Category Archives: Politics

Bursting Bubbles

Two people dear to me — a talmid from a former lifetime and a respected colleague in my current one — forwarded me links to an outrageous set of comments attributed to Texas State Representative Terry Meza, explaining her proposed bill to change parts of her state’s code about the use of force in self-defense. 

Ms. Meza’s bill was characterized as a repeal of Texas’s “castle doctrine,” a catch-all phrase for an assortment of laws in various states offering a person the right to use deadly force on an intruder. 

She was quoted as justifying her effort by contending that “Thieves only carry weapons for self-protection and to provide the householder an incentive to cooperate,” that “in most instances the thief needs the money more than the homeowner does” and that “on balance, the transfer of property is likely to lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth.”

The outrageousness of that report is equaled only by… well, its falsity. 

It turns out that the bill at issue simply added a clause requiring a person not on his own property and not personally threatened to retreat rather than shoot to kill someone engaged in a robbery.

And the quotes? They were fabrications, the work of a satirical website.

Neither of the people who sent me the untrue item — which appeared widely on social media — is gullible. One is a doctor, the other a lawyer. 

But their assumption of the item’s veracity highlighted something unsettling, even dangerous, that has been steadily increasing and particularly apparent in recent years: the proliferation of “fake news” — and the challenge of distinguishing fiction from fact.

With the presidential election now blessedly in the rear-view mirror, the subject of misleading reportage and opinion writing can be addressed, one hopes, dispassionately. And so, for what it’s worth, I’d like to share some advice about how to best ferret out facts from falsehoods and formulate informed opinions.

The only college I attended was Ner Israel Rabbinical College, but my professional life over the past quarter century-plus has included closely monitoring news. And I’ve confirmed — stop the presses! — that journalists, like all people, have biases. The best among them work to suppress their prejudices, but the preconceptions are often evident all the same, if not on the lines, then between them.

Ditto with news organizations, and kal vachomer with social media. Which means that, in a way, all news is “fake” — if not necessarily like the blatantly misleading example above, then at least in the sense of… slanted.

So what’s a news consumer to do? I suggest something simple, if puzzlingly seldom done: Hear out disparate claims and do independent research. 

That means consulting not only Fox News and the Daily Caller, but the New York Times and CNN; listening not only to NPR but to Rush and Sean and even Rudy. And then — most important — employing critical and objective thinking (and tools like Snopes and FactCheck).

People who proudly proclaim that they trust only this or that news source are proudly proclaiming that they don’t really care about truth, only about keeping the bubbles they inhabit intact. The only way to establish facts and formulate educated opinions is to hear different voices. Doing otherwise is like a judge hearing out only one litigant and then rendering a decision.

Sometimes due diligence and hearing all views will yield confirmation of one’s own original gut feelings. Other times, though, an honest person will find his own preconceptions to have been successfully challenged. And so, it’s important here to remember, as it is in life in general, that admitting a mistake is simply declaring that one is smarter than he was earlier.

Objective evaluation of disparate sources can still yield different conclusions for different people. There can be, and often are, entirely legitimate differences of informed opinion. But opinions need to be based on fact, not partisan propaganda or someone else’s biases.

As I was writing this, yet a third person dear to me forwarded a headline from a “frum” medium. It read: “JOE’S MATH: Biden Talks Of 300 Million Vaccines For 200 Americans.” At one point in a recent address, Mr. Biden said “300 Americans” and then corrected himself and said “300 million Americans.” The video on the “news” medium was not only doctored to omit that real-time correction but clumsily edited to make Mr. Biden seem addled.

How many viewers of the fake video, I wonder, cared to consult the original?

© 2021 Ami Magazine

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

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.

Recent Ami Articles

For the past month and a bit, my weekly columns have been appearing in Ami Magazine. My agreement with the periodical allows me to share links to the pieces on its website, but not to share them in their entirety in other ways.

So I’ll be posting links to the pieces, and their first sentences, in the future here, in addition to articles that may have been published elsewhere.

Recent offerings are at https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/07/29/cut-the-curls-youre-out-of-the-band/ and https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/05/dont-kick-the-donkey-2/

Open Letter to the Torah Community: Sinai, Not Washington

The unhealthy confusion of Torah values with politics brings disrepute to Torah and harm to Torah Jews.

No party platform can substitute for our mesorah.

As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.

Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.

Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.

Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships. The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.

These are not new problems. But the challenge seems to grow worse with time. If we don’t stop to seriously consider the negative impact of our community’s unhealthy relationship with the current political style, we risk further erosion of our ability to live lives dedicated to truly Jewish ideals.

We Jews are charged to be an example for all Americans.

Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse. Whether we realize it or not, many of us have come to be guided in such matters, at least in part, by politicians and media figures with whom we share neither values nor worldview.

We are a people charged with modeling and teaching ethical behavior and morality to others. It should be inconceivable for us to be, and be seen as, willing disciples of deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable. We should be ashamed when Torah leaders seem to have been replaced as our ethical guides by people of low character and alien values.

As Orthodox Jews, we live in a benevolent host society to which we have rightly given our loyalty. It is thus important that we not be regarded by the American public as turning a blind eye to the degradation of our moral climate in exchange for political support for parochial interests.

We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any party.

There are issues of great importance to us, like education funding, anti-discrimination laws and the affordability and safety of our neighborhoods, and we rightly advocate for our positions.

But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction. Our practical focus should be on recruiting allies and building alliances, and we ought to shun partisan posturing that only alienates us from those who govern us.

We must ensure that Israel is not used as a political weapon.

We must oppose efforts to turn support for Israel from a broad consensus into a wedge issue. Although we may rightly be concerned about trends regarding Israel in some corners, indicting an entire party as anti-Israel is not only inaccurate but has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor should any party’s strong support for Israel become a justification to blindly support its politicians in every other matter. We should advocate for Israel’s security and other needs without painting ourselves into a partisan corner.

We should vote as Jews, not partisans.

Nothing stated above is intended to address anyone’s voting choices. We write simply to caution against the reflexive identification of Orthodox communal interests with any particular party or political philosophy.

To that end, let us commit to being guided only by Torah perspectives and strive to insulate ourselves, our families, students and congregants from being influenced by the objectionable speech and conduct that have come to infect many parts of the political spectrum.

When we vote, let us do so as Torah Jews, with deliberation and seriousness, not as part of any partisan bandwagon. We are not inherently Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We are Jews – in the voting booth no less than in our homes – who are committed, in the end, only to Torah.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Jeff Jacoby

Eytan Kobre

Yosef Rapaport

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dr. Aviva Weisbord