Category Archives: News

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

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

Letter in the New York Times

A letter of mine was published in the New York Times on Shabbos:

To the Editor:

In his essay “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are” (Op-Ed, Aug. 14), Ronald S. Lauder sees the Israeli sky falling, as a result of Israel’s “destructive actions” like the maintenance of traditional Jewish religious decorum at the Western Wall, which Mr. Lauder criticizes as coming at the expense of a planned egalitarian prayer space, and a new Israeli law that establishes Israel as a state with a Jewish identity, which he says “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”

But Israel, as a self-described Jewish state, needs a Jewish standard for public behavior at religious sites and to inform religious personal status issues. The standard that has served the state since its formation has been the Jewish standard of the ages — what the world calls Orthodoxy.

And, whether or not the nation-state law was necessary or wise, it does not impinge in any way on the equality before the law of any Israeli citizen.

Israel is not, as Mr. Lauder says some think, “losing its way.” It is the vast majority of the world’s Jews, those who do not regard their religious heritage as important, who are in danger of being lost — to the Jewish people. And it is those indifferent Jews who have the most to gain from the example of Israel preserving the traditional Jewish standards and values that have stood the test of history.

Avi Shafran

New York

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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

Faisal, Mohammed and Hasnain

Arriving in Toronto for a family simchah last week, my wife and I found a city – at least the parts of it not involved in personal celebrations – still reeling from a gunman’s Motzoei Tisha B’Av shooting of random strangers, leaving a young woman and a 10-year-old girl dead, and 13 people injured.

The name of the culprit, Faisal Hussain, and his Pakistani parentage, along with the Islamic State’s claim that he was part of that murderous movement (“a soldier of the Islamic State,” the group crowed, “[who] carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries”) obviously raised concerns that the terrorist, who killed himself after his rampage, had been motivated by Islamist sentiments.

Authorities in Toronto, a city of inordinate politeness, said that “at this stage,” there was no evidence connecting the shooter with radical Islam. What subsequent stages may reveal remains to be seen.

The murderer’s family expressed its “deepest condolences” to the victims and their families for what they called “our son’s horrific actions,” and said that the killer had been mentally ill. As if emotional ailments somehow lead non-evil people to kill and maim random innocents.

Wednesday night saw a vigil in the Toronto neighborhood where the rampage occurred. Thousands of Canadians held lit candles in memory of those killed. Thursday morning saw my wife and me bidding goodbye to my parents-in-law as we waited for an electronically summoned car service taxi to pick us up for the trip to the airport.

Our driver’s name, we were informed, was Hasnain.

The conversation between us and my sister-in-law, perhaps predictably, veered into terrorist territory, so to speak, as we considered whether car service drivers should be subject to suspicion based on their ethnicities or countries of origin. Not an unreasonable proposition, of course; most Islamic terrorists have Muslim names and roots in Muslim lands.

Then again, as my wife interjected, no less reasonable is the contention that the vast majority of Muslim-named immigrants from Muslim lands are neither terrorists nor their sympathizers.

I recalled a long cab ride I took a year or so ago with Mohammed (not the original one). As it turned out, he had worked for years in a kosher meat store in Brooklyn, spoke some Yiddish and had only the kindest words for his observant Orthodox erstwhile employer. (The driver had freely chosen his change of career, preferring steering wheels to meat slicers.)

The car was one minute away and so we bid our final goodbyes and went outside. Hasnain had a 4.9 (out of 5) rating as a driver but I had to wonder if he might have any rating in some unrelated field. I pushed the thought out of my head.

He was friendly, of course; a 4.9 rating isn’t earned by surliness. And most of the trip, he was silent.

After having to dodge some double-parked cars on both sides of Bathurst St. (Southern Brooklyn isn’t unique, I learned), Hasnain apologized for the swervings. His English was excellent, British-tinged.

I decided to ask him where he was from. Pakistan. How long he’d been here. Six years.

“You learned English so well in so short a time?”

“Oh, I had an excellent education in Pakistan, including in English. As a matter of fact, when we moved here, my children were well ahead of their Canadian classmates in their studies.”

I was intrigued. “What did you do for a living in Pakistan?” I asked.

“I owned a successful leatherworking factory, with high-end fashion companies across Europe as clients.” Here he dropped a list of names, one or two of which I had heard of.

“So why did you leave?”

“Well, I was kidnapped.”

“You were kidnapped?” my wife and I queried, in comic unison.

“Yes,” he replied. “By the Taliban.”

We asked for details but at that point we were at the airport. He just smiled and said, “I escaped.” He got out of the car and unloaded our suitcases. As we thanked him, I thought of the conversation at my in-laws’ home, not an hour earlier.

Yes, terrorists these days tend, like last week’s rampager, to have Muslim names and Muslim-majority country connections. And, yes, most Muslim-named immigrants from Muslim lands are not terrorists. Two uncontestable truths.

And, while caution is always in order, especially these days, our heads have to be sufficiently large to hold both those thoughts simultaneously.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Writing on the Wall

So many walls these days. The Israeli security one. The one President Trump wants to build along the Mexican border. The “Wall of Steel” erected around London’s Winfield House, where the president spent a night last week. And that older, conceptual wall, the one separating “church” and state – or, put more precisely, religion and government.

Interestingly, the U.S. Constitution nowhere refers to such a construct. It was erected, piecemeal, over the years, its popularization beginning with its use by Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced last month that he would be retiring from the Supreme Court, while Chicken Little was apparently unavailable, there was no lack of squawking in some circles over the imminent falling of the sky. The specter of a conservative-leaning High Court left some commentators and legislators aghast.

And they weren’t much mollified by the president’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Kennedy, even though the nominee was regarded by some conservatives as not sufficiently on board with their program.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation would prove “a destructive tool on a generation of progress for workers, women… communities of color & families.” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal attributed to the nominee, “a very extreme hostility to many of the precious rights and liberties that make our nation great.” And so it went.

But, despite the harsh interrogation Mr. Kavanaugh will face from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and barring a revelation that he tortures small animals in his spare time, the judge is likely to be confirmed as the newest member of the High Court,.

The nominee’s non-fans and fans alike seem focused on what his joining the Court will mean for the 1973 “right to privacy” Roe v. Wade decision, and on his past position regarding presidential privilege. But what might matter most, especially to those of us who hold conservative social and moral positions, will be a Justice Kavanaugh’s approach to the aforementioned wall. There is some evidence that he feels it might stretch too high.

The separation of religion and state was originally binding only on the federal government. After the Civil War, though, the 14th amendment made all states subject to rule by the federal Constitution, opening the way for courts to apply to the states the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That second phrase, the “free exercise” clause, is likely to play a major role in future Supreme Court decisions.

The current High Court has already moved a bit away from seeing that barrier as extending into the stratosphere. It ruled that a closely-held, for-profit religious company should not have to provide its employees with insurance covering services that go against the company owners’ faith. And that a church could access state funds to build a playground. And that members of a Colorado commission had shown “hostility” and “disrespect” for the religious views of a baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a ceremony that offended his religious beliefs.

The likelihood that respect for the beliefs of religious Americans will continue to be a prominent feature of the future High Court is important.

Because, in the contemporary libertine social climate, religious Americans are finding themselves facing litigation aimed at forcing them, in their businesses, and even their private lives, to defer to objectionable societal attitudes. They are discriminated against by ad hoc zoning ordinances wielded by prejudiced people. They are assailed for wanting to educate their children as they see fit, and are called bigots for their sincere beliefs about proper human conduct.

There will continue to be division among Americans over the proper relation of religious convictions to the body politic and the lives of individuals. But a socially conservative-majority Supreme Court, we can reasonably hope, will take religious Americans’ concerns fully into consideration as it deliberates on religious rights cases brought before it.

Thomas Jefferson may have made the concept of a “wall” between religion and government famous, but the metaphor’s earliest use was in 1644, when Roger Williams, the founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (which would become the state of Rhode Island) wrote that “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” was necessary to ensure colonists’ freedom of religion.

I think his first mashal is the better one. “Hedge” conjures a less charged image than “wall.”

And hedges, as we all know, need occasional trimming.

© 2018 Hamodia

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

 

 

Kavanaugh and Religious Freedom

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, many immediately predicted the worst. NPR’s Nina Totenberg, channeling R.E.M., proclaimed it “the end of the world as we know it.”

After President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Kennedy, Ms. Totenberg admitted that the nominee was “incredibly charming” “enormously skilled” and “decent.”…

The rest of this article, which appears at Forward, can be read here.