Ira Rifkin

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Globalization has scrambled just about everything, for better AND worse.

Technology has compressed physical space and time, forcing the myriad human tribes to deal more directly with each other. Nor is there any going back — no matter how isolationist, anti-immigrant or simply anti-change some current political rhetoric may be.

This means that ethnic and religious groups many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, had little chance of meeting in their neighborhoods can now be encountered in any large American city, and also in our nation’s rural heartland.

Buddhism is one such example.

But it's not just that Asian Buddhists — be they Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or others — have come to North America, where their beliefs and practices have attracted considerable interest.

What’s also happened is that some Western Buddhists — formal converts and the larger number of individuals with no interest in converting but who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and meditative techniques (myself included) — have melded broad concerns for Western social justice issues with traditional, inner-oriented Buddhist beliefs.

These Western Buddhists certainly did not single-handily start this trend. Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest severe discrimination against their co-religionists by the Roman Catholic South Vietnam government in the early 1960s preceded them.

But these Westerners — many of them marinated in 1960s American liberal anti-war and anti-discrimination activism — pushed the envelope far enough to create a uniquely Western Buddhist path now generally referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

A key figure in this movement died earlier this month. His name was Bernie Glassman and he was 79.

The elite mainstream media, as near as I can ascertain via an online search, totally ignored his death. An error in editorial judgement, I think — certainly for the coverage of how American religion has and continues to change. His contribution to this change was monumental.

Western Buddhist publications reacted otherwise, as you would expect.

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

As with other religions, Islam embodies the concept of like-minded believers sharing a global destiny no matter which nation they live in.

In Arabic, this idea is known as the Ummah. Militant Islamists invoke it repeatedly to convince Muslims they are obligated to aid Muslims persecuted by non-Muslims.

How does this work in practice? As with Christians (the extensive history of Christian nations fighting other Christian nations is hardly unknown), the idealized notion that co-religionists can count on fellow believers in stressful times is highly limited.

Witness the lack of global Muslim efforts to assist their Chinese Uighur co-religionists currently being brutalized by the Chinese government. Or the relative dearth of Uighur-related news coverage emanating from Muslim-majority nations.

Western media, on the other hand, have covered the Uighur story like a blanket — despite the geographic, logistical and political hurdles making it difficult to do so. Here at GetReligion, we’ve posted repeatedly on the Uighur situation the past few years.

One Western publication I think has done an excellent job with the story is Foreign Policy. The magazine has published, online, two strong pieces on the Uighurs in just the past couple of weeks.

Here’s one from late October that tells how China is planting strangers who absurdly identify themselves as “relatives” in Uighur homes to monitor them. Here’s the second, published last week, detailing that Uighurs are so desperate to escape Chinese persecution that some are actually fleeing to Afghanistan for safety.

Consider that for a moment. True, Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. But it’s also a land of continual warfare where even the innocent can become collateral damage at any time. So fleeing to Afghanistan hardly ensures peaceful sanctuary. And yet they do.

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Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Saturday’s synagogue shooting, which claimed 11 lives in Pittsburgh, has dominated religion headlines this week. Here at GetReligion, we’ve produced a half-dozen posts on that unimaginable tragedy.

If you get a chance today or this weekend, check out what we’ve written, and feel free to let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.

Among our posts:

• Julia Duin’s thoughtful commentary on how “Pittsburgh horror marks the start of what could become a new atrocity — synagogue shootings.”

Ira Rifkin’s expert analysis noting that “Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism.”

• And my own piece reflecting on “Charleston. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. Why local reporters are crucial in a 'national' tragedy.”

I’ll mention some of our other Pittsburgh-related offerings below as we dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In a post Thursday, I called Emma Green’s Atlantic report headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” one of the best religion stories of 2018.

Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein praised Green’s “lovely reporting,” and CNN religion editor Daniel Burke lauded the "sensitivity, nuance, context — and the insights” of the story.

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