Fighting Religious Defamation
B'nai B'rith, the world's largest Jewish service organization, has a long and distinguished history of philanthropic achievement. In particular, its Anti-Defamation League has been a pioneer in working against racial and religious prejudice.
Devotees of Krsna were surprised, therefore, when they recently found a B'nai B'rith pamphlet rife with stereotypes of Krsna devotees as cultists and brainwashed robots. Such caricatures, the devotees thought, had been discredited long ago.
The correspondence below ensued.
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340 West 55th Street
New York, New York 10019
November 25, 1979
Mrs. Esther Wein Deitz
Director, "The Cults Project"
B'nai B'rith International
1640 Rhode Island Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Dear Mrs. Deitz:
I have read with interest the B'nai B'rith pamphlet that asks the pointed question, "How much do you really know about those new 'religious' groups?"
In regard to its depiction of the Hare Krishna movement, I suggest that your pamphlet makes use of the same unethical techniques of defamation that the Jewish people have been victims of for centuries the unprincipled use of unsupportable derogatory generalizations, emotion-filled pejoratives, demeaning graphic caricatures, inflammatory rhetoric, appeals to bigoted pseudoscientific authorities, and out-and-out falsehoods.
You label the Hare Krishna movement a "cult;" a snarl word with heavy pejorative color, or else you describe it as "religious" within sneering, abusive quotation marks.
You erroneously describe our religious tradition as "new" and indiscriminately lump it in with a host of disreputable groups adhering to recently concocted doctrines.
Yet the Hare Krishna movement, in contrast to these other groups, represents a genuine religious tradition with a history going back thousands of years, a respected body of ancient theological literature, millions of followers and supporters, and an authenticity affirmed by hundreds of the world's most prominent scholars of philosophy and religion.
All this leads us to ask, How much do you really know about our religion? For that matter, how much do you really know about your own? Is belittling and verbally spitting upon our religion really a part of the Jewish way of life?
For decades, B'nai B'rith has protested stereotyped graphic depictions of Jews. Yet now you apparently feel no qualms about presenting demeaning caricatures of Hare Krishna devotees.
You say the Hare Krishna movement revolves around "allegiance to a leader with absolute power within the group." This is an utter falsehood. If such an all-powerful leader actually exists, you ought to be able to name him or else you ought to be able to admit that you are wrong.
As is common in the literature of prejudice, you have also fallen into the two logical fallacies known as "appeal to an unqualified authority" and "appeal to an authority outside his field of expertise."
To give only one of several possible examples, you offer a derisive quotation from a psychiatrist named Dr. John G. Clark. Could this be the same Dr. John G. Clark who certified an adult Hare Krishna devotee mentally incompetent without even having clinically examined him and had him confined in an insane asylum against his will? Could this be the same Dr. Clark who again, without benefit of a legitimate clinical examination testified to a court of law that the young man was "brainwashed" and mentally incompetent, although a panel of court-appointed experts (nominated by Dr. Clark himself) later concluded, after more than a week of exhaustive clinical tests, that the young man was entirely normal?
Doesn't such a misuse of psychiatry sound familiar? Aren't you aware of how these same techniques were used against Jews in Nazi Germany and are still being used against Jews and dissenters in the Soviet Union today?
The motive behind your pamphlet is obvious: you are distressed because the Jewish community is losing its young Jews. But is this enough to justify abandoning the lofty ideals B'nai B'rith has always stood for? Is it sufficient cause for you to take up the same weapons so long used against Jews and wield them yourself against others? In short, is it enough to justify hypocrisy?
Certainly, thousands of Jews are abandoning their religious tradition with or without joining the Hare Krishna movement. And irresponsible attacks on a legitimate religious tradition can only hasten the process.
Jews are leaving their religion for secularism, atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and just about every other ism there is. So you have a problem. Do you think that attacking the Hare Krishna movement will make your problem go away?
Certainly many young Jews are becoming disenchanted with their Jewish upbringing and are joining the Hare Krishna movement. And certainly it's easy to say that they join us because the Hare Krishna zombies paralyze their minds, hypnotize them; and turn them into obedient jelly-brained robots.
How much more difficult and painful it would be for you to admit that these young people are already disenchanted with what they see in modern Judaism: a Judaism so closely aligned with modern materialism and consumerism that it fails to meet their spiritual needs, a Judaism enervated by hypocrisy, a superficial (or, in Rabbi Blank's apt word, "trivialized") Judaism that offers them bagels and lox and swanky bar mitzvahs but fails to endow them with understanding of who they are, who God is, and how they can ultimately bring forth their love for Him.
These are serious problems for the Jewish people, and they are the problems to which serious Jewish thinkers are drawing your attention. For you to divert your valuable energy to making unjust, ignorant, irresponsible attacks on the Hare Krishna movement can only make those problems worse. After all, Mrs. Deitz, I think you most likely know as well as I that if there's one thing a sensitive young person can't stomach it's hypocrisy.
As it is said in the Vedic scriptures, "The highest religion a man can follow is that by which he develops his unalloyed, unmotivated love for God. But if one adheres to religious allegiances without developing such love, his religion is but a useless waste of time." Only a relationship of pure love for God can fully satisfy a living being. The Krishna consciousness movement teaches that if one finds this relationship through Judaism, Christianity, or whatever, that is perfectly good. But if one who seriously desires such a relationship finds that the religious milieu of his birth has been co-opted by materialism and has lost sight of what he is looking for, we cannot help but advise him to chant Hare Krishna and understand God in a profound, scientific yet personal way through the teachings of Bhagavad-gita.
In support of what I have said about the Hare Krishna movement, I enclose an article written by Dr. Diana L. Eck, Assistant Professor of Hindu Religion in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and the Comparative Study of Religion at Harvard University. In this article, Dr. Eck explains the Hare Krishna movement's authenticity and significance. I hope you will take the time to read and consider it carefully. Then if you still feel that I have improperly stated the qualifications of the Hare Krishna movement or that any of the other points in this letter are improper, I humbly request you to point out where you feel I have erred, and I will certainly be willing to reply. Otherwise, I respectfully request you to acknowledge the authenticity of this ancient religious tradition and assure me that B'nai B'rith will repudiate the errors and unjustices that appear in this pamphlet and never lend its good name to them again.
I understand that your pamphlet was originally assembled not by B'nai B'rith but by a self-styled "anti-cult" group in California. They seem to have misled you. I would like to think that somehow a well-meaning group of people within B'nai B'rith has maligned the Hare Krishna movement unwittingly. I hope you will write to me to confirm that this is so.
Some groups and individuals, when confronted with even the most glaring errors and injustices in their publications, have neither the integrity to change them nor the courtesy to reply. I hope that from your good self, in contrast, I may receive a prompt response.
Hoping this finds you in good health,
(J. Elliot Israel)
December 4, 1979
Dear Mr. Israel:
In response to your letter of November 25, I wish to point out that Dr. John Clark is only one of many respected physicians and scholars who have questioned the recruitment and retention methods used by several groups in the American community.
We will certainly take seriously your comments about the distortion of Jewish values in evidence among some of our people and continue to do what we can through the various B'nai B'rith departments to ameliorate this problem. We will constantly examine our educational process and our behavior to be certain that it does not do discredit to our beliefs.
December 10, 1979
Dear Mrs. Deitz:
Thank you for your gracious reply to my letter of November 25. It is gratifying to know that you will take seriously, my comments about Jewish values and that you are always on the lookout for inconsistency between your beliefs and your behavior.
Yet I was disappointed that you were silent about the main point of my letter specifically, that B'nai B'rith is perpetuating an injustice against the exponents of a legitimate religious tradition by publishing tracts that defame the devotees of Krishna and the traditional religious practices of the Hare Krishna movement. I pointed out that this defamation involves the use of derogatory generalizations, demeaning graphics, and other such devices that B'nai B'rith has traditionally deplored. I appealed to you to stop this injustice, but you have not yet responded.
Thank you for your comments about Dr. Clark. With you, I believe that respected physicians and scholars do a great service by raising questions about how various groups in America conduct themselves. But raising honest questions is quite different from denigrating a religious group one has never scientifically studied. And it is still further different from committing sane adults to mental institutions to try to wrench them from their religious affiliations and beliefs. The prestige of the medical profession should not be an excuse for bigotry, and certainly not for persecution.
Among the religious scholars and mental health professionals who have studied the Hare Krishna movement in depth and without bias, the overwhelming consensus has been that, regardless of what other groups may do, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a legitimate religious organization that wins and retains its adherents through straightforward traditional means. We do not practice hypnosis or "brainwashing" any more than Jews grow horns.
Again, I appeal to you to make a proper distinction between the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the other groups mentioned in your pamphlet. And I appeal to you, as a representative of B'nai B'rith, to assure me that B'nai B'rith will no longer take part in defaming the ancient and respected religious tradition of which our Society is the world's leading exponent.
Should you need further evidence about the authenticity of our movement or the freedom of choice its members enjoy, I would urge you to get in touch with the following religious scholars and mental health professionals, all of whom (in contrast to the people quoted in your pamphlet) have studied our movement in depth: [The original letter included their telephone numbers and complete addresses.]
Dr. Harvey Cox
Chairman, Department of Applied Theology
The Divinity School
Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins
Chairman, Department of Religious Studies
Franklin and Marshall College
Dr. Allen Gerson
Dr. Alan Waterman
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Trenton State College
Trenton, New Jersey
Dr. Diana L. Eck
Assistant Professor of Hindu Religion
Committee on the Study of Religion
Dr. J. Stillson Judah
Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions, Graduate Theological Union
Dr. Sanford Rosenzweig
Dr. Marshall Schechter
Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
Should you need still further information, I am prepared to supply it in abundance. Again, as you have kindly responded promptly to my longer and more strongly worded letter, I hope I may ask you the favor of responding promptly to this humble request.
I shall await your early reply.
Hoping this finds you in good health,
(J. Elliot Israel)
We regret that as this magazine goes to press, in late February of 1980, we have received from Mrs. Deitz no further response.