Category Archives: News

The Deal Can Wait

There’s probably no great rush among Iranian science majors to choose careers in the country’s nuclear research program. For good reason. The positions — and their holders — have often proven short-lived. 

Over the past decade, at least five major Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, the most recent one, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — thought to be the mastermind behind Iran’s nuclear program — just last month.

Whether Mr. Fakhrizadeh was killed by a hidden, elite sharpshooter squad or, as Iranian security officials have said, remotely, by satellite-controlled gunnery equipped with facial recognition software, the killing was clearly sophisticated, well planned and well executed.

Which, of course, made Israel a prime suspect. The motive was certainly there. 

Because JCPOA, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” a.k.a.“the Iran Deal,” itself lies gravely wounded — the U.S. pulled out of it in 2018, and Iran has subsequently violated some of the agreement’s major restrictions, including the amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile and the purity to which it is allowed to enrich the element. 

And so, Israel, the “little satan” Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened, would understandably like to see Iran’s nuclear development program, well… set back. Fewer nuclear experts, fewer capabilities to create nuclear weapons.

But whoever was ultimately behind the scientists’ untimely ends, the labor-intensive setting up and execution of the projects “on the ground” was overwhelmingly likely to have been the work of Iranians. 

Could they be mercenaries hired by a power like Israel or the U.S., or Iranians sympathetic to Israel? Anything is possible. But it’s also possible that the people who made the hits happen are operatives of one of two Iranian anti-government groups.

Those of us who qualify for senior citizen discounts on buses and trains likely remember when — yes, youngsters, it is fact — Iran and Israel were close allies. Iranian-Israeli military links existed, weapons projects were undertaken in tandem and El Al operated direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran.

That was back in the days of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran from 1941 until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution brought Islamist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back from exile and the mullahcracy began. 

The Shah fled to Egypt, where he died the next year. At the time, his son and heir to the throne had the throne persisted, Reza Pahlavi, was a trainee fighter pilot in Texas. Today, 60 years old and living in Maryland, he still aspires to return to Iran — and to return Iran to its happier past.

Reza Pahlavi leads a body called the National Council of Iran for Free Elections, an umbrella group of exiled opposition figures seeking to overthrow Iran’s current government. The would-be Iranian leader claims to have clandestine supporters within the Iranian military, including the Revolutionary Guard.

Similarly seeking to replace the mullahs is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which aims to establish a pluralistic, multi-party and democratic system in Iran. 

Sympathizers in Iran of either of those groups could have been the actual assassins of the late Iranian nuclear scientists. What is undeniable, though, is that Iranian resistance movements exist. And one or more of them may be working together with… whatever outside power is trying to keep Iran from joining the international nuclear weapons club.

That fact should give pause to President-elect Biden, who has expressed his desire for the U.S. to rejoin the Iran Deal. To be sure, there are rational reasons to try to do that, especially if the restrictions on Iran are tightened, something Mr. Biden has pledged to pursue. The deal, after all, did prevent what Iran is openly up to now.

But there’s no hurry. The U.S. sanctions currently in place continue to take a devastating toll on Iran’s economy; the country’s inflation rate is currently running around 40 percent. And the brazen assassinations — along with the 2018 Israeli operation that “borrowed” important documents outlining Iran’s nuclear designs, and a series of explosions over recent months that have destroyed a centrifuge factory, a secretive military installation and a missile facility — have surely made Iran’s leaders keenly aware that their country is rather vulnerable to formidable adversaries. 

So, the incoming Biden administration would be wisest to let the pressure on Iran continue to build — to enforce the sanctions in place, to encourage the Iranian movements seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to continue to strengthen whatever entity it suspects has been undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

© 2020 Ami Magazine

Mask Ask

Back in the day — by which I mean this past spring — I was a resolute non-masker. When shopping, of course, I followed stores’ rules. But in shul, I was part of the majority of attendees who, while shunning hand-shaking and coughing in other people’s faces, chose to not self-suffocate. In my long-favored hashkamah minyan, which required masks, I was granted permission by the maskers to sit behind a mechitzah in the back of the room.

But today I wear a mask religiously, both meanings intended. Because my objection to masking had only been because I felt that the benefit of covering my mouth and nose was outweighed by the danger to my health in not receiving sufficient oxygen. I could feel, I felt, that I wasn’t getting enough air.

But then I found research that showed that oxygen levels did not decrease as a result of masking — even when the masker was engaged in strenuous exercise (a category in which I don’t think even energetic shukkeling belongs).

And so, I realized that it was really just the discomfort of breathing warm air and enduring fogged eyeglasses that argued against the public health benefit of wearing a mask. I was being a shul snowflake.

Though there are the inevitable gadflies who claim there is no benefit to masking, the evidence for its helpfulness in stemming the spread of infections is compelling. To be sure, there is only limited evidence that mask-wearers are less likely to contract Covid-19, but the real benefit of masking is to prevent infected but asymptomatic people from spreading the virus — in other words, to protect others. For that, there is ample evidence, both from lab experiments and, more importantly, from analyses of the rate of virus spread in communities and countries where masking is routine and others where it is spotty.

And so, masking in groups, is, most simply put, an act of chesed.

Then there is the public perception. Although I write as a private individual, my day job is with Agudath Israel of America, where I interact with the media and the public. The image of the chareidi community, despite that it is very large and very varied, is that its members shun masking. That is a problem.

Because — at least to the limited extent that the perception of chareidi mask-shunning is true — it gives people, other Jews and non-Jews alike, the impression that our community doesn’t care about others.

At the Keynote Session of Agudath Israel of America’s recent (virtual) national convention, the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, offered a heartfelt, impassioned reiteration of the imperative to follow current health authorities’ advice, and declared that religious Jews who disregard precautions like masking and distancing not only potentially harm the health of others but bring about the opposite of the fundamental Jewish imperative to make “Hashem’s name beloved to others.” Chalilah on both counts.

Personally, ever since I’ve become a masked man, I have come to better appreciate something my dear father, a”h, would often say. And, having been yanked by the Soviets at the start of World War II from the Vilna yeshiva in which he had been studying and banished with his friends and their rebbe to the frozen taiga of Siberia, he was amply credentialed to offer the lesson.

“A person,” he taught his children, “can get used to anything.”

What he meant was that, whatever new situation might confront us, it should never be seen as an insurmountable obstacle. With equanimity and time, we can handle things we never would have imagined were handle-able.

As challenges go, wearing a surgical mask around others rather pales compared to chopping wood in 40 degrees below zero weather. But the lesson is the same.

And, indeed, now I’m so accustomed to my mask that I sometimes forget that I’m even wearing it.

Many hands are being wrung over what, oy vey, the “new normal” might be for perhaps even years to come. I understand the angst.

But I imagine my father just saying, reassuringly, don’t worry, you can get used to it.

© 2020 Ami Magazine

Parshas Miketz — Lying Eyes

A botanist named Joseph Banks who was aboard Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage recorded in his diary that while the 106-foot-long Endeavour sailed along the east coast of Australia, native fishermen totally ignored the large boat, the likes of which they surely had never before seen. 

Rashi (Beraishis 42:8) quotes the Gemara that explains the reason Yosef’s brothers didn’t recognize him when they appeared before him in his role as second in command of Egypt: They had last seen him beardless and now he was a grown man with a full beard. 

But Yosef, the Midrash says, looked just like his father Yaakov, whom the brothers knew as a grown man, if one considerably older than the Yosef facing them.

Perhaps there was another element at play here, too, the sort of cognitive dissonance that might explain the Australian aborigines’ lack of reaction to the sudden appearance of the large ship. It has been speculated that they had no model in their imaginations for a vessel like the Endeavour and so their minds blocked out what was before their eyes, rendering it invisible.

The very last place Yosef’s brothers could have imagined him being was on a throne in a powerful country. They had left him in the hands of slave-traders and “knew” that he was, if he was even alive, toiling as a lowly servant.  Might that “knowledge” have been at least part of why his face didn’t register with them, why they couldn’t see him even as he was right before their eyes?

Even in our times, we see the incredible power of preconceptions, how blinding they can be.  Even when faced with overwhelming evidence for the truth of something, it can still remain for millions of people an unthinkable thought, and render what is right in front of them effectively invisible.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Monstrous Mercy

The recent charging of a nurse in England with the murder of eight babies in a hospital’s neonatal unit prodded me to write last week’s Ami Magazine column about similar crimes, government-sanctioned assisted suicide and the common condition I call “23-Pair Chromosome Syndrome.”

The column can be read here.

Malicious Misrepresentation

I have no beef with anyone who wishes to take issue with anything I’ve written.  But I do object to the publication of something that blatantly and irresponsibly misrepresents what I have written.  Like this recent piece in the Forward, ostensibly responding to an earlier one I wrote in the same medium.

If you read my essay, you will see that nowhere did I argue or insinuate, as Mr. Nosanchuk claims, that that “only Haredi Jewish leaders can speak for our city’s Jewish community.”

Nor does associating me with “violent attacks against journalists” have any respect for truth. In fact, it insults it. I have publicly and repeatedly condemned (in print and on-air) all such behavior, and didn’t reference it at all in my Forward piece, since it was irrelevant to its thesis.

And if Mr. Nosanchuk wishes to attribute to me the claim that Orthodox “practice of Judaism requires an exemption from public-health restrictions,” he really should be required to show where I have ever written such a thing.  I have not. What I did write was that New York Governor Cuomo’s recent edicts were illogical and unfair — to any and all houses of worship. 

I, further, never insinuated anything remotely like the contention that people should “risk their health or the health of their loved ones by attending a large indoor religious gathering.”  Nor would I ever do so.

And I nowhere suggested that non-Orthodox rabbis “have no right to opine on the issue because they interpret Jewish law differently” than I do. I simply noted that non-Orthodox Jews are not hampered as much as Orthodox ones are by Mr. Cuomo’s draconian rules — and that representatives of the former should not call the latter “blasphemous” for standing up for their rights as Americans.  The ugliness and falsehood of that accusation was what my article was about – and something Mr. Nosanchuk chose to utterly ignore.

As to his accusation that I align myself “with a small minority within the Haredi community that has flouted public-health restrictions and resorted to violence against fellow Jews who disagree with them.”  That is beyond untruth; it is perilously close to libel. He maliciously created it out of whole cloth.

As he did his statement that I have resorted to “claims of antisemitism” against, presumably, the governor.  Never have I ever made such a claim, not in my essay, not in any other writings and not in private conversation.

Finally, I didn’t “try” to “spin” the NYJA’s words as name-calling.  Its words were name calling, at least if one considers “blasphemous” an insult.  I really think most people would.