Pope Benedict XVI has become political Islam's newest excuse for rioting. Mobs from Rawalpindi to Ramallah are burning him in effigy. Muslim leaders from Gaza to Indonesia to Qatar, from Turkey to Washington and London are attacking the pope and demanding that he apologize to Islam for what they consider to be a heinous attack against their religion.
To recap what has been exhaustively reported in recent days, the pontiff's "crime" against Islam occurred in the course of a scholarly lecture at the University of Regensburg in his native Germany earlier in the month. Benedict quoted from a dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian scholar of Islam circa 1391 where the emperor criticized harshly the Islamic practice of forcibly converting non-Muslims to Islam.
In the pope's words, the Byzantine emperor, "addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'
"The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God,' he says, 'is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature.'"
As Benedict explained, the harsh judgment that the Byzantine emperor rendered on Islam stemmed directly from his Christian understanding of God as a reasonable deity. According to Benedict, the reason a Christian leader was able to judge Islam, and so conduct a meaningful inter-cultural discussion on the merits of Islam and Christianity, was because he had a clear understanding of how his religion construed the God-created world and conceived of man's relationship to God.
Expanding on this theme, the pope told his audience that European civilization itself is a fusion of Christian faith and Greek philosophy of reason. Europe's current cultural drift, he argued, stems from the cultural separation between faith and reason that began with the Reformation and went on through the Enlightenment. By relegating faith to a subculture that has no place in discussions of practical human endeavors, he said, Europeans have rendered themselves incapable of understanding who they are or of defending themselves and their values in a manner that the Byzantine emperor, in the pre-scientific era, was able to do so stalwartly.
IT COULD be said that the Islamic world's hysterical and violent reaction to Benedict's use of the 600-year-old dialogue only serves to reinforce the Byzantine emperor's impression that Islam does not perceive God as being a reasoning deity. But limiting an analysis of Benedict's lecture to the Muslim world's hysterical reaction would ignore the pope's central point. Benedict's overarching message in that lecture was that to survive, a culture must be willing to embrace its identity, for if it does not, it won't even be capable of understanding why it should survive.
While Benedict's specific message was to his fellow Christians, the Jewish people should take heed of his general message. Today, the Jewish people, in Israel and throughout the world find ourselves under attack from all quarters. The rise of anti-Semitism globally, and particularly in the Islamic world, finds us in a period of grave self-doubt. Like the Europeans, our ability to defend ourselves against the swelling ranks of haters is dependent on our ability as a people and as individuals to embrace our identity as Jews.
Commenting on the nature of this surge in Jew-hatred, the great (non-Jewish) Canadian pundit Mark Steyn wrote last month in the National Review, "The oldest hatred didn't get that way without the ability to adapt. Jews are hated for what they are – so, at any moment in history, whatever they are is what they're hated for. For centuries in Europe, they were hated for being rootless-cosmopolitan types. Now there are no rootless European Jews to hate, so they're hated for being an illegitimate Middle Eastern nation-state. If the Zionist entity were destroyed and the survivors forced to become perpetual cruise-line stewards plying the Caribbean, they'd be hated for that, too."
It is crucial that all of us internalize the message that these lines convey. For in recent years, rather than recognize the prejudice of our detractors, we have devoted ourselves to attempting to understand and so justify the hatred they heap upon us.
We tell ourselves we are hated because we are too strong – or because we are too weak. We are hated because we are too religious – or because we are not religious enough. We are hated because we insist on defending Israel – or we are hated because we are willing to compromise on Israel.
Yet, as Steyn wisely notes, we are not hated because of what we do, we are hated because we are Jews. In light of this, the best way to defend ourselves, the best way to safeguard our freedom and our heritage, is to embrace and celebrate our identity as Jews. As Elie Wiesel once explained to me, the key to defending ourselves is to never allow our haters to tell us who we are. "Hatred only defines the haters," he said.
And indeed, when we look at the manner in which Jews in Israel and throughout the world are being attacked today, we see that the attacks are based not on Jewish actions but on the fact that we are Jews.
Thus, in the midst of yet another wave of violent attacks by Muslims against Jews in Norway last month, Norway's Jewish community warned its members not to wear kippot or Stars of David in public.
Thus it is that the charter of Hamas, the movement that now controls the Palestinian Authority, calls not for compromise with Israel but for all Jews to be expelled from the Land of Israel or forcibly converted to Islam as part of the global jihad.
So it is that attacks against Jewish supporters of Israel in the West target not the substance of their arguments, but their right as Jews to lobby for Israel in their countries of citizenship.
"We Jews," Wiesel explained, "have always defined ourselves as the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Indeed, at Mount Sinai, in our acceptance of the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people became the first nation in history to self-consciously define itself. And each subsequent generation of Jews has remade that choice.
Jews do not exist, as Jean-Paul Sarte ignorantly argued, because anti-Semites exist. The leader of the existentialist movement should have understood; anti-Semites exist because anti-Semites choose to exist.
AS STEYN notes, today hatred against Jews is anchored on Israel. Provoked by this new form of Jew-hatred, some Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora see Israel as a burden. This is a self-inflicted tragedy. For if we look at Israel, we see that far from being a burden, our Jewish state is one of the most stunning successes of Jewish history.
Today, Israel is the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. More Jews live in Israel today than at any time in our history. And the state in which we live is one of the most vibrant, optimistic, "happening" countries in the world. We have the highest birthrate in the West. Rates of entrepreneurship are among the highest in the world.
We are one of the most highly educated societies in the world. Over the past 15 years, more than a dozen colleges have been established in Israel and last year the government decided to allow two colleges to join Israel's nine research universities as full-fledged, independent
Israelis are among the most patriotic citizens in the world. Our patriotism is expressed in the high level of volunteerism in all age groups. In the recent war, tens of thousands of reservists willingly left their families and jobs to take up arms and defend the country, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis volunteered to help our one million brothers and sisters whose homes were targeted by rockets, missiles and mortars.
Jewish life blossoms in Israel as it has nowhere else in our history. The rates of literacy in Jewish learning in Israel are higher than they have ever been anywhere in our history. Israel is the home of some half dozen generations of Jews whose mother tongue is the language of the Bible and the Talmud.
Israel's success stems from its serving as a vehicle that allows us to express our heritage in all facets of society. And our Jewish heritage is one of the most precious heritages known to man.
The Jewish people gave humanity the concepts of God, liberty and law. Our understanding of the fallibility of mankind has prevented us from being tempted by false prophets promising us heaven on Earth, and has allowed us to take practical steps toward improving our lot and our world.
All of the ideals that Israel represents, both spiritual and physical, have formed the foundations for human progress and freedom throughout the world for millennia. Our willingness to stay loyal to our identity and our heritage has been the key to our survival throughout the ages in the face of the countless foes who sought to destroy us both spiritually and physically.
Rosh Hashana marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance that precede Yom Kippur. To properly atone for our sins and correct our mistakes, we must understand who we are, what we represent and what we can and should aspire to as Jews. To do this, we must reject the notion that those who hate us can tell us who we are. To do this we must embrace our Jewish identity and uphold our commitment to our collective destiny.
The fact that hatred of Jews has endured for so long says nothing about the nature of the Jewish people. What does speak volumes about that nature is the fact that through the ages our fortunes have been directly related to our ability to spurn our enemies' distorted portraits of the Jewish people and our willingness to endure and progress as Jews in the midst of that hatred.
Pope Benedict is able to discuss Islam because, secure in his Christian identity, he has a clear basis for judging the goodness or unreasonableness of Muslim values and behavior. Whether we agree with his judgments or not, through his willingness to judge, Benedict capably defends and advances his faith.
When we embrace our moral and intellectual identity as Jews, we are then capable of meeting the challenges of our times. It is my prayer that in 5767, the Jewish people will rally around our heritage, history and culture and so pave the way for a secure, peaceful and moral future for our people and our world.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.