Category Archives: Anti-Semitism

A “Certain Sect of People”

People sometimes ask me if writing a letter to the editor of a major newspaper is worth the trouble, considering that having one’s letter chosen for publication is a long shot. I reply that it’s still worthwhile, because the paper knows that, for every letter it gets that takes a particular stand, there are likely hundreds of readers who share the letter-writer’s view but didn’t bother to write.

To compare apples to, well, rotten ones, something similar is true when it comes to antisemitic screeds. Like 45-year-old Nick Colella’s during a Planning Board public hearing in the Rockland County town of Haverstraw, north of Ramapo.

The topic of the hearing was a request for a variance to convert a single-family residence into a shul. The owners want to build an addition and second floor to the home and add 27 off-street parking spaces.

At the podium, Mr. Colella took the opportunity to assert that some of his neighbors don’t put away their garbage cans for days and weeks because they “are too lazy to take it in because their maid didn’t pick it up, right?” Scattered applause ensued.

Then, eliding the fact that most of the neighborhood lacks sidewalks, he complained about a “certain sect of people” who he said “tend to walk in the street, and nobody is wearing any reflective gear.” And then explained, “So if I run one of them over, and of course I’m going back over them again, right?”

Once the video of the repulsive comment circulated, public officials were quick to condemn it. New York Governor Kathy Hochul tweeted: “Antisemitism, like all forms of hate, is horrifying and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to walk down the street without fear. New York, we are better than this.”

Ramapo Town Supervisor Michael Specht and State Sen. James Skoufis denounced the remark. And Rockland County Executive Ed Day, who has himself been accused of unfairly characterizing some of the county’s Orthodox Jewish residents and institutions, called the tirade “beyond disgusting… utterly ignorant and hateful,” condemning it “in no uncertain terms.”

Local authorities are looking into bringing charges against the shameless speaker, and New York Attorney General Letitia James offered her assistance in the matter.

All of which is reassuring and laudable. But what remains, in the end, is the likelihood that for every racist or antisemite sufficiently simpleminded to announce his hatreds publicly, there are likely many more who quietly embrace similar vile sentiments.

As Rabbi Shragi Greenbaum, the Agudah’s Rockland Office director, put it to a reporter: “What remains of concern… is how many Rockland County residents harbor similar feelings to those of the speaker at the planning board but aren’t foolish enough to proclaim them publicly.”

How many congratulatory calls, one wonders, did Mr. Colella get that night? I imagine if you asked him, he’d happily tell you.

There are people in whom antisemitism is ingrained. They are part of society and, like people who don’t shower, they just have to be tolerated (at least to an extent). And then there are non-Jews who sincerely like Jews. But the broadest penumbra of the non-Jewish population has no inherent animus or love for us, but can easily be pulled in either direction.

As Rabbi Greenbaum continued: “It’s important for neighbors — Jewish and non-Jewish — to introduce themselves to one another and to better get to know the needs and sensitivities of those outside their social circles.”

I like to call identifiably Orthodox Jews “walking Jewish billboards.” We project — intentionally or not — the image of Torah fealty to others who may well form their opinion of Jews based on how they perceive us.

And showing others that menschlichkeit is fundamental to Yiddishkeit is not hard. With the growth, baruch Hashem, of our communities and our expansion into new areas, opportunities to make good impressions are ubiquitous.

Things as simple as yielding to others in traffic or holding a door open for the person behind one can make all the difference. So can a simple smile and “good morning.” 

Unfortunately, though, nothing is likely to change the Colellas of the world.

(c) 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Loud Loutishness: Decibels Aren’t Arguments

Anyone with the unfortunate habit of listening to talk shows may have noticed the inverse relationship between loudness and logic.  Or as Leonardo da Vinci is said to have said, “Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.”

It’s true in daily life too. Some people seem to imagine that decibels are arguments, that screaming angrily is a good-enough stand-in for persuasion — even for facts.

Last week, across the big pond to the east, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain, Tzipi Hotovely, after speaking and taking questions at the renowned London School of Economics, was set upon by a screaming crowd of Arab and Muslim students. Egged on by social media to “smash her car window,” members of the mob loudly shouted slogans, curses, “shame on you” and other rational arguments.

Security officers and bodyguards bundled the ambassador into a car while police clashed with the shouting mob. 

(British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that she was “disgusted by the treatment of the Israeli Ambassador.” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, expressed similar reactions.)

The mob’s screaming was a stark contrast to the sort of reasoned give-and-take that had just taken place inside the building. And further evidence of the loudness/logic inverse relationship.

Because the screamers, at least the smarter ones, likely know, deep down, that Israel does not, as they chant, target civilians when responding to Hamas terror attacks or seek to oppress its Arab citizens. So all that’s left to “make their case” is yelling.

But beneath the baseless charges of baby killing and subjugation lies a broader, equally baseless charge made by many anti-Israel “activists” (if slander can be described as activism).

That larger untruth is the very “Palestinian narrative,” the contention that the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael was a colonial venture, the displacement of a native population by foreign usurpers.

It makes for a great shout, and shouted it is, at rallies and protests around the world, often encapsulated as “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!” (Translation: “Kill or expel Jews from the land.”)

And shouting is the only way to promote the narrative, the only means of allowing it to obscure the facts of history.

To be sure, Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, but the land has never been Judenrein. Jews were a presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from their land. 

And, of course, millions upon millions of Jews have, over the centuries since 70 C.E., prayed thrice daily for divine mercy to allow them to return — return — to their land — their land.

What’s more, the Arab presence in 1948 Palestine was anything but indigenous. Many who call themselves native “Palestinians” are in truth descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. 

Like Egypt, the source of successive waves of immigrants at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine and government oppression at home.

The 19th century saw Arab immigration to Eretz Yisrael from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in significant numbers.

Later on, after Jews began returning to the land, opportunities drew even more Arab immigrants. As Britain’s Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…” 

So, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants in the land should not be ignored. But many, if not most, were not native to the land. And the forebears of Jews, if millennia matter, were.

Arabs residing in the country or the West Bank or Gaza could realize their hopes for better lives, if only they acknowledged those truths. Then, good-faith, civil discussion could ensue.

It is an unlikely development, I admit, but one thing is certain: Shouting is no replacement for talking.

© 2021 Ami Magazine

Vayishlach – A Poisonous Prescription

Number one on my list of brilliant people’s brilliantly wrongheaded ideas is something that the late British polymath/physician/comedian Jonathan Miller once said:

“I feel that the Jew must constantly re-adventure and re-venture himself into assimilation… I just think it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep [apart]. But if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device.”

Coming of age shortly after the European Jewish Holocaust, Dr. Miller might have ruminated a bit on the fact that the horror was unleashed from the country with most assimilated Jewish population on earth at the time. That most German Jews were indistinguishable from their Christian fellow-citizens didn’t prevent the Nazis from going generations back to find Jewish ancestries. In fact, in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers, just the opposite is true: when we seek to assimilate, we will be rudely reminded that we are, and must always be, different. 

When Yaakov meets his brother Esav, the latter kisses him on his neck. Whether that kiss was originally intended as a vicious bite, as one Midrash has it, or represented a momentary interruption of hatred by a sincere pang of kinship, as Rashi cites, Esav remains the progenitor of those who harbor animus for Yaakov’s progeny, the Jews.

And Yaakov, invited by his brother to accompany him forward, politely declines, making excuses for why the two must go their own ways.

That self-isolation of Jews reflects what the Torah later, through the mouth of Bil’am, states, that the Jews are destined to be an am livadad yishkon, “A nation that will dwell in solitude” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Jews are to respect and interact in good will with all peoples, but are also intended to remain, in a fundamental way, separate. We are not to absorb societal ideals that are antithetical to the Torah’s; we are to marry only other Jews; we are to maintain our Jewish observances, even if they may set us apart from others. We are not to assimilate – to dissolve into larger society.

Dr. Miller’s prescription is poison.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayeitzei – Haters Gonna Hope

In a short, biting comment, the Chasam Sofer makes a trenchant observation about antisemites, whom he sees as following in the footsteps of Lavan, Yaakov Avinu’s father-in-law.

When, after being tricked into working for Lavan for 14 years (and then forced to work another six to earn flocks of his own) and being constantly taken advantage of, Yaakov suggests a deal, asking for only the sheep and goats that are patterned a certain way.  

“Any among the goats that is not speckled or spotted,” Yaakov tells his father-in-law, “or among the sheep that are not brownish, if in my possession, is stolen.” (Beraishis, 30:33).

Lavan responds, in happy acceptance of the seemingly lopsided deal: Lu yehi kidvarecha — “If only it will be as you say.”

The Chasam Sofer sees those words as referring not only to the deal but to the specific phrase that immediately precedes them: “if in my possession is stolen.” He reads the “if only” as a wistful hope that, indeed, Yaakov will be found with sheep and goats to which he isn’t entitled.

That, the Chasam Sofer explains, reflects the mindset of all throughout history who hate Yaakov’s descendents. They salivate at the prospect that a Jew might do something dishonest, so that they can shout the fact from the rooftops and share their animus.

Occasionally, a Jew is found guilty of dishonesty. As a great man once said, “Lavan unfortunately, is part of our yichus too.” But no one thinks of generalizing from an Italian or British or Catholic or Hindu wrongdoer to his entire nationality, ethnicity or religion. 

It’s only Jews that some pine to see disgraced, today as always.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tony Baloney

“After prosecution, the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection?” was the question posed on a Facebook page featuring an image of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr. Anthony (“Tony”) Fauci superimposed over a noose.

It wasn’t the page of some intoxicated pajama-clad couch potato but the official Congressional campaign page of Wyoming State Senator Anthony Bouchard.

Over in Kentucky, General Assembly Representative Regina Huff tweeted a photo of mass murderer cult leader Jim Jones next to one of Dr. Fauci.

The Fauci-as-fiend motif has gained momentum — after more than fifty years of the doctor’s lauded service to every president since Ronald Reagan and his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush — beginning the moment he first dared, during the early days of the pandemic, to contradict virus-related statements and prognoses made by former president Trump. 

But, of late, the vilification has built to a fevered pitch. 

On social media, the latest big Fauci story was an old one, about how, in the 1980s, he sponsored clinical drug research in which minority children were supposedly targeted for trials, ripped away from their families and in some cases died as a result of the trials.

Days earlier, there was “Beaglegate,” the accusation by an animal rights group that the NIAID funded a project that allowed a lab in Tunisia to “drug beagles and lock their heads in mesh cages filled with hungry sandflies, so that the insects could eat them alive.”

On the Senate floor, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, when not busy delaying a Senate vote on a bill to expedite Iron Dome funding for Israel, has been shouting at Dr. Fauci, calling him a liar (and asking the Justice Department to investigate him) for denying to Congress that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” experiments — research exploring how viruses can become more virulent or lethal — at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.    

These days, there is more interest in fingering foes than in ferreting facts, but, for anyone interested in the latter, here goes.

The 1980s trials involved HIV-infected foster children and sought effective therapies to prevent that virus from resulting in AIDS. A BBC documentary at the time reported accusations made by a fringe figure as fact. The Beeb later apologized for the documentary, admitting that it hadn’t properly investigated the claims referenced above, which a 2009 investigation found were not true.

As to the beagles, the NIH did indeed partially fund research on dogs conducted at the University of Georgia to test the efficacy of a potential vaccine for lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease. A university spokesperson indicated that the testing was necessary and that all humane standards set by applicable agencies were adhered to. The dogs were infected with the parasite through injection, not by being exposed to flies — and were certainly not “bitten to death by” them.

The issue of “gain of function” research, though, that has consumed Senator Paul and assorted talk show bloviators is a real one. Credentialed experts are divided over whether the use of the funding at issue in fact meets the definition of that phrase, so the senator and doctor will likely continue to spar over the charge of the latter’s “lie.” 

But, biological semantics aside, the entire “gain of function” issue arose only because of the assertion that the Covid-19 virus was caused by the NIH-funded experiments.

Now, it is entirely plausible that the virus emerged not from Chinese animal markets but from a China-directed lab experiment gone awry (or, horrific to consider, but consider we must) the intentional unleashing of a new virus.

But the naturally occurring coronaviruses that were studied under the NIH grant, analysis of genomic data proves conclusively, “could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. “Any claims to the contrary,” he added, “are demonstrably false.”

As psychologists and life readily affirm, in times of distress, some people  experience an intense urge to find someone to blame and vilify. When that quest yields fabricated accusations, unfair depictions and imputations of malevolence, it might smell familiar to history-conscious Jews. 

So, Dr. Fauci: 1) Thank you for your service, and 2) Welcome to the club.

The Bull by the Horn

Something about the news reports in the wake of the December 10, 2019 shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City store bothered me at the time, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Novelist Dara Horn, in her new collection of essays, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present,” fingers it well.

She quotes the Associated Press report, which was picked up by many news outlets: “The slayings happened in a neighborhood where Hasidic families had recently been relocating, amid pushback from some local officials who complained about representatives of the community going door to door, offering to buy homes at Brooklyn prices.”

Ms. Horn wonders why other cases of domestic terrorism, like against black churches or nightclubs, aren’t similarly “contextualized” in an attempt to explain what motivated the murderer. And she muses further that “Like many homeowners, I too have been approached by real estate agents asking me if I wanted to sell my house. I recall saying, no, although I suppose murdering these people would also have made them go away.”

That dagger of a comment is one of many marvelously acerbic observations in Ms. Horn’s book. 

Like her further observation on the Jersey City massacre, that when it comes to identifiably Jewish Jews, the crime for which they are persecuted, even killed, is the sheer audacity of “Jews, living in a place!”

Or like the story she tells at the book’s beginning, about the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, about an employee who donned a yarmulke one day and was told to cover it with a baseball cap. The museum relented after four months’ deliberation, which, Ms. Horn writes, “seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”


Anne Frank inspires a further observation from Ms. Horn, about the most famous quote from the young girl’s diary, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” 

Ms. Horn: “It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ three weeks before she met people who weren’t.”

The writer journeyed to China, where she visited the Manchurian village of Harbin. Jews once lived there, until they were forced to flee or were killed in the 1930s by the invading Japanese army. Today, in tribute to the Jewish community that once thrived there, Harbin hosts a museum that replicates the once-Jewish part of the town, complete with shuls and stores. The writer’s suggestion for a name for such exhibits about former Jewish dwelling places: “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”

The unifying theme of the essays in “People Love Dead Jews” — the author was surprised when her publisher actually accepted her suggestion for a title — is that all the concern and admiration for Jews seemingly reflected in memorials and museums and novels and movies comprises something other than true goodwill toward actual Jews today. 

“I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews.” she writes. But, she says she came to realize, “even in its most apparently benign and civic forms” it is “a profound affront to human dignity.” Focusing on dead Jews, Ms. Horn seems to be saying, avoids having to confront the reality of live ones.

The book’s final essay, unexpectedly and enthrallingly, focuses on the most recent Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, where more than 90,000 Jews packed MetLife Stadium (and nearly 20,000 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and countless others in locations across the continent and around the world). The essay bears the title “Turning the Page.”

Ms. Horn, who wasn’t raised, and doesn’t consider herself, Orthodox, opts to study Daf Yomi. By doing so, she says, “I turn the page and return, carried by fellow readers living and dead, all turning the pages with me.” 

Don’t expect the world to understand, or even care about, us, she seems to be saying to fellow Jews. Just connect with one another, with all of us, and, most importantly, with our mutual spiritual heritage.

© 2021 Ami Magazine

80 Years Since Babi Yar

Wanton murder of Jews was a prominent feature of Ukrainian history from time immemorial. But the most infamous massacre of Jews on Ukrainian territory came in 1941, when the Nazis and their Ukrainian friends massacred nearly 34,000 Jews within two days, at the ravine known as Babi Yar.

Jewish history, though, is full not only of tragedies but of unexpected twists and turns. To read what I mean, please click here.