Remembering the Great Jewish Lutheran Sociologist of Religion

July 10 2018

Born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1929, the late Peter Berger was converted to Christianity along with his parents in 1938—just before his family fled Europe for Mandatory Palestine. After World War II and his formative years in Haifa, he then came with his family to America, where he went on to become one of the most important sociological theorists of secularization, eventually reconsidering and reevaluating his own theories when religion failed to wither away as sociologists had predicted. Abraham Socher, who came to know Berger toward the end of his life, reflects on the man and his work:

Berger had often remarked that sociology asks the nervy little question “Says who?” and [began to ask] it of his colleagues and himself. Not only hadn’t the world secularized in the way that he had thought it would, but the religions that were resurgent weren’t the kind that had made peace with modernity. Instead, “movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism (the kind utterly beyond the pale at self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.” Modernity, Berger went on to argue, does lead to pluralism, and pluralism does tend to relativize religious belief, but it hasn’t led to a thoroughly secular world; nor will it. As soon as one stepped out of the faculty lounge, Berger said, one saw that people moved much more easily from the enchanted groves of tradition to the iron cage of modern rationality, and back again, than Max Weber, or indeed he, had ever thought possible. . . .

Peter and I bantered on the phone and through email, [but] I didn’t ask him how his life experience related to his sociological theory of religion, though I couldn’t help wondering. Twice, I came close. The first time was when he included a joke about speaking Yiddish in Israel in [an article]. The second was when he excitedly told me that he had been invited to address the German Protestant Assembly, and I almost told him the one about the Jewish convert who is invited to give the Sunday sermon and begins, “My fellow goyim . . .” It would have been presumptuous (again), but he probably would have laughed. He enjoyed telling Jewish jokes more than most Lutherans I have known. . . .

I thought about my conversation with Peter often in the months that followed, and I sometimes wondered whether I could get him to write about his years in Haifa and their bearing on his later thought, but I never quite got up the nerve.

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More about: Austrian Jewry, Conversion, Holocaust, Lutheranism, Mandate Palestine, Religion & Holidays, Secularization, Sociology

 

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria