Ben Shapiro fervently denied he had been "politicizing" the blaze at Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral when he called on his two million Twitter followers to "re-familiariz[e] ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles" grounding such a "central monument to Western civilization, which was built on the Judeo-Christian heritage."
Despite its platitudinous, quaintly archaic sound, "Judeo-Christian values" is a far newer, and deeply politicized, invention than it sounds, gaining currency since Eisenhower used it in 1930s as a clear riposte to fascism. It was later used as a go-to phrase to challenge communism, then as an umbrella term Republican evangelical conservatives used for their political stances, from abortion to military intervention.
More recently, it’s been adopted by the hard and far right to claim supremacy for white Western culture that clearly excludes Muslims, whitewashes Christian anti-Semitism and uses Jews as a convenient fig leaf for legitimacy and "inclusion."
In his infamous 2014 Vatican speech, noted race-baiter Steve Bannon referred 15 times to the "Judeo-Christian West," "Judeo-Christian civilization" or "Judeo-Christian values" – and declared they were in "outright war" with "jihadist Islamic fascism."
Never one to miss a dog-whistling trick, Donald Trump has gone to town with the term, not least when he rhapsodized about how he was about to end the war on Christmas: "We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values," he told a friendly conservative values conference in 2017.
There certainly seems to be a degree of willful blindness, if not crass manipulation, in Shapiro setting up 12th-14th century France, when Notre Dame was being built, as embodying "Judeo-Christian religious principles," when during that period France’s Jews were expelled (twice), their holy texts subject to public book burnings and their property confiscated by the crown (several times).
Look at the actual tangible built evidence of the cathedral itself, whose west front is adorned with twin statues: proud Ecclesia (the Church) and Synagoga (with head bowed, blindfolded with a snake, her crown at her feet and the tablets of the law falling from her hands), representing Christianity’s triumph over Judaism.
Point to Moses and the prophets as much as you like: supersessionism is the reason that the Church renamed the Jewish scriptures the "Old" Testament, completed and overtaken by the New.
Mourning the damage to France’s patrimony is quite possible without getting misty-eyed about the ugly anti-Semitic past of the church, and without insinuating that civilization today requires a return to a mythic Jewish-Christian brotherhood of values that doesn’t offer membership cards to Muslims.
As Josh Marshall wrote to Shapiro - with some passion: "…for a wannabe King of the Jews like yourself it’s a little comical for you to try to bandwagon the cathedral as some gotcha against your enemies."
Despite the outrage, there’s no chance an educated Orthodox Jew like Shapiro isn’t aware of the history of Christian anti-Semitism. So why is Shapiro so keen to join a "Judeo-Christian" club that, from all appearances, wouldn’t accept him as a fully-fledged member? Why is Shapiro not just tweeting and writing books openly advocating the superiority of Western civilization above all others, but insisting on its joint, timeless Jewish-Christian presiding spirit?
The real debate that Shapiro wants to stir up isn’t about medieval France. It’s about 21st century America and Europe. Who’s in, and who’s out.
You don't have to analogize Shapiro to white supremacists to be repelled by his vision of Western civilization, politics and morality under siege by those too ignorant or different to join the "Judeo-Christian" club.
The "real" white nationalists, like Richard Spencer, took the Notre Dame fire to a far more threatening and crusading point, asserting that if it "stirs the White man into action – to sieze [sic] power in his countries, in Europe, in the world…[then] we will one day bless this catastrophe." That’s not Shapiro’s language.
Shapiro rather wants to ensure Jewish conservatives have a legitimate and safe space in the hard right, in which their "otherness" is actually more like "similarity" and a qualifying feature, where rather than harking back to narratives of difference, they are the ultimate insiders, and are therefore legitimate guardians, conservers, of the key aspect of America’s founding fathers’ greatness: "the Judeo-Christian nation, upon which they framed all that we have built on in the last 239 years," as Mike Pompeo once put it. It is a ticket to reframing themselves as Mayflower Jews.
That clubbiness and proud embrace of privilege is a clear counter-point to the embarrassment and guilt about privilege that he sees on the left - not least for white Jews.
But becoming part of that club has costs. Shapiro and other Jewish conservatives can’t help but be drawn into the orbit of the dominant users of the "Judeo-Christian" term - evangelicals. It’s fascinating how his language for instance on abortion now so clearly resembles evangelicals, and how far away it sounds from the nuanced debates in Jewish tradition. He’s comfortable with the God creep into U.S. political language, and he’s very comfortable with the evangelical love for Israel and each of its settlements.
And he’s comfortable with its extreme oppositional language: that those who challenge the Israeli government’s policies, or aren’t keen on Shapiro’s traditionalist mores – then they’re either self-hating Jews, or Jew-haters. They have taken themselves out of the civilized "Judeo-Christian" consensus.
No surprise he repeatedly referred to the "Jew-hating Obama Administration," and its "disgusting" irreligious Jewish supporters. The only worse fate is to be a Palestinian: after all, he once wrote an article entitled "The Radical Evil Of The Palestinian Arab Population" which described them as "rotten to the core."
And despite his pronounced opposition to Trump, his preaching of "Judeo-Christian values" makes common ground with the administration. In fact, the term's eager adoption by Trump and his circle has anathematized it as an expression for the vast majority of decidedly liberal U.S. Jews.
Shapiro is proud to identify with the term "Judeo-Christian values." It neatly summarizes a historically unprecedented identification and alliance between right-wing Jews and Christians in America, reframed to whitewash embarrassing centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice but embracing the othering and targeting of Muslims.
At a time when the right is resurgent in the U.S. and Europe, these Jewish conservatives believe they’ve found a formula that allows them to ride that wave, with pride and as equal partners. It’s a notable moment when Jews feel sufficiently confident and enfranchised that their political participation is so broad and deep on the right as well as the left.
It could even have been an aspirational story. But that would require (re)covering one’s eyes with a snake not to see the historical revisionism, reactionary positions and hypocritical prejudice that Shapiro so consistently employs to stake out that territory.
Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon
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