The Bible’s Enduring Legacy in American Public Life, from a Jewish Perspective

Oct. 26 2022

In America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911, the historian Mark Noll picks up where his previous volume on the Bible in colonial America left off. Yisroel Ben-Porat, in his review, comments on the special place Noll assigns to the debates over slavery in the decades leading up to the civil war:

Both sides, as Lincoln famously observed in his Second Inaugural Address, marshaled the Bible to support their views on slavery. In a stunning example of intellectual candor, Noll retracts his earlier position that the pro-slavery advocates held the intellectual upper hand over abolitionists. Instead, he maintains, “the Bible in antebellum America, and understood in traditional terms, offered wider, deeper, and more thorough support for abolition than for slavery. Contingent historical circumstances, rather than the intrinsic credibility of the arguments, created the opposite impression.”

Ben-Porat then turns to the question of where the Jews fit in a biblical, Christian-majority, civilization:

While one might assume that the People of the Book would have outsized importance in a history of the Bible in America, Noll relegates Jews to a place alongside several other minority groups such as African Americans, Catholics, and Native Americans. Overall, Noll’s story is largely a Protestant one, but the balance of material is perhaps justified by the relative size of denominational populations and the undeniable influence of Protestantism.

The stakes of America’s Book are more than merely historical. Noll argues that the Bible not only was important in American history, but that it still is (though not in the same way and to the same extent), and that it should remain a source of wisdom and inspiration. “Christian and Jewish adherents of scriptural religion,” he remarks, “have not been wrong to think that democratic self-government requires virtues of the kind encouraged by biblical teaching; . . . a democratic republic needs something like the Bible more than Bible believers need a democratic republic.”

Notwithstanding Noll’s optimistic outlook, I would like to add a word of caution to those who seek to mine the Bible as a political text for the 2020s. . . . The Bible does not neatly align with any political theory, position, or party. . . . Cherry-picking an individual verse (whether from the Hebrew or Christian Bible) to score culture war points, on either side, cheapens Scripture. To borrow the Sages’ phrase, we should never instrumentalize the Bible as “a spade to dig with.”

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More about: Abraham Lincoln, American Religion, Bible, Civil religion

The Palestinian Authority Is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution

Jan. 31 2023

On Thursday, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials announced that they had ceased all security cooperation with Israel; the next two days saw two deadly terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. But the PA has in the past made numerous threats that it will sever its ties with the Israeli government, and has so far never made good on them. Efraim Inbar poses a different set of questions: does cooperation with Palestinian leaders who actively encourage—and provide financial incentives for—the murder of Jews really help Israel protect its citizens? And might there be a better alternative?

The PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seems unable to rule effectively, i.e., to maintain a modicum of law and order in the territories under his control. He lost Gaza to Hamas in 2007, and we now see the “Lebanonization” of the PA taking place in the West Bank: the emergence of myriad armed groups, with some displaying only limited loyalty to the PA, and others, especially the Islamists, trying to undermine the current regime.

[The PA’s] education system and media continue propagating tremendous hostility toward Jews while blaming Israel for all Palestinian problems. Security cooperation with Israel primarily concerns apprehending armed activists of the Islamist opposition, as the PA often turns a blind eye to terrorist activities against Israel. In short, Abbas and his coterie are part of the problem, not of the solution. Jerusalem should thus think twice about promoting efforts to preserve PA rule and prevent a descent into chaos while rejecting the reoccupation of the West Bank.

Chaos is indeed not a pleasant prospect. Chaos in the territories poses a security problem to Israel, but one that will be mitigated if the various Palestinian militias vying for influence compete with each other. A succession struggle following the death of Abbas could divert attention from fighting hated Israel and prevent coordination in the low-intensity conflict against it. In addition, anarchy in the territories may give Israel a freer hand in dealing with the terrorists.

Furthermore, chaos might ultimately yield positive results. The collapse of the PA will weaken the Palestinian national movement, which heretofore has been a source of endemic violence and is a recipe for regional instability in the future.

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More about: Israeli Security, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror