Richard Dawkins Misreads the Mortara Affair

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, uses the “Mortara affair” to make a point he could have made perfectly well without misreading the historical context of this sordid episode. Perhaps the affair is better known by the title of David Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The general background, for those of you who don’t recognize the name Edgardo Mortara, is the following:

Edgardo, a Jewish boy from Bologna, was taken from his mother’s arms by the papal police in the year 1858. Why? As a baby, he had been secretly “baptized” by an illiterate Christian servant-girl. Word of the baptism spread across town and, eventually, reached Pope Pius IX in Rome. In those days the pope was also king and his subjects were subject to his every papal whim. Bologna was part of his receding empire, and the Mortara family was powerless to stop the legalized kidnapping of their child. The Mortaras were never to be reunited with Edgardo again.

Dawkins rightly criticizes this horrible incident as a travesty of the religious worldview. This is perhaps a minor incident in the catalog of papal crimes against the Jewish people in the name of supersessionism. That canon law could dictate the fate of a Jewish child, tearing him away from his biological family only to be coddled as the pope’s protege in an endless campaign to convert the Jews (for this is what is was in no uncertain terms), is  terribe enough. Dawkins doesn’t stop there, however, which is where I want to begin.

Edgardo was taken to the House of Catechumens in Rome, a building created for the conversion of Jews (and, incidentally, Muslims) to the “true” faith. It was one of the jewels in the pope’s crown. They immediately went to work on Edgardo in order to break his Jewishness down. Essentially, they brainwashed the child until he cracked under pressure (he had nobody to consult but the priests) and accept that he was now a Christian. (Note that for the Catholic Church, Edgardo’s soul had been transformed at the moment of baptism. He was property of the Church. He could not be left in the care of those infidels, his parents.)

Of course the greater strategy was to convince the Mortaras to convert en masse. If they ever wanted to see Edgardo again, there was no other way. They refused, and Dawkins chalks up their refusal to another brand of theological hotheadedness. The Mortaras, he notes, could have had Edgardo back in a second “if only they had accepted the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptized themselves.” A few sprinkles on the head, an itsy-bitsy prayer, and it was back to normal. They could have faked the whole rite in ten minutes, but they instead chose to forfeit their son and remain faithful Jews.

What is wrong with this reasoning, I wondered? On the surface it almost makes sense. To understand the Mortaras’ refusal, we need to take a closer look at the reality that they were up against in the Kingdom of the Cross (to borrow a phrase from Uri Zvi Greenberg).

Another book by David Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews, places the Mortara affair in its context. By no means was this an isolated incident. It was an epidemic. Forced baptisms had been common in Rome for centuries, sometimes occurring in the middle of the street using rainwater scooped up from the gutter. All that mattered was that a Jewish child was “baptized” by a Christian. Then papal police would come–always at night–into the Roman ghetto and steal the child from its parents’ arms, taking it to the Catechumens.

At other times, (usually poor) Jews would volunteer themselves for conversion, usually seeking a better life–a “passport to Europe,” in Heinrich Heine’s phrase. If these men happened to be married, their wives were sent for. Some of the women proved “stubborn” and were put in solitary confinement for days, weeks, even months, where they were worked on around the clock by Catholic priests. They were given religious literature (assuming they could read it) and told that Judaism was the path to hell, etc…some of the women caved, while others were sent back to the ghetto traumatized and single.

One particularly cruel incident is that of Salvatore Tivoli. He spent the first year of his (voluntary) conversion in the Catechumens as a cook. Then, one day, he disappeared. Apparently he had had second thoughts about his decision. He went first to Turkey, then settled in Livorno. Livorno, in Tuscany, was outside the papal realm and was known for its liberal attitude towards Jews, who lived in relative comfort there and even had rights. (Later in the 19th century, the painter Amedeo Modigliani would be born in this community).

Anyway, the pope’s men never forgot about Salvatore Tivoli. As a convert, he was their property. They eventually tracked him down in Livorno, where he was living with his young, pregnant wife Rebecca. His crime, naturally, was apostasy.

They arrested Rebecca, her crime being complicity with apostasy. She was also pregnant with the child of an apostate. Rebecca was brought to a hospital, where she refused to eat non-kosher food. The Church authorities promptly stopped her family members from bringing her meals, accusing them of wanting to poison both Rebecca and the newborn (better dead than Christians, it is understood). This sort of accusation was common at the time.

The families of both Tivoli and Rebecca were arrested as well: parents, brothers and sisters. Their crime? Abetting apostasy. Tivoli himself was nowhere to be found. He was a wanted man. Finally the Tuscan authorities stepped up to all this papal bullying. They ruled that Tivoli, when found, was to be arrested and turned over to the Vatican authorities. The newborn girl would be taken from her mother and sent to the House of Catechumens in Livorno, where she would be entrusted to the Holy See. Everyone else was free to go. The child was baptized, renamed Fortunata, and sent to Rome to be raised as a Christian orphan. To add insult to injury, she was listed as “illegitimate” on her baptismal certificate.

This was the reality behind the Mortara case. To accuse the Mortaras of Jewish theological stubbornness is to play cards with the pope’s deck. They risked much more than a few drops of water and a bogus baptismal certificate. They would have been ripped, like Edgardo, from the womb of their community, their biological  families (which appears to have been Dawkins’ original point) and their history as Jews, which is much more than a simple article of faith, as everyone knows. It is surprising that all this seems to have eluded Richard Dawkins; in an attempt to undermine religious faith, he misconstrued the nature of Jewish identity and did a posthumous injustice to the Mortaras themselves.

But their story does not end here. Kertzer narrates a further episode in the Mortara odyssey. In 1870, the year Porta Pia was breached and the Italian army entered Rome, one of the soldiers was Riccardo Mortara, Edgardo’s brother. Riccardo made his way directly to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (where Michelangelo’s statue of Moses can be seen today) to find his brother. Twelve years of failed international diplomacy had passed, and finally the pope’s fortress had fallen and his temporal power had ended. Certainly now Edgardo would come back to his family and all would be righted? Wrong. The damage had been done.  As soon as Edgardo, the youthful priest, saw his brother in uniform, he screamed, “Vade retro, Satana!” Riccardo answered that he was his brother, that now Edgardo was free. Edgardo’s reply was, “Before you get any closer, take off that assassin’s uniform.”

Edgardo would try to convert his own mother on her deathbed in the last hours of her life. She would die an infidel.

Edgardo himself died in Belgium on the eve of the Nazi invasion. He was eighty-eight years old. It goes without saying that–had he lived a few months more–he would have been murdered by Hitler’s hounds for the irreversible “crime” of being Jewish.


War Crimes? Fuggedaboutit!

Yaacov Lozowick, a great fan of the Guardian, linked to this article. The UN has refused to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka. Read on.

Sri Lanka last night scored a major propaganda coup when the UN human rights council praised its victory over the Tamil Tigers and refused calls to investigate allegations of war crimes by both sides in the final chapter of a bloody 25-year conflict.

In a shock move, which dismayed western nations critical of Sri Lanka’s approach, the island’s diplomats succeeded in lobbying enough of its south Asian allies to pass a resolution describing the conflict as a “domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference”.

So the next time you read “UN condems Israel”, you have the right to raise a skeptical eyebrow.

A Punk, a Saint and a Jew Walk into a Bar

The jihad cult is expanding. This is a particularly weird item.

Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, has issued a warning about the “terrorist” nature of the call for a “holy war” against the Catholic Church by the leader of followers of Santa Muerte — “St. Death.”

I admit I only recently found out about this cult. I’m hardly surprised though. One might argue that the entire cult of saints is a death cult.

But jihad? It’s the new punk.

Seven Pakistani Children

Reading Corriere della Sera yesterday, I came across an article about the Pakistani army and its attempts to root out the Taliban from the Swat valley. The details are, so far, not promising from the perspective of “human rights.” You might find similar stories in your local paper.

The point is that there are many civilians involved in the bombing operations. The Corriere notes that the “harsh conflict” on the perifery of Mingora (with over 200,000 inhabitants) “shows little respect for the Geneva Convention.” In the village of Puchar, captured Talebanis are hanged from trees. Elsewhere cadavers wrapped in plastic are dropped from helicopters on Taleban-controlled zones. Artillery and aviation shoot the moment they discover an enemy hideout. Often, the price is civilian casualties, and damage to public buildings and farmland. (I loosely translated this, but you get the picture).

“This time it’s serious. It’s a fight to the last man. The amount of collateral damage is unknown, but there was probably no alternative.”

These are the words of Syed Talat Hussein, a reporter for Hajj TV in Islamabad.

I’m just pointing out the asymmetry whenever the media report a conflict between Israel and it’s neighbors. You would never read an article like this one about Israel. There is no worry over the refugees, no tear shed for the “collateral damage.” It’s just good guys chasing bad guys.

Most people, of course, would agree that it is a shame to have to bomb civilians in order to root out terrorists. But most people will not speak out against the Pakistani army, or the Pakistani government, or “reconsider” Pakistan’s right to national existence. They will not call for boycotts of Pakistani goods and universities. That Pakistan is increasingly considered the most dangerous country on earth at the moment is of no issue. Stop the Taleban! is the only cry that matters.

Where are all the humanitarian voices of concern when Pakistani civilians are being mowed down in the midst of brutal conflict? Where are the condemnations? Will Caryl Churchill write a play next month, Seven Pakistani Children?

This is inconceivable. We only hear these concerned citizens’ voices when there are victims of Israeli aggression. The rule is that when civilians die in war the world is silent. Israel, as usual, is the exception (as long as the dead are not themselves Israeli).

Their silence now is loud and clear.

If Dante Had Been a Book Reviewer

Here is one of the most unequivocally nasty book reviews I’ve read in recent months (and I read my fair share of reviews, mind you). It’s about a book called Promised Virgins: A Novel of Jihad by Jeffrey Fleishman.

If there is a special circle of literary hell reserved for the category of acclaimed, pretentious, unbearably bad novels, this ridiculous book belongs there.

(p.s. With a title like that, what did you expect?)

Original Sinner

‘Owlminerva’ has some newly polished thoughts on Israel. Read on:

If I was the mother of the world, and countries were my children, Israel would be my problem child. The child that was born out of pain and persecution, its birth itself an act of sin as it had to kill in order to make room for its place in the world. The child that had lost its faith in people before it had a chance to grow up.

Other than the obscenely patronizing (matronizing?) “I only want what’s best for my delinquent child” rhetoric, this is a prime example of a certain brand of “accepted wisdom” about Israel. Let us call this the original sin doctrine. It might be pointed out that it has its antecedents in Christian theology, giving this highfalutin’ rhetoric the Carter-like flourish of a clarion call for peace in the Holy Land.

Let us suppose someone who knew nothing about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (and the rest of what we call the Arab Muslim world) were to read Owl’s reflection. They would have no idea that the Jews actually came from Israel in the first place, returning there after two millennia only because they were slaughtered wholesale in Europe and thrown out of the Middle East, where they had lived since before both Christianity and Islam were founded. That both religions claimed to outdo the Jews at their own game–purporting to have “understood” Judaism better than them–pitting themselves against the Jews in a cosmic battle that knows no end to this day should go without saying.

One Jewish state is still too much for some people. Still, how does one atone for “original sin?” One can’t help but read into this eschatological language that the real “sin” to be atoned for is that of being Jewish. Wasn’t America born of some analogous sinning, too? The land where Owl’s New York City apartment was built once belonged to a Native American of some tribe or other, but I doubt she atones for her well-being at the expense of another’s happiness. Yet Israelis–apparently the whole nation of them–were born in sin, out of a violent, cataclysmic womb that dirtied them forever with the mark of–let’s just say it–Cain. None of them are safe from this damning accusation: not even, apparently, her beloved Uri Avneri. Right, left, center, all are guilty of the overarching guilt of being Israeli.What is a sane person to make of this? This is no longer a cry for social justice in an imperfect democracy, a la Isaiah. This is a call for conversion, a la St. Augustine. Or, better yet, Golden-Mouthed John.

Cut to the chase:

How can I teach my child all these things when my child is raging in anger and won’t listen?  How can I teach my child before it is too late, and my child has destroyed himself in its attempts to destroy the other?

This is, in essence, the Gospel of Owlminerva. Even she has a right to her opinions.  Now go be good little citizens and do your homework.

But, if the brutality with which Israel is charged was indeed inherent to the project that led to its creation – as the notion of original sin suggests – how can it possibly be made good? That European Jews should wash their hands of the Jewish state goes without saying. But what is required of Israel itself? For this there is an answer as well. Both logically and, as it were, theologically, the only remedy lies in the political equivalent of conversion.

The New Bronx Bombers

Ok, so you’re a loser. The world has been a tough place and your life didn’t turn out quite as you had planned. You’ve done jail time and maybe you’ve got drug problems. Welcome to the desert of the real, as my man Zizek would say.

So what do you do with yourself? How do you pick yourself back up and put the fragmented pieces of your failed life back together again? Well, people used to go in for all sorts of stuff like 12-step programs (“give me the power to accept the things I cannot change,” etc…), new age pseudopsychology, or good old hard work.

Now there’s a new alternative: jihad.

The four men who attempted to blow up a synagogue in the Bronx the other day seem to fit the loser model. One had a crack addiction. One read the Koran between shifts as a waiter. All are petty criminals looking to make it big in the world.

The answer: murder some Jews.

Then, the logic would have it, they will begin to pay attention to your “cause.” They will begin to listen. They will probably even–if you become a jihadi superstar–interview you in the New York Times. That’s Warholian fame for a small-time crook.

Would the world listen if you attempted to kill, say, a group of Southern Baptists or Mormons? How about Amish? They would label you a sociopath and throw away the key. But if you kill Jews, or get caught trying, you must inevitably have a grievance. Newspapers and bloggers will spend precious words looking for your “motivation.” Perhaps you are an Arab or a convert to Islam, and came under the sway of a radical mosque where they preach “Death to the Jews!” You will have learned that you can commit an act of homicide in this world and people will actually respect you more. You might, if you’re lucky, get invited to Iran or Lebanon for a hero’s welcome.

From the NYT:

“It’s hard to envision a more chilling plot,” Eric Snyder, an assistant United States attorney, said on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan. “These are extremely violent men. These are men who eagerly embraced an opportunity” to “bring deaths to Jews.”

Don’t call it anti-Semitism, though. Show some respect for Islam and its grievances against the West.

ps…I realize that neither waiters nor those who read the Koran (or Qur’an) are necessarily losers. Lighten up.

Žižek Trumps All

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek

Here is a little taste of the publisher’s marketing for Slavoj Žižek’s new book, “The Monstrosity of Christ.”

“What matters is not so much that Žižek is endorsing a demythologized, disenchanted Christianity without transcendence, as that he is offering in the end (despite what he sometimes claims) a heterodox version of Christian belief.” –John Milbank

“To put it even more bluntly, my claim is that it is Milbank who is effectively guilty of heterodoxy, ultimately of a regression to paganism: in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank.” –Slavoj Žižek

In this corner, philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who represents the critical-materialist stance against religion’s illusions; in the other corner, “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank, an influential and provocative thinker who argues that theology is the only foundation upon which knowledge, politics, and ethics can stand. In The Monstrosity of Christ, Žižek and Milbank go head to head for three rounds, employing an impressive arsenal of moves to advance their positions and press their respective advantages.

By the closing bell, they have proven themselves worthy adversaries–and have also shown that faith and reason are not simply and intractably opposed. Žižek has long been interested in the emancipatory potential offered by Christian theology. And Milbank, seeing global capitalism as the new century’s greatest ethical challenge, has pushed his own ontology in more political and materialist directions. Their debate in “The Monstrosity of Christ” concerns nothing less than the future of religion, secularity, and political hope in light of a monsterful event–God becoming human.

For the first time since Žižek’s turn toward theology, we have a true debate between an atheist and a theologian about the very meaning of theology, Christ, the Church, the Holy Ghost, universality, and the foundations of logic. The result goes far beyond the popularized atheist/theist point/counterpoint of recent books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. Žižek begins, and Milbank answers, countering dialectics with “paradox.” The debate centers on the nature of and relation between paradox and parallax, between analogy and dialectics, between transcendent glory and liberation.

I mean, how can you be more of an atheist than Richard Dawkins (the key word is paradox)?

Žižek–as always–trumps all. (If you don’t believe me, ask Adam Kirsch.)

Isn’t it all so sweetly paradoxical?

Hamasburg and Fatahville

Here is a clever test to see if you can tell the difference between Fatah (the good guys) and Hamas (the bad guys) by their respective charters.

The PLO-Fatah charter can be read in full here.

The Hamas charter can be read here.

Now you can’t pretend you don’t know what they have to say.

I’m reading an engaging book by Michael Burleigh called Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism. The book got mediocre reviews, but it’s not as bad as its critics want you think. Above all, it’s a decent one-volume introduction to its subject, not the final word.

In one chapter, Burleigh narrates the assassination of Jordanian prime minister Wasfi Tal in 1971 by a Palestinian “Black September” terrorist. The prime minister was gunned down in front of his hotel in Cairo. In Burleigh’s account one of the murderers, Manzur Khalifa,

“knelt down to lap up blood from the pool spreading beneath Tal’s [the prime minister’s] body. His lower face smeared red, Khalifa shouted: ‘I am proud! Finally I have done it! We have taken our revenge in a traitor.”

This is, of course, a particularly gruesome episode, if only for the blood-drunkenness. Murder in cold blood no longer even has the power to shock us.

I leave you to sort out the difference between Fatah and Hamas for yourself.

Memoirs of an Anti-Anti-Semite

David Mamet, in his 2006 book The Wicked Son, throws out a Molotov cocktail in his first paragraph: “The world hates the Jews.” That’s strong language, and one needs to back it up these days in order not to be called an anti-anti-Semite.

What’s an anti-anti-Semite, you ask? Someone who has it in for anti-Semites and their nasty world view. Spotting anti-Semites used to be easy, before they went underground. Anti-Semitism used to be quite common, especially here in Europe, where most countries decided at one point or another in their history that the Jews living within their borders were far too many. These people didn’t want to live near so many Jews, so they periodically drove them out or killed them. This was the opposite end of the spectrum from “light” Jew-hatred, as in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burbank With a Baedeker:”

The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

As if to amplify his hatred through orthography, note that Eliot wrote “jew’ and not “Jew.” The Nazis would perfect the dehumanization process within a few decades of the publication of Eliot’s poem. For further discussion of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, see Anthony Julius, T.S.Eliot, anti-Semitism, and Literary Form.

This is just a brief reminder that anti-Semitism was once a commonplace in “civilized societies.” It went out of style after the Shoah,  because the anti-Semites were forced to recognize the consequences of their hatred. Or perhaps because a new culture of “human rights” was developed to safeguard the world against future genocides (the term was coined by Raphael Lemkin). This new culture is embodied by the UN, an organization which has spent more time condemning the State of Israel for long-term border disputes than any other country or conflict on earth.

Which brings us to anti-Zionism, which replaces anti-Semitism through the use of a “legitimate” target: Israel. As a modern state, the logic goes, Israel shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. Agreed. But it isn’t as if Jews, before Israel came into existence, had been exempt from criticism–quite the opposite. So now the game is to suffocate the Jewish State with lawfare, beating the ploughshares of “human rights” discourse into the swords of anti-Zionism. But even so, is anti-Zionism simply anti-Semitism in disguise?

We live in an age when many people have a romantic idea of murdered Jews. Europe is positively in love with the concept of the “diaspora Jew,” the embodiment of the rootless cosmopolitanism which has become the new European dream now that nationalism is–ahem–dead. No matter that this same “international Jew” was the target of Henry Ford, Stalin and Hitler. But a Jew-free Europe is a nostalgic Europe (except for France and England, there are only negligible Jewish communities in Europe today–and take a look at France and England to see how they adore their Jews).

Paul Kriwaczeck, in the opening pages of his book Yiddish Civilization, writes of an elderly Polish woman who makes a living handcrafting wooden figures of Hasidic rabbis. The author notes that “such a gift at Easter is supposed to bring good fortune.” That the craftswoman may never have seen a Hasidic Jew in the flesh is no matter. “They are part of our culture,” she says. A taxi driver elaborates: “In the distant future Polish people will recount to each other stories about a time long, long ago when Jews lived among us. But they will be like the folk tales other nations tell their children about ogres, giants and fairies.”

So in a world without Jews, one must simply invent them. If you can’t take them in person, perhaps a lucky figurine will be easier to swallow. Israel makes things a lot easier in another respect: you can hate the Jews from afar, without ever having to come into contact with them face to face. In Arab and Muslim countries where millions revel in anti-Semitic propaganda a la Der Stürmer, the revelers have probably never seen a Jew, much less an Israeli. They get their rocks off hating an image.

All this to say that spotting anti-Semites is hard work. Even the real ones hide behind more acceptable ideologies today. Their venom is still poisonous, mind you. It’s just that it takes a detective to root them out. Once you’ve got one pegged, however, watch your tongue, because calling an anti-Semite by his real name will only get you a libel suit. “Anti-anti-Semite!” Right back at ya’, babe.

So if you write something criticizing Israel’s critics for their lack of precision, invention and originality, or because they criticize Israel for stuff everyone does worse, or for things that simply ain’t true, you get called an anti-anti-Semite. The Israel Lobby has become the “acceptable” version of this knee-jerk defense mechanism, counter-criticism to silence all criticism.

It has been pointed out recently on this blog (see comments) that Israel is a racist country because it is impossible to become a citizen unless you are a Jew. I don’t have to tell you that there are around a million Arab citizens of Israel for you to know this is bull. What lies beneath this canard, however, is strange and disturbing. Let’s get this straight: for centuries, millennia even, Europeans ghettoized, expelled and murdered Jews so as not to have to live with them in peace. Muslims were better, as long as Jews knew their place and kept to it. Now there are very few Jews left in any Arab-Muslim lands. Most of the world is happily judenrein. And now that the Jews are gone, they bitch because they can’t all move to Israel and become Israeli citizens? Since when does everyone want to live in a Jewish neighborhood, anyway?