Friday, June 06, 2008

Closing the book on Hagee

As some will remember, I have some strong opinions on John Hagee- few of them complimentary. So I was happy to see McCain cut him loose last week (and amused that he's getting hammered for it from the same evangelicals who he had originally tried to pander to by seeking Hagee out in the first place). Even Joseph Farah said that Hagee went too far.

Of course, there were some die-hards, including Jews, who wouldn't let go and are still trying to defend Hagee- leading the pack is our old pal Dennis Prager. Dennis starts by reminding us that Hagee was cribbing from scripture- Jeremiah, in this case. Not that this should make a difference; after all, he was quoting Joel when he said God caused Ariel Sharon's stroke.

I am a God-believing, Torah-believing, religious (though not Orthodox) Jew, author of a book on Judaism and a book on anti-Semitism who does not agree with this theological explanation of the Holocaust.
But the notion that God willed the Holocaust is neither anti-Jewish nor even un-Jewish. There are, after all, only two possible explanations regarding God and the Holocaust:
1. God allowed it but did not will it.
2. God willed it.
This is simple logic.

Dennis tries to explain away Hagee's comments by saying that his position is a legitimate one within the spectrum of Jewish thought. He sifts through a lot of texts to justify this, and even covers his back by saying that he himself, doesn't agree with this view.

We recoil at the thought of a just, good and loving God willing the mass murder of so many innocent people. But that belief is not necessarily anti-Semitic.
Moreover, the alternate view that God simply lets all this evil and cruelty go on isn't satisfying, either. Whether God directed the Holocaust or just allowed it to happen, in either case, many Jews are angry with Him for that. Anger toward God (as well as love toward Him) has a long history even among devout Jews.
Fair enough, but the key here is that Hagee is NOT a member of the tribe.

Hagee seems to think that all his work for the Jewish community entitles him to a free pass on whatever subject he'd like to spout off on, and it's not that simple. Holocaust theodicy remains one of the biggest third rails in contemporary Jewish life. Rabbis and Jewish leaders have opined on it for sixty years, trying to distill meaning from senseless suffering. And for many of us, they have come up lacking. Not even rabbis are immune from the backlash. There are a number of reasons for this sensitivity- including the fact that there are still survivors living today. More than anything, though, I think is the fact that a lot of people feel that any attempt to explain the Holocaust in terms of theology necessarily involves a "pat answer"- and feel that such a grand trauma deserves much more than that. Hagee's answer, just like Ovadia Yosef's and M.M. Schneerson's answers, are unacceptable because they demean the Holocaust, they banalize the experiences and suffering of all those involved.

Hagee is one of the most pro-Jewish Christians alive. No living Christian has devoted more of his life to combating anti-Semitism. He has received death threats from anti-Semites, and they have attacked his home. To accuse such a man of anything anti-Jewish renders both truth and anti-Semitism meaningless. Calling people who help Jews anti-Semitic is a gift to real anti-Semites. With no exception I am aware of, those who imply some anti-Jewish animus in Hagee do so in order to undermine an evangelical conservative and to manufacture a right-wing equivalence to the America-cursing, race-based Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Dennis is right that Hagee's comments do not make him antisemitic. But I've never thought that Hagee's problem was antisemitism. It was arrogance. Hagee operates from a supreme theological arrogance and callousness, oblivious of the pain his words cause others- all the more so when he is looking in on another community, as an outsider, and purporting to neatly explain one of their greatest tragedies. To put it simply, Hagee was out of his depth, and was speaking out of his place. Turning around and getting mad at other people having a problem with this only underscores the arroagance and high-handedness that exemplifies why so many Jews are wary of the Christian right becoming ever-closer to the Jews- there is a fear, not unfounded, that the evangelicals are doing all this for various semi-sinister purposes, and at some point the other shoe is going to drop; they're going to want something for all their "help." Some of this is exaggerated. But some of it seems legitimate; the closer Christians get to Jews, especially when it comes to identifying with and even appropriating elements of Jewish identity and consciousness, the more there is a concern about where this blending ends. When an evangelical preacher starts offering explanations for Jewish tragedies- UNASKED- and then gets riled up when people tell him to stick a fork in it, there's a problem. The Holocaust is not Hagee's narrative, and it is not his to explain, especially when it comes to questions like "Did the Jews somehow earn their suffering?" When Jews do it, it's arguably bad theology. For Christians to do it is a whole other can of worms, and one which Hagee and his defenders seem utterly oblivious to. That inability or unwillingness to understand how or why anyone could find this objectionable offers a deep insight into how Christians view and understand the relationship between our two groups. Is it indeed an equal partnership? Or are we merely there as inspirational window-dressing? This is the same issue we saw with Ann Coulter's crap- which Dennis also defended. Again, it's not about antisemitism, it's about being an asshole.

I agree that Hagee is not an antisemite, but neither is it right to simply call him "a friend of the Jews." Hagee helps himself. His theology encompasses his worldview, and Jews only matter empirically insofar as they intersect with that larger perspective. If you agree with his ideology, then you can make the case that, as a Jew or a conservative or a lover of Greater/Strong/Messianic Israel, yes, you benefit by his programs and actions. If, however, you see things differently, then Hagee's "friendship" is really more of a double-edged sword. Hagee's ideology, with all of its complexities and problems, is the definitive prism through which he must be understood. At a certain point, the real question must become how much Jews are willing to swallow in the name of "unity" and support for Israel, and not just in terms of rhetoric but also policy (Hagee being more to the right on Israeli policy than most American OR Israeli Jews). If you're Hagee's kind of Jew, then I guess he's a good friend for you to have. But for someone who's only agreement with Hagee is that Israel is good and jihad is bad, I'm not very comfortable with him running the "Jewish-Christian brotherhood" show. Leonard Fein calls it a matter of self-respect, and I have to agree.

And sorry Dennis, but if you look at his sermons, books and speeches, I think you have to conclude that when it comes to being a clueless jackass, Hagee is absolutely Jeremiah Wright's equal.

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