Ample Room for Optimism

If only people today knew what a telegram was, the old joke about the typical Jewish one reading “Start worrying. Details to follow” would be apropos, at least to the pessimists among us, in the wake of the midterm elections.

Self-proclaimed Nazi Arthur Jones, running as a Republican for a House of Representatives seat in a Chicago area district, lost handily. But he received more than 56,000 votes. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner had urged district residents to “vote for anybody but Jones” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz advised voters to vote for the Democratic candidate. Still, though, 56,000 Illinoisans liked the Nazi.

And then we have, unfortunately, two successful candidates for Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis. Ms. Tlaib proved herself so antagonistic to Israel that the left-wing group J Street withdrew its initial endorsement of her bid. And Ms. Omar once tweeted the sentiment that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” and prayed that people “see the evil doings of Israel.”

And the new representative of New York’s 14th Congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, once decried the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinians who were storming the Gaza border fence as a “massacre.” (To her credit, though, the 28-year-old later admitted that she was not an “expert on geopolitics on this issue” and promised that she would “learn and evolve on this issue,” so let’s hope she in fact does.)

Should I mention the reelection of Democratic Representative Danny K. Davis, who once called anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan “an outstanding human being,” and who, before finally issuing a condemnation of the Nation of Islam hater-in-chief’s “views and remarks regarding the Jewish people and the Jewish religion,” had explained that Farrahkan’s views on “the Jewish question” didn’t bother him? Well, I guess I just did. So I may as well add that he won 88% of the vote in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.

But deserving as those developments might seem to be of a worrisome Jewish telegram, the less excitable among us might take solace in the defeat of the aforementioned Mr. Jones, and the loss likewise suffered by Virginian Leslie Cockburn, whose book “Dangerous Liaison” was described by a New York Times reviewer as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.”

And in the downfall of Philadelphia area Congressional aspirant Scott Wallace, whose family foundation had donated more than $300,000 to pro-BDS organizations. And of John Fitzgerald, who aimed to represent a California district, and who not only called the Holocaust “a fabricated lie” but claimed the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish plot. (Sobering, though: 43,000 citizens voted for the crazed candidate.)

Further cause for optimism is the fact that, among the flipped Republican seats in the House, fully seven will be occupied (there must be a better word) by Jewish Democrats. And that there will be 28 Jews in the new House, five more than there currently are. And that, in the upper chamber, there will be eight Jewish senators, up from 7.

And that Representative Eliot Engel of New York, whose dedication to Israel’s security is long and unarguable, is set to become the chairman of the important House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Engel’s counterpart on the Senate committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, another unabashed defender of Israel, was reelected too, as was Representative Nita Lowey, another staunch voice for Israel’s needs; and she is positioned to take over the House Appropriations Committee. No less committed to Israel’s security is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

What is perhaps the most heartening outcome of the recent races, though, is something that was pointed out by longtime political commentator David Frum. Writing in The Atlantic, he asserted that last Tuesday’s vote “administered enough Democratic disappointment to check the party’s most self-destructive tendencies.”

What he means is that, while concerns about the excesses and insanities on the fringes of the Democratic party are understandable, and despite the presence in Congress of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, the party’s moderate, traditional base remains strong; and radical Democrats are likely to remain relegated to the sidelines, with little power or influence.

“There is no progressive majority in America,” writes Mr. Frum. “There is no progressive plurality in America. And there certainly is no progressive Electoral College coalition in America.”

Whether or not that will remain the case in the future, none of us can know for certain. But it would certainly be highly premature to send out a “Start worrying” telegram – or an e-mail with that advice in the subject box.

More fitting might be “Keep davening.”  Always appropriate.

© 2018 Hamodia

Enemies, Enemies Everywhere

“Notorious anti-gunner George Soros joins anti-gun billionaires Steyer and Bloomberg. There is no end to how much they’ll pay to push their elitist agenda on Americans.”

Thus tweeted the National Rifle Association three days after the fatal shooting of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh by a right-wing anti-Semite. George Soros, of course, is the wealthy philanthropist who funds liberal causes, is a perennial victim of conspiracy theories, was one of those targeted with letter bombs by a right-wing dingbat last month, and is Jewish.

Tom Steyer is another billionaire philanthropist given to liberal causes and, because his father was Jewish, is regarded by some as a Jew.

Michael Bloomberg is, well, you know who he is. And his ethnicity.

No, I’m not – repeat, not – accusing the NRA of being anti-Semitic. Only noting that the group’s recent tweet-targets are people whom unabashed anti-Semites have relentlessly and gleefully attacked as Jews.

Then we have the many anti-Semites on the political left, who target people like billionaire activist Sheldon Adelson or conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who, according to a study conducted by the ADL was the most frequent target of Jew-hating tweets in 2016. (Significant in itself, the study found that from August 2015 through July 2016 a total of 2.6 million tweets contained anti-Jewish sentiments.)

Anti-Semitism on the fringes of the left is exemplified by the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who, as impaired in humor as he is in intelligence, thought it funny to compare Jews to termites; and Linda Sarsour, who cautions her intersectionality-addled admirers that Israelis must not be “humanized.”

So whom, exactly, are we Jews to fear? Who is the Jewish people’s enemy? Those on the far right, or on the far left? The answer, of course, is “both of the above.”

Which conclusion leads to a thought that needs to be a prominent part of our thinking these days. Namely, that when an “us-vs.-them” mentality becomes dominant in a society – and such an attitude, disturbingly, has come to affect more than just the fringes – it does not bode well for the progeny of Yaakov Avinu.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt put it well, likening anti-Semitism to a latent infection that lies dormant and re-emerges at times of stress. Jew hatred, in the end, is, she says, “a conspiracy theory,” and needs only societal strife to become active.

For better or worse, Jewish figures will always be prominent on the political and cultural scenes. The Jewish soul is hard-wired, to use a discordant metaphor, to try to better the world.

Truly knowledgeable Jews know that the path toward that goal does not lead through politics, but consists of embracing Torah and mitzvos and being worthy examples of ovdei Hashem.  But even Jews who are misguided in their good intentions, who see salvation in this or that political or social stance, are motivated by their neshamos, clear-sighted or clouded. And thus, Jews will always rise to the top of whatever heap they perceive as a hope.

As a result, those who harbor the spiritual cancer that is Jew-hatred will always find Jews among those they label as enemies of all that is shiny and good, and will point to them in order to spur other hate-filled people to embrace their cause.

That’s how Jews can be hated because they are communists or capitalists, elitists or defenders of the common man, allies of blacks or racists; how they can be vilified for being “Zionists” or globalists, why both Mr. Soros and Mr. Adelson can be portrayed as Der Ewige Jude, the reviled “Eternal Jew,” of our time. What matters in the end – the only thing that matters – is that they are… Jews.

There’s a real-world application of that truism. Recognizing that exacerbating the political rift in the United States today is not just inherently lamentable but the very opposite of “good for the Jews,” we are acting irresponsibly if we jump into the melee and hoist a flag, furthering the societal inflammation. Sides, we do well to realize, don’t always have to be taken.

These words are being written before the mid-term elections; you’re reading it after them. During their campaigns, some candidates sought to garner votes by appealing to the very worst in voters, seeking to capitalize on the rift in society and to stoke anger – aimed in whatever direction. Others chose to run more soberly, on records and positions. Which ones won and which did not is something you know but I, as I write, do not. But the answer to that question will play a role in how secure we Jews can hope to feel, going forward in the American galus.

© Hamodia 2018

A Plan Whose Time Hasn’t Come

Executing my duty as a citizen, I once sat on a jury. It was an edifying experience, leaving me to conclude that the jury system, at least in its current form, is utterly absurd.

During out-of-courtroom deliberations in the case – a civil one, in which a man who, it seemed, had burned down his store and was who was suing his insurance company for compensation – a fellow juror opined that the store-owner could have been at his place of business at 3:00 AM, where and when he was found, for entirely legitimate reasons. And that his being discovered, badly burned, unconscious and still holding a gasoline can, may have been pure coincidence. She also confessed to the rest of us her conviction that a famous entertainer, long gone and buried in Memphis, Tennessee, was actually roaming the earth incognito. I am not making that up.

The U.S. Constitution, despite what most people think, doesn’t guarantee a defendant the right to “a jury of his peers,” only to an “impartial” jury. And it is silent about any other juror qualifications, like basic intelligence. But I think a case can be made that a modicum of good judgment is at least implied by “impartial.”

Likewise counter to popular assumption, the Constitution does not mandate an explicit right to vote. A number of constitutional amendments prohibit certain forms of discrimination in establishing who may vote. But voting remains, in the end, a privilege, not an inalienable right like free speech or freedom of worship. That’s why voting can be denied to individuals who have not yet reached a certain age, or who are incarcerated (or even, as in some states, who have been incarcerated in the recent past). And why it could have been, as it was for many years, denied to women and members of various religious groups (ours included).

In contrast, more than 20 countries actually require all citizens to vote. (Please don’t give your local representatives any ideas!)

In the best of all possible worlds, were I king of the forest (as would no doubt be the case), I would require passing a test to qualify for sitting on a jury and in order to vote. The Shafran Voting Exam (SVE) would seek to establish basic comprehension of texts, simple logic and elementary familiarity with important issues and our political system.

Alas, in this yet imperfect world, the SVE wouldn’t stand a chance. Not with the history of “literacy tests” that, for many decades, were utilized expressly to prevent immigrants and blacks from voting.

Like the one selectively administered by Louisiana as late as 1964. It included questions like the following:

“Print the word ‘vote’ upside-down but in the correct order.” (Correct upside-down order?)

“In the space below draw three circles, one inside (engulfed by) the other.” (Three or two?)

“Spell backwards, forwards.” (Wha?)

And a “wrong” answer to any question, the test states, “denotes failure.”

There is much controversy today about alleged “voter repression,” also ostensibly aimed at depriving targeted groups of Americans of the ability to vote. I’m not convinced that the presentation of identification, even photo identification, is an onerous requirement. Nor do I find updating voter rolls – what opponents of the process call “purging” them – in any way objectionable.

To be sure, there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread voter fraud, as has been charged by some. But at the same time, reasonable measures to ensure that voters legally qualify to vote don’t disturb me.

But things like what happened recently in Georgia do.

Jefferson County officials made 40 African-American senior citizens get off a bus taking them from their assisted living facility to a polling place to vote early.

Why? Well, take your pick. Either because one of those who arranged for the bus was the county Democratic Party Chairwoman (although she acted in her capacity as a pastor and made no voting recommendations); or because, as the county administrator explained, “Jefferson County administration felt uncomfortable with allowing senior center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party” (although approval of the bus trip by the facility had been obtained beforehand).

There is, of course, a third possibility, but far be it from us to consider it.

And so, unfortunately, the Shafran Voting Exam must be quashed on arrival. The bigots of years past, and of days present, have ruined it for us all, having given the very idea of earning the privilege to vote the worst of reputations.

© 2018 Hamodia

 

Kentucky Gentlewoman

“When they go low, we go high” was coined by former first lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She was well acquainted with low-going from her husband’s first campaign for president eight years earlier, when he was accused of being a foreign-born radical; and she, of hating America and planning to sow societal discord.

All she ended up sowing were vegetable seeds in the South Lawn garden (where Mrs. Trump has graciously carried on her predecessor’s tradition of hosting children to help pick ripened veggies).

The motto Mrs. Obama planted in the political garden in 2016, though, during the most negative presidential campaign in recent memory, didn’t bear much fruit. Hillary Clinton lost, and bellicosity in subsequent political campaigns spread like poison ivy.

And not only among Republicans.  The aforementioned Mrs. Clinton recently said that “you cannot be civil” with the Republican Party because it “wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

And former Attorney General Eric Holder offered his own riff on Mrs. Obama’s credo, suggesting that “When they go low, we kick them.”

Then there was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat, who sent out a mailer with photos of President Trump and Adolf Hitler with an “equals” sign between them.

And so it goes.

Ah, but then we are graced with the likes of Amy McGrath, who is challenging the incumbent, Andy Barr, for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District seat.

Never mind which candidate is the Democrat (okay, Mrs. McGrath; but she’s happily married to a Republican), or even which is better qualified (no opinion).  Regard only the resplendent fact that the lady has forsworn negative ads.

You read that right.  Despite the fact that her battle is uphill, that her district favored President Trump by 15 percentage points and that Mr. Barr crushed his last Democratic opponent, Mrs. McGrath has refused to attack him or his policies.

“It’s time for a new generation of leaders who aren’t afraid to go against the grain and run a campaign that the voters can be proud of,” she told the Lexington Herald Leader.

“I refuse to win,” she wrote in a social media post “at any cost.”

Mr. Barr, regrettably, has not reciprocated the blow for civility. Although Mrs. McGrath is a former fighter pilot and lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and holds moderate positions on all issues, her opponent and his supporters have launched verbal and video salvos at her, at times blatantly misrepresenting what she stands for.

Campaigning for Mr. Barr recently, President Trump declared that Mrs. McGrath is “an extreme liberal chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and the radical Democratic mob,” and that she “supports a socialist takeover of your health care; she supports open borders; she needs the tax hikes to cover the through-the-roof garbage you want no part of.”

Her response: “Mr. President, you clearly don’t know me. Yet.”

Whether the optimism in that “yet” will prove to have been justified is not knowable. But, examining the candidate’s actual positions on health care, immigration reform and taxes, one sees her first sentence’s point.

Social scientists say that there is little evidence that attack ads yield more votes than informational ones, but campaign strategists and conventional wisdom clearly feel that they do.

Negative ads are certainly noticed. “Voters universally decry negative ads,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes political advertising. “But we are biologically attuned to pay more attention to negative information… We remember negativity more.”

Among the “biological attunements,” or natural human inclinations, the Torah warns us against is the acceptance or propagation of negative portrayals of others.  Leaving aside the particular halachic parameters of lashon hara, hotzoas shem ra and rechilus, they are unarguably pernicious things in any context.

And they derive from pernicious places, small-minded hatreds and prejudices. When comparisons of President Trump to Hitler are publicly offered or partisan players gleefully declare “owning the libs” as their highest aspiration, we as an electorate – and a society – have moved from holders of reasoned, if different, views to crazed boxers in a ring, trying to out-bloody one another.

I don’t know which candidate will be the better representative of Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. Either, I suspect, will probably do a good job. But whoever emerges the victor in that important race – the majority party in the House, of course, is in play – it is heartening that a candidate opted to buck the trend of seeing the debasement of an opponent as a necessary part of the path to success.

Kein yirbu.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Safer Space for Women… Redux

An October 17 article of mine at Tablet concerned the #MeToo movement.  It bemoaned the state of general society’s inconsistent attitude toward women and suggested that it might be helpful if new norms based somewhat on the halachic prohibitions against yichud and negiah were adopted by the wider world.

The piece unleashed a number of angry responses on social media; and a rejoinder, in the form of a personal letter to me, was published by Tablet too, and can be read here

My response to that rejoinder is below:

 

Dear Mrs. Jankovits

Thank you – and I mean that sincerely – for offering your perspective, an important one, to the discussion I hoped to spur.

I am appalled to read that you have been verbally assaulted as a woman by men in observant environments. While I have spent my entire life to date in such environments and have never seen a woman treated that way, I take your word for what you have experienced, and can only bemoan it. Jewish modesty is not limited to dress, and governs men no less than women.

But I cannot accept your contention that considering the halachic laws of yichud and negiah (which ban an unmarried man and woman from being secluded in private or touching one another, respectively) to be preventatives against abuse is “outlandish.”

If, at the earliest stage of a bad man’s bad intent toward a woman, she is warned of whom she is dealing with by his actions or words, how could that not help prevent the sort of assaults that the #MeToo movement has rightfully decried?

If, in a world with restrictions modeled on those of halacha, a man invites a woman to a secluded place or touches her in even an “innocent” way, that would be her signal to immediately recognize his less than honorable designs. And it is self-evident that if a man and woman are not secluded, he cannot wantonly abuse her without fear of witnesses.

That was the essence of what I wrote, and I don’t understand how anyone could read it as an attempt, God forbid, “to silence Orthodox women, to perpetuate abuse and to hide and shelter Orthodox abusers.”

As I explicitly wrote, sexual abuse does exist in the Orthodox community. Whether it is as widespread as you claim – and that exists, as you contend, within many marriages – is simply unknowable. You imply that it is very common, and that the relative dearth of claims is due to intimidation or social pressures. I allow you your assumptions, but assumptions, in the end, are not the same things as facts.

Yes, there are self-selected studies that show sexual abuse in the Orthodox community at levels similar to those in other parts of society. But a careful read of them yields the realization that a large part of such abuse, while reported by adult women, is about things that took place when they were children or adolescents, those least likely to realize that yichud and negiah are red lines that, if crossed, label the adult violator, whoever he is, a person to resist and avoid.

Child abuse is unquestionably a tragic and serious problem to which Orthodox society has, sadly, not shown itself immune. There is much to say about that topic its terrible toll and the efforts in the Orthodox community over recent years to combat it. Much to say about the studies, too, as in my P.S below.

But it is not the issue addressed by the #MeToo movement, and thus not pertinent to my essay. And conflating the two issues obscures the one at hand. We indeed need to better educate our children about abuse, and that is in fact happening in many places in many ways. But child abuse and adult-on-adult abuse are two very different, if equally abhorrent, animals.

You contend that “When women have been brave enough to voice their abuse, they are bullied, silenced and threatened again by our male leaders, rabbis who dismiss abuse, rabbis who protect abusers.” Every one of the congregational and teaching rabbis I know is are deeply sensitive to women’s safety and wellbeing, both within marriage and “on the street.” The picture you paint of chauvinistic disdain for women on the part of rabbinic leaders is as bizarre to me as if you had painted a landscape with black grass and a green sky. I don’t deny you your impression, but please know that it is diametric to mine.

I’m sorry but, for better or worse, I cannot change the fact that I am a “male Orthodox rabbi,” but I will not concede that that fact renders me unable to participate in the conversation about abuse, or makes me inherently insensitive to women. I don’t think that is a judgment either my wife or our six daughters (or any of the scores of female students I taught over many years) would regard as justified or fair. As to experience with sexual assault victims, I do indeed have some, though all were cases that took place when the victims were children. So please don’t deny me a voice in the discussion.

Finally, it is not “misogynistic” to note that women performers who appear in minimal clothing are not helping the cause of women’s dignity. It is factual.

Nor is counselling modesty in dress “victim blaming,” any more than counselling pedestrians to look both ways before crossing a street, or telling men to not let their wallets protrude from their back pants pockets in public. That’s not to blame anyone but the inattentive driver or pickpocket; but such counsel is simple common sense. From your self-description as an Orthodox mother, you would not smile, I am sure, on one of your daughters going out in public in revealing clothing. By asking her to not cave in to society’s exhibitionist expectations, you are not blaming them; you are educating them.

At no point did I – or ever would I – assert that seeming Torah-observers “are not susceptible to perpetrating evil.” Quite the contrary, bad intentions are everywhere. That was the very premise of my article, which argues that sensible precautions modeled on those of halacha could benefit our unrestrained world. I did not intend for that suggestion to cause offense, only to spur discussion. Thank you again for furthering that goal.

All good wishes,

Avi Shafran

PS: Although child abuse, as I noted, is not what #MeToo is about, and not what my article and its suggestions concerned, some studies routinely cited about that issue are limited in what they can tell us.

Not only are some of them reliant (as they admit) on self-selected samples, which skew the results in the direction of artificially high percentages of abuse, but substantial amounts of even reported abuse was perpetrated by presumably non-Orthodox men (because the samples included women who only became observant after childhood).

And other studies report very different results. This synopsis of a 2014 Israeli study concludes that:

“Unexpectedly, no significant differences between observance groups are found for any childhood abuse (45%), physical abuse (24%), or emotional abuse (40%). Childhood sexual abuse has the lowest frequency (4.8%) of all abuse categories with more reported by Secular than Haredi respondents (7.7% vs. 3.1% p = .05).”

So, while even one case of child abuse is one case too many, and the Orthodox community must continue to be vigilant on this front, it is important, in the interest of facts and truth, to realize the limitations of studies.

The Torah’s Not a Tool

Justice Brett Kavanaugh is well into his service to the country as a member of its highest court, and the controversy that swirled around him as a nominee for the position is, at least for people who don’t live in the past, entirely in the past.

And so, with the contentious Senate Judicial Committee hearings that took place over Sukkos rapidly receding in the rearview mirror, there is little point in revisiting the issues of Mr. Kavanaugh’s qualifications, judicial record or activities in high school and college. Or in imagining that any of us can really know if either he or any of those who accused him of misconduct in his youth had testified entirely truthfully.

What is worth revisiting, though, at least to my mind, is a peripheral issue that emerged during the hearings: the invoking of Torah concepts to support political stances.

One example was a group of politically active Orthodox rabbis who support Republican causes that issued a press release during the hearings “Urg[ing] Immediate Confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh” and supporting that imploration with the argument that “The Bible not only doubly emphasizes that ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’… but it also enjoins us to avoid peddling in unsubstantiated rumors.”

Another, over at a left-leaning secular Jewish newspaper, was a respected Orthodox columnist who cited Pirkei Avos about the “importance of a good name” as an important qualification a leader must have. She quoted the Rambam, too, as asserting that someone considered for a public position must bear “no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood.”

To be sure, both not “peddling in unsubstantiated rumors” and insisting on a leader’s good reputation are entirely valid Torah concepts. But – and aye, there’s the richtigeh rub – knowing how to apply them to a particular situation where they seem to clash is not a job for either activists or columnists.

A Gadol baTorah, of course, can choose to offer guidance about a current event. But if any Gadol rendered any public daas Torah about the advisability of Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it escaped my attention. And that none likely did is hardly surprising.

To be sure, Torah expertise can be brought to bear on any issue. But we wouldn’t expect a Gadol to offer a daas Torah about the wisdom of a baseball rule or the propriety of a player’s behavior on the field. And we have no reason to expect a daas Torah ruling on most political matters either (many of which, come to think of it, have come to have much in common with sports). Not every issue, we all understand, is worthy of any great man’s time or consideration.

What’s more, just as the yod’ei ha’itim (Esther, 1:13) in Achashverosh’s court – the talmidei chachamim, Chazal tell us – purposely elected to not become involved in a burning contemporary political issue (whether Vashti should remain on her throne or not – one wonders if it was the subject of a The Shushan Times editorial), so is there little incentive, and much hazard, in contemporary Torah leaders venturing for no good reason into contentious current events waters.

Which, as I see it, leaves us lesser rabbis and columnists (and rabbi-columnists), with only the option of offering our personal opinions, based either on the political teams we root for or on arguments born of objective analysis of facts. But not with the option of co-opting the Torah for partisan purposes.

Rabi Tzadok in Avos (4:5) declares the wrongness of using the Torah as “a spade with which to dig.” That is to say, to use Torah study or knowledge as a means of attaining financial gain. But, at least conceptually, what he is implying is that Torah is not to be regarded as a tool to be employed toward other ends. Appropriating Torah concepts, particularly in a selective fashion and especially when it is unclear which concepts best apply, is something we should avoid at all costs.

Needless to say, there are many issues of public concern that, from a Torah perspective, are effectively “open and shut,” and about which we have every right and responsibility to promote the clear and obvious Jewish view. Nor is it necessarily wrong to suggest that a Torah ideal might inform our understanding of a particular topic. But claiming with surety that the Torah requires a particular position regarding a controversy where our mesorah’s guidance is far from clear, we should realize, is a less than proper pursuit.

© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 

What’s Not Necessarily in a Name

Unless you happen to live in California’s 50th Congressional district, which encompasses parts of San Diego County and Riverside County in the south of the state, you won’t have to choose between incumbent Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.

But if you did reside in that relentlessly sunny part of America, you would probably be somewhat suspicious of Mr. Campa-Najjar, not only because he is only 29 years old but also because he has a Palestinian father and a Mexican mother, lived as a child in Gaza and once attended an Islamic school in San Diego. And if that didn’t dissuade you from pulling the lever for him, there is the fact that his father served as a Palestinian Authority official.

And his grandfather was Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar, a “Black September” terrorist involved in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Equally disconcerting to some, Mr. Campa-Najjar worked as Deputy Regional Field Director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, and subsequently worked for the Obama White House.

His opponent, Mr. Hunter, has bravely publicized all that, and recently warned in an ad that Mr. Campa-Najjar is working, along with alleged Islamists, to “infiltrate Congress” and so represents a “risk we can’t ignore.” The district’s base is solidly Republican and the incumbent is expected to win.

That, despite the fact that Mr. Hunter and his wife have been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy. They allegedly used hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars to pay for things like luxury vacations, fast food, theater tickets, racetrack outings, alcohol and family dentistry bills.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was sufficiently upset at the allegations, which he called “deeply serious,” to remove Mr. Hunter from the three House committees on which he sat.

But Mr. Hunter has denied the charges, and the choice between him and Mr. Campa-Najjar would seem a stark one.

Only it’s not. While nuance and fairness have largely left the electoral building, they are not yet entirely expired. So let’s try to revive them for a few paragraphs.

Not that his religion should make any difference, but Mr. Campa-Najjar is a proud Christian, and has described himself as “an apostate” in the eyes of Islam. His father, during his stint in the PA, spoke out in favor of peace with Israel and renounced hatred for Israel; and the candidate himself, who was born 16 years after his infamous grandfather was dispatched by Israel, has denounced his elder and terrorism in the clearest terms.

As to the Middle East, Mr. Campa-Najjar supports Israeli sovereignty and, referring to his family’s fleeing Gaza, asserts that “To achieve peace, Palestinians and Israelis will have to make the same personal choice I’ve had to make: leave the dark past behind so that the future shines brighter through the eyes of our children.”

Mr. Hunter’s insinuations that Mr. Campa-Najjar is a Muslim and a threat to America were dismissed as “absurd and classless” by Nick Singer, the challenger’s (Jewish, as it happens) communication director.

I’m not endorsing any candidate here. Were I a resident of the San Diego suburbs, I would do some real research on the positions of Messrs. Hunter and Campa-Najjar on various issues, and base my voting decision on my judgment about which contender is more in line with my priorities.

But the facts of Mr. Campa-Najjar’s ancestry would not be part of my calculus. There was a time when Orthodox Jews were suspicious, often rightly, about black candidates for public office. But some of our closest and most reliable public service allies today are African-Americans.

To be sure, there are currently Congressional candidates with Middle-Eastern or Islamic backgrounds who seem beholden to anti-Israel constituencies – people like Rashida Tlaib in Michigan or Ilhan Omar in Minnesota. But a sign of political maturity and savvy is rising above generalizations and being able to distinguish among members of various groups.

What’s more, even candidates who may have said wrongheaded things, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, should not be written off as enemies. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez hastily criticized Israel’s use of force against protesters in Gaza but later admitted that she is “not an expert on Middle East affairs.” and vowed to “learn and evolve” on the issue.

How her evolution will unfold will have to be seen. But being able to learn and evolve on issues – including the judging of candidates solely by their ethnicities – is most certainly a praiseworthy thing.

© Hamodia 2018

Where’s the Slide?

I pass the large lady twice each workday, and no longer pay her much mind, unlike the tourists on the Staten Island ferry sailing with me, who have journeyed hundreds or thousands of miles to get a glimpse of – and, of course, a selfie with – the Statue of Liberty.

But when we moved to New York 24 years ago, we visited the statue with our children. The visit yielded one of those “kids say the funniest things” quotes, one we invoke to this day.

We marched up the 150 or so steps of the double spiral staircase from the statue’s base to its crown. It was an increasingly claustrophobic experience, as the passage grew narrower with our ascent, but with each step I marveled at the fact that I was actually walking inside the gift from France and symbol of freedom across the globe, seeing it from an entirely new perspective.

Impressively, even the youngest member of our family, a bright and energetic then-three-year-old, managed to scamper up the steps with his little feet.

His memorable comment, delivered with puzzlement, when we reached the top: “Where’s the slide?”

If he was distressed by our laughter and explanation that, unlike the culmination of other climbs he had made, there was no slide here, he didn’t show it. And while he may have wondered about the point of it all, good soldier that he was (and is – today as a member of Rav Shimon Alster’s kollel in Cliffwood, New Jersey), he dutifully marched with us back down.

So “Where’s the slide?” has become the Shafran family’s version of the saying, attributed to cartoonist Allen Saunders, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Fixation on some end can obscure what one is experiencing now.

Yiddishkeit certainly focuses us on both the past and the future. As Jews we are enjoined to remember and try to emulate the Avos and Imahos, to recall Mattan Torah, the Beis Hamikdash and more. And we are ultimately enjoined to defer the impermanent indulgences of Olam Hazeh for the only meaningful and ultimate fulfillment of the future, Olam Haba. But none of that contradicts our need, at the same time, to recognize the import of the moment, the opportunity that the present alone provides.

We often find ourselves so focused on the slide that we don’t notice where we actually are, so absorbed in the later that we are oblivious to the now.

My wife and I try to get away for a day or two each summer in search of a waterfall we haven’t yet seen. Several years ago we hiked up a steep trail to experience Kaaterskill Falls, in upstate New York.

About 100 miles north of New York City, the falls have two tiers, with a combined height of 230 feet, higher than Niagara Falls. We didn’t know it at the time, but the falls have been the site of several fatalities, at least eight since 1992.

According to Rob Dawson, a state forest ranger, the last four people who died at Kaaterskill Falls were either taking or posing for pictures. They were focused, quite literally, on creating mementos of their having reached the falls – or, more likely of late, on transmitting images of themselves there to their friends and relatives on social media.

It’s understandable, of course, for a person to want a photograph of an achievement or event, and usually, baruch Hashem, the endeavor isn’t fatal. But reading of the tragedies reminded me of Saunders’ adage, and made me wonder if our obsession with documenting things hasn’t overly encroached on the wonder of actually experiencing them.

Think of all the time, effort and trouble that go into creating chasunah photos and videos. Leave aside how often most people really look at them after the first time. Just think of how much the recording of a simchah can deprive the principals and celebrants of enjoying the moment. (Please, professionals, no angry letters! I don’t mean to, chalilah, devalue your skill and work, only to spur thought.) And with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, how much time people spend staring at little screens depicting joyous occasions rather than being parts of them.

There were no cellphone cameras when we navigated the Statue of Liberty’s innards; we hadn’t bothered bringing my Minolta. But even though we have no photos of the experience, and our little boy may have been disappointed by it, the trip to the crown, even sans slide, remains most memorable and vivid in my mind.

© 2018 Hamodia