Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Can anyone remember the last time Christmas carolers knocked on their door and sang “Away in a Manger” or “Frosty the Snowman?” The reason it’s probably been a while, USA Today reports, is that caroling is increasingly passÃ© among Americans.
The reasons range from the paranoid (it’s a plot by secularists against Christians) to the prosaic (most people would rather stay home and watch football). Americans are too busy or too lazy or too intimidated to sing in public. People are afraid of offending neighbors or interrupting their privacy. Neighborhoods are less close-knit.
It hasn’t completely disappeared, but caroling in the 21st century has adapted.
People carol on horseback in San Antonio and Virginia Beach. They organize to carol citywide to raise money for charity in St. Louis. They’re professional singers dressed up in Victorian costumes in cities all over the country, caroling for cash (not figgy pudding) at parties and malls. And in California, caroling is a Hollywood spectacle on a truck with scores of costumed singers, dancers and musicians gamboling through the streets (only in L.A., kids, only in L.A.).
Here and there, in neighborhoods rich with community spirit, energetic organizers and church choirs, residents get together in evenings before Christmas to ramble around crooning Jingle Bells or Silent Night on sidewalks and porches, then dash home to drink hot cider and snack on sweets in a mood of Christmassy bonhomie.
“Maybe there’s a need for communities like this, where people who come together are longing for a Norman Rockwell kind of America,” says Sandra Aresta, one of the organizers of the annual neighborhood caroling in Chevy Chase West, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
But Rockwell’s America departed with Rockwell, and in any case, caroling wasn’t all that common in the USA to begin with. Polls conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association found that by 1996, only 22% of those surveyed said they planned to go caroling, and by 2005, that number had dropped to an anemic 6%.
(Hat tip: the new and improved DMN religion blog)
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December 21, 2007 | 1:12 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Harper‘s keeps sending me subscription renewal notices. The most recent one pointed to a few topics the magazine had explored recently, including European nationalism and the rise of anti-Semitism (something I’ve written about here and here and here and here). I couldn’t recall seeing this article, so I did a search, and it turns out that “recent” refers to August 1990. In other breaking news, the Berlin Wall has fallen.
Anyway, the article was a good read, and it complemented a piece in The New Yorker last month about a French demagogue, the anti-Semitic comedian DieudonnÃ©.
The beginning of lâaffaire DieudonnÃ© came in December, 2003, when he appeared on âYou Canât Please Everyone,â a popular political talk show, in which celebrities discussed issues in a civil roundtable atmosphere. To the surprise of everyone there, he arrived on the set wearing a camo jacket, a black ski mask, and an Orthodox Jewish hat with fake sidelocks. He launched into a speech that called on the audience to join âthe Americano-Zionist Axisâthe only one . . . that offers you happiness, and the only one to give you a chance of living a little bit longer.â While the panel of comedians invited for the show (it included Jamel Debbouze, Franceâs most popular Muslim comic) laughed, the showâs host, Marc-Olivier Fogiel, looked on nervously. DieudonnÃ© finished his polemic by raising his arm and crying, âIsra-heil.â He then took off his mask and joined the panel, to a standing ovation.
The most troubling part of the profile, though, is not so much DieudonnÃ©, but the new France that he represents:
On February 13, 2006, Ilan Halimi, a twenty-three-year-old cell-phone salesman, was foundânaked, gagged, and handcuffedânear a train station south of Paris. He had burns and traces of torture on eighty per cent of his body, and died on the way to the hospital. Halimi had been kidnapped and held for three weeks in a cellar in the suburb of Bagneux. The police traced the crime to a group that became known as âthe gang of Barbarians,â allegedly led by Youssouf Fofana, the twenty-five-year-old son of African immigrants, and determined that Halimi had been abducted because he was Jewish. Eighteen people were arrested in France, and after a manhunt that led to the Ivory Coast, Fofana was taken into custody. Fofana denied killing Halimi, and that his actions were motivated by race, but other detainees told the police that âJews have money,â and that they believed that Halimiâs parents, a working-class couple, or âthe rabbiâ would pay half a million dollars for Halimiâs release.
Sammy Ghozlan, the head of a French group that monitors anti-Semitism, said that the words of an âalleged comedianâ influenced the killers, and Julien Dray, the spokesman for the Socialist Party and a founder of S.O.S. Racisme, declared that Halimiâs death was a result of âthe DieudonnÃ© effect.â DieudonnÃ© denounced Dray for throwing around murder accusations lightly. In a statement he released at the time, DieudonnÃ© attributed the torture-abduction to the neo-liberalism that âhas established the cult of profit as the central value of societyâ and to the âAmerican drift in French society.â On February 26, 2006, pamphlets depicting DieudonnÃ© and Fofana above the words âThinker. Murdererâ were distributed during a March in Paris to protest Halimiâs murder.While French politicians were holding vigils for Halimi, DieudonnÃ© invited to his theatre the family of another victim of a kidnap-murder and called for an end to the âdiscrimination among victimsâ that allegedly favored Jews. A few days later, DieudonnÃ© held a rally on the theme of âRepublican equality against discrimination among victims,â adding an Algerian and an Armenian to the list of those whose killings had gotten scant notice. At about this time, DieudonnÃ© added to his show impersonations of Hitler (âYouâll see, the future will present me as a moderate!â) and the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.
In Bagneux, the suburb where Halimi was murdered, Jean-Claude Tchicaya, a government social worker, organizes workshops and field trips to foster understanding among blacks, Arabs, and Jews. âHalimi was tortured in the town where I live, in the neighborhood where I live, in the building where my mother lives,â Tchicaya told me. âI even knew personally some of the young people who were part of the murder gang. To believe that all Jews are rich is an anti-Semitic prejudice that didnât exist in the neighborhood twenty years ago.â He added, âDieudonnÃ© is cunning, insinuating. He touches parts of peopleâs minds that are vulnerable.â
In May, 2006, a group calling itself the Tribu Ka marched down the Rue des Rosiers, the main street of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Le Marais, chanting anti-Semitic slogans. The Tribu Kaâs leader, KÃ©mi SÃ©ba, a French-born man of Ivory Coast and Haitian parentage, reportedly issued a âwarningâ to Franceâs Jewish community: âIf by any chance the French Jews brush even a single hair of Brother Fofanaâs head, we will take care of the curls of your rabbi.â In July, Sarkozy, who was then the interior minister, had the Tribu Ka banned. All of this meant further embarrassment for DieudonnÃ©, who, it was revealed, allowed SÃ©ba to use the ThÃ©Ã¢tre de la Main dâOr for meetings in which he reportedly praised Hitlerâs ideas on race. DieudonnÃ©âs office issued a statement emphasizing the gulf between SÃ©ba and himself, and pointing out that SÃ©baâs âethnically based organizationââthe Tribu Ka excludes non-blacks from its meetingsâwas the opposite of the ârepublican project defended by DieudonnÃ©.â (Two months ago, the ThÃ©Ã¢tre de la Main dâOr announced SÃ©baâs stage dÃ©but, a âstreet politicâ production called âSarkophobie.â)
In August, 2006, DieudonnÃ© left town on an âanti-Zionist solidarity mission,â and arrived in Beirut in the wake of Israelâs war with Hezbollah. He was accompanied by his Presidential campaign manager, Marc Robert; the September 11th conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan; and Ahmed Moualek, the leader of the youth organization La Banlieue SâExprime! (The Suburbs Speak!). DieudonnÃ© met with the chief of Hezbollahâs television network, Al Manar, and was photographed shaking hands with Jesse Jackson, who looked befuddled. By his side during all these encounters was his new friend from the National Front, Alain Soral.
I saw Soral again this past May, two weeks after the French Presidential elections. Le Pen had won only ten per cent of the voteâhis worst showing in yearsâand failed to qualify for a second round. Though the victorious Sarkozy campaign managed to win National Front supporters by promising a tough new immigration policy, N.F. insiders blamed the outcome on Soralâs âbanlieueâ strategy and the alliance with DieudonnÃ©, who, they believed, had alienated white voters as well as moderates. âWe have passed into the Republic of Show Business, a schmatte monarchy,â Soral said glumly. âThere was almost nobody on the Champs-ÃlysÃ©es for Sarkozyâs victory, but on TV it looked like crowds. It was just like in Baghdad, with the tearing down of Saddam Husseinâs statue. It was all staged television, recycled crowds, Jews. The French people donât careâtheyâre like cows watching a train go by.â
December 21, 2007 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
The snickering and sniping over the supposed subliminal message in Mike Huckabee’s Christmas ad is just silly. But, I can’t say I’ve ever agreed more with a statement from the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue.
“Every other word out of [Huckabee’s] mouth is that ‘I’m Christian.’ He’s calling into question Romney’s Mormonism…let people talk about there faith, but don’t sell it on your sleeve.”
Added Donahue, “Yeah, I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but don’t become a salesman. Don’t hawk it like that on the street.”
December 21, 2007 | 11:05 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, has been receiving a lot of attention for his ambitious—and pious—community-building project in Florida. One of my favorite writers at The New Yorker penned this piece last February about Monaghan’s plans to build a Catholic seminary and city based on Catholic values, both bearing the name Ave Maria.
But, in another long piece, Portfolio reports that Ave Maria’s in need of a miracle. (Cliche writing intentionally added.)
Monaghan and his partnersâthe Barron Collier Co., a major Florida real estate firm, and Pulte Homes, the country’s third-largest residential builderâsay it’s too early to judge the viability of the project, which, after all, is still in its infancy. But the circumstances of Ave Maria’s birth could not be more challenging. It was conceived in 2001, at the onset of the real estate boom, during which the median home price in Naples would double in just five years. The developers were originally hoping to construct 1,000 houses a year at Ave Maria, reaching a goal of 11,000 over the next decade, while also creating parks, shops, restaurants, and 500,000 square feet of office space. That’s not going to happen, at least not at the pace the developers had hoped, for reasons that are both symbolic of wider market conditions and peculiar to the uniqueâand controversialânature of Monaghan’s project.
Ave Maria is coming into being at the dawn of the worst real estate recession since the early 1990s, in a place that could fairly be called the epicenter of the bust. According to one recent study, the Naples area is the spot in America most at risk for a steep drop in home prices. But the deeper problem may be a conflict between Monaghan and his partners over Ave Maria’s identity. At this perilous juncture in the town’s existence, they can’t agree about how Catholic it should be. Barron Collier and Pulte, both of which are far more interested in profits than prophets, are downplaying the role of religion in the town’s development, marketing Ave Maria as a place no more intrinsically Catholic than St. Louis or Corpus Christi, Texas.
But Monaghan and the believers who surround him say that the town’s religious character is its great strength, not only spiritually but commercially. They worry that by pitching the development to home buyers as just another anodyne suburb, Barron Collier and Pulte risk alienating the very people most inclined to make Ave Maria their home. “I wonder sometimes whether they don’t treat this as if it’s the same as every other development they do,” Monaghan says of his secular partners. “I think if they put a lot of money into marketing to the general population, they might be wasting a lot of it.”
Early indications suggest he may be right.
Which raises the question of the day: Would you want to live in a town of not only homogeneous religious beliefs but also moral values?
December 21, 2007 | 1:13 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Mejgan Afshan’s father warned her about the danger of discussing religion and politics, but as a girl, she couldn’t resist the two things she thought mattered more than anything else. Now 28 and watching the 2008 presidential campaign closely, Afshan sees how uncomfortable those topics can be when they intersect.
While an unholy amount of campaigning has been in the form of Godtalk—former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee talking about how much he loves Jesus, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney swearing there’s nothing wrong with being Mormon and Sen. Barack Obama reminding potential voters that he’s not Muslim—Afshan feels like the greatest effort candidates are making with Muslim Americans like her is to distance themselves.
“It’s like when you are a kid, and everybody is getting a piece of candy, and you don’t get one,” said Afshan, who spent the past three years as a field representative for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and recently left to join the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). “I want some attention, too.”
That is a sentiment shared by many Muslim Americans, including many of the 1,000 who came to the Long Beach Convention Center last Saturday for MPAC’s annual convention.
“Today in the country,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, a federation of Southern California mosques and nonprofits, “Muslims are treated as some permanent foreigner who by mistake landed in America.”
That was echoed by an absence of candidates at the convention. Speaker invitations were sent both to the Republicans and Democrats running for president; only Mike Gravel, the former Democratic senator from Alaska who is considered a fringe candidate, accepted, and he cancelled his keynote address the night before because of pneumonia.
And a few missed R.S.V.P.s isn’t the only reason Muslim Americans feel snubbed by some of the presidential candidates.
I wrote about the rest of the reasons, about the Muslim-American-immigrant evolution and about their primary domestic concerns in this week’s Jewish Journal. I didn’t have space to discuss foreign-policy interests, but it’s safe to say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq are at the top of that list.
As a sidebar to that story, I spoke with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who last fall became the first Muslim American to be elected to federal office. His campaign was filled with all kinds of questions about whether he was linked with Islamic extremists that want to destroy our government. And after he was elected, the controversy didn’t die down.
JJ: What did you think when Dennis Prager, among other people, criticized your decision to take the oath on the Quran, saying, “The act undermines American civilization?”
KE: I chalked that up to him trying to increase ratings. The people who complain about what I swore in on and what others did, too, these people are poor students of American history. In the United States Constitution, not only does the First Amendment say there is no state religion, but it also says later on in Article Six that there is no religious test for service in public office. It says it in the Constitution. No religious test.
JJ: Forty-five percent of Americans in a Fox News poll earlier this year said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate; John McCain a few months ago said the same. How far along do you think American Muslims are, and how long until we see a greater presence?
KE: Like every other ethnic group or every other religious group in American society, people need to get engaged and get active. America in many ways has been a recurring expansion of participation and inclusion.
A lot of Muslims today are very concerned about civil rights in America as it relates to Muslims—things like rendition, things like immigration detention centers, things like the FBI visits to every foreign-born Muslim in America after 2001, things like watch lists in the airports. Maybe there are some people who truly need to be focused on, but because we have this broad prophylactic, you catch a lot of people who didn’t do nothing but go on a business trip.
It’s also important to note that in a Pew Research poll, 71 percent of Muslims said if you work hard in America, you can make it, whereas only 64 percent of the general population would report that level of optimism. You’ve got people who love their country, are glad to be in America, feel like America is a great country, but also in this post-Sept. 11 world feel like they are the scapegoated group.
December 20, 2007 | 11:43 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
“I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.”
This story from February continues to dominate the top of Commentary‘s online archive. It talks about Carter’s unexpected political ascendancy, his continued geopolitical meddling and his problem with Israel.
Carterâs frequent pronouncements on issues of the day and his free-lance diplomacyâhave had a much sharper edge. He has injected himself into several foreign crises, sometimes with the grudging acquiescence of existing U.S. administrations but sometimes in open defiance of them.
One remarkable instance grew out of Carterâs strong opposition to the use of force to reverse the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Not satisfied with issuing a torrent of statements and articles, he dispatched a letter to the heads of state of members of the United Nations Security Council and several other governments urging them to oppose the American request for UN authorization of military action. In this letter, writes Carterâs admiring biographer Douglas Brinkley, he urged these influential world leaders to abandon U.S. leadership and instead give âunequivocal support to an Arab League effort, without any restraints on their agenda.â If this were allowed to occur, Carter believed, an Arab solution would not only force Iraq to leave Kuwait but at long last also force Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
The U.S. government under President George H.W. Bush learned of Carterâs missive only from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada. Brent Scowcroft, Bushâs National Security Adviser, called it âunbelievableâ that Carter would âask . . . the other members of the Council to vote against his own country. . . . f there was ever a violation of the Logan Act prohibiting diplomacy by private citizens, this was it.â Later, Carter justified his action by noting that he had sent the letter to President Bush, tooâas if this disposed of Scowcroftâs point. And even that was only a half-truth. As Brinkley reports, the copy to Bush was dated a day after the letter was sent to the others.
Despite Carterâs appeal, the Security Council voted 12-2 to authorize military action, with only Cuba and Yemen taking Carterâs side. But this was not the end of the ex-Presidentâs efforts. Just days before the announced deadline for Iraq to withdrawal from Kuwait, Carter wrote to the rulers of Americaâs three most important Arab allies in the crisisâEgypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabiaâimploring them to break with Washington: âI urge you to call publicly for a delay in the use of force while Arab leaders seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. You may have to forgo approval from the White House, but you will find the French, Soviets, and others fully supportive.â This time, he did not share a copy of his appeal with his own government even after the fact.
Why, one may ask, was Carter so adamant on the point of âan Arab solutionâ? After all, the so-called âCarter doctrine,â which he had laid down in his 1980 State of the Union address in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, explicitly threatened war in circumstances similar to those created by Saddamâs naked aggression in the Persian Gulf. What, then, led him to take a different tack in this instance? Brinkleyâs gloss supplies a possible answer. It appears that Carter saw the fruits of Saddamâs aggression as providing valuable leverage against Israel that he did not want to see squandered. Why he might have been thinking in such terms is a subject to which we shall return.
It is not only Arafat whose pacifism Carter credits. Now that the PLO has been upstaged by Hamas, he finds peaceful intentions in that quarter, tooâeven in the face of Hamas denials that it adheres to any such view. Reporting credulously that âHamas would modify its rejection of Israel if there is a negotiated agreement that Palestinians can approve,â he has urged Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to forge a coalition government with this terrorist organization that is sworn to Israelâs destruction.
Hamas, Carter writes, has âmeticulously observed a cease-fire commitment,â and âsince August of 2004 [it] has not committed a single act of terrorism that cost an Israeli life.â
Ever since his presidency, there has been a wide gap between Carterâs estimation of himself and the esteem in which other Americans hold him. This has manifestly embittered him. For all his talk of âlove,â the driving motives behind his post-presidential ventures seem, in fact, to be bitterness together with narcissism (as it happens, two prime ingredients of a martyr complex). But he has worked hard to earn the reputation he enjoys. In contravention of the elementary responsibilities of loyalty for one in his position, he has denigrated American policies and leaders in his public and private discussions in foreign lands. He has undertaken personal diplomacy to thwart the policies of the men elected to succeed him. And in doing so he has, at least in the case of North Korea, actively damaged our security.
At home, Carterâs criticisms of the policies of his successors are offered up with reckless abandon. For example, when the Patriot Act and related measures curtailed the rights of defendants accused of terrorism, Carter editorialized that âin many nations, defenders of human rights were the first to feel the consequences.â The charge was simply a concoction, and not a single example was offered to substantiate it. In this manner, Carter has made himself a willing hook on which foreigners can hang their anti-American feelings. When he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, the chairman of the committee allowed that the award âshould be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. Itâs a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States.â
Carterâs special rancor toward Israel remains to some degree mysterious, as such sentiments often are, but it is likely we have not heard the last of it. As the protests and criticisms of him continue, he may well sink deeper into his sense of angry martyrdom, following the path recently trod by academics like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who fancy themselves victims of the very Jewish conspiracies they set out to expose. It is sad that a President whose cardinal accomplishment was a peace accord between Israel and one of its neighbors should have devolved into such a seething enemy of Israel. It will be sadder still if this same man, whose other achievement was to elevate the cause of human rights, ends his career by helping to make anti-Semitism acceptable once again in American discourse.
December 20, 2007 | 11:38 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
The list, available here, shares some of the same top stories with Time‘s list, including the South Korean hostages, the Anglican schism, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death and the popularity of atheist books. CT also noted:
*Religion on the presidential campaign trail
*The passing of Ruth Graham
*The murders of three Turkey Bible sellers
*The president of the Evangelical Theological Society returning to Catholicism
*The failed ouster of the NAE’s eco-conscious Richard Cizik
*The Supreme Court upholding the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban
December 20, 2007 | 10:24 am
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
The leader of an Orthodox Jewish sect was arrested Wednesday after authorities unsealed a sweeping 37-count indictment alleging that he operated a decade-long tax fraud and money laundering scheme stretching from Israel through New York to downtown Los Angeles’ jewelry district, authorities said.
Grand Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz, head of the Spinka religious group, and his executive assistant, Gabbai Moseh E. Zigelman, are accused of soliciting “tens of millions of dollars” in contributions to Spinka charities while secretly promising to refund up to 95% of contributors’ donations, federal prosecutors said. The contributors then illegally claimed tax deductions on their bogus donations.
Six associates, four of whom were arrested Wednesday, were charged in connection with the scheme. Those arrested were identified as: Yaacov Zeivald, 43, of Valley Village; Yosef Nachum Naiman, 55, of Los Angeles; Alan Jay Friedman, 43, of Los Angeles; and Joseph Roth, 66, of Tel Aviv. Authorities are looking for Los Angeles diamond merchant Moshe Arie Lazar, 60, and Tel Aviv attorney Jacob Ivan Kantor, 71, both believed to be in Israel.
Five Brooklyn-based Spinka charities are also defendants in the alleged money laundering scheme: Yeshiva Imrei Yosef, Yeshivath Spinka, Central Rabbinical Seminary, Machne Sva Rotzohn and Mesivta Imrei Yosef Spinka. The charities are accused of making out false receipts for phony donations as well as receiving the money laundering fees, according to the indictment.