Category Archives: religion

The Rise of the Religiously “Unaffiliated”

One in five adults in the United States—and one in three adults under the age of 30—do not identify with any religious tradition, a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, marking a noticeable growth in the number of “unaffiliated” Americans in the past five years. But lack of religious affiliation does not correspond to spirituality, the survey also finds: Of the 46 million Americans that don’t claim a religion, more than two thirds say they believe in God, more than a third consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while just over a quarter are self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics. These changes affect more than just demographics, as the religiously unaffiliated are becoming an increasingly important part of the electorate. In 2008, they came out for Barack Obama as strongly as white evangelicals did for John McCain, and continue to show preference for the Democratic Party and support liberal social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Religious Restrictions Increase Globally

by Natalie Buchbinder

When you think of religious restriction, what country comes to mind? Visions of the Middle East, North Africa, portions of the East? What about the United States? Israel? Both saw a rise in their restrictions against religion in a one-year period from August 2009 through mid-2010, according to new data published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The problem is not contained to a specific region. Globally, the rate of religious intolerance has risen 6 percent. More three-quarters of the world’s population endures violations of their religious values in some form. Shouldn’t we be moving forward, not taking steps backward? According to the data, all five major world religions–Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism–have experienced a rise in restrictions placed against their religion by the countries their followers reside in, both socially and through government action.

In the United States, restrictions range from the prohibition of wearing religious attire to the rejection of religious permits.  According to the report, some individuals in state facilities were barred from maintaining a religiously mandated beard that violated “inmate grooming policy.” The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating this instance on behalf of a Seikh inmate.

But the situation in some other countries is far more dire. Israel is on the list of “Countries with Very High Social Hostilities Involving Religion,” which Pew defines as those countries in which religious groups experience hostility from citizens and social groups and organizations.

Israel is joined on the list, which has increased by 50% since 2007, by 14 other countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestinian Territories, Saudia Arabia and Egypt in the Middle Eastern region alone. This rise marks a dangerous trend for the world. Social hostility includes terrorist attacks, to which Israel is no stranger.

While the report shows that Christians and Muslims experience the most harassment in countries around the world, perhaps most alarming is the rise in the rate of harassment against Jews worldwide. Sixty-eight countries have documented the harassment of Jews, either socially or by the government–a number that has risen from 51 five years ago.

The data did not include a barometer of the severity of attacks, a problem when trying to assess the damage this harassment is doing on the morale of religious groups. While all hatred is unacceptable, a measure of intolerance needs to separate the violations banning a religious beard in court in the United States from the attacks that hit Israel daily. If the research analyzed severity, the outcome would paint a bleaker picture for the Middle East.

The research mirrors the idea that religion, especially in the United States, is coming to the forefront. It is a hot topic on the lips of politicians and the ears of the American people.  If we use it right, this information can put religion into conversation instead of a battle. We can only begin how to repair religious tension once it is identified, and work towards tolerance.

Jesus’ wife?

The Da Vinci Code—which popularized the notion that Jesus was married—is back in the news with the discovery of a fourth century papyrus text written in Coptic that refers to “Jesus’ wife.” But scholars say that the discovery does little to prove the theory, other than show that such speculation is nearly 2,000 years old.

“There is zero evidence that he was married,” says Lawrence Schiffman, a Dead Sea scroll expert who has also studied early Christianity extensively. “This text just shows that some people in the fourth century believed he was married.”

Mary Magdalene is often believed to be Jesus’ wife and in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, there are even references to a “close relationship” between the two.

“One text refers to a kiss on the lips but just because they kissed on the mouth doesn’t mean they were married. If she was his wife, why wouldn’t the texts have said so? This was nothing to be embarrassed about in ancient Israel, when most men were married.”

Schiffman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University and formerly Chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, says that the text is important in showing that some early Christians wanted a Jesus narrative in which women play a more prominent role. “Mary Magdalene is a tantalizing figure. She’s mysterious and Jesus’ early followers want to know what’s going on.”

The text, he adds, points to a dynamic religious tradition that changed over time. “Just like Judaism, Christianity isn’t a one-shot creation. There are developments over time and new ideas expressed every century.”

And Schiffman, like Karen King, the Harvard historian who discovered the text, says that even with the discovery, The Da Vinci Code should remain strictly relegated to the fiction department because despite what Dan Brown might think, Josephus, the Roman Historian Tacitus and the Gospels all report that Jesus was killed in the crucifixion. Says Schiffman: “There’s no evidence he survived.”

Can Politics Stay Off the Field?

By Rebecca Borison

Israeli judokas practice on their side of the barrier, separated from the Lebanese athletes (photo courtesy of the Israeli Olympic Committee)

For 15 minutes, a group of boys lived their dream. These boys met their idols and played soccer during the half-time break of a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Madrid. And after the game, those boys returned home…to their Israeli and Palestinian families.

The game was sponsored by Children United, hosted in L.A., and supervised by Jose Mourinho, the coach of Real Madrid. As the world struggles to find the “solution” for the Middle East, groups like Children United are trying to think outside of the box and employ sports.

According to Spanish journalist Henrique Cymerman, “People like the Real Madrid manager have more power than governments, in many cases, because football is like a religion. We strongly believe that the fastest road to peace isn’t with political agreements but through education and sport. Football is a very useful instrument to encourage different people to live together.”

Even though we may all have different political views, Cymerman thinks that we can put that aside for the name of sport. These young boys all share this passion for soccer, and by creating these opportunities, we can bring them together even though they come from entirely different backgrounds.

If only it were that easy.

While soccer-loving kids may be able to put aside their differences, there are still entire governments that can’t seem to put aside politics in the name of sportsmanship. Just look at the current Olympics, and you will unfortunately find an abundance of examples.

For starters, Iran has long maintained a policy of prohibiting their athletes from competing against Israeli athletes. And while this year, Bahram Afsharzadeh, secretary general of the Iranian Olympic committee, promised that Iran would “be truthful to sport” and “play every country,” no Iranian athlete ended up facing an Israeli athlete. The only hope of a show-off was in judo, but the Iranian judo champion, Javad Mahjoub, mysteriously dropped out of the competition because of a “critical digestive system infection.”

Last year, Mahjoub reportedly told the Iranian newspaper Shargh that he threw a match against a German opponent, explaining, “If I won, I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years.”

Mahjoub had some issues leaving politics out of the arena.

And apparently, so did Lebanon.  After the Lebanese judo team refused to practice in the same gym as the Israelis, the Olympic organizers agreed to place a barrier between the two teams.

But before we get too depressed about the power of sports to overcome any obstacles, Itamar Marcus has a bit of good news for us.  While there may be no way of sugarcoating Olympic conflicts, we can at least find a slight improvement on the Palestinian policy towards competing against Israelis.

Reporting on the Children United soccer game, the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida had only positive things to say about the tournament. In the August 8th issue of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the newspaper reported, “[The game] aims to create a warm atmosphere in order to draw the nations together, and support peace between them… Mourinho’s influence may be much stronger than the influence of the governments, and football is capable of achieving what political agreements and treaties have been unable to achieve”

According to Marcus, “the official PA policy is to ban sporting events promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” And the PA has been known to condemn such events in the past. In 2011, for example, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported on a similar tournament in Canada, but wrote that the PA was planning on forming a investigative committee which would “submit its recommendations before legal steps are taken against the players.”

The fact that the newspaper was able to report on the LA soccer game without any condemnation is a big deal.  We can’t be sure that this represents a total shift in policy, but it is definitely a step up.

So while it may take awhile for this sports over politics philosophy to fully permeate, I can’t help but think that it can’t move much more slowly than the current peace process.

Six Figures for a Thirteenth Birthday

By Lily Shoulberg

Growing up in New York City, I’ve always had plenty of Jewish friends, gone to public schools with significant Jewish populations, and, in turn, attended my fair share of lavish bar mitzvahs.  I think most Jewish New Yorkers can attest to the fact that when seventh grade rolls around, the fancy envelopes start pouring in and the schedule becomes filled with saved bar and bat mitzvah dates.  The parties usually feature at least one ice sculpture, and would not be complete without a photographer to capture embarrassing images of all the awkward pre-teen guests.

But what, really, should a bar mitzvah entail?

The bar mitzvah is supposed to occur at the time of the Jewish child’s (traditionally, only Jewish boys) thirteenth birthday.  He reads a section from the Torah, and in doing so, proves that he would be prepared to lead the congregation in a service.  Additionally, there is generally a tzedakah component, wherein the bar mitzvah contributes to a charity of his or her choice.  The significance of a bar mitzvah originally was that it symbolized the coming-of-age and manhood of a Jewish boy.

Today, however, many bar mitzvahs more accurately represent social standing and financial status than religious devotion.  Most of my peers who went through the entire process feel very little connection to their Jewish identities and ultimately regret the exorbitant sum that was spent on a single night of loud music and mediocre food.  Furthermore, very few of them maintained any knowledge of Hebrew and went on to assist in services at their synagogues.

I think I have a unique perspective on the issue.  I attended a number of very fancy bat mitzvahs and certainly felt the societal pressure to follow suit, but had been given quite a bit of freedom and independence by my parents, who felt that I could make the decision for myself.  I attended a year of Hebrew school when I was nine, before deciding that it wasn’t for me.  My parents, as usual, supported my decision.  When seventh grade rolled around, I naturally became envious of my peers and their larger-than-life celebrations, and decided that I would get a private tutor and cram for a bat mitzvah so I could have a fancy party of my own.  Luckily, this decision didn’t even make it past my mind to my parents’ ears.  I realized, not several hours after making this resolution, how fundamentally flawed it really was.  I felt very little religious fervor at the time, my Jewish identity was entirely cultural, and my motivation was completely attributed to societal pressure.

Of course there are Jewish children who feel that their bar mitzvahs signify their religious identities.  Some parents raise their children with the expectation of this rite of passage.  My mother grew up attending Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah without a big party afterwards.  I expect that this greatly contributed to her religiosity and spirituality as she got older.  Because of my mother’s example, I see no problem in raising your children with religion and expecting them to pursue a bar mitzvah for the purpose of instilling them with a spiritual identity.  That being said, it should go hand in hand with actual interest in religion.  The fact that I will have to pursue an adult bat mitzvah of my own volition means that I’ll first have to establish a religious identity, which, to me, is more significant than being motivated by social pressure.  I know that my parents have had their doubts about being so lenient when it came to religion, but I’m glad that it went the way it did.  They clearly did something right if I realized that my superficial desire for a bat mitzvah was for all the wrong reasons.

The (True) Myth of the Jewish Democrat

By Daniela Enriquez

Elections are around the corner and once again the question presents itself—are Jews by nature Democrats? That American Jews tend to lean left is not news. After all, 74 percent of Jews voted for President Obama in 2008; the only group that voted more heavily for him was African Americans. However, the November elections are going to be quite interesting from this point of view. On one hand, Republicans keep saying that Jewish support for President Obama will decrease over the coming months. On the other hand, the GOP candidate, if elected, would become the first Mormon president and it’s hard to know whether this would impact “new world” Jewry and its relationship with Israel.

In the latest issue of Moment Magazine, we analyzed the most famous—and infamous—Jewish myths of all times; that got me thinking, so I decided to look around the latest political commentary to find out if there is any news regarding Jewish voters that could support or debunk the myth of the Jewish Democrat.

What I found is not exactly a scoop; it was, however, quite interesting.  In fact, a newly released report by the North American Jewish Data Bank, “Jewish American Voting Behaviour 1972-2008,” upends the claim that Jewish voters are starting to swing to the right, showing that Jews are still voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, and that their support for liberal candidates is actually increasing, not decreasing.

The study shows that between 1972 and 1988, Republican candidates won 31 to 37 percent of the Jewish vote, and that in later decades, between 1988 and 2008, Jewish support for Republicans dropped to 15 to 23 percent. The report also shows that Jewish support for Democratic congressional candidates is even higher than for presidential candidates. According to these researchers, these numbers not only demonstrate that the majority of Jews have been, and will continue to be, liberal, but also that they tend to be more Democratic than all other Americans.

Despite this trend, some polls show that Jewish support for President Obama may be slipping. Right now, the president would receive 64 percent of Jewish votes, compared to 29 percent of Mitt Romney’s.

After reading through the report, two questions occupied my mind—if true, why is the number of Democratic Jews is declining? And how much does “Israel” matter in terms of political voting decisions?

For one, as Dr. Rafael Medoff writes, the relationship between the GOP and American Jewry has changed over the past few decades. When Jewish immigrants arrived, they where scared by what they considered a “WASP-only country clubs” Party, and found common values with the Democratic Party. But the situation has changed. The Republican Party has abandoned much of its old anti-Semitism, and is moving toward many Jewish values and needs. Now, not only do many Jews vote Republican, but several prominent American Jews are giving considerable amounts of money to Republican campaigns. One important example is the donations given by Sheldon Adelson to Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s campaign.

According to Dr. Gilbert N. Kahn, writing in New Jersey Jewish News, every year many American Jews decide not to register for any party. They prefer to define themselves as liberals or independents rather than Democrats, and don’t want to be affiliated with any political institution. This means that in the states where it is necessary to register with a party in order to vote for its primary, many are not allowed to vote. Thus, statistics on Jews voting in Democratic primaries show that Jewish participation is decreasing. And that is the reason why the number of American Jews who vote for Democrats seems to decline!

Continuing to read Mr. Kahn’s article, I found the answer to my second question. According to an April 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, Israel and its relations with the United States are not the most important issues that American Jews think about when choosing a candidate to vote for. Just four percent of the Jewish population put Israel at the top of their political priority list. The majority prefers to give more importance to the issues of health care and the economy.

To summarize, American Jews are still overwhelmingly Democrats—although many prefer to be called liberals, and don’t always register officially as members of the Democratic Party. However, many Jews are still Republicans and willing to help the GOP to win the elections. Thus, the race for the November presidential elections is still quite open, and Jews are an important part of the equation!

No Gaga Here: Extreme Summer Camps in the Middle East

By Rebecca Borison

While I grew up at a Jewish summer camp playing Gaga, kids growing up in slightly (read: very) different areas than me are partaking in slightly (read: very) different activities in summer camp. The Times of Israel recently published two separate articles on Extreme Summer Camps. The first article discusses a Hamas-run Gaza summer camp, where “activities include walking on knives, cleaning beaches and experiencing life as a security prisoner in an Israeli jail.” Five days later, the Times of Israel released a second article about a right-wing camp in Ramat Migron, where the girls learn “self-defense techniques, how to construct temporary dwellings and basic agriculture.”
So we have two camps representing the extremes of Israelis and Palestinians. But let’s take a closer look at these camps.

We’ll start with camp “We will live honorably” in Gaza. Now that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) no longer runs summer camps in Gaza, “We will live honorably” is the only option for kids in Gaza. This Hamas-run camp attracts around 70,000 kids from across the Gaza strip.  According to one of the camp directors, Omar Aql, the camps try to “strengthen the importance of volunteer work and create a clean social environment.” For example, campers participated in a campaign to clean the Nuseirat beach.

But then there are some disturbing camp activities as well. Campers are introduced to a model of an Israeli security prison in order to “reenact the daily suffering of Palestinian prisoners,” according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. The “prison” consists of an investigation room, a detention room, a confession extortion room, a solitary confinement room, a courtyard and an infirmary.
At Camp “Hilltop Youth,” the campers partake in some disturbing activities as well, learning krav maga in order to fight against any Arabs that may happen to attack them. The girls are also introduced to extreme living arrangements, spending four days without electricity or running water.  Unlike the “We will live honorably” camps, the “Hilltop youth” camp is one of many summer camps available in Israel. An Israeli child can have a normal camp experience at Camp Kimama or Camp Tapuz.

Both camps promote the immense value of devotion to one’s people. A camper from Gaza named Abdulaziz A-Saqa explained, “We learned that Palestinian prisoners suffer greatly for the Palestinian people.” One of the campers at Ramat Migron named Esther told the Israeli Newspaper, Ma’ariv, “Whoever comes here isn’t looking to go to a luna park (amusement park), rather to fight on behalf of the State of Israel.”

Both campers have been taught to devote their lives to their nation. They are instilled with a great sense of patriotism—to the extent that they will fight no matter the cost.

While Gaza camp counselor Abdul-Ghafour denies that the camp is training future Hamas militants, it definitely appears to be a strong possibility. Why else would these campers need to learn how to “slide over thorns using his elbows for propulsion” and run and jump through flaming hoops? According to the Washington Post, the campers are “told to fight Israel to liberate Palestine.”

According to Ma’ariv, the goal of the “Hilltop Youth” camp “is to train and recruit the next generation of warriors to settle the hills.” They even bring in speakers from the settlement movement, such as MK Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Yes, that sounds just as extreme as training Gaza youth to be Hamas militants, but there is one crucial difference between the two: the camps’ relationship to their nation. The camp in Gaza is organized by Hamas. As the ruling power in Gaza since 2007, Hamas is not only condoning such camps but is funding and running them. The camp in Ramat Migron, on the other hand, is run solely by extremists. According to Ma’ariv, “security forces came to the outpost tens of times and destroyed the wooden shacks that the youth had built,” but each time the youth return to rebuild it. The State of Israel is not supporting extremists. They are trying to stop them. In fact, Ramat Migron is scheduled to be evacuated by August 1.

You can make an argument that likens these two camps, and you could make an argument that contrasts the two.  What it comes to at the end of the day is does the camp represent an extremist minority or an extremist people.