Crime and Capital Punishment

So accustomed are we to incarceration as punishment that it’s easy to forget that punitive confinement is entirely absent from the Jewish mesorah.

To be sure, the Torah allows for – and even describes two cases of – the jailing of suspects, but only as a temporary measure, until guilt is established or ruled out. The idea of prison as punishment is a relatively recent one, usually traced to the 18th century British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham.

And, at least in the U.S., prisons often seem to harden criminals. I have often wondered if corporal punishment might present a less onerous and more effective deterrent. That idea might be shocking, but, the concept of long-term confinement with other criminals, were we not so used to it, would be just as disturbing.

Ironically, Bentham conceived of prison as a replacement for capital punishment. But while Britain, like all European countries except Belarus and Russia, no longer has a death penalty, here in the U.S., both prison and execution survive as penal institutions.

Several weeks ago, ending a 16-year moratorium on federal capital punishment, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for five federal inmates on death row.

With that move, executions are now an option in cases of serious crimes, most commonly murder with aggravating factors, for the federal government, the military and 29 states.

The case for capital punishment is robust. From the Torah’s universal statement in Bereishis (9:6) that “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed,” to the logic of death as a deterrent for would-be murderers, to the reasonable desire that potentially fatal menaces be permanently removed from society, to the high costs of lifetime incarceration, the idea that there are times when human life may properly be taken strikes most of us, “pro-life” as we may be, as rational.

There are those in other religious communities (and in some Jewish ones, too, that hew to values outside the mesorah) who disagree, of course, who consider the killing of a cruel murderer to be no different from what the murderer himself has done. But most of us understand that, as per Koheles Rabbah (7:16): “Anyone who is merciful in the face of cruelty will end up being cruel when mercy is in order.”

And yet, at the same time, that aphorism’s second clause indicates that there are times when mercy is, in fact, indicated.

Which leads to the strongest argument against capital punishment. No, not the “cruelty” of a possibly painful death. Opioid overdoses, which unintentionally resulted in the presumably pain-free, if tragic, deaths of more than 72,000 Americans in 2017, would certainly, administered purposely, seem to be a humane means of execution.

No, what makes the death penalty objectionable is the deeply disconcerting fact that it has led to the execution of innocent people.

Christopher Tapp narrowly avoided becoming one of them. In the end, the Idaho Falls, Idaho, man wasn’t sentenced to death but only to a 30-year sentence for attacking and murdering a local woman. Last month, though, after serving 20 years of his sentence, Mr. Tapp had his conviction vacated by the District Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit. DNA evidence had led to a new suspect, who confessed to the crime. There are many such stories, including about people on death row.

In 2014, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that determined that at least 4% of people on death row were or are likely innocent. Professor Gross has no doubt that innocent people have been executed.

Some wrongful murder convictions have been due to sloppy forensics, others to police or prosecutorial misconduct, others to mistaken identification, others still to alleged jailhouse confessions that turned out to be bogus.

Few of us likely need to be reminded of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s contention in the mishnah (Makkos 1:10) that a beis din that executed one person in 70 years was labeled “violent.” The standard of proof required in Jewish law in capital cases is exceedingly high. In American law, despite the common assumption, it isn’t.

Still and all, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s caution, at the end of that same mishnah, that too much lenience when it comes to murder will increase the murder rate, can’t be ignored either.

Legislators aren’t clamoring for my advice about capital punishment. (Believe me, I’m no less surprised than you.) But if they were, I’d personally suggest that when there is even the slightest chance that an accused murderer, no matter how heinous the murder, might not be guilty – when it is only evidence or the testimony of one or two eyewitnesses that lead to a conviction – the death penalty should not be applied.

After the recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, President Trump announced that he would ask the Justice Department to propose legislation to subject those who commit mass murders to capital punishment.

In such cases, or others where the public nature of the crime leaves no doubt whatsoever about a perpetrator’s guilt, his execution is eminently defensible.

But where a jury’s guilty decision was based only on individuals’ testimony or indirect physical evidence, we should be very wary of applying so unarguably permanent a penalty.

© 2019 Hamodia

Of Slums and Slabodka

[PHOTO: Ner Israel Rabbinical College]

When my father, a”h, underwent surgery several years ago at Johns Hopkins Hospital in downtown Baltimore, I spent several nights in a nearby apartment, courtesy of a wonderful chessed operation, the Jewish Caring Network’s Tikva House, several blocks from the hospital.

Johns Hopkins, I had been informed, provides escorts to accompany relatives of patients and visitors who need to walk at night to their nearby destinations. And so, a large man took me to the end of one block, where he turned me over to a clone of his who walked me the rest of the way.

I suspected that the escorts were gang members gone straight (at least I hoped they had), and were now gainfully employed by the hospital. But, whatever their backgrounds may have been, they were faithful bodyguards. And they owe their employment to the fact that downtown Baltimore is a less-than-entirely safe place.

President Trump’s heaping of scorn on Baltimore clearly came from his disdain for Representative Elijah Cummings, whose district includes much of the city and who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

The president called Mr. Cummings’ district a “rat and rodent infested mess.”

I dunno. I grew up in Baltimore City and only met my first rat in the president’s home town. But there is little doubt that Baltimore indeed has considerable problems.

The city’s crime rate is high, many residents are poor, many are jobless and many of them homeless. And, although the city’s Inner Harbor is a sparkling, attractive tourist attraction, vacant lots abound in parts of the city; and abandoned properties tend to invite the sort of things endemic to such neglected places, as per Yeshayahu 24: 12 – “through desolation, the gate is battered” (see Rashi, based on a Gemara).

And yet, in contrast to that depressing image, many of us, and for good reason, regard Baltimore as a veritable beacon of beauty and light.

The Chofetz Chaim is said to have remarked that the large, important cities on typical maps are misleading. Were maps to reflect what is truly important, he explained, a number of European towns (in his time) would rate as the true “world capitals,” places where Torah thrives: Telz, Mir, Kletsk, Slabodka, Gur, Volozhin, Bobov, Radun, Novardok…

In our day, New York is a large city on both maps. On the spiritual one, though, it is joined by a host of other, much less densely populated places across the country. Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, may be a relatively tiny township on the conventional map. But on the spiritual one…

Likewise, Greater Baltimore (“Bawlmer,” to us natives), whose Orthodox portion of the Jewish population rivals that of New York.

Baltimore’s Torah-observant Jewish community was established through the efforts of a small number of exceptionally dedicated individuals in the years before, during and after World War II.

The city benefited from the presence of Torah giants like the founding Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, and the illustrious Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zecher tzaddikim livrachah; and of an assortment of dedicated Rabbanim, mechanchim and askanim.

Ner Yisrael has not only been a factor in Baltimore’s Torah growth, with scores of talmidim setting down roots locally, it has proven to be a virtual power plant of Torah, endowing communities across the country and around the world with Roshei Yeshivah and Roshei Kollel, mechanchim at all levels, talmidei chachomim and tomchei Torah, not to mention innumerable good, simple, ehrliche Yidden.

Add Baltimore’s relatively affordable housing, broad array of parnassah opportunities, its proximity to Washington, its wealth of shuls, mosdos chesed, mosdos chinuch and kollelim, and the yield is, as per the Chofetz Chaim’s perspective, a major metropolis.

When I visit my hometown these days, I marvel at how the frum community of my youth has burgeoned. Once upon a time, practically everyone in the Orthodox community knew all its other members, all shared the same “chicken man” (deliverer of fowl, that is, not costumed mascot), shopped at the same little grocery (now a multi-department food emporium) and sent their children to the same yeshivah (Chofetz Chaim, or “T.A” – Talmudical Academy) or (the only) Bais Yaakov. Today, though… well, things have changed.

On Shabbos, the sidewalks are filled with Jews on the way to or from shul or shiurim. There is a nationally respected beis din and shuls catering to a host of Jewish ethnic backgrounds. There are multiple options for parents seeking quality Torah educations for their children, and equally many options for furthering their own.

And, while there may not be a kosher restaurant and modest-clothing shop on every Park Heights or Greenspring block, there is no lack of kosher eateries or snood sellers in contemporary Baltimore.

So, while the president is entitled to his perspective, when I think of Baltimore today, what comes most readily to mind aren’t rats and slums but Radun and Slobodka.

© 2019 Hamodia

Scrutinizing the ‘Squad’

President Trump’s singling out of four progressive freshman Congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – for strong criticism resonated strongly with his supporters, among them many in our own community.

And, at least in part, for good reason.

Ms. Tlaib has denounced what she asserts to be “continued dehumanization and racist policies by the State of Israel that violate international human rights, but also violate my core values of who I am as an American” and compared contemporary Israeli society – citing “different colored license plates if you are Palestinian or Israeli” (gasp) – to the era of segregation in the U.S., when African-Americans had to drink from different water fountains than whites, had to sit in the backs of buses and suffered beatings and lynchings.

(For the record, Ms. Tlaib, the green license plates are for cars registered to holders of Palestinian Authority identity cards. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or eastern Yerushalayim residency permits have access to regular yellow Israeli ones.)

As to Ms. Omar, she famously tweeted about how “Israel has hypnotized the world” and “the evil doings of Israel.” And, of course, about the “Benjamins” she implied are the reason for Congress’ support for Israel.

Even after apologizing for that canard, she claimed that American elected officials who support Israel are advocating “allegiance to a foreign country.”

Both Congresswomen, moreover, support the BDS movement to boycott Israel.

But the members of “The Squad,” while they may share socially progressive attitudes, are not all the same. And it would be both a mistake and a misstep, I think, to lump them all together as some nefarious “gang of four.”

Yes, in May, 2018, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, moved by images from Gaza, tweeted her chagrin at what she characterized as a “massacre” and referred to the “occupation of Palestine” – both woefully uninformed and ugly statements.

But, to her credit, after being informed of some facts, she quickly acknowledged that she is “not the expert” on the Middle East and promised to “learn and evolve” regarding Middle East affairs. That was no mere perfunctory apology. She hasn’t made any similarly Israel-negative references since, and in fact has strongly declared her affirmation of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.

Her much-assailed invocation of the term “concentration camp” for border detention centers was also, whether a wise choice of phrase or not (not), the product of the sensitive Congresswoman’s having been moved by disturbing images and reports from the border. In a lengthy radio interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick, she demonstrated intelligence, eloquence and compassion on the topic. And, asked by Mr. Remnick if she had meant to compare the detention centers to Auschwitz, she didn’t hesitate to respond, “Absolutely not.”

More disturbing of late was Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “no” vote on a resolution condemning the BDS movement. But, from her own words, in which she expresses anti-Likud but not anti-Israel sentiments, she clearly doesn’t understand how BDS stands in stark contrast to her professed support for Israel as a country.

Ms. Pressley, for her part, supports a bill that would prevent Israel from using American military aid for the “military detention, interrogation, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.” But she strongly opposes BDS, has vocally condemned anti-Semitism and has enjoyed close ties with Jewish leaders in Boston, most of which is included in her district.

This is not meant as an endorsement of either of the latter representatives, only as an attempt to bring a degree of discernment to the members of a foursome who, despite certain similarities, are hardly, ideologically speaking, conjoined quadruplets.

The time-honored and wise approach of Klal Yisrael throughout the ages has been to maintain as good relations as possible with all political leaders and representatives – whether or not they are “on the same page” as us on every issue, even on every important issue. Obviously, when a representative evidences animus for Jews or Israel, such relations may be difficult or impossible.

But one thing is certain. We must be wary about jumping to, and especially voicing, negative conclusions about people in positions of influence based on less- than-justified assumptions or “guilt by association.”

I can’t say that I know what either Ms. Ocasio-Cortez or Ms. Pressley believes deep down in her soul about Jews or Israel. “Man sees what is before his eyes; Hashem alone sees into the heart” (Shmuel I, 16:7).

And maybe one day, chas v’shalom, we’ll witness the two joining their anti-Israel colleagues, supporting BDS and a “one-state solution”. Maybe they’ll appear on the House chamber floor waving Palestinian flags and brandishing copies of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

But nothing in their records leads me personally to the conclusion that either woman deserves our scorn.

And what’s more, attributing abhorrent attitudes to people who haven’t evidenced them is a dangerous habit. Because publicly casting such aspersions is not only wrong, it can lead to their becoming self-fulfilling prophesies.

© 2019 Hamodia

Caution: Untruths Ahead



Award-winning investigative reporter Michael Isikoff recently released an in-depth report on the origins of the theory that the July, 2016, murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was a political assassination.

In the wake of the early-morning killing on a Washington, D.C. street, an assortment of pundits and talk-show hosts claimed, with no basis but much confidence, that Mr. Rich had been involved in the leaked Democratic National Committee e-mails that year, and that Hillary Clinton and/or other partisan actors had conspired, in revenge, to order the hit.

Although law enforcement branches investigating the murder maintained from the start that it was simply a robbery gone wrong, the “Clinton did it!” conjecture proved wildly popular in some circles.

But then, last summer, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking the e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials, echoing the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the leaked DNC emails were part of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, pretty much put the conspiracy theory to rest.

As it happens, Mr. Isikoff has now confirmed that Russian operatives were not only those behind the hacking of the DNC e-mails but were the source of the “Seth Rich Democratic Hit Job Conspiracy Theory” in the first place.

The fanciful hypothesis originated, it seems, in a fabricated “bulletin” disseminated by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki Rossiyskoy Federatsii, if you really must know). It was posted on an obscure website apparently monitored by partisan players, and was picked up by political commentator Sean Hannity, who ran with the “news.” From there it spread like kudzu.

That reviled shrub is known for suffocating native plants. Russian disinformation seeks to smother truths.

And, of even more concern, it seeks to foment discord among Americans.

Much of the conversation about Special Counsel Mueller’s report has been about whether Russian interference, in the form of operatives posing online as American citizens, aimed at electing President Trump.

But, whether or not that was a goal of the subterfuge, the report’s more trenchant revelation, at least to me, is that the Russians “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” in particular, by “post[ing] derogatory information” about political figures.

The efforts to fuel feuding have continued, too. NBC News reported last month that it obtained communications from last year among associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the Kremlin-linked oligarchs indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, laying out a new plot to manipulate and radicalize African-Americans and stoke racial tensions, with the goal of “undermin[ing] the country’s territorial integrity and military and economic potential.”

Shortly after that report, coincidentally, I read several separate citations of “facts” about former President Obama. They made one or both of a pair of claims: that “the Obama administration initiated the policy of separating families”; and that the Department of Homeland Security had concluded that Mr. Obama had “incited smugglers” of children from Central America.

The popularity of the claims led me to suspect that the claimants had culled their “facts” from sources similar to, if not identical with, those that spread the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. And had not bothered to confirm them.

The facts:

There was no Obama administration policy of separating families. There was only an ad hoc – and rarely executed – separation of children from suspected smugglers posing as family members (or from parents who were deemed a danger to their children). The “zero tolerance” policy of routinely separating children from all parents who crossed the border illegally, whatever one might think of it, was ordered by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at President Trump’s behest.

And the policy that the DHS concluded had “incited smugglers” was not an Obama effort at all, but rather the Flores Agreement, which prescribes procedures for dealing with migrant children taken into custody – and which was created during the Clinton administration and has been in force ever since. Whether the agreement has indeed inadvertently resulted in widespread placing of children into the hands of adult strangers is arguable. But that it has nothing to do with Mr. Obama isn’t.

I don’t know if the origin of the false anti-Obama claims is connected to Russian efforts to stoke racial animus. At least some of the persistence of anti-Obama sentiment, despite his disappearance from the national stage, likely is tainted with base racism.

But it really makes no difference. What is important is that political assertions these days, when polarization of the body politic is already at a high and when Russian efforts to stoke ill will continue apace, should be viewed with the utmost suspicion.

© 2019 Hamodia



Loony Tooner

Cartoons employing anti-Semitic tropes became a thing again last week.

The memory of the New York Times International Edition’s offering of a Portuguese cartoonist’s depiction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog, magen David around his neck, held on a leash by a blind, be-yarmulked President Trump – had barely begun to fade.

Enter Ben Garrison.

Mr. Garrison’s oeuvre is decidedly anti-establishment, always provocative and often offensive. His favorite targets, in no particular order, have included former President Obama (depicted as a snake), Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve, George Soros (a vulture) Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (also snakes), international bankers and Hillary Clinton (a mere groundhog – and a kisser of a demon’s ring).

And the cartoonist’s hero, as you might have guessed, is President Trump, whose reciprocal appreciation of the Montanan caricaturist came in the form of an invitation to last week’s White House “Social Media Summit.” The gathering, which took place last Thursday, was billed as a focus on the “opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”

“Honored to be invited to the White House! Thank You Mr. President!” Mr. Garrison gushed in a tweet, which, perhaps unexpected by the cartoonist, swiveled the spotlight back in his direction.

“Back,” because the cartoon that became the spotlight’s focus was one the cartoonist drew in 2017 and was denounced at the time by the ADL. The artwork depicted then-U.S. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and retired General David Petraeus being controlled by strings held by George Soros, who, in turn, is shown suspended from strings held by a hand labeled “Rothschilds.”

Subtlety, as noted, is not Mr. Garrison’s specialty. Presenting “the Rothschilds” as nefarious controllers of the world is one of the oldest and most persistent anti-Semitic themes out there.

That particular piece of artistry was commissioned by another of Mr. Garrison’s admirers, radio host Mike Cernovich. That would be the fellow who helped promote the bizarre “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory about Mrs. Clinton’s purported running of a human trafficking ring, which led to a credulous man firing an assault rifle in the D.C. area pizza parlor ostensibly involved in the criminality.

“The thrust of the cartoon is clear,” the ADL contended at the time. “McMaster is merely a puppet of a Jewish conspiracy.” With the recent resurrection of the cartoon last week, an assortment of commentators called out Mr. Trump for having invited Mr. Garrison to his event.

This is not, of course, the first time the president has been seen by some as coddling people with less-than-kind views about “Jewish influence.” He first fueled such speculation himself when, back in 2015, he told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

Then, in 2016, a Trump campaign commercial featured images of Mr. Soros, the object of vehement anti-Semitic scorn in Europe; Ms. Yellen, then Federal Reserve chairwoman; and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd C. Blankfein – all of them Jews – with the candidate warning about “global special interests” and “people who don’t have your good in mind.”

And then there was the other campaign ad that depicted Hillary Clinton labeled the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” superimposed on piles of money, next to a large six-pointed star.

Then, the following year, after the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was Mr. Trump’s comment after the mayhem, that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Confederate statue issue – although only one side prominently yielded a crowd of marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

There are many reasons why many people don’t find Mr. Trump to be their cup of tea. Some include on their list of accusations that he harbors, or tries to encourage, anti-Semitism.

Which is nonsense.

His Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, his full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism (“Our entire nation… stands in solidarity with the Jewish community,” he said after the Poway shooting, “We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate which must be defeated”) and his unbridled support for Israel’s current government make the thought unthinkable.

As to the “evidence” to the contrary above, none of it is dispositive. Yes, it was all pounced upon by lowlifes like former KKK leader David Duke and Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin to claim the president as one of their own. But, while the neo-Nazis are welcome to their fantasies, each of the instances of Mr. Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism can be regarded as, if somewhat tone-deaf, benign.

There’s no reason, though, to be so understanding about Mr. Garrison. Portraying “Rothschilds” as devious puppet-masters can reflect only one thing, and it’s not something pretty.

And so it was to its credit that, the day before the “Social Media Summit,” the White house rescinded Mr. Garrison’s invitation, thereby denying those who seek to portray the president as insensitive to Jews a new hook on which to hang their hats.

© 2019 Hamodia

Federation Blues

When a media offering chooses to not identify a quoted speaker, it loses a bit of credibility. But the words attributed to several unnamed Jewish federation leaders in a recent report in the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon had the ring of truth. And of some wisdom.

Jewish federations, of course, are community-wide nonprofits – sort of “super-pushkes” – that raise money to fund local causes and other Jewish ones overseas, including Israel.

The first Jewish federation in North America was founded in Boston in 1895. Today, there are local federations in over 100 American cities and some 300 smaller communities. And, in addition, there is a national umbrella organization called the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Its slogan, adopted in 2012, is “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community.”

The Makor Rishon news story had the anonymous federation leaders admitting, at a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, that it had been a mistake for their groups to join the assault on respect for kedushas beis knesses at the Kosel Maaravi.

Israeli firebrand Anat Hoffman has famously made her life’s goal the dismantlement of the longstanding norm at the Kosel (and of the government’s general regard, through the state’s official Rabbanut, for the Jewish mesorah). Both the national Jewish federation and numerous local ones vocally supported her designs and financially helped gird her for battle.

The recently quoted leaders haven’t exactly come to acknowledge the importance of the mesorah, only – hey, it’s a start – the impracticability of declaring the Jewish religious tradition to be the enemy. They observed that most Israelis, even non-religious ones, have no real interest in the “religious pluralism” pushed by non-Orthodox American Jewish representatives. “How,” one “senior official” is quoted as saying, “can the struggle succeed if it is just a headache for so many Israelis who do not understand what the uproar is?”

Another fedhead – and here is where the wisdom comes in – reportedly told the paper that “The progressive streams in the United States, the Reform and the Conservative movements, are in a complex and difficult place. They are unable to recruit the next generation to their synagogues. Therefore, they are not in a position to preach to Israelis how they should conduct themselves at the Western Wall.

“Throughout the crisis,” the official continued, “I warned that we were putting all our chips on the subject of the Western Wall, without thinking for a moment if this was the right struggle for us.”

Both local federations and the national federation body have had uneasy relations with the Orthodox communities that are ostensibly part of the constituency they represent. The unease doesn’t stem, chas v’shalom, from any animus for fellow Jews, but entirely from some of the positions taken by federations.

Contemporary social causes that stand in stark and undeniable opposition to what the Torah expressly states are embraced wholeheartedly (and buoyed financially) by Jewish federations across the country, and by JFNA.

And not only do federations routinely offer funds to projects of Jewish movements that reject part or all of the Jewish mesorah, but a JFNA initiative, “The Israel Religious Expression Platform” (“iRep” – don’t ask why Israel has been demoted to lower-case), has as its mission “to impact a range of issues related to increasing religious pluralism in Israel” and to “advance meaningful change to the religion-state status quo, including expanding the range of legally-recognized options for marriage and divorce in Israel.”

No Orthodox Jew – nor any Jew concerned with preserving a single Jewish people in Israel – could in good conscience support that agenda.

The Jewish Federation system is at a crossroads. It can continue to be a stable boy for the non-Orthodox religious movements, or it can go back to its roots and focus on the needs of Jews – all Jews. Both the physical – there is poverty and even hunger among Jews, overseas and in the U.S. as well – and the non-material.

To wit, the Jewish day school system is a proven engine of Jewish continuity, and day schools and yeshivos are often on the verge of insolvency. There are Jewish federations that indeed, to their credit, earmark funds to help Jewish schools and tuition-strapped parents. But if all the funds sent into the black hole of pluralism-pushing in Israel and “progressive” causes in the U.S. were to be diverted to Jewish education, the American Jewish identity picture would be a much rosier one than it is.

No one expects federations to start funding traditional kollelim (though it would be a great merit for them if they did), but investing in community kollelim, Jewish outreach groups and chavrusa programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates would be a truly wise choice for federations – if they are really determined to help build a brighter American Jewish future.

Connecting Jews – of all stripes and affiliations – with their ancestral heritage, its texts, traditions and wisdom, would truly boost “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community.”

The ball is in the federations’ court.

© 2019 Hamodia

Baffled by Batson

On a summer morning back in 1996, someone entered a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi and shot four people to death. The prime suspect was a man named Curtis Flowers, who had been fired from his job at the store less than two weeks earlier. He also owed $30 to one of the store’s owners, one of those murdered, for a cash advance she had given him on his paycheck.

The gun used in the crime was never found, but several witnesses claimed to have seen Mr. Flowers near the front of the store the morning of the murders.

Mr. Flowers stood trial six times. Four verdicts were overturned, and mistrials were declared in the two other cases. (The Fifth Amendment “double jeopardy” ban on retrial for the same crime only applies after an acquittal.) Flowers, who has been held on death row for nearly 20 years, is an African-American, and prosecutorial bias was repeatedly alleged, as was racial bias in jury selection.

On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ final murder conviction, with Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh writing for the majority. Flowers will likely remain in state custody until a decision is made to either retry or release him.

No one but Flowers knows if he was guilty of the murders; he claims innocence. What is interesting, though, about the High Court ruling is its pivotal contention that excluding black potential jurors from those chosen in his trials constituted illegal bias.

Some background: Prosecutors and defense lawyers generally conduct short interviews with members of a jury pool. Those with clear connections to the case are routinely dismissed, as are people with connections, say, to police officers when an officer is on trial, or to a medical field when a principal is or was a doctor in that field.

Then, though, there are “peremptory challenges” – the right of a prosecutor or lawyer to reject a jury candidate for no given reason. That right is generally assumed to be based on the rejecter’s inchoate suspicion that a juror would be biased in some way.

A limitation on peremptory challenges, however, was imposed by the Supreme Court in 1986, in a case, Batson v. Kentucky, in which it ruled that a prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenge may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. That exception to the right to peremptory challenges has come to be known as a “Batson challenge.”

Some might (and some surely will) say that a lowly non-lawyer like me has no right or standing to take issue with a High Court decision. So I’ll frame my take on the Batson challenge merely as a simple expression of puzzlement over it.

To be sure, dismissing a potential juror just because he is black or Asian isn’t right. Racial bias simply isn’t justifiable. Unless, that is, it seems to me, the race of the person can reasonably be seen, in and of itself, as signifying a likelihood of bias.

In other words, attorney Joe Whiteguy may harbor the feeling that blacks are inferior humans and don’t deserve to judge anyone. But if he harbors no such feelings, but rather just sees it as likely that the average black American will feel an affinity for a black defendant, or animus toward a white one accused of some crime against a black person, is his use of a peremptory challenge to reject a potential juror because of his race different in any essential way from rejecting a candidate because of a family connection to the case?

I don’t know if all black Americans see themselves as “family,” but I think many clearly do. There is a “black vote,” after all, and there are “black causes”; and a “black perspective” is a staple of many media. There’s nothing in the least wrong, of course, with ethnic or racial camaraderie or pride. But is being concerned that it might bias a juror in a case involving someone of his or her ethnicity or race really unreasonable?

As in so many things, the key to a clear perspective may lie in placing oneself in the shoes of the other.

So I imagine a case where an Orthodox Jew is on trial. I’ve never met him and am not his close relative – we could without any problem be co-eidim on a kesuvah or a kiddushin – and find myself part of the jury pool. A lawyer for the defense or prosecution looks me up and down, dwelling on my yarmulke and tzitizis, and, without any questions, says “thank you, sir, for heeding your summons to appear for jury duty; you are dismissed.”

I might feel a bit insulted. (Actually, when I was peremptorily rejected as a juror once in a case where no Jew, much less an Orthodox one, was on trial, I was indeed perturbed!)

But would I be justified, in a case like the posited one, to feel that an injustice had been done to Jews or Judaism, that my dismissal was the result of base anti-Semitism and thus illegitimate?

With all due respect for the seven Burger Court Justices who comprised the majority in Batson v. Kentucky, I wouldn’t.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vaccination Proclamation

The threats and vulgarities bellowed by several visibly Orthodox Jews at members of the New York State Assembly in Albany after it narrowly passed a measure ending religious exemptions for immunizations were ugly and wrong. No less wrong, though, would be to generalize from the uncouth activists to the entire anti-vaccination camp.

The vaccination issue, of course, is controversial, and particularly fraught in New York, which has been greatly affected in the current national measles epidemic. In the state, the most cases of the disease have occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill, adding New York to a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. Medical exceptions will still be granted, but not those based, as many have been, on claims of religious obligation.

While the New York legislators’ intentions were laudable and, during an epidemic, arguably obligatory, the removal of a religious exemption in any governmental mandate is of concern. It is a precedent that one wishes hadn’t been necessary. The legislature, although not motivated by anti-religious sentiments, felt that it was.

The vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as it happens, fully accepts the advice of the overwhelming mainstream of medical experts – as has been Jewish practice from time immemorial – and, accordingly, vaccinates their children. A minority of Jews, however, joining a minority of non-Jewish American “anti-vaxxers,” shuns vaccinations – at least certain vaccinations, like the one for measles. Some imagine harmful effects caused by additives used in the production of some vaccines; others object to the sheer number of vaccinations given babies and young children, or to the schedule of their administering.

A more radical fringe of vaccination opponents believes that vaccinations represent a conspiracy among government players, drug companies and the FDA, or some combination thereof, either intended, for reasons unexplained, to harm the citizenry or out of simple venality.

Vaccine conspiracy theories appeal to, well, the conspiracy-minded. But they crumble in the jaws of the Pulitzer Prize. That is to say, since the highest journalistic achievements are exposés of wrongdoing, and since drug company and medical device issues have often (and even recently) been subjects of such dogged reportage, it is entirely safe to say that were there in fact any sinister plots to push vaccines on a too-trusting populace, enterprising reporters would have long swarmed over the schemes, revealed them – and collected Pulitzers as a result. (Unless, of course… the… reporters are… part of the conspiracy…)

The concerns of less paranoid opponents of vaccination, though, aren’t difficult to understand, even for those of us who disagree with them and embrace vaccinations as a blessing. Many medical orthodoxies, after all, have, over the course of history, turned out to have been wrong, and erstwhile medical truths revealed to be fictions. There’s even a name for such about-faces: “medical reversals.”

And so, while I don’t expect future medical consensus to reject vaccines, it isn’t beyond the pale of possibility that some additive might be revealed to have caused greater harm than assumed and discontinued, or current vaccination schedules might be shown to have been too ambitious.

To be sure, one hopes that all would agree that a school or other building where an immunocompromised child is studying should be off-limits to unvaccinated people. But

even those of us who don’t endorse the anti-vaccination concerns and feel that the anti-vaxx camp is misguided should have the ability to allow others their convictions, be they right or wrong. To throw all vaccine-suspicious folks – moderate sceptics, conspiracy theorists and legislative chamber shouters – into one basket is just the sort of generalizing that we rightly decry in other contexts (like when all of us Jews are “incriminated” because of some who have acted less than properly).

The Gemara (Yevamos 14b) tells us that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, despite disagreeing about the halachah regarding an important marriage law, took pains to maintain shidduchim among their respective members. Thus, we are taught, they fulfilled the Navi Zechariah’s admonition to “Love truth and peace” (8:19).

It’s not absurd to invoke that example with regard to the machlokes between pro- and anti-vaccination schools of thought. After all, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were dealing with a most important issue, and each camp felt that the other was entirely mistaken. And still, there was peace and comity between them.

And so, while those responsible for public policy may need to take a broader view of all the factors regarding issues like vaccination requirements, especially during an epidemic, the rest of us, no matter how passionate we may be about our personal vaccination beliefs, should not belittle others for their personal convictions and choices, and pause to internalize and proclaim the need to love not just truth but peace.

© 2019 Hamodia

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Alleged Sin

I haven’t written publicly about the brouhaha that erupted when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

But my personal feeling is that if she was guilty of any sin with that reference it wasn’t maligning the memory of the Holocaust, but rather consciously using a phrase that she likely knew would seize attention – although she did so in the cause of concern for asylum seekers.

But was that really wrong?

A thought experiment to entertain:

Imagine if it were Jews, not Guatemalans, who were fleeing abject poverty and violence in their country and arriving at the US border, and who were relegated to guarded camps, without adequate provisions and with even small children separated from their parents.  And then some activist Jewish public figure used the term “concentration camp” to refer to the outrage.  Would he be roundly condemned for having desecrated the memory of the victims of the Holocaust?

Maybe he would.  But I very much doubt it.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was not equating the current situation at the border with the Holocaust. She was just using rhetoric that (as she and others have noted) was not inaccurate (since “concentration camps” is a phrase used for any such confinement, including of Japanese citizens during WW II) and which she hoped would call attention to the plight of refugees today.

Anyone who believes she is insensitive to Jewish concerns or Israel is welcome to view her use of the phrase as an outrage.  To me, though, the real outrage is how readily some of us fall into the cesspool of political brawling and knee-jerk accusations that have come to characterize our country of late.  

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia