Cartoons, Canards and Poison Programs

Covered in blood, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eating a child.

That succinctly describes a cartoon published by a Libyan news organization on this past October 20. 

The next month saw a Bahrain news outlet depicting Mr. Netanyahu driving through Gaza in a blood-soaked tank while pulling the Statue of Liberty and President Biden behind him.

Yet another cartoon, featuring a frocked Jew with a large microphone in place of his nose, is captioned: “The Lie of Zionist Media.” 

That’s rather like the pot calling the glass of milk black. For decades, Arabic-language newspapers and websites have crawled with anti-Israel and antisemitic images and sentiments. And since the October 7 Hamas massacre, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the ugliness has only increased.

A report from the organization cites examples from Palestinian publications as well as in media based in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Some also appeared in UK Arabic-language news outlets.

Welcome to the warped world of Arab media.

It’s not only the Arab world’s cartoons that evidence hatred for Jews. What passes for actual news reportage in that realm also regularly promotes incendiary falsehoods, claiming, for instance, that Israel wishes to kill Gazan civilians; and provides ample space to opinion writers whom Goebbels would have been overjoyed to have had on hand.

Among the best examples of such propaganda posing as reportage is Iran’s PressTV, which is nothing more than the malignant mullahs’ mouthpiece. It regularly traffics in Holocaust denial and spreads an assortment of antisemitic conspiracy theories. (Iran isn’t an Arab land, but its rulers share their Arabian coreligionists’ sentiments when it comes to Jews.)

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station, based in Lebanon, is another contender. Its director let his less-than-journalistic sentiments show when, speaking about Mr. Netanyahu, he explained that “We want to get close to him, not to interview him, but to kill him.”

And then, of course, we have Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network. It does a good job of pretending to be a neutral, objective medium. But not good enough.

Recently, a laptop belonging to an Al-Jazeera reporter, Muhammad Washah, was found at one of Hamas’ bases in Gaza. It contained photos and intelligence materials linking him to Hamas.

“In the morning a ‘journalist’ on the Al-Jazeera network and in the evening a terrorist in Hamas,” was IDF Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee’s comment on a social media platform.

Apparently, according to Mr. Adraee, Mr. Washah is a senior military operative in Hamas’ anti-tank missile system and has worked in the research and development of aerial weapons for the terror group. Photos show him with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and weaponized drones.

On October 7 itself, it eventually came to light, at least two Al-Jazeera journalists entered Israel with Hamas terrorists and photographed atrocities. Ahmed Najjar accompanied some of the terrorists and filmed several kidnappings. Ismail Abu Omar filmed the Hamas slaughter in Kibbutz Nir Oz, even sharing a video in which he is heard saying: “The comrades have progressed, may Allah bless.”

Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a cleric who praised Hitler, condoned Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and appealed for people to “kill Zionists and Jews, down to the very last one…” was, until his death in 2020, a frequent guest on Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel. 

As to moderate Arab voices, Jordan Cope, of the think tank Middle East Forum, asserts that “Other than in Israel… freedom of expression in the Middle East is limited.” There must be some prize for understatement.

And need we even mention Hamas’ own Al-AqsaTV? Renowned for its children’s programming, a medium in its own right, its broadcasts have featured cute furry characters like “Nahoul,” a giant bee, who encouraged his young fans to “punch” Jews and “turn their faces into tomatoes”; and his co-host, an actual little girl, responded to one of her pint-sized peers who expressed the wish to grow up and “shoot the Jews” – “all of them” – with: “Good!”

When some of the cuddly creatures suddenly disappeared from the program, the kiddies watching were solemnly informed that their beloved friends had been “martyred” by Israelis.

That particular “educational” program aired back in 2014. I find myself wondering if any of the young people who watched it back then might have been, ten years later, in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel on October 7.

© 2024 Ami Magazine

Ki Sisa — Knot Theory

The Hebrew words panim and achor (as in lifnei and acharei) are used in both a spatial and temporal sense – either as “front” and “back” or as “before” and “after.”

One approach to the  mysterious revelation of Hashem’s glory to Moshe as he gazed from a cleft in a rock (Shemos 33: 18-23) sees forms of those words as referring not, as they most simply read, to the dimension of space but, rather, that of time.

“You will see My ‘back’ but My ‘face’ [or ‘front’] will not be seen” is what Hashem tells Moshe. The Chasam Sofer and Rav Tzadok HaCohein both understand that along the lines of “You may understand My ways when they are behind you in history, but the future (and even present) will not be perceptible.”

I wonder if what permeates and drives both the past and the future might lie in what Chazal comment on the word for “My back”: “He showed Moshe the kesher shel tefillin, the ‘knot at the back of the phylactery [placed on the head]’” (Berachos 7a). 

And indeed, the Gemara (ibid, 6a) says that Hashem, in some sense, “wears tefillin.” 

What occurs is that the word kesher can mean not only knot but also “bond.” The Gemara tells us that, while our own tefillin contain pesukim praising Hashem, the divine tefillin contain a pasuk praising His people (ibid).

Might “kesher shel tefillin,” here, be a pun of sorts, referring to the eternal bond binding Hashem to Klal Yisrael? And may that bond be the essential thread that runs through human history – past, present and future?

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tetzavah – Divine Right vs. Divine Role

There’s really no such thing as a kohein.

At least not the way we generally pronounce the word in conversation, with the accent placed on the first syllable. In the Torah, the stress is on the second syllable, a hint to the fact that the word is not a noun but rather a verb. 

That is Rashi’s observation in the parsha (29:30), on the words hakohein tachtav, which can only be properly translated as ‘who ‘koheins’in his stead” – with kohein meaning “serves.” (The cantillation, Rashi notes, would not support translating the phrase as “who is a kohein in his stead.”)

That may be nothing more than an interesting grammatical observation. But it may also signal something deeper.

Kohanim, of course, derive their status from being descendants of Aharon. In the non-Jewish sphere, special roles can also be transferred genealogically, as in monarchies.

But the “divine right of kings,” whereby monarchs claimed authority that rendered them unaccountable for their actions by earthly laws and courts (a topic that remains germane, oddly, even today, even in democracies) could not be further from the divine role of kohanim. A kohein is as governed by the Torah’s laws as any other Jew.

Kohanim are verily defined as “servers,” as being charged to do Hashem’s will. They are not defined by a noun but a verb – referring to performing the acts they are commanded to perform.

To be sure, kohanim have a special status in Klal Yisrael and are deserving of honor. But their specialness is born of mission, not license or immunity.

Truth be told, every one of us is, each in his or her way, special, whether we happen to carry a particular title or are just the unique individuals each of us is. And we all are likewise defined not by our particular statuses or identities, but by our missions. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Terumah — Ulterior Merits

The aron habris, the ark of the covenant that held the luchos, the tablets of the law, consisted of three nested boxes, the middle one of wood, the outer and inner ones of zahav tahor – “pure gold.” Its kapores, or cover, was made entirely of “pure gold.”

Not so the poles that are placed in rings on the sides of the aron – and that are to remain there permanently. Like the aron itself, they are wooden but covered with gold. But only “gold,” not “pure gold” like the aron’s inner and outer boxes.

In his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, Rav Meshullam Gross notes that difference and sees in it the fact that those whose lives are dedicated to Torah-study, symbolized by the aron, must be pure-hearted and not motivated by ulterior motives. Those who support them, however, who are symbolized by the poles with which the aron was carried, may condition their support on other things.

Ulterior motives do not cancel the merit of Torah-support or other meritorious giving. As the Talmud (Pesachim 8a) teaches: “One who says: I am contributing this coin to charity so that my son will live… is a completely righteous person.”

A common ulterior motive in philanthropy is honor. That is why donors’ names on plaques in shuls, Jewish outreach centers and yeshivos, or on the edifices themselves are perfectly proper.

In fact, such displays can constitute great merits in their own rights.

One of the most generous donors to Torah causes was Joe Tanenbaum, whose name, along with his wife Faye’s, graces wonderful institutions not only in his adopted city Toronto but across the globe. As a child, he hadn’t received a thorough Jewish education and he wanted others to have every opportunity to Jewishly educate themselves.

He was, though, by all accounts, a most modest man. A story that made the rounds many years ago is that he was once asked why he wanted his and his wife’s names to be prominent on the facades of the countless Torah-promoting buildings.

His reply was that, in the event that one of his future descendents should for some reason not receive a Jewish education or fall away from the Jewish path, he hopefully imagined the young person seeing the name Tanenbaum on an edifice and, carrying the same surname or knowing it was in his or her genealogy, becoming sufficiently intrigued to enter its doors.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Mishpatim – Full Moon Danger

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied troops stormed the coast of Normandy to begin the liberation of France from the Nazis. 

The criteria for choosing that day included a low but rising tide for the seaborne soldiers, a tide that occurred only around the time of a new or full moon. It took place on the latter.

Other military onslaughts throughout history were scheduled based on the moon’s phase – full moons when light was desired; new moons when darkness was needed to limit soldiers’ visibility to the enemy.

Among the 53 mitzvos in parshas Mishpatim is one that, peripherally, involves the moon. And it is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence of the Torah’s divine origin. Because the mitzvah, by all logic, would seem to doom the Jewish people.

On the shalosh regalim, the three “pilgrimage festivals,” all adult Jewish males are commanded to journey to the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim. That, of course, would leave the borders of Eretz Yisrael essentially open to attack by the Jews’ enemies. And two of those festivals were utterly predictable – because they began on the 15th of their Jewish months, one in the spring (Pesach) and one in autumn (Sukkos). Each at the full moon of its month.

Even the most primitive military strategist would have noticed that pattern and would conclude that the land would be most vulnerable to attack on those holidays. Or, in the summer, during the first quarter moon, when the right half of the moon is lit – the holiday of Shavuos. 

Which makes the mitzvah of alyah liregel starkly self-defeating. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator who could in fact ensure that the populace would not perish as its result. And, of course, it didn’t.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran