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Jewish World Review March 5, 1999 /17 Adar 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers

( EVERY AGE HAS ITS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. Thinking through the big issues of the day is hard work. That is why most of us let professors and pundits do the intellectual heavy lifting. The only problem is, much of the time, the solutions they provide society are often political snake oil.

The infatuation of Jewish intellectuals for the false gospel of Karl Marx in the first half of the 20th century is one example. Mainstream liberal optimism about the welfare state up until very recently is another. As the saying goes, there are some ideas so stupid, only an intellectual will believe in them.

Our time is no different. Too many of us mindlessly accept the patent nostrums of the chattering class and rarely question them. That's why slaying these dragons is virtually an impossible task, as well as an unpopular one. Only the verdict of history has the power to rob false -- but generally accepted -- notions of their power.

So, before the march of time passes them by, here are two of my favorite current Jewish political sacred cows.

Hate crimes are abhorrent. Whether we are talking about outrages such as synagogues defaced with swastikas or the horrifying dragging murder of an African-American in Texas by racist fanatics, it cannot be denied that hate-driven crime is a serious problem.

As a religious minority that has felt the sting of discrimination as well as violence, Jews have taken up this issue. Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League as well as community relations councils have worked hard to pass laws against hate crimes. The laws merely create systems to statistically monitor crimes that can be linked to bias; sometimes, they call for treating the perpetrators more harshly.

A new "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" that will be introduced in Congress this session will expand the ability of the federal government to prosecute hate crimes and expand the categories of bias violence. The bill has strong Jewish support.

I'm all in favor of keeping official tabs on prejudice. Where I part company with this bit of conventional wisdom is the notion that it is worse to be beaten, robbed or murdered if it is a result of hate rather then other criminal motivations.

The focus of the criminal-justice system should be the crime, not the ideas of the criminal. Murder should be punished severely whether the killer is a bigot or not. Are we really comfortable saying that a crime that isn't the result of a hateful ideology isn't as important?

And as history teaches us, criminalizing even hateful speech is a slippery slope.

Hate-crimes laws are a typical 20th-century American reaction to any problem. Upset about something? Pass a law, whether it does any good or not. Hate-crimes legislation is really about politicians posing for the public (who is for hate?) and citizens attempting to use politics to solve a problem that doesn't have a political solution.

Even higher on the list of Jewish sacred cows these days is the environmentalist movement.

The fact is, there is a natural synthesis between environmentalism and Judaism. The Torah commands us to take responsibility for the earth and to care for it. No truly religious or educated Jew can be indifferent to the pollution of our environment or the need to preserve the beautiful world that is our divine gift.

So it is nothing less than inspired marketing for Jewish outreach to highlight environmental concerns to a Jewish public that is largely ignorant about its Jewish heritage but knowledgeable and concerned about the environment.

But in doing so, a lot of mainstream groups have allowed themselves to be co-opted by an environmentalist hysteria that is sweeping the country.

There is a vast difference between a Jewish ethic of environmentalism and the sort of nature-worshiping paganism that passes for informed discourse on the environment these days. Nor need we identify ourselves with the sort of Luddite technology-bashing that is so common lately that it is rarely challenged.

It is one thing to identify the Jewish concern with clean air and water. It is quite another to sign on to the whole global-warming scenario, make it a Jewish issue and then endorse policy statements that call for raising the price of gasoline and drastically changing our economy.

Is the Kyoto Protocol, a pact that may have a terrible impact on the American economy and that has not been passed by Congress, mandated by Jewish law? I don't think so. But according to the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, support of Kyoto is a commitment of the American Jewish community.

There are other forums better suited to debate whether the sky is really falling as people like Vice President Al Gore keep telling us. Maybe global warming will destroy all we hold dear if we don't trash our cars and turn off our air-conditioners.

Maybe, but I doubt it - and so do a lot of scientists.

Perhaps it's the curmudgeon and the skeptic in me, but sometimes I get the feeling that hard-core environmentalists have more in common with peasants who feared the world would come to an end in the year 1000 C.E. than we like to think.

So let's keep our minds open even about the most sacred intellectual myths of the day. Remember that the herd mentality is for sheep, not Jews, and that the conventional wisdom is as often wrong as it is right.

Sacred cows may be hard to slaughter. But, as a wise man once said, they do make the best hamburgers.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

©1999, Jonathan Tobin