Category Archives: Journalism

Days of Deceit

Fact-free fantasies are all the rage

Shameless charlatans and flagrant fabulists are nothing new. But they seem to be proliferating rather wildly these days.

In only the latest of a slew of recent such scams, a man was just sentenced to five years in prison after raising $400,000 in a GoFundMe campaign, ostensibly for a homeless veteran. He and his companion spent much of the money on gambling, a BMW, a trip to Las Vegas, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and designer handbags.

Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and operator of the website InfoWars, who, after a Texas jury’s ruling this month, must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1 million in compensatory ones for spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax “staged” by the government so it could “go after our guns,” and that none of the 20 children killed in that attack had actually died.

He called those all-too-real childrens’ parents, who had to identify and bury the bullet-riddled bodies of their young ones, “crisis actors,” resulting in their being retraumatized, and harassed and hounded by some of Jones’ faithful followers.

Previously, the popular fabler endorsed the “Pizzagate theory”—that Democratic Party operatives ran a global child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizzeria—and implied that a yogurt company was linked to an assault case and helped spread tuberculosis, both of which fact-free fantasies he was later forced to apologize for promoting.

Apparently inspired by Mr. Jones, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that the man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, this year, killing six, might have been part of an orchestrated effort to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures.

Millions of Americans believe, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and millions, too (though there’s likely considerable overlap), that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by US government agents. Among the latter group is Michael Peroutka, the Republican Party nominee for Maryland attorney general.

According to a new study by UNESCO, approximately half the public content related to the Holocaust on the Telegram messaging service denies or distorts facts about the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews.

And, with each year leaving us with fewer human witnesses to that evil, the noxious weeds of Holocaust denial are bound to infest the history garden.

Poised, too, to become a powerful engine further impelling our era of lies are “deepfakes.”

Those are videos produced with special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he or she has, well, neither said nor done. Photoshop on steroids.

The software, readily available and being constantly refined, can alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

In 2019, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

According to a report released last week by technology company VMware, attacks using face- and voice-altering technology jumped 13% last year.

“Deepfakes in cyberattacks aren’t coming,” the company’s Rick McElroy said in a statement. “They’re already here.”

In March, for one example, a video posted to social media appeared to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directing his soldiers to surrender to Russian forces. It was a deepfake.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today, it’s gone all the way around the world before truth even finds its shoes.

So there is ample cause for despair. Lies upon lies exposed, many more still claiming the gullible and a likely empowering of falsehood-promotion in the not-distant future.

But cause, too, perhaps, of hope.

Because Chazal (Sotah 49b) foretold that ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” one day: When the “footsteps of Moshiach” are approaching.

(c) 2022 Ami Magazine

Racist Antisemites but pro-Israel

The essay below appeared in Haaretz

Haaretz Opinion

Racist Antisemites, but pro-Israel: The Choice Facing U.S. Orthodox Jews at the Polls

Should American Jews who believe sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is between man and woman, and abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

Avi Shafran

Jun. 7, 2022 12:45 PM

The gunman who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, neighborhood supermarket last month clearly targeted Black people. Not only was the market in a Black neighborhood, but the killer is reported to have shared his racist beliefs in a long-winded manifesto seething with hatred of “non-white” people and immigrants who, in his fevered mind, threaten to supplant ”native-born” Americans.

The document deems Black Americans, along with immigrants, as “replacers” – people who “invade our lands, live on our soil, live on government support and attack and replace our people.”

But the 180-page rant didn’t exactly ignore another minority.

“The Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” the manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.”

As to why he attacked a target in Buffalo and not Brooklyn, he reassured his readers that “the Jews…can be dealt with in time.”

The toxic brew of hatred, fear and unreason about how “real” Americans (or Europeans) are threatened with being overwhelmed by masses of dark invaders, popularly goes by the name “The Great Replacement.”

And other proponents of the ideology have also expressed themselves violently.

In the ADL’s tally, of the 450 murders committed by political extremists over the past decade in the U.S., Islamist extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists for 4 percent. Fully 75 percent were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, many of them explicitly tied to white supremacist movements.

Lest we forget, the Pittsburgh killer of 11 people at a Jewish congregation in 2018 blamed Jews as the “hidden hand” behind a plot to dilute the nation’s white Christian identity.

The killer of Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 called on whites to fight both Blacks and Jews.

The marchers in Charlottesville at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally (in)famously chanted “Jews will not replace us!”

White supremacists killed more people than any other type of radical last year.

The “Great Replacement” idea has been embraced and promoted by an assortment of political and media figures. While some find it unreasonable to imagine that the white power ideology’s mainstreaming in the (more) genteel public sphere plays any role in the violence committed under its banner, imagining otherwise is willful blindness.

To be sure, the pols and pundits generally focus on illegal immigration, something that every sovereign nation, of course, has a right and responsibility to control.

Here in the U.S., the pushers of “replacement theory” declare that their objection is to undocumented immigrants voting for Democratic candidates.

But non-citizens cannot vote in federal or state elections, or in any but a handful of local ones. And even were amnesty to be offered to many, or even all, undocumented immigrants, their path to citizenship would take some eight years, plenty of time to be courted by the Republican party (which, as it happens, increased its share of Latino voters in the 2020 election).

And so, the illegal immigration issue is a red herring (or, perhaps, a white one).

What’s more, much of the replacement rhetoric devolves from electoral concerns, justified or not, into less rarefied realms. The voices, though, belong to some of America’s most powerful institutions.

Steve King, while he was still serving as a Republican member of Congress for Iowa, tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He doubled down with the same vile contention on national TV.

Josh Mandel, when he was standing for election as the GOP candidate for a Senate seat for Ohio, bemoaned how immigration is “changing the face of America, figuratively and literally… our culture… our demographics…” adding “our electorate” only at the end. He endorsed Mike Flynn’s rallying cry that the United States should be “one nation under God and one religion under God.”

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that leftists were attempting to “drown” out “classic Americans.”

Then there is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who famously said that immigration makes the U.S. “poorer, dirtier and more divided.” He makes sure to verbally renounce political violence, of course, but has long ranted in angry monologues against what he calls the demographic threat posed by immigration. Do his words resonate with people like the Buffalo murderer?

“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” fumed Mr. Carlson in a much-shared 2018 segment.

“Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength?” wrote the Buffalo shooter.

Many of us American Jews see the anti-Israel screeds of the progressive “Squad” in Congress as incendiary, as encouraging violence against Jews.

We’re not wrong about that. But it’s time we Jews realized, too, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, conservative and liberal alike, that Replacement Theory dressed up as judicious immigration concerns is just as dangerous, and, in light of the ADL stats, arguably more so.

At her first public appearance, at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the newly minted U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, decried the canard “that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America,” which she said has “been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in Europe and beyond.”

There was a time – it seems so long ago now – when Jews in the U.S. were largely united in supporting Israel and upholding democratic ideals; and recognized the importance of immigrants, like ourselves, to the American melting pot. And it was pretty clear which candidates deserved our votes.

It was a time when Orthodox Jews in particular, but other Jews as well, spoke in unison about the importance of traditional family values and the role of morality in forging social policy. And knew which candidates could be counted on to responsibly further our goals. It was a time when we felt that America’s fundamental democratic institutions, including the nation’s electoral system, deserved to be respected by all citizens, and that minorities and immigrants deserved protection and respect from both the populace and the electorate.

Today, though, as a celebrated bard has maintained, things have changed. And the changes leave much, if not most, of American Jewry conflicted. Or, at least they should.

Should Israel supporters cast votes for candidates who stand up unapologetically for Israel’s security, even if those aspirants to public office promote delusions like “Replacement Theory”? Should those of us who believe that sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is the union of a man and woman (defined biologically) and that abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who feel the same but, wittingly or not, help inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?

It’s a Sophie’s choice, and I don’t profess to know how best to make it.

But it’s a reality that must be faced. And lives – Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish alike, are more than theoretically at stake.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran

Letter and Response in Ami Magazine

Ami Magazine received a good number of letters about a column I wrote about the Ottawa trucker protest, wherein I noted some concerning elements that were part of it.  The magazine wanted to publish three of them and I offered a response. In the end, due to space considerations, only one letter was published, the following one, which, here, is followed in turn with my response:

Dear Editor: 

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Shafran wrote an article discussing the fact that it is inappropriate to determine a true impartial conservative standpoint on anything political lest the opposing side’s argument is hearkened and comprehensively reviewed. It is a very rational perspective I totally agreed with. But lately I have gotten the impression that Rabbi Shafran has taken it too far. His views have moved ever more to the left and it almost seems as if he’s grown a bias against the right wing, versus impartiality.  

There were, for example, his take on the radical steps taken by the AG against vocal parents and his smearing of only Republican politicians who used Holocaust analogies, while ignoring the long list of Democrats doing the same. So I wasn’t surprised at last week’s article condemning the massive truck protest in Canada, though I did think some disagreement was warranted.  

The unconstitutionality of these draconian vaccine mandates and those who raise the fact that it is illegal are dissociated, and the fact that James Bauder believes in some conspiracy theories doesn’t make his argument any less compelling. The right to protest on the other hand, however big a disruption to people’s lives or to commerce, is an elementary right in every democratic country.  

Yet in this article, it is somehow deemed more disquieting than a breach of the most basic of freedoms; being coerced via unconstitutional mandates and taxations to jab a widely speculated vaccine (however illogical the speculation) into one’s own body. The article also mentions how the word “freedom” has morphed “from when it meant the desire of slaves to live normal lives to… the refusal to help stem the spread of a disease.”  

So, needless to say, the dictionary was created long before this topic came up and actually defined the word “freedom” as the power to act, think or speak without hindrance and restraint. Only the left gets so stuck on slavery and racism with regard to anything and everything.  

Now, the response Canada has taken is heavily outrageous. It definitely won’t help, for these protesters are so driven against vaccines that they’re ready to lose their job, getting arrested probably won’t deter them either. But there is a large-scale difference between being arrested for clogging up the traffic purposefully in Ottawa, even the minority protesting with hateful slogans, and those committing acts of violence. And that’s not happening here.  

The kind of language and activity that has now been invoked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada, is actual tyranny. The use of the Emergency Act in order to clear protesters off the streets, is something that in the United States would receive heavy consternation on a major-scale. When Senator Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that rioters be cleared off the streets via the use of the US military if need be, the entire left went so insane that the op-ed editor for the paper was fired for the crime of having printed that op-ed. And he was talking about rioters, he wasn’t talking about protesters, he wasn’t talking about people marching peacefully on the street, yet he was so strongly censured.  

Moshe U. 

Los Angeles, CA


Dear Reb Moshe,

First and foremost, thank you for sharing your perspective. I write to stimulate thought; and responses, positive or otherwise, indicate I’ve been successful.

To some of your points:

I am neither on the “left” nor on the “right.” I’m not into clubs and I eschew groupthink, the yield of partisanship. I engage topics by reading varied viewpoints, doing rigorous fact checking and formulating my own opinion. You can find very “conservative” articles of mine on issues like assisted suicide and public school prayer at Fox Opinion; similar ones about moral issues and feminism in Forward; and about discriminatory Covid restrictions at NBC-THINK. But I don’t automatically endorse what any political party or philosophy may embrace.

If my research on any particular issue leads me to a different conclusion from others’, well, that means that… I have a different opinion. Please don’t shoot.

The “draconian vaccine mandates” in Canada are neither draconian nor, precisely speaking, mandates. Nor have Canadians been “coerced” or been subjected to “egregious human rights violations.” Our neighbor to the north has not held Canadians down and vaccinated them against their will, which would arguably be a violation of their rights. It has simply extended a border-crossing vaccine requirement to include truckers, who most certainly do interact with other people during their runs, deliveries and pick-ups. That is not a curtailment of freedom, but a responsibility placed on citizens intended to protect others. One might well feel that the new rule was unnecessary or even objectionable. But one might feel otherwise, too. There can be, and often are, two different reasonable positions on a topic.

There is indeed a right to protest in Canada, as in our country. But all rights have limits. Police in both countries routinely move demonstrators, even with force, when they become disruptive of others’ rights. And Canada waited several weeks, during which Ottawans endured noise and the inability to get around, before obtaining a judge’s approval, warning the truckers to disband and only then clearing them out.

If my invocation of slavery in America to illustrate the morphing of the word “freedom” as it is used politically these divisive days was somehow offensive, let me replace that example with the freedom Hashem granted Klal Yisrael from their shibud in Mitzrayim. Contrast that oppression with the plight of the truckers.

And speaking of racism, a useful thought experiment would consist of our imagining that the Canadian truck protest was about (real or perceived) mistreatment of African-Canadians, and sponsored by a BLM group. Would you champion a weeks-long disruption of lives and commerce, and be so outraged at someone who pointed out the disturbing record of the organizers, or the ugly actions of some of the demonstrators? If so, then at least you’re consistent. If not, well, then… you’re not.

Mr. Trudeau’s invoking of the emergency powers act, later endorsed and extended by the Canadian House of Commons, took place after my column was submitted for publication. I didn’t find it egregious, though, and, incidentally, I felt the same way about Mr. Cotton’s suggestion, and felt that the criticism of him was wrong. 

The reason I wrote my column was just to point out some disconcerting facts about some of the protesters and one of their officials that I felt were likely unknown to readers.

Some others:

• Aside from the Nazi flag and multiple Confederate and QAnon ones, and from the protester who danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, others desecrated the statue of celebrated cancer research activist Terry Fox with political and anti-vaccine signs; and others urinated on the National War Memorial. Signs with angry obscenities abounded. Numerous photos and videos show the less-than-“heartfelt and touching” signs.

• Polling firm Innovative Research Group found (in a survey from Feb. 4-9) that a mere 29 percent of Canadians expressed support for “the idea of the protest” while 53 percent disapproved. A separate survey by Léger, released on February 8, found that 62 percent of Canadians oppose “the message that the trucker convoy protests are conveying of no vaccine mandates and less public health measures.”

• Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, a police watchdog, is investigating two injuries among the thousands of protesters, both having occurred after a crowd refused to disperse. Only one injury was serious, that of a 49-year-old (not, as another letter writer claimed, a83-year-old) woman, and it has not yet been determined whether a horse struck her or she was knocked down by other protesters amid the commotion. No one was (as the letter writer claimed) “trampled.”

• 13 people connected to the trucker protest in Alberta were found with more than a dozen long guns, hand guns, ammunition and body armor.

Again, my thanks for sharing a different perspective, which, even in disagreement, I fully respect. I can only ask that you give the same consideration to my perspective, and the facts I have offered in its support. And that you accept my sincere assertion that I stand not on “the left” nor on “the right,” but rather where the facts and my best shot at objective judgment take me.

Blinded to One’s Own Bias

Talk about tone-deaf.

A teaser for an “investigative” article by “The Journal News,” which serves several New York counties and whose online moniker is “Lohud,” consisted of the image of a clenched puppetmaster’s hand wielding pencils with strings controlling silhouettes of children, perched atop a large pile of dollars. The caption reads: “Rabbi holds the strings on $76M for East Ramapo School District… Coming Feb. 9.

The paper has a long history of what critics contend is unfair reportage about Orthodox Jews in Rockland County. That the imagery of the teaser, though, promoted a long-dishonored antisemitic canard was unarguable.Two days after gobsmacked readers began contacting the paper, its executive editor, Mary Dolan, issued an apology, explaining that its teaser’s “words and imagery unintentionally featured an antisemitic trope.”

“Members of our team, including myself,” she asserted, “did not recognize the stereotype that degrades and demeans Jews in the image and accompanying language.”

It is good to know that the paper was willing to admit its misstep, but not so good to know that seasoned journalists were unfamiliar, if indeed they were, with the time-dishonored imagery of the Jew as a conspiratorial puppet master, sinisterly manipulating others. It was, of course, much employed by the Nazis, and the canard it represents have stoked not only past pogroms but recent attacks on Jews, as in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who, in 2018, killed 11 worshippers in the largest modern mass shooting against Jews in America.

The Journal News has something of a history of “exposing” supposed sins of “rabbis” in Rockland County, with regard to the allocation of funds by the East Ramapo school board to local schools. The area has many Orthodox Jewish residents, and some of them serve on the board. As of 2020, there were approximately 11,000 students attending public schools in the district, but 27,000 students attending private schools, mostly Jewish ones.

The teased story, Ms. Dolan noted, “raises questions” about “how officials” (presumably the “rabbi”) “have chosen to allocate millions of dollars in public funds.”

The story finally appeared, after a delay, and, indeed, it contained “raised questions” – in quotations from people with records of animus against Orthodox institutions and individuals. What it didn’t contain was any factual assertion of wrongdoings. Because there have been none.

Yes, federal funds have been used to support services to children attending Jewish schools. But that is entirely in accordance with state formulas and federal laws mandating the provision of textbooks, school transportation and special education services to all school children — yes, dear Journal News, even Jewish ones.

Parents of nonpublic school children pay federal and state taxes like any citizen, and that includes the property taxes that do much to fund localities’ schools. In fact, since not all governmental services provided to public schools and their students are constitutionally available to nonpublic schools and their students, parents of the latter receive less in return for their taxes than parents of public school students.

The article’s target was Rabbi Hersh Horowitz, the executive director of a local group called the Community Education Center,” and, before the article was published, he released a statement explaining that “over the past year, Lohud has repeatedly attempted to slander me personally, and my organization as a whole.”

He went on to note that all contracts awarded by the East Ramapo Central School District have been through a rigorous “Request for Proposal” process, devoid of any private lobbying efforts; that his organization has been audited by state agencies multiple times, with no findings of misdeeds; that its most recent contract was cleared of any conflict of interest by NYS Commissioner of Education, Betty Rosa; that the its allocations, to be distributed over ten years, is federally funded and specifically earmarked – by the federal government – for private school children.

And, defiantly, he declared that his organization “will continue, undeterred and undistracted, to provide myriad essential educational services to thousands of children in multiple districts attending private schools across Rockland and Orange County.”

The Journal News hit piece didn’t mention Bruce Singer, the school district’s appointed monitor. But, before the article was released, Mr. Singer told the daily Jewish paper Hamodia that the claims made in Rabbi Horowitz’s statement are “100%” accurate. Singer also criticized the reporter of the then yet unpublished article for “misrepresenting the truth.” He also told the reporter that Rabbi Horowitz’s organization had been the subject of many audits, “and there have always been outstanding comments regarding his operation.”

In her apology for propagating the antisemitic image in the teaser, Ms. Dolan took pains to condemn “all forms of antisemitism in all ways that it is expressed.”

It’s a nice sentiment. But it brings to mind something William Saletan once wrote: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

The above essay appears at Times of Israel, here.

The Bull by the Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2021 Ami Magazine