Politics & Policy

Liberal Jews & Terri Schiavo

A Purim political lesson.

As the fate of Terri Schiavo was decided and then carried out, the enigma of Jewish liberalism came again to the fore. What accounts for Jews whose idea of dying “with dignity” included this incapacitated Florida woman being dehydrated to a state of living mummification like the ghoulish images of Nazi death-camp survivors?

Jewish Democrats in Congress and the Florida legislature led the rushed struggle to fend off efforts to save the brain-damaged woman. Meanwhile, I had a chance to personally gauge Jewish sentiment when Seattle’s largest Conservative synagogue graciously invited me to speak on an unrelated subject–my new book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, which acknowledges the cultural contributions of Christianity.

In the Q&A period, the synagogue’s rabbi asked what contributions I had in mind. When I mentioned the campaign by Christians to rescue Terri Schiavo from being killed by her husband–Michael, who claimed she’d want it this way–the crowd reacted with a sharp intake of breath, shocked murmurs as if I’d said a kind word about the Spanish Inquisition.

To add to the sense of values gone topsy-turvy, Mrs. Schiavo’s ordeal was climaxing over the festival of Purim. Parallels with the Purim story, the Biblical book of Esther, leap out at you. In both, a vigorously determined personality (Haman, Michael Schiavo) seeks to take the life of an innocent or innocents (the Jews, Mrs. Schiavo) with the aid of a high government official (King Ahashuerus, Judge Greer) while the people (Persia’s Jews, America’s Christians) weep, fast, and don sackcloth. Simultaneously, a protagonist (Queen Esther, Governor Bush) closely linked to the head of state contemplates intervening.

The mystery of why Jewish liberals feel as they do about Mrs. Schiavo’s case was underlined by a concurrent news story–about the California judge who reportedly spoke to prosecutors in death-penalty cases about excluding Jews from juries because, “No Jew would vote to send a defendant to the gas chamber”–the memory of Nazi gas chambers being too vivid to allow it.

So, Jews would freely permit a woman who did nothing wrong to be diminished to the condition of a death-camp victim, while they could never do so to a person who committed a grievous crime. Call in the psychologists.

By way of explanation, a theory recommends itself, one that I have heard before from radio commentator Dennis Prager among others.

It is that Jewish liberals are misshapen by centuries of being humiliated by Christians. Today, though we live in the most Jewish-friendly country in history, it’s as if we’re still back in medieval France or Germany. Whatever Christians favor–the death penalty, saving Terri Schiavo, curbing abortion, whatever–we must reject out of self-respect.

I was not sold on this theory until I received a mass e-mail from the Jewish Federation here in Seattle. A stolidly conventional communal group, the Federation has got the idea in its head of promoting homosexual dalliances. The e-mail celebrated the launch of “Bashert” (the Jewish term for a divinely fated romantic relationship), a Federation program “seek[ing] to create a fully welcoming and inclusive Jewish community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews.” Bashert’s inaugural event would feature as a speaker the assistant rabbi of the Conservative (which in Jewish parlance means “liberal”) synagogue whose members had been so disturbed by my thanking Christians for trying to preserve Terri Schiavo’s life.

Is it a coincidence that our Federation was seized with enthusiasm for homosexual matchmaking just as the gay-marriage issue was roiling Christians? The latter disapprove of gay marriage, so we promote gays hooking up. Never mind the powerful stance our own traditional religion in fact takes against homosexual intercourse–as it does against dehydrating people to death, aborting them, or granting life to murderers.

No wonder Christian and Jewish conservatives become impatient with Jewish liberals. Yet, the latter deserve not condemnation but compassion.

One of the penitential prayers associated with Purim laments how the Jews of Esther’s time once partied in the palace of their foe, King Ahashuerus, enjoying “the feast of the one who abhorred them.” America’s Christians certainly don’t abhor Jews–affection mixed with puzzlement are the themes of their feelings–but there is certainly a tension between our two faiths. They regard us as critically wrong on a vital point, namely in our attitude toward Jesus, and vice versa.

For this reason, to rejoice without reservation at their feast must leave a Jew a little uneasy, which is one reason I wrote my book, detailing in a positive way the Jewish position about their savior. However, to deny our own religion–by failing to protest the killing of Terri Schiavo, for example–to save the honor of that very same religion seems the height of incoherence.

David Klinghoffer is author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History. His website is www.davidklinghoffer.com.


The Latest