What Judaism Should Take Away from Sunni Islam’s Tragedy

I realized I sounded like the most liberal person on my Facebook feed when I addressed the revelation that some ISIS recruits ordered beginner books on Islam before going off to Syria and Iraq to fight in a very proud “Muslim” militia. This discovery is a pretty strong indictment of the caliber of recruit, but only if you’re familiar with the dearth in Islamic learning today already – well, at least in Sunni Islam. Shiite Islam, believe it or not, actually has most of its shite together (pun intended).

Sunni Islam’s historic learning centers have shifted, the same as Judaism: from Israel and Babylon to Spain to Provence & Egypt to Poland & Lithuania to New York & Israel again. Sunni Islam is facing a major gap in learning in one particular area: the Arab World. But for many centuries, the center was Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar in Egypt has historically been a center for Islamic culture and thought, so much so that its prestigious top posts have been considered not just the most authoritative in the Arab World, but authoritative to all Sunni Muslims the world over. But for at least the last few decades its student body has been dictated by the Egyptian government, which has had no interest in strengthening religion in the country. Egypt’s military government has operated society in much the way the Soviet Union used to designate people’s professions when they were young. As it happens, the most intelligent have been sent into engineering and science, while the bottom of the barrel was sent to . . . Al-Azhar. The result has been the center of Sunni learning slowly falling apart. Saudi Arabia was there to fill the void though with a very particular type of Sunni philosophy. Financing schools across the Islamic world, particularly in Pakistan, the demanding nature of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of thought is considered the spark for most modern Islamist movements.

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt (CC BY SA 3.0 Buyoof via Wikimedia Commons)

In summary, it’s been a disaster, particularly for the Arab World. There is no center for Palestinian or Lebanese or Jordanian or Syrian Sunni Islam. Arab Sunni Islam lacks a strong leadership. Its strongest leaders are hell-bent on political ideologies, no matter how religious they profess to be. Sociopaths like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have easily filled the void – a void whose structure is entirely political and only colored in with the deep green saturation of Islam whose own bones have been gutted. To Muslims’ credit, many are aware of how much cultural traditions and even tribal codes of law sometimes are misrepresented as Islamic tradition – particularly in places like Afghanistan. But the Arab World has been hit hard by this. Islam, at least in the Arab world, is at best a shell being constantly shattered and taped back together by groups like ISIS and the slew of political militias operating across the Middle East.

What It Means for Jews

It’s a fact that Israel should be well aware of. Arab Sunni Islam has largely replaced clerisy with heresy, though don’t let those leaders hear you say it. While it constitutes a grave threat across the scope of humanity and obviously for Israelis that this situation has arisen, it is an inherent weakness to many Islamist movements that their leadership is hollow when it comes to religious authority. Sunni Islam faces a crisis in leadership.

The current Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, is an imbecile. He was appointed by Hosni Mubarak in 2010, but his education was not found at Al-Azhar, rather in a Ph.D. in Islamic Philosophy from the Paris-Sorbonne University in France. At times, it shines that his academic approach has overshadowed the jurisprudential approach needed to manage the religious lives of millions of people. He has deliberately taken Quranic verses deliberately out of context to justify political anti-Semitism and insinuate that Zionist-like movements have been thorns in the side of Muslims for 1,400 years. His stupidity might be his own fault, but his holding such a historically important position for Sunni Islam is the result of decades of neglect.

And from here we see that Judaism, in all its imperfection, is in much better shape. But Sunni Islam’s experience is a very harsh lesson for the Jewish people, whose educational centers are functionally in tact but are scant and face certain idiosyncratic issues.

Despite the seemingly miraculous, near-immediate reestablishment of displaced Yeshivas after the Holocaust, Jewish education though is quite limited around the world. Other movements in Judaism have had fewer than a dozen institutions of higher religious education between them. Divisions within the religion noticeably motivate different communities’ liberal and stringent tendencies to dig in and hold their positions, reinforcing their own views and often losing sight of the original position in law or point of a tradition, to the point that people become either so permissive or so strict that they violate other rules and principles of Jewish law or philosophy.

Knowledge of Hebrew is piss-poor. Bible literacy is atrocious in much of the Jewish community. Religion is considered malleable even without super-heating it to melting temperatures. It’s a different type of religious extremism, but one resulting from a general unfamiliarity with the sources essential to Jewish law.

So I propose a completely different way of doing things.

A Different Type of Convergence Plan

I could care less about your personal beliefs about the literal or metaphoric nature of the Bible in your respective personal and communal versions of Judaism – at least relative to this. At least teach something. At least enrich your literacy and expand the scope of what you know about that book, as well as its infinite series of commentaries and elucidations. Learn Hebrew. Learn Aramaic. Learn Yiddish. Go out of your way to find a Jew who is different than you, someone else who has picked up a philosophy of serial studying. Debate. Argue. Scream. But at least listen. Fight over coffee and converse deep into Friday night dinners, still debating the nature of the universe until the sun rises on Saturday morning and you take what you might have learned and that new-found respect for the way your Jewish peer understands the world and apply it to enrich how you see things yourself. Deliberately force the Jewish people to educate themselves, to educate each other and function as a much larger, less-divided community.

Returning from the Muslim-Jewish Conference just two weeks ago, I picked up as much about other Jewish groups as I did of the various Muslim groups represented there. The chief theme of an event like that is to not persuade the respective delegations to agree with each other, merely to get each other; merely to understand each other. And as oblivious as Jews might secretly think they are of their own religion and the practices of other groups, they are clearly capable and much more knowledgeable than they think. They clearly have the energy to punch above their own weight and represent themselves on a global stage with their own country and a globally represented community despite its small numbers – and lack of central leadership. The ability to invest so much spirit into an event like this with another group demonstrates that Jews have just as much capability to do this for themselves and march in lockstep with each other when they have to.

A Choice between Contempt and Admiration

Not tolerance. Not acceptance. Respect and more. Awe. Regard. Esteem.

For the sake of the next generation of Jews and Judaism, let us all take it as an imperative not to repeat the self-destructive errors of Sunni Islam in our own religious community. We have been through too much to treat each other with the type of contempt that Salafi Islamists treat each other with. As the most extreme of jihadist groups continue to recruit and even turn on each other, let’s remind ourselves that we as a people not only don’t want to mimic this tragic, embarrassing and self-destructive pattern of religious suicide. Let’s remind ourselves that we as a Jewish people have actually done this to ourselves in the past. We fought each other in the days leading up to the Roman destruction of the Temple. More recently, we allowed ourselves to slander each other during the 19th century and the early 20th, something which only stopped when our bitterly divided communities could not muster the strength to protect each other from the Nazi destroyer.

Jewish Population of Europe on the Eve of the Holocaust & World War II

Jewish Population of Europe in 1933, before Hitler’s Rise as Chancellor of Germany

It’s been a damning history that is not worth repeating. And now, on the heels of a humanitarian and political disaster with the rise of ISIS, we are watching all the worst of our own history happen to others: the zealous nature of past Jewish civil wars reflected in the battles between militias in Syria; the attempt to send Einsatzgruppen-style death squads against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq; the effort to form an evil empire stretched across an entire region of the world.

ISIS Massacre in Iraq

ISIS Massacre in Iraq

Jews, Hebrews, Israelites – whatever we might call ourselves – we have come way, way too far and had way, way too much experience to continue tripping over each other’s petty internal differences to not even muster a measly budget to make sure Jews the world over can recognize the freaking Aleph-Bet. We are too ambitious to limit our potential to waiting for the world to help us rescue ourselves from anti-Semitism.

Here we are, on the edge of a new era in history where Jews either wait to see how things develop or we can take an active role in shaping the world around us. I did not move my ass to Israel to wait for the European Union to do something about hatred toward Jews or for some sociopathic militia to mimic the Holocaust 500 miles away from the Jewish army sworn to never again allow such an atrocity to stain the earth with innocent blood.

Areas of ISIS control in Syria & Iraq, where religious minorities are being subjected to systematic murder.

Areas of ISIS control in Syria & Iraq, where religious minorities are being subjected to systematic murder.

Realizing the Jewish people’s potential to protect their own integrity, ensure their own prosperity and to simultaneously fulfill a mission to be a Light unto the Nations begins at home and with the little things. Before we talk about the glory of a Jewish people who have conquered their own petty differences, we need to embrace what is ours and to understand it both for ourselves and as a community: learn Hebrew; recognize the sacred texts; know Jewish history; don’t make assumptions about what kind of history can’t repeat itself; don’t make assumptions about the meaning of religious principles; don’t accuse each other of heresy – look what that has done to Sunni Islam. Most importantly, just understand your fellow Jew. If you aren’t Orthodox, figure out what’s behind your Orthodox peer. If you are Orthodox, get the view of your Reform brother. If you are or are not religious, have a respect for your neighbor that you’d want from him yourself.

Just a Few Suggestions

1. Make Jewish Education Happen by All Means at Our Disposal.

Break the spiral. If Jews can’t afford to come to a private school to get Hebrew, then bring it to them. For God’s sake push your local district to bring Hebrew to public schools. Modern Hebrew, as a foreign language, is a critical language for modern technology and politics. It is justifiable as an academic endeavor just as much as Spanish, French or Chinese is. For the private schools who give their students minimal exposure, flip your classes into immersion programs. Teach whole classes in Hebrew. Require your religious sessions to read entire chapters of Hebrew text. Bring this language completely back from the dead and finish the amazingly holy work of Modern Hebrew’s renaissance man, Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

2. Increase Contact with Other Jewish Communities

For all the risks that your students might pick up ‘undesirable’ ideas from “heretical” or “archaic” groups of wayward Jews, remember the consequences of allowing those divisions to get worse. In less savory economic times, no one can assume that perfect stranger communities who have made presumptions about each other for decades would have a hard time not attacking each other: if the comforts of the Western world where most Jews live were replaced by the poverty and corruption endemic to areas consumed by radical militias, Orthodox and Reform Jews’ civility toward each other today would be a distant fantasy. While the going isn’t so rough, the Jewish community has a duty to not be so presumptuous that it can’t happen to them. Break the barriers between us. We don’t have to agree. We just have to be brothers and sisters again. Neither group is too much a pushover to allow the other to simply talk them out of their hardened beliefs anyway. In all likelihood, and pretty much the point, we would find in each other ways to improve our own groups, thus unintentionally bringing our respective Jewish divisions together, setting the stage for another generation to take that progress even further.

3. Internationalize the Community

Israel is its center, but that isn’t to neglect New York or Paris. The global Jewish network is surprisingly weak considering how hard the community has worked for its resources. It is the vital interest of Israel and the Diaspora to not just be strategic allies to fight anti-Semitism, terrorism and neo-fascism, but also to approach many challenges as a single entity. Were the Jewish community in a country where they are greatly outnumbered and unorganized to face a violent surge in anti-Jewish violence, it will be the combined military and financial resources of Israel and the Diaspora that will have to respond to either extract the embattled community to safe ground or to beat back the threat. This is a very real possibility in 2014 in ways it hasn’t been since 1944. Had Israel lost the War of Independence in 1948, no one can say for certain how the Jewish world would have been able to pick up the pieces of the Holocaust the way it has. Now that Israel and the Diaspora have simultaneously rebuilt their societies, now is the time to invest in those two societies’ continued prosperity.

Learn your brother’s language: Hebrew, English, French, Russian and more. Go out of your way to build friendships with Jews the world over.

4. Speak Softly: Appoint a Representative for Global Jewry to Speak for Us

It should be an unequivocal goal that Jews appoint their own global Chief Rabbi on par with the Pope in Rome. The Pope cannot represent us. No matter how disparate we are, we cannot deprive ourselves of someone to look to for guidance, or to obscure our people’s immense care for global affairs by not having someone who can speak before tens of thousands of people and demonstrate that the Jewish people are on the map to make a difference. And in that same motion, do the very opposite of what Sunni Islam has allowed: a vacuum in confident and representative leadership.


5. Carry a Big Stick: Put Teeth and Grit behind the Principles of Modern Jewry.

Never Again. No Slavery. It’s not just for the Jewish people to talk up these themes. They are guiding policies that Israel and its partners in the Diaspora must actively put forward. Intervention to prevent genocide is the most natural outgrowth of the experience of centuries of persecution. Going forward, the State of Israel must take a moral stand – especially against the morally corrupt, double-standard-laden United Nations – and intervene in every way it can against evil armies like ISIS when they make ethnic mass murder their guiding policy. Jewish organizations from the left and right should reflect the way the Israeli left and right work hand in hand when Israel goes to war: lobby your respective governments to do whatever it takes to block genocide on any continent, in any country where it might occur.

Block human trafficking. End modern day forms of slavery like international prostitution. Join the effort against mass crime rings exporting kidnapped women throughout Europe, prisoners of war forced to labor for their captors in squalor.

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