The Best Case for Obama

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the natural human tendency to avoid exposure to ideas or facts that will challenge one’s own world view. Not every refusal to expose oneself to threatening ideas signifies intellectual cowardice or sloth. In the case of kefirah, it is even required. But most disconcerting evidence does not fall into that category, and intellectual honesty requires that we test our ideas in the marketplace of ideas.

In that spirit, when I heard that my friend Dr. David Luchins, chairman the of the political science department at Touro College and a former senior advisor to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would be debating Marc Zell, the head of Republicans in Israel, on the upcoming presidential election, I decided to attend. Dr. Luchins is very smart and highly original. I figured if anyone could persuade me to be more enthusiastic about the prospect of President Obama being re-elected, it would be Dr. Luchins.

It is far from clear to me that Dr. Luchins himself intends to vote for Barack Obama. He began by saying that he never votes for an incumbent president, because second-term presidents have so much more freedom to stick it to Israel. … Read More >>

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Israel and Jewish Identity

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once said at convention of Agudath Israel that but for the birth of the state of Israel most non-religious Jews would have fallen into such despair after the Holocaust that their connection with the Jewish people would have been severed forever. My own life and that of many of those closest to me attests to the truth of Reb Yaakov’s statement. Yet I wonder if many of those fortunate enough to have been born into observant homes understand how central Israel has been to the ba’al teshuva movement or why.

One of those who did fully understand this point was Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the seminal figure in the modern ba’al teshuva movement. One of his important insights was that a crucial first step in kiruv for many young non-religious Jews is to get them thinking about themselves Jewishly – i.e., as members of the Jewish people – and to make that identity primary. If their idealism can be channeled into “fighting for the Jewish people,” they will likely come to ask themselves other questions.

One of the first questions he often asked the newcomers whom Rabbi Meir Schuster managed to drag from the Kotel into Aish … Read More >>

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The Meaning of the Wisconsin Recall Election

The most surprising aspect of the current presidential race – to me at least — is not that Mitt Romney appears to be clawing his way into contention, after an extremely divisive Republican season, but rather that he is not yet far ahead.

President Obama’s two most important legislative “triumphs” – Obamacare and the $800 million stimulus bill – are both unpopular with a large majority of the electorate. Despite promises of the salutary effect of the stimulus, unemployment has remained over 8% for almost the entirety of the Obama presidency. The President has not offered one single proposal aimed at cutting long-term fiscal debt, besides tax increases. Recovery from the recession has been so sluggish as to be unnoticed by most Americans, and things could get significantly worse in the coming months if the eurozone implodes. The only sector producing significant new jobs is the brown energy sector towards which the Obama administration has always cast a jaundiced eye.

Yet despite all this, President Obama retains a narrow lead in most polls, including in the crucial battleground states.

Yuval Levin in the Weekly Standard last month offered an insightful explanation of why “I’m not Obama” has not yet … Read More >>

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The Failure of Chareidi Advocacy

Given the irrational nature of much of the hatred directed at the chareidi community, it would be tempting to say that we bear no part of the responsibility for the state of frayed relations with the rest of Israeli society. Everyone will grant that public relations acumen is not the chareidi community’s most outstanding quality, but we prefer to believe that it would make no difference if we were better at presenting ourselves to the broader society.

While it is certainly true that the animus is far deeper than a public relations failure, and would not be cured by the best public relations apparatus in the world, anymore than would Israel’s low international image, it is too easy to say that we, as a community, could do nothing to improve the current situation.

Of the many public relations failures of the community none looms larger than the widespread perception that chareidim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them. That is precisely how most secular Israelis view the refusal of chareidi community to consider any form of military or national service for yeshiva bochurim.

The dominant perception of the chareidi community is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. And we should be much more active in demonstrating that fact. Chareidim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations, which serve the entire population: Yad Sarah, the country’s biggest volunteer organization; Ezer M’Tzion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry in the world; Ezra L’Marpeh, a world class medical referral service, directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; Zaka; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental instititutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.

As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who hurried to donate blood when they learned of his need and a chareidi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.

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Advice for the Plesner Committee: Minimize Confrontation

I do not offer the following thoughts to the members of the Plesner Committee in order to convince them of the wisdom of the current draft deferment for full-time yeshiva students. Life is short, and I do not fancy the role of Sisyphus. Rather my intention is to give the committee members some insight into the thinking and attitudes of the chareidi community.

One reads frequently today of the need to more fully integrate chareidim into Israeli society. Here it is important to clarify what is meant by “integration,” for the model of integration chosen will have a large impact on the reaction of the chareidi community.

Full integration is impossible. Chareidim cannot fully integrate into Israeli life without ceasing to be chareidim. The optimal model, rather, is something close to historian Jacob Katz’s description of Jewish society within the larger Christian society in Europe prior to emancipation. Jews had extensive contact with the surrounding Christian society, particularly in the economic sphere. But, at the same time, they looked almost exclusively towards the internal Jewish society for their sense of affirmation and values.

Now, the analogy is by no means perfect. Chareidi Jews view themselves as bound to non-chareidi Jews by a shared national mission in a way that Jews in Europe did not feel bound to their gentile neighbors. In the short term, however, chareidim feel that their greatest contribution to the welfare of their fellow Jews is to retain their distinctiveness and keep the flame of Torah burning as brightly as possible.

The greatest chareidi fear of the IDF is that it will used as a melting pot for the fashioning of a uniform Israeli national culture. They have no wish for their sons to be socialized to the majority Israeli culture, which strikes them as antithetical to fundamental Torah values in many ways.

Chareidi fears on this score are by no means irrational. Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion often described the IDF’s role in forging a national culture as no less important than its role in national defense. When chareidim look at the national religious community, which has long placed a very high value on military service, they see a cautionary tale. They note that on almost every axis of social identification the majority of the national religious community feels far closer to secular Israelis than they do their fellow observant Jews.

And in many ways, they are far closer culturally to the secular community. The dilemmas of the characters on Srugim are viewed by secular Israelis as, at worse, eccentric, whereas they would be viewed by most chareidim, if they had televisions, as wholly alien.

Recent events have exacerbated chareidi fears of the IDF as an instrument of socialization. The uproar over the request of a handful of national religious soldiers to absent themselves from a women’s singing performance was widely perceived as an attempt to force national religious recruits to conform to majority cultural norms. The officers training candidates did not demand that the IDF only provide entertainment in accord with their religious norms, but rather that the IDF accommodate their beliefs, in a context with no conceivable implications for national defense.

Matters only grew worse, when the chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force resigned over what he described as the IAF’s failure to adhere to various commitments he had made to chareidi recruits in its highly successful Shachar program. Those accommodations go to the heart of the IDF’s ability to voluntarily attract married chareidi men in their 20s.

THE IDF WOULD BE FAR WISER to focus its efforts at chareidi recruitment initially on the older age cohort of married men over the age of 22. By 24 or so, there is already a high degree of self-selection between those who see their future in full-time learning and those who want to enter the workforce. And chareidi concerns about socialization to the majority norms decline with age and marriage.

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The Blame Game

Presidents generally receive more credit than they deserve when the economy is doing well, and more blame than they deserve when it is floundering. There does not exist a simple box of tools that guarantee economic growth, and many of the short-range tools that do exist come with some pretty hefty negative consequences down the line.

But President Obama has taken this insight to a new level. In his telling, ever since he single-handedly saved the United States from a second Great Depression, he has had no responsibility for anything else that has taken place. The responsibility for anemic growth and high unemployment, which increasingly looks like chronic unemployment, belongs to his predecessor George W. Bush, and more recently, the Japanese tsunami, automation – i.e., modernization, the meltdown of the eurozone, and the obstructionism of the Republican-controlled House that has failed to vote in favor of presidential nostrums that Republicans view as inimical to future economic growth.

One can only sympathize with the President’s plight: Voters say that the economy is the most important issue for them, and the economy is in dread. To the extent that Obama is viewed as “owning” the economy, his re-election is doomed. Fall guys must be found.

Unfortunately for the President, each of his excuses is readily refuted, and in easily digested sound bites. Which is not to say that the Romney campaign has yet effectively done so.

First key point: Obama entered into office with the largest congressional majorities at the disposal of any president in decades. Though Republicans control the House today, and may reclaim the Senate in the coming election, Obama had free rein to do whatever he wanted with respect to the economy in his first two years in office. Instead he devoted himself to a total government overhaul of the health care sector of the economy and speeded the United States towards a fiscal crisis. He is in no position today to complain of Republicans preventing him from taking necessary measures, when he could have enacted any such measures for two years.

Second key point: The attribution of the state of the economy today to factors outside the President’s control will not bear scrutiny. As Bret Stephens pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, the economy hummed during the last years of the Clinton administration, despite international financial crises every bit as disruptive as the current travails of the eurozone or the Japanese tsunami. In 1997, the Asian “tigers” imploded, causing a Wall Street panic that saw shares drop 7.2% in a single day. Yet the economy grew 4.5% that year and the next, and 4.9% in 1999. Unemployment was at 4.2%, and the government ran a budgetary surplus.

Third key point: Democrats bear more of the responsibility for the financial meltdown of 2008. This last one is perhaps the most important because public opinion polls continue to show that voters place more of the blame for the current economic doldrums on former president George W. Bush than on President Obama. As long as that is the case, Romney’s attacks on Obama’s economic record are somewhat blunted, and the President can continue to try to find enough payoffs for different special interest groups to cobble together an electoral majority.

Here the “killer app” has been supplied by an unlikely source, New York Times business reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial analyst Joshua Rosner, authors of Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon.

Continue reading → The Blame Game

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On Writing Gadol Biographies

More than twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled, “Are Gadol Biographies Good for Us?” Little did I dream at the time that I would soon be asked to write the first of many biographies of major Jewish leaders. From that experience, I learned to be careful with my words lest they come back to haunt me.

At least one person benefits greatly from the writing of a “gadol biography” – the author himself. The best such biographies require a total immersion in the subject’s life, until one is constantly asking oneself: How would he have approached this subject? Why did he make that choice? Living with a great person for years can only uplift a person, though, as with everything in life, no degree of inspiration lasts unless translated into concrete actions.

At their best, biographies of gadolim should provide the reader with the experience of living in the presence of the subject. I have witnessed how a maggid shiur with sterling middos can, over a period of years, transform every single person in a shiur. And the same thing should be true of a “gadol biography.”

At the same time, specific biographies will have a different impact on particular readers, depending on the nature and interests of the reader. Someone who aspires to be an askan (community activist) will get much more out of the biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer than one who does not. Someone who knows Michtav M’Eliyahu will gain more from a biography of Rabbi Dessler than those not familiar with his works. Rabbi Noach Orlowek does a great deal of counseling, and tells me that he returns to Reb Yaakov for its reminder that gadlus and normalcy can go together whenever he needs cheering up.

IN ORDER FOR A BIOGRAPHY to have its intended impact, the subject must come through in all his multi-faceted individuality, not as if he is being crammed into some cardboard formula of a “gadol biography.” Providing that full portrait is easier said than done. Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, who was the dorm counselor at Torah Vodaas when Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky was Rosh Yeshiva, once told me that many of the incidents I described were accurate as far as they went. But had I known what Reb Yaakov said when the bochur in question left the room, it would have added yet another layer to Reb Yaakov’s pick’hus (sharp insight).

Biographers must avoid the trap of political correctness. If a certain gadol eschewed, for instance, “the Brisker derech” in learning, the biographer should not be afraid to say so, even if that is prevailing approach today. If a subject is worthy of a biography, his opinions are worthy of being quoted, even if they are not those held by other figures of comparable stature.

One of my favorite stories in the Reb Yaakov biography describes a case where Reb Yaakov and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein reacted in a diametrically opposite fashion to a particular incident. The same event is described in the biography of Reb Moshe to illustrate an aspect of his greatness. And it does. But the juxtaposition reveals that greatness takes many forms and gadolim are not interchangeable.

THE LESS THAT THE BIOGRAPHY reads as a predestined march m’chayil l’chayil (from strength to strength) – at six, he knew all Tanach; at ten, he completed Shas; at 14, he married the daughter of the richest Jew in the world — the more readers will identify with the subject. For that reason, I try not to focus on superhuman intellectual gifts or yichus (geneology), though both have their place in a full portrait. First, overemphasis on those gifts can cause readers to think that the lives portrayed are irrelevant to their own. Second, not all great leaders, even great Torah scholars, were preternaturally gifted.

Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman reacted sharply to being called an ilui (genius) because he thought it diminished his ameilus b’Torah (striving in Torah). For every Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky in Slabodka Yeshiva, there were other geniuses of whom we have never heard – sometimes because they died or were killed prematurely and sometimes because of the lack of other qualities no less important than innate intelligence.

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Sinai and Jewish Unity

Of all the many sterling qualities of the chareidi community in Israel, I suspect no one would list public relations acumen near the top. And of the many public relations failures of the community none looms larger than the widespread perception that chareidim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them.

That perception is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. Chareidim founded most of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations: Yad Sarah, the country’s biggest volunteer organization; Ezer M’Tzion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry in the world; Ezra L’Marpeh, a world class medical referral service, directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; Zaka; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental instititutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.

As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva … Read More >>

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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.

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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.

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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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