A conservative pundit popular on the Jewish dinner circuit has aroused a nationwide controversy by rejecting the right of a newly elected Muslim congressman to be sworn in using a Quran.
In a November 28 column published on the Web site Townhall.com, radio talkshow host and syndicated columnist Dennis Prager wrote that using Islam’s sacred text would be “damaging to the fabric of American civilization.”
“Insofar as a member of Congress is taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned,” Prager wrote, “America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”
Prager penned the essay after learning that Minnesota Rep.-elect Keith Ellison — the first Muslim ever elected to Congress — plans to use a Quran at his private swearing-in ceremony. Muslim American leaders, in turn, have called for Prager, who is Jewish, to be stripped of his seat on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Several prominent Jewish organizations and leaders have also publicly criticized Prager. In an unusually barbed rebuke, the Anti-Defamation League called the pundit’s argument “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American.”
“If Prager were merely a blogger and radio talkshow host trying to be relevant and provocative, these views might not merit a response,” the ADL wrote in a December 1 statement. “But as a newly appointed member of the United States Holocaust Council, Prager and his views must be held to a higher standard.” The ADL’s criticism was echoed by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who issued a statement urging the commentator “to rethink his position and apologize.”
In respone to an inquiry from the Forward, the American Jewish Committee issued a statement calling Prager’s remarks “disrespectful and unfortunate.’
The author of several popular books on Judaism, Prager regularly addresses Jewish communal groups. These include Jewish federations, which typically pay him an honorarium of $10,000, according to an official in the speakers’ bureau of United Jewish Communities. Speakers’ fees for federation events typically range from $600 to $10,000, although marquee speakers such as former presidents can earn up to $100,000.
Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said that unless Prager issues an apology — a step the pundit has so far resisted — he could find himself unwelcome as a speaker in the city’s organized Jewish community.
“There’s lines you draw, and Dennis probably crossed the line,” Hoffman said in an interview with the Forward. He added, “Just because we can get by with the first Five Books and some people say it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay for the next guy to stand up and say if they can’t swear on a Christian Bible, they’re not qualified. He’s pandering… [and] I wouldn’t want the Muslim community to bring in a panderer. So that’s what we’d have to think about.”
Setting aside Prager’s political arguments, a number of commentators, including the ADL, have noted that the pundit’s suggestion that the Christian Bible is an officially sanctioned part of the swearing-in ceremony is inaccurate: When members of the House are sworn in, it is done en masse and without religious texts. Many members then choose to hold an additional private ceremony where religious texts are often used. Some Jewish lawmakers, including Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have insisted on employing the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible.
The Constitution bans any religious test for office, said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, but through much of the 19th century the prohibition was understood to apply only to federal government. Many states required legislators to take Christian oaths, which effectively barred Jews from office. Jewish leaders and others strenuously fought the restrictions, which largely fell away by midcentury.
Despite this historical parallel, a number of communal leaders have been reluctant to criticize Prager. One Jewish leader in Ellison’s Minneapolis district — which during the campaign this year was itself roiled by controversy over Ellison’s past association with the Nation of Islam — suggested that Prager would still be welcome there.
Prager “has built up a body of work over the years… and he has to be judged like everyone else on the totality of his work,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “Nobody is perfect, and if somebody writes a column that does not necessarily reflect the community consensus, that doesn’t mean that he is not welcome in the community.”
Though he personally disagrees with the substance of Prager’s position, Hunegs said that the JCRC had not reached out to Ellison on the issue and did not plan to do so. Hunegs’s stance seemed to reflect an undercurrent of tension that remains between Ellison and some in the Minneapolis Jewish community, despite extensive dialogue and cooperation on a planned trip to Israel. Of Ellison, Hunegs said: “He’s elected, and time will tell the course he will take in office.… The reality is, he’s our congressman-elect. He’s pledged to work with us, and we’ve pledged to work with him.”
Officials at both the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, both of which have hosted Prager in the past, declined to comment on Prager’s column when contacted by the Forward.
It’s “outside our purview,” said Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s director of communcations. “Individual Hillels make decisions about booking on those campuses.” He added, “This issue is outside the realm of college students, so I don’t think we’re even going to look at it.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago also declined the Forward’s request for comment. Officials at the Republican Jewish Coalition, which frequently hosts Prager at its events, did not answer requests for comment over several days.
In contrast to the reticence of some Jewish leaders, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for Prager’s removal from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. President Bush appointed Prager to the position in August, to serve out a term that ends in January 2011.
In a letter to the council’s chairman, Fred Zeidman, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad wrote that “no one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policy-making position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had.” In the face of a week’s worth of sustained criticism, Prager offered a solution: Ellison should use both the Quran and the Bible.
“It is not I, but Keith Ellison, who has engaged in disuniting the country,” Prager wrote in an unrepentant December 5 post. “He can still help reunite it by simply bringing both books to his ceremonial swearing-in. Had he originally announced that he would do that, I would have written a different column — filled with praise of him.”