Looking for Win-Win

Eight or nine years ago, I received a visit from a kollel student in his late ’20s. The young manyoung man in question had been one of the outstanding students in one of Israel’s most prestigious yeshivos. Yet by the time he came to visit me, he was angry, even bitter, about what he viewed as a lack of communal leadership over the increasingly untenable financial situation of many kollel students.

Two months ago, he came to visit me again. Gone was all the bitterness that had been so evident at our first meeting. “I could never in my wildest imagination have anticipated the changes that have taken place in recent years,” he told me. He is right. Despite the conservative nature of chareidi society – evolutionary, not revolutionary – change has been rapid.

The change has come about in two areas. The first is in the acquisition of training for entry into the job market. Today there are close to 3,000 chareidi young men and women in academic degree programs. Academic campuses in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak each offer courses under the auspicies of Israel’s leading universities to over one thousand students, and colleges have established programs for … Read More >>

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A New Coalition for Israel: It’s Not Just About Us

Over fifty years ago, I was playing checkers with my father, a”h, on a Sunday morning. The next oldest brother in our family line-up, not yet five years old, sat on my father’s lap. Suddenly, he could not contain himself and shouted out, “Look, Daddy, look,” before proceeding to make a quintuple jump. I don’t recall ever playing checkers again.

I was put in mind of that quintuple jump last week, on Tuesday morning, when Israel awakened to learn that the elections in September voted on by the Knesset just the day before would not be taking place. Instead the largest peacetime coalition in Israel’s history had been assembled in the small hours of the morning. Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, the official leader of the opposition when we went to bed, had joined the governing coalition, brining his 29 Kadima MKs together with him. The day before Mofaz had been lambasting Netanyahu as a “liar” from the podium of the Knesset. Now he had accepted the position of Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister.

And most surprising, not one of the country’s political analysts – of which Israel has more per capita than any other country – had seen this coming. … Read More >>

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Identity Theft

Just before Pesach, best-selling novelist Naomi Ragen was socked with the largest plagiarism judgment ever in Israel. District court judge Yosef Shapira ordered her to pay Sarah Shapiro 233,000 shekels for scenes “stolen” from Shapiro’s memoir Growing with My Children for Ragen’s novel Sotah.

Ragen accused Sarah Shapiro of having sued her “out of a desire to silence my criticism of the Haredi community’s treatment of women.” On Israel TV, she derided the verdict as worthy of a “banana republic.”

In a lengthy interview in Yediot Ahronot published over Pesach, Ragen charged that she was the victim of a chareidi conspiracy. Asked how the chareidim had ensnared a highly respected jurist and former military judge with the rank of colonel into their plot, Ragen did not answer directly. Elsewhere in the interview, however, she implied some kind of improper political influence on the judge: “It’s no wonder Shas very much wants this judge to be the next state comptroller.” (I’d be surprised if one Shas MK has ever heard of Ragen.)

Later in the interview, Ragen expressed her wonder that the intelligentsia had not rallied to her cause: “Just as [they] did not initially understand what the mehadrin buses … Read More >>

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True Independence

Rabbi Yaakov of Lissa famously asks in his commentary on the Haggadah, Ma’aseh Nissim: If someone were released from prison and subsequently imprisoned again, would he invite his cell mates to gather with him to celebrate the day of his initial release?

Yet the servitude of Mitzrayim was hardly the last time that Jews were enslaved by another people. The Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman exiles followed. The Promised Land flowing with milk and honey has been ours for but a brief portion of our national existence.

Still Jews have gone on celebrating the Seder even in the midst of the most brutal oppression, whether hiding in caves from the Romans or in dark cellars evading the Inquisition.

Even in the Nazi death camps, Jews collected kernels of wheat grain by grain in order to bake matzos. Despite working endless days at backbreaking labor, on a diet about half of subsistence level, they traded away their major source of sustenance for less nutritious matzos. Others who could not find matzos exchanged their bread and soup for raw potatoes to avoid eating chometz, even after being told by rabbis that the commandment to preserve their lives required them to eat … Read More >>

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The Loss of Civic Virtue and its Consequences

Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson notes that one of the striking features of the history of past civilizations is the “speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of cause.” The fall of the Roman Empire took only a few decades. No one foresaw the implosion of the Soviet Union. Today, it is hard to envision how the 17-nation eurozone, born in such fanfare, can muddle through in its current form.

Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, writes, “I don’t know of any great power in history that lost its foothold or decayed because of external reasons; internal social dysfunction was to blame.” Certainly that was Gibbons’ diagnosis of the fall of the Roman Empire.

I understand Garfinkle to mean that human capital is crucial. The term usually refers to the educational attainments of the population. But it means more than that. Less quantifiable, but no less crucial is the moral character of a people. Russia, for instance, cannot hope to remain a world power with alcoholism rates that have left the average fifteen-year-old Russian male with a lower life expectancy than his Cambodian counterpart.

Riots in France and England in recent years have revealed the growth of a large underclass nearly devoid of any traditional virtues. There is nothing in the lives of the members of this underclass, and particularly those of the young, to give them any dignity. Each welfare payment is experienced as a wound, even as the recipients take those payments as their due for the humiliation thrust upon them by the state.

Theodore Dalrymple, who worked for more than a decade as a prison psychiatrist in England, is the leading chronicler of this underclass of people, characterized by their incapability of accepting any responsibility for their lives, for whom life is something that just happens to them and about which they can make no decisions.

He describes the “cities of darkness” that encircle Paris, housing “a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other ‘official’ society in France. This alienation . . . is written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and potholed open spaces between their dwellings. When you approach them to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity . . . .”

Six hundred thousand Britons have reached the age of 26 never having worked a day; 17% of British youth are neither in school, nor working, nor in training programs. They have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. But far from breeding gratitude, welfare has only left them with a sense of entitlement to more, as reflected in last summer’s riots.

These developments have hardly left the rest of society unscathed. Between 1959 and 2002, the French crime rate increased nearly sevenfold; from 1993 to 2000 cases of arson increased 25 times.

Continue reading → The Loss of Civic Virtue and its Consequences

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Purim in Contemporary Guise

“Since 1945, I was not as afraid as I am now. I am afraid because anti-Semitism, which I had thought belonged to the past, has somehow survived,” Eli Wiesel intones at the beginning of a new documentary Unmasked Judeophobia. What follows is a 81-minute tour led by highly erudite guides of a veritable horror house of contemporary anti-Semitism.

The tour starts with the Moslem world. Though classical Muslim sources provide a rich lode of anti-Jewish material, contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism fuses Islam with traditional European anti-Semitism, including Nazi race theory. The Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas and is poised to dominate Egypt, discovered early on that Jew hatred served as an excellent recruiting tool for the death cult promoted by Hassan al-Banna in his 1938 tract “The Art of Death.” From 1936 to 1938, its membership grew from 800 to 200,000, due to the Brotherhood’s mobilization against Zionism.

Pograms swept through ancient Jewish communities in Arab lands in 1941 and again in 1945-6. But the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967 introduced a much more virulent element into Muslim anti-Semitism. Prior to 1948, the primary image of the Jew in Muslim culture was as a physical coward, according to Bernard Lewis. Traditional European anti-Semitic tropes provided the salve for the humiliation of defeat by the Jews: The Arabs were not defeated by the 600,000 Jews of Palestine, or later Israel, but by a world-wide conspiracy, with its tentacles around every Western government. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became and remains a best-seller in the Arab world. From the illiterate masses to societal elites conspiracy theories involving Jews hold thrall the Arab mind – e.g., claims by an Egyptian minister that Israel somehow orchestrated shark attacks on bathers in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Exterminationist rhetoric is commonplace in contemporary Islam. Prominent Sunni theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, hailed as a returning hero in Tahrir Square, calls upon his followers to “kill the Jews wherever you find them.” The Hamas Charter is equally explicit that not a single Jew should be left alive in Palestine. And most ominous, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei describes Israel just like the Nazis described the Jewish people – as a “cancer.” Cancers must be eradicated.

Next stop Europe. European elites fret hysterically about Islamophobia, but attacks on Jews dwarfs those against Muslims. The Holocaust is no longer an anti-body protecting Europe from the anti-Semitic virus. Shmuel Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center views the 1982 bombing of the Copernic Synagogue in Paris as the turning point. The blast triggered 73 shootings and bombings of Jewish targets in Western Europe, 29 in France. That spate of violence ended with the machine gunning in the Jewish quarter of Paris, which left 6 dead and 22 injured.

With the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000-2001, there were 500 attacks against Jews in France. And after Operation Cast Lead, there were 900 anti-Semitic attacks in Britain in a single year. The need to protect Jewish institutions so far outstripped British police resources that a Community Trust had to be created to guard Jewish synagogues and institutions.

Physical violence is the smallest part of the problem. London is the hub of hubs of the delegitimization of Israel. Cartoons of Israel soldiers as Nazis or Israeli prime ministers eating Palestinian babies have gone mainstream and garnered prizes. An “expose” in the mass-circulation Swedish tabloid Aftonblandet claiming that Israel harvests body parts of murdered Palestinians went viral.

Israel Apartheid Week is a regular feature of campus life on many university campuses, even in the U.S., and institutions as prestigious as Harvard put their imprimatur on conferences devoted to one-sided Israel bashing. Even Jewish professors feel intimidated. Kenneth Marcus relates that as Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he found that college professors are even more afraid to step forward than students. Professors told him of meeting in secret to discuss campus anti-Semitism, lest they be labeled “Zionists” and subject to retaliation.

Continue reading → Purim in Contemporary Guise

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Memories of the Family Dinner

I had not gotten very far in the new issue of Klal Perspectives before being enveloped in warm, fuzzy memories of my childhood. The subject of the issue is changing gender roles in the Orthodox world and its impact on the family – not a subject by itself designed to arouse warm feelings.

In his lead article, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore acknowledges that the social trends that have so dramatically changed the family dynamic from what it was fifty years ago are likely here with us for the indefinite future – whether it is women working to provide a second salary to help meet the expenses of a large Orthodox family or functioning as the principal breadwinner while the husband learns in kollel. But he argues that it is not only the family structure that has changed but also to some extent the centrality that family occupied in the lives of our parents. As a modest step to reverse the attitudinal shift, he offers the modest proposal of reemphasizing the family dinner.

I have often asked myself why my parents were successful in ways that few were in the upper-middle class Chicago suburb in which I grew up. … Read More >>

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Islamophobia as an Offensive Weapon

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling for the dismissal of New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and the appointment of an outside inspector-general to run the police. CAIR and other “mainstream” Muslim groups have a long-standing grievance with Kelly and the NYPD arising out of a 2007 NYPD Intelligence Report entitled, “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat,” and the NYPD’s ongoing surveillance of radical Islamic groups, including mosques.

But the immediate club being used to hammer Kelly is his participation in a documentary entitled The Third Jihad. The New York Times has devoted numerous news stories and two editorials so far to The Third Jihad, which is described as “a dark film on U.S. Muslims” and “anti-Islam,” whose producers, The Times implies, seek to advance a pro-Israel agenda.

The Times coverage failed to mention the long roster of authorities interviewed for the film, including the Director of the CIA under President Clinton, James Woolsey, and the first Secretary of Homeland Security Gov. Tom Ridge, and a host of former U.S. government intelligence officials. The title The Third Jihad was provided by the most eminent living historian of Islam, Professor Bernard Lewis.

I wrote a long feature article on The Third Jihad when it first appeared two years ago and interviewed the producer Raphael Shore and narrator Dr. Zuhdi Jasser at length. So I have taken more than a passing in interest in the controversy. Far from being an attack on Islam, the opening lines of the film state clearly: “This is not a film about Islam. It is about the threat of radical Islam. Only a small percentage of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are radical.” Dr. Jasser, a devout Muslim of Syrian descent and former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, is the founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He distinguishes between Islam as a private faith and Islam as a political doctrine mandating the imposition of Sharia law world-wide.

So far Kelly and his boss N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg have tried to get past the immediate controversy through now familiar public penance rituals expressing “regrets.” It has been left to others, most notably Woolsey and Ridge, to make the substantive case for the NYPD’s anti-terrorist policies. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News (rejected by The Times),the two argue that the NYPD’s undercover terror prevention program, including intelligence gathering within the Muslim community, has been one of the prime tools allowing the NYPD to foil several credible threats arising from within the community. And given that even one successful terror attack in New York City could claims tens of thousands of lives, the NYPD cannot afford to decrease its intelligence gathering activities.

THE TIMES OMITTED ANY discussion of the thesis of The Third Jihad. Dr. Jasser holds up a fifteen-page document, at the beginning of the film, which we eventually learn is a Moslem Brotherhood manifesto for “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within,” using front groups, mosques, and Islamic centers to achieve that goal. The document in question was uncovered by the FBI in the course of its investigation leading up to the government’s successful prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation terrorist funding case.

Terrorism, intones Jasser, is only one tactic towards the Islamist’s goal of imposing Sharia across the globe – a goal shared by many groups who are not themselves involved in terrorist activity. CAIR, which is specifically mentioned in the document, is one such group. CAIR was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, and the FBI broke off all relations with the group at the time.

Abdul Rahman Alamoudi, the founder of the American Muslim Council, who was invited to speak at an ecumenical service in the National Cathedral after 9/11, is another “moderate” Muslim. He is shown in The Third Jihad boasting, “Either we do it now or we do it in a hundred years, but this country will become a Muslim country.”

Continue reading → Islamophobia as an Offensive Weapon

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The Light of Shabbos, and Shabbos without Lights

At a recent Shabbaton of the Nefesh-Yehudi organization, which does kiruv work on the major campuses in Israel, I attended a presentation on the meaning of Shabbos given by Rabbi Yaakov Estreicher, a dynamic young speaker. I was interested to see how he would describe Shabbos to secular students. But I had no expectation that I would personally go away with a new deher (approach) to Shabbos. I was wrong.

Rabbi Estreicher presented Shabbos as the key to experiencing life with joy, of rejoicing in one’s portion. He noted how rare it is to meet someone overflowing with joy. If we asked someone how he was, and he responded enthusiastically by enumerating at great length everything there is to be grateful for, we would likely suspect him of having a screw loose or partaking of illicit stimulants.

But that is precisely what Shabbos allows us to do. On Shabbos, we refrain from all melachah – which, as Rabbi Estreicher explained at length, refers not to the expenditure of energy, but to creative activity – and are therefore forced to view the world as complete, and not in need of any further improvement. We learn to appreciate what we have.

… Read More >>

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Titanic II and Yeridos Hadoros

Yeridos Hadoros translates as “the Decline of Generations”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech had an interesting piece last week at Aish.com on the Costa Concordia disaster. A few years ago, Rabbi Blech served as the scholar-in-residence on a kosher cruise on the magnificent ocean liner. Guests were escorted on a tour of the state of the art ship and its multiple levels of safety devices. At one point on the tour, the guide remarked, “No one will ever have a Titanic experience here.”

The builders of the Titanic famously asserted with even greater hubris that not even G-d Himself could sink it. Yet the Titanic did not survive its maiden voyage, and 1,517 passengers drowned.

In both cases, the ships were brought down, not by failures in technical design, but by the moral failings of those in charge. The owners of theTitanic were eager to claim the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing, and thus settled on a northerly route, at a time of year when that area of the Atlantic was known to be still filled with icebergs. Worse, the telegraph operator received numerous warnings from another ship of a huge iceberg directly in its path. But the telegraph … Read More >>

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Who picks up the tab for media manipulation?

Israeli journalists are among the most mobilized in the Western world: They view their jobs as a soapbox to teach proper thoughts to the hoi polloi. The media’s desire to shape the national agenda also makes it among the most easily manipulated in the world. The EU and individual European states pour millions into left-wing Israeli NGOs annually to peddle their favorite nostrums for peace in large part because they get such a large bang for the buck from the NGOs and media working hand-in-hand.

Blackening Israel’s image abroad is one favorite technique. There is an insatiable thirst for stories on the Talibanization of Israel and front-page headlines like “Seismic rift in Israeli society over the role of women” (Sunday’s New York Times). The negative portrayals from every direction reinforce one another. If women in Israel, for instance, have no higher status than in Teheran, it is easier to believe claims that Israel is an apartheid society. Negative foreign reports about Israel are intended to convince Israelis of the country’s growing international isolation in order to make them more malleable.

One example of how this works. Tanya Rosenblitt, who works for a media mogul, boards a bus in an … Read More >>

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My Brothers Do I Seek

I came to full Jewish observance relatively late in life. I was nearly thirty and married when I first walked through the doors of Ohr Somayach. I don’t fully remember the entire process of becoming religious. But certainly the most important element of our decision was exposure to people of a refinement and depth that we had never before encountered.

For the last twenty years, I have been writing biographies of modern Jewish leaders. If one bright thread unites the lives of all the disparate figures whose lives I have researched it is their commitment to the Torah imperative that “the Name of Heaven should be become beloved through you.”

In the 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, today renowned as one of the premier Jewish thinkers of the century, supported himself in London tutoring young public school students. He instructed one of those young students to drop a coin in the cup of all the numerous beggars along the way. To another, he suggested that he should always go to the upper-deck of the London bus he rode to the lessons. Since he only travelled one stop, perhaps the conductor would not reach him to collect his fare, and … Read More >>

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Towards a Fuller Picture

This video, which is titled “How the Charedim Really Look” was sent to me by Rabbi Moshe Taragin, a Ra”m in Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. It needs to be translated.

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Learning from Shimon and Levi

Kana’us is not a subject to which I thought to return so soon after Mishpacha’s symposium on the subject. Unfortunately, the Channel Two video about a eight-year-old girl in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Naama Margolese, who was spit at on her way to school, and the resultant worldwide publicity given to attacks on students of the national religious Beit Orot school by zealots living nearby leave me little choice.

The Channel Two TV documentary, introduced by Yair Lapid (yes, Tommy’s son) quickly went viral. The 13-minute film opens with Naama relating how she was spit at because her elbow-length school shirt was not deemed modest enough. We then see her mother walking her to school, and Naama whimpering piteously when her mother suggests she try walking part way alone. Next the TV interviewer asks a man with long peyos whether it is permitted to spit at girls whose dress is insufficiently modest in his eyes. He answers that it is, adding, as an odd justification, “We are healthy people.”

Let’s forget for a moment about the terrible damage done to the image of Torah and Torah Jews, and focus on nothing but the self-interest of the chareidi community in Israel. … Read More >>

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Hammering Hammerman

The irrational fear and loathing of believing Christians on the part of non-Orthodox Jews and their utter lack of reticence in expressing that loathing endangers Jews in America. The latest evidence: a screed attacking Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow by one Joshua Hammerman, an “egalitarian” Jewish clergyman and J Street Board member from Connecticut.

Tebow is the NFL player most vocal about his religious faith and most prone to expressing his gratitude to G-d for his on-field successes. Despite unimpressive individual statistics, Tebow has led his team to a succession of dramatic late fourth quarter comebacks, and even introduced a new verb into the lexicon – “Tebowing” – after the prayerful position he occasionally assumes at crucial junctures in the action.

Writing in the New York Federation-funded Jewish Week, Hammerman expressed his fears that the Broncos might win the Super Bowl. “If Tebow wins the Super Bowl,” Hammerman suggested, “it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques… and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.” There is not one shred of evidence connecting Tebow, in word or deed, to any of Hammerman’s list of horrors. The article was out-and-out slander of Tebow based on nothing other … Read More >>

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First, Let’s Calm Down

To judge from the media, both Israeli and international, the status of women in Israel is under an assault of crisis proportions. No less a figure than U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has chimed in that the status of women in Israel reminds her of Tehran. Much of the recent discussion, however, has been overwrought, even hysterical.

The first salvo in the current media campaign came in response to the dismissal of four national religious cadets from the IDF near the completion of a rigorous officers training course after they absented themselves from a female singing performance and refused orders to return. The soldiers never asked that the singers in question stop. No conceivable “right” of any woman was infringed. All the soldiers requested was that the IDF not force them to violate their religious beliefs.

The performance fulfilled no conceivable military purpose; it certainly was not a morale booster for the soldiers who asked to be excused. The dismissal of the four soldiers, in whose training the IDF had invested heavily, did, however, come at the expense of the IDF’s fighting ability.

By refusing to religiously accommodate the soldiers, even at the potential cost of losing some of its finest soldiers, the IDF gave ironic support for one haredi argument for draft deferrals. The haredim argue that Torah learning takes precedence over the IDF’s manpower needs. The IDF now agrees that other values trump the IDF’s military needs – in this case, the value of showing national religious soldiers who is boss and avoiding any offense to women soldiers. The IDF also buttressed one of the major haredi concerns about IDF service for its young – that the IDF will be used as an instrument of socialization towards secular Israeli values.

LAST WEEK, the media was up-in-arms again, albeit only for one or two news cycles, over the news that a group of male students at the Technion had been permitted to use the gym on a male-only basis for one hour a week (at a late hour during which the gym had previously been closed). No women’s group had asked for similar privileges, and the Technion would certainly have granted them had they done so. So the entire issue was over whether separate gyms should ever be tolerated.

Harvard University granted much more extensive separate swimming privileges to Muslim female students a few years ago without much fanfare. Only the presumed religious sensitivities of the male students at the Technion turned the case into a cause célèbre.

Most normal human beings, at least outside the precincts of Ivy League student dorms, still prefer separate toilet and shower facilities. There are certain functions we feel more comfortable performing without the presence of the opposite sex. Gym rats of both sexes generally exercise with minimal attire designed for that purpose. But many would be inhibited from exercising in their preferred attire if they knew that they would have to expose their less than perfect bodies to members of the opposite sex. The proliferation of women-only gyms is not limited to chareidi neighborhoods.

REJECTION OF ANY SEPARATION between the sexes has become a fetish. A considerable body of research demonstrates that both teenage boys and girls learn better in single-sex schools. Yet any attempt to create single-sex public schools will inevitably be greeted treated as an insult to women. Over a decade ago, New York City sought to create an all-girls high school in Harlem. Feminists cried foul. It did not occur to them that the teenage girls attending the school would have been able to walk down the halls for the first time in their lives without being harassed or worse. That case remains for me the classic illustration of rigid ideology trumping the human consequences.

Continue reading → First, Let’s Calm Down

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Who is Undermining Israeli Democracy?

In order to fully appreciate the absurdity of Court President Dorit Beinisch’s charge that even the most minimal proposed changes in Israel’s method of judicial selection represent an attempt to undermine “the democracy upon which our society rests,” one need only know one fact: Israel’s method of judicial selection is absolutely unique in the democratic world.

No other system gives so much power to sitting Supreme Court justices to choose their future colleagues and successors. Only India among the world’s democracies also gives sitting justices a role in the judicial selection process. Are all the rest, then, not really democratic? Even by Israeli standards that claim of the unique wisdom of our system reflects a remarkable degree of hubris.

IN TRUTH, IT IS THE SUPREME COURT ITSELF that represents the greatest challenge to Israeli democracy. Richard Posner, considered by many the most brilliant living American jurist, defines democracy as “a system of governance in which the key officials stand for election at relatively short intervals and are thus accountable to the citizenry.” Judicial review, in which courts strike down statutes or substitute their policy judgments for those of elected officials or their delegatees, is in inherent tension with representative democracy so defined.

To minimize that tension, Alexander Hamilton argued in The Federalist Papers that the judiciary must remain “the least dangerous branch,” with no power over “the purse or sword.” Retaining the status as “the least dangerous branch,” wrote the great constitutional scholar Alexander Bickel, in his seminal book of that name, requires justices to exercise restrain and avoid entering into the realm of politics and making decisions primarily based on their personal values.

Beinisch’s mentor, former Court President Aharon Barak, completely rejected any such restraint. He abandoned traditional doctrines of judicial restraint – standing and justiciability – famously declaring that “everything is justiciable” including troop deployments in wartime, and permitted any citizen who objected to a particular governmental decision to bring a suit directly to BaGaTz, the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice. He boldly usurped traditional legislative perogatives – for instance, appointing a commission to consider the issue of road closings on Shabbat nationwide.

As Professor Ruth Gavison and many others have argued, the Israeli Supreme Court determines national “norms” to a degree without parallel in the Western world. Former Court President Moshe Landau accused the Court under Barak of having taken on the role of Platonic guardians, “a role that they are utterly incapable of fulfilling and for which they have no training.”

Barak was untroubled by the tension between the power he claimed for the Court, an unelected and unrepresentative body, and representative democracy precisely because he entertained so little respect for the Israeli people and its elected representatives. A justice, he argued in Judicial Discretion should reflect the values of the “enlightened public,” and admitted that the standard of “enlightenment” would frequently be that of the justice himself. Barak and his acolytes, like Beinisch, primarily conceive of democracy as a “substantive” set of rights, to be determined by judges, often out of whole cloth or by importation from other legal systems, as opposed to a process of selecting the people’s representatives. The doctrine of “substantive democracy,” incidentally, is that which allowed the former Soviet Union to style itself a “socialist republic.”

THOUGH BARAK ATTEMPTED TO PORTRAY the Court as a professional body, deciding technical legal questions, nothing could be farther from the truth. Under his rule, the Court showed little interest in clarifying thorny issues of private law – in such areas as torts and intellectual property. Barak and his successor greatly preferred to act as the final arbiters of every government decision guided only by their own standard of “reasonability.”

The Israeli Supreme Court is the most highly politicized in the world. It is child’s play to juxtapose decisions, often ones decided the same day by the same panel, in ways that make it clear that the results are wholly dependent on the identity of the parties and the politics of the justices. (For my analysis of some particularly egregious examples see “Inconsistent Justice,” Jerusalem Post, January 5, 2001).

As Evelyn Gordon pointed out this week, Court President Beinisch has imposed explicitly political criteria for selection to the Court. Reversing her earlier position on the appointment of Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg, she declared him unfit for the Court on the grounds that he has been depicted as “right-wing” in the media. The jaw drops. Could Beinisch be unaware that she is perceived as “left-wing?” Or does she think that label is irrelevant because it is synonymous with the “enlightened values” that are supposed to guide the Court, according to Barak. Now, as Gordon notes, not only do the three sitting justices themselves wield a veto over any candidate not to their liking, but so does the media, the other remaining bastion of left-wing power.

Continue reading → Who is Undermining Israeli Democracy?

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Does Anyone See a Pattern Here?

About the hostility of the Obama administration to Israel there is no longer room for honest doubt. A few weeks back, President Obama commiserated “privately” (albeit via an open mike) with French President Sarkozy about the tribulations of dealing with a “liar” like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama one-upped Sarkozy with the plaint, “I have to deal with him every day.” And over the last two weeks, senior administration officials have been taking their own private musings public.

Most significantly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed the idea that the instability confronting Israel on every border makes it impossible for Israel to contemplate further territorial concessions at present. The time is always right for Israeli withdrawals, Panetta implied, urging Israel “to get back to the _____ bargaining table.” In the same speech, Panetta did everything possible to assure the Iranian leadership that the United States will never employ military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Next up, Howard Gutman, U.S. ambassador to Belgium and a major Obama fundraiser, insisted that one must distinguish between historical anti-Semitism (bad) and the hatred of Israel shared by Muslims around the globe (fully understandable.)

Finally, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton got into the act. In a private gathering at the Saban Center, she worried aloud about the anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and the increasing segregation of Israeli women, which, she said, put her in mind of Iran.

NO LESS ALARMING THAN THE hostility towards Israel that underlies these remarks was the ignorance and stupidity exposed. The Obama administration came into power firmly in the so-called “realist” camp of foreign policy of whom some of the leading avatars are Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zgbiniew Brzezenski, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. (The latter two are the authors of the infamous The Israel Lobby.) Chief among the fixed verities of the “realist” school is that Israel lies at the heart of most of the world’s problems, and certainly those of the Middle East, and that America’s interests lie in drawing closer to the Muslim world.

No amount of empirical observance, it would seem, could ever force a reexamination of that axiom. For if there is one thing that Arab Spring — whose initial promise (for some) has now given way to a dark Arab Winter — demonstrates it is that the deformities and backwardness of the Muslim Middle East have nothing to do with Israel. That backwardness pervaded the Middle East before Israel came into being, and would continue to plague the Middle East if Israel were to disappear tomorrow. The overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and the threatened end of the forty plus year rule of the Assads in Syria has nothing to do with Israel. The uprisings in each of those countries revealed the extent of the internal grievances of subject Muslim populations and the magnitude of the fissures in Arab society.

Continue reading → Does Anyone See a Pattern Here?

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Why We Weep for Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l

On Rachel Imeinu’s yahrtzeit, as I prepared to leave for the levaya (funeral) of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, I received a call from a reporter from Sydney. She wanted to discuss the antics of the zealots in Ramat Beit Shemesh. The next day Sky News called to discuss sexually segregated buses.

I told both reporters the same thing: Stop wasting your time on fringe groups and trivial issues. If you want to understand the chareidi community, first find out why over a 100,000 people attended the funeral of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, with tens of thousands of adults sobbing openly and unashamedly. To understand a person or a community, observe what he or they honor: “[A] person [reveals himself] according to what he praises” (Proverbs 26:21).

Who was the remarkable man whose passing inspired such grief?

When Rabbi Finkel took over the reins of Mirrer Yeshiva from his father-in-law, Rabbi Beinish Finkel, zt”l, in 1990, he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Many wondered how he could carry the burden of a yeshiva that numbered well over 1,000 married and unmarried students. Yet under his leadership the yeshiva expanded rapidly. New buildings were built; another branch was … Read More >>

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The Legacy of Alter Chanoch Jeger, a”h

Two months ago, I spent Shabbos with my friend Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg and his family in Cedarhurst. We were joined by the Ginzburgs’ daughter Ilana and son-in-law Yudi Jeger, and their children Alter Hanoch Henoch, 2 1/2, and Shua, ten months.

I had previously read about Alter Hanoch in a powerful article by his grandfather entitled, “It’s not supposed to be like this,” written in response to requests addressed to Rabbi Ginzburg for help in understanding horrible tragedies, especially those involving children. The power of the piece derives from Rabbi Ginzburg’s revelation in the last paragraph that he is writing while sitting in the intensive care unit by the bed of his infant grandson Alter Hanoch, who contracted meningitis within twenty-four hours of birth and has no hope of developing normally.

During my Shabbos in Cedarhurst, Alter Hanoch was attached to an elaborate machine, which rang intermittently. I did not see him open his eyes once. Yudi and Ilana went about attending to Alter Hanoch in a totally matter-of-fact fashion, without any sense of being burdened and no trace of a feeling that they had been dealt the short stick in life. Just a normal kollel couple: he … Read More >>

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Responsibility not Chesed

Chesed is never quite disinterested. Even the tahara (purification) of a deceased person, chesed shel emes done without any expectation of reciprocity, provides the one performing the mitzvah with a feeling of satisfaction. Part of that satisfaction lies in the feeling that doing chesed is in the category of eino mitzuveh v’osei – ­one who performs without being commanded — and that one has therefore gone beyond the call of duty.

Obviously, a person who takes great pleasure in doing chesed for others is at a very high level. But there is nevertheless a danger that one will desist when the chesed is difficult or other pleasures beckon. An even higher level is when one acts on behalf of others out of a sense of obligation. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky gives a moshol to capture the distinction. If one lends someone money, he has done an act of chesed. But if one becomes a guarantor for a loan, and subsequently has to repay the loan, that repayment is not an act of chesed, it is obligatory.

That distinction lies at the heart of the Torah’s comparison of Noach and Avraham. Rashi, at the beginning of parashas Noach, goes to great … Read More >>

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The Bubbe of Klal Yisrael

There are certain events of such impact on Klal Yisrael, that it is impossible not to comment, even if the writer fears he has nothing to add. The passing of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, zt”l, over Chol HaMoed Sukkos, was such an event.

Rebbetzin Kanievsky was the bubbe of Klal Yisrael. Just like a grandmother finds it almost impossible to resist the entreaties of her grandchildren, so Rebbetzin Kanievsky made herself available to any woman in pain who sought her assistance, whether in the form of advice, a berachah, or just words of encouragement. She was the first port of call for almost every religious woman facing difficulties, and for many not-yet-observant women as well.

My friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic, New Jersey captured a poignant moment from one of his visits to the Kanievsky home. Rabbi Eisenmann was ushered in one night while the Rebbetzin and her husband the venerable sage Rav Chaim Kanievsky, l’badeil l’chaim tovim v’aruchim, were sitting alone at the dining room table.

In front of the Rebbetzin were piles and piles of small pieces of paper on which supplicants had written their requests for Divine intervention. On at least one of the small … Read More >>

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Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

The Jerusalem Post’s November 1 editorial “In Praise of Liberal Arts” lamented the ever dwindling percentage of Israeli students opting for first degrees in the humanities. In 1999, 18.5% of students were registered for courses in the humanities. Today that figure is 7.5%.

Part of the reason, argues the editorial, is that after three years in the army, Israeli students are far more likely than their American or European peers to prefer a “no-nonsense” course of study leading directly to employment after graduation. Put in terms of a choice between a no-nonsense course of study and what — the study of nonsense? – perhaps we should rejoice in the declining number of humanities students.

One of the prime complaints of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their various imitators around the United States is that they have been robbed: They have gone deeply indebt for their college educations – about $28,000 for the average private school graduate – and have little to show for it in terms of marketable skills. That claim, at least, is largely correct. Listening to the OWS protesters (or for that matter those on Rothschild) define what they mean by “social justice” or defend that concept provides a rough idea of how badly they have been served by their undergraduate educations.

A study of 2,300 American university graduates of two dozen universities, by New York University’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, found that more than one-third of seniors leave campus, after four years, having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communication. And the worst of all are those in so-called practical majors, like business, communications, and education.

The expense of an American college education has risen nearly four and a half times over the last 25 years, and it is beginning to look like as big a bubble as the American housing market prior to 2008. “Students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right,” says Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

At least they are right insofar as students not pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) curriculum go. STEM graduates earn roughly 50% more than their non-STEM counterparts, and the worldwide demand for their services is continually growing, despite the downturn in employment. STEM graduates, unlike their non-STEM contemporaries, can be assumed to have actually mastered a concrete body of knowledge in subjects that have right and wrong answers.

So if Israeli students are pursuing a rigorous STEM curriculum, rather than studies in the humanities, I would not view that as a matter of grave national concern. (The continuing dismal scores on international math exams of Israeli teenagers casts some doubt on this, however.) Rosenblum’s Rule posits that the future health and dynamism of a society can largely be predicted by the ratio of engineers to lawyers. When too many of society’s best minds are attracted to largely non-productive occupations like law or legalized gambling with billions of dollars of other people’s money on Wall Street, decline is sure to follow. Apparently President Obama agrees: He has called on America’s universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 more teachers with strong competencies in STEM subjects.

LET ME BE CLEAR, I was the beneficiary of an outstanding liberal arts education. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Chicago, gave birth to the original Great Books curriculum, and it was one of the few elite colleges in my day to still take a Common Core of required courses seriously. Without the education I received there — in particular my freshman humanities professor, who once told me that there were only two students in our class who wrote well and I wasn’t one of them — my life would be much poorer.

Continue reading → Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

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The Ugly Side of Idealism

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, P.J. O’Rourke described the mass murder as “an act of idealism.” Not idealism as we colloquially use the term to refer to the ability to place other values over one’s immediate self-interest, but rather “the concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected.” That vision of a perfected society causes O’Rourke’s idealists to ignore the human costs of the coercion required to create their ideal society.

The 9/11 hijackers were driven by an older theological vision of a world-wide caliphate under the harmonious rule of Sharia. But most modern idealists derive their inspiration from the Enlightenment view that unfettered human knowledge is capable of determining, according to O’Rourke, “exactly what humans and their politics and their economics and even their home lives should look like.” Popular historian Paul Johnson, for instance, places the blame for most of the atrocities of the last two centuries on the doorstep of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for teaching that man is naturally good so, naturally, it’s good to force him to be so.

The utopian hope of societal perfection and the desirability of bringing that society into existence holds special allure for intellectuals, for who else is … Read More >>

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Rewriting the Past

Bar Ilan University Milton scholar William Kolbrener has a profound meditation on Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance) in his new collection of essays, Open Minded Torah. He begins by noting a profound distinction between the Jewish and Christian view of repentance. In the latter view, man’s innate depravity is too great to be overcome by his own actions. Only the intervention of an intermediary, in the form of Jesus, can “expiate,” in Milton’s words, man’s “Treason.”

In the Jewish view, the possibility of teshuva was implanted in the Creation even before the beginning of time, for without the possibility of teshuva mankind could not exist. But man is not the passive recipient of a Divine dispensation. He is the key actor in the teshuva process. That is nicely captured in Rabbi Akiva’s image of G-d as the Mikve (purifying waters) in which the penitent Israel immerses. G-d creates the conditions that make purification of sins possible, but it is man who is the active agent and must immerse himself.

Rosh Hashanah brings us back to the beginning of human history – to the Divine breath, the nishmat chayim (breath of life) that Hashem blew into Adam’s nostrils. The blasts … Read More >>

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