A piece adapted from an essay to be included in a Haggadah due to be released next year, appears at Religion News Service, here.
Category Archives: Politics
Politics and Providence
New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently waved something of a red flag before some overly broadminded bulls — so to speak — when he addressed the role of religion in public service.
You can read about the flag, the bulls and more here.
Yes, a Joke
There wasn’t a need to compose a Purim satire when the news provided enough to stimulate giggles. As you can read here:
Mike’s Maligned Menorah
Former Vice President Mike Pence has added to his sins — to date, they include calling his childrens’ mother “mother” and declining to dine privately alone with any woman other than his spouse — a deeply offensive (at least to some) menorah.
Read all about it here.
Fringe is Fringe
Democratic Congressmen Hakeem Jeffries and Ritchie Torres are two people worth looking at closely. They give the lie to the contention that the blue sky is falling.
To read what I mean, click here.
We shouldn’t aim to emulate the asinine
Regardless of whether or not all or any of the results of the recent elections pleased you, they revealed a supercharged Orthodox Jewish community in New York. Even if some secular media crazily choose to portray Orthodox participation in the democratic system as somehow nefarious, we Orthodox Jews should be proud of our neighborhoods’ impressive voting record.
Shortly before election day, someone immersed in studying Torah and earning a living told me that he doesn’t follow political matters and, assuming (rightly or not) that I was better informed about such things, asked me for whom I thought he should vote. My response took him aback. “It makes no difference,” I said. “Just vote.”
That’s because, no matter how we might like to imagine things, no single vote, nor hundred votes, nor thousand votes, usually makes a difference in the outcome of a congressional or gubernatorial election. But what always makes a difference is the post-election map informing elected officials which neighborhoods care enough to turn out en masse. And when it comes to that map, every vote makes a difference.
And that’s what should be foremost in our minds during the months before every election, when campaign engines noisily rev up and ads and endorsements dominate the airwaves, print media, robocalls, pashkevilim and car-mounted loudspeakers.
Because, while there may well be reasons to back this or that candidate, or to support or oppose this or that proposal, there is – or should be – no place in our lives for the political tribal war mentality that has intensified immeasurably in politics over the past seven years.
Demonization of parties and individuals may excite a certain type of citizen (like the kind who enjoys watching boxers open cuts in their opponents’ faces or render them unconscious). But insulting those with whom we may disagree is not something that responsible Jews do.
Campaigns these days resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial contests, where citizens cheer their chosen heroes and signal for hungry lions to deal with those they disfavor. But that’s not what politics should be to a believing Jew. To us, an election is a means of civilly advancing our interests and what we believe is best for the city, state or country in which we live. For those in need of violent release, there’s Canadian hockey.
Getting overheated over politics is incongruous with Torah values, simple menschlichkeit and reason.
While our hishtadlus is necessary, in the end, we must remember that lev melech bi’yad Hashem, “the heart of the king is in Hashem’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1). What is decisive is the Bashefer, not the ballot box, the Creator, not the casting. Our power lies in choosing how to live, not how to vote.
To be sure, there might theoretically be a candidate for some office who is truly deserving of vilification – say, a Nazi human trafficker with a penchant for cannibalism. But they are, I think, rare.
When it comes, though, to candidates whose positions one simply feels are wrongheaded or detrimental to our community or to society as a whole, expressions of opposition are rightly made with reason and calm, not fire and fury.
An object lesson, I personally think, lies in the public disparagement some rained down upon Kathy Hochul.
Whether or not one thinks she was the better candidate, the Governor has shown good will to her Orthodox Jewish constituents – in her budget’s substantial increases in allocations for nonpublic schools, security grants for Jewish institutions and funding for hate crime prevention; and in her veto of a bill that would have allowed the Town of Blooming Grove to effectively discriminate against religious Jews.
And yet, because she didn’t endorse what we feel she should have with regard to yeshiva education, some went into full-scale attack mode.
Now that Ms. Hochul has been elected governor, how might that harsh and uncalled-for crassness sit with her?
I don’t expect Ms. Hochul, a seasoned politician with a thick skin, to turn on the community because of the thoughtless words of a few. I think she truly respects the Orthodox community. But can we at least recognize that joining the “attack mode” of contemporary American politics can backfire?
And, even more important, that it is wrong?
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Bigotry, Dementia and Persians, Oh My!
Recent reports about the current and former president inspired a thought about the wisdom of the Hebrew alphabet.
And that thought can be read here.
Days of Deceit
Fact-free fantasies are all the rage
Shameless charlatans and flagrant fabulists are nothing new. But they seem to be proliferating rather wildly these days.
In only the latest of a slew of recent such scams, a man was just sentenced to five years in prison after raising $400,000 in a GoFundMe campaign, ostensibly for a homeless veteran. He and his companion spent much of the money on gambling, a BMW, a trip to Las Vegas, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and designer handbags.
Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and operator of the website InfoWars, who, after a Texas jury’s ruling this month, must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1 million in compensatory ones for spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax “staged” by the government so it could “go after our guns,” and that none of the 20 children killed in that attack had actually died.
He called those all-too-real childrens’ parents, who had to identify and bury the bullet-riddled bodies of their young ones, “crisis actors,” resulting in their being retraumatized, and harassed and hounded by some of Jones’ faithful followers.
Previously, the popular fabler endorsed the “Pizzagate theory”—that Democratic Party operatives ran a global child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizzeria—and implied that a yogurt company was linked to an assault case and helped spread tuberculosis, both of which fact-free fantasies he was later forced to apologize for promoting.
Apparently inspired by Mr. Jones, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that the man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, this year, killing six, might have been part of an orchestrated effort to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures.
Millions of Americans believe, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and millions, too (though there’s likely considerable overlap), that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by US government agents. Among the latter group is Michael Peroutka, the Republican Party nominee for Maryland attorney general.
According to a new study by UNESCO, approximately half the public content related to the Holocaust on the Telegram messaging service denies or distorts facts about the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews.
And, with each year leaving us with fewer human witnesses to that evil, the noxious weeds of Holocaust denial are bound to infest the history garden.
Poised, too, to become a powerful engine further impelling our era of lies are “deepfakes.”
Those are videos produced with special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he or she has, well, neither said nor done. Photoshop on steroids.
The software, readily available and being constantly refined, can alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.
In 2019, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”
According to a report released last week by technology company VMware, attacks using face- and voice-altering technology jumped 13% last year.
“Deepfakes in cyberattacks aren’t coming,” the company’s Rick McElroy said in a statement. “They’re already here.”
In March, for one example, a video posted to social media appeared to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directing his soldiers to surrender to Russian forces. It was a deepfake.
The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today, it’s gone all the way around the world before truth even finds its shoes.
So there is ample cause for despair. Lies upon lies exposed, many more still claiming the gullible and a likely empowering of falsehood-promotion in the not-distant future.
But cause, too, perhaps, of hope.
Because Chazal (Sotah 49b) foretold that ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” one day: When the “footsteps of Moshiach” are approaching.
(c) 2022 Ami Magazine
Armed and Evil
As with most everything these days – from the debate over whether biting or licking an ice cream cone is the proper procedure to the one about whether climate change is a catastrophe or hoax – proponents and opponents of gun control have again assumed their respective distant and diametric positions.
The most recent mass murder tragedy (at least at this writing, on June 1) was the assault on an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers. It was the latest of some 950 school shootings – you read that right – since the 2012 attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 26 people were shot to death. (With other mass shootings included, the number is some 2500.)
At one extreme, The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro wistfully floated a 28th Amendment to the Constitution reading: “The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” And it’s not only “libs” who feel that way. Conservative columnist Bret Stephens has called the 2nd Amendment “a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts.”
On the opposite end of the ideological shooting range was, among many others, former President Donald Trump. In a speech (during which, amusingly, weapons were banned from the room) to a National Rifle Association gathering in “celebration of Second Amendment rights” three days after the Texas massacre, Mr. Trump blamed school shootings on “the existence of evil in our world,” which is no reason “to disarm law-abiding citizens.” On the contrary, he averred, it is “one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens.”
News flash: One can lick and bite one’s ice cream cone. And climate change can be seen both as a reason to wean ourselves off of oil and not as heralding the imminent end of the world.
Likewise, some gun control measures can, at least if political donations can be put aside (big “if,” that), make at least some difference.
To be sure, Mr. Trump is right about evil. There are also mental conditions that (unlike the vast majority of such illnesses) can lead to violence. Addressing societal and emotional ills should be part of the effort to curb gun violence. (Arming ostensibly law-abiding citizens, not so much. Imagine an impulsive fellow in a bad mood from an argument with his wife who was eyeing the parking spot you just pulled into.)
Moreover, it’s folly to imagine that stricter gun laws will end gun violence. While Texas’ gun laws are famously lax, New York’s are famously strict, which didn’t prevent the recent shooting up of a Buffalo supermarket, abruptly ending ten lives.
But, really, are lightweight rifles that can fire off a round every half-second at three times the velocity of a typical handgun with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage necessary for animal hunting or self defense? Those would be the AR-15-style weapons so popular with mass killers, like the ones used at, among other massacres, Sandy Hook, Buffalo and Uvalde. And which are unbelievably easy to purchase.
And is there something outrageous about federally-mandated universal background checks – even of currently unregulated gun sales between private parties? While the N.R.A. opposes such measures (and even registration of firearms), a 2020 Gallup Poll showed that 96% of Americans favor them.
Or anything onerous about requiring waiting periods for gun purchases, to prevent impulsive violence? Or about “red flag” laws allowing temporary restriction on gun possession by people whose family members or law officers deem to be a danger to themselves or others?
Or even, dare it to be said, raising the legal age for gun ownership? The peak ages for firearm violence are 18 to 21. Could we splurge and make it, say, 25?
Gun ownership, after all, isn’t an unlimited right. Like driving a car, it is subject to restrictions born of safety concerns.
No one – nor even all – of those things will stop gun violence.
Because, in the end, the adage is true: guns don’t kill; people do.
But they tend to do a good deal of killings with all-too-deadly, all-too-accessible guns.
© 2022 Ami Magazine
Racist Antisemites but pro-Israel
The essay below appeared in Haaretz
Racist Antisemites, but pro-Israel: The Choice Facing U.S. Orthodox Jews at the Polls
Should American Jews who believe sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is between man and woman, and abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?
Jun. 7, 2022 12:45 PM
The gunman who killed 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, neighborhood supermarket last month clearly targeted Black people. Not only was the market in a Black neighborhood, but the killer is reported to have shared his racist beliefs in a long-winded manifesto seething with hatred of “non-white” people and immigrants who, in his fevered mind, threaten to supplant ”native-born” Americans.
The document deems Black Americans, along with immigrants, as “replacers” – people who “invade our lands, live on our soil, live on government support and attack and replace our people.”
But the 180-page rant didn’t exactly ignore another minority.
“The Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” the manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.”
As to why he attacked a target in Buffalo and not Brooklyn, he reassured his readers that “the Jews…can be dealt with in time.”
The toxic brew of hatred, fear and unreason about how “real” Americans (or Europeans) are threatened with being overwhelmed by masses of dark invaders, popularly goes by the name “The Great Replacement.”
And other proponents of the ideology have also expressed themselves violently.
In the ADL’s tally, of the 450 murders committed by political extremists over the past decade in the U.S., Islamist extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists for 4 percent. Fully 75 percent were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, many of them explicitly tied to white supremacist movements.
Lest we forget, the Pittsburgh killer of 11 people at a Jewish congregation in 2018 blamed Jews as the “hidden hand” behind a plot to dilute the nation’s white Christian identity.
The killer of Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 called on whites to fight both Blacks and Jews.
The marchers in Charlottesville at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally (in)famously chanted “Jews will not replace us!”
White supremacists killed more people than any other type of radical last year.
The “Great Replacement” idea has been embraced and promoted by an assortment of political and media figures. While some find it unreasonable to imagine that the white power ideology’s mainstreaming in the (more) genteel public sphere plays any role in the violence committed under its banner, imagining otherwise is willful blindness.
To be sure, the pols and pundits generally focus on illegal immigration, something that every sovereign nation, of course, has a right and responsibility to control.
Here in the U.S., the pushers of “replacement theory” declare that their objection is to undocumented immigrants voting for Democratic candidates.
But non-citizens cannot vote in federal or state elections, or in any but a handful of local ones. And even were amnesty to be offered to many, or even all, undocumented immigrants, their path to citizenship would take some eight years, plenty of time to be courted by the Republican party (which, as it happens, increased its share of Latino voters in the 2020 election).
And so, the illegal immigration issue is a red herring (or, perhaps, a white one).
What’s more, much of the replacement rhetoric devolves from electoral concerns, justified or not, into less rarefied realms. The voices, though, belong to some of America’s most powerful institutions.
Steve King, while he was still serving as a Republican member of Congress for Iowa, tweeted that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He doubled down with the same vile contention on national TV.
Josh Mandel, when he was standing for election as the GOP candidate for a Senate seat for Ohio, bemoaned how immigration is “changing the face of America, figuratively and literally… our culture… our demographics…” adding “our electorate” only at the end. He endorsed Mike Flynn’s rallying cry that the United States should be “one nation under God and one religion under God.”
And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that leftists were attempting to “drown” out “classic Americans.”
Then there is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who famously said that immigration makes the U.S. “poorer, dirtier and more divided.” He makes sure to verbally renounce political violence, of course, but has long ranted in angry monologues against what he calls the demographic threat posed by immigration. Do his words resonate with people like the Buffalo murderer?
“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” fumed Mr. Carlson in a much-shared 2018 segment.
“Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength?” wrote the Buffalo shooter.
Many of us American Jews see the anti-Israel screeds of the progressive “Squad” in Congress as incendiary, as encouraging violence against Jews.
We’re not wrong about that. But it’s time we Jews realized, too, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, conservative and liberal alike, that Replacement Theory dressed up as judicious immigration concerns is just as dangerous, and, in light of the ADL stats, arguably more so.
At her first public appearance, at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the newly minted U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, decried the canard “that Jews were behind an attempt to destroy white America,” which she said has “been adopted and adapted by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in Europe and beyond.”
There was a time – it seems so long ago now – when Jews in the U.S. were largely united in supporting Israel and upholding democratic ideals; and recognized the importance of immigrants, like ourselves, to the American melting pot. And it was pretty clear which candidates deserved our votes.
It was a time when Orthodox Jews in particular, but other Jews as well, spoke in unison about the importance of traditional family values and the role of morality in forging social policy. And knew which candidates could be counted on to responsibly further our goals. It was a time when we felt that America’s fundamental democratic institutions, including the nation’s electoral system, deserved to be respected by all citizens, and that minorities and immigrants deserved protection and respect from both the populace and the electorate.
Today, though, as a celebrated bard has maintained, things have changed. And the changes leave much, if not most, of American Jewry conflicted. Or, at least they should.
Should Israel supporters cast votes for candidates who stand up unapologetically for Israel’s security, even if those aspirants to public office promote delusions like “Replacement Theory”? Should those of us who believe that sexual identity is not a mere social construct, that marriage is the union of a man and woman (defined biologically) and that abortion should not be a mere “choice,” support politicians who feel the same but, wittingly or not, help inspire racist and antisemitic murderers?
It’s a Sophie’s choice, and I don’t profess to know how best to make it.
But it’s a reality that must be faced. And lives – Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish alike, are more than theoretically at stake.
Rabbi Avi Shafran writes widely in Jewish and general media. Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran