A donation to establish a Japanese cultural center at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from a controversial religious sect has opened up a Pandora’s box of accusations and counter-accusations, pitting members of the University’s Department of East Asian Studies against each other while the Hebrew University remains strangely mute.
On January 10, the university inaugurated the Japanese Culture Center in Israel (JCCI) to serve as a bridge between Japan and Israel through the promotion of Japanese culture in this country.
Several sources have contributed to the establishment of the center. A major donation (12 million yen or $110,000) came from Sukyo Mahikari (“Universal Law of True Light”), a Japanese religious sect with some 800,000 members in 75 countries, whose doctrine encompasses an eclectic mix of beliefs, including reincarnation, energy-healing practices and a view of Japan as the origin of creation and world civilizations.
The Sukyo Mahikari has come under serious criticism from numerous sources. Former members have accused the Mahikari of spreading neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic dogma, including use of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, mind control and financial improprieties. They further say that the Mahikari has secret beliefs that are only revealed in advanced seminars after years of belonging to the group.
Sukyo Mahikari was called a “cult” by the Chicago Tribune (January 5, 2004) and The Sunday Times (December 27, 1998). The French Parliament put Mahikari on a list of suspicious religious sects, calling it “dangerous.” The group has also come under investigation by police and parliamentary bodies in five countries and been expelled from one African country.
Despite investigations in various countries, the Mahikari has never been convicted of any crime or wrongdoing.
“Sukyo Mahikari has, behind a facade of benign spiritual enlightenment, a doctrine based on world domination and veneration of the Emperor of Japan,” wrote The Australia/Israel Review in its March-April 1997 edition. “It is also profoundly anti-Semitic, drawing part of its teachings from the discredited and fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Four current and retired members of the Department of East Asian Studies at the Hebrew University (Prof. Emeritus Avraham Altman, Prof. Emerita Irene Eber, Dr. Raphael Israeli and Dr. Arieh Babicz) have e-mailed a letter of protest to students and faculty members and set up a Web site to support their contentions. In their e-mail of April 7, the four wrote, “Sukyo Mahikari is a secretive organization that claims that Japan is the cradle of all civilizations and religions and that the Japanese are destined to dominate the world. Mahikari also bases its world view on theories of common Jewish-Japanese origin which have anti-Semitic overtones.”
Speaking to In Jerusalem, Babicz, a specialist in modern Japanese history, said, “Sukyo Mahikari think that Japan’s future is to rule the world and that the Japanese are the real ‘chosen people.’ The Jews must join the Japanese to rule the world. When the Jews refused, they became the source of all evil in the world and all their punishments – including the Holocaust – are justified.”
Before their public protest, the four attempted to convince the university to reconsider the donation. In November 2004, Babicz and Altman met with the university president Prof. Menachem Magidor, and presented him with a file detailing accusations against the Mahikari.
“We haven’t heard from anyone since,” Babicz says.
The university’s spokeswoman’s office refused to comment on the controversy and referred IJ to Prof. Ben-Ami Shillony from the Department of East Asian Studies, provisional director of the JCCI. Together with Yitzhak Lior, Israel’s former ambassador to Japan and head of the JCCI’s steering committee, Shillony will head the center.
“To say that there is stigma attached to Sukyo Mahikari in Japan or the world or that they are dangerous or extremely right wing is silly,” states Shillony. “Hundreds of new religions arose in Japan after World War II. Most of these appear strange to Christians and Jews. They include beliefs that are difficult for Westerners to ascribe to and strange explanations about the origins of the world. But the Mahikari does not try to convert us.”
Shillony continues, “We don’t care what their beliefs are. Besides, there are no official writings or pronouncements of Sukyo Mahikari that mention the Protocols or are anti-Semitic. I visited the group’s headquarters in Takayama and attended its annual celebrations. I was impressed with their use of Jewish elements. They see the Jews as offspring of the Japanese.”
Shillony also points out that the dedication was attended by the Israeli Ambassador to Japan, Eli Cohen; the Japanese Ambassador to Israel, Jun Yokota; and a parliamentary delegation from Japan.
“Had there been any doubts about the standing of the donors, these people would not have attended,” he notes. “Maybe Israelis don’t know who the Mahikari are, but the Japanese do and they would not have come had there been the slightest doubt about the ‘kashrut’ of the donors.”
Shillony insists that it was the university that approached the Mahikari for the donation, which was given with no strings attached and out of “goodwill.”
Furthermore, Shillony adds, “They [the Mahikari] are to be inscribed on the JCCI’s wall of donors. They were received by the rector of the university. Everything is transparent. We are not hiding anything.”
Yet when IJ obtained a copy of the invitation, nowhere were the Mahikari mentioned as the donors or even as participants in the ceremony.
With regard to the possible reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Shillony explains, “In Japan, many responsible people believe in the Protocols. They see it as a compliment to the Jews. They regard the Jews as powerful and strong and believe that therefore they need to be friends with the Jews and use them and their power. In Japan, anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism often go hand in hand.”
Former ambassador Lior adds, “Prof. Shillony and I know the Mahikari personally and they are pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli. The JCCI is a beautiful and pure project that is being attacked for nothing.”
The JCCI’s initial activities have included a shiatsu training program for blind Israelis and Palestinians, a Japanese culture evening in the framework of last month’s Jerusalem Festival of the Arts and a planned exhibition on Albert Einstein to tour Japan.
“There are those who say that this cult is kosher and has no ulterior motives,” counters Altman, who founded the Japanese studies program at the Hebrew University. “But there are also those who say that they have a dubious past. Given this, and the fact that the university has no way of investigating the truth, it should have been much more careful of an organization whose record is open to dispute and whose money could be tainted.”
Commenting on the issues, Dr. Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at the Jerusalem College of Technology Machon Lev and writer of Jerusalem Post column “ethics@work,” said, “Universities have to draw red lines in accepting money from allegedly bizarre religious groups. But having said that, it should be noted that a lot of mainstream religions have dogmas that could be made to sound ridiculous. How are we supposed to build bridges if we refuse to work together with people with bizarre values? Isn’t the whole purpose of such centers to create understanding between people who have different values?
“Most religious groups have in-house cultural organizations that are not defined as religious. So while a Jewish institution might be reluctant to accept money from, say, the Mormons, it should have no problem cooperating with [Brigham] Young University. I believe that the ideal situation would have been to work with a cultural group affiliated or identified with the Mahikari but not defined as a religious sect.”
Meir also feels that given the controversy surrounding the donation, the University’s acknowledgment of the Mahikari as donors with a wall plaque is the right decision. “This demonstrates appropriate gratitude to donors and more importantly creates a healthy sense of accountability,” he concludes.