Israel's Culture War Escalates
by Conrad Goeringer
American Atheists

December 5, 1996

In Israel, the battle between religious fundamentalists and civil libertarian secularists continues. Recall that ever since the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that country's religious political groups have been flexing their muscles, demanding important government ministerial posts, and calling for strict enforcement of laws designed to "protect" orthodoxy and Sabbath. For months, thousands of Orthodox Jews (almost exclusively beard-wearing, heavily suited men) have poured onto Bar Ilan Street in Tel Aviv, demanding that the traffic artery be shut down during the holy period. (Already, the orthodox have succeeded in turning off an Israeli communications satellite!)

In addition to wanting to eventually ban traffic on the Sabbath, the orthodox have also taken on the problematic symbols of modernity and cosmopolitanism -- everything from McDonald's restaurants to cafes, bars and movie houses. Now, a poll by the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot reports that 47% of those questioned believe that friction between secular and religious groups could lead to civil war. USA Today's current edition quoted an Israeli sociologist who warned: "Secular Israelis are already alarmed and frightened by the expansion of the ultraorthodox politically and socially."

And evidence of the "culture war" engulfing the country is everywhere. Last night, some 8,000 orthodox attended a rally in Tel Aviv and were told by a procession of rabbinical leaders that "The situation is deteriorating. Shops are open on Shabbat (Sabbath), cinemas are open on Shabbat, and the municipality hires people to work on Shabbat."

One new target for the Orthodox has been TV comic Gil Kopatch, whose often-irreverent routines on the tube have delighted secularists and offended religious authorities. Religious parties want Kopatch banned, not only because his popular show is aired during the Sabbath time, but over his barbs and clownings directed at the Netanhayu government. Leading the charge against the jokester is the United Torah Judaism party, which controls four seats in the Israeli parliament or Knesset.

Jerusalem Mayor Ronni Milto told London's Telegraph that the community must remain tolerant of Koptach and other secular activities. "He suggests the Orthodox are out of bounds by trying to impose the norms of Jerusalem on Tel Aviv," notes the paper adding: "They feel some kind of power intoxication as a result of the May elections."

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Jews' Lot Improves,
Though Still 'Christ Killers'
by Wayne Aiken (with Conrad Goeringer)
American Atheists

December 5, 1996

Fundamentalist Christians (and even hard-nosed Catholics) have enjoyed a problematic relationship with Jews; originally, bible-bangers consider The Chosen People to be "Christ Killers" and other ilk, which is one reason why guys like the late Father Coughlin and Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith spend decades preaching anti-semitic hate and sucking up to demagogues like Adolph Hitler. That began to change in the late 1960's and 1970's, when Israel was perceived as both a doorstop in the middle east against the advance of Communism or Pan Arabism, and the Jews became "junior partners" in Christian scenarios about the apocalypse.

Now, a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee released in late November reveals that "religious right" believers have their own distinct take on Israel and the Jews. 72% support the claim that "Jews have a right to the land of Israel because it was promised to them by God," as opposed to 43% of the general American population. But 58% of religious right Christians insist that the Jews also need to convert to Christianity, a view shared by only 22% of Americans. 53% believe the Jews to be "God's chosen people" (28% of Americans agree).

There is a little progress on the "Christ killer" image, though. 21% of religious right respondents said that "Jews must answer for killing Jesus," a view shared by only 8% of the general population.

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The Blinking Jesus of Bethlehem
by Conrad Goeringer
American Atheists

December 5, 1996

Is it the blink of an eye, or a metaphorical wink about the gullible?

Decide for yourself. In Bethlehem, crowds are flocking to the Church of the Nativity where, according to legend, the god-man Jesus Christ was born. The interest stems from reports that a centuries-old icon of Jesus is said to "wink" at people. "Look, look!" declared one visitor to an Associated Press reporter. "He (Jesus) blinked. What a blessing!"

The reports of the Blinking Jesus began last year when visiting Greek Orthodox priests said they witnessed the phenomenon -- and immediately pronounced it to be a miracle.

Said Father Anastasios, a senior Orthodox clergyman from Bethlehem: "It's a message for people to come back to God and religion."

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Canada Funds Catholic Schools,
But No Others
by Conrad Goeringer
American Atheists

December 5, 1996

In Canada, the nation's Supreme Court has ruled that the Ontario government does not have to finance non-Catholic religious schools even though it has subsidized Roman Catholic classrooms for more than a century. This ends a five year legal battle by Protestants and others to include their own schools in the funding scheme, along with Jewish and Hindu institutions.

The problems stems from a government policy formulated in 1867, when Catholic Quebec joined mostly Protestant Ontario in the political arrangement which became Canada. The New York Times reported yesterday that "The dual school system was a way to accommodate both sides, and the court's ruling held than an expansion of the system to include additional religious groups had never been intended."

Even so, the jurists noted that there is nothing specific in the Canadian constitution that prevents funding of non-Catholic religious schools.

Another good argument on behalf of state-church separation, yes?

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Prayer and Punishment

Crowd Makes God Part of Graduation;
Teen Protester Is Shut Out of Festivities
by Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer

May 28, 1999

It started with a loud, clear voice, a man's voice. And it spread quickly through the hall, picking up the tenors of teenage boys, whispers of young girls and throaty voices of grandmothers. With each word, it grew more determined.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven ... " The defiant group, thousands strong, ignored a school ban on prayer and insisted that God be part of a Calvert County high school graduation ceremony Wednesday night.

A student who had successfully appealed for a moment of silence, rather than a formal prayer, walked out in protest. When he tried to return to the ceremony to collect his diploma, he was detained in a squad car and threatened with arrest by state police. School officials -- saying they feared he might disrupt the school-sponsored cruise around Baltimore Harbor -- barred him from the graduation party for which he'd already bought a ticket.

"This is a churchgoing community, and no one in Annapolis or Washington, D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray," said County Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings), who joined in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. "The school administrators did the legal thing and complied with the law. But the audience took this one over."

An official for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said yesterday that an emotional majority trampled over the lone teenage boy and the Constitution.

"A student was arrested because he disagreed with the majority and he tried to address that in a responsible way," said Suzanne Smith, of the ACLU, adding that she considered the fact that police detained Nick Becker, 18, equivalent to arrest. No charges have been filed against Becker although state police Lt. George McKeon said yesterday a complaint might still be forthcoming.

"The real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express dissent," Smith said, adding that the ACLU is investigating the incident. "I'm appalled by this."

Calvert County, a rural peninsula south of Washington, is a politically conservative place where the newly acquainted frequently ask, "Where do you go to church?" and not, "Do you go to church?"

Prayer had been a part of graduation ceremonies at Northern High School for several years, apparently without objection. This year, Julie Schenk, 17, planned to deliver an invocation at Wednesday evening's commencement until Becker, her 18-year-old classmate, objected.

He said that prayer didn't belong in a public ceremony. Becker is well-known at school for his independent streak. In his junior year, he was forced by school officials to wash his hair in a sink because he came to school with his brown hair sculpted into "Liberty spikes" that resemble the Statue of Liberty's crown. Last fall, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was singled out for disciplinary action until the ACLU intervened on his behalf. Becker plans to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the fall to study film.

In this latest incident, the ACLU and the state attorney general's office sided with Becker and advised Calvert officials to drop the prayer because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

As a compromise, Schenk agreed to change her prayer to a "time for reflection" that did not mention God. When she asked for 30 seconds of silence and the audience of about 4,000 rose, a loud male voice began, "Our Father, who art in heaven ... "

"It started across the hall, and it picked up steam and went around the room," Kelley said, estimating that half the people in the Equestrian Center in Prince George's County joined in. "You could almost hear this thing travel. It just spread."

Becker quickly realized what was happening. "There was a kid behind me saying it real loud, and even the people on the stage were saying it -- even the commissioners," said Becker, who turned and quickly walked to a nearby exit. Once outside, he felt angry and upset.

When Becker tried to go back inside through the front door to get a friend, he was told by police he could not reenter. Calvert County school policy bars any student who leaves a school event from returning. Becker walked around the building and tried to get in through a side door and was blocked by police again.

"I told the cop I'm getting my diploma," Becker said. "He said, 'You're not going back in.' He walked me over to the car, put me in the front of the patrol car and said he was going to give me a citation for failing to obey a lawful order."

McKeon said Becker was "extremely upset" and shouldn't have been allowed to reenter. "We thought it was the best course of action," McKeon said. "We didn't want [him] to disrupt the ceremony."

Becker was released to his parents, who had come outside by that point, McKeon said. School officials gave Becker his diploma and the family went home. Becker was barred from a post-graduation boat cruise for which he had paid $45. Superintendent James R. Hook also said Becker could not participate in the party because he did not take part in the graduation ceremony. Hook said his money will be refunded.

Hook said he was disturbed by the spontaneous prayer and the turn of events. "A moment of silence should have been respected," Hook said. "It shows disrespect for the young lady who asked for silence and for the young man who requested [that the prayer] not be done."

Other community leaders gave direct or subtle support. "It was the right thing to do," said Commissioner David F. Hale (R-Owings), who said the prayer. "We cannot condone breaking the laws, but this was participating in an ongoing prayer. It was a personal choice."

And while Northern High School Principal George Miller said he had to follow Hook's orders, "quite frankly, I'd like to include the invocation."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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