AMERICAN radio talk show host and author Dennis Prager is never one to shy away from discussing his conservative brand of politics based on Judeo-Christian values.
Ahead of his Australian tour as a guest of the United Israel Appeal, I had the chance to speak with him one-one-one about his commitment to Israel, his views on secularism, and his latest book, Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph.
Here’s what he had to say.
You are coming out to Australia to appear as the keynote speaker at this year’s United Israel Appeal (UIA) campaign. Why is it so important for Diaspora Jews to support an organisation such as UIA?
First, I have this fear that too many diaspora Jews, especially young Jews, take the existence of Israel for granted – or, worse, are apathetic regarding its survival. Although I am not old enough to recall a world without the Jewish state, I grew up when Israel was very young, when its existence was understood by my parents’ generation as the only brightness in the utterly dark post-Holocaust world. It should be inconceivable for any Jew who cares about his own security, let alone the welfare of Israel’s Jews, not to appreciate how indispensable Israel is. Let’s put it this way: If Israel existed in the 1930s, there would not have been a genocide of Europe’s Jews on any scale approaching that of the Holocaust.
Second, if Australia’s or Canada’s or America’s Jews are not seen as supportive of Israel, our non-Jewish fellow citizens might well wonder why their support for Israel is all that important.
Third, people love what they take care of. The more diaspora Jews help Israel, the more they will come to love it. The UIA is therefore essential to Jewish life.
What key message do you intend to take to the Australian Jewish community?
That we Jews are a messenger who forgot his message.
This has two enormous consequences. One is that we find it harder and harder to give Jews reasons to be Jewish. And I emphasise reasons. We cannot survive on Jewish feelings alone. In a free and open society like Australia, Jews need reasons to be Jewish – and among other topics, I will offer those reasons in my talks in Australia. Second, if we have nothing important and distinctive to say to the non-Jewish world, we will become an insignificant people – just another ethnic minority.
You recently published an open letter to Israel’s Jews in the Jewish Journal. In it, you spoke of the “divine role of the Jews” and made a call to Israel’s general population to reconsider their secularism. What inspired you to write such a letter, and why do you have such an issue with secularism in Israel?
I have an issue with secularism everywhere in the Western world. Secular Europe has lost its moral nerve, its raison d’être, and therefore possibly even its ability to survive. Most European countries are not even reproducing at a level needed just to maintain their current populations. I ascribe this not to affluence, but to secularism. As for Israel, secular Jews, to their everlasting credit, founded Israel, but the secular children and grandchildren of those founders feel less and less Jewish, less and less Zionist, and in some cases, even less and less Israeli.
You are noted for your conservative political and social views. You have said that, after a lifetime of studying the Left, you have concluded that “leftism is a form of moral poison”. Could you please elaborate on how you reached such a conclusion?
First, please note that I refer to Leftism, not to liberalism. I frequently note there are good and bad people on the Left and good and bad people on the Right. I criticise ideas, not people or their motives.
I do not intend to introduce politics into my talks in Sydney. I want Jews of all political and religious persuasions to feel welcome and to benefit from what I have to say. My remarks will transcend political divisions — just as my support of Israel transcends Israel’s politics. I support Israel equally whether it is governed by the Right or the Left.
However, so as not to completely avoid your question, I will offer one example in response. If it weren’t for Leftism, we would not have the phenomenon of many well-intentioned people – especially on university campuses — siding with those who wish to annihilate the Jewish state. Universities throughout America, Britain and elsewhere have become centers of Israel-hatred – something pointed out by a leading American liberal, Lawrence Summers, while he was president of Harvard University.
On the other hand, the most pro-Israel government in the world today is probably that of Canada. Why? Because the prime minister, Stephen Harper, is a conservative (and a Christian).
But, again, my task in Sydney is to explain and to hopefully inspire – not to promote my political views.
You are set to launch your latest book titled, Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. Could you tell us a little about what people will find in this book? And what do you expect public reaction will be both inside the US and outside, including Australia?
America is an idea, much more than a country. That idea, the American value system, can be seen on every American every coin and bank note – E Pluribus Unum (“From Many, One”), In God We Trust, and Liberty.
E Pluribus Unum abolished the significance of race and ethnicity. Any person from any country, and of any ethnicity or race, becomes as fully American as the whitest Anglo-Saxon American whose ancestors came to America 300 years ago. E Pluribus Unum celebrates national identity.
The second, In God We Trust, means that God, not man, is the source of our rights, our liberty, and the infinite value of every human being. If God is not the source of these things, they will gradually erode. America is the most religious of the major industrialised democracies, and its willingness to die for the liberty of other peoples is one of the great consequences of that fact.
The third, Liberty, is central to the American value system, and can only be achieved with very limited government. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.
Each of these values is applicable to every country in the world.
E Pluribus Unum affirms the celebration of all national identities. The more Australian all Australians feel, the more Uruguayans identify as Uruguayans and the more Canadians feel Canadian, the better. This is not chauvinism (though without the other values, it can become chauvinism). I have far more faith in Australia’s values than I do in those of the United Nations.
As for In God We Trust, secular governments are often wonderful, but secular societies and secular individuals lose their sense of purpose, their moral resolve to fight evil, and ultimately devolve into materialistic nations and people. Every society needs a transcendent source of moral values and purpose. The American ideal of In God We Trust does not mean anyone need become a Christian or a member of any specific religion for that matter. Affirming the Creator as the source of liberty is applicable to Koreans and Chinese and Arabs just as much as to Americans and Australians.
And that great value, liberty, is only possible if the government is as small as possible. The smaller the government, the more people take care of themselves, their families, and their neighbours. Americans give more charity and volunteer more time than Europeans do – because Europeans are used to being taken care of by the state, which also takes care of their parents, their children, and their neighbors. So, the American ideal of small government is also universally applicable. Nothing is as dangerous as an all-powerful state. All the horrors of the 20th century, the most cruel and bloody century in human history, were perpetrated by all-powerful — and godless — states.
As for people’s reactions, I suspect that the book will be controversial in some circles, though that was in no way my intention in writing the book. But I I am quite certain — that it will change the way many people see Leftism, Islamism, America, and their own countries.
In 2009, you created a bit of a stir when you condemned Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, of taking the oath of office in a photo-op reenactment with the Islamic Quran, instead of the Bible. What was your reasoning behind that? And in light of the backlash, do you have any regrets?
I was wrong. What was my thinking? It was that the American practice of every national office holder since George Washington taking the oath of office on a Bible needed to be preserved. I deeply fear the Judeo-Christian value roots of America being undermined. However, I was wrong because people should be allowed to take their oath of office on whatever their holy text is. I not only said so publicly, I personally apologised to Congressman Ellison in the halls of Congress in the presence of Congressman David Dreier of California. Not only did Mr. Ellison graciously accept my apology, he told me that his mother in Detroit listens to my radio show every day, and that she is my “biggest fan”. At the end of our conversation, I invited the congressman to my home for a Shabbat dinner.
You’re also an outspoken Republican. How do you think the Republican primaries are shaping up? And what do you think of the possibility of Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, winning the nomination? Also, how much do you think faith will play in the ultimate outcome of the presidential election?
Neither I nor anyone else can predict who will win the Republican nomination. Perhaps no one will secure enough delegates, and the Republican convention in August will have to decide. Then someone else might even be nominated.
Having said that, it would be an American tragedy if Mitt Romney’s being a Mormon played any role in his not being nominated. We should all vote for a candidate solely based on his values, not on his religion or theology.
Dennis Prager will speak a the following UIA functions: Sunday, March 4 at the General Division at 10.30am; and Monday, March 5 at General Division at 8pm. For more information, go to www.uiansw.org.au or call (02) 9361 4273.
This interview originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News.