These things have all happened, recently, in a certain town somewhere in the Middle East:
Its mayor, when asked if the town contained any gay people, said1, “We have no such thing. If you mean what I think you mean, then no. Thank God, this city is holy and pure.”
An eight year old girl was spat upon and called a “whore” by an outraged crowd of local men while she was simply trying to walk to school2.
A woman on a bus, who was sitting with her children, was asked to move to the back in order to maintain segregation of the sexes. This led to rioting by local supporters of segregation who smashed the windows3 of several occupied busses with hammers.
This disturbing series of events took place in Beit Shemesh, a town in central Israel that happens to be mentioned in the Bible4.
If you guessed that you were hearing about Islam again, don’t be hard on yourself. The media in the West has provided an endless series of examples of this type of affront to human decency linked either with Islamic regimes or Islamofascist political-military groups operating within states with weak central governments.
But the example of Beit Shemesh, which is under the local influence of “Ultra Orthodox” Jews, is a reminder that the three Abrahamic religions differ only in circumstance, not in essential character. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all elevate scriptural authority over human judgement; all seek to control women and closely define their permissible roles (which control is rooted in a fear and revulsion toward female sexuality); commonly recommend mistreating children; and constantly seek to expand their authority and control beyond the temple and private home into public life, politics, and civil society, even where they are at least formally forbidden from doing so. In other words, to impose their insalubrious beliefs upon everyone around them.
But they do differ in their current circumstances. At the moment, we associate Muslims with blowing up things; but Christianity had its thousand year reign of terror, and a large segment of the Jewish world embraced terrorism5 associated with the Zionist movement during and after WWII. Some of these Zionist terrorists are still considered heroes in Israel, where they were elected or appointed to high office. (Of course, many regard the character of the Israeli governance of the Occupied Territories to be a form of terrorism, and the acknowledged use by Israel of such tactics as collective punishment gives force to this point of view. But at least the Palestinians are treated more humanely than they were6 when under Arab supervision.)
Any of the Abrahamic cults are extremely dangerous when not domesticated by a civil society with a strong central government and a cultural commitment to human rights. The “Christian world” no longer tolerates unbridled Christianity. Its fangs filed down, its claws clipped, it is confined to its empty, echoing cathedrals. Judaism never had a chance to unleash the force of its jealous, vicious god upon the world. Its extremism is confined to relatively insular Orthodox communities; the government of Israel, while uneasily tolerating much of the antics of the Haredim within its borders, obviously places a far higher priority on maintaining sane relations with some of the secular, responsible governments around the world. Islam seems to be a problem not because it is worse in any essential way than the other two peas in the Abrahamic pod, but because it finds itself, at the historical moment, with the ability to express and enforce its beliefs. One would like to say that this will blow over in a century or so, except that we now have weapons of mass destruction; and imagine in what condition the human species might be in now if the Crusaders had nuclear devices.
We must be ever vigilant, because threats to secular authority come from all directions. In the U.S., where I live, politicians on the right constantly strive to insert Christianity into governance at all levels, into the public schools, the military, the courts. There are plenty of them who still aspire to abolish the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and periodically, if temporarily, succeed, in several of our more backward states. But an equally pernicious threat to human rights has its origin7 in a misguided liberal impulse toward multiculturalism. This cowardly, hand-wringing impotence is at it most obscene when it causes those in power to turn their backs on the victims of religious extremism, as part of a confused, masochistic worship of “tolerance.” Recent examples of this pathology can be found in the unwillingness of the New York City government to do much of anything to protect the health and lives of babies who are periodically infected, and sometimes killed, by Rabbis practicing metzitzah b’peh. This is a barbaric circumcision ritual where the Rabbi sucks the blood from the infant’s freshly cut penis with his mouth8. Infants are still9, today, being abused and infected in this way, because those with the ability to stop this outrage have decided that the yearly sacrifice of a few babies is preferable to offending religious sensibilities.
Those of us fortunate enough to live outside the purview of the Ayatollahs and Mullahs, should, therefore, avoid smugness when we regard the mediaeval barbarism of the Muslim world. We refrain from stoning adulteresses1 to death not because Judeo-Christianity is fundamentally more humane than Islam, but because we’ve put our religions in a box and our Enlightenment political culture and institutions stand guard over that box. While we help our Muslim brothers and sisters to build their own boxes, we should keep an eye on ours, because the Priests and Rabbis will never stop trying to break out.
1 JTA (2013) ‘Orthodox mayor proclaims no gays in israeli town of beit semesh’. The Jewish Daily Forward. Available from: http://forward.com/articles/187395/orthodox-mayor-proclaims-no-gays-in-israeli-town-o/
2 Kershner, Isabel (2011) ‘Israeli girl, 8, at center of tension over religious extremism’. New York Times. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/world/middleeast/israeli-girl-at-center-of-tension-over-religious-extremism.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
3 Dvir, Noam (Dabul) (2013) ‘Beit Shemesh: Haredim arrested for telling woman to sit in back of bus; riot ensues’. Ynet News. Available from: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4412100,00.html
4 Anon (n.d.) ‘Beit Shemesh’. Available from: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Archaeology/Bet_Shemesh.html
5 Vest, Jason (2001) ‘Oy McVey’. Village Voice. Available from: http://www.villagevoice.com/2001-12-18/news/oy-mcvey/full/
6 Dershowitz, Alan (2006) The case for peace, Wiley. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/Case-Peace-Arab-Israeli-Conflict-Resolved/dp/047004585X/
7 Ali, Ayaan Hirsi (2008) Infidel, Free Press. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/Infidel-Ayaan-Hirsi-Ali/dp/0743289692
8 Winston, Hella (2013) ‘Health department: Child infected in circumcision that defied NYC consent law’. The Jewish Week. Available from: http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/news-brief/health-department-child-infected-circumcision-defied-nyc-consent-law
9 Anon (n.d.) ‘Herpes strikes two more nyc babies after ritual circumcisions’. Available from: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/herpes-strikes-nyc-babies-ritual-circumcisions/story?id=18890284
i.e., rape victims↩