Category Archives: Anti-Semitism

Conservatism in Crisis

If the phrase “alt-right” puts you in mind of a computer keyboard, you are (blessedly) not following the presidential campaign.

Even if you are aware of the phrase, though, you may not have a good handle on what it means.  For good reason.  Many don’t.  It’s a hazy phrase.

The term, which is shorthand for “alternative right,” has been in circulation for several years, but it enjoyed a recent moment in a particularly bright spotlight when presidential candidate Clinton, in a speech, sought to make a distinction between mainstream Republicans and what she characterized as holders of a “racist ideology,” i.e. the “alt-right,” who she says are a major base of support for her opponent.

The “alt-right” movement – if it can even be given a label implying some unifying philosophy – means different things to different people, as it includes disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism; an embrace of “racialism,” the idea that different ethnicities exhibit different characteristics and are best segregated from one another; and, consonant with that latter credo, opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal.

Mrs. Clinton referenced the alt-right because her rival Donald Trump recently named a new campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative website some have associated with the group.

The alt-right’s “intellectual godfather,” in many eyes, is Jared Taylor. Although he characterizes himself as a “white advocate,” he strongly rejects being labeled racist, contending that his “racialism” is “moderate and commonsensical,” a benign form of belief in the “natural” separation of races and nationalities.  He contends that white people promoting their own racial interests is no different than other ethnic groups promoting theirs.  He has said, “I want my grandchildren to look like my grandparents. I don’t want them to look like Anwar Sadat or Fu Manchu.”

Pointing to the homogeneity of places of worship, schools and neighborhoods, he insists that people “if left to themselves, will generally sort themselves out by race.”

Certain of Mr. Taylor’s beliefs may resonate with some Orthodox Jews.  We may rightly eschew racism (seeing black Jews, for instance, no different from white ones), but we tend to be less than enamored of some elements of various minority cultures; we deeply value ethnic cohesion, preferring to live in neighborhoods among “our own kind”; and we have serious problems with certain elements of “progressive” western civilization and multiculturalism.

Mr. Taylor, in fact, welcomes Jews.  He has said that we “look white to him.”

That sentiment though, is not typical among others under the alt-right umbrella.

Even a nuanced rejection of non-western cultures inevitably attracts genuine racists and haters, and devolves into rejection of the eternal “other”: Jews.  The American far right has always embraced, inter alia, one or another form of Jew-hatred.  More balanced members of the alt-right refer to their “1488ers” – a reference to two well-known neo-Nazi slogans, the “14 Words” in the sentence “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children”; and the number 88, referring to “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet, doubled and coding for “Heil Hitler.”

And even Mr. Taylor has permitted people like Don Black, a former Klan leader who runs the neo-Nazi Stormfront.org web forum, to attend his conferences.  He may or may not endorse Black’s every attitude, but neither has he rejected his support.

Back in the 1960s, the John Birch Society, then dedicated to the theory that the U.S. government was controlled by communists, was condemned by the ADL for contributing to anti-Semitism and selling anti-Semitic literature. The brilliant and erudite William F. Buckley Jr., the unarguable conscience of conservatism at the time, recognized the group’s nature, and the threat its extremism posed to responsible social conservatives.  In the magazine he founded, National Review, he denounced and distanced himself from the Birchers in no uncertain terms, contending that “love of truth and country call[s] for the firm rejection” of the group.

It is ironic that it has fallen to the Democratic presidential contender to make a distinction between responsible Republicanism and the current loose confederacy that includes haters.

In the wake of Buckley’s denunciation of the alt-righters of the time, some National Review subscribers angrily cancelled their subscriptions.  Others, though, were appreciative of Buckley’s stance.  One wrote: “You have once again given a voice to the conscience of conservatism.”

That letter was signed “Ronald Reagan.”

© 2016 Hamodia

Unrighteous Indignation

And here, all this time, we thought Auschwitz was a Polish death camp.

It was, of course, at least in the sense that it was a place in Poland where upward of a million souls, the vast majority of them Jewish, perished at the hands of ruthless, evil murderers.

The camp, though, was built and operated by Germans, a fact that has brought Polish authorities to protest when the camp is labeled “Polish.”

In 2012, for instance, President Obama raised hackles when, awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Polish resistance fighter, he referred to a “Polish death camp.”  He later apologized, saying he should have used the term “Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland.”

Earlier this month, the Polish government approved a new bill mandating fines and even, in some cases, prison terms of up to three years for anyone who uses phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to Nazi camps on Polish soil.

While threatening penalties for using a particular phrase is an act of dubious wisdom or worth, the Polish protesters have history on their side… at least with regard to who owned and operated the death camps on Polish soil. Germans, not Poles, ran Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps, where more than three million Jews died; Poland was an occupied country at the time.

But the indignation isn’t righteous.  At least not unless it includes an important caveat; an admission that many Poles themselves were no mere bystanders to the Holocaust.

Some Polish officials are trying to obscure that truth.  “It wasn’t our mothers, nor our fathers, who are responsible for the crimes of the Holocaust, which were committed by German and Nazi criminals on occupied Polish territory,” asserts Zbignew Ziobro, the Polish justice minister.

But the justice minister does truth an injustice.  In implementing their genocidal program, German forces drew upon all-too-eager-to-help Polish police forces and railroad personnel, who guarded ghettos and helped deport Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often pitched in, identifying and hunting down Jews in hiding and then actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.

In his book “The Coming of the Holocaust: From Antisemitism to Genocide,” University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Peter Kenez described Poles of German ethnicity as “welcome[ing] the [Nazi] conquerors with enthusiasm.”

Nor were ethnic Poles unhappy at the prospect of helping the invaders rid their country of Jews.

History Professor Jan T. Gross, who was born in Poland to a Polish mother and Jewish father, published “Neighbors” in 2001, in which he documented that atrocities long blamed on Nazi officials were in fact carried out by local Polish civilians.

Like the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941. Mere weeks after Nazi forces gained control of the town, its Polish mayor, Marian Karolak, and local Nazi officials gave orders to round up the town’s Jews – both long-term residents as well as Jews who were sheltering there. Some Jews were hunted down and gleefully killed by the town’s residents with clubs, axes and knives. Most were herded into a barn, emptied out for the purpose and set afire, killing all inside.

There were also Poles, of course, who helped Jews, even risking their own lives to do so. Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,000 of them as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing Jews, more than from any other country.

But the norm, sadly, was that Polish citizens were more likely than not to turn against their Jewish neighbors when circumstances permitted.  There are numerous personal accounts of such hatred leading to murder.  It lasted throughout the war, and beyond it.

The Polish town of Kielce was home to about 24,000 Jews before World War II, and the number swelled considerably during the war, as German officials forced Jews from other towns and countries to enter the ghetto established there.  By August 1944, all but a few hundred Jews who were kept alive as slave workers there had been murdered.

You may know the rest of the story. After the war, about 150 Jewish survivors returned to Kielce. Slowly, they began to rebuild their lives, establishing a shul and an orphanage. On July 4, 1946, the town’s non-Jewish inhabitants started a blood libel, falsely accusing the Jews of kidnapping a Christian child. A mob descended on the Jews and, as police and soldiers stood by and watched, the local Poles viciously murdered 42 innocent Jewish Holocaust survivors and injured scores more.

If you drive down Bathurst Street in Toronto, you might notice a shul called Kielcer Congregation, presumably established by survivors of the war and pogrom, or by others in their memory.

And if you drive about a mile south, you’ll reach Eglinton Avenue, off of which my dear in-laws live.  My father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, is an alumnus of a number of concentration camps, including the Polish – sorry, “German on occupied Polish territory” – one called Auschwitz.  At war’s end, he emerged, barely, and managed to find his way back to his Polish hometown of Lodz.  He had heard that his younger sister Mirel (whose memory is carried in the second name of my wife), had also survived the war and had returned there.

He discovered that Mirel had indeed reached Lodz.  And that one day soon after their arrival, she and several other girls had visited the local Jewish cemetery to find the graves of relatives who had died in the Lodz ghetto.  The girls split up and made up to meet at the cemetery entrance.  All did, except for Mirel.  Having survived the war and made her way “home,” she had been murdered by an unknown assailant among the graves.

Before that was known, the other girls went to the police to report the missing person.  The response they received was, “What is your worry?  So there will be one Jewess less in Poland.”

© 2016 Hamodia

Summer Camps and Summer Camps

There are all sorts of summer camps.

Trump and The Jewish Question

“The anti-Semitism that is threaded throughout the Republican Party of late goes straight to the feet of Donald Trump.”  That, according to Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then-chair of the Democratic National Committee.  Mr. Trump, she added, has “clearly demonstrated” anti-Semitism “throughout his candidacy.”

Evidence proffered for the Republican nominee’s alleged Jew-hatred includes the now-famous image disseminated by the Trump campaign, which depicted Hillary Clinton accompanied by mounds of money and a six-pointed star.  The image, it turned out, had been borrowed from a white supremacist website.

Then there is the candidate’s speech to a group of Republican Jewish donors in which he said that he didn’t want their money (a sentiment that drew praise from Louis Farrakhan, not otherwise a Trump supporter).  And the fact that Mr. Trump has been endorsed by people like David Duke.

More recently, when a Jewish former Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, spoke at the Republican national convention, a torrent of anti-Semitic comments spilled onto the comments section of a livestream of the event.  They included praise for Hitler, ym”s, images of yellow stars accompanying the epithet “Make America Jewish Again” and comments like “Ban Jews.”

One needn’t be a supporter of Mr. Trump, though, to recognize that the anti-Semitism charges against him are seriously, forgive me, trumped up.  In fact, they’re nonsense.

That he has an Orthodox-converted Jewish daughter and a Jewish son-in-law (and three grandchildren, whom he often refers to as his Jewish progeny), with all of whom he is close, should itself be enough to put the charge to rest.

If more is needed though, well, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Steve Mnuchin, and general counsel, Jason Greenblatt, are both observant Jews.  The latter, who has worked for Trump since the mid-1990s, is one of the candidate’s top advisers on Israel and Jewish affairs.  And another top Trump adviser has said that Trump backs an Israeli annexation of all or parts of the West Bank.  The candidate once received an award from the Jewish National Fund and served as grand marshal of the New York Israel Day parade.

I’m not sure what David Duke or Louis Farrakhan make of all that, but such people, in any event, don’t traffic in facts.

I remind readers that not only does Agudath Israel of America not endorse or publicly support candidates, neither do I as an individual – the role in which I write this column.  I am concerned only with what I perceive to be truth and fairness.

Mr. Trump cannot be blamed, either, for support he has received from unsavory corners.  He may or may not be happy with haters’ support (politics, after all, being, above all else, about votes).  But he has clearly disavowed the sentiments of Duke and company, and can’t be expected to respond each time a malignant mind embraces his candidacy.

Depending on one’s own personal constitution, Mr. Trump may seem refreshing or revolting; his policies, sensible or seditious; his demeanor, exhilarating or unbalanced.  But his alleged anti-Semitism is unworthy of anyone’s consideration.

What is, though, worth noting is the aforementioned malevolence, the packs of dogs who hear and respond to imaginary Jew-hate whistles.

As we go about our daily lives, unburdened by the angst and terror that were part of our forbears’ lives over millennia in other lands, it’s easy to imagine that the land of the free is free, too, of Jew-hatred.  Then come times, like the current one, when our bubble is burst.

Bethany Mandel is a young, politically conservative, Jewish writer.  After she penned criticism of Mr. Trump, a tsunami of spleen spilled forth.

Among what she estimates to be thousands of anti-Semitic messages aimed at her were suggestions like “Die, you deserve to be in an oven,” and depictions of her face superimposed on the body of a Holocaust victim.

“By pushing this into the media, the Jews bring to the public the fact that yes, the majority of Hilary’s [sic] donors are filthy Jew terrorists,” wrote Andrew Anglin in the Daily Stormer, a site named in honor of the notorious tabloid published by Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, ym”s.

Though it’s disconcerting to perceive, beneath the verdant surface of our fruited plain, some truly foul and slimy things, it’s important, even spiritually healthy, to do so.

Because, amid our protection and our plenty, we are wont to forget that we remain in galus.  And that’s a thought we need to think about, especially, the “three weeks” having arrived, this time of Jewish year.

© 2016 Hamodia

 

Handling Success With Care

Back in 1941 (no, I don’t remember it personally, but it’s documented), there was an American Jewish establishment group called the “Joint Boycott Council.”  It objected vehemently to Agudath Israel of America’s policy of sending packages of food and religious items to beleaguered and endangered Jews behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe.  The JBC considered that effort an affront to its own judgment that the risk that the Nazis, ym”s, might intercept the goods outweighed what Gedolim of the time considered to be the Jewish obligation.

The group picketed Agudath Israel’s offices that year and its chairman described the Agudah as “a sickly weed transplanted from foreign soil to the liberal American environment,” lamenting how it, and presumably the Orthodox Jewish community it served, will only “continue to poison the atmosphere.”

The Council is now long forgotten, but my, how the “sickly weed” has grown.  The Torah-true community in America proved itself not only hardy but a towering tree that bore, and continues to bear, most wondrous fruit.

Those of us born well after 1941 often take the thriving of Torah life and study for granted.  We hear about the challenges our parents and grandparents faced in the previous century, celebrate their accomplishments and feel secure in the world they forged for us.  That’s not a problem, of course… at least not until it is.

Case in point: Several suburban frum communities are expanding greatly these days, attracting Torah Jews from near and far.  The law of supply and demand won’t be violated, and what ensues are increased property values and willingness, on the part of some long-time homeowners, to “trade up” to larger homes in other areas.

That’s fine and good; and so is the effort by real estate agents to make the case to residents of such communities that they can benefit financially from the new desirability of their dwellings by putting their houses on the market.

What isn’t fine and good, though, is pressuring residents by visiting them, unbidden, to make that case.  And what’s even less fine and good is doing so on non-Jewish holidays, when residents are be more likely to be home but are undoubtedly more likely to resent uninvited guests.

Such solicitations have caused some towns, including Toms River, New Jersey, to update their “no-knock” rules and related laws, adding real estate inquiries to measures that already limit other types of solicitations.

An Associated Press story about that particular New Jersey town was recently widely published by media here and overseas.  It may be a local story, but when an item involves Jews, money and irate neighbors, it somehow tends to… hold… special interest.

The news article quoted one Toms River resident who claimed to have been badgered by an aggressive real estate agent to sell his home.  In local media, several others complained about feeling pressured by Orthodox Jews’ overtures.  The fact that a “no-knock” ordinance was unanimously endorsed by the local Township Council itself indicates that others had, or feared, similar experiences – and should be a wake-up call to us all.

Yes, to be sure, some of the pushback against the pushiness might be tainted with pre-existing resentment of Jews.  But that’s really beside the point. In fact, it intensifies the point.  Because acting in ways that give people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us, aside from being wrong, well, gives some people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us.

There is no doubt that the great majority of frum real estate professionals in Lakewood and elsewhere hew to high standards and promote their services in proper manners, using advertisements and mailings. But the small number (it may in fact be only one, but that’s one too many) who feel that it’s “just business” to be aggressive and intimidating toward potential clients are causing ill will against the entire community.  What’s more, they are ketanei emunah.

Because if they believed, as Jews should, that their parnassah comes from Above, and that our efforts to make our livings are entirely in the realm of hishtadlus, “simple, normal effort,” they would never imagine that acting more aggressively than others in their field could yield them some advantage or anything more than what was decreed for them in Shamayim on Rosh Hashanah.

And they should know, too, that the truest measure of Jewish success is acting “with pleasantness toward others,” in ways that make others say “Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah” (Yoma 86a).

© 2016 Hamodia

The Professor Stumbles

You just can’t, as they say, make this stuff up.

A performer recently made news by implying that 1) Holocaust denier David Irving deserves reconsideration, and 2) that the earth is flat.

The entertainer didn’t offer those two wise thoughts as part of a comedy routine, but in a serious, assertive manner, using the medium of “rap” – a genre that some people consider music (count me among the deniers there).

“Stalin was way worse than Hitler,” the fellow also declared.  “That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a kippah.”  POTUS, of course, in secret service-speak, means “president of the United States” and kippah means… well, you know.  If you’re looking for logic, even of the paranoid variety, you might wish to look elsewhere.

Someone else also recently made news about his own Holocaust views. That would be Professor Yair Auron, an Israeli historian several million light years removed, culturally, from the flat-earth rapper.  In a way, though, Mr. Auron is the more hazardous of the two.

The professor is upset at the Israeli educational system for teaching that the Nazis’ determination to destroy every vestige of the Jewish people is something uniquely Jewish.

He accuses Holocaust educators of repressing or minimizing the suffering of others targeted by the Nazis, and is upset that other mass murders are not placed on a plane with the Nazis’ attempted destruction of Klal Yisrael.

“It must be asked,” he said recently, “if, in Israel in 2016, instead of also shaping Holocaust commemoration through humanist and democratic values… [is] fostering racism and xenophobia… Ignoring the non-Jewish victims is perhaps the most concrete manifestation of this trend.”

No one, of course, denies that the Nazis killed thousands of Communists, mentally disabled, Gypsies, criminals and others.  Nor that mass slaughters of human beings were committed by Stalin in the Soviet Union, by Pol Pot in Cambodia, by the Turks against the Armenians and by the Hutu tribe against the Tutsi and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.  And those outrages all deserve to be remembered.

But to contend that it’s somehow wrong to stress the singular hatred Hitler, ym”s, had for Jews, and his determination to destroy our people in toto is to reveal the deepest of delusions.  And fostering that delusion is a Holocaust revision of its own.

Determination to create a world that would be Judenrein – free of Jews – was the Nazis’ first and foremost goal.  They may have had no compunctions about killing others they felt were detrimental to the Third Reich – political opponents, the non-productive, those they deemed “asocial.”  But they didn’t seek a Gypsyrein world or a disabledrein one.  The Nazi quest was to clear the world, not just Germany, of Jews; and it was a deep and abiding obsession, a psychopathy clothed in philosophical/theological garb.

Hitler revealed as much in Mein Kampf, where he wrote: “If… the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men…”

Even as he and his companion were about to commit suicide, on April 29, 1945, at 4 a.m. the fading führer issued a statement declaring “Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their followers with… merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry.”

Scholar Steven I. Katz put it succinctly: “The Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific group.”

Or, as the philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote, “The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself.”

And there’s something more, too, a context that makes the Nazis’ Jew-hatred singularly significant.  Here, perhaps, a non-historian may have said it best, and only last week.

Awarding a posthumous honor to Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, an American serviceman who protected Jewish captives in a German POW camp, the aforementioned POTUS recalled Mr. Edmonds’ words to the camp’s commander, who had ordered Jewish prisoners to come forward: “We are all Jews.”

“We are all Jews,” explained Mr. Obama, “because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil.”

Gut gezokt.  Hear it well, Professor Auron.

© 2016 Hamodia

Howling Hounds and Golden Calves

Whether or not they happen to own dogs, some politicians have an affinity for dog whistles, at least the political type.

That term plays on the fact that dogs can hear frequencies inaudible to humans, and refers to catchwords or phrases used in speeches and such to signal things, usually ugly things, to particular parts of the body politic.

When segregation became socially unacceptable, many pro-segregationists began instead calling for “states’ rights,” as a euphemism for the right of individual states to racially discriminate.  Used in a speech, it was an ultrasonic call-out to racists.  Now “states’ righters” has become a dog whistle of its own, used by some speechifying liberals to insinuate that anti-big government sorts are all racists.

In the current presidential primary race, Jeb Bush has accused Donald Trump of “dog whistling,” citing, among other things, the latter’s endless stream of insults to various groups of foreigners or non-males.  But those aren’t really dog whistles at all; they’re more like raucous tuba blasts, blown by a clown.

Some dog whistlers have long sought to call out to people not well disposed toward Jews or Israel, using well-placed phrases like “dual loyalty” or “powerful Congressional lobby.”  Back in 2012, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd upset many when she accused Republican presidential hopefuls as being guided by a “neocon puppet master,” a reference that was heard as referring to Jewish former administration officials.

A recent dog whistle sounding anti-Jewish notes was wielded by Congressional candidate Dan Castricone, a former Orange County legislator seeking the Republican nomination for New York’s 18th District congressional seat, which includes all of Orange and Putnam counties and parts of two others.

A little background:  Kiryas Joel, in case you aren’t aware, is a village and Hassidic enclave founded by the Satmar Rov, zt”l, that is part of the town of Monroe, in Orange County, New York.

A 2011 New York Times report noted that, despite the town’s very high poverty rates, “It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.”

Some residents of the surrounding communities, however, view Kiryas Joel as encroaching on them, particularly because of the growth of the village and its residents’ desire to annex additional land to accommodate its growth.

In September, the Monroe Town Board approved a petition to shift 164 acres (approximately a third of what was requested) of the town into Kiryas Joel.

The concerns of those in opposition to that plan cannot be dismissed out of hand.  They prefer that the bucolic nature of their surroundings be undisturbed by new residential developments and the construction attendant to creating them.  At the same time, though, neighborhoods change, and development impinges on rural areas all the time; many a once-verdant, pastoral setting has been transformed into a vibrant residential community.  Some things in life might be bothersome, but need to be accepted all the same.

What isn’t acceptable – or shouldn’t be – is opposition to development that is wrapped in religious prejudice.

Which brings us to Mr. Castricone.

In a fundraising letter, after declaring his opposition to Kiryas Joel’s bid to expand, he announced that he will “fight until my last breath to stop it.”  All right, he’s impassioned.  No crime there.  But he also seems, unfortunately, to be something else.

In one speech, he railed that the current holder of the Congressional seat he seeks, Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, “sits in Congress today only because of a certain bloc of votes [emphasis – or, at least, italics – mine] he obtained from a certain village in the center of a town called Monroe.”

Woof woof.

And if that didn’t get the hounds howling, the calculating candidate, in another address, railed against “one community” that he said has “run roughshod over the culture” of his beloved fatherland – pardon, region.  And, in case anyone might have wondered what “culture” he meant to reference, he helpfully continued by accusing Mr. Maloney of having made “a pact with the golden calf.”

Last we checked, democracy was alive and well in the United States, including upstate New York.  And members of all American communities were free to vote, individually or en masse, for whomever and whatever they believed to be in their best interest.

Mr. Castricone, no doubt, would affirm that all of that remains the case, and will wave the flag of freedom alongside all who are proud to live in this great country.  But the whistle he blows sounds a rather more sour note.

© Hamodia, 2015

Exhibit A: Us

It’s not his name but I’ll call him Yochanan, after R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, the Gemara tells us (Berachos 17a), was first to greet anyone, Jew or not, he passed in the street.

Yochanan and his wife – we’ll call them the Sterlings – have long used the services of a car repair shop run by an Egyptian Coptic Christian.  We’ll call him Samir. Another of Samir’s customers is Pinchas.

Pinchas related to me last week that he was at Samir’s repair shop recently and that Samir asked him if he knew Yochanan and his wife.  He did, he said, quite well.  And then Samir spent the next ten minutes singing the Sterlings’ praises.  They always smile at him, he related proudly, and ask him about how things are going with his business.  They never argue over charges.  They show an interest in him and make him feel valued.  “Some Jews I don’t like,” he admitted to Pinchas, “but people like them are the real deal.”

Coptic Christians, although they are Arabs, have been attacked repeatedly and savagely by Islamic radicals in recent years; many have been viciously murdered.  So Jews and Copts today share a common enemy. But Eastern Orthodox Churches like the Coptic one have their own long histories of Jew-hatred, and it persists today among many in contemporary Eastern Orthodox communities.

Samir, though, despite his religious background, is enamored of Jews, at least Jews like the Sterlings (and, I suspect, Pinchas).  He has no choice but to accept the evidence of his senses.

And yet, according to Google, the most asked question about Jews is why they are “so rude.”

We don’t have Nevi’im today; and if we did, Google would not be among them.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, take to heart the yield of its logarithm.  To be sure, some of the belief that Jews (and that likely means “identifiably Jewish” Jews) are less than friendly surely emerges from dark places, from hearts polluted with senseless Jew-hatred.  But some of it, too, likely comes from us.

Not that we’re, chalilah, intentionally impolite.  But, unlike in centuries past, we live in open societies these days, and the sort of laying low and ignoring those around us that were sensible staples of Jewish life in other lands and times strike some of our non-Jewish (or Jewish but less observant) fellow citizens as aloofness and off-putting.

We have no choice but to face the fact that each of us today is a walking Jewish billboard, an advertisement for Torah.  A case can even be made that the Gemara’s admonition that a talmid chacham must act in an exemplary fashion at all times applies today, when most Jews are estranged from Torah, to all of us, learned or not, who embrace the Jewish mesorah.

That means, of course, eschewing not only rudeness but even the appearance of the same.  When entering a building or room, holding a door open for someone behind you isn’t a big deal to do, but it can be quite a big deal for the person behind you.

When facing a cashier (no less a human being, no matter how grumpy, pierced or tattooed, than any other one), a sincere “thank you” is in order.

And when driving, signaling one’s turns and lane-switches, not shooting into traffic and not double parking when it impedes others are signs of simple civility. And unless all your car windows are heavily tinted, you can rest assured that anyone you cut off or tailgate will take note of your appearance and draw the indicated conclusions.

Then there is the thing that won’t take any toll on anyone’s time, doesn’t cost anything and is easily within the reach of us all: the sever panim yafos, or smiling countenance, of Avos 1:15. We are to greet, in the Mishnah’s words, “every human” with it.  It involves eye-contact and a smile – a sincere one, acknowledging the humanity of the other.  That is an imperative in its own right, the proper conduct, according to Chazal, of a Jew.  But it also serves an auxiliary purpose, and it’s not a small one.

Last week, I noted the Rambam’s guide to attaining ahavas Hashem, contemplating the wonder of the world around us.  Chazal also tell us, though, that the mitzvah has another dimension: that we act “so that the name of Hashem is beloved through your hand” (Yoma 86a).

That might seem like a difficult thing, but it’s really not.

Just spend some time with Samir.

© 2015 Hamodia

A Magical Encounter

Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting.  “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind.  As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry.  I laughed and said, “I wish!”  The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers.  What aptitude we have lies in our tefillos, not the hocus-pocus little Musa was eagerly imagining.

I don’t know if it had been his mother who informed the boy then that we Jews are sorcerers (she had walked ahead), or whether it was something he had been taught earlier.  But it’s unlikely that the characterization was intended to endear us to him.  Whether my friendly demeanor and denial of the charge will in any way prevent him from absorbing his “chinuch” is something I’ll not likely ever know.  But one can hope.

The view of Jews as sorcerers is an ancient one.  When half of Europe’s population perished in the 14th century’s Black Death, Jews were less affected than their neighbors (something commonly attributed to our regular hand-washing, an activity shunned by non-Jews at the time).  Jewish communities were massacred on the assumption that their members had poisoned wells or cast magical spells on their neighbors

Apparently the imagining of our sorcery, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, persists today.  Last year, Tehran University professor Valiollah Naghipourfar was asked by an interviewer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting whether jinns, or demons, can “be put to use in intelligence gathering.”

His response was: “The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews.”

And in 2013, Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Namir charged that evil Jewish (and Christian – the fellow’s an equal opportunity paranoiac) demons had possessed Palestinians, and were behind a Gazan mother’s attempt to murder her child.  She was, Mr. Namir explained, possessed by “sixty-seven Jewish jinn.”  Palestinian exorcist Sheikh Abu Khaled reported that “most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”

And so it goes.

It’s easy today to become oblivious to how some ignorant people among our neighbors see us. After all, we regularly come into contact with unbigoted, friendly non-Jews.  The morning of the day I’m writing this, a bus driver who could have ignored the bearded, black-hatted man walking up a hill instead signaled happily that I didn’t have to rush, that he’d wait for me. From my desk at Agudath Israel’s headquarters, I regularly see respectful public officials who have come to visit.

Sure, we all realize that there are third-world inhabitants with benighted attitudes toward Jews, who cling to dark fantasies about the Yahuds.  But we don’t often imagine that our neighbors might be sullied by such psychological slime. My post-Shacharis interaction was a little reminder, I suppose, a reality check.

And yet, it’s not hard to understand the assumption of our wizardry.

To be sure, divination and witchcraft are foreign to Jews and forbidden.  As Bilam will remind us this Shabbos, as he does each year, “There is no sorcerer in Yisrael.”

But isn’t the fact that, through millennia of persecution and attempts at our annihilation we Jews persist as a nation… if not magical, miraculous?  And aren’t the achievements of Jews, not only in the most meaningful realms like Torah and chessed, but even in fields more readily appreciated by “the world”… astonishing?

There is indeed magic here, though, of course, it’s not the right word.  We’re not sorcerers, chas v’shalom.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something supernatural – in the word’s most basic meaning, “beyond physical nature” – behind our survival, in our successes, and lying in our future.  As we prepare to enter Bein Hametzarim, our mourning should be tempered by that thought.

© 2015 Hamodia