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October 22nd, 2017

Insight

Provocations galore

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 4, 2014

Here we go again. Just in time for the season of peace on earth and good will toward men, a judge in New Jersey is hearing arguments over whether the phrase "under G0D" in the Pledge of Allegiance represents an unconstitutional infringement on some students' First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion, namely atheism. Who says atheists aren't religious, at least about their rights, G0D bless 'em.

No student in that school district in New Jersey is obliged to recite the Pledge, but may simply remain silent. Though a note from the student's parents explaining the kid's decision is required -- just as a note from mom or dad asking that little Noah or Khalilah be excused for Yom Kippur or Eid may be required to get an excused absence. That's how it worked when I was in grammar school back in Shreveport, Louisiana, and there was never any fuss about it. Just mention "religious holiday" in the Bible Belt, and everything was copacetic. Wonderfully tolerant country, America, if we can just keep it that way.

Why not just let those who believe in the Pledge recite it, and those who don't skip it? But that kind of restraint, and tolerance for all, was bound to be challenged in our ever litigious society.

We should be delighting in our differences, not using them as a cudgel -- either to make some kids say things they don't believe or silence the rest. Why not respect the rights of both? Or would that be unspeakably sensible?

One of the arguments offered in defense of keeping G0D in the Pledge of Allegiance was more offensive to believers than any of those offered in favor of kicking Him out. Or should have been. A lawyer defending the phrase "under G0D" in the Pledge argued that it's just ceremonial, "an innocuous reference to the deity in a ceremonial setting," not an expression of faith.

This is what we've come to -- witnessing to one's G0D is now defended as innocuous, as only a ceremonial gesture, a harmless expression, lip service. How can that rise to anything as serious as a violation of a basic constitutional right like freedom of religion? The lawyer defending the Pledge made it sound like a mere formality.

Can there be any greater insult to faith than to say it's only a formality? Like saying "good morning" or "have a nice day"? This view takes the faith out of even civil religion.

Give me a red-hot, rip-roaring atheist any day over a lukewarm conformist who's just going along with common custom. Here's some better counsel from those notable philosophers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer: "Accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/ Latch on to the affirmative/ Don't mess with mister in between."

Believe in G0D or not -- it's a free country -- but He's no mere formality.

The provocations keep coming. Israel's prime minister has just proposed that its parliament, the Knesset, officially declare it a Jewish state. Which is the equivalent of solemnly asserting that the sky is blue. "The Jewish state" long has been a synonym for Israel in news stories, just as it says in Israel's own declaration of independence. Why restate the obvious?

Anyway, such judgments cannot be made or unmade by law. They must be left to history and common understanding. Israelis who want to declare their state officially Jewish bring to mind Americans who want to declare the United States "a Christian nation," or pass English Only laws. Naturally a companion piece of legislation to this declaration that Israel is a Jewish state would remove Arabic as one of Israel's two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic -- another pointless provocation.

What purpose do such provocations serve, except to divide a country and offend its minorities?

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, says such a declaration is needed in response to those who question Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Which doesn't sound like the best response. Why let Israel's fiercest enemies set the terms of this debate? Better to rise above them and go on with the proper business of a Jewish state. Like defending it, welcoming the next wave of immigrants, building new settlements, developing the land, respecting the rights of all, and just doing what comes naturally for a Jewish state.

There's a term for introducing gratuitous, inflammatory issues into the public discourse for no good reason: looking for trouble.

There are so many things in this world that provoke; why add to them?

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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