Anti-Jihad ads come to Washington

A Christian social justice group is fighting the newest wave of anti-Muslim advertisements with a campaign to raise $25,000 to buy counter-advertisements aboard the D.C. Metro system that read, “Love Your Muslim Neighbor.”

The campaign, announced yesterday, comes after the controversial ads, which have already been placed in San Francisco and New York, reached the nation’s capital.  Paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the advertisement reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Sojourners, the Washington-based social justice group, is now soliciting $25 contributions in the hopes of raising the necessary $5,000 to buy a counter ad. “If we want peace between Muslims and Christians, we can start by standing against religious intolerance in our own backyard,” the group said in a statement.  “Everyone – regardless of race, religion, or creed – deserves to feel welcome and safe when riding public transit in the United States.”

There has been considerable public opposition to AFDI’s anti-jihad campaign, which many detractors call Islamaphobic. On Friday, though, U.S. District Judge Mary Collyer ruled that the D.C. transit system had to allow the advertisements based on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

Ron Meier of the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement, “We support the court’s conclusion that the ad is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, yet we still strongly object to both the message and the messenger. We believe these ads are highly offensive and inflammatory. Pro-Israel doesn’t mean anti-Muslim. It is possible to support Israel without engaging in bigoted anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stereotypes.”

“We don’t think it’s controversial,” Pamela Geller, executive director of the AFDI told reporters. “It’s truth. Telling the truth now is equated with ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’ in an attempt to silence and demonize the truth-tellers. That makes my ads all the more important.”

Bachmann takes on falafel

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is coming under fire for anti-Muslim statements that she never made but were taken seriously by readers of a satire magazine.

In what is described by the satirical publication the Daily Currant as a real interview, the congresswoman tells local news station KSTP-TV in Minneapolis that falafel, a “jihadi food,” should be banned because it is a “gateway food” to Islam.

“It starts with falafel, then the kids move on to shawarma. After a while they say ‘hey this tastes good, I wonder what else comes from Arabia?’ Before you know it our children are listening to Muslim music, reading the Koran, and plotting attacks against the homeland.”

The satirical piece has gone viral and many people have retweeted her comments incredulously.  As one detractor wrote, “I can’t believe there are still people in Minnesota who support her.”

Reached at her Washington D.C. office, a spokeswoman for the congresswoman told Moment Magazine that she has no plans to respond to the satirical news piece.




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.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday vs IRS

By Daphna Berman

Some 1,500 pastors are expected to publicly endorse political candidates and openly violate IRS law this coming weekend as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

The brainchild of the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, the public effort is expected to draw much media attention—but with few legal repercussions.

Because of the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954 and sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, charities, religious groups and other organizations claiming tax exempt status as 501(c)3 non-profits are politically limited. According to the law, they “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”  In 1987, Congress strengthened the ban, clarifying that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

But the IRS does little to enforce it. Today, nearly all churches are tax exempt and violations on both sides of the political fence are common.

“This is the most ignored U.S. law—with the possible exception of the littering law,” one prominent tax attorney told In the Moment.

Stephen Colbert, who took on the issue on his nightly political satire show, The Colbert Report, described Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a time “when the thrill of lengthy sermons finally meets the excitement of IRS tax policy.”

“This is another example of President Obama’s war on religion, which he cleverly passed in 1954,” Colbert added.

Pastor Jim Garlow, a leader of the movement, and a guest on Colbert’s show, said that Sunday will allow religious leaders to “reclaim what was lost” as a result of the law. “There should be no government intrusion into the life of the church at all,” he said.

Alliance Defending Freedom, according to the group’s website, “does not endorse or oppose political parties or candidates, nor does it urge allegiance to any political party or candidate.” It does, however, “believe that churches and pastors have the freedom to plainly speak Scriptural truth about the qualifications of candidates for public office – regardless of candidates’ political affiliation.

“If the IRS chooses to enforce the Johnson Amendment against a pastor who participated, then we’re prepared to litigate that issue and protect that pastor’s constitutional rights,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the organization, has said. “If they don’t, then I think Pulpit Freedom Sunday is going to continue to grow year after year.”

But tax attorneys said the issue has little to do with the constitution and much more to do with IRS law. “Organizations have a choice: if they want to exercise their first amendment rights, they shouldn’t apply for and benefit for tax-exempt rights,” the tax attorney said.

In 2006, the IRS said it investigated 44 churches out of 237 church and non-church referrals. They verified “improper political activity” and issued “written advisories” in 26, but did not revoke tax-exempt status in any cases

When Pulpit Freedom Sunday began four years ago, 33 pastors participated. That number grew to 539 last year and is expected to pass 1,500 on Sunday. Pastors are being encouraged to videotape their sermons and send copies to the IRS.

The issue came to a head in 1992 when a pastor at the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York took out a full-page ad in USA Today in which he slammed Bill Clinton’s policies as a “rebellion to God’s laws.” The ad also solicited tax-deductible donations for the church. The IRS let them off with a warning to stop politicking, but the church refused, went to court, and lost—both in federal court and again, in federal appeals court.

Pigs, the Holocaust and Isaac Bashevis Singer

A Holocaust survivor led a Los Angeles protest in front of meat-processing plant where some 1.5 million pigs are slaughtered annually, in a move he says was influenced by his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto.


Alex Hershaft, founder of Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), traveled to California from his Washington D.C.-area home to mark Tuesday’s World Farm Animal Day in a demonstration in which two people were arrested.

“As a Nazi Holocaust survivor, I am honor-bound to call public attention to this ongoing tragedy,” he said. “Indeed, my 37-year struggle to end the use of animals for food has been inspired largely by my experience of the Nazi Holocaust in Poland.”

“Obviously, I am not equating the millions of my fellow Jews slain tragically in the 1940s and the millions of pigs slaughtered every week for U.S. dinner tables, for we differ in many ways. Yet, we all share a love of life and our ability to experience many emotions, including affection, joy, sadness, and fear.

He says he draws inspiration from Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “For the animals, [life] is an eternal Treblinka.”


Reclaiming a Symbol of Destruction, Lawful or Not

by Natalie Buchbinder

It’s tough to make a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago relevant to young people.

It’s the struggle that Holocaust museums and March of the Living tours to concentration camps have attempted to address. A recent New York Times article profiled young Israelis who have found a way to keep the Holocaust alive, tattooing the numbers of their survivor grandparents on their young forearms.

Eli Sagir, 21, was inspired to get a tattoo of her grandfather’s number, 157622, after a high school trip to Poland. Her brother, mother, and most recently her uncle have followed Sagir’s lead and had the same done to their own arms.

“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” Sagir told The New York Times. “They think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history.”

To some, the act of tattooing is a reclamation of an act of victimization. During the Holocaust, millions of Jews were crudely branded and tattooed as a symbol of Nazi ownership, a filing system of lives. Hopes, dreams, achievements, family were all erased in favor of a new identity. According to The New York Times, some survivors consider the tattoo a medal of valor, signifying their survival through harsh camp conditions. Only those selected for work at Auschwitz and Birkenau were branded with the numbers. Tattooing the number of a loved one in takes takes the sense of ownership and spins it in a positive way.

But the reclamation of the practice is not entirely kosher. “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves,” commands the Bible in Leviticus 19:28, as translated by Chabad. The Torah and Jewish law forbid any activity that alters the body, a supposed recreation of God’s image. According to the laws of Rambam, tattooing falls under the category of idolatry, one of the highest sins in Jewish culture.

“Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing,” Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada told Moment in 2009, in the “Ask the Rabbis” section.  “However, Torah also implies that piercing can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (Sanctuary).”

While it is unlikely that rabbis will be hosting tattoo parlor minyans anytime soon, the practice is slowly shedding its taboo in younger generations. The Conservative branch of Judaism discourages, but does not ban the practice. Tattoo restrictions are still covered under Jewish law, but do not eliminate a person’s burial in a Jewish cemetery; bubbes or Jewish mothers often preach and perpetuate this misconception in an attempt to squelch their daughter’s hopes of forever etching the name of a fleeting boyfriend, or better yet, a Jewish symbol, on her body.

The topic was re-opened briefly last year in London, when heavily tattooed (and taboo for unrelated reasons) singer Amy Winehouse was buried without incident in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Tattoos are becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon among American youth. According to data maintained by the Pew Research Center, 36% of 18-25 year olds and 40% of 26-40 year olds had at least one tattoo as of 2007. Tattoos are more prevalent than having a piercing on a place other than the earlobes, with 30% and 22% in those respective populations.

The number of Holocaust survivors declines each day. When the last person who experienced the terror firsthand no longer is among us, we will lose our connection to a historical event that is so unfathomable that future generations may have a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen. Sagir and others’ action against Jewish tradition will bridge the gap between history and reality for a few moments longer, so that the Holocaust is not just another page in a history textbook. It is real, and it is relevant.

Jews and tonight’s debate

Tonight’s debate is unlikely to sway Jewish voters or even directly appeal to them, a leading expert on American Jewish voting trends told In the Moment.

“Partisans come to a debate with preset expectations and most Jews are partisans,” said Kenneth Wald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and co-author of Jewish American Voting Behavior 1972-2008: Just the Facts, a recent survey of Jewish voting trends.  “If there’s a population both candidates have in mind, it’s Catholics, not Jews. Catholics are the swing voters of late.”

The debate, which will focus on domestic issues and is slated to start at 9 Eastern tonight, will not touch on foreign policy issues such as Israel or Iran—a key concern for many Jewish voters. Issues such as domestic terrorism may come into play, however.

Jewish American Voting Behavior 1972-2008: Just the Facts was published in July by the Solomon Project, a non-partisan group that aims to educate American Jews about civic involvement. Among other findings, the study revealed that American Jews remain much more Democratic and liberal than the rest of the electorate—contrary to the claim that an increasing number are fleeing to the Republican Party. It also found that President Obama captured 74 percent of the national Jewish vote, slightly lower than the widely cited 78 percent that was originally reported.

Wald also said that little mention will be made of Romney’s Mormonism, but that the former governor’s religion does not concern most Jews. “Governor Romney doesn’t raise the hackles of Jews in the way that Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin did,” he said.

Still, he said to look out for a number of issues that continue to concern many Jewish voters, among them the economy, Medicare, social security and abortion rights.


Ayn Rand in Washington

By Nadine Epstein

Last evening, I attended the world premiere of Atlas Shrugged, Part Two, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, attended by the glitterati of the libertarian world. Spotted in the crowd were Grover Norquist, Matt Kibbe (head of FreedomWorks), the heart and souls of The Atlas Society and the stars of the new film, an entirely new cast since Part One.

Once the introductory preaching concluded (altruism seemed to be misconstrued as solely government enforced) and reminders to vote were put forth (the name Mitt Romney was never uttered), the lights went down and the fun began. Although some camera angles and production values jarred me at times, I’ve gotta say, I enjoyed the movie, especially the fast-paced, action-filled last half. The new actors playing the iconic characters (the film’s Wikipedia page says that the old cast was no longer affordable, claiming Taylor Schilling was now a “bona-fide movie star”) outshone those in Part One. We’re not talking Oscar-grade acting here, but Samantha Mathis’s Dagny Taggart was far more nuanced, likeable and believable.

None of this matters, because this is not why you go to see Atlas Shrugged. For many, it is Ayn Rand’s ideas and philosophy, but for me it is the thrill of the story, and the genre of  “economic fantasy.” What a cool idea to build a dystopian society (the film is placed in the not too distant future, although Rand anchored it firmly in her time) in which smart, entrepreneurial people self-deport to a hidden nirvana, leaving the rest of humanity to fend for itself. While the plot is heavy-handed, and full of holes, it is eminently readable, and yes, even watchable. Of course, therein lies the lasting power of Ayn Rand’s ideas: They inhabit this page-turner novel (as well as The Fountainhead and We the Living) that makes them highly accessible to people who have often read little else about history, political and economic thought.

Will Part Two of Atlas Shrugged have the same seductive power as the novel to sway minds and hearts, especially on the eve of a national presidential election? The funders and producers must hope so, hence the October 12, 2012, premiere date.

Here’s an excerpt from an op-ed I recently wrote for The Hill which explains why I think many in the American Jewish community will not be swayed:

Being “steeped in Jewish history also makes most American Jews immune to the charms of Ayn Rand, the popular patron goddess of free markets and objectivism. Ayn Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, was a Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union, and left for America in 1925. Once transplanted to the U.S., she wrote passionate novels, among the best the semi-autobiographical We the Living, and later the phenomenal bestsellers, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Her embrace of individual rights over all else has transcended generations, inspiring economic conservatives from Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan and beyond.

“Ayn Rand is a fascinating person, but her ideas need to be understood for what they are: the outgrowth of a bright young Jewish woman’s despair and her hatred of communism. Her move to the U.S. allowed her ideas to take root in a painstakingly constructed hybrid American capitalist system. Like kudzu invading and replacing native plant species, her ideas spread whether they made sense in her new country or not. Although appealing to some Jews, among them some libertarian idealists and recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, her ideas leave the vast majority of American Jews cold. In other words, the economic beliefs of Paul Ryan are unlikely to resonate with most American Jews.”

Mayim Bialik Goes Vegan

Mayim Bialik is speaking out about the benefits of a meat-free diet in a new ad for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Bialik, star of “The Big Bang Theory” and a longtime vegan, says much of the inspiration behind her decision to shun all animal products was Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. “There were two major shifts for me when I became vegan,” the Emmy Award-nominated actress tells PETA in a video interview. “I never had a sinus infection or been on antibiotics since cutting out dairy… I’ve noticed that my true seasonal allergies are much less severe… But I think he most significant shift for me was I used to feel guilty, even as a child, I felt very guilty about eating animals and never knew there was something to do about it. And as I got older, it became clearer that there are things that I can do and choices I can make.” For Moment‘s interviews with Bialik, click here and here.

Sukkahs Yet to Make Appearance in Campaign Videos

The new election-year video making the online rounds features Samuel L. Jackson exhorting less-than-active Obama supporters to “wake the f*** up,” and is sponsored by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. Based on the famously suave–and often profane–Jackson’s audio book version of Adam Mansbach’s tongue-in-cheek children’s book “Go the F*** to Sleep,” the video, which isn’t explicitly (or even implicitly) Jewish, enumerates Romney’s flaws and Obama’s successes. Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition has produced a new video of its own, focusing on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.