Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

What’s Not Necessarily in a Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamodia 2018

The Arvus Factor

A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.

But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.

The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.

But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.

When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.

The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).

So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.

Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”

That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.

On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.

May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.

Gmar chasimah tovah!

© 2018 Hamodia

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia

Impartial is Impossible

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, back when Donald Trump was a mere businessman building casinos, not an embattled president haranguing the press, I was already dealing with what has since come to be called, at his suggestion, “fake news.”

The media bias with which I was confronted as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director largely concerned Orthodox Jews, not political matters, but my frustration then was similar to the president’s current pique.

At the time, of course, computers were fairly new, social media nonexistent and tweeting, blessedly, was limited to birds.

All the same, though, I tried to raise a hue and cry, fantasizing that I might change the world, or at least the media world. Needless to say, I didn’t.

So many media, so much misinformation. Like demonstrably false assertions in news stories across the nation about Orthodox Jews, like the New York Times’ description of a large Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…”

Or its story on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas focusing not on the incredible turnout and enthusiasm of those present but on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud. Or its characterization of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, years later, as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when the violence was entirely one-sided.

There were many other errors of fact over the years, not to mention a dearth of Orthodox voices in stories that cried out for them. Agudath Israel made countless efforts to correct the record in calls to reporters, letters to editors and other interventions.

But clear, demonstrable mistakes were one thing. More slippery fish were the subtle misleadings: the emphasis on one aspect of a story at the expense of a larger picture, the omission of important pertinent information, the clever but deceptive opening or closing lines, the headlines that misrepresented what the articles beneath them actually said, the choice of photos that impugned Orthodox Jews. Those sorts of things were what really rankled, because effectively countering them was like nailing ptcha to a wall.

What I came to learn over time, though, was that the shortcomings of news organizations didn’t have to lead to frustration, nor to seeing media as “the enemy of the people,” as the president not long ago asserted, to much criticism. Nor even, for that matter, to the conclusion that the media are “fake.” They are simply… well, media – from the Latin word medius, by way of the English word medium, in its sense of “an intermediary” or “channel.”

News media are not final arbiters of truth or facts; they are, rather, lenses through which information is channeled to us. And every lens has its particular shade, warps and flaws; every reporter, no matter how cautious, his or her inherent biases. Trying to deny or resist that undeniable truth, imagining that media can in fact be totally dispassionate, is what leads to frustration. But being angry about a news organization’s reportage’s lack of balance is like being angry at your refrigerator for not washing the dishes.

News, at least at its core, is views. All media are, to one or another degree, biased. A medium like Hamodia is entirely open about its prejudices. The paper you are holding makes no bones about the fact that it is proudly partial – in favor of Torah and Yiddishkeit, against all that is diametrical to those ideals. Media that purport to be impartial, by contrast, are neither that nor truthful.

In a perfect world, perhaps, artificial intelligence would provide us the news, in the form of simple, cold facts. There would be no human bias tweaking it this way or that. But, minus the human element, foibles and all, such reportage would be utterly boring. The price we pay for interesting is acceptance of the human, and thus imperfect, factor.

We must of course continue to call the media out for their demonstrable errors of fact. But, when it comes to their subtle biases, all we can do is adjust for them. And the most a news organization aspiring to reportorial objectivity can do is to assign reporters to stories in which they are as disinterested (“without personal interest or advantage”) as possible.

So if a Jewish newspaper wants to claim to offer impartial reportage, it should have only non-Jewish reporters on staff. Every Jew, after all, has a personal backstory, and his or her reportage will, willy-nilly, be informed by that history. Don’t hold your breath.

In the end, we are stuck with the Jewish, and general, media we have. Not enemies, not fake.

Just, like all their reporters, and for that matter most people, a bit biased.

© 2018 Hamodia

First Amendment and Ninth Commandment

Most of us born and raised in this great country, an outpost of galus that offered our immigrant forebears unprecedented freedoms and protections, deeply appreciate not only those gifts but the Constitutional principles on which these United States stand. Among them, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The issue of that guarantee’s limits is currently a thing, thanks to one Alex Jones.

Mr. Jones is an extremely popular radio program host and the proprietor of a number of websites, most notably one called Infowars. He traffics in unfounded “reports” of conspiracies and nefarious actions by government and “globalist” agents.

He famously averred that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, an assertion that resulted in threats against bereaved parents of some of murdered children. He has also propagated the notion that Democratic lawmakers run a global child-trafficking ring, and that the U.S. government was involved in both the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. He has also claimed that the moon landing footage was fake, and that NASA is hiding secret technology and the deaths of thousands of astronauts.

Mr. Jones is in the news these days because of pending lawsuits by Sandy Hook victims’ parents and others against him, complaints by former staffers of his alleged racist or anti-Semitic behavior and, most recently, because of the removal of his posts and videos from top technology companies’ media platforms.

Enter the First Amendment.

Characterizing the tech companies’ decision to not host his misinformation as “censorship,” he says the move “just vindicates everything we’ve been saying.”

“Now,” he proclaimed in a tweet, “who will stand against Tyranny [sic] and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”

No we’re not.

To be sure, distasteful opinions are legally protected in our country. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that even inflammatory rhetoric is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Revolting as some of Alex Jones’ rants have been, they likely fall on the mutar side of that legal psak. But the rabble-rouser’s lament that, with the curbing of his exposure, the citizenry has been deprived of their last defense against tyranny (upper-cased, no less) is as hollow as the heads of his fans who act on his wild speculations.

In the end, though, no one is preventing Mr. Jones from promoting his untruths (or his products – the diet supplements and survivalist gear he profitably hawks between diatribes) from other rooftops, literal or electronic. The First Amendment limits only the actions of government, not private companies.

Jones, though, is also using the right to free speech as a defense against the lawsuits he’s facing.

One concerns Brennan Gilmore, a former State Department official who attended last summer’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Gilmore was present when a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.

After Mr. Gilmore posted a video of the episode and spoke about it, Mr. Jones accused him of being a C.IA. plant employed by the billionaire George Soros, and as having possibly been involved in the attack on the woman to bring about what he described as “the downfall of Trump.”

In March, Mr. Gilmore sued Mr. Jones for defamation, arguing that he had suffered threats and harassment as a result of the unfounded claim.

Do such public speculations and conspiracy theories merit First Amendment protection, even when they cause harm to others?

In a recent court filing, four law professors specializing in free-speech issues said no.

“False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” the scholars wrote. “And indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

For what it’s worth, Donald Trump Jr. feels differently. He reacted to criticism of Mr. Jones by asserting that “Big Tech’s censorship campaign is really about purging all conservative media. How long before Big Tech and their Democrat friends move to censor and purge… other conservatives [sic] voices from their platforms?”

Judges will decide, at least with regard to American law. As believing Jews, though, we know that there really is no hallowed ideal of “free speech.” The unique ability with which the Creator endowed us, the ability to communicate ideas, is not an “inalienable right” but a formidable responsibility. “From a word of falsehood stay distant” (Shemos 23:7) and “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (ibid 20:13) comprise our duty.

Would that American jurisprudence, even as it protects unpopular opinion, recognize the import of that charge.

© 2018 Hamodia

Haley’s Comment

You likely haven’t heard of Bryan Sharpe. He’s a black activist who, in the grand tradition of Louis Farrakhan, has demonized Jews (whom he calls “Jutang Clan,” an unimaginative play on the name of a rap group). “Trump don’t run America,” he tweeted in March. “He’s just a figure head [sic]. Jutang run America.”

For good measure, Mr. Sharpe has explained that “Holocaust denier” is a term “created to hide the truth.” He uses the triple-parentheses favored by white supremacists as a way to denote Jewishness.

“People in power is always (((them))),” in another tweet, for example.

You may also not be familiar with Charlie Kirk. But the 24-year-old is a hero to 130,000 high school students, undergraduates and recent college graduates, who appreciate his quest “to save Western civilization.”

Six years ago, the then-teenaged Mr. Kirk founded a politically conservative group called Turning Point USA, and it has experienced phenomenal success attracting followers. The group holds conferences and operates a website “dedicated to documenting and exposing college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Critics have charged that the site has misquoted and mischaracterized comments by academics and, in May, a leaked internal memo written by the more traditionally conservative Young America’s Foundation (YAF) accused Turning Point USA of “lack of integrity, honesty, experience, and judgment,” and bemoaned “the long-term damage TPUSA could inflict on… the conservative Movement.”

But Mr. Kirk has pressed on, and believes his group, whose revenues in 2012 were $78,890, will raise close to $15 million this year.

What do Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Kirk have to do with each other? They certainly make an odd pair. But a pair they have become, with Mr. Kirk’s embrace of Mr. Sharpe, including him in meetings and inviting him to a retreat for “black influencers.”

Although Turning Point USA has not exhibited anti-Semitic sentiments and is resolutely pro-Israel, those positions seem to take second and third places to the desire to attract what its leader imagines to be a potential conservative black membership for his group.

And Mr. Sharpe seems enamored of even the far fringes of the politically conservative world. “Alt right,” he remarked in a February, 2017 video, “isn’t afraid to call out the Jews and their implications in the destruction of the black community in America. It’s just the truth.”

The coddling of Mr. Sharpe by Mr. Kirk is a reminder that, although we tend these days to see animus for Jews mostly on the far left (often poorly disguised as objections to Israeli policies), neither end of the political spectrum is without its haters.

Turning Point USA didn’t respond to media requests for comment about its relationship with Mr. Sharpe, and the latter declined to comment, although he deleted many of his tweets about Jews shortly after being contacted by a news organization.

On July 23, hundreds of students gathered at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for the conservative group’s fourth annual High School Leadership Summit. The four-day event included workshops on campus activism and student leadership, and featured speeches by prominent conservatives, including Sebastian Gorka and Anthony Scaramucci. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed members of the group.

As did U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and what she said to the students was characteristically incisive and impressive.

She asked attendees to raise their hands if they “ever posted anything online to ‘own the libs’ ” – to get the goat, that is, of Americans who don’t agree with them. Most of hands in the audience proudly shot up, and there was much laughter and applause.

But then she closed in to make her point. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good,” she says. “But step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?… But this kind of speech isn’t leadership – it’s the exact opposite.”

“Real leadership,” she continued, “is about persuasion. It’s about movement. It’s bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”

Ms. Haley seems to never disappoint. It isn’t likely that she had any inkling of the group’s leader’s outreach to an anti-Semitic rabble-rouser. She is an open book, and its pages so far have all been inspiring. Her call to, in effect, eschew political machinations and tactics – which would include, presumably, trying to leverage the popularity of a hater in order to gain supporters – was a message one hopes was well heard by all present, including Charlie Kirk.

© 2018 Hamodia

Original, unedited version of previous article

The piece as it appears in Moment was edited, shortened for space.  Below is the original, longer version:

 

A Haredi Rabbi’s Rumination on Racism

Mr. Paskow*, now long gone, was a transplant to these shores, an Eastern-European-born Holocaust survivor, and, over the 1970s, he attended services at the small shul where my late father served as rabbi.  And, like many of his generation, Mr. Paskow harbored some deep, overt racial prejudices.

Shvartzes,” Yiddish for “blacks,” is a term that – not unlike “Jews” in English – can be used as a simple descriptive identifier or as a pejorative, depending on context and how the word is spoken.  Likewise with the synonym tunkel, meaning “dark-skinned.” In my parents’ home, the terms were used only the way one might use any other noun or adjective to describe someone.

Someone like Lucille, our once-a-week African-American maid. I was taught to be respectful and appreciative of her; her blackness was a simple matter of fact.

I wish I had been old and savvy enough to ask Lucille about her own childhood and life. What did she know about her ancestry? Did she resent being a domestic? What were her aspirations for her children?

I’ll never know the answers, but what I do know is that she seemed content with her life, and became, at least on Sundays, part of our family. The most vivid memories I have of Lucille are of her greeting me warmly when I came home from yeshiva and of her sitting at the kitchen table being served lunch by my mother, who would then sit down across from her and schmooze (about what, unfortunately, memory fails).

When Lucille grew older and infirm, my parents “employed” her all the same for several years to do very light work. Mama would, as always, serve her lunch and pay her wages, as compensation, not charity. That lesson in kavod habriot, “honoring all people,” remains with me to this day.

Mr. Paskow, though, was of a different mind about blacks. He employed “shvartzes” often, and not as a term of endearment. It was 1969, and race riots in a number of cities the previous year provided the elderly shulgoer with ample fodder for his racial railings.

Waiting each day for Mincha services to begin, Mr. Paskow, often as not, would pontificate about political and social issues.

I was just a teenager, and held my peace.  I had experienced black anti-Semitism.  Like the boy who liked to yell “Heil Hitler!” at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or the public school students who, having been invited by a group of us Jewboys to play a game of softball, lost interest in the ball when they were up to bat, and wielded the wood against us.

But I had also grown fond of my yeshiva’s black gym teacher, a consummate mensch and sportsmanship role model.  And I had also experienced the close friendship of a black neighbor a bit older than I.  I tried to see people as just people.  So I ignored Mr. Paskow’s ravings.

Until, one day, entirely en passant, he mentioned Lenny, a boy he had employed years earlier in his haberdashery, and whom the elderly man had effectively adopted, even paying, he said, for the kid’s college education. One of the other congregants asked Mr. Paskow whether Lenny was Jewish.  “No,” said the elderly man.  “He was a shvartze.”

Old bigoted Mr. Paskow’s protégé was black?  And he had given him a job for the asking?  And paid his college tuition? Who could have guessed?

I filed that oddity away in my head.

When my wife and I married and had children, we raised them to respect all people of whatever ethnicity. When we lived in Providence, Rhode Island, our daughters befriended a black neighborhood girl, Desiree, who was often a guest at our home.

Our children were also particularly fond of Dhanna, the caring black librarian, who was so nice and helpful to them.  Their artwork graced her desk.

And, in the early 1990s, I was privileged to write a biography of a local man of African and Native American ancestry whose determination to become a Jew inspired me.

None of that erased the hatred for Jews I had experienced from blacks. But I knew there’s no dearth of white haters either.

And there’s racism, moreover, among Jews as well. But Farrakhan and followers aside, I think that blacks and Jews have grown less wary of each other, and learned that “the other” isn’t really quite so “other.”  Blacks and haredim have increasingly interacted in politics, businesses and many professions.

In late April, the leading haredi newspaper Hamodia editorialized about the new “lynching museum” in Montgomery, Alabama, and asserted “the need for all Americans, even those of us whose forebears were far from American shores when African-Americans were killed and seen as subhuman, to ensure that the tragic history of American racial violence, too, is not forgotten.”

My thoughts cycle back to Mr. Paskow.  The co-existence of his apparent racism and real-life colorblindness, I suspect, meant that, although his attitude toward blacks was influenced by radicals and rioters, deep in his Jewish soul, he could see, beyond a nebulous group, an individual.

Racism, I fear, may be a fact of life, and its eradication an unattainable goal.

“Curing” racism would be a perfect thing, but, as so often, the perfect is the enemy of the good.  The good here to pursue is, rather than trying to disabuse people of the biases they may coddle, charging them to focus on individuals.

Let people joke and grouse as they wish about whites, blacks, Jews, Muslims or Mexicans, specious though some of the stereotypes may be.  It shouldn’t matter what people think about any group.

It doesn’t matter to me, a visibly Jewish Jew, if someone assumes I possess traits that anti-Semites attribute to my tribe.  I am, indeed, rather cliquish, preferring the company of my own people.  No apologies there.  But I’m neither wealthy, nor do I have business acumen.  And I can’t control my weight, much less the world.  All I ask is that others see me, whatever their beliefs about Jews, as an individual. Judge me as me.

It might seem radical to abandon the traditional assumption that fighting racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism requires hitting some reset button.  But what if there is no button, if looking for it is a fool’s errand?

Most Americans are not true bigots; they don’t hate anyone.  But we all have prejudices. Maybe the best we can, and should, do is accept that fact, but remind ourselves constantly that whatever we may think about a group of people, each of its members, in the end, is an individual.

Even Mr. Paskow was able to do that.

*Not his real name

A Fish’s Smile

I was accosted recently on the Staten Island Ferry by a large fish.

Well, not exactly. It was actually a large photograph of a fish, on a poster carrying the legend: “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the individual. Go vegan.”

Yes, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, has taken its efforts to the high seas. And, although some of the other animals featured on similar posters in the “I’m ME” campaign elsewhere are not particularly charming – it’s hard to make a cow or chicken (much less a lobster) look friendly – the fish whose gaze met mine as I took a seat on the boat and looked to my right was decidedly endearing.

Because he (she?) was smiling.

Or appeared to be. That’s because the sea creatures Hashem created include not just astoundingly colorful and morphologically remarkable species but some that have what strike humans as expressive, almost human, faces. Some look angry, others perplexed – others, like the one on the poster, happy, friendly.

None of those faces, though, in fact reflects any of those human traits, any more than a smiley-face sticker means the sticker is happy. We might be able to tell when a dog is pleased, but when we imagine animals expressing truly human emotions, we are unconsciously anthropomorphizing them – attributing quintessentially human traits to creatures lacking them. There are photographs of “smiling” sharks too.

Of course, trying to convince people that, as PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk once famously put it, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” is the group’s raison d’être.

It even went so far, in 2003, to promote what it called its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, comparing the meat processing industry to Churban Europa. The traveling exhibit juxtaposed World War II death camp photographs with scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Emaciated men were shown next to a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, beside starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human remains beside mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged… piglets.

Ms. Newkirk once commented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” Try wrapping a normal brain around that comparison.

A half-hearted “apology” eventually came, but only for the “pain” the exhibit may have caused. Ms. Newkirk expressed her surprise at the negative reaction. She had “truly believed,” she wrote, “that a large segment of the Jewish community would support” the exhibit, and was “bowled over by the negative reception.” Disturbingly, she laid responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on “PETA staff [who] were Jewish.” Ah, the Jews.

A longtime and still employed slogan of the group, in fact, is “Meat is Murder.” But it’s not. Meat is food. At least since the Mabul, the Torah not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim as a means of enjoying and hence showing honor to holy times.

Few if any religious cultures are as concerned with animals as our mesorah. Not only were two of the three Avos, not to mention Moshe Rabbeinu, caring shepherds, but there is a halachic prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim.

And in actual practice, observant Jews are exquisitely sensitive to animal well-being. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed. (I won’t subject readers again to the menagerie of pets – the goat, iguana, tarantula and assortment of rodents – the Shafran family has hosted. Sorry, guess I just did.) I am careful, as per the Talmud’s exhortation regarding animals, to feed my own tropical fish before I sit down myself to dinner.

But the Torah is clear that animals are for human use. We can hold them captive, we can work them and we can eat them. We can, indeed must, when there is a Beis Hamikdash, bring them as korbanos.

The “PETA Principle,” paralleling animals with humans, subtly lies at the root of much that is wrong with our world. But humans alone make moral choices; animals do not. And conflating the two worlds shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

A rat may be, in a way, a pig, and a pig a dog.

None of them, though, is a boy.

And fishes don’t smile.

© 2018 Hamodia

 

 

Us, Them and the Deep State

Hamodia opted to not publish my column submission for this week, so I post it here instead.

The two thirds of the American populace that objected to the policy of removing children from their illegal immigrant parents at the southern border emitted a collective sigh of relief last week. President Trump, in a stunning turnabout, signed an executive order intended to stop the practice.

Although there are logistical and legal issues still to be resolved and subsequent presidential tweets to try to reconcile with the executive order, the president demonstrated the courage to publicly jettison his repeated claim that he was powerless to act, that only a larger action by Democrats in Congress could end the separation policy. He deserves credit for that move.

Before his reversal, though, the administration’s policy was to treat people who entered the country illegally as felons rather than civil violation offenders (first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor). Children, even very young ones, were taken from their parents against their will, and the policy was broadly decried. Among the decriers was Agudath Israel of America, which expressed its “deep concern and disappointment” over the resultant “profound suffering and pain to both parents and children.”

The Agudah statement acknowledged that the “problem of illegal immigration is a serious one, and we support reasonable efforts by the administration and legislature to effectively stem the flow of would-be immigrants who have not been accepted through the legal immigration system.” But it contended that “seeking to enforce our statutes does not relieve us of [our] moral obligation” to prevent “the extreme anguish, fear and trauma born of separating undocumented immigrant family members, which is particularly harmful to children.”

The reaction to Agudath Israel’s statement was broad and diverse. There were many expressions of gratitude for its issuance, from both members of our community and others. But there were a number of negative reactions too. I serve as the Agudah’s liaison with the media and public, and so those reactions landed in my inbox, some with quite a thud.

They confirmed something that (as regular readers of this space well know) has pained me for years: the prevalence of gross, fervent and unthinking partisanship.

A legitimate question asked by several people was why the Agudah felt the need to comment on the situation at all. The organization does not, of course, regularly comment on events that lack direct impact on the Jewish community.

The knowledge, though, that wailing children were being taken from their parents was wrenching not only to a broad swath of the larger American public but to a wide swath, too, of Klal Yisraelrachmanim, after all, bnei rachmanim. So, it was not inappropriate for us to register our pain. And, with scores of religious groups registering their own protests of the policy, some of them quite harshly, it was felt that, should the Agudah say nothing, it would be assumed to approve of the policy.

Striking, though, was the lack of information that underlay some other (often vociferous) complaints. Several people, “informed” presumably by news sources that richly deserve the adjective “fake,” insisted that “the law” requires family breakups, and that the policy of considering unlawful entrants to be criminals had been in place under previous administrations.

When I explained that there was and is no such law, and that the policy of automatically considering illegal entrants to our country deserving of incarceration and the seizing of their children was mere weeks old, they seemed taken aback.

Others apprised us that a “deep state” plot, or Democratic Party conspiracy, was clearly at play; others were upset that we dared “attack” a sitting president, although we took care in our statement to not even mention the president or attorney general, and lamented only the upshot of an unfortunate policy. When, in past years, the Agudah issued statements critical of the Obama administration for joining the U.N. Human Rights Council or fostering the Iran Deal, no complaints, to the best of my memory, were registered.

Some correspondents, seemingly having read only part of the statement, interpreted the Agudah’s expression of humanitarian concern as advocacy for “open borders.” As if there are only two options: wrenching kids from their parents’ arms or having the country overrun by a horde of Aztec invaders.

The acutely politicized, black-and-white, “us-and-them” and often woefully misinformed mentality in parts of our world is lamentable. Intelligent, informed opinions on current events cannot be gleaned from talk radio hosts or blatantly partisan news organizations. Astuteness requires middos tovos, the consideration of different points of view and the application of that most important of skills: critical thinking.

And their lack poorly serves the mission of Klal Yisrael.

© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran