When a leading presidential candidate travels overseas, he’s going to be perceived as speaking for America. Late last month, Governor Mitt Romney went to London, where many took him to insult the city’s Olympics preparations; then to Israel, where many took him to insult Palestinians. But did he also reveal insensitivity to the Jewish community? In an op-ed column published in Religion Dispatches Magazine, Duke University’s Dr. Shalom Goldman, author of the recent book Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land, says yes.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Dr. Shalom Goldman[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio. I’m Welton Gaddy.
Regular listeners to this show know that we work very hard to be non-partisan in our perspectives and commentaries. At the same time, when a major party candidate travels overseas and speaks publicly, he inevitably becomes a representative of the entire nation. Such was the case last month as Mitt Romney made his way to London and was widely understood to criticize that city’s preparedness for the Olympics. Romney’s words during a visit to Israel echoed even more loudly, and provoked some thoughtful analysis from Shalom Goldman in the pages of Religion Dispatches Magazine and elsewhere. And so I’m very pleased to have Dr. Goldman with us now on State of Belief Radio.
Dr. Goldman, welcome![DR. SHALOM GOLDMAN, GUEST]: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. [WG]: For those who missed it, what did Romney say in Israel that so many people found troubling? [SG]: Well, let me read the quote, because it’s been quoted in so many news media in the last few days. He was at a breakfast of supporters – financial supporters – in Jerusalem, and they were in a room where you could look out and see the city of Jerusalem. And he said: “As I come here and look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of, at least, culture, and a few other things.” And then he went on to say what those other things were, besides culture: the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances, and “the hand of the providence.” That’s what he said. [WG]: Well now, there are a lot of people that felt this was a criticism of Palestinians that ignored the historical challenges that nation has faced; but I understand you see something anti-Semitic in this as well, don’t you? [SG]: Yes, I mean, I would be reluctant to call Romney anti-Semitic; but I think, as in London, he stumbled into territory he wasn’t familiar enough with; and by invoking the idea that Jews are good with money, he unwittingly, I think, evoked a long historical story in which Jews have been identified with unscrupulous business practices, and in which they were also considered usurers. I would not unlink this from the Palestinian story; that is, I think the Palestinians were right to be outraged. I’m saying my Jewish coreligionists also should be outraged. [WG]: I see. Well how much significance do you read into this episode? I mean, it came amid a series of what the press has widely labeled as gaffes – so maybe it was just a gaffe? [SG]: No, I don’t think it was just a gaffe, and let me say why, unlike the London episodes: because what Romney walked into was an ideological battle that rages within Israel and was in the Jewish people, about the meaning of Israel and its place in Jewish life. The government that rules Israel now, the government of Netanyahu, is identified with the right wing of Zionism, the so-called revisionist Zionism, of which Netanyahu’s father was an eminent spokesman. He was a Cornell College professor, as many of your listeners will know, and he was against the left wing exposition of Israeli history and the Israeli government. And he felt that Israel needs to be more militant; less engaged with the faith of the Palestinians and more concerned with a maximalist view of power and territory. And Romney, by embracing Netanyahu both physically and ideologically, has walked into a conflict in which the other side, that is, the fifty percent of Israeli Jews who don’t support Netanyahu, were aghast. So I may have been one of the people in the United States who wrote this op-ed piece, but in the next day in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel, in a newspaper I tend to find in opposition to Netanyahu, had headlines about this comment. [WG]: So Shalom, what can we learn from this, both as individuals and as members of our society – and maybe as participants in a major election cycle? [SG]: Well, I think one thing we can learn from this, is that if you’re going to enter into the nexus – the intersection – of politics and religion, you need to be very well-educated and very careful. And you need to be, as you said in your introductory remarks, nonpartisan. I think that the candidate, here, thought he was being nonpartisan by praising the Israeli acumen with money, and by speaking of Israel as superior. And he didn’t quite realize that a good part of the population is the reverse: the Israeli population and the American Jewish population are averse to that kind of discourse. So, it would’ve been better for the candidate to simply shake hands and engage in photo ops, but not to tread in such deep waters. [WG]: You do have to realize that not a lot of people are good enough to offend both sides on an issue. [SG]: Yes, this is what my Israeli colleagues told me: he offended well. Let me elaborate on that, if you would. He offended both sides of the Jewish population in Israel, and he offended the Palestinians. [WG]: Yeah. [SG]: So he truly offended everyone. In this case he was an equal opportunity offender. [WG]: Shalom, what do you see missing in the way we talk about complicated cultural and national relationships in the Middle East and elsewhere that may contribute, actually, to this kind of offensive language being used? [SG]: I see a lack of depth. What we in the Academy call “presentism” – a tendency to look at what happened in the last few cycles of news – or perhaps last year, that would be ancient history – and not to take into account – in the very old and venerable cultures we’re dealing with when we travel overseas – and not taking into account religion and culture.
So there is a kind of facile approach in America that doesn’t really go to the depths, and I’m reminded of the scandal of the Iranian revolution and the hostage-taking, which many of your listeners will remember, and later the United States government admitting that there were only four people in government service who knew Persian. Now this has been rectified to some extent about some parts of the world, but what we need is a knowledge of language, culture and religion; and we’re getting solutions in higher education, but we need it to spread around the culture.[WG]: Dr. Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Duke University. His books include Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land, and the forthcoming Demon’s Wager: Conversion, Apostasy, and Modern Jewish Identity. You can read Dr. Goldman’s column on the Romney Israel controversy at Religion Dispatches.
Dr. Goldman, thank you so much for taking time to be with us here today on State of Belief Radio.[SG]: Thank you very much.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.