Category Archives: Politics

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

Polishing the Badge

Like most everything these polarized-perspectives days, talking about the police seems to demand the taking of sides — either with ‘em or agin ‘em.

But, of course, that’s nonsense. One can, and should, fully acknowledge the importance of law enforcement, the debt of gratitude we owe officers who put their lives on the line and the fact that the majority of them are public servants in the very best sense of the phrase — while simultaneously acknowledging that a systemic problem, at least in some areas, seems to exist in policing today.

The list of police shootings and unnecessarily violent restraints of unarmed people needn’t be reviewed here. In many cases there may have been reason to fear an attack by a suspect, but in many there was not. And the infamous cases of misconduct we’ve witnessed with our eyes over recent years are the product of bystanders’ phone cameras. There were likely many similar unrecorded ones.

And so “police reform,” even for those of us who deeply respect police, should not be an offensive phrase. There are reasonable measures to be considered.

Currently, for instance, military veterans are given preference in police hiring. An assortment of state and federal laws — some dating back to the late 19th century — require law enforcement agencies to choose veterans over candidates with no military backgrounds. One in five police officers is, quite literally, a warrior, returned from Afghanistan, Iraq or some other assignment.

While the intent of front-listing veterans is a laudable one, the mindset of a soldier is not the one that will necessarily produce the best results in an officer of the peace. A reassessment of law enforcement recruiters’ favoring of ex-soldiers, people who are used to dealing with enemies, not citizens, may be in order.

Then there is training. In most countries, joining a police force is no simple affair. In Germany, for example, police recruits are required to spend two and a half to four years in basic training to become an officer. Basic training in the U.S. can take as little as 21 weeks and rarely runs longer than the six months required in New York City.

And the first emphasis in police training in the U.S., understandably, is on procedures and self-defense. Expanded training time would allow for more focus on things like crisis intervention and de-escalation. 

An even greater potential reform would be transparency in negotiations between police unions and municipalities. More than 85% of union-bargained police contracts in major cities around the country include language limiting oversight or discipline of officers. 

As a result, officers have been rehired even after being fired for fatal shootings. In 2011, an Oakland, California officer won his job back in union-negotiated arbitration after being fired for fatally shooting two unarmed men — one, in the back — in two different incidents mere months apart. In 2014, a similar union-demanded arbitration reinstated a Miami detective who killed an unarmed man in a shooting that a review board called “unjustified.” 

And those are the known cases. Disciplinary records of officers are often kept secret. To its credit, New York City recently announced that its log of cases of officers who have been disciplined would be made public. That should be standard practice in all police departments.

Another good idea would be the hiring of more women officers. Just about 13% of officers nationally are women; in New York City, the figure is just shy of 15%. Women (apologies to anyone who imagines that women are no different from men) are less likely to use force or escalate a tense situation.

And, finally, a good amount of police reform would happen on its own if police were simply paid better than they currently are. Some states compensate their police fairly well and offer many benefits. But others don’t, and few occupations entail the degree of danger that policing does. Treating police as the true professionals we expect them to be would make a police career more enticing to more people, and increase the pool of those wanting “to protect and to serve,” who wish to demonstrate, in the words of the New York City Police Department motto, “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Should “Black Lives Matter” Matter?

[photo credit: Rathkopf Photography]

If there were a contest for the most tasteless use of a slogan this summer, it would be hard to pick one out of several recent candidates reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disallowal of  overnight camps in the state this year. 

Two of the slogans are featured on signs being held by chassidic children in a photo that appeared online and in at least one respectable Jewish print publication. One sign reads “Kids’ Live Matter” [sic] and the other, “No camps, no justice.” 

The third was part of a caricature in a Jewish magazine intended for young people.  It portrayed Mr. Cuomo dressed as a police officer with his knee holding down a child wearing a summer camp t-shirt and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

What were the creative minds who thought those lines clever thinking? Did they not realize that equating the cruel snuffing out of lives with depriving children of a summer camp experience is obscene?

Please don’t misunderstand. Overnight camps are a very important part of many Jewish children’s lives and educations.  Such camps provide some 41,000 young Jews with opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and religiously.  Camps are particularly needed this summer, after months of children attending classes remotely and being denied the camaraderie and human interaction so vital for human development.

I fully realize that.  And also that Mr. Cuomo’s edict was woefully wrongheaded. 

He ignored a 17-page safety plan provided to him by a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps, signed by no less than nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. It explained how precautions could be taken at overnight camps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of Covid-19 infections.  The experts contended that children in camp environments would actually be safer in the protective bubble of isolated camps than they will now be if the edict stands.

But the cogent case for overnight camps doesn’t deserve to be sullied by outrageous, offensive comparisons.

Did the sloganeers consider for a moment how a black citizen, anguished by the seemingly endless parade of killings of unarmed black men and women by police, would perceive the “borrowing” of chants used to protest such carnage in the cause of demanding that… summer camps be opened?

Leave aside how a black American would feel.  How should any thoughtful person feel?

And if it’s really necessary to bring the issue closer to home, how would any of us Jews feel if “Never Again!” was co-opted to describe some summer vacation resort’s pledge to not ever repeat the same entertainment experience? No need to even imagine. Just recall the howls of Jewish outrage last summer when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (not even inaccurately) to detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

More disturbing than the tone deafness of the offensive borrowings is the lack of empathy it reveals.

The Torah teaches us to treat our fellow Jews in special ways.  We are family, after all, and family comes first.

But is the concept of tzelem Elokim limited to Jews?  Does the word brios in mechabed es habrios (Avos, 4:1) not, on its face, mean all people?  Did Dovid HaMelech not mean to include all human beings when he sang (Tehillim, 65:3) “You, Who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come”? Were korbanos not accepted from non-Jews in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is “darkei shalom,” for some reason, a lesser halachic ideal than others? Is not the goal of history, as our nevi’im prophesied, to bring all the earth’s inhabitants to recognize Hashem? Do we not then have to be concerned about them?

Back in 1964, Dr. Marvin Schick, a”h, writing in The Jewish Observer, asserted:

“It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society.”

Yes, there has been hatred for Jews among some blacks. I can testify to that from personal experience. Many experiences, in fact.

But I have also had enough interactions with black citizens of good will to know that the haters aren’t the norm. And all of us have witnessed more than enough in current events to know that being black in America remains a difficult, even dangerous, thing.

“Black Lives Matter” is a name that has been adopted by scores of organizations, some larger, most smaller. But Black Lives Matter is also an idea — essentially a reiteration of what was once known as the “civil rights movement.”  That movement qua movement, as Dr. Schick wrote more than 50 years ago, is one that should resonate with us.


The concept of darkei shalom, if nothing else, should compel us to show black Americans, and all people, that Jews committed to living Torah-faithful lives are fully committed to the safety and equal treatment by society of all human beings, no matter the color of their skins.

© 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

Stop And Think

Politicians would serve themselves well to always keep in mind Rabi Yehudah Hanasi’s admonition: “An eye sees, an ear hears, and all your deeds are written in a book” (Avos 2:1).

Most public servants may not care that the Tanna was referring to a Divine “eye” and “ear,” and to an ethereal “book,” or that the advice was offered as means of avoiding sin. But it’s good practical counsel, too, for aspirants to governmental positions.

Many a candidate for public office has come to be haunted by some statement or comment made years earlier of which human eyes and ears took note and of which there is a record, if not in a book, at least in a recording or internet posting.

Like presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, who has been confronted of late with comments he made about the “stop-and-frisk” police policy he advanced as mayor of New York.

The New York City Police Department began increasing its emphasis on stop-and-frisk – the accosting, questioning and superficial searching of people even without probable cause for arrest – in the mid-1990s, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. But the stops of citizens soared during Mr. Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure – rising from about 97,000 in 2002 to about 685,000 in 2011.

And, reportedly, more than 80% of those stopped and frisked were black or Latino.

The resurrected comments, which Mr. Bloomberg made in 2015, after he left office, were a defense of the stop-and-frisk policy as a deterrent to gun violence. The ex-mayor contended that “ninety-five percent of murders” were the work of “male minorities, 16 to 25.”

“You can just take [that] description,” he said, “Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops.”

Whether one sees those comments as on-target (forgive me) or wide off the mark (ditto) might depend on your race.

Certainly, those who have been circulating the blunt words – mostly others vying, as is Mr. Bloomberg, for the Democratic presidential nomination – are hoping that many blacks and Hispanics will refuse the former New York mayor their support.

For his part, Mr. Bloomberg has, in no uncertain terms, disowned his words. “I was wrong,” he declared. “And I am sorry.”

In a refreshingly contrite confession, rather unusual these days, he said: “I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.”

Not every black leader or pundit was buying it. Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist, indignantly asked: “How many people rightly complaining about kids in cages at the border are simply willing to overlook all the kids Michael Bloomberg put in cages as a result of stop-and-frisk?”

“These minority boys,” he went on, “were being hunted.”

The columnist, though, doth protest too much. No subject of stop-and-frisk was arrested, much less jailed, unless he was illegally carrying a weapon or enough illegal drugs to be felt over his clothing. And looking for suspicious behavior in crime-ridden areas isn’t exactly like hiding in a blind watching for deer.

On the other hand, Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the think tank “Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle” in Baltimore, says that some people living in high-crime neighborhoods would see some form of the stop-and-frisk strategy “as the best option available to them to meet their immediate needs.”

And Mr. Bloomberg, despite – perhaps because of – his efforts as New York mayor to fight crime, has been endorsed by four members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of black mayors across the country.

Aside from political concerns, also likely playing a role in Mr. Bloomberg’s change of heart and biting the bullet (sorry!) was the fact that, while crime fell precipitously during his mayoral tenure, when stop-and-frisks were phased out toward the end of his administration (after a federal judge ruled that the practice as implemented had violated civil and constitutional rights) and then were sharply curtailed under his successor, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, crime rates continued to plunge to new lows unseen since the 1950s.

So, many contend, stop-and-frisk was an ineffective means of fighting crime.

What occurs to me, though, is that there may be other explanations for the continued drop in crime in New York. In the now-infamous recording of his candid comments, Mr. Bloomberg also said: “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them. And then they start, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get caught,’ so they don’t bring the gun.”

Might it be possible that, after years of aggressive accosting of young men in areas plagued with drug dealing and violence, a residual effect persisted, and persists, with fear of stops continuing to cause fewer people to carry guns? And in fact, while the rules for stop-and-frisk have changed, the tactic still exists; where there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being planned, a police officer can detain and even do a pat-down of a citizen.

So, Mr. Bloomberg’s mea culpa might not be as necessary as he (or his advisors) may think. And his clear intention for the erstwhile intense stop-and-frisk policy – to “get the guns out of the kids’ hands” – may even now resonate with black voters, an important Democratic constituency.

We will see.

© 2020 Hamodia