On January 9, 2009, Bill Moyers presented his thoughts on the Gaza situation. In it he (apparently) couldn’t resist connecting it to biblical issues. And in doing so, he revealed an appalling, and for someone steeped in biblical interpretation, inexcusably vicious reading of the texts.
From Bill Moyers’s transcript:
What we are seeing in Gaza is the latest battle in the oldest family quarrel on record. Open your Bible: the sons of the patriarch Abraham become Arab and Jew. Go to the Book of Deuteronomy. When the ancient Israelites entered Canaan their leaders urged violence against its inhabitants. The very Moses who had brought down the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” now proclaimed, “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations have served their gods. You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods, and wipe out their name from that place.”
So God-soaked violence became genetically coded.
Alvin Rosenfeld, someone exceptionally familiar with the “new anti-Semitism” of the 21st century, wrote him as follows:
Dear Mr. Moyers:
I teach a course on antisemitism at Indiana University and today introduced the transcript of your last television program to my students. I did so in order to illustrate how the history of anti-Jewish accusations can still have a strong contemporary resonance. Your charge about violence being genetically coded, for instance, finds recognizable parallels with the rhetoric of Nazi racial antisemitism. In addition, the continuities that you seem to draw between biblical accounts of ancient Israel’s conquests and present-day Israeli military action in Gaza find a familiar place in the history of Christian anti-Judaism.
No respectable historian today would make such a claim. I’ve watched your show over the years and never thought that anything you might say about the Jews would provide prooftexts for the kind of course I am presently teaching. But, whatever your intentions, your words this past Friday evening are now indelibly part of the vocabulary of contemporary anti-Jewish defamation. I wish you would see fit to apologize for them and retract them.
Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld also sent a copy of his letter to Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl. This is Judea’s response:
Dear Mr. Moyer:
I am the father of Daniel Pearl, a former member of your profession. My attention was called to remarks that you made on your last television program where you spoke about how violence is genetically encoded in the Jewish psyche. I would like to appear on your show and speak on behalf of my son, who was murdered by people of like-beliefs, and who cannot come himself to demonstrate to you personally what his DNA was made of and what decency and integrity in journalism is all about.
Please give me a chance to speak on his behalf; you have offended everything he stood for, and he deserves an equal time.
Dr. Judea Pearl
Daniel Pearl Foundation
I’ve now listened to the whole program. It reminded me of a combination of Annie Lennox and the CNN reporter who did an info-mercial interview with the head of a Palestinian “Human Rights” organization [to be posted shortly], in which he not only helped him raise money, but gave him the floor to criticize Israel — but never Hamas — for the humanitarian crisis. On the one hand, like both of them, in the name of humanitarian concern, Moyers promoted a group whose political agenda is anti-Israel; on the other, he’s incapable of thinking clearly about a terribly serious moral dilemma. So when in doubt, blame the Jews.
It’s characteristic of anti-Judaism (I don’t think Moyer’s an anti-Semite), that it impairs the reasoning process. So while Moyers acknowledges critical issues — Hamas wants every Jew in Israel dead, Hamas wants their own people killed — he’s incapable of carrying those key but terrible ideas with him as he reasons. Thus he blames Israel’s current attack for driving Mahmoud al Zahar to declare that his movement has a right to kill every Israeli, when Mahmoud didn’t need any such excuse. Thus he calls the humanitarian crisis an Israeli-caused one, without any attention to the extensive and long-standing effort of Hamas to engineer it. He claims to be “even-handed,” but, like so many liberals of the Jimmy Carter variety, he treats Hamas as an amoral force of nature and reserves his rebukes and policy suggestions for Israel alone.
Now, I can imagine someone steeped in this kind of unconscious prejudice against Arabs and imprisoned by the walls of political correctness to slide comfortably into a blame-Israel narrative, although I think of Moyers as considerably more intelligent and thoughtful than Jimmy Carter. But I can’t get over that little digression into biblical narrative. That smells a lot to me like residual (and still-powerful) Christian supersessionism.
It’s way too long, and probably too complicated for someone whose ability to think about these issues is so badly impaired, to go into the theological issues of biblical exegesis. Suffice to say, that in their long history of reading these passages that so disturb the good Mr. Moyers, Jews have never taken this call to extermination seriously. (Indeed, archeologists suggest they didn’t even do the initial job.) On the contrary, Jews have consistently over the last three millennia interpreted their sacred texts as a recipe for civil societies and, when they had a chance, civil poliities.
On the other hand, if any religion has violence embedded in its scriptural and behavioral codes, it’s Islam throughout its history, and especially now. That may be why Jews — in the diaspora and in Israel — are so adept at adapting to the rules of, and succeeding in, modern civil societies, and why Arabs and Muslims are such failures.
There’s nothing more distressing than a man who wants to present himself as a pundit, wants people of good will to take him seriously, wants to contribute to peace in the world, to so drastically misrepresent the forces of war.
You can give Moyers your feedback here.