Save the Mustard Seed

A Nordic effort reminds us of a mitzvah for our time.As Jews the world over listened to Krias HaTorah on Shabbos morning parashas Shoftim, someone at the New York Times was preparing to post a news story quite pertinent to a passuk in the parasha, although he or she was likely oblivious to the connection.

The passuk (Devarim 20:19) forbids the destruction of a fruit tree even during a war, and is the source for the prohibition of bal tashchis, the wanton destruction of anything useful.

The story, which appeared the very next day, was datelined Helsinki, Finland, and described “Happy Hour” at one of a supermarket chain’s 900 stores, all of which steeply discount hundreds of items about to run afoul of their expiration dates. Finns crowd the stores to buy the goods.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, close to a third of the food produced and packaged for human consumption is lost or wasted. Here in the United States, nine out of ten supermarket chains assessed last year by a nonprofit group, the Center for Biological Diversity, were given a C grade or lower on food-waste issues.

We citizens of industrialized western countries live, baruch Hashem, in a world of plenty. Suffering poverty might tempt someone to steal or cheat. But swimming in a sea of abundance presents its own challenges – like the temptation to overindulge, with resultant obesity and other health risks. And, for Klal Yisrael, the inadvertent flouting of bal tashchis.

I know from speaking with others that I am not the only one whose parents rinsed out plastic cups instead of throwing them away, or who refrigerated even small amounts of a meal’s leftovers rather than consigning them to the garbage. Or who opted to darn holey socks instead of just tossing them out and buying a new pair.

And I know, too, that I’m not the only one who tries – even if very imperfectly – to maintain the mindset that yields such practices. It is, after all, a very Jewish mindset.

Some stereotypes are outright falsehoods. Mexicans may take siestas (as do many Israelis) during the hottest time of the day, but all the workers from south of the border whom I’ve observed have been anything but lazy; in fact they are exceedingly hard-working.

The stereotype of Jews as penny-pinching, however, isn’t necessarily false, only mischaracterized.  While there may be people who are stingy for selfish reasons, frugality can – and in Yiddishkeit is meant to – bespeak a deep appreciation for the worth of every single resource with which Hashem has gifted us.

We are enjoined by the Torah to not waste material or money. “Each and every penny,” Rabi Elazar is famously quoted as saying, “adds up to a fortune” (Bava Basra 9b). And fortunes, we all know, can be put to very worthy and effective use. Those same Yidden from previous generations who sewed up holes in clothing and reused disposable utensils were impressively generous with their resources when it came to helping others.

There are, to be sure, situations where destroying or discarding a useful item is permitted, as when a greater good is thereby accomplished, or where there is some special need. Here is not the place to enter the realm of the halachic implications of our throw-away society. But that there exist actual such concerns with common contemporary practices is something that deserves our consideration.

The Finnish effort was spurred by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change. Still and all, it might serve to stimulate us to take bal tashchis more seriously in this era of abundance and this annual time of teshuvah. Whatever our thoughts about carbon footprints, we are enjoined to recognize that wasting any resource debases it, and us.

Every year on Shabbos parashas Shoftim, I reread the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 529). He explains that the bal tashchis prohibition aims to “teach our souls to love what is good and useful, and to then cleave to it,” adding that “through this, the good will cleave to us and we will distance ourselves from every evil thing and every destruction. This is the way of exemplary Jews, who love peace, rejoice in the good of creation and bring everyone close to the Torah.

“They do not destroy anything – even a mustard seed – and it pains them to encounter any destruction or harm. If they can act to save anything from destruction, they use all their strength to do so.”

“Not so,” he adds by contrast, is the way of resha’im, “the cohorts of mazikim [destructive forces], who rejoice in destroying the world.”

That attitudinal polarization is well evident in our world. Broken windows, smashed bottles and graffiti-marred walls are the yield of one end of the spectrum.

And rinsed-out plastic cups in dish drainers, with filled-to-their-brims tzedakah boxes on nearby kitchen window sills, the other.

© 2019 Hamodia

Tweets and Transparency

Hoisted by its own petard, The New York Times cried foul. Please forgive the clichés, but they’re really most apt.

Let’s start with the paper of record’s wail of indignation. It came last week in the form of a lengthy front-page article reporting that “A loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House is pursuing what they say will be an aggressive operation to discredit news organizations deemed hostile to President Trump by publicizing damaging information about journalists.”

The “operation,” the paper continues, is “the latest step in a long-running effort by President Trump and his allies to undercut the influence of legitimate news reporting.”

I have no dog in the president-media fight (okay, okay, I’ll curb the clichés). But the Old Gray Lady’s umbrage over revelations that some of her valued servants harbor some skeletons in their closets (really, I’m trying) is a bit amusing. After all, the Times has made a major industry of discrediting people hired by Mr. Trump, most recently, newly appointed White House press secretary and communications director Stephanie Grisham, who, The Times dutifully reported, has “professional scrapes [and] ethical blunders” in her history.

Now, though, the revered medium sees something disgraceful in the unearthing of some bones in its own, and other major media’s, possession, in the form of social media posts by members of their staffs.

Like the Times’ own now-former politics desk editor, Tom Wright-Piersanti, whose years-old anti-Semitic and racist tweets, when recently revealed by right-wing website Breitbart News, resulted in his reported demotion.

Or the paper’s likewise demoted erstwhile deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, who was punished for posting messages on social media about race and politics that showed what the paper called “serious lapses in judgment.”

Undemoted, though – in fact, invited to join the Times’ editorial board – is Sarah Jeong, who had tweeted, among other things, “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy i get out of being cruel to old white men.” The paper defended its hire with the explanation that the tech editor’s “journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her a subject of frequent online harassment. For a period of time she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers.”

Oh.

Then there was CNN’s Mohammed Elshamy, who was forced to resign in July from his position as the news organization’s photo editor and writer when GOP operative Arthur Schwartz discovered and disclosed that Mr. Elshamy had praised the murder of “More than four jewish pigs [sic – and sick, too],” in a 2011 terrorist attack in Yerushalayim.

Both the CNN and NYT erstwhile bad boys apologized profusely, and two of them attributed their undignified behavior to the vagaries of their youths. (Mr. Wright-Piersanti was in college at the time of his terrible tweets; Mr. Elshami, in his teens). But, of course, the ultimate issue is whether such people should be trusted to be objective reporters. The child, after all, as the poet William Wordsworth put it, “is father of the man.” Is there reason to assume that youthful hatreds or biases simply disappeared over a few years?

Nonetheless, Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger rose up in righteous defensiveness, ironically presenting a mirror image of Mr. Trump’s recent turgid tweet that journalism is “nothing more than an evil propaganda machine for the Democrat Party.” Mr. Sulzberger, for his part, decried the exposure of reporters’ biases as a campaign “to intimidate journalists from doing their job, which includes serving as a check on power and exposing wrongdoing when it occurs.”

Curiously, there seems to be no comprehension in that declaration of the difference between being intimidated and being responsible; nor any hint that the power of media may need – no, surely needs – checks too.

With similar umbrage, a CNN spokesman characterized the disclosure of ugliness in its reporters’ pasts as “a means of suppression” and “a clear abandonment of democracy.”

Applesauce. It’s a means of transparency, and an expression of democracy. It makes the Fourth Estate answerable, as it should be, to the citizenry.

The president and those in his orbit should not be immune to criticism, and their foibles should not be out of bounds for journalistic inspection and revelation. But the very same is true for reporters and editors. If Americans are to be properly served by their public servants – and it should never be forgotten that such servitude is the essential charge of elected office – and by the organizations that mediate between happenings and citizens, transparency is paramount.

Both government and media, in other words, need to do their due diligence when recruiting employees.

After all, what’s good for the goose is – oh, sorry.

© 2019 Hamodia

Media HIQ

Grass is green.

Gettysburg is where a major Civil War battle took place.

The Har HaBayis is where the Batei Mikdash stood.

Astoundingly, some news organizations seem ignorant of that last truism.

Last week, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi complained to E.U. ambassadors about “Israeli transgressions in the holy city,” more accurately described as Israeli police’s dispersion of rioting Muslim worshippers on Har HaBayis this past Tisha B’Av. Reporting on Mr. Safadi’s expression of righteous indignation, the Chinese news agency Xinhua referred to the holiest Jewish site on earth only as the “Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.”

The report had Safadi going on to warn against what he sees as Israel’s attempt to “change the historical and legal status of Jerusalem” – ludicrously oblivious to, or shamelessly obscuring, the site’s actual history.

Of course, one doesn’t expect the People’s Republic of China to care a great deal about truth. Nor should one expect any important context from Al-Jazeera. That network’s report of the clash noted that it occurred on “the Jewish holiday [sic] of Tisha B’Av,” without any explanation of the doleful day’s significance to Jews. And Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, in its reportage, omits any mention of a Jewish connection to the Har HaBayis.

Yahoo News took a baby step further, noting that Jews “refer to [the place] as the Temple Mount” and adding that Jews “believe it was the site of the two biblical-era Jewish temples.”

Yes. We also believe that the Normandy coast was the site of the World War II-era D-Day invasion of France.

Kudos, though, to NBC News for its above-average HIQ (history intelligence quotient). It reported that the “the 37-acre esplanade [that] is home to Al-Aqsa Mosque” is Judaism’s holiest place because of “its history as the site of First and Second Temples.”

And even Reuters, which has something of a history of its own when it comes to Israel reportage, laudably identifies the location as “revered by Jews as Temple Mount, the site of two biblical Jewish temples.”

The Associated Press also gets a high HIQ score, for explaining that the Har HaBayis, while “currently the home of the iconic gold Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque,” was “the site of two Jewish temples in antiquity” and for explaining that “the Ninth of Av [is] a day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the two biblical temples that, in antiquity, stood at the site.”

UPI, too, earns special mention for its story on the clashes, for referring to the site simply as the “Temple Mount.”

The truthfulness tide turned, I think, in 2015.

On October 8 of that year, The New York Times published a news article about Muslims’ and Jews’ relationship to the Har HaBayis, contending that the question of “the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone,” has “never [been] definitively answered.”

A deluge of incredulity followed– including a letter from this writer, who somewhat snootily observed that, “despite Palestinian insistence to the contrary… the central Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount nearly 1,500 years before Islam’s founder’s grandparents were born.”

More measured, and authoritative, was a missive from one of the experts whose view had been muddled in the article.  

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Professor Jodi Magness explained that “literary sources leave little doubt that there were two successive ancient temples in Jerusalem dedicated to the G-d of Israel… These sources and archaeological remains indicate that both temples stood somewhere on the Temple Mount. The only real question is the precise location of the temple(s) on the Temple Mount.”

The Times article was amended the following day, and a correction, echoing Professor Magness’ explanation, was duly published in the newspaper.

We who have been entrusted with preserving the Jewish mesorah – who face the Har HaBayis daily in tefillah, who beseech Hashem to rebuild Yerushalayim in our every tefillah and birchas hamazon, and who bemoan the churbanos in our tefillos Mussaf – have no need for scholarly or archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Batei Mikdash.

But a sweet note arrived just before our most recent observance of Tisha B’Av, when it was reported that archaeologists had just uncovered, in the words of CNN, “evidence of the Babylonian conquest of the city, appearing to confirm a Biblical account of its destruction.”

“The combination of an ashy layer full of artifacts, mixed with arrowheads, and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction,” explained University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Shimon Gibson.

It’s not likely that historical Jewish provenance of Yerushalayim and the Har HaBayis will be acknowledged any time soon by Xinhua or Al-Jazeera. But the fact that at least some major media have allowed themselves to become better educated on the subject is heartening.

May it be a harbinger that the fulfillment of our entreaty “chadesh yameinu k’kedem” – “renew our days as of old” – is quickly approaching.

© 2019 Hamodia

It’s Not Just ‘Tone’, Mr. Tapper

Are you aware of the connection between the El Paso shooter and Palestinian terrorists?

No, the shooter wasn’t a Palestinian and had no known affiliation with the Palestinian cause. He was apparently an anti-immigrant white nationalist, as indicated in the manifesto he seems to have posted on a shady website shortly before he set out to kill innocent Hispanic people, accomplishing that goal in 22 cases, and failing in 24 others, where the victims were merely wounded.

The Palestinian “connection,” such as it is, is indirect, and involves Jake Tapper, the well-known broadcast journalist and frequent critic of President Trump.

In the wake of the domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, many charged that the president’s rhetoric bore some responsibility for the carnage. Mr. Trump’s repeated characterization of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. as an “invasion,” the critics asserted, echoed the shooter manifesto’s anti-immigrant sentiments and repeated use of the same word in that context. Accused accessories to the president’s alleged crime included various media outlets, primarily Fox News, which used “invaders” or “invasion” to describe migrants or migration in more than 300 broadcasts over the past year alone.

The killer himself acknowledged the likelihood that Mr. Trump would be implicated in the attack. “I know,” he wrote, “that the media will probably call me a white supremacist… and blame Trump’s rhetoric.” Well, yes.

No one needs to convince those of us even rudimentarily informed by Jewish thought that words can be weaponized. Chazal in fact characterized words as capable of “killing.” Whether, though, political rhetoric can be rightly pointed to as a culprit in white nationalist attacks – like the one in El Paso or the 2015 murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina or the Poway, California synagogue shooting this past spring – is arguable.

Mr. Tapper, predictably, leans toward a “yes” vote. But, on a CNN program panel, he also raised an intriguing point. “What’s interesting,” he averred, is that “you hear conservatives all the time, rightly so in my opinion, talk about the tone set by people in the Arab world… Palestinian leaders talking… about Israelis,” claiming there is “no direct link necessarily between what the leader says and violence against some poor Israeli girl in a pizzeria.” Conceding that “you can’t compare the ideology of Hamas with anything else,” he asserted that, “at the same time, either tone matters or it doesn’t.”

Sana Saeed, Al-Jazeera’s online producer, was appalled, calling on CNN to fire Mr. Tapper for achieving “the height of unethical journalism.” BDS proponent and all-purpose Israel-basher Linda Sarsour seconded the motion.

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib chimed in too, accusing Mr. Tapper of “comparing Palestinian human rights activists to terrorist white nationalists.” (If Ms. Tlaib considers Hamas terrorists to be “human rights activists,” it is she who deserves to lose her job.)

Not one to be left behind, Raouf J. Halaby, Professor Emeritus of English and Art at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (no, none of that is made up) reacted to Mr. Tapper’s point by calling it “the height of hypocrisy,” and adding, for good measure, that “Israel is led by racist rulers and rabbis egging their citizens to kill Palestinians because (they claim) the Torah sanctions these killings and it is kosher to do so.”

One can only hope that Arkadelphians recognize a madman in their midst when they hear one.

Mr. Tapper’s verbal assailants, of course, grossly misrepresented what he said. He did not compare human rights activists to white nationalists or defend any fictional rabbinical inciters to murder. But the critics are correct in feeling that his comparison was imperfect.

Just not in the way they contend.

The reason Mr. Tapper’s comparison was faulty is because, whatever one may think about the president’s rhetoric or judgment or positions or personality, whatever one may think about whether or not his words inadvertently offer solace or encouragement to evil people, he has never called for attacks on anyone.

Unlike Palestinian leaders, media and schools.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, in 2015, after violent riots on the Har HaBayis initiated by Muslim extremists, declared that “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way” to heaven.

Palestinian media regularly laud “the resistance.” Fatah’s “official” Facebook page has featured a knife with a Palestinian flag on its handle stabbing a bearded religious Jew.

And Palestinian educational materials encourage violence against Israelis and Jews. As chronicled last year by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, a nonprofit that aims to do just what its name says, textbooks created as part of the Palestinian Authority’s new K-12 educational curriculum “are teaching Palestinian children that there can be no compromise” and “indoctrinat[e] for death and martyrdom.”

Fourth graders, for example, learn addition, and ninth graders multiplication, by counting the number of Palestinian “martyrs” – terrorists who perished in the course of their murderous acts.

No, it’s not Palestinian authorities’ “tone” that’s at fault.

It’s their promotion of murder.

© 2019 Hamodia (in edited form)

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