Tag Archives: europe

The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.

Auschwitz, in 2011

by Kayla Green

Today marks Yom HaShoah, the day we commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Across the world, people share stories of those who survived and those who didn’t, of yellow stars and barbed wire, of a terrifying life lived in ghettos and camps. Among the camps, Auschwitz is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the Nazis’ brutal science. The horror that occurred at the three death camps that comprise Auschwitz should be memorialized as, in the words of a plaque at the camp, “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” However, to some people, Auschwitz, or rather, Oświęcim (the Polish pronunciation of the word, which was used before Nazi occupation) is more than the site of the world’s most terrible genocide: To this day, Oświęcim still exists as a town.

More specifically, Oświęcim, (the place which once housed death camps Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz,) is now a small town, with a population of about 43,000 inhabitants and an area of 30.3 square kilometers. Every day, these 43,000 people go on living their lives, moving forward in a place so deeply tied to the past. To many, it must seem backwards to go on living this way, establishing a life in a graveyard. Even Oświęcim’s town square, filled with stores and businesses, is built on a bunker. The once-proud castle is now a coffee shop. The street that comprised the “Jewish quarter” is desolate.

Surprisingly, considering that Oświęcim does not have a single Jewish resident, the town does still have a synagogue, which serves as a Jewish museum, synagogue and education center.

The museum is built from the home of the Kornreich family, former residents of Oswiecim. The main exhibition is dedicated to displaying the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture that once existed in Oswiecim, giving visitors a sense of what Jewish life once was in a place where such a thing seems incomprehensible. The museum is filled with photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim. Personal stories of the Holocaust survivors from Oswiecim, who live in Israel today, are featured in a special exhibition.

The Temple component, known as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, is the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim. Built in 1913, it survived a transformation into a munitions warehouse during the war and then a carpet warehouse during communism. In 1998, the synagogue became the first Jewish communal property to be returned to a Jewish community in Poland and the recipients of the property, the Bielsko-Biala Jewish Community, donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. The building was completely restored to the pre-war condition described in testimonies and the recollections of survivors, and was re-opened in September 2000. Despite being the only Jewish house of worship within 3 kilometers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the synagogue currently has neither Rabbi nor congregation.

Finally, the Auschwitz Jewish Center has an Education Center, dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. A wide range of programs, including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events, are available for visitors. The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.

More than anything, it is the Education Center that gives the town of Oświęcim a sense of progress. Right in the center of a town that will forever be associated with genocide and hatred, there is movement toward a peaceful future.

The Hypocrisy of Boycotting

by Daniel Hoffman

Many European and American students are familiar with academic boycotts of Israel, campaigns which emerged in the United Kingdom in the midst of the second Intifada and resurface from time to time on campuses when an “Israeli topic” is debated. These are occasions for pro-Palestinian activists to demonstrate and ask for relations with Israeli universities to be banned.

Recently, two events in France have reinvigorated these old and passionate debates. The first episode was the cancellation of French pop singer Vanessa Paradis’ concert in Tel Aviv, probably a result of political pressures (though her agent claimed it was for professional reasons). Similar  cases have happened in the past with other Western artists, such as Elvis Costello and Gorillaz.

The second event took place in one of France’s most prestigious universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). Bestselling author Stéphane Hessel, a vociferous detractor of Israeli policy, was supposed to speak in a “Solidarity with Palestine” conference, which was supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign calling for an economic boycott of Israel. The event was ultimately canceled, the ENS reminding those involved that the boycott of Israel is forbidden under French law. The controversy became virulent when several pro-Palestinian organizations accused the university of having given in to the requests of pro-Israeli committees.

Gatherings celebrating Israeli culture are also opportunities for boycott
supporters to spark polemics. During the 2008 book fair in Paris, where
Israel was the guest of honor, a national debate was raised after Muslim countries refused to take part in the event. Boycott actions are most likely to be launched when fighting erupts in the Middle East. After the Gaza flotilla raid, in June 2010, a French cinema chain decided to cancel the screenings of an Israeli movie, though the movie was completely unrelated to the conflict.

What is wrong with these campaigns? Is the the fact that they are anti-Semitic? Certainly not: boycott supporters are obviously not all anti-Semites. Is it the fact that they are unfair? That can’t be. Unfairness is too subjective a notion and can hardly be demonstrated.

No, there is something else. The main problem with these campaigns is that they are first and foremost hypocritical.

Their first hypocrisy lies in the very definition of the word “boycott.” The term is so vague and nebulous that it cannot correspond to a single reality. What is the boycott about: food products, academic exchanges, people themselves or any Israel-related object? Which geographical area is concerned: the settlements only or all of Israel? Should the boycott be launched without debate or should it be preceded by a discussion on its appropriateness? Most supporters don’t answer such questions.

A historical reference often invoked when trying to justify the boycott is South Africa. This is a fallacious analogy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has
absolutely nothing to do with apartheid. You might think Israel is wrong. You might even think it maintains some discriminatory policies. But it is untrue to pretend that there is any political similarity between today’s Israel and 1980s South Africa. Apartheid was a system that legally segregated inhabitants of the same country on a racial basis. Israelis and Palestinians are two different peoples. The comparison with South African blacks is a mistake, and perhaps even an insult to Palestinians. It casts doubts on their ability to self-determinate. For any sincere friend of the Palestinians, the apartheid argument is not tenable.

Neither is the moral argument. Here again, the reasoning deserves to be pushed to its end. Israel can be targeted for a boycott–but so could any number of other countries. Should China be boycotted for the repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs and so many other ethnic groups? Should India be condemned for its intolerable castes? And what about Russia, not really beyond reproach with the Chechens? What about Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sudan, or even the United States? Should we boycott them all?

Shouldn’t we take a moment to wonder if this boycott is useful for Israelis and Palestinians, if it favors dialogue or if, instead, it exacerbates the region’s tensions? Arguing that the boycott is counterproductive must not elude the issue of criticizing Israeli policy—it makes the criticism even more necessary. But it also asks for more efficient ways to move forward.

Jewish Ghosts of Budapest

By Merav Levkowitz

On the last evening of 2010, a Friday, about 35-40 (mostly) young adults, gathered in a non-descript apartment in the center of Budapest’s—actually on the Pest side of the Danube river—Jewish quarter. This is Budapest’s branch of Moishe House, an organization that maintains 33 houses around the world in which young Jews can gather for Shabbat, holidays, and activities. I spent the last Shabbat of the year at Budapest’s Moishe House, which had become my brother’s Jewish community during his semester abroad.

Hungary’s Jewish community has a unique, but tumultuous history. Jews have resided in the Austro-Hungarian empire and in Buda, Obuda, and Pest—the three towns that came together as Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in 1873—since medieval times. As in other European countries, Jews in the region experienced waves of safety and success interspersed with those of discrimination and expulsion. Following the Ottoman conquest of Buda, Jews were dispersed throughout central Hungary and the Balkans, where they lived in relative calm until the Habsburgs, the ruling royal family, imposed new restrictions during their late 17th century reign. In December 1867 Jews were granted full emancipation, and the period that followed was one of prosperity and assimilation of the Jewish community into Hungary. During this time, Hungary’s unique Neolog Jewish movement, which seeks middle-ground religiosity and is most like the American Conservative movement, gained popularity. The movement’s majestic and regal synagogue, the Dohany Street Great Synagogue—the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world—hosted major community events and still serves as the emblem and gatekeeper to the city’s famous Jewish quarter behind it.

Today Hungary is home to an estimated 100,000 Jews, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and Budapest houses over twenty synagogues and a hip, vibrant Jewish quarter that is familiar to all who live in the city and is actively advertised as a “Must See” in all travel guides. Yet, it also seems hidden and cloaked in mystery. Many of the Jews we met did not even know they were Jewish for most of their lives.

Both World War II and the subsequent communism eroded the Hungarian Jewish community and identity. While the discourse has long held that Hungarian Jews perished at the hands of the occupying Nazi German forces, the relatively new Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest ascribes distinct responsibility to the Hungarian state, arguing that beginning in 1938 the state undertook a process by which it deprived Jews and Roma, in particular, of their “rights, property, freedom, human dignity, and in the end, their very existence.” Budapest’s Jews were confined to the tragic conditions of the Jewish ghetto until their deportation was carried out. Indeed, the deportation of Hungarian Jews was the fastest and most extensive—437,402 Jews from Hungary deported within 56 days—and one-tenth of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were Hungarian.

After the Holocaust’s devastation, the subsequent communist regime turned the remaining Hungarian Jews away from the religion. Many Jewish families were active communists, but even those that were not kept Judaism under wraps. One family friend, now in her late 50s, told us that as a child, most of the families she knew, including her own, were atheists. Once she learned, as an adult, that her family was Jewish, she discovered that all her atheist childhood friends were also, in fact, originally Jewish. Another adult friend shared that as a child he had been told that his grandmother lived in England. He was surprised, when she came to visit, that she did not speak any English and was told that she lived in an area of England that was predominantly Hungarian. As an adult, he, too, learned that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had, in fact, been living in Tel Aviv. Hungarian Jews of all ages shared similar stories.
Today, Budapest’s Jews seem caught in a tug-of-war. On one hand, Jewish life and culture seems active, alive, and on the rise, especially among young adults. On the other hand, however, many Hungarians expressed fear about the current government, which has censored the press and includes a faction of members of the nationalist, anti-Semitic, far-right party Jobbik. Many Hungarian Jews I met espoused concern for a future and a desire to make aliyah, especially if the political climate continues as is. Indeed, even as I, a tourist, roamed the colorful and vibrant Jewish neighborhood and visited the impressive—but empty—Holocaust Memorial Center, I could not help but feel that the residual fears of the Holocaust and communism had settled over the city and that the Jewish community was, in fact, one of ghosts.