Pope Benedict XVI has become political Islam's newest excuse for rioting.
Mobs from Rawalpindi to Ramallah are burning him in effigy. Muslim leaders
from Gaza to Indonesia to Qatar, to Turkey to Washington and London are
attacking the pope and demanding that he apologize to Islam for what they
consider to be a heinous attack against their religion by the leader of the
To recap what has been exhaustively reported in recent days, the pontiff's
"crime" against Islam occurred in the course of a scholarly lecture at the
University of Regensburg in his native Germany earlier in the month.
Benedict quoted from a dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II
Paleologus and a Persian scholar of Islam circa 1391 where the emperor
criticized harshly the Islamic practice of forcibly converting non-Muslims
In the pope's words, the Byzantine emperor, "addresses his interlocutor with
a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship
between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what
Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and
inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'
"The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to
explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is
something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of G-d and
the nature of the soul. 'G-d,' he says, 'is not pleased by blood - and not
acting reasonably is contrary to G-d's nature.'"
As Benedict explained, the harsh judgment that the Byzantine emperor
rendered on Islam stemmed directly from his Christian understanding of G-d
as a reasonable deity. That is, according to Benedict, the reason a
Christian leader was able to judge Islam, and so conduct a meaningful
inter-cultural discussion of the merits of Islam and Christianity, was
because he had a clear understanding of how his religion construed the
G-d-created world and conceived of man's relationship to G-d.
Expanding on this theme, the pope told his audience that European
civilization itself is a fusion of Christian faith and Greek philosophy of
reason. Europe's current cultural drift, he argued, stems from the cultural
separation, which began with the Reformation and went on through the
Enlightenment between faith and reason. By relegating faith to a sub-culture
that has no place in discussions of practical human endeavors, he said,
Europeans have rendered themselves incapable of understanding who they are
and of defending themselves and their values in a manner that the Byzantine
emperor, in the pre-scientific era was able to do so stalwartly.
It could be said that the Islamic world's hysterical and violent reaction to
Benedict's use of the 600-year-old dialogue only serves to reinforce the
Byzantine emperor's impression that Islam does not perceive G-d as being a
reasoning deity. But limiting an analysis of Benedict's lecture to the
Muslim world's hysterical reaction it would ignore the pope's central point.
Benedict's overarching message in that lecture was that to survive, a
culture must be willing to embrace its identity, for if it does not, it won't
even be capable of understanding why it should survive.
While Benedict's specific message was to his fellow Christians, the Jewish
people should take heed of his general message for ourselves. Today, the
Jewish people, in Israel and throughout the world find ourselves under
attack from all quarters. The rise of anti-Semitism globally, and
particularly in the Islamic world, finds us in a period of grave self-doubt.
Like the Europeans, our ability to defend ourselves against the swelling
ranks of our haters, is dependent our ability as a people and as individual
Jews to embrace our identity as Jews.
Commenting on the nature of this surge of Jew hatred, the great (non-Jewish)
Canadian pundit, Mark Steyn wrote last month in the National Review, "The
oldest hatred didn't get that way without the ability to adapt. Jews are
hated for what they are so, at any moment in history, whatever they are is
what they're hated for. For centuries in Europe, they were hated for being
rootless-cosmopolitan types. Now there are no rootless European Jews to
hate, so they're hated for being an illegitimate Middle Eastern
nation-state. If the Zionist Entity were destroyed and the survivors forced
to become perpetual cruise-line stewards plying the Caribbean, they'd be
hated for that, too."
It is crucial that all of us internalize the message that these lines
convey. For in recent years, rather than recognize the prejudice of our
detractors, we have devoted ourselves to attempting to understand and so
justify the hatred they heap upon us.
We tell ourselves we are hated because we are too strong or because we
are too weak. We are hated because we are too religious or we are hated
because we are not religious enough. We are hated because we insist on
defending Israel or we are hated because we are willing to compromise on
Yet, as Steyn wisely notes, we are not hated because of what we do, we are
hated because we are Jews. In light of this, the best way to defend
ourselves, the best way to safeguard our freedom and our heritage is to
embrace and celebrate our identity as Jews. As Elie Wiesel once explained to
me, the key to defending ourselves is to never allow our haters to tell us
who we are. "Hatred only defines only the haters," he said.
And indeed, when we look at the manner in which Jews in Israel and
throughout the world are being attacked today, we see that the attacks are
based not on Jewish actions but on the fact that we are Jews. So it is that
in the midst of yet another wave of violent attacks by Muslims against Jews
in Norway last month, Norway's Jewish community warned its members not to
wear yarmulkes or Stars of David in public.
So it is that in Hamas's charter, the movement which now controls the
Palestinian Authority calls not for compromise with Israel but for all Jews
to be expelled from the Land of Israel or forcibly converted to Islam in the
course of the global jihad.
So it is that attacks against Jewish supporters of Israel in the West target
not the substance of their arguments, but their right as Jews to lobby for
Israel in their countries of citizenship.
"We Jews," Wiesel explained, "have always defined ourselves as the Children
of Abraham, Issac and Jacob." Indeed, at Mt. Sinai, in our acceptance of the
Ten Commandments, the Jewish people became the first nation in history to
self-consciously define itself. And each subsequent generation of Jews has
remade that choice. Jews do not exist, as Jean Paul Sarte ignorantly argued,
because anti-Semites exist. The leader of the existentialist movement should
have understood; anti-Semites exist because anti-Semites choose to exist.
As Steyn notes, today hatred against Jews is anchored on Israel. Provoked by
this new form of Jew hatred, some Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora
see Israel as a burden. This is a self-inflicted tragedy. For if we look at
Israel, we see that far from being a burden, our Jewish State is one of the
most stunning successes of Jewish history.
Today, Israel is the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. More
Jews live in Israel today than at any time in our history. And the state in
which we live is one of the most vibrant, optimistic, "happening" countries
in the world. We have the highest birthrate in the Western world. Rates of
entrepreneurship are among the highest in the world.
We are one of the most highly educated societies in the world. Over the past
fifteen years, more than a dozen colleges have been established in Israel
and last year the government decided to allow two of these colleges to join
Israel's nine research universities as full-fledged, independent research
Israelis are among the most patriotic citizens in the world. Our patriotism
is expressed in the high level of volunteerism in all age groups. In the
recent war, tens of thousands of reservists willingly left their families
and jobs to take up arms to defend the country and hundreds of thousands of
Israelis volunteered to help our one million brothers and sisters whose
homes were targeted by rockets, missiles and mortars.
Jewish life blossoms in Israel as it has nowhere else in our history. The
rates of literacy in Jewish learning in Israel are higher than they have
ever been anywhere in our history. Israel is the home of some half dozen
generations of Jews whose mother tongue is the language of the Bible and the
Israel's success stems from its serving as a vehicle that allows us to
express our heritage in all facets of society. And our Jewish heritage is
one of the most precious heritages known to man.
The Jewish people gave humanity the concepts of G-d, liberty and law. Our
understanding of the fallibility of mankind has prevented us from being
tempted by false prophets who promise us heaven on Earth, and has allowed us
to take practical steps towards improving our lot and our world.
All of the ideals that Israel represents both spiritually and physically
have for millennia formed the foundations for human progress and freedom
throughout the world. Our willingness to retain our loyalty to our identity
and our heritage has been the key to our survival throughout the ages in the
face of countless foes who sought to destroy us both spiritually and
Rosh Hashana marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance that precede
Yom Kippur. To properly atone for our sins and correct our mistakes, we must
understand who we are and what we represent and what we can and should
aspire to as Jews. To do this, we must reject the notion that our haters can
tell us who we are. To do this we must embrace our Jewish identity and
uphold our commitment to our collective destiny.
The fact that hatred of Jews has endured for so long says nothing about the
nature of the Jewish people. What does speak volumes about the nature of the
Jewish people is that our fortunes throughout the ages have been directly
related to our ability to spurn our enemies' distorted portraits of the
Jewish people and our willingness to endure and progress as Jews in the
midst of that hatred.
Pope Benedict is able to discuss Islam because, secure in his Christian
identity, he has a clear basis for judging the goodness or unreasonableness
of Muslim values and behavior. Whether we agree with his judgments or not,
through his willingness to judge, Benedict capably defends and advances his
When we embrace our moral and intellectual identity as Jews, we are
similarly capable of meeting the challenges of our times. It is my prayer
that in 5767, the Jewish people will rally around our heritage, history and
culture and so pave the way for a secure, peaceful and moral future for our
people and our world.