Category Archives: News

The Guard Protecting the Shul

Security for Jewish institutions – shuls, schools, community centers and organizations – has understandably been at the forefront of many minds and agendas in recent months. Agudath Israel of America, where I serve as public affairs director, has been instrumental in securing considerable federal and state funds to help protect places where Jews gather.

I remind readers that I write in this space only as an individual, not in my organizational role. In that role, though, I’ve fielded a number of inquiries from the media and public about the security issue. Two recent ones stand out, because they made me think – something that, while not always easy, is highly recommended.

The first communication was from an irate gentleman who wanted to know why, if the Agudah has in fact helped secure security funding for schools like the one his children attend, he was being asked by the school to contribute to a parents’ fund to upgrade the institution’s safety, presumably for yet additional security measures. I suggested to him that his question, a reasonable one, would best be directed to the school administration.

The second was from a rightly respected mechaneches whom I’ve known for many years and who just wanted to sound out my opinion about whether certain safety concerns or actions, like some being considered by her children’s basically secured school, might be going a bit overboard.

As I say, the two questions made me think, about the fundamental Jewish concept called bitachon.

“Trust,” is how the word is usually translated, but, of course, it means something both more subtle and more weighty. It means keen recognition of the fact that, while we are enjoined to make normative efforts to earn our livings, raise our children and accomplish our goals in life – including protecting ourselves from potential harm – ultimately, it is not our actions that yield us any success we experience, but rather the will of Hashem.

Consider a thought experiment: A shul, worried by recent acts of violence against Jews, hired an armed guard to stand at its entrance, and a would-be intruder with a weapon is thwarted by the alert and quick sentry. Needless to say, the fellow deserves the congregation’s thanks. And hiring him may have been the right thing to do, part of the proper hishtadlus – human effort – to be made these days.

But what in fact saved the mispallelim?

Hint: The answer isn’t “the guard.”

Hiring the man, assuming it was a necessary part of hishtadlus, may have been part of the collective merit that brought about the happy ending, or the attack’s failure may have been merited by other good deeds. But what protected the shulgoers was not, in the end, any mortal guard, but the Guardian of Yisrael.

Recognizing – internalizing – that Jewish truth is imperative. In fact, it is essential to our safety.

Rav Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, first chelek, page 188, in the original edition) cites the common expression “We’ve left nothing to chance” and calls it a contemporary version of the boast “My strength and the might of my hand has created this victory for me” (Devarim, 8:17).

He calls the “leave nothing to chance” attitude one “of conceit, apikorsus and idolatry.” And he asks all who consider themselves maaminim to consider if, perhaps, “even in their own hearts” there might dwell some residue of such kefirah (his word).

Can we even think that an armed guard is a true protection against an intruder? Can’t a clever terrorist plan, chalilah, to shoot a guard from an unseen perch before proceeding with his nefarious aim? A pair of guards might be hired, to avoid that possibility. But what if there are two terrorists acting in tandem, one for taking out each of the guards? As the Gemara says in a different context, ein l’davar sof, “there’s no end” – here, to the security “arms race.”

Most of us would readily concede that hiring a small militia to surround a shul and arranging for police helicopters to hover constantly overhead would be an unreasonable choice, a misunderstanding of hishtadlus and an insult to bitachon.

And most of us would consider, at least in our day, locks on a large shul’s doors to be prudent. When it comes, though, to armed guards – and certainly armed congregants – or to bulletproof glass or to evacuation drills, things are not necessarily so simple. More, here, is not better; in fact, as per Rav Dessler, it’s worse.

Properly balancing bitachon and hishtadlus is a complex venture, one best left to poskim and manhigim with the Torah knowledge, experience and sensitivity to guide us.

But hitting the right such balance, which may, of course, yield different decisions in different times and in different places, is vitally important.

Because not only is tilting too far in the direction of bitachon dangerous, so is tilting too far in the direction of hishtadlus. And, in the end, balancing the two properly is what truly ensures our safety.

© 2020 Hamodia

Incendiary Devices

“BLACKS NEED TO RESPECT JEWISH AUTHORITY,” reads the stark, all-caps message on Telegram, an instant messaging service. The word “JEWISH” is reverse-color emphasized.

The message came from a fake account, like similar racist sentiments from similarly nonexistent “Jewish” users that flooded the social media giant Twitter a few months back.

A tweet, for example, from the fictional “Elaine Goldschmidt” who, “frightened by the string of anti-Semitic attacks,” bemoaned the fact that blacks (the tweet uses a much-reviled slur) “were supposed to be on our side. Now we have lost control of them.” The photo used in the profile was lifted from the account of a Scottish woman, Janey Godley, who, when she found out, was not pleased.

The tweet garnered hundreds of “retweets” and “likes,” including one, ostensibly from the unsubtly named, fictional “Ari Shekelburg,” who addresses “Fellow Chosen Ones…”

Welcome to 2020.

When first notified of the misleading and inflammatory messages, Twitter responded that “we didn’t find a violation of our rules in the content.” Soon afterward, though, the company reconsidered, and suspended the disingenuous account.

The social media incendiary devices above are samples of the work of white supremacists seeking to intensify anti-Jewish feeling in parts of the black community, and to sow the same among more educated blacks who may currently harbor no hatred for Jews. As one anonymous message on a site associated with white racists observed about one anti-black canard maliciously attributed to a Jew, “Posting this on black twitter would definitely stir the hornets [sic] nest.”

The bad players play both sides of the game, too, sharing concocted anti-Semitic sentiments by African-Americans or presenting actual ones as more representative of blacks than they truly are.

What apparently inspired the trolls was the fact that, while the Pittsburgh and Poway killers were white, more recent attacks on Jews, like the murders of Jews by a black couple in Jersey City, the attempted murder of Jews in Monsey last month and the obnoxious actions of some Brooklyn goons, were perpetrated by African-Americans.

What an opportunity, the race-baiters realized, to stoke the embers of hatred, to “divide and conquer” the two groups they most despise, Jews and blacks.

They mustn’t be allowed to succeed.

It was heartening and surprising to read of how Al Sharpton condemned the recent attacks on Jews, saying he was “terribly disturbed” by them, “particularly because they were perpetrated by members of the African-American community.” Mr. Sharpton, of course, was accused, and not without reason, of employing bombastic rhetoric that helped fuel the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in which 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum was surrounded by a large group of young black men and fatally stabbed.

Also heartening, and not surprising, were the words of Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief executive of the nonprofit King Center, who described the Monsey attack as an assault “against a people and a promise.” She tweeted that she was “praying for our Jewish family members” and encouraged “us all to refuse to adjust to anti-Semitic stereotypes and to rhetoric/language that dehumanizes,”

“We can’t pretend,” she concluded, “that hate is dormant.”

Radio host Larry Elder, also African-American, decried the fact that African-Americans are constantly being told that Jews are becoming wealthy by exploiting them, and asserted that “all this anti-Semitism coming from the black community against the Jewish community” shows “ignorance [of] the role many Jews played in the civil rights movement and as freedom-fighters.”

It might be futile to hope that black leaders’ exhortations will be able to cure the sort of cluelessness leavened with animosity toward “the other” that infects urban youths like the Brooklyn hoodlums who amuse themselves by harassing innocent Jews. Unfortunately, the diametric, odious messaging of rabble rousers like Louis Farrakhan strikes a more resonant chord in the imaginations of witless belligerents.

There will always be demagogues, Hitler wannabes like the “Nation of Islam” leader, and they will always manage to attract those whose aptitudes for critical thinking are no match for their susceptibilities to mental poison.

But one thing we can, and should, do is not let those vile actors and their gullible followers become the image in our minds of the larger African-American community.

If we do, we only play into the hands of our, and its, worst enemies.

© 2020 Hamodia

Through Jewish Eyes

Maybe you know the old Yiddish joke? Back in pre-war Minsk, Shmerel and Berel are having a conversation. During a pause, Shmerel suddenly remembers a bit of bad news he has to relate.

“Did you hear about Yankel the barber in Pinsk?”

“No,” Berel says haltingly, having picked up an ominous signal from the way the question had been asked.

“He’s not here anymore,” Shmerel says, using a Yiddish euphemism for someone recently deceased.

“Oy!” exclaims Berel, “You mean Yankel, with the huge round nose?”

Shmerel nods a sad yes.

“Yankel who has only one eye?” Again, a confirmation.

“Yankel with that big scar across his cheek and the pimples?!” Another sad nod.

Ay, yai, yai,” moans Berel. “Azah sheineh Yid!” (“What a beautiful Jew!”)

The story came back to me at the Siyum HaShas. Let me explain.

When people, as so many did, came over to me in various places to congratulate me, a veteran Agudath Israel staff member for a quarter of a century, for the amazing event, I responded, entirely honestly, that my main role was standing out of the way of the many unbelievably dedicated and talented people who did the real work, like the Agudah’s executive staff, the young women who spent days and late nights taking orders and processing tickets, the devoted community askanim and technical facilitators.

(Actually, I do take credit for offering the idea, a year or so before the Siyum, of including chemical hand warmers in the swag bags. You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t even really at the Siyum, at least not as part of the crowd. My perch was in the press box, high above the gathering, a floor dedicated to members of the media, with whom I was charged to interact.

I answered many questions but mostly just steered representatives of the Fourth Estate to members of the tzibbur whom they could interview about Daf Yomi and the Siyum.

One of my few on-camera moments, as it happened, was responding to a German television crew’s question, born of recent events, about what the Siyum means in the context of all the recent anti-Semitic violence. I straightforwardly pointed out that Jews are long accustomed to hatred and adversaries, and are long trained in perseverance. I wonder how that played in Munich.

It was, though, when I watched several reporters intone into their microphones about how so many Jews “read a page of Talmud” daily that Shmerel and Berel appeared before my mind’s eye.

Because the joke about them, of course, is a pointed one. And its point is that we Jews see things differently from other people. To us, beauty is truly anything but skin deep.

And so, when we look at a true Daf Yomi talmid, we don’t see someone “reading a page” of a text. We see someone who, for 2711 days straight, has engaged not only with very complex material, but with holiness itself.

Where a reporter saw “reading,” we saw reverence.

Many journalists wanted to tie their stories about the Siyum into a narrative about the aforementioned violence against Jews we’ve endured of late. They saw “a flare up of anti-Semitism.”

Jewish eyes, though, saw the latest manifestation of “Esav sonei l’Yaakov,” the wages of galus and a message that we need to improve our avodas Hashem.

During a particularly poignant part of the Siyum program, tribute was paid to a man named Mendy Rosenberg, who, despite being severely limited by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), successfully undertook to complete a full Daf Yomi cycle despite a prognosis that didn’t allow him anywhere near the time needed, and, despite eventually having to communicate with his chavrusa through eye movements alone. Reporters saw a broken man doing the best he could. Jewish eyes saw an amazing hero, a gibor chayil and powerful role model for mesirus nefesh.

And when a group of Holocaust survivors were introduced to the approximately 90,000 people at MetLife Stadium and to countless others in myriad venues linked to the proceedings, the media saw the last human vestiges of a world that once was. Jewish eyes, though, saw superhuman connections to our mesorah, which they carried out with them to us from the furnace of Churban Europa.

When the camera was aimed at the Masmidei HaSiyum youngsters, who had participated in the Siyum by undertaking limudim of Gemara, Mishnayos or Chumash, the reporters saw lovable little boys. We saw nothing less than the Jewish future, a, be”H, bright one.

And, finally, when the observers from the outside saw, and dutifully reported on, the “record crowd” in the stadium – not only were the stands fairly full, but the playing field held many more people, including the Rabbanim on the dais, Daf Yomi Maggidei Shiur and many others – Jewish eyes saw, well, Klal Yisrael.

No, not all of it, but enough of it to perceive something else invisible to many observers: the vibrancy, dedication and passion of the collective Jewish neshamah.

Berel would understand.

© 2020 Hamodia

Abhorrent Action at a Distance

Direct physical attacks on Jews have, and for good reason, unfortunately, dominated the news in recent weeks. But there have been other kinds of attacks on innocent people who are perceived to be Jewish. Like the one committed against Kurt Eichenwald.

Mr. Eichenwald is an award-winning journalist who has written for the New York Times, Newsweek and other major media, and is the author as well of several books. He is also an epileptic, something he has compellingly addressed in some of his writings. And he has been critical of President Trump. Those last two facts dovetailed, regrettably, in a bad way.

After writing in 2016 about what he considered looming improper conflicts of interest in the then-president elect’s international business affairs, the Dallas-based Mr. Eichenwald experienced a flood of online vitriol and threats from people who felt that his criticism of Mr. Trump merited such reaction. It wasn’t the first time he had experienced such internet “trolling.” But spleen venting, while always ugly, is usually harmless.

It wasn’t, though, on the evening of December 15, 2016. One of Mr. Eichenwald’s less constrained critics, using “@jew goldstein” as a moniker and aware of Mr. Eichenwald’s medical condition, sent the writer an electronic graphics interchange format file (or GIF), an animated image. GIFs are usually intended to amuse, but this one, which loaded automatically, had a less benign objective.

The GIF, whose sender added his judgment that Mr. Eichenwald “deserved a seizure,” consisted of a series of bright flashes in quick succession, something that is known to trigger epileptic attacks in those, like Mr. Eichenwald, who are vulnerable to them.

The alleged culprit is one John Rayne Rivello, a Marine Corps veteran from Salisbury, Maryland. A search warrant turned up an internet account he maintained that featured, among other things, a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for his alleged victim, which had been altered to show a fake obituary with the date of Mr. Eichenwald’s death listed as Dec. 16, 2016.

Investigators also found that Mr. Rivello had sent a message to likeminded friends, outlining his plans and stating “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “let’s see if he dies.”

Mr. Eichenwald didn’t die that day, but the previous evening, when he received the GIF, “he slumped over in his chair,” according to his attorney, Steven Lieberman. “He was unresponsive, and he probably would have died but for the fact that his wife heard a noise – she’s a physician – and she pulled him away from the screen and got him onto the floor.”

Mrs. Eichenwald called 911, took a picture of the strobing light on her husband’s computer and called the police.

Mr. Rivello was originally charged in Maryland for “assault with a deadly weapon” and, briefly, by the Northern District of Texas, under a federal cyberstalking statute.

First Amendment concerns were raised about the possibility that Mr. Rivello was being improperly targeted just for being a bigoted dimwit, which isn’t itself illegal. So the cyberstalking charge was dropped and he was re-indicted in Texas on lesser assault charges.

Mr. Rivello and his lawyer are reportedly still planning on mounting a defense on First Amendment grounds.

That claim is, or should be, easily rejected. The fact that the harm he inflicted was an expression of a political position is no more a defense of the assault than it would be had he punched Mr. Eichenwald in the face. The punch may communicate a message, but it isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

The larger, and novel, question is: Can an “assault” be committed at a distance?

From a Torah perspective, it most certainly can. It isn’t mere rhetoric or poetic license when Chazal refer to things like lashon hara or publicly embarrassing someone as damaging, even killing. Assault needn’t leave any physical trace at all. Such non-contact assaults aren’t halachically actionable, but they are considered criminal all the same.

Damage inflicted on a person by fire, though, even when the fire resulted from negligence – all the more so when set maliciously – is indeed actionable (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Nizkei Mammon 14:15). I don’t profess to be a posek, but it certainly seems at the very least arguable that sending an electronic signal may constitute something analogous.

In any event, Mr. Rivello’s case will of course be adjudicated by American, not Jewish, law.

It has been clear for some time now that contemporary secular law needs to evolve to meet challenges posed by new technologies like the internet.

Mr. Rivello’s next hearing is scheduled for January 31. Unless he decides to just plead guilty, his case might prove a good opportunity to rein in some cyberspace miscreancy.

© 2020 Hamodia (in an edited form)

Not-So-Good People

Like many identifiably Jewish Jews, I’ve caught my share of catcalls, Nazi salutes and threats. And read the rantings of people like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and Richard Spencer. I can’t say I’m nonchalant about such idiocies, but a certain jadedness, for better or worse, eventually kicks in.

There are times, though, when even I am astonished by a particularly outrageous demonstration of mindless Jew-animus. Like Jersey City school board member Joan Terrell-Paige’s now-deleted Facebook comment, posted mere days after the murderous December 10 attack on the kosher market in her locale by two terrorists, one of whom had shown interest in a Jew-disparaging black sect. (One of the murderer’s favorite videos shows a Black Hebrew Israelite preacher telling a Jewish man, “The messiah, who is a black man, is going to kill you.”)

Ms. Terrell-Paige implied that, in effect, the killings had been brought about by “brutes in the Jewish community” themselves.

She charged that Chassidic newcomers to Jersey City had “waved bags of money” before black residents in order to buy their homes.

Leave aside that the Chassidim who have relocated from Brooklyn to Jersey City are decidedly not well-to-do; and leave aside, too, that asking a homeowner if he’s interested in selling a house isn’t illegal or oppressive. Leave aside as well the fact that the city enacted, with the support of its Chassidic residents, a prohibition of door-to-door solicitation.

Consider only the utter asininity of blaming innocent victims for the hate-driven actions of the racists who murdered them.

As if the arson of her words wasn’t sufficiently destructive, Ms. Terrell-Paige added fuel to her fire, too. “What is the message they were sending?” she asked, referring to the murderers. “Are we brave enough to explore the answer to their message? Are we brave enough to stop the assault on the Black communities of America?”

One wonders how the valiant lady would have reacted had someone asked her, in the wake of the violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, to be “brave enough” to consider what message those haters were sending by punching and kicking peaceful protesters (and injuring several and killing one with a car). If someone had suggested that she be “brave enough to stop the assault on White communities of America?”

Nearly as tone-deaf as the school board member’s post was the reaction to her mindlessness by a group that includes local and state legislators and calls itself the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus.

“While we do not agree with the delivery of the statement made by Ms. Terrell-Paige,” the group announced judiciously, “we believe that her statement has heightened awareness around issues that must be addressed.”

No, dear Caucus, the only issue that must be addressed is black anti-Semitism.

That phrase, of course, isn’t intended to implicate the larger African-American community, any more than the phrase “white anti-Semitism” implicates all Caucasians.

It simply acknowledges the sad reality that Jew-hatred exists not only in the fever dreams of racists who hate blacks but also in the delusions of some of those they hate.

The group of legislators and community leaders of color did pay proper homage to the need to maintain good relations between “two communities that have already and must always continue to coexist harmoniously.” But that sentiment is belied by the rest of its statement’s cluelessness.

What the group needed to do after reading Ms. Terrell-Paige’s obnoxious words was not to speak of “issues” to be addressed but rather join Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco, Ward E Councilman James Solomon, New Jersey State Democratic Committee Chair John Currie, Board of Education Trustee Mussab Ali, and Assemblymen Nick Chiaravalloti, Raj Mukherji and Gary Schaer in their call for Ms. Terrell-Paige’s resignation.

As to the “issues” that the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus says “must be addressed” – presumably those posed by the influx of Chassidim into Jersey City – let’s indeed address them.

Among the freedoms Americans are afforded is the right to live where they wish. The arrival of Jewish residents to a depressed neighborhood, moreover, is likely to contribute to the good of longer-term residents. There will be healthful food available (like some of that sold in the grocery that was turned into a scene of carnage), crime will likely decrease and property values rise.

Back in 2017, the New York Times featured an article about demographic changes, including those in Jersey City. It quoted a Jewish woman, identified only as Gitti, who expressed appreciation for her non-Jewish neighbors.

“They told us when we have to put out our garbage, and they introduced us to their pets so we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” she said. “They’re nice people.”

Eddie Sumpter, a black neighbor around the corner from Gitti’s home, who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Chassidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers.

“We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’’ said Mr. Sumpter, who works as a cook. “It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear, not everyone is.

© 2020 Hamodia

Anti-Anti Semitism

The well-known British doctor and pundit Jonathan Miller, who died last month, felt he had the solution to anti-Semitism.

He was quoted in a 1985 book as asserting that, to end Jew-hatred, “the Jew must constantly re-adventure and re-venture himself into assimilation.”

“I just think,” he continued, “it’s the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep [living Jewish lives]. But, if it’s done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you’ll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the Holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a [cursed] device.”

The good doctor really should have realized that among the most assimilated Jews in modern times were much of German Jewry in the 1800s and the early part of last century, Jews who, in headstrong manner, adopted many of the practices and attitudes of their non-Jewish neighbors. And we all know how, despite those efforts to become “just Germans,” they were cruelly reminded of who in fact they were.

We “believers in Orthodoxy” could have explained to Dr. Miller that, au contraire, assimilation doesn’t prevent Jew hatred; it breeds it. We Jews are meant to be a people apart, and when we try to forget who we are, Hashem allows others to help us remember.

There is much talk these days, for good reason, about what practical steps can be taken to deal with anti-Semitism. In the wake of countless vandalisms of Jewish sites and cemeteries, physical attacks on Jews in Europe and here in America, and vicious verbal ones on the internet, various means of addressing the idiocy of Jew hatred are being put forward.

They are not without merit. Even though Chazal have revealed the law of nature that “Esav hates Yaakov,” there are efforts that can be made to counter both anti-Semitic acts and anti-Semitism itself.

Advocacy for security funding and increased police patrols are examples of the former. And educational efforts in public schools, of the latter.

There are, of course, chassidei umos ha’olam, people with an appreciation of Klal Yisrael; and then there are the aforementioned heirs of Esav. But there are also many people in our current (we hope final) outpost of galus who have as yet unformed attitudes about Jews. And so, educational efforts can be worthy means of fostering sanity and knowledge in young minds.

Another area in which our hishtadlus can help influence open-minded people to reject haters’ libels and imaginings is “upping our game” in our interactions with others.

All of us “visibly Jewish” Jews are aware that eyes are always on us; hopefully, we take pains to not act in any way that might be seen as uncaring or rude. We avoid cutting others off in traffic or raising our voices in public. We try to project the true image of a Torah-faithful Jew: modest, courteous and civil.

Sometimes, though – through no fault of our own – even our entirely proper restraint and reticence are misconstrued. Not only by people looking for anything they can “interpret” negatively, but even by “pareve” citizens who lack any pre-existing animus for us. Being reserved can be misunderstood as being “stand-offish”; avoiding eye contact can be misinterpreted as condescension.

Many of us who move among non-Jews during our commutes, or who work in non-Jewish environments, have found that being “proactive” in interactions with others can yield much good will.

An obviously observant Jew who enters a building and holds the door open for anyone behind him has likely, with that almost effortless act, left an impression.

An unsolicited “Good morning” to a fellow elevator passenger does the same. We have here nothing less than the testimony of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, that no one ever beat him to a greeting, as he was always first to offer one, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace” (Brachos 17a).

Eye contact, when appropriate, is a statement of respect. And its lack, fairly or not, may be taken as the opposite. And a smile should be part of our faces too. Shammai tells us as much: “Receive every person with a pleasant countenance” (Avos 1:15).

Not long ago, a middle-aged African-American woman was waiting, as was I, for a bus that didn’t come. I phoned my wife to ask if she was free to pick me up at the bus stop, and she was. When she arrived, I offered the other would-be bus passenger a ride to her destination, a public housing project. Surprised but overjoyed, she accepted, and we took her home.

A few weeks later, waiting (I do a lot of waiting) for a ferry, I heard a loud, happy “Hi, Rabbi!” from behind me. It was she. And with her were her adult son and several grandchildren in tow. I returned her greeting (with a smile) and said hello to her family members.

End of unremarkable story. But it made me think about how the lady must have described my wife and me to her progeny. And how it might have influenced their picture of “Jews.”

Just as important – perhaps more so – than increasing security measures, police presence and educational programs is strengthening our efforts to show others who we really are.

© 2019 Hamodia

The Lesson of London Bridge

At the time of this writing – and, hopefully, of its reading – the most recent domestic terror attack was the shooting in Jersey City that left three civilians, including two Jews, and a police officer dead.

Less than a week earlier, there was the fatal shooting of three sailors at a Navy training center in Pensacola, Florida, by a seemingly well-adjusted Saudi trainee, Mohammed Alshamrani.

It seems that the Jersey City killers were motivated by “Black Hebrew Israelite” ideology. And, while authorities to date have offered no official conclusions about the Saudi murderer, it is not unlikely that Islamist radicalism played a part in his action.

It definitely did in a terror attack in another Western country, Britain, a mere week before the Pensacola massacre.

In that stabbing spree, which has come to be known as the “London Bridge Attack,” Usman Khan, a 28-year-old British citizen, the son of Pakistani immigrants, attacked five people, leaving three injured and two dead, before he was killed by British police.

Incredibly, the attacker was, at the time of his rampage, on probation from prison, where he had been serving a reduced sentence for having been part of a plan to bomb, among other targets, the London Stock Exchange, the Houses of Parliament, the U.S. embassy, two synagogues, and the home of then London Mayor Boris Johnson. The plan also included building a terrorist training camp on land the stabber’s family owns in Kashmir.

What had reduced his sentence and allowed for his furlough was his renunciation of terrorism.

In one letter to probation officers, he had written: “At the time [of my terrorist plottings] I was immature and now I am much more mature and want to live my life as a good Muslim and also a good citizen of Britain.”

In another, he asserted that “I have learnt [sic] that many of my past beliefs came from my misinterpretations of Islam. There were many gaps in my knowledge but now I am on [a] new path and am learning to become a good Muslim. I would like a chance to prove to you that I will not cause harm to nobody [sic] in our society.”

He got the chance, and decisively proved the opposite.

The lesson lies in the fact that, while people can change, they can also claim to have changed and be lying.

While there is no reason to believe that many American or British Muslims are hiding murderous plans, there is no reason, either, to imagine that there aren’t other Muslims in Western countries who see the world as he did, and who present a threat like he was.

You may not have noticed, but we are in the throes of a presidential campaign.

And an American group, Muslim Advocates, took the opportunity of Michael Bloomberg’s joining the Democratic presidential candidacy pool to demand that the ex-New York mayor renounce the New York Police Department’s “Muslim surveillance” program instituted in 2002 under his administration. (The program was abandoned in 2014 by then-police Commissioner William J. Bratton.)

The Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the cause, asking Mr. Bloomberg to “see the error of his ways and apologize to the Muslim community for his long-term support for illegal surveillance and targeting of Muslim New Yorkers.”

The legality of the program was never negated, but I sympathize all the same with law-abiding Muslims of good will discomfited by the erstwhile police effort to keep tabs on Muslim communities and houses of worship. I understand how the effort struck some as religious discrimination. And I know that the data show that right-wing domestic terrorist acts have both been attempted and occurred more often than Islamist attacks.

But it can’t be denied that Islamic terrorists, inspired or directed by groups like IS and al-Qaida, pose a clear threat to American citizens – as the Pensacola attack and the 2017 Hudson River Park truck ramming and the 2016 Ohio State University attack and the 2015 San Bernardino attack, among others, well illustrate.

Sadly, all Muslims are adversely affected. Both by the way they are regarded by some others and by efforts to prevent future attacks. The NYPD’s surveillance program was, especially in the years directly following 2001, not unreasonable.

Suspicion of Muslims is often called “Islamophobia.” Merriam-Webster defines the word as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam.”

The key word there is “irrational.”

Thus, we have arachnophobia, the fear of spiders; mysophobia, the fear of germs; and any of a long list of other unreasonable anxieties. Is Islamophobia irrational? It depends.

None of us, in our religiously pluralistic and free society, should ever disdain, or discriminate against, any Muslim simply because of his or her faith.

But, unfortunately, it’s impossibly hard to not harbor entirely rational fear of people like Mohammed Alshamrani and Usman Khan.

© 2019 Hamodia

Oy, Such Soros!

Last week saw the launch of an initiative born of a strange shidduch – between the foundation of famously progressive philanthropist George Soros and that of libertarian donor Charles Koch.

The “Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft” was introduced as a “transpartisan” think tank whose focus will be on promoting diplomatic agreement instead of military solutions.

The new enterprise takes its name from John Quincy Adams, the sixth American president, who, as Secretary of State in 1821, made a speech warning against the U.S. going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

There are, however, in fact, a number of fearsome monsters out there, some of whom threaten our allies and our own country. It’s nice to imagine that diplomacy might contain them but, alas, sometimes military action is really the only effective course.

The hope for a pre-Moshiach peaceful world, unrealistic though it is, is vintage George Soros. The Jewish Hungarian-American investor (original name: Schwartz) has spent billions to spread democratic values and human rights worldwide.

He also has expressed some repugnant attitudes.

He revoltingly likened President George W. Bush and his administration to Nazis. Asked once about his thoughts on Israel, he replied: “I don’t deny the Jews to a right to a national existence – but I don’t want anything to do with it,” and he has blamed anti-Semitism on Israel’s policies.

At the same time, Soros has himself become a favorite bugaboo of anti-Semites, like Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who denounced him as “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros.”

His status as a prime target of haters came up during the House Intelligence Committee hearings last month.

Former top National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill delivered what was to many the most riveting testimony of the hearings. She told of a smear campaign against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Ms. Hill pointed out that a conspiracy theory associating Ms. Yovanovitch with the much-vilified Mr. Soros was at the heart of a smear campaign against the respected ambassador, who was fired from her position by the president.

“When I saw this happening to Ambassador Yovanovitch…,” Ms. Hill said, calmly but forcefully, “I was furious, because this is, again, just this whipping up of what is frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about George Soros to basically target nonpartisan career officials.”

“This is the longest-running anti-Semitic trope that we have in history…” she continued, “the new Protocols of The Elders of Zion.” That reference, of course, was to the 19th-century forgery created by the Russian czar’s secret police that cast Jews as evil, all-controlling plotters against mankind, a book that is still published and cherished by anti-Semites to this day.

Some commentators, like Dinesh D’Souza, Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, have portrayed Soros as a Nazi collaborator.

For all his faults, that charge is silliness. During the Nazi occupation of Hungary, the future financier was a 13-year-old who, with the help of his father, who feared for his son’s life, assumed a false identity as the godson of a Hungarian official. That foster-father functionary was tasked with taking inventory at the homes of Jewish families so that their possessions could be taken by the Nazi authorities. Witnessing his protector taking notes was the extent of young George’s “collaboration.”

Nor is Mr. Soros a global puppet master intent on bending world powers to his will, as charged by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (he of the “the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren was staged” claim), convicted felon Roger Stone and attorney Joe DiGenova.

The latter (who, incidentally, led the prosecution of Jonathan Pollard) told Fox News, “There’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career foreign service at the United States State Department. He also controls the activities of FBI agents overseas.”

No evidence of those assertions, however, was offered.

In October, 2018, Fox even banned one of its regular guests, Chris Farrell, of Judicial Watch, from the network, for falsely suggesting that Soros had funded a migrant caravan traveling through Central America.

Despite Mr. Soros’ “progressive” values and his (at best) ambivalence about Israel, it’s important to not buy into the utter vilification of the man – to realize that casting him as a fabulously wealthy aspirant to world domination is unadulterated anti-Semitism, a contemporary take on the portrayal of Jews as controlling the wealth, and thus the destiny, of the world. As it happens and just for the record, Christians hold the largest amount of world wealth (55%), followed by Muslims (5.8%) and Hindus (3.3%). Jews come in at 1.1%.

And so, Ms. Hill’s claim that making false assertions of Soros connections to smear people is thinly veiled anti-Semitism was, as they say in her native Great Britain (she became a U.S. citizen in 2002), spot-on.

Part of the bane of galus is that Jew haters will always seek Jewish malefactors to portray as emblematic of a nefarious pan-Jewish plot. And when they come up empty, they simply create demonic Jewish plotters out of thin air, like the “Elders of Zion.”

Or their version of George Soros.

Even with our own justified criticisms of the investor, we should take care to not buy into the Jew haters’ narrative and inadvertently aid those who spread libels and wish all of us only ill.

© 2019 Hamodia

Disinformation Please

The ad accuses President Trump of having paid a $2 million bribe to a Vermont prosecutor for the latter to fabricate a larceny charge against Senator Bernie Sanders.

Despite the president’s vociferous objection to the promotion of an entirely fictitious accusation against him, the social media giant Facebook refused to remove the ad.

Likewise fictitious, as you may have guessed, is the existence of any such ad, whose crafting and publicizing any right-minded person would consider akin to a crime.

Entirely real, though, is an actual video ad Facebook ran that falsely accused former Vice President Joe Biden of having blackmailed Ukrainian officials to halt an investigation of his son, Hunter. “Send Quid Pro Joe Biden into retirement,” the voice-over intoned.

In 2016, Mr. Biden did indeed urge Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, with the threat of withholding U.S. aid. But, as numerous fact-checkers have pointed out, that was the official U.S. government position, not his personal decision, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Hunter Biden.

The video making the bogus accusation was the work of a “super PAC,” or deep-pocketed political action committee. Facebook explained that, although disseminating false information violates the social network’s policies on misinformation, a political leader’s claims, even if they are lies, are inherently newsworthy, and thus immune to removal.

The Biden campaign objected that the falsehood was not made by a politician but rather by a political committee, and thus should have been rejected.

Which, of course, entirely misses the larger point: We are at (or over) the cusp of a presidential campaign that appears bound to be saturated with deceit and disinformation. Voters, beware.

Six versions of the “Quid Pro Joe” ad were targeted to Facebook users in South Carolina, Iowa and Massachusetts, according to Facebook’s ad library. The ad is no longer active, but, in a recent speech to students at Washington’s Georgetown University in Washington, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his treatment of political ads containing falsehoods on grounds of freedom of expression.

“People having the power to express themselves,” he said, “is a new kind of force in the world – a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”

The phrase “power structure” put me in mind of something we read about in shul two Shabbosos ago – the Tower of Bavel. Not all power structures are good ones.

And using the power of mass communication to empower falsehoods would seem to fall in the not-so-good category.

Interestingly, there have been numerous political ads rejected by Facebook. The global media and technology company Buzzfeed’s news division found 160 vetoed spots, submitted by candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and President Trump.

Not one, though, was rejected for containing an untruth, only for things like offensive language and “fake buttons” – nonfunctioning “yes” and “no” click-options, something Facebook, for some reason, doesn’t allow on paid content.

So, as far as Facebook is concerned: Fake buttons, no way; fake facts, no problem.

I’m not naïve. Political ads have, of course, always sought to mislead, at least in the sense of presenting one side of an issue without acknowledging the argument for the other side. That’s the prerogative of parties and PACS, which, after all, pay good money to present their cases. Critical thinking will always be an essential part of citizens’ weighing of arguments.

But asserting that Medicare for all or universal gun registration or building a border wall is a good idea or a bad one is one thing. Contending falsely that a president bribed a prosecutor or that a former vice-president used his power of office to block prosecution of his son, or that “the Jews” were behind the 9/11 attacks is in another category altogether.

To its credit, Facebook recently removed from its platform four foreign-based networks – including one linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the group indicted for interference in the 2016 presidential election – that were targeting Mr. Biden’s current quest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

But shouldn’t domestic shenanigans by candidates of any stripe be subject to similar treatment?

In defense of Facebook’s “lies by politicians are acceptable” policy, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg compares the social media platform with its more than 2 billion global users to a tennis court.

“Our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height,” he explained. “How the players play the game is up to them, not us.”

No, Mr. Clegg: If you’re providing the court and broadcasting the game, you need to make clear to the players that smashing your opponent over the head with your racket simply isn’t an acceptable move.

© 2019 Hamodia