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Thursday, July 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Spiritual accessorizing in an era of religious conflict


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The artist formerly known as Madonna is nothing if not a good entertainer. And certainly we've become acclimated to the pseudo-religious dalliances of stars seeking "spirituality" without the responsibilities that come with most traditional faiths. But the ex-material girl's fascination with mystical Judaism is a particularly curious spectacle as Hollywood works through its latest anti-war bender.

She certainly has picked an interesting moment for her quasi-conversion.

On Monday, readers of The New York Times woke up to a full-page ad depicting an American flag with its stars replaced by corporate symbols. In honor of the Fourth of July, the ad suggested in a scrawl, "Because my country has sold its soul to corporate power... Because a small group of neocons has hijacked our national agenda... ," Americans should pledge to "do my duty and take my country back."

The page was run by a Canadian group called Adbusters, which last made its fame publicly "outing" Jews among prominent neocons shaping American policy, by putting a star next to their names.

If that's not enough, ultraliberal Democratic Rep. James Moran last month handily beat back a primary challenge in Virginia, after making an off-color remark about the responsibility of American Jews for the war in Iraq.

In other words, Madonna, the master of self-marketing, may be on to something: For pure shock value, few things can trump promotion of Judaism.

What else can explain the bizarre religious branding exercise Madonna has been engaged in? Far from quietly going about her new soulfulness, she wears T-shirts that say "Kabbalists do it better" and flashes Hebrew letters for God onscreen in her concerts. Thanks to Madonna, the famous red string bracelet with knots to ward off the evil eye has become a hip wrist accessory on the likes of bustier-clad Britney Spears.

It would all seem a fairly benign brand of Hollywood flakiness at first glance. The casual kabbalists are obviously just looking to do some spiritual accessorizing. But in the current climate, some find the precedent worrying. Madonna was recently singled out at a conference at the Vatican regarding the threat New Age spirituality poses to mainstream Christianity.

Part of the phenomenon isn't terribly new: Hollywood's arrogance allows it to assume it can take the spiritual benefits of religion without actually taking on any of the responsibilities or moral constraints that religious belief entails. If religions disapprove of all the hedonism, best to find a religious text that doesn't mention it!

But with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflaming the Middle East, the issue takes on a further relevance because the Christian right has often been thestaunchest friend of Israel at the most critical times. Meanwhile, casual anti-Semitism has been on the march among Western Europeans, partly as an expression of fear about the potential for Islamic terrorism, partly as a result of conspiracy theories about the Iraq war and 9-11.

Among Europeans, even leaving aside the recent ugly flare-ups of violence and the defacing of synagogues, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are casually conflated. In the United Nations, the Europeans have often supported resolutions condemning Israel while ignoring massacres elsewhere in the world.

The Adbusters "outing" was a continuation of this distasteful tradition: that Jews were wielding the mass of the American capitalist superpower in service to Israel. College campuses, forever the vanguard of liberalism, have also veered sharply toward the Palestinian cause in recent years, with student activists leading calls to divest from Israel as we once did to protest apartheid in South Africa.

Meanwhile, in Tinseltown, Madonna is wrapping herself in tefillin and Hebrew tattoos and talking about "the Old Testament." What gives?

The only reasonable hope is: Not much. Despite the best efforts of the late John F. Kennedy Jr. to nominate Madonna for president in one of the early issues of his magazine, she has yet to develop much flair as a political trendsetter. Following the lead of Bill and Hillary Clinton, she was an early supporter and endorser of Wesley Clark, though now presumably has thrown her support to John Kerry.

It's obvious that she hasn't developed any agenda beyond a continuing, if increasingly domesticated, urge to shock — though we're not sure that this middle-aged Catholic mother's sudden urge to be seen flaunting Jewish symbols in a time of global religious conflict isn't so much shocking as merely batty.

For all the fuss about Jewish neocons, Jews as a group vote overwhelmingly Democrat. And Democrats have made long practice of taking money and advice from Hollywood bubbleheads, then leaving the advice behind when heading back to Washington. So at a time when Jews everywhere are feeling a little bit embattled, they might ask their Democratic friends for a crash course on how to manage the fickle affections of celebrities like Madonna without doing too much damage to the larger cause.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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