View from America: A different kind of blame game

The Hagee controversy is about politics more than faith or the Holocaust.

tobin 88 (photo credit:)
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
Some 10 years ago, a prominent Christian clergyman gave a sermon that was recorded for posterity. In it, Rev. John Hagee, the leader of a group called Christians United for Israel, speculated about the cause of the Holocaust. His answer was to see it as divine punishment of the Jews. The unforeseen consequences of his comments were considerable. The man who will be the Republican nominee for president this year, Sen. John McCain, formally rejected Hagee's endorsement following the re-emergence of Hagee's statement. Some Jewish leaders, notably the Reform movement's Rabbi Eric Yoffie, joined in the condemnation. Yoffie wrote that "to blame the victims for the Holocaust and to suggest that they brought it on themselves is a desecration of their name and their memory, and an insult to the survivors and their descendants." Moreover, Jewish Democrats had been suggesting for months that Hagee was the moral equivalent of Barack Obama's former pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Now they were calling for all Jews to disassociate themselves from Hagee and his organization. Considering that Hagee was greeted with acclamation at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention just last year, such a banning would be no small thing. This makes clearer what was already apparent. The controversy is not about what one may say about the Holocaust; rather, the dustup is primarily political as liberals attempt to brand the conservative Christian's GOP as inherently anti-Semitic. IT'S TRUE that what Hagee said is offensive to most of us. To blame the mass murder of the Six Million on the will of God rather than on the vile intentions of the German Nazis and their collaborators is the sort of thing that is simply unacceptable to the vast majority of modern-day Jews. Taken out of context, it sounds as if he blames the victims for the crimes of their oppressors - a common practice of anti-Semites and racists of all stripes. But Hagee has defenders within the Jewish community. The Zionist Organization of America's national director Mort Klein and radio talk-show host Dennis Prager soon pointed out that Hagee's invocation of divine will about the Shoah is something that many Jews believe, too. The notion that God will punish us for our sins is, of course, rooted in the Torah. Just last month, as Hagee was being booted out of McCain's firmament, we read in Leviticus Chapter 26 God's specific threats to the Jews if they break the Covenant. This warning was later applied to both the Babylonian and Roman conquests of Israel. Normative Judaism, in its daily recitation of the traditional liturgy, teaches that the Jews were exiled from their land because of their sins. Whether this was a piece of divinely inspired truth, or the rationale of a persecuted and powerless people who viewed their oppressors as mere tools of Godly retribution, is something that rabbis and historians can debate. But there can be no denying that the former is what Jews have been taught for centuries. THUS, IT is not difficult to understand why some contemporary Orthodox Jews believe, as Hagee does, that the Holocaust was, in some sense, the result of Jewish sinfulness. Though he didn't state that he agrees with Hagee, per se, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America went as far as to say that Hagee's "approach to Torah" was more Jewish than Yoffie's because, unlike the Reform rabbi, he believed it to be literally true. But while most of us are prepared to let pass without argument, if not accept, the notion that the catastrophic war against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the mass slaughter of the Jews in 70 C.E. (which was very much the equivalent of the Holocaust in its time) was the consequence of Jewish "sin," this is not something that most of us can swallow about the Shoah. It is one thing to speak in this manner about events of 2,000 years ago. It is quite another to do so about recent history, the events of which are still vivid to survivors. The Torah discusses the affairs of biblical Jewry within a context of a belief in a God who directly intervenes in our lives, including the use of collective punishment. To apply this to Treblinka and Auschwitz is something that the vast majority of contemporary Jews - believers and non-believers alike - simply cannot abide. HAGEE HAS a long record of philo-Semitic and pro-Israel activism in an era when the Jewish people badly needed friends. It should also be acknowledged that Zionism, oddly enough, motivated his convoluted theology about the Shoah. The "sin" of which he speaks is the unwillingness of European Jewry to make aliya before World War II - though you have to wonder whether he thinks the same lesson should apply these days to his buddies at the ZOA. None of us can pretend to know whether natural disasters, wars or acts of genocide are the will of God. Though Hagee's defenders are right that he, in a way, is on the same page with some Orthodox thinkers, to speak of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism as being the fault of anyone but the Nazis and other anti-Semites does a disservice to both history and justice. But let us not be under any illusion that the attention paid to Hagee has much to do with him. Partisanship in the upcoming presidential election is rising to an all-time high, and the Jewish vote will be bitterly fought over by the two major parties. Hagee is merely a stalking horse for other interests. The tactic of trying to tie Hagee to McCain is a loser. Unlike Obama's 20-year relationship with Rev. Wright, McCain barely knows Hagee. He is merely a stand-in for the smear that the tens of millions of Christian conservatives who love Israel are closeted Jew-haters. This is a nasty piece of religious prejudice that many Jews are all too willing to believe because they despise the evangelical's domestic politics. Just as some Republicans would like us to believe that an Israel-hater like Jimmy Carter is representative of all Democrats, there are Democrats who would like to sell the false notion that a man who has been mischaracterized as a Jew-hating Bible-thumper personifies the GOP. As the debate begins over Obama and McCain's positions on Israel's security and their intentions with respect to Iran's would-be Hitler, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Jewish Democrats and Republicans have plenty to scrap about. It would be far better to stick to these life-and-death issues and leave the misguided, though well-meaning, Hagee to lapse back into the obscurity from which he arose. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent.com.