Category Archives: Personalities

The Best Response to Mayor de Blasio

A minor miracle occurred last week: Officials and pundits from across the political and social spectra came together in a show of unified determination. No, not to encourage social distancing or to discourage early re-opening of businesses. To condemn Bill de Blasio.

That would be New York’s mayor, of course, whose tweet calling out “the Jewish community” for violating social distancing guidelines after the funeral of a Chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Mertz, the Tola’as Yakov Rebbe, drew a reported 2000-plus onto the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“My message to the Jewish community,” the mayor wrote, “and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”

Those who piled on ranged from conservative thinker John Podhoretz, shock jock Glenn Beck, Donald Trump Jr. and ex-ambassador Nikki Haley to the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and a number of people associated with the Reform movement. An assortment of New York Assemblymen joined in the tackle.

Some of the critics stood up for the bereaved chassidim who attended the funeral, some decried the insinuation that such crowding was more prevalent in the chassidic community, and some seemed outraged that the acts of some chassidim were being blamed on all Jews, even non-observant ones like themselves.

Grounds for criticism there were. As a statement from Agudath Israel noted, “The Jewish community as a whole, and the Orthodox Jewish community in particular, are heeding social distancing rules, including at funerals.” And the funeral had been coordinated with the New York Police Department. Apparently, the crowd turned out to be larger than expected.

But while the mayor’s choice of words was misguided and regrettable, they didn’t, as some rashly claimed, evidence any animus for Jews. Not only has Mr. de Blasio been a stalwart supporter of Israel and condemner of the BDS movement, he has enjoyed a warm relationship with New York’s Orthodox Jewish community.

His ill-considered focus on the “Jewish community” was simply the gut reaction, emotion-driven response to a scene of many hundreds of identifiably Jewish Jews crowded together, in violation of state regulations, at a time when a contagious disease was spreading and killing people.

Yes, other groups were also guilty of not heeding spacing requirements, as some of de Blasio’s critics were quick to point out online, including in their postings photos of well-populated beaches and groups of people watching an air show. But those violators were not members of any specific, identifiable group. How were they to be called out?

“My message to the beach-going community and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed”?

Doesn’t quite work, no?

And there had been other crowded funerals attended by crowds of identifiably Orthodox Jews too, something that no one who saw photos of them, presumably including the mayor, can’t unremember.

The truly justified grievance against the mayor’s tweet is what Agudath Israel’s statement went on to say: “No matter how well-intentioned the Mayor might be, words that could be seized upon by bigots and anti-Semites must be avoided at all costs.”

Mr. de Blasio seems in fact to have recognized that fact, since he eventually apologized for his misbegotten tweeting on a conference call with Orthodox Jewish media outlets.

The apology, though, that I found truly compelling, not only in the fact of its existence but because of its tone and eloquence, was from Jacob Mertz, the secretary of Tola’as Yakov, the congregation whose leader’s funeral had sparked the brouhaha.

“Our Rabbi was revered by thousands as a holy, humble and caring person,” a letter he signed read in part, “and they wanted to participate in the funeral.

“We came up with a plan to have many streets closed, so that people participate and walk the coffin while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks… Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds…

“We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise. It also hurts that this led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people. We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern to the health of safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned. We share that concern. Health and live[s] take precedence to anything else, and we shall all follow those rules.”

In the tumultuous world in which we Americans live today, where invective has largely replaced dialogue and grievances are settled at best with insults and at worst with guns, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that, even in a free country and protected as we are by a Bill of Rights, we are still in galus. It may not look like the galus of ancient Babylonia or Czarist Russia, but it is still galus.

And, while an acknowledgement like Tola’as Yakov’s might strike some, including some Jews, as overly modest and deferential, it was not.

It was the perfectly Jewish response.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Different Hopes For Different Folks

“Number one…” presidential hopeful Joe Biden Jr. said at his March 15 debate with equally hopeful (though less entitled to be so) Senator Bernie Sanders, “if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman of the courts. It’s required that they have representation now. It’s long overdue.”

He continued with his number two: “If I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact… pick a woman to be vice president. There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow.”

No doubt there are, as there are a number of qualified men. But am I alone in finding it puzzling that the choice of who should be the proverbial heartbeat away from the highest office in the land might be made on a basis of gender? Or that appointment to the highest court of the land be based on the same plus race?

What am I missing here?

Yes, I know, and lament, the bias against, and mistreatment of, women and blacks (and Native Americans, and Hispanics, and other groups) over our country’s history. And I even understand, if I don’t fully agree with, those who advocate for things like reparations for descendants of American slaves.

But how exactly do historic wrongs translate into some sort of right of precedence for public office? Apologies are owed to victims of discrimination and exploitation, perhaps compensation is even owed. But a desk in the White House or a seat on the High Court bench?

And, surely, the fact alone that there hasn’t yet been a black president or Supreme Court justice who was also a woman is hardly a compelling argument for choosing one. There hasn’t been a bald president since Eisenhower either. Or a president less than six feet tall since Grover Cleveland, and he was 5’11”. (Okay, Jimmy Carter was only 5’10; but look how he turned out.) Should we be tapping members of the short, bald demographic for leaders?

No less an example of an accomplished woman than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico in 2016, “I don’t think that any woman should be asked to vote for someone because she’s a woman.” Well, should any woman be asked to be a running mate or appointed a judge because she’s a woman? That would have been my next question, but, alas, I wasn’t the interviewer.

Yes, of course, I fully recognize the nature of politics and its close cousin horse-trading. I understand the practical wisdom of making choices that are likely to win the votes of particular segments of the electorate. But can’t a candidate just appoint the black woman (or short bald guy) without heralding it as some historically mandated act of high principle?

Please don’t get me wrong. I think that women can be excellent leaders. From Heleni Hamalkah to Golda Meir to Margaret Thatcher, women have done exemplary jobs in positions of power. It’s just that I think – call me crazy – that the best candidate for a position of power should be… the best candidate for the position of power, regardless of gender or race (or height).

Research has shown that female lawmakers tend to bring more federal money back to their districts than their male counterparts. And in their book Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt found that congresswomen are disproportionately likely to serve on committees for issues that are of most interest to their constituents, and more likely to co-sponsor legislation that helps those who elected them. So, women politicians? No problem.

But women chosen because they’re women? Problem.

Aside from the essential folly of it, choosing or appointing a woman to a high position mainly because of her womanhood disadvantages the woman. As Justice Clarence Thomas has written about affirmative action, the favoring of people based on their skin color – what he calls “racial engineering” – has “insidious consequences” – namely, the resultant assumption by others that the favored person isn’t really qualified. The same is true with gender engineering.

To me, though, even worse than choosing a woman for public office because she’s a woman is the message that doing so sends about the goals that should matter in life. Hint: Public office isn’t high on the list.

When former presidential hopeful (yes, a lot of hopes have come and gone) Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her campaign on March 5, she showed some emotion as she lamented “one of the hardest parts” of her decision, that “all those little girls… are going to have to wait four more years.” For a bigger girl, that is, to become president.

High public office may indeed be an important goal, perhaps the ultimate one, of some little girls. It clearly is the consuming aim of some grown women. But, when they were little girls, the daughters my wife and I were privileged to raise would politely have declined to endorse such desiderata.

They had, as most of our community’s young women have, very different goals, hopes that are likely regarded as backward by many contemporary observers but are more beneficial to society than they may be capable of understanding. Hopes to, with Hashem’s help, become partners with husbands, to become mothers, grandmothers and beyond. Hopes to mold not legislation but hearts and minds.

Different folks, different hopes. Don’t cry for them, Senator Warren.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pleasing Orthodox Political Palates

For some of us, double-edged swords don’t come more dangerous than the prospect of a Jewish president. The accomplishment would be heartening in a way, and would say much about America. But the reality of a Jewish person sitting in the White House would not please people infected with the derangement we call anti-Semitism. And we have more than enough of that as is, thank you.

To be sure, unless the current Commander-in-Chief is removed from office (not likely) or the Electoral College is abolished (less likely), the race for the Democratic candidacy will probably prove to be only a contest to determine who will be defeated by President Trump in November.

Still, it is noteworthy – and fear-worthy, for the above-mentioned some of us – that, back in the 1950s, two currently viable viers for the highest office in the land celebrated bar mitzvahs.

Both are ex-mayors: Senator Bernie Sanders, of Burlington, Vermont; and Michael Bloomberg, of New York. The former is a populist progressive backed by a strong grass-roots movement; the latter, a savvy, successful businessman backed by an impressive record and the willingness to spend a billion dollars of his own money on his campaign.

And both are touting their tribal credentials, to appeal to Jewish voters.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in synagogues in my life,” Mr. Bloomberg told a packed Jewish venue in Miami last week, “but my parents taught me that Judaism is more than just going to shul. It is about living our values… and it’s about revering the miracle that is the state of Israel, which – for their generation – was a dream fulfilled before their very eyes.”

In oblique criticism of Senator Sanders’ democratic socialism, he joked that “I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”

Continuing his bombing of Bernie, who has indicated he might withhold military aid from Israel if it didn’t better address humanitarian needs of Gazans, Mr. Bloomberg pledged to “never impose conditions on our military aid [to Israel], including missile defense – no matter who is Prime Minister.”

And, of course, after speaking at length about recent acts of violent anti-Semitism, he attacked Mr. Trump, associating him obliquely, and unfairly, with “racist groups” that “spread hate.”

“A world in which a president traffics in conspiracy theories,” he went on to declare, “is a world in which Jews are not safe.”

For its part, the Sanders campaign rolled out its own Jewy video last week, which began with a clip of the senator, at a J Street gathering last year, proclaiming that “I’m very proud to be Jewish, and look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”

At that gathering, Mr. Sanders declared: “If there is any people on Earth who understands the dangers of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people.” And, in his own swipe at the president, he added: “And if there is any people on earth who should do everything humanly possible to fight against Trump’s efforts to try to divide us up… and bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.”

And, although he accuses the current Israeli government of unfairness to Palestinians, he calls himself “somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel.”

Fighting anti-Semitism and declaring support for Israel may please many Jewish political palates, and, b”H, remain pretty much de rigueur positions for any serious presidential candidate.

But office contenders seeking Jewish votes these days would be wise to not ignore American Jewry’s Orthodox segment. It may be a fraction of the country’s Jewish population (around 10%, it’s estimated) but it is a fraction that, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, has more than quintupled over the past two generations, and stands, b’ezras Hashem, to continue its growth.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel have estimated that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

We Orthodox, like most other Jews, are greatly concerned about Israel’s security and about rising anti-Semitism. But, in addition to those issues, a major item on our political agenda is education.

We believe in school choice – that parents are the best arbiters of what schools their children should attend, and should not be financially penalized for not choosing public schools. And we consider it critically important that government involvement in determining the content of curricula in private schools be minimal.

Senator Sanders is officially on what we consider the wrong side of both those issues. Mr. Bloomberg, while he has long been a proponent of educational choice with regard to things like public charter schools, hasn’t taken a public position on either of our own educational concerns.

It’s not too late for him to do so, of course, and, as someone who fundamentally understands the importance of educational options, he might come to see the sense and fairness in our positions.

From a political perspective, it would be wise.

More important, though, from a Jewish perspective, it would be right.

© 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

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

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a shul on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who had received no Jewish chinuch from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder, straining his neck to look up at his companion. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because we’re about to recite Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended shul on the eve of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that doesn’t send a shudder through a body when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, evocative melody.  And yet the words of the tefillah – “modaah” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the last of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

They speak instead to the annulment of nedarim, vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Nedarim, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, we rightly take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  So, that Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of neder-making isn’t entirely surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of distant places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most of us today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But few if any Jews today feel any compulsion to shed their Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of mastinim: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The Amora Rav Alexandri, the Gemara teaches (Berachos, 17a), would recite a short tefillah in which, addressing Hashem, he said: “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us? The ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the yetzer hora] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows reflect a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the recitation moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

When the Beis Hamikdosh stood, Yom Kippur saw the kiyum of the mitzvah of the Shnei Se’irim.  The Cohen Gadol would place a lot on the head of each of two goats; one read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed as a korban; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the chok, like those of all chukim in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our aveiros are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, ym”s, had, despite his secularist life, declared: “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Mr. Kahn may never have attended shul for Kol Nidrei.  But perhaps a seed planted by a hunchbacked humorist, and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism, helped him connect to something of the declaration’s deepest meaning. 

© 2019 Hamodia

It’s Not Just ‘Tone’, Mr. Tapper

Are you aware of the connection between the El Paso shooter and Palestinian terrorists?

No, the shooter wasn’t a Palestinian and had no known affiliation with the Palestinian cause. He was apparently an anti-immigrant white nationalist, as indicated in the manifesto he seems to have posted on a shady website shortly before he set out to kill innocent Hispanic people, accomplishing that goal in 22 cases, and failing in 24 others, where the victims were merely wounded.

The Palestinian “connection,” such as it is, is indirect, and involves Jake Tapper, the well-known broadcast journalist and frequent critic of President Trump.

In the wake of the domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, many charged that the president’s rhetoric bore some responsibility for the carnage. Mr. Trump’s repeated characterization of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. as an “invasion,” the critics asserted, echoed the shooter manifesto’s anti-immigrant sentiments and repeated use of the same word in that context. Accused accessories to the president’s alleged crime included various media outlets, primarily Fox News, which used “invaders” or “invasion” to describe migrants or migration in more than 300 broadcasts over the past year alone.

The killer himself acknowledged the likelihood that Mr. Trump would be implicated in the attack. “I know,” he wrote, “that the media will probably call me a white supremacist… and blame Trump’s rhetoric.” Well, yes.

No one needs to convince those of us even rudimentarily informed by Jewish thought that words can be weaponized. Chazal in fact characterized words as capable of “killing.” Whether, though, political rhetoric can be rightly pointed to as a culprit in white nationalist attacks – like the one in El Paso or the 2015 murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina or the Poway, California synagogue shooting this past spring – is arguable.

Mr. Tapper, predictably, leans toward a “yes” vote. But, on a CNN program panel, he also raised an intriguing point. “What’s interesting,” he averred, is that “you hear conservatives all the time, rightly so in my opinion, talk about the tone set by people in the Arab world… Palestinian leaders talking… about Israelis,” claiming there is “no direct link necessarily between what the leader says and violence against some poor Israeli girl in a pizzeria.” Conceding that “you can’t compare the ideology of Hamas with anything else,” he asserted that, “at the same time, either tone matters or it doesn’t.”

Sana Saeed, Al-Jazeera’s online producer, was appalled, calling on CNN to fire Mr. Tapper for achieving “the height of unethical journalism.” BDS proponent and all-purpose Israel-basher Linda Sarsour seconded the motion.

U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib chimed in too, accusing Mr. Tapper of “comparing Palestinian human rights activists to terrorist white nationalists.” (If Ms. Tlaib considers Hamas terrorists to be “human rights activists,” it is she who deserves to lose her job.)

Not one to be left behind, Raouf J. Halaby, Professor Emeritus of English and Art at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (no, none of that is made up) reacted to Mr. Tapper’s point by calling it “the height of hypocrisy,” and adding, for good measure, that “Israel is led by racist rulers and rabbis egging their citizens to kill Palestinians because (they claim) the Torah sanctions these killings and it is kosher to do so.”

One can only hope that Arkadelphians recognize a madman in their midst when they hear one.

Mr. Tapper’s verbal assailants, of course, grossly misrepresented what he said. He did not compare human rights activists to white nationalists or defend any fictional rabbinical inciters to murder. But the critics are correct in feeling that his comparison was imperfect.

Just not in the way they contend.

The reason Mr. Tapper’s comparison was faulty is because, whatever one may think about the president’s rhetoric or judgment or positions or personality, whatever one may think about whether or not his words inadvertently offer solace or encouragement to evil people, he has never called for attacks on anyone.

Unlike Palestinian leaders, media and schools.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, in 2015, after violent riots on the Har HaBayis initiated by Muslim extremists, declared that “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way” to heaven.

Palestinian media regularly laud “the resistance.” Fatah’s “official” Facebook page has featured a knife with a Palestinian flag on its handle stabbing a bearded religious Jew.

And Palestinian educational materials encourage violence against Israelis and Jews. As chronicled last year by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, a nonprofit that aims to do just what its name says, textbooks created as part of the Palestinian Authority’s new K-12 educational curriculum “are teaching Palestinian children that there can be no compromise” and “indoctrinat[e] for death and martyrdom.”

Fourth graders, for example, learn addition, and ninth graders multiplication, by counting the number of Palestinian “martyrs” – terrorists who perished in the course of their murderous acts.

No, it’s not Palestinian authorities’ “tone” that’s at fault.

It’s their promotion of murder.

© 2019 Hamodia (in edited form)