Hal Draper

Zionism, Israel & the Arabs

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Chapter XIV

Sacrilege & Anathema:
Notes on Christianity & Judaism Today

Hal Draper, Zionism, Israel & the Arabs, pp. 191–196.

Labor Action, Vol. 18 No. 51, December 20, 1954, p. 6

A while back, we expressed the idea that some good real Christians (by which we merely mean people who actually believe what Christianity preaches) would be of some help on the scene in this country today; and we’d like to make the point again, provided readers understand that we make the point objectively from a strictly non-theistic angle.

If there were any real Christians around, for example, there would unfailingly have been a flood of letters to the N.Y. Times on that Easter morning when the paper came out, fresh and crisp, with a photograph on its front page depicting a cross in the sky – a cross formed by army bombers.

If we were Christian, we’d have considered this sacrilege, but there did not seem to be any believers around.

And if there are any considerable number of Christians left in this country, we cannot understand how Hollywood can get away with the sacrilege which regularly appears on its screen, especially in historical films dealing with the development of Christianity.

Rarely, for instance, have we seen pictures which were as contemptuous of the ideals for which early Christianity stood as that CinemaScope pair consisting of The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. We admit that the sacrilegious propaganda which imbues them is very subtle, since probably not even the makers of these wretched films were consciously aware of it. But sacrilege it is.

Consider: A big point is made in both pictures about the principled pacifism (insistence on non-violence) of the early Christians. The film-makers could have chosen to ignore this ancient peccadillo; but no, they insist on flaunting it before the audience. And in each case, this principled pacifism is systematically shown to be absurd, futile, self-defeating. In fact, in each case the deus ex Hollywood, who saves everybody at the end, is not the man whom Christians like to call the Prince of Peace on holiday occasions, but is rather the man of violence who brings the plot to a triumphant conclusion with an act of violence.

In the case of The Robe, the Christian protagonists are saved as the armed (pro-Christian) legions pour into the arena, glittering with shields and javelins. The case of Demetrius and the Gladiators is even worse.

In the latter film the climax hinges around the renewed pacifist convictions of Demetrius, who has been forced into the gladiators’ arena and told to defend himself. Dramatically in the face of certain death, he faces the emperor and flings down the sword symbolically. A symbol? It turns out to be a signal for rebellious guardsmen to shoot an arrow into the breast of the bad emperor Caligula, revolt, and crown the good emperor Claudius. The Christians have been saved – by stark violence and murder – in a film which revolves around the theme of Christian ideals and non-violence.

We are “complaining” of all this as unbelievers in either theism or pacifism, ourselves.

We are merely interested in pointing out how the American bourgeoisie and its dream merchants and entertainment-propagandists spit upon and revile the ideals to which they give lip-service, the religious homilies without which no speech by Eisenhower is complete.

No one is in any doubt about why they do this – it is in the interest of the militarized capitalism which goes along with militarized institutional-Christianity. And with the exception of a small band of Christian pacifists, whom of course we know, the ideals of the dominant religion in this country are a thing to be mocked at, not lived. It is a paradox, but not hard to understand, that it should be revolutionary socialists writing this in some regret, not the spokesmen of the church.


While on the subject of the sociology of institutionalized religion in the United States today (to give our comment an academic air), a recent event turns attention to the Jewish synagogues, and raises an interesting problem.

First of all, here is the news as summarized in the Jewish Newsletter, published by the liberal William Zukerman:

A reform of Orthodox Jewish marriage laws which have not been changed for 1,000 years has been introduced last week by a group representing Conservative Judaism, which occupied a middle-of-the-road position between traditional Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism. The Conservative group, which claims to represent 40 per cent of all religious Jews in this country, announced a revision of the old Jewish marriage contract known as Ketubah which imposes many hardships, indignities and discrimination on Jewish women. The Ketubah goes back to the time when women were considered and treated as chattel slaves and when wives were sold and bought as property of man. It is not a marriage agreement freely entered by a man and a woman on the basis of equality as a marriage contract is in all civilized Western countries. It is a one-sided contract according to which the man ‘acquires’ a wife, and has all the rights and privileges of the property owner, while she has none. A man may divorce his wife at will for any reason or for no reason at all, without her consent, while she cannot do the same. Under this contract, a Jewish widow is not allowed to marry unless actual evidence of the husband’s death is furnished, nor can a childless widow remarry without obtaining a property release from her late husband’s brother. These and similar inequities prevent thousands of Jewish women from remarrying and result in untold suffering for thousands of others.

The new marriage contract of the Conservative Jews provides for the establishment of a special Religious Court (Bet Din), which is to be empowered to consider all complaints arising from the backwardness of the Orthodox marriage laws and to try to settle family claims in the light of modern conditions. The announcement of the Conservatives has met, however, with the instant fanatical opposition by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America who issued a declaration that the Torah laws given by Moses cannot be changed under any circumstances, no matter what human misery they cause. The rabbis threatened with dire consequences, including excommunication, if the Conservative Religious Court is established.

We can add to this account that (as reported by the Orthodox New York Day & Morning Journal), the prohibition pronounced by the Orthodox Rabbis included the following threats:

The Bet Din and the reformed Ketubah will lead to forbidden cohabitation and to bastardy, leading to a split in the Jewish people and to a breach in Jewish family life ...

We declare that the false reforms of the Conservative Rabbis undermine the foundations of the Jewish religion, and they will lead to a situation in which we shall feel ourselves compelled to prohibit marriage unions with families who married under such reforms; and it will be necessary to keep a roster of families married under such reforms in every city.

All this has the smell of authentic medievalism. What is paradoxical about it is that we are not dealing here with a backward people. On the contrary, in all other respects, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the body of Jews, even those who follow the Orthodox rabbis, are probably more “enlightened,”not less, than the average in the United States.

Yet, a not inconsiderable section of the American Jews, those for whom the Union of Orthodox Rabbis speak, permit themselves to be bound by certain social customs (at least in form) which have few if any peers in backwardness in the modern and civilized world.

The mystery may seem to be deepened – or, from another point of view, an answer may be indicated – when we see that in the state of Israel the medieval customs of Orthodox Judaism (for example, the marriage laws) are not only insistently imposed on the population by the rabbinate but even reinforced by the state. And here we are dealing with a state whose leadership claims to be modern, indeed “socialistic” (God save us), and beacon lights of progress in the world.

Yet in this otherwise modern state, today mobs of zealots can conduct a campaign of terror on the streets of Old Jerusalem in order to force strict Orthodox practices on the Jewish population: stoning passing vehicles, beating up people caught smoking on the Sabbath, attacking mixed gatherings of men and women (forbidden by the Torah), etc.

Are we not dealing here with a pattern of desperate attempts to preserve intact a crumbling whole, lest any change whatsoever cause the whole structure to fall apart?

The student of sociology can scarcely fail to conclude, from the statement of the Orthodox rabbis, that they consciously fear that any change whatsoever in the laws of Judaism will open up some rift which will inevitably widen, that therefore the whole edifice must be defended with the cry of No Change.

But this is typically a phenomenon which accompanies a social structure which is already dead, though not yet buried. Only such need be defended by such methods.

What is it that is dead – not, we stress, necessarily in our opinion, but in the eyes of the desperate Orthodox who hurl such anathemas at Change? What is it that they fear so much?

Their own answer – varying in form for the Orthodox or for the Israeli Zionist – is (1) Jewishness, in answer to the first question, and (2) assimilation, in answer to the second.

Consider, for example, the following statement by David Ben-Gurion, former Israeli premier, as he hammers away in the Jewish press:

The Jewish people in the Diaspora [dispersion] ... is now faced with a question of uncommon urgency and importance. It is this: Will it be able to survive for a long time, and if so, what kind of Jewishness will sustain it? A Zionist movement that does not endeavor to give a positive answer to this question, thereby denies its own purpose and the reason for its existence ...

It is true that we do not have an official Jewish assimilationist party in America. On the contrary, there are very few Jews who are ashamed of their Jewishness and hide it ... Yet there can be no doubt that practical Jewish assimilation is proceeding apace, as the old obstacles to Jewish integration in other cultures are being swept away. It is an undeniable fact that the old religious traditions and observances have lost much of their power over the masses. The same is true of the language of the Jewish masses. There is hardly a barrier left to hold back the onrush of Jewish assimilation in the free lands of the world.

It is ironic that in this process of assimilation and integration into a non-Jewish culture there is hardly any difference between Zionists and non-Zionists ...” (Day-Morning Journal, March 7)

Here Ben-Gurion ties together the joint fears of the Orthodox and the consistent Zionists (note his reference to religion), and indicates how the same phenomena can appear in both circles. In both cases the religious forms, no matter how reactionary, are important to preserve as guardians against the devil of “assimilation,” the “danger” of which Ben-Gurion perhaps exaggerates.

Now Independent Socialists do not believe, on principle, in having a “party line” for or against assimilation (as we have stated in our resolutions), for we consider that this is a matter to be freely chosen by the Jewish masses themselves in the course of their free development. What we do insist on, as socialists, however, is creating and maintaining the preconditions of free choice.

What is socially and politically reactionary about the Orthodox anathemas and the practices of the Zionist state and zealots in Israel is that they are directed toward destroying freedom of choice for the Jews with respect to assimilation and other courses. They insist on forcing all Jews, by political or spiritual terror, into a predetermined separateness which their ideology insists on.

Such a course can have only reactionary social consequences, as we have been seeing. Nor can it help any genuine religious feeling, for those to whom this is important.

Last updated on 27 August 2020