Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Faith and Leadership
Last uploaded : Friday 16th Nov 2007 at 00:46
Contributed by : Carol Gould


Faith and Justice, Faith and Foreign Policy: Should Faith or Justice Inform Foreign Policy?

London - November 2007

One of my heroes, the late Rabbi Dr John Rayner, delivered a sermon at the Liberal Synagogue in London some years ago that was one of those that remains in one’s memory for all time. Those amongst you in this fiercely secular nation who are in that tiny minority who do attend religious services will know what I mean by a sermon that wakes you up from one of those very unholy mind-wanderings on credit card debt, the blocked kitchen drain and one’s dying hydrangea.

Rabbi Rayner, a Kindertransporte whose parents perished in the Nazi ‘Final Solution‘, said he was often asked by young Jews why they should adhere to Judaism, or in fact to any faith when the so-called Almighty had allowed the Holocaust to happen. He told the congregation that he had no magic answer to this terrible dilemma, and that each person must seek out his or her own path to spiritual peace, although he hoped those same seekers would end their search with adherence to a Jewish way of life. He did not expect them to be devout but did hope they would perpetuate Jewish values in their daily lives -- those values being a thirst for learning, ethical behaviour in all aspects of life and attention to the suffering of others. In this regard John Rayner was often a fierce critic of Israeli and American foreign policy. He was a man of deep faith but could also be critical of his own co-religionists.

John had arrived in the United Kingdom with a string attached to a cardboard number around his neck in 1938, speaking only German, frightened and alone. He was adopted by a Christian clergyman, later to be Bishop, William Stannard, and was soon proficient enough in English to attend university and go on to rabbinic studies. He served in the British armed forces and became one of the Liberal Jewish movement’s most erudite rabbis.

Near the end of his life Rabbi Rayner and I exchanged writings; he often provided me with his critiques of my own articles and sent me essays for my website. He knew I was right-wing but we enjoyed a lively discourse. Where we agreed was on the issue of where men and women of faith and decency should intervene in political affairs. His favourite quote from Scripture was from Isaiah: ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’

Inasmuch as a religious fanatic murdered my other hero, the ferociously secular Yitzhak Rabin, and as I mourned the Nobel Peace Prize winner for a year, one might wonder what I am doing on this side of today’s debate. I have been placed on this side of the podium because I am known as a woman of faith and believe there are times in the destiny of mankind when faith can be a positive element in the decision-making process of world leaders.

Another great man of belief, the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, devoted his life to faith despite the unspeakable horrors he had experienced in the Holocaust. He told a story about his starving father in Lieberrose concentration camp in Upper Silesia, saving a tiny, precious ration of margarine and commemorating the inspiring story of Chanukah and the miracle of the oil that lasted to see the ancient Maccabbees through a terrible turmoil. Hugo said his father reminded him that a man could survive for a few days without water and food, but he could not survive one moment without hope. When Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who never once in their lives could have experienced the hell that the Gryns endured, dismiss religion as a waste of time, I think of Hugo‘s Chanukah story.

Much has been written in outrage and fury about the born-again Christianity of George W Bush. Notwithstanding the accusations currently circulating around the world by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt that the committed Christians Bush and Rumsfeld were driven to war in Iraq by a group of Jewish neoconservatives, the reality to me, because I got to know some of these very people so demonised in the media is that they had a vision for the Middle East. Lest we forget that Bill Clinton spent eight years tirelessly working for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and that born-again Jimmy Carter brought Sadat and Begin together. Revd Martin Luther King brought his people out of bondage. Woodrow Wilson, a man of faith, wanted more than anything for the First World War never to happen and died heartbroken over the failure of the League of Nations. Some will assert, ‘But Bush was not a man of peace; he shocked and awed Iraq.‘ I sincerely believe that those who planned the overthrow of Saddam expected American-style parades and cotton candy and gratitude from the people.

I will assert that President Bush’s deep Christian faith, like that of Donald Rumsfeld, informed their desire to turn the region into a little America with Tastykake cupcakes, Geno’s steaks, baseball and hot dogs -- well, hahal hot dogs -- and Thanksgiving turkey. (Incidentally, most places one goes for baseball in the USA the hotdogs are Hebrew National. I am surprised that Mearsheimer and Walt did not pick up on this as another example of the Jewish Lobby dominating American thought and policy. )

As Madeleine Albright states in her book, ‘The Mighty and the Almighty,’ throughout the past hundred years or so America in its wisdom has assumed others want to live as we do. When I came to the United Kingdom thirty-two years ago my gas fridge leaked because I kept running out of shillings to put into the slot; I had no central heating and kept being plunged into darkness and hypothermia because of the shilling crisis. After about four days here I wept down the ‘phone and begged my parents to send me the fare home but they demanded I tough it out. Soon I discovered that I could not find water bagels, cream soda or knishes and that there was no air conditioning anywhere. Perhaps this has less to do with Bush’s desire to turn the Middle East into the fifty-first state than my having been an American abroad, but I mention this because I do believe successive administrations have felt that Americanising the world will make us all happier and safer. The evil intentions of the USA as depicted in John Pilger’s films and writings fail to reveal that there has always been a well-meaning down-home kinda naivete about America’s broad aspirations for the rest of the world.

For example, in recent months I have been subscribing to a cable channel called NASN, a new network of 24/7 American sports geared to European and worldwide consumption. I had forgotten how high school and college boys and girls devote so much time to organised sport and go on to fine careers. In the past year 400,000 former sports scholarship recipients have completed qualifications in professional careers including the law, aeronautical engineering, business management , the arts and academia. I watch those capacity crowds across America and see not one hooligan or lout, and see no police because they are simply not needed at sporting events over there. Then I think, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if all European and British sport could be like this?’ The huge majority of the people attending the events, along with the young competitors and cheerleaders, come from traditional, churchgoing homes. That is the global image the Bushes of this world would like to see, instead of strife.

This brings me to a crucial point: the United States -- whose head of state invariably drives world affairs -- is a deeply religious country. There is nothing bad about this. Indeed perhaps if the Anglican Church would spend less energy tearing itself apart about the ordination of Gene Robinson and more time working out how American churches -- including gay congregations -- get capacity attendance every Sunday, Britons would begin to attend church again and understand the power of the Scripture in affecting one’s life. Three years ago ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ magazine did a long report on the effect the church had had on reducing street crime. African American inner city parishes had made a concerted effort to bring disaffected youth into church on Sunday. Soon many of them were visiting the sick and elderly, learning how to make videos, singing in Gospel choirs and setting up enterprises.

For thirty-two years I have tried in vain to explain to my British friends and colleagues the lively religious life that exists in the United States. Britons who have recently watched the World Series on Channel Five will be mystified by the players who cross themselves before coming up to bat. This is not some form of crank fundamentalism but one of many manifestations of the freedom of religious expression that was the cornerstone of the earliest colonial venture of William Penn.

In his new book, ‘The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,’ Professor Mark Lilla’s narrative emphasises the impact of ‘The Great Separation’ between church and state, on which the American nation was founded. Yet no Christian country is more pious than the United States. When the sitting President goes to church he is seen on television most Sundays. In the recent Presidential Debates even the traditionally liberal and anti-war Democrats are enthusiastic churchgoers. This is something my British friends cannot ‘get ‘ -- the idea that a friend of mine who is a liberal, registered Democrat anti-war campaigner and art history professor, will visit me in London and want to set aside Sunday for multiple church services. Those Presidential candidates are easy about expressing their religious devotion and that does not make them freaky evangelicals. When Hillary Clinton talks about her vision of universal healthcare she cites Jesus as the Shepherd, holding a small child. Imagine a British Prime Minsterial hopeful saying that -- it would be on the cover of ‘Private Eye’ the following week. My parish in Washington, DC houses a large, beautiful Episcopal congregation and is packed on Sundays. It also happens to be one of several gay churches. These are men and women who hold mostly liberal views and march on the Capitol on various issues. But their faith is central to their lives.

In a recent essay on the turmoil in Burma, Henry Porter in ‘The Guardian’ reminds the world that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the result of a mass candlelit prayer meeting that grew to 400,000 people urged on by Pastor Fuhrer of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. Porter stresses the power of the monks in Burma and in another piece, James Mawdsley says it was his belief in Jesus and remembering the suffering on the Cross that sustained him for a year in a Burmese torture centre appropriately named Insein Prison. Sam Leith writes in his column that the Burmese monks ‘present a problem for the militant secularist in the Dawkins or Hitchens mould.’

Hitchens says religion ‘poisons everything’ but Leith asserts that it is faith that helps the monks stand firm, a faith he deems ‘uniquely powerful.’

This takes us to the issue of faith and foreign policy. Adolf Hitler wanted the ‘Christian tenderness burned out of the Hitler Youth.’ Mao tse Ting squelched creativity and originality. Stalin had hundreds of thousands murdered in the name of Communism. Hitler and Stalin detested traditional Judaeo-Christian faith. These were men who led their own people and the world into darkness and slaughter. Although the Grand Mufti was asked by the Nazis to recruit thousands of Muslims to join the SS, ultimately Hitler, had he triumphed in the war, would have exterminated millions of Muslims to create his ‘ pure Aryan race.’

Let us turn now to the central issue of George Bush, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and Abu Ghraib. Never in the history of the United States military has its reputation come under such scrutiny as in the days after Seymour Hersh and Dan Rather reported on the events recorded by a young soldier filming in Abu Ghraib. Like the character portrayed by Jake Gillenhaal in ‘Rendition’ he was overcome with remorse. How could a nation whose foundations were based in the most ethical aspects of Judaeo-Christian values behave thus? My response is that the world after 9/11, a day that if more successful could have been a kind of Armageddon, has irrevocably changed. If the American leadership feels it is in a battle against a movement that seeks to destroy whole nations and even its own people, then Bush’s Christian zeal wins the day for some observers, but where my own view is concerned the jury is out. It is possible Guantanamo may someday become a breeding ground for radicalism but time will tell.

Madeleine Albright relates a story about a speech she delivered to Yale Divinity School in 2004. This invoked the ire of the eminent theologian Stanley Hauerwas. He felt her record in government had been anything but honourable, she represented the military establishment and that no American who supported armed engagement could ascribe to being a Christian. Albright responded with the view that non-violence is not always the best course. Had Roosevelt remained neutral she, a Catholic of Jewish ancestry, would not have been alive today.

I am old enough to remember the unfortunate US Marine who happened to be a passenger on a flight hijacked by the PLO. He was singled out for brutal treatment. As was Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair-bound American Jew shot and thrown overboard by the PLO on the Achille Lauro cruise liner. Hundreds of American servicemen, trying to bring stability to the Middle East, were blown up in the Khobar Towers and countless others, not to mention Britons Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan, have been tormented in protracted capture and then murdered in the most humiliating way on video, in the name of extremism. Conservative commentators in the UK and USA are saying that Muslim radicals are as dangerous as George Bush; Con Coughlin in ‘The Telegraph’ looks into 'Ahmadinejad’s bloody vision for the world that will make way for the return of the 12th Imam. It is a vision of mass murder and mayhem that includes the deaths of millions of his own people.'

During the Second World War, my late mother was a WAC stationed at Camp Pickett, Virginia. It was a huge holding camp for Italian and German POWs. She said the Axis soldiers prayed they would be captured by the Americans because they would receive the kindest treatment. Indeed, Camp Pickett was not quite a country club but there were cinemas and recreation rooms and numerous dining facilities.

Now in 2004 the reputation of the United States as the most decent of all nations taking prisoners was shattered by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Until 9/11 Americans had for the most part enjoyed a reputation for decency under the Geneva Conventions. But if George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld felt this was the only way to stop another 9/11 and to confront a radical movement that thinks nothing of castrating young non-combatants --as was done by the PLO in 1972 at Munich according to the testimony of the widow of one of the Israeli Olympic athletes, Josef Romano -- then the goalposts had to change. Yes, Rumsfeld and Bush are men of deep faith and one could argue that Christianity repudiated torture decades ago. Yes, waterboarding was used during the Inquisition. The new Attorney General of the United States has just been approved under conditions imposed by the Senate that he ban this procedure. But if extreme methods of interrogation against men who would otherwise commit mass-murder of their own as well as of those of other faiths can prevent tragedy then governments are now acceding that they will have to exercise these methods. A large majority of Americans and a good portion of Britons feel that under duress Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl and provided a long shopping list of planned atrocities that would have effectively caused the painful deaths of millions across the globe. But is it moral? The Christianity-driven decency of the America in which I grew up is, to me, on shaky ground.

In his book Professor Mark Lilla talks a great deal about what he calls ‘political theology.’ He goes on to say that modern Christian society looks at radical Islam and sees a turbulent, bloodstained universe it left behind centuries ago. Sadly, modern liberal Christian society is not equipped to deal with the phenomenon of radical global Islamic extremism and some right-wing pundits are even suggesting that a ‘western fundamentalist’ is needed to confront this death march head-on.

I was not moved, nor were my views changed by the recent film ’Rendition.’ In the film the character portrayed by Meryl Streep says that 7,000 souls in London were saved because of the extraordinary rendition of a terrorist. However, the CIA interrogator played by Jake Gyllenhaal is so moved by his conscience that he arranges for the captive to be smuggled away to safety. They were principled individuals and I had sympathy and admiration for both. But I would still prefer to live in a universe envisaged by leaders of faith, integrity, decency and morality of all nations than in a world ruled by Christian, Jewish or Muslim extremists.

(British-American Project Conference Paper for Remembrance Day 11 November 2007)

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