‘Do You Want Columbia to be Cursed by God?’ — Alarming Exchanges in Congress and Beyond Highlight the Desperate Need for Religious Literacy

Republican Rep. Rick Allen of Georgia wonders whether Columbia U. President Shafik is sufficiently frightened of God's wrath. For her part, Shafik wants no part of this curse. Image: YouTube/Forbes Breaking News

At the April 17th House Education Committee hearing on Columbia University’s response to antisemitism on campus, Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA) questions Columbia President Minouche Shafik about her knowledge of the Bible. In a clip of the hearing below, Allen interrogates whether Shafik deems God’s ability to curse Columbia University a “serious issue.” Then, citing a version of Genesis 12:3, he proclaims: “it’s pretty clear it was the covenant that God made with Abraham, and that covenant was real clear: if you bless Israel, I will bless you; if you curse Israel, I will curse you.” When asked whether she wants God to curse Columbia, Shafik (who was born to Muslim parents in Egypt, but grew up in the US) responds “definitely not.” 

Allen’s statement and Shafik’s response exemplify the abysmal state of religious literacy in the United States, even as biblical texts and religious identities are at the center of current debates over US-Israel policy and campus protest culture. Allen egregiously misquotes Genesis 12:3 by retrojecting “Israel”—a name given to Jacob later on in Genesis 32:28—into the story of God’s call to Abram and promise to make him into a great nation.

In doing so, Allen extends Genesis 12 from a blessing or curse on a single person, Abram, to a covenant that affects all of his descendants and specifically applies to the modern nation-state of Israel. Shafik, on the other hand, like other university presidents who’ve testified before Congress on campus antisemitism, erred when she accepted the premise and validity of the question. The use of (poor) biblical interpretation to justify Congressional investigation into university policies should strike us as odd.

Scholars of religion are in a crucial position in the midst of continued misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the Bible in both Congressional hearings and US public discourse. Congress and universities are currently debating the boundaries of religious expression and the definitions of key terms in the field, including antisemitism, Islamophobia, (anti-)Zionism, and Israel (not to mention democracy, free speech, and open dialogue). These debates would be more fruitful if informed by the way scholars of religion approach their subject matter.

As a starting point I’ve found Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project and its four principles (which also happen to be guiding principles of RD) to be helpful in the classroom:

  1. Devotional religious expression is distinct from the critical study of religion.
  2. Religions are internally diverse, rather than uniform.
  3. Religions evolve over time, rather than remain ahistorical.
  4. Religious influences are embedded in all areas of culture.

Bolstering religious literacy in the classroom, in the public sphere, and in the halls of Congress would foster a better understanding of what scholars of religion can (and do) contribute to public conversation and policy making. Perhaps the most obvious place to make a contribution is definitional: what constitutes antisemitism or Islamophobia—and what exactly do we mean by Israel? Who gets to make those decisions, and what’s at stake for them in doing so?

Words can function as containers for multiple meanings, which is apparent in Rep. Allen’s citation of Genesis and the way he conflates a biblical notion of Israel as a “nation” or “people” (goy in Genesis 12:2) with the modern nation-state of Israel. The idea of different Israels is well-established in Jewish tradition between the Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), the Eretz Yisrael (a geographical name given to the southern Levant), and the Medinat Yisrael (the modern-day State of Israel). Christians have, themselves, historically laid claim to being the “people of Israel” in supersessionist fashion, and have often conflated various Israels: the historical political entity, the ancient people-group, the modern nation-state, and more. And even within the multiplicity of Israels, there are internal critiques and multiple contested definitions. Problems arise when public discourse happens without clarification of which Israel is under discussion.

The same issue of ambiguous definitions—this time for Palestine—has occurred within the field of biblical studies. In her recent Easter op-ed, Dr. Paula Fredriksen critiqued the common claim that Jesus was a “Palestinian” or a “Palestinian Jew.” To counter this claim, she laid out the history of the use of Palestine as a Roman colonial term for the region in the decades after Jesus’s death and after the destruction of the Jewish Temple. However, both Fredriksen and some of those she critiques seem to conflate two or three different meanings of Palestinian: Palestinian Jew, as an academic term applied to Torah-observant people in the Levantine region that constituted Judaea, Samaria, Idumaea, and Galilee; Palestinian, as an ethnic and genealogical designation; and Palestinian as a political designation (much like how Black liberation theologian James Cone famously argued that Jesus was Black, or like the common protest chant that “we are all Palestinians”).

Highlighting the histories, ambiguities, multiplicities, and weaponization of terms that are central to religious studies scholarship will, at the very least, expose how carefully those in the public sphere ought to choose and define their words. 

However, doing this type of work doesn’t come without risk. I’ve experienced critique and harassment in my role in undergraduate residential life at Harvard University for organizing an academic panel to discuss Islamophobia, antisemitism, and religious literacy to the undergraduate community. Such criticism came in large part from one or more students who are suing the university for “severe and pervasive” antisemitism on campus. The fact that my panel didn’t include an unambiguously outspoken Zionist—despite including scholars of Jewish Studies, Zionism, and the Holocaust—was considered a failure in “keeping with the principles of civic disagreement” and the requirement to have “representation from multiple perspectives.” This led to a withdrawal of institutional and financial support for the panel, and its eventual cancellation. 

Here, we see a misunderstanding as to what scholars of religion do. Critiques often fell into (or, at least, close to) the rhetoric of the “Palestinian exception” to free speech. As Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have argued, “decision makers cloak their disfavor for Palestine rights advocacy through reference to ‘balance,’ ‘dialogue,’ and ‘civility,’ terms that echo the talking points of Israel advocacy groups.” Even on a panel focused on the definitions and deployment of terms like antisemitism and Islamophobia, a distrust in the ability of scholars of religion to speak meaningfully about religious and political views beyond their own—a tenet of the discipline—shone through.

This also may be an instance of deeming particular Jewish scholars “bad Jews” or improper representatives of Judaism. Pressuring some Jewish scholars not to engage in discussion within their academic discipline because of their anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, or not-outspokenly-Zionist stances does two things: it works to delimit who gets to talk about what constitutes Judaism, and risks discrediting scholars’ work based on their religious affiliation.

Stifling discourse about religious discrimination before it even begins also stifles the ability to talk about the internal diversity of political movements and ideologies. For example, Zionism is a word that for some simply means “the Jewish right to self-determination,” while for others it means “the right to dwell in Medinat Yisrael and its right to exist as a nation-state,” or even “the God-given necessity to settle all of Eretz Yisrael, including the West Bank and Gaza.” Zionism has historically had left-wing and right-wing factions, and is an extremely prominent religious-political affiliation among American Christians. Some might agree with part of these beliefs and yet label themselves as a non-Zionist

To tokenize the political or religious affiliations of scholars of religion ignores our academic ability to increase religious literacy—critically examining how religious discrimination is weaponized; how people rhetorically claim to represent “mainstream” religious-political views; how religious texts and ideas are mischaracterized; and how to engage with worldviews beyond one’s own. As universities go through Congressional hearings regarding perceived and realized cultures of antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, it’s imperative that scholars of religion have avenues to educate their universities and the public about the complexity of internally-diverse, ever-shifting, rhetorically-charged, and culturally-embedded religious ideologies and practices.