Category Archives: Journalism

Erratum

A reader has informed me that, contrary to what I had written in an earlier posting, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre did indeed mention the names of a number of non-Jews in his speech to CPAC.  He is correct, and I have amended the piece accordingly.  The new version is here.

My apologies to all my readers for my inadvertent error.

Peter Beinart’s Orthophobia

Below is my original draft of a piece I wrote for Forward.  The article as it appeared there, though, was substantially edited, and several sentences that I think are important were omitted.  So I share the original here.  The Forward piece can be read here.

Well, in case anyone for some reason may have been wondering, Peter Beinart, who recently wrote a piece titled “The Orthodox Should Know Better than to Embrace Hatred of Muslims,” doesn’t follow J.K Rowling on Twitter.

Because if the Forward senior columnist and former The New Republic editor did, he would have seen Harry Potter’s creator’s retweet last year of a haredi (or in the Forward’s pejorative preference, “ultra-Orthodox”) rabbi’s message.

The rabbi shared the fact that he had dedicated his presidential election vote to the American Muslim soldier Captain Humayun Khan – who was killed in combat and about whom his father Khizr spoke movingly at the Democratic National Convention. Then-candidate Donald Trump, of course, was then touting his “Muslim ban.”

The Hasidic rabbi, who serves as a media relations coordinator at the national Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America (full disclosure: I work there too), shared a photo of himself holding his ballot, alongside a photo of Captain Khan and his gravestone. He wrote that he wanted to highlight how Captain Khan’s “devotion makes (religious) freedom possible.”

The tweet was liked almost 12,000 times and retweeted 5,496 times, including Ms. Rowling’s sharing of the photo and message with her 13 million followers. Not one of whom, apparently, is Mr. Beinart, who wrote recently here that “the inability to distinguish jihadist terrorism from Islam fuels American Jewish hostility toward American Muslims” and that such inability is “particularly true among the Orthodox.”

Mr. Beinart must have also missed the story of the haredi director of a Brooklyn soup kitchen who, after the election, rallied support within his community for Muslim Yemeni neighbors who were protesting the new president’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.  The haredi also organized support for a beleaguered local Yemeni-owned bodega, complete with “Shalom/Salaam” posters.

Agudath Israel, moreover, issued a pro-immigration statement about the ban asserting that such a move is acceptable only if intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country, only “if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees” and only if “its focus is on places,… not on religious populations.”

Mr. Beinart could be forgiven for not knowing about the hassidic WhatsApp group that calls itself “Isaac and Yishmoel,” created to enable its members to defend unfairly maligned Muslims.

But some research on his part might have turned up the fact that Agudath Israel’s executive vice president chairs the Committee of New York City Religious and Independent School Officials, which includes representation from the Islamic School Association. And that he has worked with Islamic school representatives on a number of issues before the New York State Education Department. And that, on the national level, he works with Islamic school groups under the umbrella of the Council for Private Education.

Agudath Israel has also joined with Islamic groups in amicus briefs in religious liberty cases, and, along with the Orthodox Union, another major national group, has opposed “anti-sharia” laws.

Is there wariness about Muslims among many Orthodox Jews?  Yes, as there is among many non-Orthodox ones, among many Episcopalians, Catholics and Hindus too.  Is that fair to the vast majority of Muslim citizens, who have no evil designs?  No.  But, unfortunately, the proclaimed world-conquering designs of Islamists and the malevolent acts committed by extremists exist.  The distrust that results is, unfortunately, the responsible Muslim’s unfair burden to bear.

But do Orthodox Jews hate Muslims or seek to harm them?  Mr. Beinart should visit one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods where Orthodox Jews and Muslim immigrants live side by side, day by day without friction.

The Forward columnist compounds his slander of Orthodox Jews by engaging in some Orthophobia, in effect accusing haredim of preventing women from marrying, touting genocide and killing babies.  Yes, you read right.

There isn’t space here to rebut such outlandishness.  Suffice it to say that it is a high haredi ideal to find ways to compel a recalcitrant husband to agree to divorce his abandoned wife; that no people today can be identified with Amalek, and so the biblical injunction to destroy that evil nation cannot be applied; and that metzitza bipeh, the oral suction practiced by some haredim as part of the Jewish circumcision rite, has never been proven to be related to, much less the cause of, any infection in an infant, as three medical/statistics experts have affirmed (http://forward.com/opinion/letters/194118/no-conclusive-evidence-on-circumcision-rite-and-he/) in these very pages.

The Orthodox community’s final crime, in the Beinart courtroom, is having voted in large numbers, and in contrast to the larger Jewish community, for the man currently occupying the White House.  Judge Beinart chooses to interpret that fact as the result of Orthodox anti-Muslim sentiment.

Might it be, though, that many haredim simply recognize that judicial appointments comprise one of the most influential powers any president has? And felt that Mr. Trump’s likely choices would prove more sensitive to our community’s concerns about societal issues and the potential erosion of religious rights in America?

We must plead guilty – forgive us – to the charges of being social conservatives and religious rights activists.  But not to Mr. Beinart’s ugly and incendiary charge.

Truth Gone Missing

It made many people very happy.

Especially dentists.

“It” being the report widely circulated over recent weeks that an ice cream breakfast will make you smarter.

The claim first appeared on a Japanese news site, citing a study by Professor Yoshihiko Koga at Tokyo’s Kyorin University. According to the story, Professor Koga found that people who ate ice cream for breakfast had faster response times and more brainwave activity than a control group. “Break out the Klein’s!” was my personal brain’s first, spirited reaction.

The wonderful news, which, of course, runs counter to virtually everything nutritionists believe about a healthy first meal of the day, made its way to the British newspaper The Telegraph, and, from there, to media like Newsweek, CBS broadcasts and The Washington Times.

Before you plan on a scoop of mint chocolate chip to start tomorrow, though, please note that the control group didn’t eat a “normal” breakfast. In fact, its members didn’t eat breakfast at all. So, playing Sherlock Holmes, we might suspect that the reason the ice cream eaters did better was because they actually ate breakfast (and sugar, which in excess contributes to a host of serious medical problems, indeed provides at least a short-lived boost to brain function).

In the words of Reading University researcher Katie Barfoot, “A possible explanation [for the increased alertness]… is the simple presence of consuming breakfast vs. not consuming breakfast.” Possible, yes.

The original report of the study, by the way, mentions, en passant, that the research was conducted in partnership with an unnamed sweets company. Watson, I believe we have a motive.

Less mouth-watering and more potentially dangerous than even excessive consumption of sugar was some other material disseminated last year but whose extent has only recently come to light.

Back in June, former F.B.I. director James B. Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that there was “massive” Russian interference in last year’s presidential election. “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” he declared. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts.”

Among those efforts, it is now known, thanks to an investigation by The New York Times and research from the cybersecurity firm FireEye, that last year a Russian-controlled cyberarmy of impostors created counterfeit social media accounts aimed at influencing the election.

The Russian information attack included the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails, and a torrent of stories, true, false and in-between in Russian media like cable channel RT (“Russia Today”) and the news agency Sputnik.

More insidious still was Russia’s hijacking of American social media to present information, and misinformation, behind cybermasks. Electronic means used by millions were repurposed as engines of deception and propaganda.

Take Melvin Redick of Harrisburg, Pa., for example. In his photo, he smiled broadly, wore a backward baseball cap and held a young child on his lap. He urged others to check out a brand-new website.

“These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the U.S.” he wrote on June 8, 2016. “Visit DCLeaks [a website]. It’s really interesting!”

Mr. Redick, however, doesn’t exist. His ostensible photo was in fact of an unsuspecting Brazilian, “borrowed” without permission. The site purporting to be his was linked to the Russian military intelligence agency.

It supplied private information stolen by hackers and presented to discredit the Clinton campaign and its supporters.

Elections, alas – I hope you’re sitting down – are less influenced by intelligent analyses of issues and candidates’ records and statements than they are by selective information, real or otherwise, in context or out of it, offered to the public in a way that stirs bile, not brains.

So, whatever the truth, or truthiness, of the material that was proffered by the non-existent Mr. Redick and literally thousands of thousands of social media ads devoid of context and promoting divisive social and political messages over the course of the months leading up to the election, the meddling of a foreign (and far from benign) power is meaningful.

Chazal teach that, when the “footsteps” of Moshiach are close, ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” (Sotah 49b).

The contention that ice cream is a good breakfast idea is a relatively easy untruth to discern. That an supposed person is in fact not a person at all, or that purported “news” media are in cahoots with a foreign autocrat, a good deal less so.

So, as you sit down, I hope, to a healthy breakfast tomorrow, ponder the fact that today, in news as in the marketplace, caveat emptor, let the consumer be aware.

© 2017 Hamodia

The Peril of Partisanship

Among contemporary American life’s many negative influences on Torah-conscious Jews is a subtle one that is generally overlooked.

We don’t need reminders of the pernicious impact of the surrounding society’s denial of eternal truths, embrace of immorality, lack of any semblance of tznius or obsession with material comforts and possessions. Well, actually we do need such reminders, and receive them from our manhigim.

But we seldom hear about a spiritual ill that, at least to my lights, seems to be running wild among even Jews who are otherwise committed to Torah: Political bandwagon-jumping.

I’m not referring, of course, to responsible shtadlanus, whose primary and most responsible practitioner is the organization I am privileged to work for (but, I remind readers, in whose name I do not write in this space), Agudath Israel of America.

The judicious and delicate execution of shtadlanus, interaction with government officials – which was pioneered in the U.S. by the likes of “Mike” Tress and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zichronom livrachah – is vital, although not a simple thing. People like my esteemed colleagues Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and Rabbi Abba Cohen, with the guidance of Gedolim, admirably carry on those pioneers’ work in a duly careful and conscientious manner.

My concern is with something else, what might best be called the “political sports team mentality” popular with so many simple-minded Americans, but which has been seeping, heavily of late, into the Torah-dedicated world as well.

Otherwise intelligent individuals gleefully glom onto particular political parties or politicians, usually for some (at least arguably) rational reason, but then, when faced with the championed party’s or person’s wrongheaded actions, words or behavior, are unable to let go. The fans bend over backward to justify the unjustifiable, because, well, it’s their player or their team.

And, conversely, the “opposing team” is a no-good bunch of bums, and can do no right. A leader or legislator can act laudably but, if he is on the wrong side of the designated partisan divide, will be criticized for being hypocritical, having a hidden agenda or just for not having done more.

Is this what our community has come to, a quieter but no less mindless version of the rowdy crowds who heartily chant “Yes, we can!” or “Lock her up!”?

Something’s gone missing in parts of our community and some of its organs’ political positions and commentary. Actually a few things. One is humility.

That is to say, there are seldom simple answers to complex political issues – which most political issues are. Yes, there are certainly occasions when it is clear that a particular piece of legislation or political candidate is worthy, or the opposite.

But in most cases, things are not entirely as they are portrayed by either the New York Times’ editorial page or talk radio personalities. And only a careful hearing-out and honest consideration of all sides of an issue, be it immigration or free trade or Confederate statues or even a potential peace process in the Middle East, has a chance of yielding an informed, objective position. Mindless team spirit is no path to emes. Sometimes, even, as conservative columnist David Brooks recently observed, “The truth is plural.”

Thoughtful, truth-consistent positions come from research and objective analysis, not the rantings or self-righteousness of partisan players. Assertions, even if one hears them shouted on the radio or sees them, as the wry joke goes, “on the internet!,” are not necessarily actual facts.

An actual fact is that, at the “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville, one side was entirely composed of white supremacists of varied stripes but the other was mostly comprised of non-radical, non-violent opponents of white supremacy. And that the former group contained no very fine people. And, on the other hand, that neither Steve Bannon nor President Trump is an anti-Semite.

An actual fact is that it wasn’t “the media” alone that was disturbed by the president’s seeming comparison of the two groups, but also leading Republican lawmakers, staunchly conservative periodicals, commentators like Charles Krauthammer, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and, lihavdil, a number of respected Rabbanim.

An actual fact is that, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently observed, “Most news is not fake.”

Mr. Brooks made another observation about political “zealots.” They turn politics, he wrote, “into a secular religion.” In our case, actually, it’s much worse. They turn religion – ours – into political tools, and even attempt to utilize statements of Chazal and divrei Torah to buttress their partisan positions. That’s indefensible.

As is the entire “sports team” mentality in politics.  We are, or should be, better than that.

© 2017 Hamodia

CNN’s New Low

One needn’t be a Trumpaholic to know that certain media have a way of “reporting” that undermines truths.

Take a recent CNN headline: “Christian man prays with Jerusalem Muslims as religious tensions flare.”

The text, accompanied by a large photograph, elaborates:

“Nidal Aboud stood out as one among many. As the men around him bowed, he made the sign of the cross. As they chanted their prayers, he read the Bible to himself… He was the only Christian among thousands of Muslims at Friday prayers in the Wadi el-Joz neighbourhood, outside the Old City of Jerusalem.”  The prayers pointedly took place there because Islamic authorities forbade Muslims from entering the Temple Compound after Israel placed metal detectors at entrances to the site.

It was, CNN helps us understand, a “simple interfaith moment… a touching example of cooperation in a time of conflict.”

The conflict, of course, is the utterly deranged reaction of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Waqf to the installation of the metal detectors, after two Israeli guards were murdered by a Muslim fanatic who emerged from the Temple Compound with a gun that he, or others, had smuggled onto the site.

No, the Christian’s joining in the Muslim prayer wasn’t “a touching example” but, rather, a typical one, of how, when it comes to irrational animus toward Israel, very different kinds of people, of entirely disparate beliefs, find common cause.

The Terminology of Terrorism

The June 19 attack in London, in which a man plowed his van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers exiting a mosque, killing one and injuring 10, was no less heinous than attacks by Islamists on other innocent people.

The London attack was the subject of scores of news reports over ensuing days.  But that didn’t prevent National Public Radio social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to, in the wake of the attack, reprise a March study by three Georgia State University researchers who maintain that non-Islamist terrorism is largely, and irresponsibly, downplayed by the media.

The fact that violence against Muslims and Islamic institutions are occurring more than ever is unarguable. Mere days before the recent attack on the London worshippers, in Malmö, Sweden, a man with neo-Nazi links drove his car into a group of Iraqis who were peacefully demonstrating against tightened Swedish asylum rules. Thankfully, no one was injured in that attack.

Six people, though, were killed and nearly 20 wounded in January, when a white nationalist opened fire on an Islamic cultural center in Quebec City. That same month, an Islamic Center in Austin, Texas was destroyed by a fire. Last month, a man fatally stabbed two people and injured a third, after he was confronted for shouting what were described as racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls on a train in Portland, Oregon.

Mosques, moreover, have been vandalized with increasing frequency over recent years and months, both in the U.S. and across Europe.

All that said, however, the study touted by NPR, whose report was picked up by a broad assortment of other news outlets, is seriously misleading.

The study’s researchers examined news coverage from the database LexisNexis Academic and CNN for terrorist attacks – defined as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” – in the U.S between 2011 and 2015. They found that “attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks.”

Quite a shocking discovery, at least at first read. But a second read is in order.

The first chink in the armor of the researchers’ conclusion lies in the definition of “terrorist attacks.” According to the study’s characterization, terrorism encompasses not only shootings, stabbings and bombings, but arson, too – and graffiti and eggings and phone threats (“the threatened or actual use of illegal force…”).

To be sure, all those things are ugly and evil, and in many cases may be rightly classified as hate crimes. But the word terrorism, most people would likely assert, should be reserved for actual violent attacks on actual human beings.

Another less obvious but more trenchant vulnerability in the researchers’ conclusion about the ostensible under-reportage of non-Muslim-committed crimes lies in the academics’ failure to distinguish between acts born of anger and those born of ideology.

The vast majority of Muslims worldwide are concerned with things like dietary laws, fasts and praying; they do not seek to kill people. Which is why the word “Islamists” has been coined to refer to those who in fact wish to murder innocents – including innocent Muslims whom they consider to be infidels.

As odious as those who attack Muslims are, and as deserving as they are of prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, most if not all of them are motivated by raw anger and misguided notions of revenge, not by any ideology of ridding the world of those who follow Islam. Before 2001, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. were almost unheard of.  While there are certainly haters of Muslims – and Jews and blacks – out there, there are no “Christianists” seeking out non-Christians to kill, as there are Islamists seeking to murder those who believe differently than they do.

That is a distinction with a dire difference. The Georgia State researchers aver that “U.S. media outlets disproportionately emphasize… terrorist attacks by Muslims – leading Americans to have an exaggerated sense of that threat”; and they lament that “it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.”

The reality, though, is that Islamism is a clear, present and determined danger to all civilized people, non-Muslims and Muslims alike. And the public perception of that fact is entirely justified, as is the prominent reportage of ideology-driven murder and mayhem.

The researchers’ and NPR’s desire to point out the prevalence of non-Muslim crimes is commendable. But it does no one any favor to try to minimize the singular threat to civilization today that is Islamist terror.

© 2017 Hamodia

A Tale of Two Testimonies

“Gentlemen! Start your engines!”

Or, maybe better, “In this corner, heavyweight champion…!”

Neither phrase was actually blasted from a loudspeaker on either June 8, when ex-FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, or last Wednesday, the 13th, when it was Attorney General Jeff Session’s turn to answer questions. But, predictably, the reactions to the two men’s sworn responses to committee members’ questions came flying as fast and furious as any race car or boxer’s hook.

Mr. Comey, who served in the Department of Justice before being appointed to head the FBI in 2013, has the distinction of having drawn harsh criticism over the past year from both sides of the political aisle.

Last summer, Republicans condemned him when he told the media that he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state.

Democrats, for their part, castigated him for his pointed criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s actions. Then, when Mr. Comey announced mere weeks before the election that the FBI was reopening the investigation of Mrs. Clinton, her supporters were further outraged.

Being blasted by both sides in a dispute is often a sign that one is doing things right. Mr. Comey is clearly not beholden to any party, only to what he sees as his duty as a public servant.

That image was only enhanced, at least for me, by his Senate testimony, much of which focused on his impression that, in a private meeting with Mr. Trump on February 14, the president had subtly tried to pressure him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s erstwhile national security advisor.

Having subsequently been fired by the president, Mr. Comey was asked by Senator John Cornyn, “If you’re trying to make an investigation go away, is firing an FBI director a good way to make that happen?”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Comey replied, “but I’m hopelessly biased given that I was the one fired.” That admission, to me, reflects a self-awareness all too rare in government today.

The partisan pugilists, though, took it as an admission that undermined Mr. Comey’s entire testimony. They also focused on Mr. Comey’s having shared with the media a memo to himself about his uncomfortable meeting with the president, written right afterward and intended to preserve his immediate impressions.

Fast-forward five days. Mr. Sessions acquitted himself well, too, convincingly condemning accusations that he had had conversations with Russian officials about the presidential election as an “appalling and detestable lie.”

The attorney general, too, was seized upon by the partisan pack, mainly for what it characterized as “stonewalling” – his declining to respond to questions about private conversations he had with the president. But, as Mr. Sessions explained, since Mr. Trump is protected by executive privilege, he, Mr. Sessions, did not feel he could relate information that the president might not wish to become public. Many of us might relish the thought of hearing about those conversations, but the attorney general’s point is entirely defensible.

The only conflict between Mr. Comey’s and Mr. Sessions’ testimonies lay in their description of what transpired on February 14, when Mr. Comey emerged from his private meeting with the president and expressed to the attorney general that he, Mr. Comey, felt that such a one-on-one meeting was improper.

Mr. Comey said: “I don’t remember real clearly. I have a recollection of him [Mr. Sessions] just kind of looking at me – and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory – but I kind of got… his body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Mr. Sessions, for his part, testified that he did in fact respond to Mr. Comey’s expressed discomfort, and that he agreed with him on the importance of maintaining proper protocol.

As explosive contradictions of testimony go, this was more a fizzled-out sparkler than a bombshell. The discrepancy between the “body language” of Mr. Comey’s recollection (especially qualified by his admission that his memory of the moment is unclear) and the short response of Mr. Session’s remembrance is hardly the stuff of perjury.

And so, what the two testimonies leave me with is a favorable impression of two upstanding public servants responding as best as they feel they can to Congressional questions.

Pundits are expected to take sides here, to find some fault in Mr. Comey or Mr. Sessions. But I don’t see any glaring ones. I’m left only with a positive impression of two honorable men.

Is that allowed?

© 2017 Hamodia