American Jewish Committee

U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

“Of making many books there is no end,” complains the weary author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. And there’s no end to lawyers making many lawsuits trying to learn what the U.S. Supreme Court thinks the Constitution means when it forbids “an establishment of religion” by government.

Journalists should provide follow-up analysis of a new era in “separation of church and state” launched June 20 with the Court’s decision to allow a century-old, 40-foot cross at a public war memorial in Maryland. Importantly, we can now assess new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who filed separate opinions supporting the cross display.

Actually, the nine justices produced a patchwork of eight separate opinions, which demonstrates how unstable and confused church-state law is.

Ask your sources, but The Guy figures the Court lineup now has only two flat-out separationists, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 86) and Sonia Sotomayor. While Samuel Alito managed to assemble five votes for part of his opinion, his four fellow conservative justices are unable to unite on a legal theory. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan seem caught halfway between the two sides.

Federal courts have long followed the “Lemon test,” from a 1971 Court ruling of that name that outlawed public aid for secular coursework at religious schools. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion devised three requirements to avoid “establishment,” that a law have a “secular” purpose, “neither advances nor inhibits religion” and doesn’t foster “excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Kavanaugh declared that the Court has now effectively abandoned Lemon in favor of a “history and tradition test,” which permits some cherished religious symbols and speech in government venues despite the “genuine and important” concern raised by dissenters.

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Los Angeles Times only cites one side when reporting on the mayor's Jerusalem stance

Los Angeles Times only cites one side when reporting on the mayor's Jerusalem stance

As some of us know, the editors of The Los Angeles Times lack a religion reporter, although it seems like they have other beats covered pretty well.

So when I see a piece on religion, I’m often curious to know what inexperienced staff writer they’ve assigned to the job this time.

This piece — “Garcetti said he backs U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Now religious groups want an apology” — focuses on the mayor’s visit to Jerusalem, along with his support of President Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to the Israeli capital. The emphasis, obviously, is on all the flak he got.

Oddly, only Jews who disagreed with him where interviewed for this news story. That’s a journalism problem, right there.

A year after the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti waded into the still simmering political controversy, drawing criticism from L.A. religious groups.

“I support the embassy being here,” Garcetti told The Times during his trip to Israel last week with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Israel shouldn’t be the only country in the world that can’t determine where its capital will be, but there is usually a process to these things rather than what seems like an overnight, one-sided, partisan move.”

The “one-sided partisan move” was a referral to Trump’s June 1, 2017, embassy decision.

In response, local offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network, among others on the political left on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called on Garcetti to retract his statement of support. The groups also sent the mayor a letter on Sunday.

Political left is correct. The reporter couldn’t have picked a more predictable and partisan crowd. And how much of their respective faith communities do they represent?

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Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

I’ve highlighted it twice this week — here and here — but I’m still contemplating that big Lilly Endowment Inc. grant for religion reporting.

In case you missed my earlier posts, the $4.9 million Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed this week.

It’ll fund 13 religion journalist positions at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation and create a partnership resulting in RNS content going to AP subscribers.

The Global Religion project has the potential to be really, really awesome (to borrow one of RNS editor in chief Bob Smietana’s favorite adjectives). But the ultimate verdict will rest in the implementation and what happens beyond the initial, 18-month grant period.

Here’s wishing the involved entities all the best in that process!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

The New York Times had a front-page story this week on the strong partnership between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Times described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Trump sees advantages in the current American debate over Israel and anti-Semitism.

I read both stories with a different perspective — and a heightened interest — after spending the past several days in Israel, my first visit ever to the Middle East.

I’m typing this post from my hotel room in Jerusalem. I’m here with a group of about a dozen U.S. religion journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The project aims to give participants an enhanced understanding of issues in this part of the world and make them think about tough questions. For me, it certainly has done that!

Rather than do a normal post while I am traveling, Terry Mattingly invited me to share a bit about the trip. Honestly, I’m still processing much of what I have seen. But I’ve learned so much as we’ve traveled via helicopter and bus to visit key sites all over Israel and heard from speakers representing a variety of perspectives.

We’re still in the middle of our itinerary — with a trip to Ramallah on today’s agenda — but here, via Twitter, are a few virtual postcards:

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2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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American and Israeli religious infighting: Could it destroy the world's lone Jewish state?

American and Israeli religious infighting: Could it destroy the world's lone Jewish state?

Surveys contrasting the political and religious views of American and Israeli Jews are produced with such frequency as to make them a polling industry staple. In recent years -- meaning the past decade or so -- the surveys have generally shared the same  oy vey iz mir (Yiddish for “woe is me”) attitude toward their findings, which consistently show widening differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

Well, sure, you may be thinking.

Compare, for example, the vast differences on moral and cultural issues between the institutionally liberal American Episcopal Church and the traditionalist Nigerian Anglican church leadership. That, despite both national churches belonging (at this moment in time) to the same worldwide Anglican Communion.

Why should the Jewish world be any different? It's like the old real estate cliche, location -- meaning local history and circumstances -- is everything.

Religion is just not the broad intra-faith connector some would like it to be. Often, if fact, it serves to fuel intra-faith rivalries rooted in strongly held theological differences.

Judaism even has a term for it; sinat chinam, Hebrew for, translating loosely, a “senseless hatred” that divides Jews and can even lead to their self-destruction.

Intra-faith Jewish differences, however, take on an added layer of global importance because of the possible geopolitical consequences they hold for the always percolating Middle East.

The bottom line: Minus American Jewry’s significant political backing, Israel -- a small  nation with no lack of enemies, despite its military prowess -- could conceivably face eventual destruction.

Despite that, Israel’s staunchly traditional Jewish religious and political hierarchy -- believing it alone represents legitimate Judaism -- continues to hold its ground against the sort of liberal policies embraced by the vast majority of American Jews.

Journalists seeking to make sense of the political split between American Orthodox Jews’ general support for President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic policies, and American non-Orthodox Jews’ significant rejection of both men, would do well to keep this intra-faith religious struggle in mind.


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Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Let's hold the above question for a moment and start with statistics about Christians in the United States.

Religion writers should be uttering hallelujahs for an organization many may not know about, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This  association has just agreed to replace the National Council of Churches and rescue the invaluable “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.” This statistical compilation, issued since 1916, had been moribund since 2012 due to NCC financial woes. (Future contacts: yearbook.asarb@gmail.com and www.asarb.org.)

The U.S. Census hasn’t asked about religious affiliations for decades, yet a writer often needs to report a denomination’s total adherents. Though the Yearbook’s data are self-reported without auditing and sometimes out of date, it’s the best resource journalists and religious leaders have had for comparisons and as a source in which to quickly find numbers, contacts, and basics.

The American Jewish Committee in 2009 likewise cut loose the 115-year-old “American Jewish Year Book,” taken over by the Springer book house. Jewish headcounts are complicated, but the 2014 annual  estimated a population of 6.6 million to 6.7 million. The 2015 edition (list price $299!) has yet to appear. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Pew Research Center figures the U.S. currently has 5.7 million “Jews by religion” as distinct from ethnic identity.

Moving to Islam’s U.S. followers, a number reporters would like to cite regularly, the following may not help much.

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