Caution: Untruths Ahead



Award-winning investigative reporter Michael Isikoff recently released an in-depth report on the origins of the theory that the July, 2016, murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was a political assassination.

In the wake of the early-morning killing on a Washington, D.C. street, an assortment of pundits and talk-show hosts claimed, with no basis but much confidence, that Mr. Rich had been involved in the leaked Democratic National Committee e-mails that year, and that Hillary Clinton and/or other partisan actors had conspired, in revenge, to order the hit.

Although law enforcement branches investigating the murder maintained from the start that it was simply a robbery gone wrong, the “Clinton did it!” conjecture proved wildly popular in some circles.

But then, last summer, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking the e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials, echoing the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the leaked DNC emails were part of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, pretty much put the conspiracy theory to rest.

As it happens, Mr. Isikoff has now confirmed that Russian operatives were not only those behind the hacking of the DNC e-mails but were the source of the “Seth Rich Democratic Hit Job Conspiracy Theory” in the first place.

The fanciful hypothesis originated, it seems, in a fabricated “bulletin” disseminated by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki Rossiyskoy Federatsii, if you really must know). It was posted on an obscure website apparently monitored by partisan players, and was picked up by political commentator Sean Hannity, who ran with the “news.” From there it spread like kudzu.

That reviled shrub is known for suffocating native plants. Russian disinformation seeks to smother truths.

And, of even more concern, it seeks to foment discord among Americans.

Much of the conversation about Special Counsel Mueller’s report has been about whether Russian interference, in the form of operatives posing online as American citizens, aimed at electing President Trump.

But, whether or not that was a goal of the subterfuge, the report’s more trenchant revelation, at least to me, is that the Russians “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” in particular, by “post[ing] derogatory information” about political figures.

The efforts to fuel feuding have continued, too. NBC News reported last month that it obtained communications from last year among associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of the Kremlin-linked oligarchs indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, laying out a new plot to manipulate and radicalize African-Americans and stoke racial tensions, with the goal of “undermin[ing] the country’s territorial integrity and military and economic potential.”

Shortly after that report, coincidentally, I read several separate citations of “facts” about former President Obama. They made one or both of a pair of claims: that “the Obama administration initiated the policy of separating families”; and that the Department of Homeland Security had concluded that Mr. Obama had “incited smugglers” of children from Central America.

The popularity of the claims led me to suspect that the claimants had culled their “facts” from sources similar to, if not identical with, those that spread the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. And had not bothered to confirm them.

The facts:

There was no Obama administration policy of separating families. There was only an ad hoc – and rarely executed – separation of children from suspected smugglers posing as family members (or from parents who were deemed a danger to their children). The “zero tolerance” policy of routinely separating children from all parents who crossed the border illegally, whatever one might think of it, was ordered by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at President Trump’s behest.

And the policy that the DHS concluded had “incited smugglers” was not an Obama effort at all, but rather the Flores Agreement, which prescribes procedures for dealing with migrant children taken into custody – and which was created during the Clinton administration and has been in force ever since. Whether the agreement has indeed inadvertently resulted in widespread placing of children into the hands of adult strangers is arguable. But that it has nothing to do with Mr. Obama isn’t.

I don’t know if the origin of the false anti-Obama claims is connected to Russian efforts to stoke racial animus. At least some of the persistence of anti-Obama sentiment, despite his disappearance from the national stage, likely is tainted with base racism.

But it really makes no difference. What is important is that political assertions these days, when polarization of the body politic is already at a high and when Russian efforts to stoke ill will continue apace, should be viewed with the utmost suspicion.

© 2019 Hamodia



Loony Tooner

Cartoons employing anti-Semitic tropes became a thing again last week.

The memory of the New York Times International Edition’s offering of a Portuguese cartoonist’s depiction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog, magen David around his neck, held on a leash by a blind, be-yarmulked President Trump – had barely begun to fade.

Enter Ben Garrison.

Mr. Garrison’s oeuvre is decidedly anti-establishment, always provocative and often offensive. His favorite targets, in no particular order, have included former President Obama (depicted as a snake), Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve, George Soros (a vulture) Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (also snakes), international bankers and Hillary Clinton (a mere groundhog – and a kisser of a demon’s ring).

And the cartoonist’s hero, as you might have guessed, is President Trump, whose reciprocal appreciation of the Montanan caricaturist came in the form of an invitation to last week’s White House “Social Media Summit.” The gathering, which took place last Thursday, was billed as a focus on the “opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.”

“Honored to be invited to the White House! Thank You Mr. President!” Mr. Garrison gushed in a tweet, which, perhaps unexpected by the cartoonist, swiveled the spotlight back in his direction.

“Back,” because the cartoon that became the spotlight’s focus was one the cartoonist drew in 2017 and was denounced at the time by the ADL. The artwork depicted then-U.S. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and retired General David Petraeus being controlled by strings held by George Soros, who, in turn, is shown suspended from strings held by a hand labeled “Rothschilds.”

Subtlety, as noted, is not Mr. Garrison’s specialty. Presenting “the Rothschilds” as nefarious controllers of the world is one of the oldest and most persistent anti-Semitic themes out there.

That particular piece of artistry was commissioned by another of Mr. Garrison’s admirers, radio host Mike Cernovich. That would be the fellow who helped promote the bizarre “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory about Mrs. Clinton’s purported running of a human trafficking ring, which led to a credulous man firing an assault rifle in the D.C. area pizza parlor ostensibly involved in the criminality.

“The thrust of the cartoon is clear,” the ADL contended at the time. “McMaster is merely a puppet of a Jewish conspiracy.” With the recent resurrection of the cartoon last week, an assortment of commentators called out Mr. Trump for having invited Mr. Garrison to his event.

This is not, of course, the first time the president has been seen by some as coddling people with less-than-kind views about “Jewish influence.” He first fueled such speculation himself when, back in 2015, he told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

Then, in 2016, a Trump campaign commercial featured images of Mr. Soros, the object of vehement anti-Semitic scorn in Europe; Ms. Yellen, then Federal Reserve chairwoman; and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd C. Blankfein – all of them Jews – with the candidate warning about “global special interests” and “people who don’t have your good in mind.”

And then there was the other campaign ad that depicted Hillary Clinton labeled the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” superimposed on piles of money, next to a large six-pointed star.

Then, the following year, after the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was Mr. Trump’s comment after the mayhem, that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Confederate statue issue – although only one side prominently yielded a crowd of marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

There are many reasons why many people don’t find Mr. Trump to be their cup of tea. Some include on their list of accusations that he harbors, or tries to encourage, anti-Semitism.

Which is nonsense.

His Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, his full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism (“Our entire nation… stands in solidarity with the Jewish community,” he said after the Poway shooting, “We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate which must be defeated”) and his unbridled support for Israel’s current government make the thought unthinkable.

As to the “evidence” to the contrary above, none of it is dispositive. Yes, it was all pounced upon by lowlifes like former KKK leader David Duke and Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin to claim the president as one of their own. But, while the neo-Nazis are welcome to their fantasies, each of the instances of Mr. Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism can be regarded as, if somewhat tone-deaf, benign.

There’s no reason, though, to be so understanding about Mr. Garrison. Portraying “Rothschilds” as devious puppet-masters can reflect only one thing, and it’s not something pretty.

And so it was to its credit that, the day before the “Social Media Summit,” the White house rescinded Mr. Garrison’s invitation, thereby denying those who seek to portray the president as insensitive to Jews a new hook on which to hang their hats.

© 2019 Hamodia

Federation Blues

When a media offering chooses to not identify a quoted speaker, it loses a bit of credibility. But the words attributed to several unnamed Jewish federation leaders in a recent report in the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon had the ring of truth. And of some wisdom.

Jewish federations, of course, are community-wide nonprofits – sort of “super-pushkes” – that raise money to fund local causes and other Jewish ones overseas, including Israel.

The first Jewish federation in North America was founded in Boston in 1895. Today, there are local federations in over 100 American cities and some 300 smaller communities. And, in addition, there is a national umbrella organization called the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Its slogan, adopted in 2012, is “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community.”

The Makor Rishon news story had the anonymous federation leaders admitting, at a meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, that it had been a mistake for their groups to join the assault on respect for kedushas beis knesses at the Kosel Maaravi.

Israeli firebrand Anat Hoffman has famously made her life’s goal the dismantlement of the longstanding norm at the Kosel (and of the government’s general regard, through the state’s official Rabbanut, for the Jewish mesorah). Both the national Jewish federation and numerous local ones vocally supported her designs and financially helped gird her for battle.

The recently quoted leaders haven’t exactly come to acknowledge the importance of the mesorah, only – hey, it’s a start – the impracticability of declaring the Jewish religious tradition to be the enemy. They observed that most Israelis, even non-religious ones, have no real interest in the “religious pluralism” pushed by non-Orthodox American Jewish representatives. “How,” one “senior official” is quoted as saying, “can the struggle succeed if it is just a headache for so many Israelis who do not understand what the uproar is?”

Another fedhead – and here is where the wisdom comes in – reportedly told the paper that “The progressive streams in the United States, the Reform and the Conservative movements, are in a complex and difficult place. They are unable to recruit the next generation to their synagogues. Therefore, they are not in a position to preach to Israelis how they should conduct themselves at the Western Wall.

“Throughout the crisis,” the official continued, “I warned that we were putting all our chips on the subject of the Western Wall, without thinking for a moment if this was the right struggle for us.”

Both local federations and the national federation body have had uneasy relations with the Orthodox communities that are ostensibly part of the constituency they represent. The unease doesn’t stem, chas v’shalom, from any animus for fellow Jews, but entirely from some of the positions taken by federations.

Contemporary social causes that stand in stark and undeniable opposition to what the Torah expressly states are embraced wholeheartedly (and buoyed financially) by Jewish federations across the country, and by JFNA.

And not only do federations routinely offer funds to projects of Jewish movements that reject part or all of the Jewish mesorah, but a JFNA initiative, “The Israel Religious Expression Platform” (“iRep” – don’t ask why Israel has been demoted to lower-case), has as its mission “to impact a range of issues related to increasing religious pluralism in Israel” and to “advance meaningful change to the religion-state status quo, including expanding the range of legally-recognized options for marriage and divorce in Israel.”

No Orthodox Jew – nor any Jew concerned with preserving a single Jewish people in Israel – could in good conscience support that agenda.

The Jewish Federation system is at a crossroads. It can continue to be a stable boy for the non-Orthodox religious movements, or it can go back to its roots and focus on the needs of Jews – all Jews. Both the physical – there is poverty and even hunger among Jews, overseas and in the U.S. as well – and the non-material.

To wit, the Jewish day school system is a proven engine of Jewish continuity, and day schools and yeshivos are often on the verge of insolvency. There are Jewish federations that indeed, to their credit, earmark funds to help Jewish schools and tuition-strapped parents. But if all the funds sent into the black hole of pluralism-pushing in Israel and “progressive” causes in the U.S. were to be diverted to Jewish education, the American Jewish identity picture would be a much rosier one than it is.

No one expects federations to start funding traditional kollelim (though it would be a great merit for them if they did), but investing in community kollelim, Jewish outreach groups and chavrusa programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates would be a truly wise choice for federations – if they are really determined to help build a brighter American Jewish future.

Connecting Jews – of all stripes and affiliations – with their ancestral heritage, its texts, traditions and wisdom, would truly boost “The Strength of a People. The Power of Community.”

The ball is in the federations’ court.

© 2019 Hamodia

Baffled by Batson

On a summer morning back in 1996, someone entered a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi and shot four people to death. The prime suspect was a man named Curtis Flowers, who had been fired from his job at the store less than two weeks earlier. He also owed $30 to one of the store’s owners, one of those murdered, for a cash advance she had given him on his paycheck.

The gun used in the crime was never found, but several witnesses claimed to have seen Mr. Flowers near the front of the store the morning of the murders.

Mr. Flowers stood trial six times. Four verdicts were overturned, and mistrials were declared in the two other cases. (The Fifth Amendment “double jeopardy” ban on retrial for the same crime only applies after an acquittal.) Flowers, who has been held on death row for nearly 20 years, is an African-American, and prosecutorial bias was repeatedly alleged, as was racial bias in jury selection.

On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ final murder conviction, with Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh writing for the majority. Flowers will likely remain in state custody until a decision is made to either retry or release him.

No one but Flowers knows if he was guilty of the murders; he claims innocence. What is interesting, though, about the High Court ruling is its pivotal contention that excluding black potential jurors from those chosen in his trials constituted illegal bias.

Some background: Prosecutors and defense lawyers generally conduct short interviews with members of a jury pool. Those with clear connections to the case are routinely dismissed, as are people with connections, say, to police officers when an officer is on trial, or to a medical field when a principal is or was a doctor in that field.

Then, though, there are “peremptory challenges” – the right of a prosecutor or lawyer to reject a jury candidate for no given reason. That right is generally assumed to be based on the rejecter’s inchoate suspicion that a juror would be biased in some way.

A limitation on peremptory challenges, however, was imposed by the Supreme Court in 1986, in a case, Batson v. Kentucky, in which it ruled that a prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenge may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. That exception to the right to peremptory challenges has come to be known as a “Batson challenge.”

Some might (and some surely will) say that a lowly non-lawyer like me has no right or standing to take issue with a High Court decision. So I’ll frame my take on the Batson challenge merely as a simple expression of puzzlement over it.

To be sure, dismissing a potential juror just because he is black or Asian isn’t right. Racial bias simply isn’t justifiable. Unless, that is, it seems to me, the race of the person can reasonably be seen, in and of itself, as signifying a likelihood of bias.

In other words, attorney Joe Whiteguy may harbor the feeling that blacks are inferior humans and don’t deserve to judge anyone. But if he harbors no such feelings, but rather just sees it as likely that the average black American will feel an affinity for a black defendant, or animus toward a white one accused of some crime against a black person, is his use of a peremptory challenge to reject a potential juror because of his race different in any essential way from rejecting a candidate because of a family connection to the case?

I don’t know if all black Americans see themselves as “family,” but I think many clearly do. There is a “black vote,” after all, and there are “black causes”; and a “black perspective” is a staple of many media. There’s nothing in the least wrong, of course, with ethnic or racial camaraderie or pride. But is being concerned that it might bias a juror in a case involving someone of his or her ethnicity or race really unreasonable?

As in so many things, the key to a clear perspective may lie in placing oneself in the shoes of the other.

So I imagine a case where an Orthodox Jew is on trial. I’ve never met him and am not his close relative – we could without any problem be co-eidim on a kesuvah or a kiddushin – and find myself part of the jury pool. A lawyer for the defense or prosecution looks me up and down, dwelling on my yarmulke and tzitizis, and, without any questions, says “thank you, sir, for heeding your summons to appear for jury duty; you are dismissed.”

I might feel a bit insulted. (Actually, when I was peremptorily rejected as a juror once in a case where no Jew, much less an Orthodox one, was on trial, I was indeed perturbed!)

But would I be justified, in a case like the posited one, to feel that an injustice had been done to Jews or Judaism, that my dismissal was the result of base anti-Semitism and thus illegitimate?

With all due respect for the seven Burger Court Justices who comprised the majority in Batson v. Kentucky, I wouldn’t.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vaccination Proclamation

The threats and vulgarities bellowed by several visibly Orthodox Jews at members of the New York State Assembly in Albany after it narrowly passed a measure ending religious exemptions for immunizations were ugly and wrong. No less wrong, though, would be to generalize from the uncouth activists to the entire anti-vaccination camp.

The vaccination issue, of course, is controversial, and particularly fraught in New York, which has been greatly affected in the current national measles epidemic. In the state, the most cases of the disease have occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill, adding New York to a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. Medical exceptions will still be granted, but not those based, as many have been, on claims of religious obligation.

While the New York legislators’ intentions were laudable and, during an epidemic, arguably obligatory, the removal of a religious exemption in any governmental mandate is of concern. It is a precedent that one wishes hadn’t been necessary. The legislature, although not motivated by anti-religious sentiments, felt that it was.

The vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as it happens, fully accepts the advice of the overwhelming mainstream of medical experts – as has been Jewish practice from time immemorial – and, accordingly, vaccinates their children. A minority of Jews, however, joining a minority of non-Jewish American “anti-vaxxers,” shuns vaccinations – at least certain vaccinations, like the one for measles. Some imagine harmful effects caused by additives used in the production of some vaccines; others object to the sheer number of vaccinations given babies and young children, or to the schedule of their administering.

A more radical fringe of vaccination opponents believes that vaccinations represent a conspiracy among government players, drug companies and the FDA, or some combination thereof, either intended, for reasons unexplained, to harm the citizenry or out of simple venality.

Vaccine conspiracy theories appeal to, well, the conspiracy-minded. But they crumble in the jaws of the Pulitzer Prize. That is to say, since the highest journalistic achievements are exposés of wrongdoing, and since drug company and medical device issues have often (and even recently) been subjects of such dogged reportage, it is entirely safe to say that were there in fact any sinister plots to push vaccines on a too-trusting populace, enterprising reporters would have long swarmed over the schemes, revealed them – and collected Pulitzers as a result. (Unless, of course… the… reporters are… part of the conspiracy…)

The concerns of less paranoid opponents of vaccination, though, aren’t difficult to understand, even for those of us who disagree with them and embrace vaccinations as a blessing. Many medical orthodoxies, after all, have, over the course of history, turned out to have been wrong, and erstwhile medical truths revealed to be fictions. There’s even a name for such about-faces: “medical reversals.”

And so, while I don’t expect future medical consensus to reject vaccines, it isn’t beyond the pale of possibility that some additive might be revealed to have caused greater harm than assumed and discontinued, or current vaccination schedules might be shown to have been too ambitious.

To be sure, one hopes that all would agree that a school or other building where an immunocompromised child is studying should be off-limits to unvaccinated people. But

even those of us who don’t endorse the anti-vaccination concerns and feel that the anti-vaxx camp is misguided should have the ability to allow others their convictions, be they right or wrong. To throw all vaccine-suspicious folks – moderate sceptics, conspiracy theorists and legislative chamber shouters – into one basket is just the sort of generalizing that we rightly decry in other contexts (like when all of us Jews are “incriminated” because of some who have acted less than properly).

The Gemara (Yevamos 14b) tells us that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, despite disagreeing about the halachah regarding an important marriage law, took pains to maintain shidduchim among their respective members. Thus, we are taught, they fulfilled the Navi Zechariah’s admonition to “Love truth and peace” (8:19).

It’s not absurd to invoke that example with regard to the machlokes between pro- and anti-vaccination schools of thought. After all, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were dealing with a most important issue, and each camp felt that the other was entirely mistaken. And still, there was peace and comity between them.

And so, while those responsible for public policy may need to take a broader view of all the factors regarding issues like vaccination requirements, especially during an epidemic, the rest of us, no matter how passionate we may be about our personal vaccination beliefs, should not belittle others for their personal convictions and choices, and pause to internalize and proclaim the need to love not just truth but peace.

© 2019 Hamodia

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Alleged Sin

I haven’t written publicly about the brouhaha that erupted when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

But my personal feeling is that if she was guilty of any sin with that reference it wasn’t maligning the memory of the Holocaust, but rather consciously using a phrase that she likely knew would seize attention – although she did so in the cause of concern for asylum seekers.

But was that really wrong?

A thought experiment to entertain:

Imagine if it were Jews, not Guatemalans, who were fleeing abject poverty and violence in their country and arriving at the US border, and who were relegated to guarded camps, without adequate provisions and with even small children separated from their parents.  And then some activist Jewish public figure used the term “concentration camp” to refer to the outrage.  Would he be roundly condemned for having desecrated the memory of the victims of the Holocaust?

Maybe he would.  But I very much doubt it.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was not equating the current situation at the border with the Holocaust. She was just using rhetoric that (as she and others have noted) was not inaccurate (since “concentration camps” is a phrase used for any such confinement, including of Japanese citizens during WW II) and which she hoped would call attention to the plight of refugees today.

Anyone who believes she is insensitive to Jewish concerns or Israel is welcome to view her use of the phrase as an outrage.  To me, though, the real outrage is how readily some of us fall into the cesspool of political brawling and knee-jerk accusations that have come to characterize our country of late.  

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia

Dear Graduates

[Back in 2007, I was privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore’s senior class.  Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 graduates, their families and friends. I don’t feel they’r terribly dated — other than the reference to the then-still-alive Mr. Bin-Laden.]

Back in the day – the day when I was in grade school, that is – we were taught the “3 R’s” – Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic (that’s math to you, and yes, we didn’t spell so good back then).  Of course, you’ve all learned those things and more.  And as students of Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for a Torah life.

Among them, I think, are another “3 R’s.”  At this special moment, please permit me to briefly review them.

The first one is Recognizing – specifically, recognizing the good, hakaras hatov.  Its simple sense – gratitude – is something you graduates surely feel this evening – toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you.  But the term’s deeper meaning is to recognize – with a capital “R” – the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed.  Because everything we have is a gift from Hashem.  We’re called Jews after Yehudah – so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude – hodo’oh – that Hashem had given her “more than her share” of sons.  We Jews are always to see what we have – whatever it may be – as “more than our share.” 

The larger world has a rather different ethic.  An advertisement recently asked me “Don’t you deserve a new Lexus?”  Well, no, I don’t particularly.  I’m not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either.  In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank Hashem for granting it to me.  There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis – from the Yiddish phrase “It’s coming to me.” We have to try mightily not to contract it.

As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the brochos we say throughout every day.  Each is an expression of hakaras hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.

The second “R” is Relating – trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing.  Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us.  Maybe it’s different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy – about how things are when there isn’t any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself – that’s why “Love your neighbor like yourself” takes “yourself” as the given – but the law of the jungle is not our law.  We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.

You’ve heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.

“Thank heaven!” he burst out.  “A girl!  She’ll never have to go through what I just did!”

You will meet people like that, I assure you – although, with Hashem’s help, not your future husbands – and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.

The third “R” is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah mitzvah and concept of singular statusKiddush Hashem.  That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain aveiros, or any aveira in certain circumstances.  But we’re charged not only with dying, if necessary, al kiddush Hashem but also with living in the same state of sanctification.  This “R” is thus “Reflecting” – for, as frum Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah – in fact, on our Creator. 

Today, perhaps, more than ever.   Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her.  She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden.  Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards.  I managed to convince the young man who I wasn’t, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating Hashem’s name.  We must counter with the opposite.

What an incredible obligation – and what an incredible opportunity.

The Rambam, in his laws about Kiddush Hashem, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way – for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah.  In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are “great Torah scholars” regarding this halacha – and we must all endeavor to act the part.

The opportunities are ubiquitous.  Receiving change from a cashier, a smile – not to mention a “thank you” – leaves an impression.  On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression.  The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression.  We must leave the right one.

So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of Hashem on earth. 

Reflect well. 

And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth “R” – the ultimate Redemption, the ge’ula shleima, may it come speedily.

Retaliation Insinuation

Pretty open-and-shut, it would seem.

At a 2014 festival-cum-ski-race northeast of Anchorage, Alaska, a large crowd of revelers was being overseen by a small crew of state police.

One of the officers, Sergeant Luis Nieves, approached a group of merrymakers to ask them to move their beer keg out of the reach of minors. Russell Bartlett, one of the celebrants, objected. When spoken to by Sergeant Nieves, Mr. Bartlett refused to respond, which was his constitutional right.

Nearby, another trooper, Bryce Weight, was questioning some suspected underage drinkers. Mr. Bartlett, who was old enough to legally drink and seemed to have availed himself of that permission, approached and, moving very close to Officer Weight, told the policeman to leave the young people alone. Weight pushed Mr. Bartlett away, and Sergeant Nieves came over and arrested Mr. Bartlett. According to the officers, the arrestee was slow to comply with their orders and was thrown to the ground, threatened with a Taser and handcuffed.

Mr. Bartlett testified later that Sergeant Nieves had taunted him: “Bet you wish you would have talked to me now.”

That assertion was the crux of a lawsuit filed by Mr. Bartlett, under a federal statute that allows a citizen to seek damages when a police officer violates his constitutional rights. He claimed that his arrest had been retaliatory, punishment for his silence.

The question of whether Mr. Bartlett’s refusal to answer the officer’s question was the real reason for his arrest and thus qualified as grounds for such a suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and a majority of the Justices recently ruled that the fact that the officers had other, unrelated “probable cause” to arrest Mr. Bartlett precluded his right to file such a claim.

Writing for the majority – Justices Thomas, Ginsburg and Gorsuch concurred only in part; Justice Sotomayor filed a dissent – Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that the Court has a responsibility “to ensure that officers may go about their work without undue apprehension of being sued.”

Some contend, though, that, all the same, the ruling was overly broad and infringes on another responsibility of the Court: to protect citizens’ right to free speech.

That’s because the recent ruling will make it easier for police to arrest a participant in a protest or rally for anything from holding a sign whose sentiment the officer finds objectionable to filming a policeman’s actions, each of which arrest would be a violation of the citizen’s rights.

The Court did not straightforwardly permit such illegal arrests, of course. It still required that a violation of an actual law be the reason for an arrest. But in cases where it isn’t clear whether the violation was the real reason for the arrest, or whether the arrest was due to an officer’s retaliation against protected free speech (even where, unlike in the Alaskan partying case, there is actual evidence of the latter), the decision disallows lawsuits by those claiming their arrest was because of their views or speech.

The vast majority of law enforcement officers are upstanding and dedicated to the responsibilities and limitations of their authority. But, as in every profession, there are also bad apples. And in a profession that confers powers to its members well beyond those of ordinary citizens, the potential for adverse consequences is magnified.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has made clear that police can arrest citizens for virtually any offense, from driving a mile beyond the speed limit, not fastening a seat belt, loitering or jaywalking. Then there’s “disorderly conduct” or “failure to obey a lawful order,” not to mention “affray.” (Never heard of that technical term for a scuffle or confrontation with another citizen? You’re far from alone.)

The Nieves ruling doesn’t disallow violation of First Amendment rights lawsuits in cases where a “probable cause” arrest is for a crime regularly ignored by police, like jaywalking.

But what if a citizen claims that an officer has arrested him for, say, not following an officer’s order quickly enough – “resisting arrest” or “failure to obey a lawful order” –  and a video shows the officer stating baldly during the arrest that he doesn’t like the arrestee’s picket sign or chant? A few weeks ago, the arrestee could file suit under federal law. Now, it would seem, he cannot.

As Justice Gorsuch noted in his partial dissent to the majority opinion, “Criminal laws have grown so exuberantly and come to cover so much previously innocent conduct that almost anyone can be arrested for something. If the state could use these laws not for their intended purposes but to silence those who voice unpopular ideas, little would be left of our First Amendment liberties.”

The Justice went on to invoke a phrase from a 1987 case, Houston v. Hill: “The freedom to speak without risking arrest is ‘one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation’.”

It’s often difficult, even impossible, to tease out any person’s inner feelings.  But, Justice Gorsuch is saying, in a “free nation,” an accusation of malign intent deserves, at least, its day in court.

© 2019 Hamodia

Mountains to Climb

Ever find yourself in a long “10 items or less” supermarket line waiting for the cashier to check the price of kumquats for the lady who apparently considers all her fruits and vegetables to count as a single item?

Well, even if you have, you might compare your experience with the recent one of the hundreds of people bundled up in minus-20-degree weather waiting patiently in line on a narrow path more than 26,000 feet above sea level to reach the summit of Nepal’s Mount Everest. And, in the supermarket, you weren’t likely laden with an oxygen tank – a necessity at that altitude – whose contents were steadily diminishing.

What’s more, you probably didn’t have to navigate past the body of someone who died while waiting on line before you.

What makes people do things like climb what they consider the world’s highest peak (which in fact is probably Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan)?

After all, according to mountain guide Adrian Ballinger, “humans just really aren’t meant to exist” in such places. “Even when using bottled oxygen,” he explains, “there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.”

Indeed. At this writing, 11 people are known to have breathed their last on treks to or from the summit of Mount Everest this year. The quest has claimed the lives of almost 300 people since 1923.

I suspect that those who spend considerable amounts of time, effort and money – the average price paid in 2017, for permits, equipment and guides, to climb Everest was approximately $45,000 – are impelled, ultimately if subtly, by the human search for meaning.

Nineteenth century secular philosophers argued about what ultimate essential goal motivates human beings. The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche contended that it was power; another German, Sigmund Freud, that it was pleasure.

Both tapped into something real, although they were, like all secular thinkers, blind men trying to figure out an elephant. That Hashem has granted humanity bechirah, free will, and that we can, as a result, actually accomplish – change the courses of our lives and, ultimately, of history – is a power unparalleled in all of creation. So the “will to power” that, unfortunately, mostly yields bullies and tyrants is, in its most refined expression, the exercise of gevurah, “strength,” that Ben Zoma defines as “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature (Avos 4:1).

And Freud was on to something too, as the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the most basic ideal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimate pleasure, that is – the pleasure of “enjoying the radiance of the Shechinah.” But the German secularist, of course, couldn’t see past the temporal, ephemeral yearnings of this world to the ta’anug ha’amiti, the “singularly genuine pleasure,” of the next.

Which brings us to the third nineteenth century conception of human motivation, that of the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of the “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve some truly meaningful, ultimate goal in life.

His approach was popularized by a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, whose 1946 book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was deemed by a Library of Congress survey to be one of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” By the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

There indeed seems to be an innate human aspiration to achieve something “meaningful,” to aim at some larger-than-oneself “accomplishment,” no matter how strangely some people may define that for themselves. For one person, such meaning may entail achieving a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. For others, the grand vision is the scaling of a mountain, even – especially? – if it entails danger.

For others still, namely those of us who recognize our Creator and His will for us, the accomplishment to reach for is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos. At certain times in history, aiming for that goal also entailed great danger. In our own times, baruch Hashem, it does not, although it may not offer a simple, obstacle-free and easy path.

As for us, well, while we may wish the Everest climbers every good fortune, we’ll be focusing in coming days on a very different mountain.

Have a happy and meaningful Shavuos.

© 2019 Hamodia