Posts Tagged ‘Bill Maher’


Funny how seemingly unrelated incidents can be very connected. I was watching Bill Maher and the discussion was about the terrorist group Boko Harem, kidnappers of 200 girls in Nigeria. Maher went on one of his rants condemning religion, which included an indictment of Islam as particularly violent, saying that Muslim violence was not limited to “a few bad apples.” Maher is witty and is often on point, but he has a blind spot when it comes to religion in general and Islam in particular. His words echo what I know to be a general attitude the public holds about Islam: there are too many incidents of terror and violence done by Muslims to believe that Islam is a religion of peace.

Within a couple of days of watching this episode of Bill Maher, I received emails from congregants with a link to an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency regarding a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League measuring anti-Semitism around the world. The headlines screamed, “More than a quarter of the world is anti-Semitic.” Of course that sets off panic in the Jewish world. I think it is important to understand what the results of the ADL survey really mean. I also think there are connections (not direct parallels but connections) between attitudes towards Jews and towards Muslims.

It should come as no surprise that the highest levels of anti-Semitism are in Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are still at some level of conflict with Israel, with the highest level in the West Bank and Gaza at 93%. The LOWEST level of anti-Semitism for any Arab country is Morocco at 80%, still a ridiculously high level. Of course global figures are skewed by the extremely high levels of anti-Semitism concentrated in these areas. More disturbing, however, is the level of anti-Semitism among certain European countries, with Greece leading the way at 69% and France second at 37%. Spain is also considered one of the most anti-Semitic western European countries as witnessed by the aftermath of the recent European basketball championships, which was won by an Israeli team. Thousands of anti-Semitic tweets were sent in Spain including references to sending Jews to the ovens and the showers. Clearly there are areas that still truly hate Jews.


Well, consider the remark by Ruben Noboa, a leader of the Jewish community in Catalonia, Spain, who is leading a lawsuit over the anti-Semitic tweets in a Spanish courts, “Hardly anyone here knows any Jews, but the clichés and stereotypes persist…” Noboa was trying to express irony- how can people hate Jews when they don’t even know us? But what he really expressed was truth. People hate what they do not know. Familiarity breeds tolerance. When you can eliminate conflict you have acceptance. A look at the areas with the smallest level of anti-Semitism bears this out.

Start with the United States. The ADL survey measured anti-Semitism here at 9%, one of the smallest numbers globally. I even think that might be overstated, as I doubt close to 1 in 10 Americans hate Jews. Our national numbers are most likely skewed by areas having little exposure to Jews or where fringe hate groups are present. There will always be a measure of prejudice but the story of the acceptance of Jews in America is one of great success. Just 80 years ago there were Jewish quotas in the great universities. Jews were seen as part of the seedy immigrant newcomers whose strange, non-Christian religion added to the natural human mistrust of outsiders. Figures like Father Coughlan could fill the radio airwaves with blatant anti-Jewish venom with few consequences. None of that happens now or could happen now. Why? As Americans became exposed to Jews, to Jewish culture, to Jewish thought, familiarity gave way to comfort. I remember growing up in West Virginian and having my parents’ Christian friends at our holiday tables, celebrating with us. It is easy to hate a stranger. It is hard to hate a friend, a neighbor, or even just someone you see all the time in the course of doing daily activities. None of this happens in the countries with the highest rates of anti-Semitism.

A country’s history and general culture also provide a clue as to whether anti-Semitism will flourish or not. Spain has a terrible history regarding Jews, whereas Holland, a country with little anti-Semitism, was the only western European country NOT to expel its Jews, indeed providing a haven for Jewish refugees. Great Britain is the source of great anti-Semitic canards such as the blood libel, yet as England underwent a transformation into a democratic society, Jews were invited back in and have flourished there for over 300 years.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Bill Maher’s attitude towards Muslims? I see the Muslim community in America as filling the same role that Jews did 80 years or so ago. They are largely immigrants therefore outsiders, strangers. Their religion is not Christian ergo a mystery to most Americans. They are not familiar so they are feared and mistrusted. The past 30 years or so have seen many terrorist acts carried out by those who claim to represent Islam. So we draw a conclusion that Islam is a violent religion bent on conquest. I would just ask my Christian friends to consider this: do you think during the age of the Crusades the Muslim inhabitants of the Holy Land could have been convinced that Christianity is a religion of peace?

There are indeed problems in the Islamic world. As often happens the radical elements are using religion to justify horrible acts. Many Muslim countries are way behind in all the measurements of what constitutes a modern, democratic society. We need to recognize that these national struggles are reflections of poverty, outdated feudal systems, and the natural evolutionary pains that many developing nations experience. Studying these nations is not a great way to understand people who practice Islam.

For that I recommend getting to know people in your community who actually do practice Islam. You will find they have the same hopes and fears as we do. They love the opportunity that America represents and push their children to succeed. They struggle, just like Jews have struggled, with how much to assimilate and how much to preserve of their traditional life. The acceptance that Jews have gotten in American life is what the Islamic community desires.

Yes, the ADL survey reminds us once again that prejudice against Jews still exists, but it is good to understand where and why. People are just people. We all fear that which we do not know. The best counter to any prejudice is simply to breed familiarity. You will be surprised by the results.

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