Travels In Israel and the Tochachoh For Moderns

Visiting Israel always yields delights and surprises. Sometimes they come instantly; sometimes they take reflection. Usually, in my experience, they involve taxi drivers. On my recent trip, I found new understanding of the tochachoh that we read last Shabbos. The insight was inspiring, but frightening.

The brief trip combined the bar-mitzvah of a grandson with some professional work, and a bit of time for some judicious sight-seeing. My friend Harvey Tannenbaum of Efrat was eager to show some of the places in the news of the last months. I gladly accepted the invitation, heeding my own recent suggestion that one way of promoting achdus was to cross the invisible boundaries that separate sub-communities from each other. (I would also travel to Mercaz HaRav for a Thursday night mishmar shiur by my mechutan and partner in the bar-mitzvah, R Mordechai Willig, that began at 12:30AM and drew about 70 talmidim, all of whom stayed eager and attentive, but that is not for this essay.)

Harvey is a Mekor Chaim parent. His son, Simcha, is a senior in the exclusive Dati Leumi high school from which two of the three murdered teens Hy”d left the night they were abducted. Makor Chaim, headed by R. Adin Steinsaltz, became both the headquarters for the search during the eighteen days, as well as the focus of international media, which tuned in on the lives of the schoolmates of the kidnapped teens, and which was mesmerized by the words of unshakeable emunah of the Rosh Yeshiva, R Zinger.

Before we arrived, Harvey took me to the now-notorious bus stop from which all three boys were abducted. It has not been decommissioned, but is very much in service. Responding to the pressure, the bus people have scheduled more frequent service, trying to obviate the need for the hitchhiking that was common because it was the only way to get around. The stop is near a busy intersection, in what our BDS enemies would regard as the heart of the “occupation” – the Jewish communities that returned after June 1967 to the area from which they had been ethnically cleansed in 1948, especially Etzion itself where the defenders were slaughtered by the Arabs to whom they had surrendered. According to the BDS narrative, you should find signs of apartheid activity here, like the separate roads for Jews and Arabs we hear about, and the ugly concrete barriers encircling the Arab communities.

You won’t find them, though, in the Gush. From the ill-fated bus stop you can see Jews and Arabs hitchhiking at the same intersection, and both Jewish and Arab cars whizzing by on the same road. Looking out beyond the reclaimed and rebuilt communities, you see Arab towns peeking out just beyond, unobstructed by concrete barriers.
You will find the same mixing almost everywhere. The West has seen images of the separation of worshippers in Hebron, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It would be good for them to see the Jews, Christians and Muslims simultaneously praying at Kever Shmuel / Nebi Samwil – the tomb of the prophet Samuel. Nor do they see the matter-of-fact mixing of all the above in the activity that is the runner-up to religion in Jerusalem – shopping high-end stores in Mamilla. Some apartheid.

The bus stop itself is encircled by banners – not declaring enmity for the Arabs, but emunah in Hashem. Area residents have erected a temporary stone marker just next to it with a simple inscription and a finger extended that was meant to bring to mind both hitchhiking and emunah, since it points upward to Heaven, rather than the usual lateral orientation.

Having come directly from Kever Rochel, I had mixed feelings about the tragic site becoming a national shrine. As a people, we are, as the phrase goes, melumadim be-yesurin. We are all too familiar with tragedy and suffering. We could not easily catalog all the sites at which we could erect markers. Rochel transcends time, and is different.
Yet, I found the marker effective. It brought back memories not only of the tragedy and of the taharah of the three korbanos, but of the remarkable eighteen days that brought the country together. May there be no need for any future markers.

(Aside: the West “knows” that Bethlehem is a fortress, surrounded on all sides by a huge concrete barrier. Of course, it isn’t. The barrier – one of the only places in the country were security is maintained by a barrier, rather than a fence – does not encircle Bethlehem, which is open on one side. Its purpose is not to create a ghetto, but to prevent Arabs from firing directly into the neighboring Jewish communities, like they did before it was built. They did the same from Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian community whose homes were forcibly “borrowed” by Muslim terrorists from which to shoot at Jews in Gilo. I came across only one area that is a fortress completely surrounded by huge, ugly concrete walls. It surrounds Jews, not Arabs. Kever Rochel, the symbol of Jewish return to the Holy Land for over three thousand years, is that fortress. Jews in a sovereign Jewish state cannot enjoy a few minutes of quiet prayer there without taking refuge in an armed fortress. This does, however, ramp up the kavanah, as you cannot fail to realize that the return of Rochel’s children has not yet taken place in the manner for which we long.)

From the bus stop we drove to Mekor Chaim. In more ways than one, it heightened the contrast between haredi chinuch in Israel and Dati Leumi – as well as with haredi and Modern Orthodox education here in the US.
Mekor Chaim is perhaps the most picturesque yeshiva campus I have ever seen. It is entirely suburban, miles from the distractions of the city. It has dirt paths and lots of trees and vegetation. The atmosphere is one of simplicity. Unlike most institutions that succeeded long ago in building modern campuses, Mekor Chaim’s beis medrash is still in a few caravans harnessed together. The dormitories are Jordanian army barracks from the bad old days.

The Dati Leumi system favors dorm schools. I was told that some of the better post-high school yeshivos frown upon applicants from commuter schools, preferring talmidim who had benefitted from full-time immersion in a Torah atmosphere. Haredi leadership, on the other hand, prefers keeping children out of dormitories, which create problems of their own. In the US, of course, this is reversed. At the “best” haredi schools, students room full-time; I am not aware of any Modern Orthodox dorm schools in the US, with the possible exception of MTA, if it still accepts dorm students.

One of the advantages of a dormitory school is that students experience the pas be-melech tochal, the need to look away from one’s comfort and convenience in order to make progress in learning. I was only able to interact in the short time I was at Mekor Chaim with a handful of students. Those talmidim didn’t betray the slightest resentment or cynicism about the spartan conditions. Moreover, all the people I met there, student and administration, struck me as warm, nice people, without the edge I often sense from baalei shitah, myself included. Something there is working.
A bit of that something emerged in speaking with R Dovid Rabinovich, the assistant Rosh Yeshiva. (The Rosh Yeshiva R. Zinger, whose bedrock emunah and sensibility riveted the country during the days of the search, was not on campus.)

Within the DL world, Mekor Chaim is seen as one of the top-rated schools. It gets far more applicants than it has room to accept. I asked him what made Mekor Chaim different. He attributed its success to following the educational policies of R. Adin Steinsaltz, which throw in just enough of a Chassidic flavor to make each student feel important. They resist the temptation to place the overachieving superstar on a pedestal, he said, preferring to build up each and every talmid. Didn’t this diminish the likelihood of polishing the real diamond students and allowing their brilliance to shine? I was surprised by his honesty and lack of defensiveness. Perhaps, he said, without flinching. Nevertheless, that is the educational policy to which they are committed.

Part of that policy means focusing on the moment, rather than seeing their high school years as preparatory to something more important later on. He told me that he took strong exception to a comment of a parent who expressed appreciation in the school’s chesed activities, because they would be an asset on future resumes. He told the parent that he was wrong; the chesed had to be cherished as what life is about now. He tells them the same about their learning. Their involvement in it is their life for these years, and they should appreciate it as an end, not a means. Part of this means spending time explaining just why Torah is important to them, and why they should do it with joy.

This does not preclude dealing with practical considerations. The boys have a full secular curriculum, including English and sports, beginning about 3PM. Unlike American MO schools, they have a full night seder. They have a professional counselor on campus, who had his hands full in getting the boys to work through the trauma of losing two of their friends to the Hamas murderers.

There are no uniforms. The boys dress neatly, but casually. The demonstrations of individuality show up as Breslov peyos, not droopy, hip-hop pants. They look like they are neither trying very hard to become uniformly part of something, nor to run away from something else.

The course steered is intermediate between Israeli haredi uniformity and neglecting of all secular study, and the confusing and often contradictory messages American MO students get about the relative values of Torah and other pursuits. While a middle position is often the hardest one to take, there are indications of the success of some of Mekor Chaim’s goals. At least one American MO school, conscious of student motivation often coming up short, sends some sophomores to Mekor Chaim for a limited stay. R Rabinovich claims that the effect is profound, with students in such an environment “getting it” for the first time, i.e. understanding why Torah and mitzvos are crucial, and a joy rather than a burden. Many of the Americans want to stay longer, but Mekor Chaim has not agreed that it is in their best interest.

Is this a better way of running schools than the system in which my own grandchildren are being educated? Will it produce gedolim? Which system will yield fewer dropouts? I didn’t go there to judge, but to expand my horizons by learning from the experience of other frum Jews. Mekor Chaim is clearly the kind of place that many American haredim, faced with the choice of schools that either have horribly deficient general studies or none at all, would welcome for their sons. I didn’t intend to go beyond that.

Not until the taxi drivers got into my head.

Really, it wasn’t just them. It started on ElAl on the way over. Sitting to my right in the center seat was an Israeli teen, who was clearly not a datiyah from the way she was dressed. Came on board with the usual teen paraphernalia, and occupied herself with teen stuff for the entire 14 ½ hour flight.

Except for take-off. After the usual wait at the gate, we slowly headed for the runway. Just before take-off, she pulled out a Tehilim, and kept up her davening for some 40 minutes.

Across the aisle from me was a stereotypically Israeli late middle age couple – he with a large paunch, she in shorts designed for someone decades her junior. They did not recite Tehilim. They conducted themselves throughout the flight in a manner consistent with the popular caricatures of non-Westernized secular Israelis. At least until just before landing. Then, she too pulled out a Tehilim and davened up a storm.

Then came the cab drivers. Not a single one of them wore a kippah. Every one of them would not let me get out of the cab without wishing a ketivah v’chatimah tovah. Most spoke about the superiority of living in Israel over any other place in the world, and asked how I could possibly live in Los Angeles. Most offered berachos that I should be able to make aliyah soon. (Amen!)

After a few doses of this, the incongruity set in. Whom do I regard, consciously or otherwise, as “my” people? Are they the same as those HKBH would regard as such?

One of the subliminal messages I absorbed in my yeshivah years was that some Jews “count” for more. To be sure, Hashem loves them all – but some are so far removed from Torah experience, that G-d surely holds them guiltless and unaccountable for their lack of halachic observance. When Hashem looks to Jews for fealty to His commandments, He looks only to those who know enough to be responsible, namely the relatively small number fortunate enough to have had strong Torah chinuch.

There was some truth to this decades ago in the US. Moreover, the message was designed to motivate us to assume greater responsibility. More was riding upon us, since others were not held responsible. The gemara urges us to think of the world hanging in the balance, perched precisely between merit and the opposite, waiting for our next mitzvah or aveirah to fatefully tip the scales. It is hard for people to imagine this at all times. The we-count-for-more approach spread the guilt and responsibility a bit wider, and in a way we could understand.

It had its advantages, as well. When we got to the tochachoh twice a year, we could look around and tell ourselves that things were not so bad. Because we did not look much further than the beis Medrash walls, we saw only people committed to Shulchan Aruch. We did not see ourselves as endangered by the 98 execrations of Ki Savo.

Many of us grew older, and retained this approach subliminally. But if there was ever any truth to it, it is true no longer. We have merited a country of our own, where a large majority of the people recognize, like the cab drivers, the existence of HKBH and the reality of His Torah, even if their actions are not consistent with many of His demands.
And whose are? A small number of tzadikim? Is the tochachoh addressed to them, or to the entirety of the Jewish people? Is it true that if “we” are all careful about lashon hora, we will bring the geulah? Are the millions of Jews who never heard of the Chofetz Chaim not part – indeed, the major part – of the equation? Isn’t the point of the tochachoh that Hashem looks at the entire Jewish people, and judges them?

Focusing on the “in” group allows us to wring more commitment to halachic detail out of ourselves, and to put more fire into our avodah as individuals. But it distracts from our responsibility to the Nation as a whole, its needs, its future, and its relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

When we look only to ourselves, to the supposed yerei’im u-sheleimim, we don’t care about whether the gestalt of a Torah life appeals to others – or turns them off. We can’t concern ourselves with others. We are the ones to whom Hashem looks! Not only, in the words of Rav Dessler zt”l, are we prepared to sacrifice the other 999 who are not fit for horo’oh in order to produce the gadol, we will sacrifice as well 100,000 others who cannot possibly relate to our conception of Torah.

I am not ready, at the same time, to give up on one of those who should be yotzei le-horo’oh. I don’t claim to have a formula to achieve all of the goals that should be important to us – other than to deny exclusivity, and to see different Jews filling different roles.

Clearly, Mekor Chaim is a place that will make multiple types of contributions to the viability of the world’s largest Jewish community. Yirbu kemosom be-Yisrael.

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Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that they are happy with their lives. Moreover, 88% of older siblings of people with Down syndrome reported feeling that they are better people for the fact.

Then there were those who addressed Mr. Dawkins not with statistics but with experience. Like Sarah Palin, whose son has Down syndrome, and who generously offered to “let you meet my son if you promise to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty.”

There is no question that families raising Down syndrome children face many challenges, medical, emotional, educational and societal. But anyone who has embraced that privilege – and anyone, for that matter, who has experienced the delight of interacting with Down children or adults, whose guileless and endearing personalities can be overwhelming – understand how much more perceptive the much-maligned Mrs. Palin is than the much-celebrated Mr. Dawkins.

Truth be told, though, offering statistics or personal experience about the wonder and beauty of Down children is really beside the point – the most important point, that is, namely, the inherent folly of the Dawkinsian understanding of happiness.

Those of us who are naturally happy are very fortunate. And all of us are indeed to aim at serving Hashem with happiness (Tehillim, 100:2). But happiness is not tethered to tranquil or easy lives; many people who face adversities unimaginable to those of us who live relatively comfortable, untroubled lives are nevertheless happy.

Edifying is the famous story of Reb Zusha of Hanipoli, the impoverished, long-suffering but joyful Chassid who, according to the famous story, received two esteemed guests at his dilapidated home. They told him that they had asked the Maggid of Mezeritch how one can bless Hashem as the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) directs, “for the bad just as for the good,” and that the Maggid had sent them to him.

Puzzled, he responded: “How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”

Happiness doesn’t happen; it is achieved. And its achievement is not tied to ease or fun or lack of adversity. It results from recognizing that life, ultimately, is about meaning. True meaning, that is, not some imagined or invented meaning. Life’s meaning that comes from serving the Divine. That concept may be imponderable to atheists like Richard Dawkins or Peter Singer. But it is the reason for human existence, for the bestowal of free will on the subset of creation we call men and women.

Down syndrome, as it happens and as we should always remember, is hardly the only condition “out there.” There are other disabilities as well, some or all of whose sufferers Messrs. Dawkins and Singer may consider unworthy of the world as well. Only they’re not.

Consider, for example, those who have “23 Chromosome Pair Syndrome,” which is invariably fatal. Sufferers are susceptible to a host of maladies, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and numerous forms of cancer, and are likely to suffer bouts of mild or more serious depression over the course of their lives.

They are also prone to headaches, nosebleeds, painful joints and broken bones. And, at some point, they can become so disabled that they require others to care for them.

The syndrome happens to be quite common.

Indeed, it’s ubiquitous.

It’s what we call “normal” human life.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Israel’s New Torah Askanim

A few months back, Yisroel Besser posed the question in these pages: Where will the next generation of askanim come from and what can be done to nurture them? His article generated a great deal of discussion, but one aspect of the issue was not touched on by any of the discussants: How irrelevant the entire discussion would have struck most Torah Jews living in Israel.

Both the author and those who responded took it for granted that the term askan is one of high praise, connoting a person who serves the Klal by giving generously of both his time and money. Yet in Israel the term is almost always used pejoratively. Far from indicating someone who acts out of a lack of self-interest, it generally refers to someone who did not possess the necessary zitsfleish for long-term learning or the entrepreneurial skills to make it in business, and who instead cut out for himself a place on the periphery of a Torah leader or Knesset member to acquire a small fiefdom of power and influence.

What explains the differences in societal usage and norms? For one thing, the dominant social model in Israel for decades has been one of long-time learning after marriage. A serious avreich has a full nighttime learning seder, in addition to his two sedarim during the day. He simply has no time for Klal activities. Only in the last decade or so did Lev L’Achim begin to instill the idea that an avreich also has an obligation to teach Torah to those who would otherwise not have access to shiurim or chavrusas by organizing thousands of avreichim to go knocking on doors once a week to offer to learn with anyone who expresses an interest.

In America, the ideal of full-time learning after marriage never became the dominant social norm to the same extent as in Israel. But there is another difference in the historical development of the two communities as well. The foundations of the American Torah community were laid to a large extent during the Holocaust in the rescue and relief work of Zerei Agudath Israel under the leadership of Mike Tress. “[Mike] channeled all our energies into doing for the Klal,” remembered one of the hundreds of young volunteers who did the bulk of the rescue work.

The rescue efforts included high school girls who laboriously typed on old manual typewriters the four-foot long forms required for ever visa applications and which had to be filled out in six times; those who packed boxes of food for starving Jews in Nazi-held Poland in 1939 and after the war for the desperate survivors in the DP camps; those who sought out the affidavits of financial support, without which no visa application would ever be granted; and all those who engaged in the constant fundraising campaigns on street corners and subways.

Agudath Israel of America grew out of that initial rescue work. It is both a professional organization and a grassroots organization, in which many baalebatim have cut their teeth on Klal work. Visitors from Israel to Agudath Israel of America conventions and dinners are shocked by the scope of the organization and the numbers of those involved.

By contrast, Agudath Israel and its successors in Israel are political parties, nothing more. They employ virtually no professional staff and their activities, except at election time, are confined to a handful of insiders.

By and large, Israeli chareidim had no formative experiences of Klal work to compare to the rescue work of Zeirei Agudath Israel during the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath. Peylim, which sought to rescue the children of Jews from Arab lands from the detention camps in which the new immigrants were initially housed, and in which children were deliberately separated from their parents, is perhaps the closest parallel. But the original group of volunteers to enter the detention camps was only six in number (each of whom became a major rabbinic figure, on the basis of a blessing from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer that those who sacrificed to save the descendants of the Rambam and Rabbi Yosef Caro would not lose their Torah).

LIKE ALL SUCH SCHEMATIC CONTRASTS, the above is overdrawn and just a little too neat. For one thing, Israel has always been blessed with a plethora of traditional chesed organizations addressing the widespread poverty in the chareidi community. And it has produced a number of world class experts in the area of medical referrals, including, Rabbi Elimelech Firer in Bnei Brak and Benny Fischer in Jerusalem.

More important, the divide described above has begun to break down dramatically over the past decade. There has been a virtual explosion of innovative chareidi initiatives to address needs both within the community and involving its relationship to the larger Israeli society. The moving forces behind these projects are, in the main, young bnei Torah, who maintain close relationships with their rabbis. They are taking responsibility for addressing challenges that they see confronting their communities. Unleashing the powers of such individuals and helping them to become more effective – e.g., by bringing together those working in related areas – will be one of the main tasks of chareidi society in the years to come.

What follows is a very small and by no means exhaustive sampling of some of these initiatives, and it leaves out perhaps the largest category – new educational initiatives to address elements of the community whose educational needs are not being met.

A group of young chareidim with an understanding of social media formed a group called Dossim (a pejorative term for chareidim) to redress the most egregious media coverage of the chareidi community by responding to slanted journalistic stories in real time. Their ability to respond quickly, often with hard facts and figures, has helped to change the media playing field.

And they have shown a talent for capturing media attention in surprising ways. Thus they leaked to Israel TV information that a group of chareidim was conducting a barbecue on Memorial Day at Jerusalem’s Rose Garden Park near the Knesset. When the cameraman and reporter arrived to photograph this hardy perennial of anti-chareidi media coverage, they found instead a group of chareidim who had arranged yahrtzeit candles and were reciting Tehillim for fallen soldiers. They turned the tables on the reporter and cameraman by asking them why they wanted to foster divisions in Israeli society instead of using the day to pay homage to the fallen soldiers.

On another occasion, when a media personality made an unflattering comparison between chareidim and matzoh balls, a group of Dossim volunteers stood outside the National Broadcast Authority distributing matzoh ball soup to all who entered.

Rabbi Yitzchak Melber, a Skver chassid, was only 30 when he created Toras HaMishpacha to deal with women’s health issues. He brings together leading poskim and doctors in semi-annual conferences to exchange crucial about fertility and other women’s health issues. And the organization conducts regular symposia for kallah teachers to make sure that they have all the relevant medical information at their disposal. A hotline manned by Rabbi Melber and three other rabbis for women seeking medical information or referrals to doctors fields over 2,000 phone calls per month, and recently 17 chareidi women went through an extensive course to be able to handle questions to the hotline.

At one level, Rabbi Doni Cohen’s project (under the supervision of Rabbi Asher Weiss) connecting top scientists from the Tel Aviv University faculty and distinguished young talmidei chachamim, many of them dayanim or maggidei shiur, might seem like a niche project. But by bringing scientists and talmidei chachamim together not to debate the relative merits of science and Torah, but to share information and work together formulating solutions in areas where halacha and science intersect, he has succeeded in lifting the prestige of Torah scholars among Israel’s intellectual elite.

The name Mrs.Tzili Schneider, the wife of a maggid shiur in Rabbi Tzvi Kushelevsky’s Yeshivas Heichal HaTorah and herself a long-time Bais Yaakov teacher, is a familiar one to readers of this column. The latest project of her Kesher Yisrael organization focuses on neighborhoods – e.g., Kiryat Yovel, Gilo – where an influx of chareidim has led to tensions. Her goal is not only to change the perspective of secular residents through meeting and learning together with chareidim, but also the attitudes of chareidi residents. “Don’t spend your time counting how many apartments in your building have been purchased by chareidim,” she says, “but rather consider the opportunity HaKadosh Boruch Hu has given you by putting you together in the same building with secular Jews.”

Rabbi Yehudah Polishuk, 34, exemplifies the new generation of chareidi askanim. In addition to bearing the financial responsibility for Pischei Olam, a yeshiva for ba’alei yeshiva from academic backgrounds under the auspicies of Rav Moshe Shapiro, his Orot organization comprises five separate major programs, each fulfilling in a different way Rav Moshe’s injunction to “teach Torah wherever it is not currently reaching.” Ruach Yehudit, for instance, has introduced an hour of instruction in basic Torah concepts in 58 secular schools, with 14,000 students. Great effort is invested in distinguishing the learning material from the regular forms of instruction in order to arouse interest. Other programs focus on students in national religious schools, who might be described as dati-lite and lack sufficient religious grounding to resist the lures of secular Israeli culture. Orot also runs a year-long pre-induction mechina for students from national religious high schools.

Plugta posts a daily discussion topic on Facebook on subjects related to the future of the Jewish nation that attracts thousands of participants across the religious spectrum and also hosts regular face-to-face events on those topics in venues designed to attract maximum secular participation.

The depth of the talent and energy of young chareidim is more and more evident all the time. Nurturing that talent will be one of the primary communal tasks in the coming years.

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What Do Gaza and Ferguson Have in Common

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) was challenged last week about her support for an additional appropriation of $225 million for Iron Dome. Her town meeting questioner, John Bangert, asked incredulously, how she could not see the connection between Ferguson and Gaza – i.e., guns being turned on innocent civilians.

Bangert is right about the connection between events in Gaza and those in Ferguson, Mo., but it is not exactly the one he had in mind. Both represent examples of journalistic malfeasance, the manufacture of a false narrative based on emphasizing certain facts and eliding others. In Ferguson, the narrative was that of an innocent black teenager gunned down by a white cop; in Gaza, one of Israel brutally bombing innocent Palestinian civilians.

The media described Michael Brown as a “gentle giant,” who was on his way to his grandmother’s house, just a few days short of the start of college, when he was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson, despite being unarmed. Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting variously, described him as fleeing at the time of the shooting or as having his hands up.

That particular version of events did not long survive. The autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family showed that he had been shot from the front and the point of entry of the four bullets in his arm made clear that his arms were not up. Indeed, the autopsy was fully consistent with another witness’s testimony that Brown was charging head down at Wilson when he was shot. The four bullets that struck the fleshy part of his arm would not have stopped a person of Brown’s size. Only the sixth bullet through the top of the head would have done that. Those findings did not stop Missouri governor Jay Nixon, however, from demanding Wilson’s prosecution or aging race hucksters Jesse Jackson Jr. and Al Sharpton from descending on Ferguson to fan the flames.

The “gentle giant” turned out to not always be so gentle. A video camera from a nearby convenience store ten minutes or so prior to the shooting caught Brown and his companion stealing a box of cheap cigars, and Brown roughly tossing aside the much smaller store clerk. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer labeled release of the video a “smear” totally irrelevant to the real issue. No doubt he felt the same about the finding that Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death, and the information that the cheap cigars he stole are frequently used for ingesting other drugs.

A New York Times reporter apologized on behalf of the paper for describing Brown as “burly,” on the grounds that the word has racial connotations. In fact, it has none. The real apology was for calling attention to Brown’s size, since it would clarify why the much smaller Wilson feared for his life and required six shots to fell Brown. Reports that Wilson suffered a broken orbital bone under his eye in an initial physical confrontation with Brown, after he instructed him and his companion to stop walking down the center of the road, further explained why Wilson feared for his life.

THE REPORTING OF THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED fighting in Gaza involved a similarly constructed narrative, most egregiously by The New York Times, which summarized everything its readers needed to know in a simple chart of Israeli casualties versus Gazan casualties. Never mind that Hamas could have brought the hostilities to a close at any moment by stopping its rocket fire or that the placement of its tunnels and rockets in built up civilian areas effectively ensured that civilians would be killed when Israel responded to indiscriminate attacks on its cities and towns.

Photos of the damage to Gaza from Israel military action dominated the Times front pages, but the paper of record and the rest of the mainstream press were apparently unable to photograph Hamas firing rockets at Israel from schools, mosques, hospitals and private homes. Only TV crews from Finland and India managed to do that. Apparently, no one told them of the agreed narrative – brutal Israel kills innocent Palestinians. Nor were they clued in on Hamas’s orders to journalists not to photograph its rocket fire.

In a must-read piece in Tablet, Matti Friedman, who served in AP’s Jerusalem bureau from 2006-2011 as a reporter and editor, dissects the tropes of reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shows how the Gazan reporting was part of a larger pattern.

>In the dominant narrative, Israel is the only party with agency; the Palestinians are irrelevant. The media has decided that the Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, and so it takes for granted that they do. In that narrative, Palestinians are always moderates and Israel the perpetually recalcitrant party. Anything that does not support that narrative is suppressed. Thus, in 2009, two AP reporters produced a major scoop, replete with maps, of then Prime Minister Olmert’s generous peace offer and the Palestinian rejection, but the top editors refused to print it.

The Hamas Charter is seldom mentioned in reporting about Gaza, for it belies the Palestinian desire for a two-state solution and links Hamas to the radical Islamists happily chopping off people’s heads in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.

When AP’s Jerusalem news editor submitted a story about Hamas intimidation of journalists, his higher-ups refused to publish it. Friedman relates how he once excised from a story he was editing mention of the fact that Hamas fighters wear civilian clothing and are counted as civilian casualties in order not to endanger AP reporters in Gaza. While AP relentlessly pursues every chink in Israeli society, Friedman was told that a proposed piece on Palestinian Authority corruption was “not the story.”

Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict typically omits all regional context. The mere name Israeli-Palestinian, rather than the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Muslim conflict, is a distortion, for it pits powerful Israel against weak Palestinians, rather than a beleaguered Israel surrounded by hostile neighbors on almost every border.

By ripping the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from the larger Middle East context, Israel’s position dwelling on the slope of a volcano of Islamic fanaticism is obscured. Thus, the media has largely ignored the emerging Israel-Egpyt-Saudi alliance to combat some of the most volatile forms of Islamic fanaticism, and the extent to which Egypt was a silent partner with Israel in fighting Hamas.

WHY IS THE MEDIA DRAWN to simplistic morality tales? One answer is the desire to avoid thinking about problems far more serious and intractable. The way Michael Brown died is rare, but young black lives are cut off prematurely every day. In 2012, Chicago experienced over forty murders per month – almost all of it black on black killing. But that barely raises an eyebrow. Increased policing can bring that rate down, as Chicago has done over the last two years, but we have no answer to the endemic violence and low regard for human life of America’s inner cities. So better not to think about it.

Unless one believes that Officer Wilson would have acted differently if a 6’4″, 300 pound white man had been barreling at him, then his actions had nothing to do with racism. But saturation coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown is more pleasant than contemplating the fact that blacks are 25 times as likely to commit crimes against whites as vice versa, and the ratio grows the more violent the crime.

Israel too receives obsessive news coverage. AP’s Israel bureau of forty staffers is far larger than the China or Russia bureaus. Until the outbreak of civil war, AP had only one reporter in Syria. Yet in 2013, the Israel-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, while the Syrian civil war has claimed nearly 200,000 to date. Of the 11 million Muslims killed in Middle East wars since 1948, .3% have been killed by Israel, yet it is that sliver that gets all the attention.

After decades of proclamations that the Israel-Palestinian conflict the key to all Middle East deformities, even President Obama’s former Special Envoy to the Middle East, Martin Indyk, admitted in a Foreign Policy interview last week that America today has no “strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It has far more important matters at hand, like a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate holding vast areas of Syria and Iraq, while training thousands of Western jihadis, and with operatives reportedly operating on the other side of the United States’s porous southern border. But who wants to think about that.

SIMPLE MORALITY TALES provide the purveyors with confirmation of their essential goodness. For those who live in gated communities and rarely interact with a black person not of their social class lamenting America’s endemic racism puts them back at the vanguard of the civil rights struggle. And this in a country that twice elected as president a black man, without a drop of relevant experience, who has proven to be a complete duffer in every way.

The narrative of Israeli brutality and “genocide” against the Palestinians provides a different sort of salve for the consciences of European nations, who either participated or were complicit in the Holocaust: The Jews are no better. And for many Jewish liberals eager to proclaim their growing alienation from Israel judging their Israeli brethren in the harshest possible light serves as a moral badge of courage.

And finally, there are the more malevolent explanations. The New York Times headlined this week that a high black turnout is the key to Democrats hopes of retaining the Senate. And the subhead set out the means for doing so with remarkable frankness: “Move to Channel Anger.” No group has fallen further behind in the six years of the Obama presidency than blacks. Nothing like a little faux racism to distract them. No wonder serial inciter Al Sharpton has become the White House “go-to guy” on race relations.

As for Israel, Matti Friedman sums it up well: “When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers . . . is that Jews are the worst people on earth.”

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Showing We Care

Two weeks ago, I was in Passaic for Shabbos. The main theme of my presentations in four shuls was the feeling of achdus in Israel, from the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students through Operation Protective Edge, and what can be done to preserve it. On Motzaei Shabbos, I spent several hours together with a group of alumni of Machon Shlomo and Machon Yaakov, two yeshivos for ba’alei teshuva in Har Nof.

One of those present asked me what I thought was the most important thing American Jews can do now for their brethren in Israel. He did not specify any particular kind of American Jews, or Israeli for that matter. I replied: Show them that you care about what is happening to them.

I’m not sure where that answer came from since I do not lack for remarkable organizations in Israel to recommend. Perhaps I was inspired by the widely distributed letter of Rabbi Shay Schacter, assistant rabbi of the White Shul in Lawrence, describing in poignant detail his four-day visit to Israel, as the emissary of Lawrence’s White Shul to convey condolences to the Shaer, Fraenkel, and Yifrach families and deliver letters of tanchumin from the congregation. The response of everyone – from the El Al stewardess on his flight to Israel to the three families themselves – was overwhelming.

Another rabbi I knew would show up this summer was Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff of Kew Gardens. My only question was when would he arrive. I first met Reb Aryeh eight years ago during the Second Lebanon War when he was in Israel offering support to Jews living in bunkers for weeks on end in the North and to bereaved families. The next time we met was at the shiva home of one of the eight kedoshim murdered in Mercaz HaRav. He had flown in on his own dime for one day to visit each of the eight shiva homes.

Reb Aryeh did not arrive until last week, after the worst of the fighting in Gaza was over. His primary purpose was to visit as many of the wounded soldiers still in hospital as possible. And to that end, he travelled from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Har HaTzofim to Haifa’s Rambam to Beersheba’s Siroko to Petach Tikvah’s Beilenson to Tel Aviv’s Tel HaShomer, where the largest contingent of wounded soldiers is found.

The soldiers remaining in hospital are the forgotten casualties of the war. The solidarity missions (each extremely valuable in its own right) that attended the funerals and visited the shivah homes have come and gone. But these young men, almost all of them between 19 and 21, remain in hospital, accompanied only by their families.

Many have lost one or more limbs, an eye, their hearing, or their ability to speak. Others suffered severe head injuries that threaten them with permanent impairment. Still others are paralyzed, either partially or completely. Each one of these young men is adjusting to the realization that he will never again engage in certain activities that came naturally to him just a few weeks ago. Their dreams for the future have all been altered in one way or another. As one mother told Reb Aryeh, “My son went through one milchamah (war); now he is going through another.”

To them, Rabbi Sokoloff brought a simple message: “I love you. I care about you. You are heroes, and you did something great in risking your lives to protect the Jewish people.” And he wanted that message to come in the package of a bearded rabbi, wearing a black suit and hat.

He hugged and embraced the soldiers and their parents, and most important, listened to them. He offered encouragement that they would still be able to lead productive, happy lives. But each conversation was personal, based on what the wounded soldier or his parents were saying.

Meir Solomon, who drove Rabbi Sokoloff everywhere on his four day whirlwind visit, told me that he witnessed two soldiers and two mothers start crying while speaking to Reb Aryeh. And one father, who introduced himself as a member of a HaShomer HaTzair kibbutz, kept saying, “Kol HaKavod,” as tears welled up in his eyes at the thought that a chareidi rabbi had come from America to speak to his son. (There were, of course, also a few soldiers who had no interest in talking to a rabbi from America.) When Solomon pulled out his cellphone to photograph one of the encounters, a horrified Reb Aryeh told him to put it away immediately – no photos.

While walking through hospital corridors, Rabbi Sokoloff was called over by mothers to speak to their sons. One sixty-year-old man, who had been paralyzed by falling shrapnel, asked for a blessing. He told Reb Aryeh that he had been left a partial invalid as a young soldier in the Yom Kippur War over forty years ago and had now suffered an even more serious injury.

The IDF pays for the lodging of the parents of wounded soldiers near the hospitals in which their sons are being treated, and as a consequence, almost every soldier Reb Aryeh met was accompanied by his parents. But one “lone soldier” named Chaim in Hadassah Hospital left an indelible impression on Reb Aryeh. Both his right arm and leg had been nearly severed by sniper fire, and he had watched his commanding officer, also 23, and a close friend die in front of his eyes from the same sniper fire.

He described to Rabbi Sokoloff pain so intense that the morphine administered by medics at the scene had no effect. Yet he still managed to go to the levaya of his commanding officer in a hospital gurney, and even to offer a hesped: “All he cared about was me.” Though not ostensibly religious, he told Rabbi Sokoloff that his left arm was unaffected “So I’ll still be able to put on tefillin.”

Rabbi Sokoloff’s first day in Israel coincided with the funeral of Daniel Tragerman, Hy”d, 4, the first child killed by enemy fire. When Rabbi Sokoloff entered the shivah tent at moshav Sde Avraham, he quickly noticed that he and his friend Meir were the only religious people there. But Mr. Tragerman, not wearing a kippah, quickly came over to hug him. Soon they were joined by Danny’s mother. Reb Aryeh asked her to tell him about her son. She spoke of how much she had learned from her oldest child. She told Rabbi Sokoloff, “I know he is in a better place.” At the end of his visit, Mrs. Tragerman asked plaintively, “How long must this last? Rabbi, do you believe there will ever be peace?” Then her husband once again embraced Rabbi Sokoloff.

The current trip was Reb Aryeh’s fifth personal chizuk mission since the expulsion from Gush Katif. But I only convinced him to let me write about this one because he felt there was such an important message for those of us privileged to live in Eretz Yisrael. First, that there is a great mitzvah close at hand of bikur cholim that we can perform for those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.

And in performing that mitzvah, we can at the same time go a long way towards maintaining the feelings of unity of the last two months. As Reb Aryeh put it, the hospital visits are a wonderful opportunity to “speak to one another and not at one another.” He told me that almost every soldier whom he told of all the Jews around the world praying and learning on his behalf was uplifted on that account.

Achdus requires all groups of Klal Yisrael to value one another and acknowledge what others do for us. There is no better place to start than with the wounded soldiers to whom we truly owe so much. And, as Rabbi Sokoloff’s experience indicates, such expressions of closeness are likely to be reciprocated.

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Achdus: An Appeal For Ideas

Many, many people were touched by the palpable sense of achdus during the 18 days in which we davened for the three abducted teens, and during the weeks of war that followed.

I know that groups of people have connected with each other (including “A-list” people in the charedi world), looking for practical ways to keep this spirit alive. Why, though, limit the discussion to these smaller groups? We’ve seen in the past that digitally turning to a wider audience has yielded great insight. We therefore ask you to think about ways in which to help bring disparate groups of Jews (especially disparate groups of Orthodox Jews) together. First and foremost, these methods should aim to increase respect (which is more than tolerance) for “others.”

I will start the process with a few ideas dealing specifically with the Orthodox community, and hope that they will jog the imagination of readers:

1) Research and find a tzedaka associated primarily with the “other” camp, and make regular, generous contributions [E.g. I would recommend JobKatif to readers on the charedi side]

2) Study a sefer that is associated with an important thinker of the other group

3) Spend time at an important … Read More >>

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Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like … Read More >>

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Modern Orthodoxy Can Do Better

As the demographic ground beneath the feet of American Jews continues to shift, old denominational definitions and self-understandings change as well. Dr. Baruch Brody offers a fresh approach to demarcating Modern Orthodoxy’s territory in the current issue of Hakira (Volume 17; Summer 2014). While his essay is a fascinating read that shows much thought and passion, it is a disappointment to those of us who want to see Modern Orthodoxy (MO) succeed, whether we fully identify with that community or not.

Future historians may very well divide American Jewish time into two eras: BP and AP, or Before Pew and After Pew. At least so it seems for some of us in the Orthodox world, who had long been making claims about where we were all going that were roundly ignored or rejected – till Pew. During the decades of the Orthodox renaissance after the Holocaust, we argued that time was on our side. Orthodoxy may have been treated condescendingly as the benighted step-child of the real Jews, but we knew better. All forms of Judaism not based on halachic commitment would prove unsustainable, we predicted, while Orthodoxy would grow and flourish. After Pew, more people are at … Read More >>

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A Plaintive Cry (Or Two) For Understanding

by Moshe Shoshan

Over the past few years I have been conducting an on again, off again conversation with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein via e-mail. My main purpose in conducting this dialog has been to come to a better understanding as to why even in moderate charedi forums such as Cross-Currents, there have been exceedingly few direct, strongly worded condemnations of the extreme, violent behaviour and rhetoric directed against the State of Israel, its government and Army as well as the Religious Zionist population. I refer not only to actions and words emanating from members of the more extreme communities affiliated with the Eidah Charedis, but also more mainstream charedi groups whose rhetoric and behaviour has become increasing strident and offensive to non-charedim.

To give but one example, last year, Chaim Walder, perhaps the most beloved religious children’s author in Israel, wrote an editorial the Hebrew Yated Ne’eman, the official organ of R. Steinman’s faction of the Yahadut ha-Torah political party. Walder’s column unequivocally and unapologetically compared Yair Lapid to Adolph Hitler yemach shemo ve-zichro. Rabbi Adlerstein and numerous other chareidim with who I am in contact agreed with me that such language is abhorrent, but no public condemnation … Read More >>

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The Final Test?

Mrs. Esther Wein recently shared with me a dvar Torah that she heard many years ago from her grandfather Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, which may have application to the rampant anti-Semitism that has exploded around the world in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.

Rabbi Schwab asked what average Egyptians did to merit the terrible punishments that befell them in the course of the plagues. And what was the nature of the individual judgment on those Egyptians who drowned at Yam Suf? After all, it was Pharaoh who refused to allow the bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt. Was every citizen of Egypt culpable for not have revolted against Pharaoh to force him to grant thebnei Yisrael permission to escape?

He answered that the litmus test for the average Egyptian came when Pharaoh added to the burden of the bnei Yisrael by requiring them to collect their own straw while retaining the same quota of bricks as before. The Jews, the Torah relates, had no choice but to fan out across Egypt in search of straw. Rabbi Schwab speculated that they were forced to knock on the doors of the Egyptians in their quest, and that the Egyptians were subsequently … Read More >>

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Kidneys, Cash and Caring

Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story. Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.

The organs in question are kidneys. Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.

But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one. The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.

The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral. Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, … Read More >>

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Much Ado About Something

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like … Read More >>

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Wanted: A New Mussar Movement

We are a long way from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in which life seemed to changed little from century to century, until the first winds of the haskalah started blowing. In traditional Jewish society, in which most people lived and died within a narrow geographical radius of their place of birth, it could be safely predicted that the overwhelming majority of Jews would remain traditionally observant, to the extent of their knowledge, and that their children would as well.

But those insular, self-contained communities are no more. Not only have the physical ghetto walls fallen but so have the spiritual ghetto walls that we sought to erect in their place. The World-Wide Web has made sure of that. The effort to erect secure barriers and impermeable walls seems increasingly futile. In place of a chinuch chosem, an education that seeks to shut out all outside influences, we need a chinuch mechusan, one which vaccinates our young against the temptations of an ever more intrusive world.

In traditional society prior to the Haskalah, Jews did what they had done since time immemorial, or so it seemed. No great personal resources were required to follow in the paths of one’s … Read More >>

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Bright Stars On The Jewish Horizon: The Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men

We could have called it “Litvish-America’s Got Talent.” For those of us weary of worrying about the problems that plague the Torah community we love, it was a reassuring hug from Heaven.

The seventeen participants (selected from a pool about four times the size) who completed the week-long Tikvah Fund Program for Yeshiva Men demonstrated that the Olam HaTorah possesses young people of exceptional promise who can help lead the next generation of observant Jews. As one of the conveners of the program, I could have drowned in nachas. As a member of an older generation that takes pride in the yeshiva world but is mindful of the road-kill it has left behind at times, spending time in the company of these young men was Paradise Regained.

Less than two years ago, I began speaking to the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish but nondenominational group committed to providing politically and economically conservative leadership for the future. They understood the importance of including the Orthodox, whose demographic importance is now beyond cavil. To their credit, they also understood that the haredi cohort of the Orthodox community could not be left out of any strategic planning. To attract yeshiva participants, … Read More >>

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The End is Near

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming. It should also, however, be inspiring.

For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred. That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think.

Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?

Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?

Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name. But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack. They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a … Read More >>

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Enemies, Real and Imagined

1) Hamas is evil.

2) Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

3) Anti-Israel sentiment is usually simple Jew-hatred in (not very good) disguise.

4) The United States needs to be fully supportive of Israel.

5) It has been.

Some would take issue with that last sentence. They are wrong. And it behooves Klal Yisroel, which is meant to be imbued with the concept of hakaras hatov, to recognize that fact.

Over the past six years, some have come to imagine that the current occupant of the White House is some sort of adversary of Israel.

Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason, as some apparently do. But for those of us who (even though we expected the worst, considering some of the baggage he brought to Pennsylvania Avenue) have carefully observed him, he has proven himself more than worthy of Jewish respect.

Yet he was pounced upon, after his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world for, well, the simple decision to address that world; and for basing the state of Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust. What seemed to be … Read More >>

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Your Narcissism is Showing

Rob Schneider, a second-tier celeb, best known for a series of sophomoric comedies, recently tweeted: “To not be outraged at the killing of children to risk your very soul.”

To which I would reply. If the only deaths of children that provoke a response from you are those of children killed in Gaza, but not the hundreds of thousands of black Muslim children killed in Darfur by their co-religionists over the past decade or the 700 Syrian civilians killed in two days recently (or the 170,000 killed over the last three years), it is not the capaciousness of your soul that you display, but the depth of your narcissism and need to be admired as a “good person.”

If the only deaths of children that set your thumbs twittering are those when Jews are involved, then you are an anti-Semite. And please spare me any references to your Jewish father.

If your outrage is devoid of any context – who started the fighting, who deliberately sought the deaths of those children for their own propaganda gains – you are not quite the moral paragon you imagine; you are a dunce and the enabler of the deaths of more children.

… Read More >>

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Death of an Icon

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are … Read More >>

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Max Steinberg, zt”l, as Rorschach Test

The death of lone soldier Max Steinberg in combat in Gaza served as a Rorschach Test for Jews around the world. In Israel, 30,000 Jews, across the spectrum of Israeli society, took time off to go to Mt. Herzl for his levaya to express their admiration and gratitude to a young man who came to Israel to risk his life to protect theirs.

In the opposite corner, Slate editor Allison Benedikt could barely wait until the last shoveful of dirt had been placed on Max’s grave before portraying his as a dupe of Birthright, which spends “hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support.” Benedikt’s lament over Max’s death picks up where a 2011 reminiscence of her misspent Zionist youth left off. There she describes how her non-Jewish boyfriend, now husband, opened her eyes to evils of modern Israel.

Benedikt is emblematic of disappearing American Jewry. In her adult persona, she can no longer imagine any natural affinity between American Jews and the state of Israel, even though the latter is the only majority Jewish nation and home to the majority, or soon to be … Read More >>

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In Brief:

Burdened By The Times?

-- 2:45 pm

by Lawrence Reisman

I must confess that I read The New York Times regularly. Outside of the Middle East, I find the coverage to be fairly complete, in line with my biases, and even willing to contradict my preconceived notions now and then. More often than its detractors give it credit for, it will report when the liberal platitudes are simply not working. But enough of defending The Times. When it comes to Israel and the Mideast, I find its biases annoying. Mostly though, I live with them. I can see through what they’re saying, and I have no trouble finding alternative sources of information. So, most of the time, I live with it.

There comes a time when the biases of The Times are too much, even for me. In a recent review of Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September (about the 1979 Camp David accords), the reviewer started off with the following:

On March 11, 1978, 11 Palestinian militants came ashore in Zodiac boats north of Tel Aviv and set about murdering as many Israelis as they could with guns and grenades. They hijacked a taxi and two buses; 38 were killed, including 13 children. The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed.

Please notice how those who “set about murdering as many Israelis as they could,” are referred to as “militants.” All right, it’s not politically correct to use the word “terrorist” anymore, or maybe it is? Further on in the article, praising the author for showing Menachem Begin in a less negative light than he would like, the reviewer refers to Begin as a “former terrorist.” So an Israeli leader, about to abandon his vow never to give up the Sinai and make peace with Egypt is a “former terrorist,” while those who massacred (The Times’s word) 38 Israelis are only militants? The obvious and unabashed double standard is too much for even me.

I have written The New York Times Book Review calling attention to this linguistic imbalance. I would appreciate it if others would as well.

Lawrence M. Reisman is a certified public accountant and attorney working in New York City. His articles on Jewish subjects have been published in the New York Jewish Week, the Long Island Jewish World, The Jerusalem Report, and The Jewish Observer.

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How Technological Machers Limit Consumption To Their Kids

-- 12:17 am

This article in the New York Times is not to be missed. Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids have iPads.

The money quote from Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired regarding his five children, aged 6 to 17:

My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.

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Two For Elul

-- 11:23 pm

Two poetic images from Cross-Currents’ resident poet, Rabbi Yossi Huttler

Yemei Ratzon(Elul) – Tefilin, Mezuzos, Neshomos

Casings and bodies
opened up
S/scribe scrutinizing
sacred letters within
for imperfections and omissions
judging the living
parchment whether so flawed
to be consigned genizah
or repairable enough
to merit longer life

Altarnate

running to You
ensnared by thickets
of my own gnarling
still deem me worthy
even a mere substitute
offering

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The Israeli Seminary Scandal

-- 4:28 am

We’ve stayed out of it, because we had nothing particularly insightful to add. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, who has been a fearless crusader against abuse in general, does have some special insight, and has been very much involved in the unfolding of the story. A few paragraphs taken from his recent blog post are so critical that they must be spread far and wide:

1) As nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them?

2) As troublemakers and m’saprei lashon ha’ra (gossip-mongers), who ruined the career of Rabbi Meisels and jeopardized the very existence of the seminaries?

3) Or they are not mentioned at all – basically, “Let’s-Not-Spoil-the-Party-by-discussing-sordid-things-like-this.” (In the month of Elul, no less)

My dear friends, we at Project YES feel very strongly that the only responsible position for the leadership and faculty of these seminaries (and all seminaries) is to take option #1.

We propose that option #2 and even #3 are unacceptable as they send a very dangerous message — should current or future students have their boundaries violated, the wisest and safest route for them, would be to remain silent.

This is the quintessential “teachable moment” to educate our innocent and sheltered young ladies about hilchos yichud and their right to personal space. They also need to be taught that it is not a violation of hilchoslashon ha’ra to speak up, if these boundaries are violated in any way. Quite to the contrary, they should be informed that they are obligated to do so – and assured that they will be supported unconditionally when they do so.

Giving the young ladies messages contrary to these — either by commission or omission — after such a public scandal occurred, will create a toxic and unsafe environment for them both physically and spiritually.

We write these lines to encourage the current leadership of these seminaries, and to the educators in all high schools and seminaries, to convey these critical messages to their students, and to empower the parents of the students to insist that they do.

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Nothing Like a Compliment

-- 5:30 pm

As part of my recovery from the removal of a polyp from one of my vocal chords, I’ve been doing a course of voice training to prevent any recurrences. Much of the training in proper speech habits involves reciting a series of nonsense syllables – e.g., boom, bom, bam, bem, beem.

In a recent session, after reciting the above series, my therapist expressed his approval of the manner in which I had avoided straining my vocal chords. I found myself smiling in response to the compliment.

That smile gave me pause. I’m 63 years old, not an infant forming his first syllables. I’ve been regularly engaged in some form of public speaking since my bar mitzvah drashah. And I have not led a life bereft of all forms of positive feedback or felt a desperate craving for such.

Yet here I was smiling to myself at the smallest compliment for properly mouthing five nonsense syllables. My reaction brought home once again the incredible power that lies in even the smallest compliment and how much we should make use of that power.

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Responses to the Shidduch Proposal

-- 4:03 am

Besides abandoning CC for two weeks while running the Tikvah Program for Yeshiva Men (reaction coming later) and a few days of decompression at Mammoth, I waited to see if readers of Mishpacha would pick up on the flaws I spotted in the original piece. They didn’t – at least the ones that the magazine agreed to publish. So here are my own quibbles:

1) No one is to blame, but the accolades to Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz understated just how much good he does. It could be that Angelenos, closer to the action, have a better understanding of just how generous he is, how hard he (and his wife) try to help other Jews, and how unassuming he is in the terrific work he does. Readers should know that the description in Mishpacha was not exaggerated.
2) I think that the proposed solution runs the risk of ameliorating one crisis by adding to a different one – one that Mishpacha is less likely to write about. As it is, those encouraged to defer even thinking about parnasah plans during their years of learning often wake up to the cruel realization that they have positioned themselves out of range to do anything in life that is suitable to their personalities and interests. By the time they begin to explore parnasah, the education many need is beyond achieving, because it requires time and money, and they have several children to support. This has led to desperation, friction with spouses, and general unhappiness for too many people waking up to realize that they just cannot make ends meet.

If yeshiva men marry at younger ages as proposed, they will likely have even larger families by the time they consider employment, and even fewer of them will have the flexibility to seek academic or vocational training while someone else is supporting the family. More of them will be trapped as permanently undereducated and underemployed.

I have my doubts about the marriage readiness of twenty-year old men, but even if I can be pleasantly surprised, I can’t see how it can work without allowing and encouraging them to at least think of hatching a game plan for future employment, and understanding what will be necessary to enter the market.

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A New Look at Tehillim 144

-- 3:23 pm

Contributed by Doron Beckerman

לְדָוִד בָּרוּךְ ה’ צוּרִי הַמְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַקְרָב אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי לַמִּלְחָמָה:

(1) To David. Blessed is Hashem, my Rock, Who trains my hand for battle, my fingers for war.

[Every victory I accomplish in war does not come from the strength of my hand, for Hashem is He who trains my hand in war (Metzudos). May this strength and prowess be dedicated to the fulfillment of His will. It is solely for this purpose, and not out of vain lust for fame, that I cultivate these skills (Hirsch).]

חַסְדִּי וּמְצוּדָתִי מִשְׂגַּבִּי וּמְפַלְטִי לִי מָגִנִּי וּבוֹ חָסִיתִי הָרוֹדֵד עַמִּי תַחְתָּי:

(2) My loving-kindness [whatever skill and achievement I can call my own is all a generous gift of His loving-kindness (Hirsch)] and my fortress; my tower and my deliverer. My shield, and in Him do I take shelter; He who flattens nations beneath me (Radak).

ה’ מָה אָדָם וַתֵּדָעֵהוּ בֶּן אֱנוֹשׁ וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵהוּ:
אָדָם לַהֶבֶל דָּמָה יָמָיו כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר:
ה’ הַט שָׁמֶיךָ וְתֵרֵד גַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ:
בְּרוֹק בָּרָק וּתְפִיצֵם שְׁלַח חִצֶּיךָ וּתְהֻמֵּם:
שְׁלַח יָדֶיךָ מִמָּרוֹם פְּצֵנִי וְהַצִּילֵנִי מִמַּיִם רַבִּים מִיַּד בְּנֵי נֵכָר:
אֲשֶׁר פִּיהֶם דִּבֶּר שָׁוְא וִימִינָם יְמִין שָׁקֶר:

(3-7) Hashem! What is man that You should know him? A son of mankind that You should grant him significance? Man is like vapor! His days are as a passing shadow! Hashem, bend Your heavens and descend. Touch the mountains and let them smoke! Flash lightning and scatter them! Send your arrows and stun them! Stretch forth Your hands from on high. Deliver me and save me from many waters, from the hand of alien peoples. Whose mouth utters falsehood, and their right hand is a right hand of mendacity.

[Please Hashem! Do not save us through hidden miracles, such that it gives the impression that man fights in the manner of war and is saved by fortress and shield. Save us with no intermediaries, so that everyone will recognize that the hand of Hashem has wrought this! Why should this vapor deny You? … They deny your hashgachah and say it is all happenstance (Malbim).

In view of the basically degenerate character of the enemy nations, however, their defeat by human hands, even though they were the hands of David, protected and strengthened by Hashem, is still not sufficient to bring more than temporary peace. Please grant us Your direct Divine intervention… for the enemy is perfidious, and only his utter destruction can bring about a state of peace that is truly permanent… It is impossible to make a dependable treaty of peace, for their word is deception and their handclasp is falsehood (Hirsch).]

אֱלֹקים שִׁיר חָדָשׁ אָשִׁירָה לָּךְ בְּנֵבֶל עָשׂוֹר אֲזַמְּרָה לָּךְ:
הַנּוֹתֵן תְּשׁוּעָה לַמְּלָכִים הַפּוֹצֶה אֶת דָּוִד עַבְדּוֹ מֵחֶרֶב רָעָה:
פְּצֵנִי וְהַצִּילֵנִי מִיַּד בְּנֵי נֵכָר אֲשֶׁר פִּיהֶם דִּבֶּר שָׁוְא וִימִינָם יְמִין שָׁקֶר:

(8-11) Hashem, I will sing to You a new song, I will sing to You with a ten-stringed lyre. He Who grants salvation to kings, Who delivers His servant, David, from the evil sword. Deliver me and save me from alien nations, whose mouth speaks falsehood and whose right hand is a right of mendacity.

[I wish to sing to You in my lifetime of universal perfection: “He has relieved me of the necessity to wield the sword, that evil in the history of nations.” I gladly forego the blood-stained laurels of military victory, and all my prayer is, “Deliver me!” Without such intervention, I am compelled to be ready at all times to wield the sword and to practice the skills of warfare, for the neighboring nations are perfidious foes (Hirsch).

Who delivers His servant from the evil sword of Goliath, which was solely for evil, with no political benefit. Deliver me, so that my enemies should not arise and rebel after they surrender. Their mouth speaks falsehood when they accept taxation and subjugation, and their right hand, as they sign the terms of subjugation, is mendacity (Sforno).]

אֲשֶׁר בָּנֵינוּ כִּנְטִעִים מְגֻדָּלִים בִּנְעוּרֵיהֶם בְּנוֹתֵינוּ כְזָוִיֹּת מְחֻטָּבוֹת תַּבְנִית הֵיכָל:
מְזָוֵינוּ מְלֵאִים מְפִיקִים מִזַּן אֶל זַן צֹאונֵנוּ מַאֲלִיפוֹת מְרֻבָּבוֹת בְּחוּצוֹתֵינוּ:
אַלּוּפֵינוּ מְסֻבָּלִים אֵין פֶּרֶץ וְאֵין יוֹצֵאת וְאֵין צְוָחָה בִּרְחֹבֹתֵינוּ:
אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁכָּכָה לּוֹ אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁה’ אֱלֹקיו:

(12-15) For our sons are as saplings, grown in their youth. Our daughters are as corners, chiseled in the form of the Sanctuary. Our pantries are full, giving forth all species. Our sheep multiplies by thousands and tens of thousands in our open areas. Our oxen are laden. There is no breach, none who go out, and there is no outcry in our streets. Praised is the nation who has it so! Praised is the nation whose God is Hashem!

[We are worthy of salvation because our sons are free of sin, since they are raised to fear sin from their youth. Our daughters have no shade of immodesty. We are therefore worthy of all this bounty and tranquility (Metzudos).

We give of our crops to the poor. No one breaches the words of the Torah. No one harms the other. No one shouts at the other, for all submit to the law. Praised is the nation whose deeds are such, who recognizes its Creator and prays to Him (Sforno).

Our primary praise is that Hashem is our God, for all this comes by virtue of Hashem’s presence in our midst, and He is our God and we are His flock (Malbim).]

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The Punker’s Lesson

-- 12:22 pm

A Tisha B’Av-themed piece appearing in the Forward can be read here.

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Daven For the Asir Tziyon

-- 11:58 am

Lt. Hadar Goldin’s chasuna is scheduled to take place before Rosh Hashanah.

Daven for him. Hadar ben Chedva Leah.

Daven for a quick end to the unimaginable pain of his parents and siblings.

Daven to end the tears of a kallah who is waiting

photo (1)

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“Of Public Record” – 2

-- 10:58 am

A second offering of interesting quotes from recent days’ media reports can be seen here.

For future such postings, occasionally check out rabbiavishafran.com

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A New Look at Tehillim 140

-- 5:16 pm

Contributed by Doron Beckerman

Psalm 140 May Have Never Been More Apt

למנצח מזמור לדוד:
(1) To the conductor. A song of David.

חלצני ה’ מאדם רע מאיש חמסים תנצרני:
(2) Extricate me, O Hashem, from a wicked person. Protect me from a man of depravities.

אשר חשבו רעות בלב כל יום יגורו מלחמות:
(3) Who scheme evil in their heart; every day they have war within their dwelling places (Rashi).

שננו לשונם כמו נחש חמת עכשוב תחת שפתימו סלה:
(4) They sharpen their tongue as a snake; venom of vipers is constantly under their lips (as they foam at the mouth spewing their rhetoric; Radak).

שמרני ה’ מידי רשע מאיש חמסים תנצרני אשר חשבו לדחות פעמי:
(5) Keep me, Hashem, from the hand of an evildoer, protect me from a man of depravity; those who scheme to make my steps falter (and fall into their traps; Malbim).

טמנו גאים פח לי וחבלים פרשו רשת ליד מעגל מקשים שתו לי סלה:
(6) The haughty have set snares before me, and cords. They have spread out nets on the pathways on which I tread. They have incessantly placed stumbling blocks before me (even after multiple failures, they try again and again – Metzudos).

אמרתי לה’ אלי אתה האזינה ה’ קול תחנוני
I say unto Hashem, You are my Almighty! Hearken, Hashem, to the voice of my supplication!

אלקים ה’ עז ישועתי סכתה לראשי ביום נשק
(8) The Almighty, Hashem, is the strength of my salvation. You have provided a shield over my head on a day of armaments. (On the day they attack me with lances, arrows, and all manner of weaponry, You are a helmet of salvation over my head; Radak.)

אל תתן ה’ מאויי רשע זממו אל תפק ירומו סלה
(9) Do not grant, Hashem, the desires of the evildoers. Do not allow his plots to come forth; may they elude him forever!

ראש מסבי עמל שפתימו יכסמו
(10) The leader of those who surround me, may the toil of his lips engulf them.

ימיטו עליהם גחלים באש יפלם במהמרות בל יקומו
(11) May coals rain down upon them; may it cause their downfall in fire, in deep ditches from which they will never arise. (The ditches themselves will be full of fire, from the coals that rain down on them from above – Malbim)

איש לשון בל יכון בארץ איש חמס רע יצודנו למדחפת
(12) A man of evil tongue shall not have a foothold in the land; evil will hunt down a man of depravity for endless jostling.

ידעתי כי יעשה ה’ דין עני משפט אבינים:
(13) I know that Hashem will maintain the cause of the poor, uphold justice for the destitute.

אך צדיקים יודו לשמך ישבו ישרים את פניך:
(14) Make haste! (Rashi) The righteous will give thanks to Your Name; the upright shall sit before You (as they appreciate and recognize Your Hashgachah Peratis – Malbim).

(Readers of the original Hebrew may have picked up on the passage’s keyword – [חמס[ים)

Rabbi Doron Beckerman contributes from time to time from where he says Tehillim in Israel.

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Knesset Speaker to the US: Do More to Prevent Civilian Casualties in Iraq

-- 2:20 pm

It didn’t really happen this way. But perhaps it should. A reader who must remain anonymous for professional reasons contributed this analysis:

Yesterday, US State department spokesperson, Jan Psaki expressed concern over the high civilian death toll in Gaza during the latest round of hostilities. She said that Israel can do far more to protect civilians than it has done to date. There were no specific suggestions offered, although Israel would certainly welcome any advice on how to further reduce civilian casualties. In addition to warning civilians to evacuate before targeting a specific area, Israel has called off bombing missions with targets already locked in sights, out of fear of harming civilians who at times were deliberately led there by Hamas.

Now, let’s see how the US measures up to Ms. Psaki’s expectations. According to Palestinian sources, 80% of the 248 people killed during the first 10 days of fighting were civilians. That would mean – even if true, which was never the case in the past – 198 civilians were killed in 10 days. While estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq vary greatly depending on the source, the official Iraq War Logs of the US Army put the number at 66,081 in 6 years of war That breaks down to 30.17 civilian deaths per day or 302 in 10 days. Iraq’s population density is 160 per sq. mile, vs. 9,713 for Gaza. That makes it 60.7 times more likely for a civilian in Gaza to be unintentionally killed in warfare than in Iraq. Extrapolating from the American experience in Iraq, we would have expected 18,331 civilian unintentional civilian deaths in Gaza in the ten days of operations.

We are not sure whether Jan Psaki needs a bit of help better understanding the parameters of the Hamas War, or just some help with arithmetic. It is important that she not continue to misrepresent the more sensible views of the American public, which supports Israel by a large margin in a poll of just a few days ago.

If it is understanding numbers that is the problem, we can recommend some excellent remedial help, in both Iraq and Gaza. She can choose where she will feel safest.

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