School News

The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.

In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”

Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with … Read More >>

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A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a,“ and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate … Read More >>

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Living with Emunah

James McDonald, the first American ambassador to Israel, once remarked that Israel is the only country in the world that factors 25% miracle into all government planning. At some level, one must be a ba’al emunah to live in Israel.

Just consider last week’s news. According to one fully credible source, Hamas is already attempting to clear away the attack tunnels destroyed by the IDF and to rearm. And that was the least of the scary news of the week.

Israel TV reported that Israel is frantically preparing for a “very violent war” against Hezbollah. According to the report, Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, over ten times as many as Hamas at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, and is thus capable of overwhelming Iron Dome’s protective shield. That 100,000 figure includes at least 5,000 missiles with precision guidance systems capable of reaching all Israel. Because their trajectory is not locked in at the time of firing, those missiles represent a far larger challenge for Iron Dome and the Arrow anti-missile defense systems.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah has built over the years an intricate system of interconnected underground tunnels from which it can fight defensively in southern Lebanon. And it is … Read More >>

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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 … Read More >>

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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 … Read More >>

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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. … 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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Nothing Like a Compliment

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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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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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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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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Acts of Kindness, Great and Small

Over the past month and a half, the unity of the Jews of Israel has been overwhelming. No one would ever hope for the tragic events that have aroused feelings of closeness – the kidnapping of three yeshiva students and Operation Preventive Edge in Gaza – but the tangible desire of Jews to draw closer to one another cannot be denied.

Tens of thousands of Jews, from across the Israeli spectrum, attended the funerals of two “lone” soldiers from America – Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg – whom they did not know personally. And in communities across Israel, Jews are reaching out to one another with acts of chesed, both great and small.

Beit Shemesh, the scene of bitter intra-religious confrontation over the past two years and of a highly divisive mayoral election and subsequent re-run, has proven fertile grounds for various campaigns for unity. All sides of the religious and political divide in Beit Shemesh were eager to put the bitter feelings of the two mayoral campaigns behind. Two “unity” tefillah gatherings for Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach, H”yd, were the first steps towards doing so. The gatherings drew chareidi, national religious, Yerushalmi/chassidiche, and secular women. … Read More >>

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Who Believes in Mermaids?

According to the latest CNN poll, 57% of Americans think that Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip are fully justified, while 39% think that Israel’s actions are “too much.” One might interpret those figures optimistically: It is doubtful support for Israel is higher in any other Western country. On the other hand, I would be more than a little dismayed to learn that 39% of Americans believe in mermaids or the tooth fairy, and I fail to see any plausible distinction between that belief and the claim that Israel has been employing excessive force.

But it gets worse. Over half of Democrats are within that 39%. And to judge by their recent statements and actions, it appears that the president and secretary of state are among the believers in mermaids. Fox News caught Secretary of State Kerry in an unguarded moment sarcastically speaking of Palestinian civilian casualties in heavy fighting in Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint action, a hell of a pinpoint action.” Once he knew he was back on camera, Kerry quickly reverted to message; Israel has a right to defend itself; he was just reacting to the tragedy of innocent lives lost; … Read More >>

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Kerry Opens a Second Front

The two constants of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have both been on ample display in the efforts to force upon Israel a premature ceasefire to the fighting in Gaza. The first constant has been the consistent betrayal of allies – originally Poland and Czechoslovakia – to curry favor with enemies – i.e., Russia. Bernard Lewis long ago described the United States under Obama as “neither trusted by its friends nor feared by its enemies.”

The second constant has been an inexplicable affection for the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters – Turkey and Qatar, and its offshoots – Hamas. Had the Obama administration had its way there would still be a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Instead of the current Egyptian government closing down Hamas’s smuggling tunnels across the Philadelphi Corridor and fighting Islamic jihadists in the Sinai, Hamas would still be smuggling in rockets and concrete for its offensive tunnels and the Islamic jihadists would be extending their control over the Sinai.

With respect to the betrayal of allies, it would be nearly impossible to overstate the shock in Israel at the proposed ceasefire agreement Kerry put before the Israeli cabinet last Friday. The normally fractious cabinet rejected the … Read More >>

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Miracles All Around

As I write on Thursday afternoon [July 17] more than 1300 Hamas rockets have been fired at Israel without causing a single fatality. (An Israeli volunteer assisting troops in the South was killed by mortar fire from the Gaza Strip.)

Of course, many of us remember miracles of an even greater magnitude during the first Gulf War when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles – with vastly larger payloads than the Hamas rockets – hit Israel. Yehuda Barkan, at that time one of Israel’s most popular screen stars, had, like Yisro, an “ear” to hear. Though he describes his life at that time as totally involved in the pleasures of the flesh, he could not shake the feeling that something miraculous had occurred.

Thirty-nine Scuds hit Israel, in many cases causing huge damage, and no one was killed directly by the missiles. (That’s how Barkan tells the story today, though I remember that one person was killed – someone who enjoyed riding his motorcycle through the streets of Bnei Brak on Shabbos.) Yet Saddam Hussein fired only one Scud at Saudi Arabia, and killed 25 American servicemen on their base.

Soon after he began to mull over the contrast, Barkan stopped … Read More >>

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Glad Not to Be Prime Minister Netanyahu

I am convinced that Israel had no choice but to undertake a major ground operation into the Gaza Strip, and that the time has never been so propitious in terms of what can be achieved by such an operation. “Mowing the grass” for the third time in five and a half years is not sufficient, and will only result in a higher cost later.

That said, I am relieved not to be the one charged with actually making that decision. In the natural order, a ground invasion of Gaza will certainly cost many Jewish lives, perhaps hundreds. Anyone who does not feel the weight of such a decision should not be prime minister of Israel. On the other hand, anyone who cannot make such a decision should not be prime minister of Israel.

No national leader in the world faces as many such decisions weighing the costs of lives now versus those likely to be lost at a future date due to inaction as the prime minister of Israel . Such balancing, which in the nature of things must always be made in a state of uncertainty, is implicated in every prisoner exchange and it is at the heart … Read More >>

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An Inversion of Morality

From day one of its existence, the sole raison d’etre of the Hamas quasi-state in Gaza has been to kill Jews, the more the merrier.

Since taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has siphoned off billions of dollars of foreign aid money to build a vast labyrinth of underground tunnels, whose only purpose is to hide rockets to be launched at Israel’s civilian population and to facilitate mass terror attacks in the form of cross border raids on kibbutzim, moshavim and towns close to the border.

All the human energy of the Gaza Strip has gone into the digging of the tunnels, often by hand. The very magnitude of the effort both impresses and depresses, for it is a measure of the hatred of Jews of Hamas and its followers.

Hamas proudly proclaims its goal of reclaiming the entirety of Palestine and killing all the Jews in its Charter. Article VI of the Charter announces that the Islamic Resistance Movement exists to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine. Article VII states that the final resurrection will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and the very trees call out, “There is a Jew … Read More >>

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Rosenblum’s Rule Revisited

Long-time readers are by now familiar with Rosenblum’s Rule: Where Torah Jews are in the majority their attention to issues of Kiddush Hashem declines; when they are in the minority, especially a small minority their intrapersonal behavior improves. I first formulated this rule many years ago while observing a group of kindergarten age kids in Boro Park rush out of class and promptly block all traffic on the street adjacent to their cheder. That was their turf, and they were not going to be deterred by the honking of a line of irritated drivers. One of the research projects I’d like to see the newly formed Center for Jewish Reseach and Communication undertake is a comparative study of the attitudes of those raised in all-chareidi environments to those raised in religiously mixed cities and towns. Until then, Rosenblum’s Rule remains only a hypothesis based on anecdotal observation. But further anecdotal evidence of the positive side of the rule came last Erev Shabbos. My wife and I were in the Galilee for around 24 hours, and decided to visit the Torah community in Carmiel, where I know exactly one person, the son-in-law of a close friend. When I was a … Read More >>

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The Anti-Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad

The mind reels from trying to wrap itself around the fact that fellow Jews could not only have murdered an innocent Arab teenager, but done so by sadistically setting him on fire.

But there is no longer any escaping the fact that the murderers of Mohammed Abu Kdheir were in all likelihood Jewish.

As she has done so frequently in recent weeks, Rachel Fraenkel, still in mourning for her son Naftali, spoke for the almost all Israelis in her message of condolence to Mohammed’s parents: “No mother should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents. . . . The shedding of innocent blood is in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.”

Magnifying the evil of the deed itself is the utter senselessness of it. The perpetrators have thrown their own lives away. If convicted, there is far less chance that they will ever be freed from prison than that the murderers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, if captured, will one day be released in another … Read More >>

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The World Comes Looking for President Obama

Were he capable of admitting, much less learning from, past mistakes, President Obama might now be contemplating the limits of “Don’t do anything stupid” – i.e., avoid all foreign interventions – as a sufficient guide for foreign policy. If you are still the president of the country with primary responsibility for maintaining international order, events in places you would prefer to ignore have a way of coming after you.

Sometimes an ounce of prevention in time can spare the need for incomparably more expensive and less effective interventions later. Had the United States aided Syrian rebels sufficiently when the rebellion against Bashar Assad’s government was still a largely non-jihadist operation, for instance, Syria might not today be a primary training ground for global jihadists or have spawned the ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is now marching on Baghdad and Shiite holy cities, after having captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

With the capture of Mosul, the ISIS imposed strict sharia law on the city. No more cigarettes or alcohol; thieves to have their hands cut off; and women only permitted to leave their homes in case of emergency. Just in case anyone doubted their seriousness, they executed thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and other potential opponents in gruesome fashion, including decapitation. No wonder half a million people fled Mosul in advance of their takeover. By seizing nearly $500 million of gold bars from the vaults of the Mosul central bank and the American-supplied equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi Army, the ISIS also became overnight the richest and best-armed jihadi force in the world.

FOUAD AJAMI ANALYZES OBAMA’S contribution to the disaster that is today’s Iraq in the Wall Street Journal (“The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster in a Handshake”). When Barack Obama came into office in 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, had been nearly decimated by the Awakening movement of 90,000 Sunni tribesmen armed by the United States in the surge designed by General David Petraeus – a surge that then Senator Barack Obama denounced as folly.

After the success of the surge, Iraq conducted an election in 2010 in which a non-sectarian, anti-Iranian Sunni-Shiite coalition headed by Ayad Allawi captured the majority of the parliamentary seats. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with already evident authoritarian tendencies, refused to acknowledge the result and disqualified a number of Allawi’s candidates. And the United States government let him get away with it, brokering a power-sharing agreement that Maliki subsequently ignored.

Continue reading → The World Comes Looking for President Obama

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Marriage: Not to be Taken for Granted

Rachel Ginsberg’s feature “Frayed Beyond Repair” in last week’s Mishpacha about the rise of middle-age divorce among couples married two decades or more — many of whom appeared to have had perfectly stable, functional marriages — probably shocked many readers, especially those, like my wife and I, who do not count any divorced couples among their close friends.

The question I asked myself was: Does “Frayed Beyond Repair” also have anything to teach those for whom the word “divorce” has never crossed their lips, or even entered their thoughts? Can those who attribute everything good that has ever happened to them as adults to one good decision made long ago and can no longer imagine what course their life might have taken without their life partner still learn anything from Mrs. Ginsberg’s account?

I think we probably can. If I took away one lesson from the feature it was: Marriages need nurturing. Just as HaKadosh Baruch Hu is mechadesh the world every moment by infusing it with new energy, as it were, so do we need to continually think about how to mechadesh the partnership upon which everything depends by infusing it with new energy. It’s never a good … Read More >>

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A Prediction Fulfilled — Sadly

Exactly one year ago, in a piece entitled “Yair Lapid Sets Back the Clock,” I predicted that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party would reverse a decade-long trend toward greater chareidi integration in the broader Israeli society. The Marker recently confirmed the accuracy of that prediction with respect to the number of chareidim seeking higher education and enlisting in the IDF.

An unidentified official in the Council on Higher Education termed the registration for the start of the upcoming academic year among chareidim as a “catastrophe.” According to the best estimates of the head of the council, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, there will be a 20 percent decline from the chareidi registration for the 2013-14 academic year. The decline has been particularly dramatic among male students

The decrease in the number of chareidim registering for academic programs comes at a time when government support — in the form of student loans and grants — for chareidim in academia has greatly expanded. Avraham Feldstein, the director of Kemach, which offers tuition stipends for chareidi students, notes “the absurdity that at the very time the government is investing significant funds to encourage chareidi higher education, it has created a public atmosphere … Read More >>

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The Assault on Free Speech Creeps Off Campus

Last week we catalogued the assault on free speech on campus in the form of speech codes and pervasive political correctness. The most common reason given for the speech codes by college administrators is to protect members of the university community from a hostile environment. The other reason more often offered by professors and students for preventing anyone with whom they disagree from speaking – from Condoleeza Rice to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Ambassador Michael Oren – is that they are advocates of policies or regimes which the commissars have determined in Marcusian fashion to be “objectively” unjust.

The justification offered by the administrators is more understandable. After all, few parents would want to send their children to live in dorms in which they were constantly subjected to racial or religious epithets, especially at a cost of $60,000 a year or more. But, it should be noted, that the notion that no one should ever be offended is a slippery slope and very much at odds with the values underlying the First Amendment. What happens when one student claims to be offended by another’s citation of Biblical verses condemning his lifestyle? How far are we from having the … Read More >>

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The Death of Free Speech on Campus

Few of us like to be exposed to opinions contrary to our own or to be challenged by facts that challenge our opinions. There is a natural temptation to suppress opinions that do not comport with our own, as Justice Holmes noted: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition.”

There are any number of reasons to resist the totalitarian temptation, however. Most of us lack the power to enforce our orthodoxy on others. Some may resist the temptation when they do possess the power out of the recognition that one day in the future others might possess the power to suppress their thought and expression.

Or perhaps we are products of a culture that places a supreme value on the freedom of individuals to form their own opinions and express them as to the proper ends of life and were raised on the quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Our founding fathers fashioned a Bill of Rights that gave pride of place to freedom of speech, and which sought to avoid any abridgment of that freedom by government. But as Judge Learned Hand warned, no legal regime is sufficient in and of itself to protect freedom of speech, if its underlying rationale is not embedded deep in the fiber of the people: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts… Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women, when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

The evidence mounts that appreciation of the values underlying the First Amendment can no longer be assumed at either the popular or elite level. A recent Rasmussen poll reveals that 55% of Americans agree that the government should be allowed to review candidates’ campaign ads for their accuracy and punish those it deems false; only 31% disagreed. While that result in part reflects the public’s dismal and justified view of the probity of politicians and their campaign propaganda, still the majority seem blissfully unaware that founding fathers viewed the government as the greatest threat to freedom of speech and would have recoiled at the idea of the government as the arbiter of permissible political speech.

PERHAPS EVEN MORE FRIGHTENING is the declining appreciation at the elite level for individual autonomy to think and speak as one wants. Our elites are being educated on campuses governed by speech codes whose underlying premise is that no members of favored “identity groups” should ever suffer any offense. The idea that individuals or groups have a “right” never to feel offended is antithetical to the robust speech that the First Amendment seeks to protect.

Mark Steyn, who is all too familiar with the thought control police from his battles with various Canadian human rights commissions, describes modern universities as “no longer institutions of inquiry but ‘safe spaces’ where delicate flowers of diversity of race, sex, orientation, ‘gender fluidity’ and everything else except diversity of thought have to be protected from exposure to any unsafe ideas. As it happens, the biggest ‘safe space’ on the planet is the Muslim world.”

Muslims have at least partially succeeded in imposing Islamic blasphemy laws on the rest of the world. Consider the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was recently rescinded at the urging of Muslim groups and the usual cast of their useful idiots. In the identity-obsessed university culture, Hirsi Ali should hit all the right buttons: She is a woman, black, Somalian-born, an atheist, and crusader for women. Her only problem is that she has focused her energies on the misogyny of Islamic societies – female mutilation, forced consanguine and child marriages, honor killings. She is herself a victim of all but honor killing, and lived under armed guard as a parliamentarian in the Netherlands, after her collaborator on a film on women in Islamic society, Theodore Van Gogh. had his throat slit. That it can be empirically demonstrated that the practices she describes have deep roots in contemporary Islamic societies availed her nothing.

Similarly, Brown University officials took no steps last October to ensure that former NYPD Superintendent Raymond Kelly would be able to complete a scheduled speech on campus, despite being warned days in advance of planned disruptions and having had their offer to allow expanded time for questions and debate rejected. Kelly incurred the wrath of Muslim groups for the NYPD’s surveillance of mosques for signs terrorist activity. Again, all the evidence that that surveillance had enabled the NYPD to nip numerous terrorist plots in the bud did not earn Kelly the right to be heard – or at least not if Muslim students and townies felt “offended.”

Of course, not all ethnic minorities are treated with the same kid gloves. Few universities have acted to protect Jewish students from the “hurt” of the annual Israel Apartheid Week hate fests, and some have even allowed academic departments and professors to put their imprimatur on those activities via the sponsorship of events and speakers. Jewish students at whom anti-Semitic insults and even threats are hurled have little chance of redress, especially if those hurling the insults are Muslims or other members of favored minorities. The campus as a “safe place” exists only for selected groups.

WHILE CAMPUS ADMINISTRATORS push all sorts of affirmative action quotas for various minorities – except, of course, Asians — the one type of diversity in which they have no interest is precisely that of greatest relevance to their educational mission: ideological diversity. Outside of the hard sciences and engineering faculties, probably no more than 10% of most faculties voted Republican in 2012, and the more elite the university the lower the percentage. The bitter tenure fights over Thomas Pangle at Yale in the late ’70s and Peter Berkowitz at Harvard a decade later — both of whom were enormously popular and widely published teachers, with an interest in classical philosophy — revealed how far the country’s leading universities are, in Berkowitz’s words, from fostering “a spirit of tolerant of dissent [and] keen on competition between rival opinions and ideas.”

Continue reading → The Death of Free Speech on Campus

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What Do They Really Think About Us?

There are few more ungainly or unattractive positions than that of someone patting his own back. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer a call-out to HaMercaz L’Mechkar V’Tikshoret Yehudit (The Center for Jewish Research and Communication), for commissioning a study by Dr. Mina Tzemach of the attitudes of secular Israelis to chareidim and to the Hebrew Mishpacha for devoting an entire supplement to the study in its Pesach issue. The Center seeks, inter alia, to provide chareidi decisionmakers and spokespersons with the necessary factual information about our own community and its relations to the broader Israeli society, just as Dr. Yitzchak Schecter, featured in last week’s English Mishpacha has devoted himself to collecting reliable data about the mental health profile of chareidi Jewry.

The Tzemach survey, as Rabbi Moshe Grylak noted in his far-ranging introductory essay, upended one of the most entrenched myths of the chareidi community – the belief that most secular Jews harbor an irremediable animus towards every chareidi they meet and would be happy to see the chareidi community disappear entirely. Over three-quarters of the “traditional but not observant” and “secular” Jews polled said that they have at least one chareidi acquaintance, and of those 85% have a favorable impression of that person. (Of course, in many of those cases the acquaintance may be a relative – 60% of the traditional and 38% of the secular respondents identified a chareidi relative.)

A full 93% opined that ongoing dialogue between secular Jews is important for the preservation of Israeli society. Remarkably given the vast media attention focused on tensions between chareidim and national religious and secular Jews in Beit Shemesh, 62% said that they would not object to living in mixed neighborhoods together with chareidim and 52% felt that such mixed neighborhoods would foster greater understanding. Over four-fifths said they would hire chareidim as employees.

In response to a somewhat ambiguous question as to whether it is important for the Israeli school system to transmit knowledge of “mesoret Yisrael,” 89% answered affirmatively, and just over half said that the Israeli educational system is not doing enough in this regard. Nearly 70% said that the IDF must provide all the conditions necessary so that chareidi soldiers can preserve their way of life while serving.

I doubt that the tenor of these findings will be a shock to those of us within the chareidi community who have extensive contact with non-religious Israeli Jews – e.g., those in kiruv. More frequently we encounter the mirror image of chareidi attitudes towards secular Israelis – a certain degree of suspicion arising from unfamiliarity, but nothing like ingrained hatred.

Nor have we found among our secular brethren a widespread desire to be relieved once and all from the bonds of Jewish identity. In numerous polls, Israeli Jews have given precedence to their identity as Jews over their identity as Israelis. The 1992 Guttman Institute study, “Beliefs, Observances and Social Interaction Among Israeli Jews,” found that “secular” Israeli Jews are far more likely to observe various religious rituals – fasting on Yom Kippur, not eating chametz on Pesach, lighting Shabbos candles, not eating milk and meat together – than their Reform and Conservative cousins in America. A certain amount of ritual observance – albeit often without scrupulous attention to the halachic details – is part of the civil religion of Israel.

That is not to deny that there are significant and influential pockets of anti-religious and anti-chareidi hatred in Israel. The aforementioned Guttmann study found that those with academic degrees were twice as likely as the average Israeli to describe themselves as completely non-observant. Within the media and government legal system there are entrenched pockets of hostility to chareidim.

But prevalent attitudes in the secular elites do not reflect the general population, and pretending that they do has long served as something of a cop-out on the part of many chareidim. By telling ourselves over and over again that they hate us no matter we do, that their hatred is an immutable expression of the hatred of amei ha’aretz for talmidei chachamim (Are secular Jews of today indistinguishable from the amei ha’aretz of Rabbi Akiva’s day?), we manage to be both a little too easy on ourselves and self-flattering at the same time.

For if their hatred is immutable, we are spared from ever having to ask ourselves in what ways do we contribute to secular perceptions of the chareidi community or considering what messages we are sending them. We are freed from having to consider how we might change the situation employing the secret bequeathed to us by the wisest of men, “K’mayim hapanim lapanim kach lev adam la’adam – As water reflects a face back to a face so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another (Mishlei 27:19).

Continue reading → What Do They Really Think About Us?

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