and bribing world leaders, rigging foreign elections, hijacking local political systems, shuffling foreign governments like decks of cards, sabotaging economic competitors, assassinating regional, national and tribal leaders at will, choreographing state-to-state diplomacy like cheap theater.”

White had herself become a news story. She stumbled upon “a life-size photo of me near the gates at the front of the U.S. Embassy, looking rather baffled, my fist raised tentatively into the air. I felt awkward about it, not least because an American reporter had urged me to strike that pose.

“I’d asked the desk clerk where he’d gotten such a thing. He told me that someone had apparently enlarged the news photo into life size billboards that were being posted all around Tehran — at bus stations, the railway station, the Bazaar, and various other spots — all the way from Shoosh Square in the south up to Damavand. I’d begged the Manager to take it down and he had obliged.”

I asked White about Argo, and she said she’d watched it three times and taken notes. “As history,” she told me, “it’s worse than sloppy. The depiction of the students at the embassy is way off, as are several other things. Public hangings were over with long before November 1979. They occurred mostly in February 1979, and were mostly the upper echelons of SAVAK. The six Americans were being rescued in January 1980, almost a year later. Those things were not happening. Just the opposite — the Resistance was underway.”

White finds fault with other details: “Even the suggestion that the students were using ‘kids’ or ‘sweat shop children’ to piece together the shredded embassy documents is wrong. They had high school and college students doing it, mostly their own younger brothers and sisters. Kids of the age shown would not yet have been able to read Farsi, much less English! There is no way such children could piece together those documents.”

White objects to the general depiction of ordinary Iranians in the film: “Most troubling is the depiction of people in the Bazaar going after the Americans. That would never happen. Anyone visiting Iran would be treated as a ‘guest.’ The tradition of ‘the guest’ is so deep in Persian culture — dating back to the caravans of the silk road — that it reaches almost absurd proportions.

“But it precludes any such behavior as that depicted in the Argo Bazaar. Iranians, unlike Americans, don’t blame the people for their government’s policies. Iranian men, in particular, would never approach an American woman that way, with such aggression, and speak about politics. They might politely inquire why they were in Iran, what they thought of the country, and they might even offer them tea! They would never behave as depicted.

“Likewise, the banging on the car windows. On the contrary, cars were so thick in Tehran that crowds could not be in the streets at the same time. Also, the burning cars were long gone by January of 1980!  In Argo, the crowds are shown shouting ‘down with the Shah’ long after the Shah was overthrown. The crowds in the streets were, increasingly — as in my book — from the Resistance!”

White continued: “There’s another troubling depiction in Argo that I question, but I have no way to prove this. It’s the scene showing mock executions. I doubt they happened. The reason I doubt this is that when the hostages were released, they had one ticker tape parade (as noted in my book) and virtually disappeared — no talk shows, no endless interviews, no lecture circuits. Why?

“Wouldn’t Washington have wanted to publicize the worst features of their ordeal? If the hostages had really been subject to that level of torture, why keep silent about it? A) Reagan’s deal with the Ayatollahs? B) they weren’t tortured. Both A and B would be my guess.

“The students voted on their policies. They were a mixed group, but torture had been ruled out. I believe that is the case. Captivity, obviously, is a human rights violation, but torture is something else. Again, however, I have no way to prove this definitively.”

In the spring of 1980 Iran began bombing the Kurds in northern Iran with U.S.-made planes, and soldiers began deserting to the Kurdish side. The Iranian military attacked Tehran University, killing unarmed students, advancing a plan to islamicize the curriculum. The hostage crisis dragged on. President Carter launched an unsuccessful rescue mission.

“Interestingly,” writes White, “most people suspected the truth even though they couldn’t prove it: that the hostage situation was being deliberately prolonged  — and not by the students inside, but by those unseen forces typically referred to as ‘they.’ Why were the negotiations taking so long? The students had continued, of course, to print and publicly display copies of the embassy’s classified documents, many of them meticulously re-assembled, pieced together strip by shredded strip.

“They revealed decades of clandestine CIA operations throughout Eurasia and the Middle East, conducted primarily out of this particular embassy in Tehran — precisely the interventions and atrocities against Third World peoples described by John Stockwell’s book. They also revealed ties with CIA on the part of certain powerful Iranian clerics dating back to the 1953 coup .

“The students boldly sought publicity for the documentary evidence, but their efforts were repeatedly blocked by the regime. … [I]f such documentary evidence existed and was published, it would destroy the current regime’s credibility overnight.

“The students were being subjected to a news ‘blackout,’ and no wonder. Western media, for the most part, however, continued to refer to the embassy takeover as an action of Iran’s government, something done by the regime, rather than by its critics, or by ‘Iranians’ as a whole. Negotiations to resolve the crisis were necessarily between the two governments, reinforcing the perception that the regime had initiated and endorsed the action — instead of frantically trying to block it at every turn, fearing what would be revealed.”

The next unusual request for a meeting that White received came from Khomeini’s grandson. She agreed to meet with him. He asked her if Carter would lose the coming election if the hostages were still not freed. “We don’t like Carter,” the grandson told her.

The day Reagan was inaugurated, the hostages were freed. That week massive roundups of activists began in Iran. Crackdowns targeted anyone and anything “insufficiently Islamic.” Arbitrary arrests were followed by executions of “infidels,” including poets and leaders of the revolution. A May Day rally in 1981 was attacked. Pro-democracy and anti-Shah activists were going to prison in large numbers.

That summer, two men began standing all day, every day on White’s street and watching her house. She and her husband made plans to leave for the United States. They attended one more protest, an anti-Khomeini rally on June 20.

Then things really got interesting. I’ll leave it to you to read the book. I’ll mention only this: White herself was the victim of a mock execution. She knows in a very direct way that mock executions happened and how and by whom they were employed.

She also knows what war is and what sacrifices in the struggle against war involve. The reason the United States should stop threatening war against Iran today is not that the United States has mistreated and abused Iran in the past. It is not related to the quality of Iran’s current government. It is entirely related to the evil of war.

There is nothing worse than war that war can be used to prevent — not even greater war, something that war has always made more — not less — likely. Stephen Kinzer, in his book All the Shah’s Men, relates a conversation he had with another grandson of Mossadegh:

“He told me that a few weeks before the 1953 coup, he attended a reception at the home of an Iranian diplomat in Washington and overheard the wife of Colonel Abbas Farzanegan, a military attaché who was on the CIA’s secret payroll, boast that her husband was involved in a plot that would soon make him a cabinet minister.

“The next morning Mahmoud Mossadegh cabled this intelligence home to his grandfather. ‘Later on, after the coup, I asked him if he had received my cable. He said, “Of course I did.” When I asked him why he hadn’t done something about it, he told me there was nothing he could have done. He said he knew full well that this coup was coming. His choice was to surrender or arm his supporters and call them out to civil war. He hated to think about giving up everything he believed in, but the other alternative was out of the question.'”

Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work on behalf of human rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights in Iran. She is a critic of the current Iranian government, and lives in exile. In a message written for RootsAction.org, Ebadi opposes any attack on Iran:

“Not only military attack but even threat of military attack would slow down the progress of democracy in Iran because the government, under the pretext of safeguarding national security, would further intensify its crackdown on pro-democracy activists and critics. Moreover, such an eventuality would incite people’s nationalist sentiment, which would cause them to forget their criticisms of the government.”

If we cannot learn from our own history or this kind of common sense, let us learn from Mossadegh. War is not a solution. War is not a tool of public policy. War is not the first option, the second option, or the last resort. War is out of the question.

David Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization http://rootsaction.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.




Jesus’s Provocative Political Protest

Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth and the immediate events around his crucifixion, but less attention is given to the clearest sign of his political activism, his overturning of the money-changing tables at the Temple in Jerusalem, the likeliest reason for his execution, as Mark Manolopoulos explains.

By Mark Manolopoulos

All four Gospels recall what is euphemistically known as the “Temple Cleansing”: an outraged Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers. This story has always fascinated me even when I was an unbeliever, even whenever I am an unbeliever. I expect it has a lot to do with the fact that it contrasts sharply with the gentle and peace-loving Jesus, the hippie Christ.

But very recently this classic tale has become particularly poignant, with a renewed relevance and resonance. This article hopes to go some way in explaining why. I proceed by exploring a series of questions.

First question: did the Temple event actually happen? Answer: who knows? If we’re really honest with ourselves, we can’t even be really sure whether Jesus existed, let alone whether this “incident” happened.

His existence and this particular outburst are certainly possibilities, certainly reasonable possibilities and, today, we are surely open-minded enough to make room for the possible (which may even include the unlikely); in other words, we should no longer privilege the actual over the possible. And so, I myself can’t think of any reason why this Christic outburst couldn’t have happened, or why it wasn’t at least possible. …

Second question: what was the Temple? … In order to get to the crux of the meaning of the table-overturning, we must first determine the significance of its physical context which means determining the Temple’s meaning/s, its function/s, its effects.

For assistance, I turn to William R. Herzog II, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, and the author of three cutting-edge books. … What does Herzog say about the Temple?

Drawing on a range of scholarly and biblical sources, Herzog proposes that, with the technological advances in ancient agrarian societies (the plow, draft animals, etc.), came surplus yields, and the temple became a sneaky and seductive way for rulers to extract this additional output from the peasant base, i.e. workers would hand over their hard-earned surplus-produce to the temple for the purported sake of pleasing or appeasing the gods.

And this process was couched in properly religious terms indebtedness to Yahweh with its attendant sacrificing and taxing even if the burden was economically crushing. Sneaky and seductive, indeed.

Howard Bess, a retired Alaskan preacher who draws on the work of Herzog (and whose article inspired this paper), expresses the nature and role of the Temple in suitably acute terms: “The Temple had become a lot more than a religious temple. It had become a tax collection agency and a bank. With that fat treasury, the Temple had entered the banking business and regularly made loans, primarily to poor people. Poor people were the victims not only of a flat tax, but also high-interest loans.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Would Jesus Join the Occupy Protests?”] Sounds familiar, no?

Now, I’m not sure I would want to reduce the Temple to strictly an economic-political device for exploitation can’t we maintain the ostensibly naive possibility that the Temple was “originally” a place of worship? Both Herzog and Bess state that the Temple “had become” an “oppressive institution.” So maybe it devolved into this site of subjugation. …

Whatever the case may have been back then, today we should at least consider the “suspicious-materialist” reading of the Temple: in other words, we should be open to the possibility that it was more than and otherwise than a center of worship, that it was (also) a site of economic oppression.

Third question: what was Jesus doing in the Temple? Answer: there’s obviously a range of possible answers. The predominant interpretation, the one advanced by the likes of Joseph Fitzmyer, … is that the table-overturning event was some kind of cleansing, some kind of purging of the Temple’s commercial activity.

Herzog argues that such a reading relies on the modern dichotomy between inner, “true” religion and a religiosity that focuses on externalities, including the act of sacrifice. Herzog explains: “The offering of sacrifices was at the heart of what the temple was about, and that included all of the support services required to maintain the sacrificial system.”

And so, the argument goes that Jesus wasn’t pissed off with the commercial activity that was going on, nor do we possess any evidence that those involved in this activity were abusing this system.

Having thus discounted these and other possible readings, and having already explained how the Temple was an instrument of exploitation, Herzog raises the possibility of an economic-political reading.

Pointing out that such an interpretation has existed since the time of Reimarus (the 18th Century), Herzog explains: “The temple cleansing cannot be divorced from the role of the temple as a bank. … The temple was, therefore, at the very heart of the system of economic exploitation.”

And to what/whom does the “den of bandits” refer? Herzog proposes a reversal: not those plundering outlaws who lived in caves, but the chief priests. Herzog surmises: “Jesus’ action in the temple, then, was not a cleansing of the temple but an enacted parable or prophetic sign of God’s judgment on it and, therefore, of its impending destruction. … The destruction of the oppressive institution that the temple had become was one step toward the coming justice of the reign of God.”

In sum: “Jesus attacked the temple system itself,” assailing it because it was patently unjust.

Now, given that I’m no scriptural specialist, I can’t say with any authority that Herzog’s reading is “The Correct One,” and I can’t say with any certainty to what extent his argument is compelling. But it appears to be soundly argued, given the biblical, historical, and logical-deductive groundings of his argument, Herzog certainly provides a rigorous, convincing case; consequently, we should at least seriously consider this interpretation.

But you may rightly ask if we aren’t even sure whether the table-overturning event happened or whether Jesus even existed, and if we acknowledge that the radical economic-political interpretation may perhaps be one interpretation amongst others, why am I so drawn to this particular story and this particular reading? This is our fourth question.

Fourth Question: Why am I So Drawn to this Story? I would like to believe that the Nazarene existed and that this event happened, but whether they did/did not isn’t my primary concern, or perhaps not my most primary concern right now.

My most primary concern right now actually involves three parts, each inter-related division corresponding to description, analysis, and prescription. My most primary concern right now is: (1) the increasingly disfigured state of the planet and its inhabitants (human and otherwise), exemplified by the financial, ecological, ethical, and other crises; (2) the ways in which capitalism (and its collaborating power structures, including “democracy”) fundamentally drives (and accelerates) this disfiguration by overtly and covertly exploiting the human and non-human masses, as well as the mass that we call “Earth”; and (3) (i.e. the third part of my most primary concern) is how on Earth we can save humanity and the Earth, which, going by the scale of the destruction and subjugation, surely involves radical transformation or to use an old and bloody word revolution. 

Given this obscene state of affairs, a story like the Temple event rendered in its radical economic-political configuration is incredibly relevant on so many levels: it is a powerful. inspiring story about an individual who opposes an oppressive Temple system, whose modern corollary is capitalism, which extracts everything (and more) from the world.

The table-overturning story is powerful because an apparently powerless person rallies against the powerful. Little wonder, then, that as someone belonging to a multitude that is powerless and faithful, I am drawn to narratives such as this one. I am drawn to this narrative, drawn to its ethico-political significance for us today. I single out this biblical story/event for its applicability today, for its liberatory potential, for its emancipatory hope for here is a tale/praxis that inspires as much as it perplexes.

Others concur that this ancient tale is incredibly relevant today. Returning to Howard Bess: he refers to this story/act in addressing the initially-curious but ultimately-legitimate question, “Would Jesus Join the Occupy Protests?” to which he replies with a rigorous and resounding yes.

I will not rehearse his argument here, which already permeates the present one, and I think we can already perceive how this narrative can be easily transposed to the present day, whereby Jesus would participate in the movement against the Temple of Capitalism, whose Temple of Temples is Wall Street.

Indeed, I would even posit that the Nazarene would not only be involved in the Occupy Protests, but that he would be devoted to the task of the revolutionary overthrow of oppressive institutions, systems, empires (a task whose infancy is barely perceptible).

After all, arguments such as Herzog’s (and other brave and perceptive scholars like Bess) provide intellectual clout to the perhaps-initially-ridiculous-seeming notion that the character of Jesus is in some way driven politically “as well as” theologically, which is all very possible/probable, given that the political and the theological are and/or should be inextricably intertwined.

Radical readings like Herzog’s therefore lend weight to the possibility of Jesus as some kind of freedom fighter. Hence, this figure of the Christ is so very relevant, so very crucial for our times, given that we are reaching/have surpassed economic, ecological, and other tipping points. For here is a figure who protests against oppression, who is on the side of the poor, who stands up for them by standing up to the authorities, by committing the ethically violent act of overturning Temple tables, and who eventually dies for this standing-up-for and standing-up-to.

Now, let us quickly and briefly move our focus from what Jesus did and would do, to what his followers should do. After all, shouldn’t an understanding of the radical Christ be of consequence to the billions that identify as ‘Christian’?

After all, if true Christians are, by definition, those who are devoted to following and imitating the Nazarene, then true Christians would feel compelled to be integrally involved in the coming revolution.

And, yes, such a communistic imitation has historical precedents e.g. The German Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, England’s True Levellers movement in the 17th Century, etc., as well as much literature and revolutionary Christian writings (exemplified by liberation theology), a socio-textual history “beginning” with the communistic living of early Christians cited in the Book of Acts 4:32, 34:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” and “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

I am, then, drawn to the possibility that this ancient tale/event might motivate those of us who are motivated by Christ, by those of us who “believe in him” in some sense, by those who attempt to live by his example, more or less. I am drawn to the possibility that this evocative story will help stir revolutionary desire, will inspire Christic-Marxist praxis.

Such a story is a tale worth re-visiting, re-investing it with what appears to be its originary ethico-political power, and re-telling it, hopefully unsettling our zombie-like apathy. To be sure, one story won’t make the revolution, but surely inspirational myths and speeches and images are often/always part of the mix. And so, it is little wonder that I am so drawn to this divinely violent Gospel story, signalling the good news of revolution.

Dr. Mark Manolopoulos is associated with the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, which is based in Australia. This article is adapted from a paper that he presented to the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar in New Zealand.




Israel’s Persecution of Haneen Zoabi

Like apartheid South Africa, Zionist-ruled Israel must face the contradiction between being a modern democracy respecting equal rights for all and a state favoring one group over others. The logic of the second route is ever-increasing repression, as the case of Haneen Zoabi reveals, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

Haneen Zoabi is an Arab Israeli member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. She was elected in 2009 as a member from the Balad Party, an Arab political entity formed in 1995 with the aim of “struggling to transform the state of Israel into a democracy for all its citizens.”

In most countries of the West, this would be a perfectly normal goal, but not to Israel’s Zionist ideology which views Balad’s aim as in direct opposition to the Zionist idea of Israel as a “Jewish state,” a concept that Ms. Zoabi labels “inherently racist.”

 

In taking these stands, Haneen Zoabi appears to be fearless, a person who actually lives her principles. She has been campaigning loudly and very publicly for full citizenship rights for Israel’s Palestinians. She has also actively opposed Israel’s settlement movement, occupation policies, and its siege of Gaza.

That last effort led her to participate in the international flotilla that sought to break the Gaza siege in May 2010. That was the time Israeli commandos attacked the Mavi Marmara in international waters, killing nine Turkish activists who tried to resist the assault on their ship.

In an outright dictatorship, Ms. Zoabi would be in jail or worse.  And, given the direction of Israel’s political evolution, that still might be her fate. However, as of now she is just the worst nightmare of an ethnocentric state, and a government pushing racist policies while trying to pretend it is a democracy.

It is a nightmare for the Israel’s Zionist leadership because Zoabi, as a member of the Knesset, insists that if the Israeli Jews won’t allow full citizenship for non-Jews, as a real democracy must, then she is not going to let them pretend anymore. Yet pretense is all that is left of Israel’s international persona anid its posturing as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The country’s reputation in the world is, as the saying goes, fit for the dust bin.

Think of it this way:  Israel is the nation-state equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s fictional character Dorian Gray, a man who never seems to be anything but young, good-looking and successful. However, hidden away in some closet, there is an extraordinarily ugly and frightening portrait of him, and it is this portrait that ages and reflects the meanness and brutality of Gray’s true character.

Haneen Zoabi has uncovered such a portrait of Israel and insists on going about showing everyone the state’s real characteristics. She wants the world to see the true picture. That is why the Israeli government is trying to destroy Haneen Zoabi.

The Persecution 

The catalyst for the campaign against Zoabi was her presence on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Not only was she on a ship attempting to bring humanitarian assistance to over 1.6 million Gazans living under an illegal Israeli embargo, but she was also an eyewitness to nine official Israeli acts of murder.

With the assault on the Mavi Marmara, Israel added a deadly attack on a civilian vessel in international waters to its other acts of collective punishment, including the shelling and bombing of civilian neighborhoods and the seemingly random murder of civilians by Israeli border snipers.

All of these actions are criminal under international law and all easily fall into the category of state terrorism. However, in the Kafkaesque world of Zionism, it is Zoabi who became the terrorist.

On June 2, 2010, when she returned to the Knesset following the the Mavi Marmara incident and insisted on bearing witness to Israeli offenses, she was shouted down by her “outraged” fellow members of the Knesset, most of whom saw Zoabi as a traitor. Her efforts to describe what she had seen reduced the Knesset session to “pandemonium.”

From that point, Ms. Zoabi received hundreds of threats by letter, by e-mail and by phone. In July 2011, while contesting statements being made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she was ejected from the Knesset by the chamber’s Speaker who then suspended her from further participation based on a grossly exaggerated charge that she had assaulted one of the chamber’s ushers.

Meanwhile, members of the Prime Minister’s party, Likud, conspired to ban Ms. Zoabi from running in the upcoming Israeli elections (scheduled for Jan. 22). The Knesset’s Ethics Committee voted that Zoabi had violated Article 7A of Israel’s “Basic Law” which states that a candidate for or member of the Knesset, “cannot reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state … or support armed combat by an enemy state or terror organization against the State of Israel.”

Some Israelis claim that the group organizing the flotilla efforts to break the Gaza siege is a terrorist organization, but that is clearly nonsense. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that Ms. Zoabi is shouting from the rooftops the blatant fact that “Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” reflects a deep and tragic contradiction.

According to such luminaries of the Israeli Right as MK Danny Danon, Ms. Zoabi has “spit on the state.”  She does not belong in the Knesset, according to Danon, “she belongs in jail.” (Danon is also the politician who had the clever idea of inviting Glenn Beck, an incendiary right-wing American TV talk show personality, to address the Israeli parliament.)

Subsequently, Israel’s Supreme Court declared that the banning of Haneen Zoabi was unconstitutional, but Danon has replied that he and his allies are ready with “Plan B.”  They will simply have the Knesset change the law so as to prevent future electoral campaigns by anyone like Zoabi.

Politicians with dictatorial leanings instinctively avoid their own reflection. They cannot admit the consequences of their own actions and policies and they cannot tolerate others who publicly expose those consequences. Like Dorian Gray, they restrict the ugly truth to some hidden closet. Yet, eventually, someone like Ms. Zoabi comes along and takes up the role of truth-teller.

There is another issue that her efforts bring to light: the interests of the state (understood here as a government) and the interests of the nation (the collective occupants of a country) may not always be the same. Governments most often represent cliques or classes or elites or ideologues, etc. Those in power, ruling in the interest of these smaller constituencies, simply assume that their own parochial interests stand for the “national interest.”

Ms. Zoabi is insisting that the Israeli State cease identifying itself with the interest of a single constituency and start representing the interests of the nation as a whole. What this is all about, she says, are “the values, the humanistic, universalistic values of freedom, of equality, of justice.”

But there is nothing “universalistic” about Zionism and so, for her efforts, she is castigated and threatened. Such is the state that Zionism has built.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




The History of the Advent Season

Some Christian churches observe a near-month-long preparation for Christmas known as the Advent season, but its origins are not Bible-based and not well understood. Advent traces back to the Middle Ages when some Christians thought Jesus’s return was imminent, explains Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

We are in the middle of Advent season though few Christians can explain what it is all about. Some may know that it is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ of the Faith. Seasonal music abounds and there is a lot of candle lighting.

But an in-depth understanding of Advent escapes most believers. The meaning of the season gets swallowed up by Santa Claus and the commercialization of Christmas.

Growing up as a Baptist in a small Midwestern town, I never heard anything about Advent season. It was never mentioned at the First Baptist Church, and there were not many Catholics or Lutherans around my home town. I vaguely knew that some Christian churches had ceremonies around Christmas time that went beyond singing songs and hearing a sermon.

But I did not receive my first exposure to the Christian liturgical year until I was attending a Methodist seminary, where I learned that most Christian churches divide the year into four seasons, and that the first season was called Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Thus began my journey to understand and appreciate Advent.

A season called Advent is not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, Advent does not appear in church history until the 8th Century when it surfaced as a response to a massive wave of anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ to establish a righteous kingdom on earth. People started feverishly to prepare themselves to greet the Messiah King who would rule the world. But Jesus did not return to earth in the 8th Century.

In reading church history, Christians have shown themselves to have an addiction to the return of Jesus. Countless times over my years of being pastor, I have been approached by a parishioner with a message for me: Jesus is returning. Usually the parishioner had a date certain. Yet, each time, for some reason, Jesus did not return.

It is not easy for a pastor to explain to faithful members of the congregation that Jesus is not coming back on their time schedule. But the problem persists. People keep trying to read Bible mythology as history. People were in error in the 8th Century and have been in error every century since.

Reading Bible mythology as history and turning it into predictions is folly. Write this down in bold type: Jesus is not returning to earth to set up a righteous kingdom. Does this erase Advent as a valid tool in the cultivating of the spiritual life? I think not!

The word advent comes to us from the Latin word adventus, the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia, which means coming. A god who comes to his creation is a very common theme that runs throughout the Bible. The typical encounter between a human being and God that is described in the Bible does not happen when a human being goes looking for God. Rather these human/divine encounters take place when God comes looking for a human being who will serve him.

In the Bible material, God went looking for Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Paul. Disciples did not come looking for Jesus; Jesus went looking for disciples. The God of the Bible is an intruder.

For me, it does not matter that the Advent season does not appear in Christian history until the 8th Century. It does not matter that Christians have misunderstood the message of the intruding God. What matters to me as a follower of Jesus is that Christian people realize that the intruding God wants to break through into their lives so that the kingdom of God might have a chance in this present world.

In thinking about the word advent, it is obvious that the root word advent connects to our English word adventure. So, Advent is a season of the year when we open our eyes, ears and hearts to going on an adventure with the intruding God of the Bible.

I very much want to serve a God of love, joy and peace. The special attraction of the Advent season to me is going on a journey with an adventuresome God.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is hdbs@mtaonline.net.




Libyan Women Losing Rights

When rebels challenged Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the West and its media adopted a “good-guy/bad-guy” dichotomy, hyping dubious claims about Gaddafi and ignoring troubling extremism among the rebels. Now, the new Libya is clamping down on women’s rights, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On Dec. 3, BBC News reported on the plight of Libyan activist Magdulien Abaida, who played an important part in developing a positive image of last year’s Libyan revolt among European audiences and helped arrange material aid for the rebel forces.

She did this against the backdrop of Western governments describing the rebellion as one that sought “democratic rights” for the Libyan people. Upon the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the U.S. State Department issued a statement applauding the rebel victory as a “milestone” in the country’s “democratic transition.” This matched Ms. Abaida’s expectations. Unfortunately, her subsequent experience belied the optimism.

With the rebel victory in October 2011, Abaida  returned to Libya to help with the “democratic transition” and promote her particular cause of women’s rights. However, what she found in her homeland was chaos. The tribalism that underlies social organization in Libya had come to the fore.

According to Amnesty International, that tribalism is reflected in the activities of  “armed militias … acting completely out of control. … There are hundreds of them across the country, arresting people without warrant, detaining them incommunicado, and torturing them. … This is all happening while the government is unwilling or unable to rein the militias in.”

Abaida adds that “during the revolution everyone was united, all were working together.” That, of course, was when many of the tribes had a common enemy the Gaddafi regime. Now the common enemy is gone.

As it turned out, Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship had served for 41 years as a center of gravity a center that kept the centrifugal tribal forces in check. The National Transitional Council (NTC), which took over after the defeat of the regime and the parliamentary elections that followed, were supposed to fill the void, but proved insufficient to the task. Ms. Abaida and her cause have become victims of that failure.

Upon her return to Libya, she advocated for gender equality to be incorporated into any new Libyan constitution. She never had a chance. The tribes are tied to traditions that are strongly patriarchal. Also, the chaotic nature of post-revolution Libyan politics allowed free play to extremist Islamic forces that saw gender equality as a Western perversion.

In October 2011, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was a prominent face for the revolution and a leader of the NTC gave his first public speech after Gaddafi’s fall to propose making it easier for men to have more than one wife. For Ms Abaida this was a “big shock. … We wanted more rights, not to destroy the rights of half of society.”

Worse was yet to come. When Abaida came to Benghazi in the summer of 2012 to attend a conference on the status of women in the new Libya, she was twice abducted by an extremist militia that saw her and the conference as anti-Islamic.

During her abduction she was pointedly told that she could be killed and “nobody would know.” But they did not kill her. They just beat her up and turned her loose. She was left with the strong impression that, if she stayed politically active in Libya, she would indeed die and no one would know.

Rush to Judgment

Was what happened to Ms Abaida’s predictable? Or, to put it more broadly, could those Western leaders who spent billions of taxpayer dollars assisting in the “liberation” of Libya have predicted, with reasonably high probability, that victory for the rebels would result in political breakdown and the empowerment of extremist groups such as the one that kidnapped and assaulted Magdulien Abaida?

I think that the answer to this is yes. Indeed, I suspect that the prediction was actually made yet ignored by the powers that be.

U.S. intelligence services such as the CIA, and their equivalents in other countries, have middle-level professionals who know a great deal about almost every country in the world. They know the languages, read the local newspapers, listen to the radio and television stations, and have other sources of information that come through diplomatic and private channels.

When it comes to Libya, it is beyond doubt that the relevant intelligence workers knew the nature of this society and the divergent tribal forces that had been so long kept in check by the Gaddafi dictatorship. It is also beyond doubt that, at this country-specific level,  operatives in these intelligence agencies knew and were reporting about the relative strengths and weaknesses of extremist religious elements held in check by the regime.

The normal routine is to pass such intelligence up a hierarchical bureaucratic channel. The information deemed important enough is then packaged into daily updated reports that end up, in the case of the U.S., with the president and his national security staff.  Again, in the face of a serious rebellion against Gaddafi, it is more than reasonable to assume such information did get that far.

Yet, it would seem that such information caused no serious second thoughts about quickly jumping into the fray and backing the rebellion. Even with the historic consequences of our having armed al-Qaeda and similar groups during the Afghan-Soviet war, it does not appear that anyone in authority stopped long enough to ask if the U.S. might risk repeating this mistake in Libya.

Instead, Washington and its allies rallied NATO, rammed through a UN resolution that allowed intervention and, in short order, was aiding and abetting the rebellion. One of the ways it did this was in supplying an almost unlimited amount of weapons to rebel forces through a conduit set up by Qatar.

No one paid attention to just whom the Qataris were giving the guns to. Sure enough, some of them were given to al-Qaeda-like elements.

Thus, the move to get involved in Libya occurred very quickly. The allure of destroying Muammar Gaddafi, who had for so long been the bête noire of the U.S. (though for the past few years he had reversed policy and cooperated with the West), must have been just too strong.

Even Italy, which had found the Gaddafi government a dependable economic partner and secure source of affordable oil, dropped its support of the regime without much protest. In the rush to judgment, the question of who might gain power afterwards was, apparently, left to the middle echelon intelligence agents to worry about.

Now Gaddafi is gone, murdered to the acclaim of Hillary Clinton, and the tribal warlords and their militias have largely taken his place. The central government in Libya is weak and, under the present conditions, has little real chance of reining them in.

The aggressive extremists have our guns, as well as Gaddafi’s, and some of them are probably migrating to Syria to carry on their battle. As for Magdulien Abaida, she is too afraid to return to the land she tried so diligently to help.

As intelligence agencies go, the CIA and its like are fairly good at collecting information, analyzing it, and rendering reasoned judgments as to its meaning. (They can be, of course, utterly evil when it comes to killing and torturing, but that is not the “mission” I am presently speaking of).

Usually, the advice rendered by the middle-level folks who do the analyzing and reporting errs on the side of caution. The problem is the political leaders all too often ignore the intelligence reports when they don’t fit with their political goals.

Those goals reflect ideological and electoral concerns as well as the need to appear to be acting in strong and determined ways more assertive protectors of “freedom” than their competitors in the opposition party. This works to make presidents and prime ministers prone to opportunism and short-sightedness.

Thus, the rush to judgment in Iraq, in Libya and maybe soon in Iran. In the end, Washington has repeatedly proven that Mark Twain was wrong when he asserted “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.”

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




Worshipping Materialism at Christmas

The prevailing view on Fox News is that everyone in America, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, must join in the lavish and lengthy celebration of the birth of Jesus or be accused of warring on Christmas. But the real assault on Jesus’s teaching comes from gross materialism, says Lawrence S. Wittner.

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Although fundamentalist fanatics have been working for decades to turn the United States into a “Christian nation,” they have not had much success along these lines.

One reason for their failure is that religious minorities and non-believers have resisted. And another is probably that a large number of Americans want to preserve religious tolerance and avoid theocracy. But it might also reflect the fact that the United States is now firmly in the grip of a different religion: shopping.

After all, in this “holiday season” the dominant activity does not seem to be traditional religious worship or prayer. The recently-concluded Black Friday provided the occasion not only for an orgy of consumer spending, but for ferocious action by screaming mobs of shoppers who engaged in mass riots in their desperate attempts to obtain a variety of products.

The frenzied participants were not starving, impoverished peasants or product-deprived refugees from communist nations but reasonably comfortable, middle-class Americans. Their desperation was not driven by hunger. They simply wanted … more!

And now that the nation enters its Christmas shopping spree — conveniently begun in November, to allow plenty of time for the practice — there will undoubtedly be lots more commodity fetishism. The shopping malls are already alive with the Christmas music designed to encourage purchases, while visions of rising sales figures dance through the heads of happy store managers.

All of this, of course, leads to complaints by traditional religious believers about the commercialization of Christmas. Of course, the bloviators on Fox News seek to blame the decline of religious feeling during the Christmas season upon liberal thought. But the hard reality is that Jesus in the manger or bleeding on the cross has less appeal to many Americans that do the latest cellphones and other commercial gadgetry.

Actually, despite the emphasis on purchases during the holidays, shopping is a year-round phenomenon in the United States. Children might not be able to read, write, add, or subtract, but they know a great deal about the latest consumer products.

Their parents and grandparents are thoroughly familiar with them as well. And why wouldn’t they be? A vast array of products is regularly featured on TV and radio programs, on roadside billboards, and in their newspapers and magazines.

In fact, commercial advertising is ubiquitous in the United States, with few Americans able to escape it. Even when people are not in their homes, commercial television programs — those shoddy, thought-free commodities developed to keep the ads from bumping together — run continuously in doctors’ waiting rooms, auto repair shops, elevators, train stations, hospitals, restaurants, airports, school cafeterias, bars, and taxis.

Furthermore, advertising is not designed to merely alert people to the availability of a product, but to make them want it. Commercial enterprises understand that, thanks to the influence of advertising, purchases will not be based upon need, but upon desire.

Advertising will stir dissatisfaction with what people already have and create a craving for something else. And this is a very promising route to sales. Naturally, then, U.S. corporations engulf Americans in advertising. It’s an excellent investment, and produces legions of eager, even desperate shoppers.

Only a very rare American politician would be willing to stand up against the resulting steamroller of consumerism. Imagine the political future of a candidate for public office who said:

“There has been enough talk of economic growth and competition as the solutions to our problems. Our real challenges as Americans are to limit our consumption to what we genuinely need, to share with others who are less fortunate than we are, and to halt the plunder of our planet’s resources and the destruction of our environment.”

I suspect that she or he would not get very far. Nor, despite the similarity of this approach to the core values of religious faiths, is it popular among the mainstream U.S. churches. Yes, they encourage small-scale charitable ventures. But they do little to challenge the consumerist ethos.

Indeed, the most active and rapidly growing among the churches — the fundamentalist and evangelical denominations — have rallied behind political candidates championing unbridled capitalism and the prerogatives of wealth. “Drill baby, drill” seems far more popular among them than the Golden Rule.

Ironically, then, by not opposing the corporate cultivation of untrammeled greed among Americans, the churches have left the door open to the triumph of America’s new religion — not liberal secularism, but shopping.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).

 




Explaining the Unexplainable

Since World War II, the common reaction to the horrendous crimes of the Nazis has been to wonder how such extreme behavior was possible. But the more important point is how the process of killing could be made so mundane, a question that remains relevant today, as Gary G. Kohls explains.

By Gary G. Kohls

A couple of years ago, the iconic sign over the gate to the infamous World War II-era extermination camp at Auschwitz was stolen. (It was later recovered after being found cut into three pieces). At the top of that gate was this classic bit of Nazi propaganda, proclaimed to the millions of doomed incoming victims: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes One Free).

“Arbeit Macht Frei” is a pretty good summary of what is otherwise known as “the Protestant work ethic” that started in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Right-wing nationalists, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, pro-war, anti-Semitic, racist and religious reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther would have agreed that “Arbeit Macht Frei” supported their dogmatic teachings about fulfilling one’s patriotic duty to the state, the church or the industry that employed the people.

Following Hitler’s fascist takeover and the total destruction of Germany’s liberal democratic government in 1933, Germans were indoctrinated to believe that it was their patriotic duty to defend the Nazi’s Thousand Year Reich by any means necessary, including laboring, killing or dying for the cause.

Indeed, the efforts instituted by the fascist government (including the abolition of labor unions) resulted in virtually full employment in all of the war-related industries that were set up to ensure the success of the Thousand Year Reich, including the military arts, police, fuel, chemical, agriculture, mining and weapons production. All of these industries thrived with willing, reasonably well-paid and grateful “Good Germans” who blindly applauded Hitler for orchestrating his “economic miracle”.

The transportation and communications industries that were essential for war-making – but which were also domestically beneficial – also thrived. Good examples included the building of the Autobahn for rapid troop movement and the increased production of automobiles, including the affordable Volkswagen for the masses and the not-so-affordable Mercedes for the elite.

The provision of cheap mass-produced radios and plenty of entertainment (propaganda) that was overseen by Joseph Goebbels made sure that everybody would be able to hear the demagogues spout their Nazi propaganda demonizing non-Aryan foreigners, Jews and various anti-fascist leftists, such as trade unionists, socialists, liberals and subversive antiwar activists.

Little more than a decade earlier, in 1922, hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger had followed the fiasco of World War I. Then, just as the economy was recovering, the Wall Street Stock Market crash of 1929 sealed German democracy’s doom.

So, after Hitler was appointed to the Chancellorship in 1933, even many of the most ethical Germans were thankful for the war industry work, and they liked the state-sponsored (socialized) medical care, educational opportunities and the paid vacations of Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” campaign, even though there was essentially no freedom of movement in the labor market.

‘Good German’ Christians

Until Hitler started occupying, colonizing and brutalizing other nations, things were going well for most obedient, white “Good German” Christians. Not so for non-Christians and other minorities who were suffering under the police-state jackboot of Prussian militarism.

“Good Germans” dutifully averted their eyes and closed their ears to keep from seeing the hateful anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination that were happening all around them, including the aggressive building of concentration camps all over Germany and the occupied territories.

The Nazi concentration camps started in 1938 at Dachau. The scores of concentration camps that eventually dotted Germany’s military empire (especially occupied Poland) also provided a lot of work for Hitler’s obedient (and silenced) Volk, for each camp needed, in addition to the SS troops and Gestapo (who beat any resister into submission), numerous citizen-workers to keep them running smoothly.

The notorious extermination camp at Auschwitz employed 60 physicians and 300 nurses and many other ancillary staff members for just the medical facility, much of which was involved in human experimentation. Many of the people involved in those crimes against humanity were professed Christians.

The gulag of camps was good for the economy, though, for each of the camps was aligned with very profitable German corporations, whose bottom lines flourished with the cheap labor costs. The prison camps played a major role in Hitler’s economic boom. Germany’s Gross National Product grew substantially, for the labor was free and the food and lodging expenditures were minimal.

Auschwitz was located in Poland, far away from the eyes of most Germans back in the homeland. It was the most infamous of the camps, but the German occupiers of the newly acquired Polish territories knew what was going on inside. Still, most “Good Germans” averted their eyes and ears and noses. Most of them claimed that they were unaware that mass murder was happening on the other side of the electrified fences.

But it was a time of war and telling the truth in wartime is always a revolutionary act that requires a lot of courage. Witnessing to the truth in a time of war is also frequently regarded by military regimes as an act of treason. And so the Volk lied to themselves and to others.

Cognitive dissonance happened in Nazi Germany, although there was no such phrase back then that described the conscious or unconscious denial of and confusion about unwelcome new truths that contradicted deeply held beliefs. But the truth was obvious to all. Only one conclusion could be drawn from the 24/7 stench of burning flesh and the red smoke that came out of the crematorium’s tall stacks of each of the extermination camps.

After the total collapse of the militarists, financiers, investors and industrialists who had been behind Germany’s attempts to steal the resources of Europe and Asia (especially the oil fields of Eastern Europe and western Russia), more unwelcome truths were to be revealed. Among these revelations was the story of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Hitler’s # 2 early in the Nazi regime).

Cruelty in Child-Rearing

The Rudolf Hoess, MD, of Auschwitz infamy was the son of a devout, well-to-do, conservative Roman Catholic family that had wanted him to go into the priesthood. But circumstances were such that he instead chose to serve Hitler in the thuggish Freikorps, that group of traumatized and unemployable World War I veterans who became his street fighters and mercenary soldiers and who believed the lie that leftists, especially Jews,  socialists and communists on the home front had “stabbed Germany in the back” and were the real cause of the humiliating defeat in the trenches on the Western Front.

Just like most men who grew up in authoritarian Europe, Hoess learned unconditional obedience to authority early in his life. Cruelty in child-rearing, especially in males, usually elicits the unconscious desire for vengeance, often only acted upon in a delayed fashion, frequently against a scapegoat rather than against the original perpetrator of the cruelty, which is usually an abusive parent-figure.

Harshness in child-rearing was the norm for most German and Austrian children for centuries prior to Hitler, whose regime also promoted punitive child-rearing methods. It makes for vicious, obedient Nazi soldiers or, for that matter, Special Forces soldiers in any country.

Such “parenting” was reinforced by the similarly harsh discipline that was often practiced in most German churches and schools – and not just in Catholic schools, but in secular schools as well. And so Hoess wrote the following explanation for his willingness to reflexively carry out the decidedly un-Christ-like – indeed, satanic – orders he received from his superiors:

“Above all, I was constantly reminded that I was to comply with, and follow, the wishes or commands of parents, teachers, priests, etc., indeed all grown-ups including the servants, and that I was to allow nothing to distract me from that duty. Whatever they said, went. These fundamental values of my upbringing became part of my flesh and blood.” [See Alice Miller’s Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.]

This is how military recruits in basic training internalize the killing arts. So it should come as no surprise when soldiers react automatically and violently in the war zone, obeying even illegal orders given in the kill-or-be-killed chaos of the battlefield. After the psychological trauma, humiliation and threats of punishment experienced in their child-rearing, school yards, mean streets or their basic training, soldiers can be relied upon to react automatically, even unconsciously, and do what they have been indoctrinated to do when their own physical survival is threatened.

Duty and honor; solemn oaths of allegiance to a flag (the Swastika or the Stars and Stripes); obedience to god and country; patriotism; nationalism; “America # 1” and “Deutschland Uber Alles” are common examples that will promote the blind patriotism that has driven the killing machines on all sides of every war throughout the entire history of warfare.

Internalizing such propaganda allowed Hoess to perform his gruesome “duties” at Auschwitz, without any obvious signs of remorse when he was later tried, convicted and hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The baptized Lutheran Adolph Eichmann, a contemporary of Hoess’s, also reacted without remorse during his trial in Jerusalem long after the war, as did most of the other defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

Consequences of Violence

Sadly, the soldier-victims (willing or unwilling) of chronic brainwashing (which can easily create robotic humans willing to inflict pain on others) learn much too late that being involved in state-sponsored terrorism, directly or indirectly, can also be lethal to their souls and psyches, not to mention the souls and psyches of their battlefield victims (and loved ones when they come home), all of whom are mostly innocent, unarmed and decidedly defenseless women and children.

The invisible spiritual wounds of the warrior can also be experienced by another group: the guilty bystander, who witnessed the violence and then may have stood silently by, doing nothing to stop it. The guilt felt later for not intervening (or feeling helpless to intervene) often becomes too much to bear, with the resultant depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, drug use, homicidality and suicidality of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder symptom, often identical to that experienced by the guilty perpetrator.

One has to wonder what kind of Christianity is it that promotes harshness in parenting, racism, discriminatory attitudes toward the “enemy-other, and pro-war theologies. And what kind of Christianity remains silent about its country’s extrajudicial assassinations by drone warfare or the manufacturing, stockpiling, and training to use, the lethal weapons that are only intended for human destruction?

From where in the human soul comes the willingness to kill, torture and cooperate with the evils of state-sponsored homicide and economic oppression, irrespective of what militarized nation one lives in, fascist/capitalist Germany or “democratic”/capitalist America?

As Bob Dylan asks so poignantly in his classic antiwar song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” “And how many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?”

The answers aren’t really mysteriously blowing in the wind. The answers to the questions about why there is an epidemic of violence instead of sustained peace are understandable and therefore preventable.

The solutions to the problems (and the prevention of the consequences) concerning both military and domestic violence lie in whether or not children and recruits are treated humanely (with unconditional love and mercy) or with brutality and/or neglect in their families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, workplaces and streets.

Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.




Biblical Economics

An irony of modern politics is that many conservative Americans view themselves as devout believers in the Bible yet they ascribe to right-wing, dog-eat-dog economic theories that Jesus and other Biblical figures would condemn. The contradiction has pushed Biblical economics out of mainstream debate, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The Bible has an identifiable view of economics. Whether or not we take the point of view seriously is a matter of choice, but for those who give some sort of special authority to the Biblical writings, the viewpoint cannot be ignored. One cannot not say “I believe the Bible” and lightly dismiss the perspective developed by Israelites in an ancient setting.

The Israelite understanding of economics was developed over a period of nearly 1,000 years, from the Israelite escape from Egyptian slavery to the cruel years of slavery in Babylonia.  Putting together the story of their development of economic theory is like following the plot as a well-written novel. In its final form it was laid out by a group of Israelite priests in the Sixth Century BCE.

Priests in ancient Israel were taken seriously. They were not hampered by theories of separation of church and state or keeping religion out of economics and politics. When priests spoke about wealth, property and God, no one would dare tell them to keep their noses out of the public square. They WERE the public square.

The summary of their economic theories is imbedded in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. The essence of Biblical ethics is at times captured in short phrases. Memorize these short phrases and a person has enough guidance for a Godly life.

Examples are “am I my brother’s keeper?,” love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” A controlling and precise statement about economics is found in Leviticus 25:23 “Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

When we look at the development of the Israelite nation, it is very clear that they were not a capitalist, consumer-oriented society, whose first order of business was to spend and use material wealth on themselves and to pursue the getting of more so they could spend more lavishly on themselves.

Jesus pegged the Israelite tradition correctly when he said the greatest of all commandments was to love God with heart, mind and soul. All ethical behavior and the handling of all wealth were subservient to the command to love God.

The priests developed not-so-simple rules about how the control of land was to be handed down from generation to generation. The Year of Jubilee was meant to be a once-every-50-years complete redistribution of land among the Israelites. But the redistribution as written in Levitical law was never enacted. I suspect that those who controlled land were a bit reluctant to turn it over to “lazy” folk who had not taken good care of the family farm.

Yet, whether or not the system was ever implemented is not the point. A principle was set. All people were to have access to and use of the resources of the earth. This basic right was to take priority over any person or group to claim private ownership and use of those resources.

One can argue that these standards are from an ancient agrarian economic system that cannot be reasonably applied to modern economics. Essentially, that is the view of leading American politicians, whether President Barack Obama or his Republican rival Mitt Romney. They were both more in line with Ayn Rand than the Bible.

However, as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I am suggesting that there are principles from Leviticus 25:23 and other economic references in the Bible that can be applied to modern economic practices.

The first principle has already been mentioned but needs to be restated and is foundational to everything else. The resources for the support of life must be available to and enjoyed by all. To cut off people from basic life needs is immoral. It is an affront to the God who claims ownership of all things.

All possessions are gifts from God, and those gifts are not reserved for a select few. A living wage, clean air to breath, quality health care, and potable water all become demands from the Almighty.

The second principle is related. I make no suggestion that everyone have exactly the same resources at his/her disposal. However, just as the less fortunate in life must have basic needs met, limitations on accumulation must be put in place.

The second principle is that Biblical economics limit the permanent control and ownership of wealth by the few. In a modern economic system, Biblical economics demand that such accumulation and control of wealth be brought to an end through taxation, anti-trust laws or other legislative remedies.

Jesus was quite blunt. You cannot serve God and money. The arrogance of today’s super-rich makes the point. Super-rich people are in big trouble with God.

The third principle raises the question “who is to benefit?” In the Biblical economic system and ethic, the highest concern is focused on right where people live. Economics must serve the smaller of our social units.  A social unit may be understood as a family, a clan, a neighborhood or a community. The point of Biblical economics is that the concerns of God will never be found on Wall Street or in the corporate suites of Bank of America.

The Bible does indeed present an economic system with underlying principles. They are pounding at our door.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.  




Israeli Scholar Disputes Founding Myth

From the Archive: As Israel again “mows the grass” in Gaza taking revenge on Palestinians for firing crude missiles into Israeli territory the myth upon which the Jewish government stakes its claim to the land is front and center. But the myth faces challenges even inside Israel, as Morgan Strong reported in 2009.

By Morgan Strong (Originally published April 12, 2009)

The founding narrative of the modern State of Israel was born from the words in the Torah (or Old Testament), that God granted Abraham’s descendants the land of Israel and that Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt to conquer it.

A second part of the narrative was the story of the Diaspora that after Jewish uprisings against the Romans in the First and Second centuries A.D., the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the Western world. They often were isolated from European populations, suffered persecution, and ultimately were marked for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust.

Finally after centuries of praying for a return to Israel, the Jews achieved this goal by defeating the Arab armies in Palestine and establishing Israel in 1948. This narrative spanning more than three millennia is the singular, elemental and sustaining claim of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation.

But a 2008 book by Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges this narrative, claiming that beyond the religious question of whether God really spoke to Abraham and Moses the Roman-era Diaspora did not happen at all or at least not as commonly understood.

In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? [published in English as The Invention of the Jewish People], Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Diaspora was largely a myth that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later.

Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand’s historical analysis, they are descendents of European converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D.

The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasion and conquest and through migration created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, Sands writes. Similarly, he argues that the Jews of Spain came from the conversion of Berber tribes from northern Africa that later migrated into Europe.

The Zionist Narrative

Sand, himself a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.

However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.

The Zionists also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.

Like almost everything in the Middle East, Sand’s scholarship is fraught with powerful religious, historical and political implications. If Sand’s thesis is correct, it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.

Indeed, Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.

Despite the political implications of Sand’s book, it has not faced what might be expected: a withering assault from right-wing Israelis. The criticism has focused mostly on Sand’s credentials as an expert on European history, not an expert on ancient Middle Eastern history, a point that Sand readily acknowledges.

One critic, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, attacked Sand’s credentials and called Sand’s thesis “baseless,” but disagreed mostly over Sand’s assertion that the Diaspora story was created as an intentional myth by Zionists seeking to fabricate a direct genealogical connection between many of the world’s Jews and Israel.

“Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions,” Bartal wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.

“The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews’ exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.”

In other words, Bartal, like some other critics, is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.

But there can be no doubt that the story of the Diaspora has played a key role in the founding of Israel and that the appeal of this powerful narrative has helped the Jewish state generate sympathy around the world, especially in the United States.

“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom,” reads the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Reality from Mythology

In January 2009, as the Israeli army bombarded Palestinians in Gaza in retaliation for rockets fired into southern Israel, the world got an ugly glimpse of what can result when historical myths are allowed to drive wedges between people who otherwise might have a great deal in common.

After the conflict ended with some 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many children and other non-combatants the Israeli government investigated alleged war crimes by its army and heard testimony from Israeli troops that extremist Rabbis had proclaimed the invasion a holy war.

The troops said the Rabbis brought them booklets and articles declaring: “We are the Jewish people. We came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land, and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land.”

In his book and in an interview with Haaretz about his book Sand challenged this core myth. In the interview, he said:

“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country.

“The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th Century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”

Asked if he was saying that the true descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians, Sand responded:

“No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents.

“The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-1939], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled.

“Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ‘the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.’”

Sand argues further that the Jewish people never existed as a “nation race” but were rather an ethnic mix of disparate peoples who adopted the Jewish religion over a great period of time. Sand dismisses the Zionist argument that the Jews were an isolated and seminal ethnic group that was targeted for dispersal by the Romans.

Although ruthless in putting down challenges to their rule, the Romans allowed subjects in their occupied territories a great many freedoms, including freedom to practice religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.

Thousands of Jews served in the Roman legions, and there was a sizable Jewish community in Rome itself. Three Jewish descendants of Herod the Great, the Jewish Emperor of Jerusalem, served in the Roman Senate.

Jewish dietary laws were respected under Roman law, as well as the right not to work on the Sabbath. Jewish slaves 1,000 carried to Italy by Emperor Titus after crushing the first Jewish rebellion in 70 A.D. were bought and set free by Jewish families already long settled into Roman society.

After the final Jewish rebellion, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 A.D., historians say the Romans placed restrictions on Jews entering Jerusalem, which caused other areas, such as Galilee in northern Palestine, to become centers of Jewish learning. But there is little or no evidence of a mass forced relocation.

Sand says the Diaspora was originally a Christian myth that depicted the event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

Genetic Evidence

There has been no serious rebuttal to Sand’s book, which has been a bestseller in Israel and Europe. But there were earlier genetic studies attempting to demonstrate an unbroken line of descent among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe from the Hebrew tribes of Israel.

In a genetic study published by the United States National Academy of Sciences, the Y chromosomes of Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian Jews were compared with 16 non-Jewish groups from similar geographic locations. It found that despite long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level.

Although the study also demonstrated that 20 percent of the Ashkenazim carry Eastern European gene markers consistent with the Khazars, the results seemed to show that the Ashkenazim were descended from a common Mid-Eastern population and suggested that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the supposed Diaspora.

However, a monumental genetic study entitled, “The Journey of Man,” undertaken in 2002 by Dr. Spencer Wells, a geneticist from Stanford University, demonstrated that virtually all European males carry the same genetic markers found within the male population of the Middle East on the Y chromosomes.

That is simply because the migration of human beings began in Africa and coursed its way through the Middle East and onward, stretching over many thousands of years. In short, we are all pretty much the same.

Obsessive Delusion

Despite the lack of conclusive scientific or historical evidence, the Diaspora narrative proved to be a compelling story, much like the Biblical rendition of the Exodus from Egypt, which historians and archeologists also have questioned in recent years.

It is certainly true that all nations use myths and legend for sustenance; some tales are based on fact, others are convenient self-serving contrivances.

However, when myth and legend argue for excess, when they demand a racial, ethnic or religious purity to the exclusion of others so that some prophecy can be fulfilled or some national goal achieved reason and justice can give way to extremism and cruelty.

The motive for creating the state of Israel was to provide respite for the Jews of Europe after World War II, but that worthy cause has now been contorted into an obsessive delusion about an Israeli right to mistreat and persecute Palestinians.

When right-wing Israeli Rabbis speak of driving non-Jews out of the land that God supposedly gave to the Israelites and their descendants, these Rabbis may be speaking with full faith, but faith is by definition an unshakable belief in something that taken by itself cannot be proven.

This faith or delusion also is drawing in the rest of the world. The bloody war in Iraq was an appendage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as is the dangerous rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the region. There is also now the irony that modern Israel was established by Jews of European origin, many of whom may be ethnically unconnected to Palestine.

Another cruel aspect of this irony is that the descendants of the ancient Israelites may include many Palestinians, who are genetically indistinct from the Sephardic Jews who were, like the Palestinians, original and indigenous inhabitants of this ancient land.

Yasir Arafat told me quite often that the Israelis are really cousins of the Palestinians. He may have been wrong; they are more likely brothers and sisters.

Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an advisor to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East. He is author of the ebook, The Israeli Lobby and Me.