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Book Reviews – Spring 2014, Volume 26, Numbers 1–2

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 244 pp.

Reviewed by Rivkah Fishman-Duker


In recent years, the idea of Abrahamic religion has taken root. Basically, it means that Judaism, Christianity and Islam owe their existence to Abraham who discovered God and acknowledge that the patriarch Abraham is the central figure of their religions. Moreover, a further elaboration of this idea argues that there is a true, authentic Abraham, mainly based upon Genesis 12–25, a text sacred to Jews and Christians, but not to Muslims. This supposedly authentic Abraham transcends the different interpretations and contradictory traditions of the three religions. Accordingly, by finding, defining and reclaiming this alleged authentic Abraham, peace, harmony and unity will prevail among Jews, Christians and Muslims and humanity in general.

In fact, several diverse entities based upon the idea of the commonality of Abrahamic religion have emerged. They include: the Abraham Fund dedicated to advancing coexistence, cooperation and equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel; the chair for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at Oxford that deals with the teachings of Abraham and his descendants and the relationships between the religions based on Abraham; and the Intercultural Dialogue Institute in Ottawa, Canada that fosters harmony between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Children of Abraham. Furthermore, the increasing popularity of the Abrahamic idea has resulted in the publication of two major studies: Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims (1995) by the Catholic scholar, Karl-Josef Kuschel, and Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (2002) by the Jewish writer, Bruce Feiler. While the desire to find common ground and foster dialogue between the three monotheistic faiths may be laudable on its own terms, Professor Jon D. Levenson expresses serious reservations about the use and misuse of the persona of Abraham in attaining such objectives. He points out that these efforts often tend to obfuscate, distort or dismiss millennia and centuries of traditions unique to each of the respective religions. Levenson’s incisive critique of the works by Feiler and Kuschel brilliantly exposes the major flaws in the methods, quality and purposes of such scholarship. In fact, the last chapter of the book entitled, “One Abraham or Three?” (173–214) asserts that the Abrahamic idea essentially affirms a Protestant Christian tendency of relying solely upon Scripture and jettisoning subsequent commentaries and interpretations. It does not do justice to Abraham and particularly to the plethora of Jewish interpretations.

Levinson’s cogent analysis ultimately leads to the origins of the Abrahamic idea during the mid-twentieth century in the writings of the problematic French Catholic clergyman, mystic, scholar and Arabist, Louis Massignon (1883–1962) who misrepresented Abraham as a Christian saint who transcended any particular religion. In addition, Massignon was a fervent Islamophile and regarded Islam as a divine revelation and as the true expression of what he called Abrahamic faith (210–212). It is noteworthy that Massignon had little use for Judaism and made negative remarks about Jews. Beyond the academy, his work had great influence upon a broad spectrum of French thinkers, clergymen and civil servants. Thus, it was only a matter of several decades until Massignon’s construct morphed into the current trope of Abrahamic religion and its varied manifestations. One may speculate as to whether the revival of this idea somehow may be attributed to the present predicament of the West in dealing with the rise of radical and violent Islam. Whatever the case, Levenson debunks Massignon’s construct as unsound scholarship. As the underpinnings of the current version of the Abrahamic idea appear to be based upon flimsy foundations, it is clear to the author that only a thorough reading and an extensive interpretation of the figure of Abraham in each of the three religions can furnish the reader with a more comprehensive, systematic and scholarly portrait of the Biblical patriarch, untainted by a personal political or philosophical position. Professor Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, accomplishes this outstandingly in Inheriting Abraham.

Levenson divides his discussion of Abraham in the Bible and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions thematically. After a brief introduction to the Biblical narrative, the following chapters comprise the book: the divine call to Abraham; his problems and fulfillments; the ultimate test, i.e., the ‘Aqedah (the binding) of Isaac; the portrait of Abraham the monotheist; the contrast between Jewish and Christian approaches to the Abrahamic legacy—Torah or Gospel; and the final chapter noted above. Each chapter includes copious quotations from Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources which relate to and elucidate these themes. Inheriting Abraham includes an extensive footnotes referring to scholarly studies as well. While Levenson displays expertise in all three religions, his particular strength lies in his treatment of the numerous, varied and even contradictory Jewish traditions on Abraham and in showing the contrasts between Jewish, Christian and Islamic views of Abraham, thereby questioning the validity of the existence of an authentic, unified supra-Abraham.


One of Levenson’s major contributions is the chapter on the portrait of Abraham as a monotheist entitled “The Rediscovery of God” (113–138). This chapter demonstrates that the emphasis on Abraham’s monotheism emerges in Jewish sources from the later centuries of the Second Temple period (ca. second century BCE—late first century CE) and is virtually absent in the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not portray Abraham as an advocate or missionary for the one God. It is the Book of Jubilees, which was lost to Judaism and whose Hebrew version was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. second century BCE) and works by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish historian, Josephus (late first century CE) that showcase Abraham’s role as the champion of monotheism. This theme continues in rabbinic texts, with the retelling of a narrative in Jubilees where Abraham (then called Abram) smashes the idols in his father Terah’s store, thereby proving the futility of idol worship. More important, however, is that the assertion of Abraham’s faith in one God became the dominant theme of Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an relates his conflict with his father about the worship of celestial bodies—a reworking of another Second Temple Jewish and rabbinic theme (132). Levenson’s attention to the origins, development and prominence of Abraham’s monotheism in Second Temple Judaism, perhaps as a response to the challenge of Hellenistic paganism, presents a welcome historical perspective. Readers who may know rabbinic, Christian or Islamic texts may not be aware of the fact that there were expressions of this idea in earlier works which somehow served as their point of departure, although the means of transmission is not clear.

An additional valuable contribution is the discussion of Abraham’s observance of Torah, which is based upon Genesis 26:5 and is present in rabbinic works of Late Antiquity (Talmud and Midrash) and the Middle Ages (commentaries and treatises). According to Professor Levenson, this notion also has Second Temple origins, in Jubilees and Philo of Alexandria. Some leading medieval rabbis, such as Rashi (eleventh-century France) asserted that Abraham observed all of the commandments of the Written and Oral Law (148), while others, such as Rashbam (twelfth-century France) interpreted the commandments observed by Abraham in a minimalist fashion, namely as the seven Noahide commandments and circumcision (164). The main point of Levenson’s argument is that as far as Judaism is concerned, Moses is the dominant figure and Torah observance, the most important feature of Jewish religion. Therefore, the rabbis insist that Abraham observed the Torah, and regard him as secondary to Moses. This lends further support to the author’s doubts concerning the validity of the Abrahamic idea.

In contrast, the latter is not an issue for Christianity. What is relevant is Abraham’s faith in one God. While this point originates in Second Temple Judaism, according to Christianity, God includes Jesus who was present at the time of Creation. Therefore, Abraham could be regarded as a believer in Jesus, who is God and thus, Abraham fulfills the Gospel (149–163). Accordingly, anyone who accepts Jesus may be considered a descendant of Abraham, as opposed to the Jewish descendants of Abraham—either physically from his son Isaac or through conversion which entails observance of Torah, thereby making the proselyte a child of Abraham. In Judaism, circumcision is a sign of the covenant of“our father Abraham” for males who are either Jews by birth or through conversion to Judaism. Abraham literally is acknowledged as the father of proselytes who become “sons/daughters of Abraham.” Since faith and not Torah are paramount in Christianity, Abraham is more important than Moses. Circumcision of the flesh and Torah observance are not necessary. Levenson refers mainly to the New Testament—both the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, thereby placing these ideas in the context of Second Temple Judaism or shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Despite the fact that his argument is convincing, perhaps he could have included more citations from Church Fathers and medieval churchmen and examples from the rich iconographic traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity. Levenson correctly posits that despite the fact that both Jews and Christians, as opposed to Muslims, share the same sacred text, it serves as a “formidable barrier” as well as a bond. “All the talk … about … the common rooting in Father Abraham … cannot paper over the great question that the survival of the Jews and Judaism after the rise of Christianity poses for Christian theology and for Jewish-Christian relations” (104).

As far as Islam is concerned, Levenson states that “the Qur’anic Abraham is not the father of the Jewish people or the Christian Church at all: he is, rather, a faithful, obedient and monotheistic prophet, a member of a chain of prophets that begins with Adam, includes men like Moses and Jesus, and culminates in Muhammad, ‘the seal of the Prophets’ (Sura 33: 40)” (105). He is not “our father Abraham” as he is for Jews or Christians, but a Muslim prophet. According to Islam, those who follow him and the Prophet Muhammad and the believers (namely, Muslims) are worthiest of Abraham (106). In fact, as Levenson reiterates throughout the book, “Jews and Christians argue about the interpretation of their common text… Muslims begin with a different text, a different story—and, as a result, arguably a very different Abraham.” (106) This statement summarizes the main problem of an Abraham common to the three religions. They seem to be speaking about a different person with the same name whose life had similar events. By giving each religious tradition its due, Levenson demonstrates the importance of Abraham in a historical context, as opposed to an invented construct.

Inheriting Abraham also deals with those who do not admire Abraham or find his actions disappointing or reprehensible. Just as recent works of a religious vein are critical of Jewish interpretations and tend to create a supra-religious, a-historical, and therefore, flawed Abraham, there are studies with a “humanistic” tendency that focus on his deficiencies, particularly when father Abraham agrees to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Such works are concerned with making this Abraham an example worthy of imitation despite the fact that the ‘Aqedah is a one-time occurrence in each of the monotheistic religions. Levenson ultimately traces these arguments to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who regarded Abraham’s decision to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son as immoral (106–110). He regards such concerns with the ‘Aqedah as a product of modern post-Protestant thinking. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all dealt with the problem of God’s request and Abraham’s response and used it to argue against child/human sacrifice. For Jews, the ‘Aqedah is never to be emulated, only admired as the greatest act of faith. For Christians, Isaac is a prototype of a martyr. Levenson refutes Muslims who interpret their narrative of the ‘Aqedah as a pretext for violent jihad (111–112), citing the traditional weakness of such thinking in Islam.

In conclusion, Inheriting Abraham has appeared at an important time in the history of Western thought and scholarship. With impeccable craftsmanship, clarity of expression and rigorous argumentation, Jon D. Levenson presents the traditions of the three monotheistic faiths. He answers those who seek to deny the validity of faith in God or denigrate religion as retrograde and those who wish to create a false, albeit ecumenical, Abrahamic idea that is not based upon the different interpretations of the patriarch accumulated over the centuries. While it should be required reading for scholars of religion and Bible and clergymen/ women, Inheriting Abraham provides clear explanations of difficult and often unfamiliar subjects for the general public. Professor Levenson has performed a great service for all of us.

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is Lecturer Emerita in Jewish History at the Rothberg International School, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, New York: Basic Books, 2013, 384 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Widlanski

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East recounts the early history of American intervention, intelligence and espionage in the Middle East during the decade after World War II. Professor Hugh Wilford of California State University, Long Beach, does this by focusing upon the biographies and actions of several American intelligence officers, who were literate and adventurous, thereby “reconstructing this now lost world of American Arabism.” The major figures described include the swashbuckling Miles Copeland, the scholarly William Eddy and the well-born grandsons of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt and Archie Roosevelt. Like the adventurous TR, who was the first U.S. president who traveled abroad, these men aspired to shape their world, not merely to react to it. They were young, romantic and colorful characters and qualified specialists in Arab history, language and culture. They also were American patriots with a sense of mission and a love of languages, travel and customs in different locales, combined with a love of books and a disdain for paperwork and bureaucratic procedures. William Eddy and both Roosevelts had met Arabs at an early age and were fascinated by them. For example, Eddy was born to Presbyterian missionaries in Lebanon and grew up speaking colloquial Arabic on the streets of Sidon. He served as the personal translator for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the latter met with King Ibn Saud in 1945. The Roosevelt boys met Hashemite princes at the home of Teddy Roosevelt and admired “Lawrence of Arabia.” Kermit adopted the name “Kim,” inspired by Rudyard Kipling, the British poet, adventurer and lover of India.

The focus upon these figures makes America’s Great Game highly readable and informative. Indeed, the protagonists, who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), regarded the Middle East as extremely important because of its oil fields and because its regimes and cultures were led by God-fearing rulers who would be crucial in halting the expansion of Soviet Communism in the postwar era. In fact, Wilford describes Kim Roosevelt’s intervention which successfully reinstated the Shah of Iran in 1953. The latter proved a staunch American ally until his overthrow in 1979. Like the State Department, these intelligence officers did not support the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and were instrumental in setting up front groups to lobby Americans against Zionism and Israel. To his credit, Wilford refers to the private papers of some of the protagonists that show how in the late forties and the 1950s, the CIA worked to discredit Zionism and Israel and pay their detractors, among them Dorothy Thompson and Elmer Berger. Such efforts failed, as American support for Israel increased to the point that later on, after the heyday of these CIA “Arabists,” Israel became an ally of the United States during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Both Kim Roosevelt and Miles Copeland tried to cultivate Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Syrian colonel Husni Zaim during the early 1950s. They wanted to win them as U.S. allies against Soviet penetration of the Middle East, but failed to do so. Zaim’s rule was brief and Nasser joined the non-aligned movement which was ostensibly socialist and pro-Soviet. Neither showed any inclination toward democracy or any pro-Western sympathies, particularly after the Suez Crisis of 1956. Adventurous intervention notwithstanding, the conservative oil- producers remained in the American sphere, the nationalist leaders or “reformers,” such as Nasser did not. Eventually, post-Nasser Egypt turned to the U.S. in the 1970s, but not because of CIA interventionist activities in the style of the 1950s.

Wilford calls the men he describes “Arabists,” namely those who study, know and admire Arab culture, history and language. In fact, America’s Great Game follows Robert Kaplan’s study of U.S. diplomats in the Middle East, entitled The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (New York: Free Press, 1993). However, Wilford’s work lacks Kaplan’s depth and nuance. Wilford does not display Kaplan’s willingness to ask larger questions. In fact, he only mentions Kaplan once in the text, referring to the term “Arabist” (64) and once, in an endnote (305). Wilford also does not relate to the views of leading Middle East scholars such as Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis or Elie Kedourie whose works would have contributed substantially to a discussion of the role of Western intelligence in the Middle East. The book lacks the benefit of Ajami’s analysis and assessment of Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism, qawmiyya, which dominated the Arab world in the 1950s and early 1960s. This ideology suffered a mortal blow with Israel’s victory over Nasser and his Arab coalition in 1967. In contrast, the author clearly is influenced by the popular and spurious ideas of Edward Said (Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) and frequently criticizes the “Orientalism” of Westerners involved in Middle Eastern affairs when he really means prejudice or shallowness. Such name-calling does not address the major questions which should have been raised in a study of this timely subject. As far as the CIA’s anti-Zionist and anti-Israel actions in the 1940s and 1950s are concerned, Wilford does not refer to the helpful studies of Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1983) or Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby ( New York: Harper, 2010).

The fact that these sincere, well-educated and well-traveled persons with hands-on experience and a vast knowledge of the Middle East—its cultures and languages—failed in many of their interventions and intelligence assessments is worthy of much more sustained attention and deeper introspection and analysis. This is all the more important today when CIA and State Department officials who are not as well trained, worldly and experienced make similar or much greater blunders regarding Israel, Arab terrorism—including 9/11, radical Islam, the “Arab Spring,” the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fragmentation of Libya, the civil war in Syria, the increasing power of Iran and the collapse of Iraq to the detriment of American policy. Unfortunately, Wilford does not connect the dots and does not relate to the basic questions of recurring problems and patterns in American intelligence and policy-making or compare the successes of the earlier intelligence professionals, such as Iran, with the mistakes made by more recent CIA and State Department officials.. By not posing a set of questions or attempting to discuss the reasons for the errors based upon the outlook of the earlier “Arabists,” or their failures, Hugh Wilford succeeds as a story-teller, but not as a historian.

Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat (New York: Threshold Editions, 2012). He teaches at Bar-Ilan University and served as strategic advisor at Israel’s Ministry of Public Security. He was Schusterman Visiting Professor at the University of California, Irvine in 2013–2014.

Charles Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, 315 pp. Charles Small, ed., Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity, New York: Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), 2013, five volumes, 719 pp.

Reviewed by Alvin H. Rosenfeld

Antisemitism is back. So is Charles Small. That is what this hard-cover volume and its five slim companion volumes in paperback aim to demonstrate.

Within the United States, Dr. Small pioneered the academic study of contemporary antisemitism as a collective pursuit through the establishment of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). Inaugurated in 2006, it was the first research center of its kind at an American university. Active on several fronts, YIISA annually sponsored numerous public lectures, seminars, and symposia on antisemitism and related subjects and also oversaw the production of several research papers. Its most ambitious project was the organization of a large conference, “Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity,” which was held at the Yale University campus in August 2010 and featured papers by over one-hundred speakers from some twenty different countries. The gathering drew a lot of public attention, much of it favorable. Some sessions, however, focused upon antisemitism in the Muslim world, thereby making the conference “controversial” and open to severe criticism. Less than a year later, and for reasons that are not clear, Yale severed its ties with Dr. Small, who did not have a regular, tenure-track faculty appointment, and shut down YIISA.

The publications under review here, both entitled Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity bring to the reading public many of the talks presented at the YIISA conference. The Nijhoff edition contains 31 of these papers. The ISGAP multi-volume edition reproduces the latter along with an additional 26 articles, for a total of 57. They typically range in length from five to eight-ten pages (only a few are longer) and cover a broad array of subjects— from regional studies that examine the presence of antisemitism in Iran, Germany, Poland, Spain, South Africa, and Turkey, to topical studies of the connections between antisemitism and anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, Christianity, Islam and more. The authors include both junior and senior academic scholars, representatives of Jewish communal agencies, legal experts, fiction writers and more general commentators. They write in a diverse mix of styles and take a variety of approaches to their subjects. Some papers employ the more technical modes of critical analysis associated with philosophy and the social science disciplines. Others favor the more subjective modes of journalistic reportage and personal reflection.

In an effort to bring coherence to this large and varied collection of writings, the Nijhoff publication organizes its contents into three sections, under the following headings: “Conceptual Approaches,” “The Intellectual Environment” and “Global Antisemitism: Past and Present.” The ISGAP volumes also use these three headings and add two others: “Reflections” and “Islamism and the Arab World.” While these headings are somewhat helpful, it is difficult to forge so many disparate essays into a unified whole. Therefore, Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity is more of a miscellany than a work that presents a sustained and coherent argument about the different causes and multifaceted character of contemporary antisemitism.

One of the problems seems to be that Dr. Small wished to have his contributing authors explore antisemitism within a context of crisis. He writes: “In the context of the YIISA conference, the ‘crisis of modernity’ refers to the breakdown of the political and economic system. This crisis also operates at a philosophical level, raising issues that are just as important as political and economic uncertainty” (12). As the political and economic systems in which today’s anti-Jewish hostility takes place differ markedly from each other, it is not clear just what this “crisis of modernity” is all about. Nevertheless, Dr. Small wished to pursue it and asked his colleagues to examine the possibility that “the emergence of the current wave of global antisemitism both reflects and forms part of a wider attack on the core elements of modernity, notions of Enlightenment, and Western civilization more generally by reactionary social forces empowered by the crisis of capitalism” (3). This is a difficult and conceptually ambiguous task. Most of the contributing authors do not adhere to this goal and write about antisemitism as they see fit.

Readers will find abundant evidence that antisemitism is on the upsurge today and on a global scale. While the authors all take antisemitism seriously, they do not see its development to date as having reached crisis proportions. Always a negative social phenomenon, antisemitism, especially the type which is prevalent in radical Islamist circles in Iran and other parts of the Muslim world, has the potential to become lethal on a massive scale. Several chapters in Volume IV of the ISGAP edition trace the history and analyze the ideology of Islamist Jew-hatred; some also focus on the rhetoric of genocidal antisemitism that often accompanies it. The contributions of Bassam Tibi, Rifat Bali, and Wahied Wahdat-Hagh deserve careful reading. In their different ways they acknowledge the possibility of an escalation into major anti-Jewish violence in the future. Surprisingly, however, these pieces do not appear in the Nijhoff edition. Not one of that book’s thirty-one chapters is devoted to Islamist antisemitism—a serious and inexplicable omission.

Both editions of Global Antisemitism contain worthwhile material. Catherine Chatterley contributes a brief but admirably incisive essay on the antisemitic imagination, in which she offers a lucidly drawn exposition of Christian and post-Christian antisemitism and the omnipresent figural “Jew” within Western culture. Arye Hillman offers an excellent chapter on some of the social and psychological dimensions of antisemitism and is especially insightful in commenting on links to economic factors. C.R. Power and Sharon Power usefully describe Jewish contributions to anti-Zionist thinking and clearly delineate the “good Jew/bad Jew” dichotomy. Shalem Coulibaly contributes a highly original and deeply thoughtful examination of African anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Alexander Tsesis makes some necessary, pragmatic proposals about what might be done legally to contend with intimidating and defamatory manifestations of antisemitism on American college campuses. (The situation on university campuses has become worse since he wrote his article.) Anne Herzberg is illuminating in her coverage of the role of NGOs in supporting initiatives dedicated to the denigration and isolation of Israel. Likewise, Elisabeth Kuebler and Matthias Falter provide a first-rate analysis of Durban II’s programmatic efforts to exclude Israel from an idealized, homogenous world community. Sebastian Voigt offers profound insights into anti-Zionist and antisemitic tendencies in the German Left, and Lars Rensmann does the same for political movements within the European Right.

Other readers certainly will find additional articles in these volumes that provide an understanding of contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. Individually, these papers are well-informed and insightful. Collectively, however, they do not comprise anything like a unified or coherent explanation of the origins and nature of “global antisemitism” nor do they demonstrate how antisemitism constitutes “a crisis of modernity.” In this respect, Charles Small’s goals have not been entirely met. Otherwise, however, his edited volumes are a welcome contribution to scholarship. Unfortunately, they are full of typographical and grammatical errors and evidently were not carefully proofread before going to press.

In the aftermath of his departure from Yale, Dr. Small has established his own, independent research center on global antisemitism (ISGAP) in New York City.

One looks forward to further work from him and his colleagues in addressing the problems before us. They are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is Professor of English and of Jewish Studies and Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.

Robert Wuthnow, Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 504 pp.

Reviewed by Eyal Lewin

Robert Wuthnow, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has written numerous books and articles in the field of sociology of religion. A student of Robert Bellah, he refined and further developed the concept of civil religion. In Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland, Wuthnow convincingly argues that being a “Red” state, namely, consistently voting for Republicans may be best understood as part of the framework of religious loyalty, and more accurately—civil religious loyalty.

The state of Kansas, the topic of Wuthnow’s study, always has been more Republican than any other state. The allegiance of Kansans to the Republican Party has become legendary since they consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates and also elected Republicans in most of the state’s gubernatorial and congressional elections. Reviewing the history of partisan politics in Kansas since the 1850s, Wuthnow shows that while voters in Kansas occasionally strayed from electing Republicans, such defection was temporary and the Republican Party always would make a comeback. Therefore, he wonders how despite the profound changes that have taken place in American society, particularly in the Midwest, such partisan loyalty persists.

According to Wuthnow, the study of voting patterns in Kansas is important for Americans and others. Kansas serves as an ideal case study of white Protestants and Catholics in small-town America. He quotes the editor of a Kansan newspaper who wrote in 1923 that “Kansas is the political experiment station of America. Try it on Kansas and if it doesn’t work there it won’t work anywhere” (154). Indeed, the Kansan experience presents a unique paradigm for creative analyses of democratic political systems all over the world: the paradigm of civil religion.

The author maintains that the religious factor in supporting the Republican Party is based upon the idea that public officials in Washington were remote, indifferent, bureaucratic and mainly Democrats. They were regarded as more interested in the big cities of the East Coast and in international affairs. In contrast, Republicans were viewed as the eternal underdogs and regarded as incapable of influencing the administration’s national policies. The exception was Dwight D. Eisenhower. For Kansans, his presidency (1953–1960) signified more than pride in a “native son.” In the struggle of “us” against “them,” Eisenhower symbolized their state at its best: a war hero, a plain-spoken man of the people, from a poor family from Abilene. Nevertheless, Washington remained remote and estranged. Only during the Eisenhower administration and perhaps, during those of other Republican presidents, did Kansans feel that their views in national politics mattered. In turn, Republicans regarded themselves as the party of Kansas’ proud past and as the architects of its future progress.

The sense of political distance from Washington went along with faith in associational grassroots democracy where families, homes, hometowns, churches, schools and local communities formed the building blocks of civic life. Thus, the soul of Kansans, which is clearly described throughout the whole book, is committed to conservatism and dedicated to preserving plain moral virtues. In the 1998 gubernatorial race, 79% of Kansans polled expressed their concern with the moral decay of their communities. These major themes of “red state religion” may be found in the vocabulary of some of the latest Republican presidents. Richard Nixon spoke of the need to overcome the spiritual and moral crisis and preached national loyalty. Ronald Reagan also called for national renewal and emphasized the values of religion, education, community and family. To a large extent, the religion that Republican presidents advocated was civil religion, described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s.

Wuthnow discusses the secularization of the American society in the early twentieth century, when religion became a more private matter and its public authority weakened. There was a decline in church affiliation and participation in church services. However, the situation in Kansas was somewhat different. Civic organizations and voluntary associations flourished and churches continued at the forefront of social networking. Wuthnow asserts that the reason for the success of the churches as the bastions of civil religion in twentieth-century Kansas was that, despite their traditional rivalry, both Catholics and Methodists were interested in promoting good citizenship and developing a moderately conservative civic ethos across the state. The denominations of the Great Plains were well-run and highly motivated in constructing the democratic social policies that led to their systematic expansion. Churches became symbols of prosperous towns because they provided places where people made friends, conducted business, and cared for the needy. Thus, congregations turned into an important source of social capital. On the whole, according to Wuthnow’s Red State Religion, the story of Kansas constitutes a narrative of hard-working, Midwestern communities that always were at a disadvantage as far as Washington politicians were concerned. Both the Methodist and Catholic churches were dominated by a mainstream conservatism that resulted in support for the Republican Party.

Through his careful historical analyses of Kansan politics, Wuthnow constructs the contours of a new paradigm for the comprehension of political division and voter behavior. He could have referred to other scholarly works which deal with similar subjects. For example, sociological explanations rely upon the perception that groups define the very meaning of objects in the social world and that social groups serve as a primary source of personal values. An important term that relates to this connection between the collective and the individual is reference group. The reference group is the social group to which a person relates or aspires to relate psychologically. The group becomes the frame of reference and the source for organizing one’s personal experiences, perceptions and cognition. Reference groups serve as the standard for self-evaluation and form benchmarks for behavior.1 As far as our specific field of interest is concerned, reference groups have proved to be a key factor also in people’s political preferences.2

The group reference theory from the field of sociology frequently corresponds with group identity research made by political psychologists. During the last decade collective identities based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender and other demographic characteristics have proved to be important factors that generate political cohesion through a shared outlook and conformity to norms of political activity.3 Along with other scholars, Wuthnow includes public opinion, electoral choices and political behavior as a type of collective identity that shapes the dynamics of public opinion, electoral choice and political behavior. These identities are: Republican vs. Democrat in the United States; Conservative vs. Labour in the United Kingdom; Social Democrats versus Christian Democrats in Germany and Likud versus Labor in Israel.4

Wuthnow’s new paradigm is that voter preferences emerge from a historically rooted civil religion. Although the civil religion paradigm dates from the French Revolution, it was developed by Wuthnow’s teacher, Professor Robert Bellah and others, in the 1970s. They used it in order to analyze modern societies. Wuthnow and his contemporaries contend that a different, new civil religion was in competition with an older one and pushed it aside, thereby reshaping the structure of politics in the Western world.

Furthermore, the civil religion paradigm may well explain patterns of voting and results of political contests in democratic countries all over the world when explanations based upon sociology or political psychology do not provide sufficient answers. For example, Wuthnow’s paradigm is highly relevant for understanding long-term trends in Israeli society. Israeli politics, particularly regarding substantive issues, defy traditional right wing—left wing typologies. At times, left-wing voters support conservative policies on the part of the leaders, while right-wing voters may follow their leaders’ occasional liberal tendencies. The political map in Israel often is blurred and confusing and the civil religion paradigm may provide a key to understanding it.

* * *


1 Pamela Johnston Conover and Stanley Feldman, “Group Identification, Values and the Nature of Political Beliefs,” American Politics Quarterly, 12 (1984), 151–175; Ann B. Bettencourt and Deborah Hume, “The Cognitive Contents of Social Group Identity: Values, Emotions, and Relationships,” Journal of Social Psychology, 29 (1999), 113–121; Patrick C. L. Heaven, “Group Identities and Human Values,” Journal of Social Psychology, 139 (1999), 190–195.

2 Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 5 (2003), 808–822.

3 Michael S. Lewis-Beck, William G. Jacoby, Helmut Norpoth, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The American Voter Revisited (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008); Bernd Simon and Bert Klandermans, “Politicized Collective Identity: A Social Psychological Analysis,” American Psychologist, 56 (2001), 319–331.

4 Leonie Huddy, “From Group Identity to Political Cohesion and Commitment,” in Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears and Jack Levy, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 511–543.

Eyal Lewin is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ariel University and a research fellow at the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. He has written about the political psychology of national resilience and is the author of Ethos Clash in Israeli Society (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).

Alan Baker, ed., Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community, Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2014, 169 pp.

Reviewed by Joseph S. Spoerl

The major focus of this collection of essays is the relentless Palestinian effort to isolate and discredit Israel internationally and the ensuing complicity of NGOs, journalists, UN officials, religious leaders, and politicians in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. These sober, well-reasoned and carefully documented essays are written by scholars and journalists with varying types of expertise. The volume contains a helpful introductory overview by Israel’s former ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, an expert in international law. Six of the essays are by jurists and lawyers (Robbie Sabel, Rephael Ben-Ari, Hillel Neuer, Eugene Kontorovich, Phillipe Assouline), several of whom are specialists in the same field. In fact, some of the articles offer cogent and well-informed rebuttals of the accusation of Israel’s violations of international law, such as: the settlements in the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention; the security barrier violates international law; various Israeli military actions, e.g. against Hamas in Gaza or against the “Gaza flotillas,” violate the law of armed international conflict; Israel deserves to be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court, etc.

The book also demonstrates that many aspects of the global Palestinian campaign against Israel directly oppose efforts to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict peacefully along the lines of the “two-state solution,” to which the PLO ostensibly has been committed for over a decade. For example, in his essay on UNRWA, the UN agency devoted to supporting the Palestinian “refugees,” Dr. Rephael Ben-Ari documents the systematic efforts by the Palestinian staff of UNRWA (some of whom are members of Hamas) to inculcate in young Palestinians the conviction that they can and rightfully should return to their ancestors’ homes in Israel, if need be, by force. According to Ben-Ari, in 1982, UNRWA decided to expand the definition of “Palestinian refugee” to include not only those who fled Israel in 1948 but their offspring in perpetuity, thus sharply increasing the number of “refugees” from about 700,000 to five million and ensuring exponential growth in their numbers in the future. Insisting on the so-called “right of return” for so many millions is a deal-breaker for any Israeli government. The indoctrination of generations of children at UNRWA schools and summer camps, however, makes it nearly impossible for any Palestinian leader to relinquish this “right” definitively as part of a peace treaty. The UN also merits justified criticism in an essay by Hillel Neuer that focuses upon such UN organizations as the Human Rights Council, WHO, ILO, and UNESCO. Furthermore, Dore Gold contributes a critique of the infamous Goldstone Report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Two essays discuss the issue of religion. The liberal Turkish Muslim Sinem Tezyapar makes some refreshingly honest statements about the state of public opinion in the Muslim world, writing that in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the “core problem is not about land or the situation of the Palestinians but rather hatred of Jews in general” (99). She then proceeds to give her own version of Islam, highlighting aspects of Islam that support peaceful coexistence and tolerance toward non-Muslims, especially Jews. One may argue with her reading of Islamic history and doctrine and with her failure to acknowledge the deep roots of antisemitism in the Islamic tradition more fully. Her article, however, includes impressive statements such as: “As Muslims, we bear a special obligation to confront the antisemitism that has infected the Muslim world” (121). The article entitled “Palestinian Christian Abuse of Christian Organizations in the West” by Dexter Van Zile attacks the dishonesty of anti-Israeli Christian Arab activists, who falsely depict harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims in the region, downplay the significance of Islamic anti-Semitism, unfairly blame Zionists for creating all the obstacles to peace and resurrect Christian supersessionist doctrines toward Judaism. According to Van Zile, “whether they mean to be or not, this community of Christians has become an effective group of apologists for Islamist imperialism in the Middle East” (128). A careful reader may find a connection between Van Zile’s essay and that by Philippe Assouline, which focuses upon Palestinian abuses of the press. Assouline documents the pervasive lack of freedom of speech and of the press in both the West Bank and Gaza, which could explain why Christians there dare not speak up about how they are treated by Muslims (163–4).

In conclusion, the essays in this volume shed light on aspects of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that often are ignored or misunderstood by academics and journalists.

Joseph S. Spoerl is Professor of Philosophy at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire.

Caroline B. Glick, The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, New York: Crown Forum, 2014, 324 pp.

Reviewed by Eyal Lewin

The Israeli Solution does not simply present another plan for ending the intractable conflict in the Middle East. It is a solid defense of Zionism that provides Israelis and Israel’s friends who, over the years, may have forgotten the basic goals of Zionism and the major facts of twentieth-century history. Moreover, the book by Caroline B. Glick, the well-known senior contributing editor of the Jerusalem Post, has a didactic structure which makes it a convincing and concise guide to the history of the Arab-Israel conflict.

The book is divided into three parts: The first consists of an analysis of the idea of the two-state solution. It presents a record of the continued attempts to leave the Jews with as little land as possible. In her historical account of the evolution of the conflict, Glick carefully introduces the major protagonists and follows the events that have led to the current impasse. She refrains from any contrived political correctness and raises issues such as the origins of Arab terrorism; the Nazi affiliation of Palestinian leaders; the absence of any Palestinian national claims even decades after the consolidation of the Zionist movements; and more recently, the corrupt and anti-democratic character of the Palestinian Authority. Glick also describes the Islamic world that basically denies any future possibility for true peace either with Israel or with the United States.

The second part of the book introduces the one-state solution. Glick points out that after the Six-Day War in 1967 Israelis preferred this option. Looking toward the future, she recalls life under the Israeli military government in Judea and Samaria. Indeed, several decades of Palestinian propaganda may have caused readers to forget that

Everyday life under Israeli military government undoubtedly provides more freedom and more economic opportunities, to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Israeli military control facilitates the terror-free environment that attracts investments and enables Palestinians to move freely between Israeli population centers and their homes…(116)

Likewise, Glick also notes pro-Israel integrationist trends among Israeli Arabs. She cites testimonies and introduces evidence of how some Arabs wish to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and to openly express their loyalty to Israel.1

This section also discusses the difficulties and the possible flaws of the one-state plan and the methods of overcoming objections. The latter include the so-called demographic threat, which is behind the desire of Israel’s leaders to divide the land. Glick argues that it is a part of Palestinian political warfare, which has met with success. Moreover, she exposes the demographic threat as a psychological campaign based upon fraud, which its initiators apply as a form of terror— statistical terror—against Israel. Noting the historical precedents of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Glick points out how non-Jewish populations actually have preferred Israel’s governance and how, contrary to predictions and warnings, those areas are stable and secure because of Israel’s presence.

The third part of The Israeli Solution reviews possible reactions to the one-state plan on the part of the international community. Glick’s analysis of past events and present interests attempts to show how the international community eventually will accept the concept of Israel’s control over the historic Land of Israel.

The Israeli Solution is exceptional because, for several decades, a resolution discourse has developed in Israel, which may be described as follows: A retired general or colonel who may have participated in some of the negotiations with the Palestinians, perhaps as a coordinator of a particular committee, serves as the major discussant. His military experience imbues him with authority and he advocates dividing the land, placing sophisticated intelligence equipment on certain hill­tops and allocating international peace-keeping forces in a given strategic area.

He does not serve in the Knesset, but he is confident that his ideas are correct because he has spent many years giving orders and reading maps. Therefore, such conflict resolution discourse contains sketches of new borders and technological equipment. His plans may include the future of the entire region. These retired generals divide the land into “theirs” and “ours,” according to the words of a popular Hebrew song.2 Eventually, the emerging political consensus supports the two-state solution.

Caroline Glick does not fit the stereotype of the conflict resolution discussant mentioned above. She convincingly argues that the Middle East peace process has led to increased violence and terrorism and has undermined Israel’s standing. Rather than adopting a military viewpoint, Glick refers to classical Zionist thinkers, such as Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Chaim Weizmann and others. She debunks the hypothetical discussant’s formula for conflict resolution and courageously dismisses the two-state solution. This position is exceptional in an era when repartition of the Land of Israel is the common denominator for both American and Israeli politicians who do not wish to be condemned for sabotaging the chance for peace. While those with professional military background have been repeating the same, stale two-state mantra, Glick boldly proposes a new paradigm (or, in her words, an old/new paradigm).

The Israeli Solution has several drawbacks. Caroline Glick writes for an American audience. In the preface, she declares: “My objective is … to provide a reasonable starting point for a conversation … in America ….” (xxvi) Consequently, she seems to ignore the Israeli public. Likewise, the author concentrates on American political failures. For example, when she notes reality rejection syndrome as a bipartisan failure of both the Bush and the Obama administrations (249), she actually should have mentioned that, since the beginning of the 1993 Oslo process, some Israeli leaders also suffer from the same syndrome. Glick accurately describes the Palestinian legal jungle and the dire consequences of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority (144–154). The details in her description, however, have been known to the governments of Israel for some time. Like the Americans, Israeli leaders have preferred to ignore reality. Glick bravely brings that reality into focus. Perhaps, by writing about Israeli leaders, she may be endangering her status in some Israeli elite circles. Hence, she generally spares them from her critique, but blames their American counterparts.3 While she expresses what many others fear to acknowledge, and despite her meticulous scholarship, she humbly states that her objective is simply to present a framework for further discussion: “… to provide a reasoned starting point for a conversation that can lead to a rational and relevant debate…” (xxvi). In fact, such issues constituted part of the intense debates on Zionist strategies of an earlier era. The current situation in the Middle East would benefit by the renewal of such discussion in books such as The Israeli Solution.

* * *


1 These testimonies certainly correspond with the statistical results of various longitudinal surveys. See, for example: Gabi Ben-Dor, Daphna Canetti, and Eyal Lewin, “The Social Component in National Resilience,” in: The Annual Herzliya Conference on National Resilience Impact (Haifa: Haifa University, 2009; 2010; 2011; 2012; 2013; 2014).

2 Yehonatan Geffen and David Broza, “It Will Be Good [Yihye Tov],” is a popular song written and sung during the 1978 peace talks with Egypt.

3 For reality rejection syndrome in Israel, see: Efraim Karsh, The Oslo War: An Anatomy of Self-Delusion (Ramat-Gan: BESA Center for Strategic Studies, 2003). For another analysis that counts cultural and ideological factors that distorted perceptions of reality of the Oslo peace process proponents, see: Efraim Karsh and Joel Fishman, La Guerre D’Oslo (Paris: Les Editions de Passy, 2005), 107–254. See also: Kenneth Levin, The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Manchester: Smith & Kraus, 2005). Levin presents the entire course of the peace process and Israel’s dogged adherence to its obligations as the greatest self-inflicted wound of political history, arguing that Israeli leaders hallucinated that there was moderation in a murderous enemy. For another analysis in the same spirit, see: Ofira Seliktar, Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009). Seliktar questions the ability of Israeli leaders on all levels to assess the motives of the Palestinian negotiators correctly. The phenomenon of reality rejection is also discussed in the context of an entire civil religion of war-denial, in: Eyal Lewin, “The Clash of Civil Religions: A Paradigm for Understanding Israeli Politics,” Jewish Political Studies Review, 25, 1 & 2 (Spring, 2013), 72–92.

Eyal Lewin is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ariel University, and a research fellow at the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. He has written about the political psychology of national resilience and is the author of Ethos Clash in Israeli Society (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).