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Who determines who is a Jew?: Get Religion, August 17, 2012 August 17, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism.
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In his 2008 Atlantic review of  Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite Christopher Hitchens retells a “sour old joke” from the Nazi era.

Two elderly Jews [are] sitting in a Berlin park, with one of them reading a Yiddish paper and the other one scanning the pages of Der Stürmer. The latter Jew is laughing. This proves too much for the former Jew, who says: “It’s not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?”

“Look,” replies the other. “If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there’s finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!”

Change the setting, transform Der Stürmer to any one of a number of Arab-language newspapers or television broadcasts, move the date to 2012 and the same joke would be fresh and relevant today. While the Muslim world today may be the most vocal source of Jew hatred, European anti-Semitism is alive and well too. And it takes a surprising number of forms: from the Church of England to 68′ers, in the salons of the chattering classes and amongst pro-Palestinian activists. Anti-Semites can be found from left and right.

Anti-Semites have also risen to prominence in some political parties including Hungary’s Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom). Jobbik leaders have accused Jews of buying up the country’s lands, taking over the banks and newspapers, and exercising a fell hand over the affairs of state.Into this mix comes an Associated Press story about one of Jobbik’s leaders, Csanad Szegedi. The lede begins:

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — As a rising star in Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party, Csanad Szegedi was notorious for his incendiary comments on Jews: He accused them of “buying up” the country, railed about the “Jewishness” of the political elite and claimed Jews were desecrating national symbols.

Then came a revelation that knocked him off his perch as ultra-nationalist standard-bearer: Szegedi himself is a Jew.

Following weeks of Internet rumours, Szegedi acknowledged in June that his grandparents on his mother’s side were Jews — making him one too under Jewish law, even though he doesn’t practice the faith. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and his grandfather a veteran of forced labour camps.

Since then, the 30-year-old has become a pariah in Jobbik and his political career is on the brink of collapse. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Szegedi is reported as being shocked by these revelations. However, his fierce xenophobic politics and his Presbyterian faith appear not to be enough to prevent his Jobbik allies from cutting him dead. A Jew is a Jew by blood — not by faith or self-identification it appears for the fascists in Hungary, who seem perturbed at having a Jew in their midst.

The odious Mr. Szeged has sought the counsel of Rabbi Slomo Koves of Hungary’s Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community to help him through this trauma of learning he is Jewish.

“As a rabbi … it is my duty to receive every person who is in a situation of crisis and especially a Jew who has just now faced his heritage,” Koves said.

…”Csanad Szegedi is in the middle of a difficult process of reparation, self-knowledge, re-evaluation and learning, which according to our hopes and interests, should conclude in a positive manner,” Koves said. “Whether this will occur or not is first and foremost up to him.”

The Szegedi controversy reminds me of a passage from Alan Furst’s 2001 book  Kingdom of Shadows: “Morath didn’t mention Bethlen’s well-known definition of the anti-Semite as ‘one who detests the Jews more than necessary’.”

Though this wonderful novel may be the non-specialist’s introduction to the aphorism, it is none the less a true statement made by Hungary’s pre-war Prime Minister Count István Bethlen.

The article goes into further detail as to why Szegedi is considered to be a Jew.

Judaism is traced from mother to child, meaning that under Jewish law Szegedi is Jewish. Szegedi said he defines himself as someone with “ancestry of Jewish origin — because I declare myself 100 per cent Hungarian.”

Under the traditional definition of “who is a Jew”, this definition is correct and is the criteria used by Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Yet Reform Judaism in 1983 recognized patrilineal Jews—those born of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother—as full Jews, provided they followed the Jewish faith.

A further twist in this debate is Israel. Reform Judaism’s position is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate, which takes matrilinealism as the criterion for Jewish descent. Most Conservative rabbis and almost all Orthodox rabbis would also decline to recognize conversions performed by Reform rabbis for converts to Judaism on halachic grounds.

How should journalists decide who is a Jew? In this story the conservative/orthodox matrilineal definition is used. This may be appropriate as the Jewish community in Hungary follows this line. Yet the AP’s readers are found in the Angl0sphere, where the majority of Jews follow the Reform view of Jewish identity. Should it not interpret events according to the lights of its readers?

Nazi race ideology would classify Szegedi as a mischling — a half Jew. A German mischling was subject to severe restrictions under the Nazi race laws, but mischlinge in the Eastern territories occupied by the Nazis were classified as full Jews and exterminated. Szegedi appears not to want to accept his Jewish ancestry — and protests that he is a Christian and 100 per cent Hungarian.

Distasteful as this topic may be, has Szegedi the right to construct himself? Is he a Jew? Should he be a Jew? Who gets to say?

What say you GetReligion readers? Who has the right to decide — and how should the press approach such situations?

First printed at Get Religion.

The Guardian doesn’t get atheism: Get Religion Oct 5, 2011 October 6, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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`Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.’

`I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum: `but it isn’t so, nohow.’

`Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

`I was thinking,’ Alice said very politely, `which is the best way out of this wood: it’s getting so dark. Would you tell me, please?’

But the little men only looked at each other and grinned.

They looked so exactly like a couple of great schoolboys, that Alice couldn’t help pointing her finger at Tweedledum, and saying `First Boy!’

`Nohow!’ Tweedledum cried out briskly, and shut his mouth up again with a snap.

`Next Boy!’ said Alice, passing on to Tweedledee, though she felt quite certain he would only shout out “Contrariwise!’ and so he did.

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll

Good atheism journalism is as rare as good religion journalism. Assumptions about what an atheist believes more often than not are couched in terms of what he does not believe, turning it into a game of Tweedledee and Tweedledum with the theist and atheist in turn shouting ‘contrariwise’. The varieties of atheistic thought are so wide it makes as little sense for a reporter to say ‘atheists think … ’ as it does to say ‘Muslims think … ’ or ‘Christians think …’.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in atheistic writing and a ready market for the works of biologist Richard Dawkins, critic Christopher Hitchens, and philosophers Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, Thomas Nagel and Michel Onfray. However, there is no one atheistic worldview for within this genre there are incompatible viewpoints, arguments and varieties of tone.

Guy Kahane has observed that the arc of atheism encompasses those who do not believe in God, but runs from those who regret his absence to those who posit his absence is necessary for a moral world. Polemicists like Harris and Hitchens do not want God to exist and see religion as a force of evil while Thomas Nagel argues we should not want God to exist. ”  I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

At the other end of the arc are those who want God to exist, even though he does not. In his 2008 memoir the English writer Julian Barnes  observed: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” God does not exist for Barnes, but he feels his absence — a sentiment forcefully expressed by a character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Endgame” who stated:  “God doesn’t exist — the bastard.”

Theodore Dalrymple in an essay entitled “What the new Atheists Don’t See” in City Journal argued: “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” In his critique of those new atheists who see in religion the cause of all evil in the world, Dalrymple (an atheist) noted that “If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.”

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

This brings me to a recent article by the Guardian entitled “Rising atheism in America puts ‘religious right on the defensive’.” In this rather silly advocacy piece the Guardian manages to play into its stereotypes. In his report on an atheists conference in New England, the Guardian’s U.S. reporter offers a one-sided view of American politics and religion and offers statistics to substantiate the editorial voice: atheism is good, its triumph inevitable, and one day the American masses will come round to the Guardian’s way of thinking.

The story begins with the setting of the scene and then moves into assumptions, opinions and facts that gathers evidence for its conclusion.

At the meeting, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) will hear speakers celebrate successes they have had in removing religion from US public life and see awards being presented to noted secularist activists.

The US is increasingly portrayed as a hotbed of religious fervour. Yet in the homeland of ostentatiously religious politicians such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, agnostics and atheists are actually part of one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US: the godless. Far from being in thrall to its religious leaders, the US is in fact becoming a more secular country, some experts say. “It has never been better to be a free-thinker or an agnostic in America,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF.

The exact number of faithless is unclear. One study by the Pew Research Centre puts them at about 12% of the population, but another by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford puts that figure at around 20%.

Most experts agree that the number of secular Americans has probably doubled in the past three decades – growing especially fast among the young. It is thought to be the fastest-growing major “religious” demographic in the country.

Anecdotal evidence is offered to support the claims of fast growing atheism: Sunday shopping, low church attendance on Super Bowl Sunday, and so forth. The story then turns to politics.

Yet there is little doubt that religious groups still wield enormous influence in US politics and public life, especially through the rightwing of the Republican party. Groups such as Focus on the Family are well-funded and skilful lobbyists.

[An expert cited in the story] said the attention paid by politicians and the media to religious groups was not necessarily a sign of strength. “When religion was doing well, it did not need to go into politics. Secularity of our population and culture is obviously growing and so religion is on the defensive,” he said. … Others think that one day it will become politically mainstream to confess to a lack of faith as US political life lags behind the society that it represents. “Politicians have not yet caught up with the changing demographics of our society,” said Gaylor.

My concerns with this story are not with the viewpoints offered by FFRF. It is with the uncritical assumptions and observations made by the Guardian. “Survey said” may work for a game show but it doesn’t cut it in serious reporting especially when there are other surveys that report opposite findings. In a 2008 story in the Washington Times, Julia Duin reported on a Baylor University survey that came to the opposite conclusion of the Trinity College study.

Baylor researchers also criticized a much-ballyhooed “new atheism” as a barely discernible trend, saying the number of Americans who are atheists has stayed at 4 percent since 1944.

Why? Atheism is a “godless revolution that never happened,” the survey said, adding that irreligion often is not effectively transmitted to children who, when they reach adulthood, often join conservative religious denominations.

An American Spectator story offered the argument earlier this year that atheism is collapsing as a worldwide phenomena. It cited a 2010 Gallup poll that reported 43 per cent of Americans said they attended church at least monthly. In 1937 this figure was 37 per cent, rising to 49 per cent in the 1950s and settling at 42 per cent in 1969, where it has remained constant for the past four decades.

The question whether atheism is the “fastest-growing major ‘religious’ demographic” or a “barely discernible trend” in American religious life is not settled, nor is it the issue I am raising in this critique. An opinion or news analysis piece may argue that one view is superior to another. It is a mistake for a news story to write as if the issues were settled.

Nor is it helpful to leave the discussion of atheism as that of a purely “anti-” phenomenon. This story gives us the ‘who’ and the ‘where’, but assumes we know ‘why’ — why does the FFRF believe religion should be driven from the public square? What are their moral or metaphysical views? What sort of atheists are they? Leaving it this way paints the group as a gathering of village atheists. Atheists are not cranks, yet the Guardian’s portrayal leaves this impression of monomania

The bottom line: This article about atheism would have been improved by detailing what atheists believe and why they believe (or not-believe). The statements of fact offered by the subject should have been challenged or checked, and more than one expert point of view should be offered — especially when the issue is in dispute. While the tone and editorial voice of the story is sympathetic to the atheists’ agenda, the omissions, assumptions and biases served to make the atheist view appear unserious —a contrarian Tweedledee to the theist’s Tweedledum.

There was an opportunity to treat this phenomena seriously, but instead you have what you see.

First printed in GetReligion.