Category Archives: News

Letter in the Wall Street Journal

A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET

Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”

How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
New York

80 Years Since Babi Yar

Wanton murder of Jews was a prominent feature of Ukrainian history from time immemorial. But the most infamous massacre of Jews on Ukrainian territory came in 1941, when the Nazis and their Ukrainian friends massacred nearly 34,000 Jews within two days, at the ravine known as Babi Yar.

Jewish history, though, is full not only of tragedies but of unexpected twists and turns. To read what I mean, please click here.

In NYDN – Antisemitism on the Loose

New York Daily News, Aug. 26, 2021

by: Avi Shafran

A very old, very wry, very pointed Jewish joke:

Goldberg is in the waiting area of a European airport holding the handle of his large suitcase and looking agitated. He approaches one traveler and asks him, “What do you think about Jews?”  The fellow smiles benevolently and responds, “They are very fine people.” Goldberg thanks him and moves to another person, asking the same question. The response: “All humans are equal and worthy of respect.” Then to a third traveler; same question, similar answer.  Then another, and another. Ditto.

Eventually, though, one of the accosted responds differently: Taking a deep breath and glowering at his questioner, he says, “They’re the scum of the earth, greedy plotters to overtake the world, killers of babies, causers of wars and cheats!”

“Ah!” says Goldberg happily, looking heavenward. “Finally! An honest man!” And then, turning to the spewer of the hate, he asks “Would you mind watching my suitcase while I use the restroom?”

There are indeed regions of the world where the populaces, ignorant and gullible, can be relied upon to swallow and regurgitate the most hateful canards about Jews, and who are all too ready to hate people they’ve never met as a result. 

But surely not in the Western world.

A few items from recent days:

August 19. A school, a synagogue and a bus shelter were spray painted with antisemitic messages in Toronto.

August 20. The Los Angeles County District Attorney charged two former Torrance police officers with vandalism for allegedly spray-painting a swastika on the back seat of a car.

August 21. A man punched a 64-year-old Orthodox Jewish man as they passed one another on the street in the heavily-Jewish neighborhood of Stamford Hill. Earlier in the day, the same man punched a Jewish child in the neighborhood.  In a separate incident on Aug. 12, a 72-year-old Jewish man was slapped and had his kippah knocked off his head in another suspected hate crime in London.

August 22. Robert Smart, an evangelical Christian who lives in Florida, was outed as a prolific QAnon antisemite. He has more than 300,000 followers on Telegram, where, as “GhostEzra,” he posts Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial and “a slew of conspiracy theories that often range from obliquely to explicitly antisemitic,” according to Logically, an organization that tracks disinformation online and uncovered his identity.

August 23. An 18-year-old Jewish man wearing a kippah in Cologne, Germany, was beaten by a group of 10 attackers in a public green space and taken to the hospital with a broken nose and cheekbone.

August 23. A man violently slapped a Jewish man in the face, in front of the victim’s wife and five children, at the children’s pool area of an Aventura, Florida hotel’s resort water park. The assaulter’s wife, according to police, called the victim’s wife a “dirty Jew.”

When, as occasionally happens, I meet a fellow Jew who is convinced that if you scratch any non-Jew hard enough, you’ll find an anti-Semite lurking beneath, I vociferously disagree. I’ve experienced (in addition, to be sure, to my share of Jew-hatred, including both verbal and physical assaults) too many acts of non-Jews’ kindnesses, and known too many good people who don’t share my religion or ethnicity.

And so the joke about Goldberg, I know, is an exaggeration.  But perusing the news on almost any given day, I know, too, that exaggerations aren’t fabrications. They may overstate a case to make a point.  But the point is often, as it is here, an entirely valid one. 

Goldberg may be a joke. But antisemitism isn’t.

A Welcome Win in a Political Proxy War

Should anyone still need convincing that “progressive” stances on Israel are at times tainted with… something less than enthusiasm for Jews… former Ohio state senator Nina Turner’s concession speech should do the trick.

The race that Ms. Turner lost on August 3 was in a special Democratic primary bid to fill an open House seat in Ohio’s 11th congressional district, which includes much of Cleveland.

The contrast between Ms. Turner and the come-from-behind winner, Shontel Brown, was stark.

And Israel was very much a point of contention between the two candidates.

To read my commentary on the election, which was my Ami column last week, click here.

The Non-Tragedy of Artem Dolgopyat

Israeli Artem Dolgopyat won a gold medal in the men’s floor exercise at the 2020 Tokyo Games, making him Israel’s second-ever Olympic gold medalist.

Amid the celebration, though, was some grumbling, over the fact that the medalist is not Jewish according to Jewish law.

That, of course, is of no consequence in the context of the games – or, for that matter, of Israeli society. Israel’s citizenry includes Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze.

But Mr. Dolgopyat’s status according to halacha, or Jewish religious law, prevents the medalist, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in order to further his career, from marrying a Jewish woman in Israel.

Mr. Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela Bilan, who isn’t Jewish but clearly evidences a stereotypical Jewish mother’s sensitivity, told a local radio station interviewer that “For [me to have] grandchildren, he needs to get married. The country doesn’t let him get married.”

What she was referring to is the fact that, as is the case in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia and several other countries, there is no option of civil marriage in Israel. As in those other nations, only religious unions sanctified by clergy — of one or another religion — are recognized in Israel. And Jewish marriages there can only be effected between two Jews, and overseen by rabbis recognized by the Israeli central Rabbinate, which hews to halacha.

Israeli Knesset member Gilad Kariv, a former director of the Israeli Reform Movement, which does not consider halacha the arbiter of Jewish practice, shared in Ms. Bilan’s chagrin, tweeting: “Artem, you, a champion, will continue to bring medals, and we will continue to fight strongly to bring you free choice in marriage and divorce.”

For a informed take on the issue, though, some historical background is necessary.

We Americans have an almost instinctive affinity for the concept of church-state separation. Religion in the U.S. is a private matter, and government institutions do not – may not – entangle themselves with religion. 

But many countries in fact have official religions. There are, of course, Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia and Yemen.

But also Christian ones. Like Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Italy, Argentina, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Greece, England, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Even several Buddhist ones, like Bhutan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Israel is, of course, a Jewish one, the only such country on the globe. And, like most of the above, it is not a theocracy but a democracy. Nevertheless, it respects its claim to Jewishness in certain limited ways.

On June 19, 1947, shortly before Israel declared its existence, Ben-Gurion and other officials of the Jewish Agency signed what came to be known as the “Religious Status Quo Agreement.”  In the words of the late University of Pennsylvania Professor of International Law Harry Reicher, the agreement was “for significant elements of the religious population… the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and… was quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth.”

That foundational document, which was addressed to representatives of the Agudath Israel movement (whose American arm I work for) declared the nascent state’s guarantee of religious freedom for all its inhabitants, but, in order to honor the word “Jewish” in the phrase “Jewish State,” pledged state observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and the option for citizens to choose a system of traditional Jewish religious education for their young. 

It also addressed Jewish “personal status” issues like marriage, divorce and conversion, assuring the religious community that “everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two.”

What Israel’s first Prime Minister recognized was that multiple personal-status standards will inevitably result in multiple “Jewish peoples.” 

And if “Jewish State” was to be more than a slogan, Ben-Gurion understood, in matters like marriage, divorce and conversion, some standard must be established.  The logical standard to choose was the one that had maintained the Jewish people for centuries: halacha.

And so, it is that standard that currently prevents Mr. Dolgopyat from marrying a Jewish woman in Israel. It has not been reported whether his Belarusian girlfriend is Jewish. But for their marriage in Israel to be formally recognized by the state, they would have to be married in a religious ceremony of some sort.

In any event, there is another option for Mr. Dolgopyat and his intended. It is an option that is taken by some 9000 couples each year. Israeli civil law fully recognizes marriages of any sort that have been entered into in other countries.  And so, Israelis and citizens of other countries without civil marriage options can travel to places like Cyprus, a short flight (160 miles) from Israel to marry in a civil ceremony and, at least in the case of Israel, have their marriages entered into the state registry.

That back-door approach will not make Mr. Dolgopyat Jewish in the eyes of the Rabbinate or of anyone who considers halacha the arbiter of Jewish status. Only a sincere conversion to Judaism could do that.

But it should at least make his loving mother happy.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran