Imagine, if you will, a stranger wandering into a traditional Jewish worship service on a Saturday morning. It could be in Boro Park, New York, it could be in Mea Shearim, Israel, it could be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The men would be downstairs, every one dressed alike in a black head-covering, a crisp white shirt and black slacks. The women would be in the balcony or in the back, behind a screen, modestly dressed with heads, arms and legs fully covered.
The rabbi would speak in English, or Yiddish, sharing his thoughts on the weekly Torah portion – this week, the start of the book of Deuteronomy. He would likely echo Moses’s words to the Israelites to adhere to the strict word of the Torah, lest Divine punishment ensue. And handouts would exhort members to follow halakhah in the home and the workplace, as well as in the sanctuary.
Now imagine that stranger came out of the service and posted a Tweet that went something like this: “Bearded radical cleric demanding religious law apply to all. Highly dangerous. Must be stopped.”
A bit over the top, would you agree? A little ignorant. Maybe more than a little scary. And yet that’s just what an ultra-Orthodox Jew in New York has done to demonize Muslims all across America.
You may never have heard of David Yerushalmi. But you know his work. He’s an attorney affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch in Brooklyn, and he’s responsible for the template for legislation that’s moving through state houses all across the country.
These laws prohibit US courts from relying on any foreign law system that’s contrary to American public policy in reaching their decisions.
Two dozen states either have passed these laws or are considering them. Some specifically mention Islamic law – Sharia law – and some do not. But Islam is definitely the target of the legislation – and if Yerushalmi doesn’t say so, the legislators that have sponsored the bills across the country don’t deny it.
David Yerushalmi accomplished this through a project called “American Law for American Courts.” And he drafted the legislation specifically to sidestep any constitutional challenges that Muslims are being singled out for unfair treatment. But his current big project shows that that’s exactly what he’s doing.
According to an article in last week’s Forward newspaper, this second project has been in the works for four years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – money that’s come from unidentified sources. It’s called “Shari’a and Violence in American Mosques.” In a study of 100 American mosques, supported and published by a Conservative political think tank, it purports to show a direct link between Sharia and support for violent jihad – that is holy war, against non-Muslims.
Just exactly who did this work – and how did they come up with this conclusion? A man named David Gaubatz – a man who has compared Islam to “a terminal disease” and who has referred to President Obama as “our Muslim leader” — he and a couple of assistants went to mosques across the country, dressed in disguise so as not to attract attention.
Here’s how they assessed how dangerous the place was: How long is the imam’s beard? Does he wear a watch on his right wrist? How many of the worshipers are wearing hats? I know! – totally scientific approach, right?
The report says 75 percent of the reading material they found in the mosques advocates treason, sedition, and violence against innocent people. They haven’t actually released excerpts from those materials that would support that claim.
In fact, Yerushalmi refuses to release the full details of his study, so that they can be independently verified. His reason: He doesn’t want to be held responsible if, as he puts it, “some nut goes out and decides to take matters into his own hands.” That’s a direct quote.
Civil rights groups have condemned Yerushalmi’s work in the past. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists him as one of the country’s leading Islamophobes, and the Anti-Defamation League has characterized his body of work over the years as “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black bigotry.”
Scholars have denounced the investigation as paranoid nonsense. In fact, reliable scientific studies have shown just the opposite – that mosques actually help Muslims integrate into American society, and that the more Muslims get involved in their mosques, the more likely they are to participate in the American political system. Not only that, about a quarter of the Muslims involved in attempted terror attacks since 9/11 have been turned in by the Muslim-American community.
Here’s the problem, though. A lot of people are buying what Yerushalmi is selling. It’s moving into the mainstream of political thought.
According to the Forward, major Conservative publications like the National Review are using the study as “proof” that Islam – Islam itself – constitutes a grave threat to our national security. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that the report is narishkeit, as long as it feeds into the current fear-mongering that is tainting our political discourse.
In Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arizona, Yerushalmi’s template was approved by state lawmakers – and 20 other legislatures are considering it. As if there’s actually a threat of Sharia infiltrating into the American legal system. Which there isn’t. It’s a made-up threat. More than that: It’s an under-handed method of demonizing the other – of making people afraid of other people in their communities who dress differently, who pray differently, who eat differently. You know, like, say, Orthodox Jews.
As an Orthodox Jew himself, David Yerushalmi should know better. Shame on him. That scene that I described at the beginning – bearded men in head-coverings, davening traditional prayers, studying traditional texts, endorsing halakhah – that’s what would be going on in his own Chabad synagogue on Shabbat morning. The same nonsensical parameters that his researchers studied in mosques – beard length, head-coverings — could easily be turned on his own minyan, if it suited somebody’s personal or political agenda.
He denies that, of course. Church canon law, Jewish halakhah – oh, no, , they’re not at all in the same category as Sharia law, even though they all involve constructing an inclusive way of life for their followers. Only Sharia, he says, “has as its goal a worldwide political order in which everyone has imposed upon them Sharia law.” That’s a direct quote, too.
And, it should be noted, that’s exactly what was said about the Jews a century ago in the so-called “protocols of the elders of Zion,” a despicable antisemitic tract promoted by the likes of Henry Ford, and still in wide circulation in much of the Arab world. A lot of people believed then – and still believe now – that there’s an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. And apparently a lot of people believe that about Muslims, too. In some large part, thanks to an Orthodox Jew who should know better.
Are there Muslims who do believe in Islamic domination of the world? I’m sure there are. Just as there are Jews who believe all Israelis should be subject to the strictest interpretation of halakhah, whether they are religious people or not. Just as there are Christians in this country who believe that America should be ruled by God’s law and the 10 Commandments should be posted in schools. But to make sweeping generalizations about them, to demonize them as a dangerous threat to the American way of life – is inexcusable. Especially for somebody who should know better.
“And Haman said to king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every other people; and they do not keep the king’s laws; therefore it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they may be destroyed.”
That’s the threat that we Jews faced in Persia centuries ago. In fact, since the days of the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, to the time of the Crusades and the Black Death, to the Shoah, we have been judged evil and dangerous just because we were different.
To let ourselves fall victim to that kind of prejudice, to encourage it in other people, and to accept it into mainstream public discourse – this is really inexcusable. And we, too, should know better.
Our tradition has taught us: “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Kein yehi ratson. Let us keep this in mind. As we say together: Amen.