The World Comes Looking for President Obama

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading → The World Comes Looking for President Obama

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Marriage: Not to be Taken for Granted

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

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

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

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A Prediction Fulfilled — Sadly

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

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

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

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The Assault on Free Speech Creeps Off Campus

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

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

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The Death of Free Speech on Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading → The Death of Free Speech on Campus

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What Do They Really Think About Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading → What Do They Really Think About Us?

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Lapid Flunks the Leadership Test

Yair Lapid pushed the criminalization provisions in the new draft law through the cabinet. Without those provisions, he told his cabinet colleagues, he could not sell the law to his supporters. Rather than call his bluff and possibly bring the government down in the process, those who opposed criminalization – including Ayelet Shaked, who headed the committee that formulated the law, and Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon — caved and voted for criminalization.

Now, Lapid may be right that he could not have sold his supporters on the draft law without the criminalization provisions, but if so that merely reflects the degree to which he has bound himself by his own demagoguery and failed to lead.

In a similar fashion, Yasir Arafat was likely telling the truth when he told Bill Clinton at Camp David that signing a peace agreement with Israel would be tantamount to a death sentence for him. But that admission reflected the extent to which Arafat had used the Palestinian Authority media and educational system to whip the Palestinian populace into a frenzy of hatred of Israel since the onset of Oslo. He completely failed to educate his followers to the reality that a Palestinian … Read More >>

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An Atzeres Tefillah

It is with good reason that the huge gathering in response to the Shaked Committee Report was styled as an atzeres tefillah (a prayer gathering), and not as a protest. Even in moments of high tension, when the Torah community feels under threat, what we say and how we say it matters. The rules of cost-benefit analysis do not cease at fateful times; they become ever more important. And that is why we need the clear da’as of the elders of the generation.

In every chareidi history of American Jewry’s responses to the Holocaust, one event always merits special mention l’gnai (for criticism) – a mass protest called by secular Jewish organizations in the mid-1930s calling for a boycott of German products. Those histories cite credible reports that Hitler, ym”sh, was enraged by the protests and thereby strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. (At a later stage, Agudath Israel of America was the only Jewish organization to circumvent the British-declared boycott of Nazi-held territory in order to send packages to starving Jews in Poland and elsewhere.)

Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz relates in In Their Shadows a lesson the Chazon Ish taught … Read More >>

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Can the Reform Movement Stanch the Bleeding?

At the United Reform Jewry’s recent biennial gathering in San Diego, the mood was gloomy. “Reform Judaism tries for a ‘reboot’ in face of daunting challenges,” read the Jewish Telegraph Agency report. “Reform Movement, Seeking to Stem Decline, Eyes Religious Pluralism in Israel,” proclaimed the Forward headline.

Only the even more astonishing hemorrhaging of the Conservative Movement has obscured the decline of Reform movement. Until recently, Jews asked about their religious affiliation tended to use “Reform” as a synonym for “minimal.” So the numbers of Reform Jews appeared to be holding steady or even growing. No more. In the recent Pew study, the fastest growing segment of American Jewry consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity.

The median age of Reform members is 54 years old, and only 17% of members say that they attend religious services even once a month. President of UJR, Rich Jacobs, lamented at the bicentennial that 80% of the movement’s youth are gone by the time they graduate high school. Even at the Reform convention, the area of the hall marked for those in their 20s and 30s was, according to the Forward, notably compact. Those who did attend were primarily … Read More >>

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Why the Radical Politics of WoW’s Leaders Matter

Is it merely a coincidence that so many of Women of the Wall’s leaders have numerous close associations with radical, anti-Israel groups? Or could it be that WoW is a useful vehicle for advancing an anti-Israel narrative that leaves Israel increasingly isolated internationally? Is concealing that agenda the reason why WoW tried to suppress the story of its leaders’ ties to fringe anti-Israel NGOs?

In early November, journalist Rachel Avraham posted a story at Jerusalem Online, the English-language website of Channel Two News, detailing the connections between WoW, vice-chairwoman, Batya Kallus and chairwoman Anat Hoffman and various anti-Israel groups.

As program director for the Moriah Fund, Kallus helps facilitate funding for such groups as Adallah, Ir Amin, Yesh Din, and Mossawa. Adallah rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and has been active in promoting Israel Apartheid Week on North American campuses and in the dissemination of the Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead. The Goldstone Report cited “evidence” provided by Adallah 38 times.

Yesh Din categorizes Israel as an apartheid state and supported Turkey’s position after the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel naval commandos attempting to interdict the Gaza Flotilla … Read More >>

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In re Limmud: A Rejoinder to Rabbi Cardozo

Torah Judaism has always been defined by belief in binding halacha, based upon the Torah given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai and the rabbinical exegesis contained in the Talmud. While there are endless disputes as to the precise contours of the halacha, about its obligatory nature and the sources for its determination there are none.

The halacha is the framework within which each Jew creates his or her individual relationship to G-d. Every Jew has a unique mission in the world and an aspect of G-d that only he — by virtue of his unique combination of strengthens and challenges, singular familial and historical situation — can reveal. But again, it is G-d’s commands that create the framework for the fulfillment of that mission.

G-d’s existence is, in philosophical terms, necessary; ours is contingent and depends on our attachment to Him.

BETWEEN TORAH JUDAISM AND THE VARIOUS HETERODOX MOVEMENTS of Jews there is no theological common ground or meeting point. There is no continuum from lesser to greater Jewish practice, for at the theological level the chasm is unbridgeable and absolute.

Both in our eyes and those of our enemies Judaism was always defined by the Law we received … Read More >>

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Naomi Ragen Drops Plagiarism Appeal, Claims Victory

Sarah Shapiro’s plagiarism suit against Naomi Ragen reached its denouement in the Israeli Supreme Court last week when Ms. Ragen withdrew her appeal of the judgment entered by the Jerusalem District Court in Shapiro’s favor. Withdrawal of the appeal left intact the District Court’s injunction barring Ragen from reprinting her novel Sotah in any language without removing material appropriated from Shapiro’s memoir Growing with My Children.

In return, Shapiro agreed to donate 97,000 shekels – her portion of the damages award against Ragen, after payment of attorney’s fees – to two charity organizations,Yad Eliezer and Yad Sarah.

As is her wont, Ragen claimed vindication by the three-judge panel, despite the fact that she remained without the 233,000 shekels awarded by the District Court to Shapiro and her attorneys, and is still subject to an injunction against reprinting Sotah. If that constitutes victory in Ragen’s view, one wonders what would be defeat.

In any event, Ms. Ragen will be back in court soon defending against another plagiarism action, this one brought by Mrs. Sudy Rosengarten. Rosengarten claims that Ragen interpolated her short story “A Match Made in Heaven” (which was published in the anthology Our Lives I edited by Shapiro) … Read More >>

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The Lessons of Outremont

I hope every Mishpacha reader read and absorbed last week’s cover story about the public relations efforts of chassidic residents of Montreal’s Outremont district, which had implications for Torah Jews far from Montreal.

Outremont’s chassidic residents – a full quarter of the neighborhood – discovered that their neighbors, particularly a local city councilor, were not all enthusiastic about their presence. The traditional response would have been to do nothing, other than mutter about the anti-Semities and pray that matters did not degenerate further.

Nor would such a response have been entirely unjustified. Xenophobia has long been a prominent characteristic of Quebec’s francophone population, and it would be hard to think of a group more likely to arouse suspicions of outsiders faster than strangely garbed, generally non-French-speaking, chassidim.

Blaming the anti-Semitics also benefits one’s psychic health. For one thing, it means that one never has to examine one’s own actions to determine whether they could have in anyway contributed to the animosity displayed. And second, it means that one need not worry about doing anything to change the situation, which is just part of the natural order of things.

Outremont’s chassidim, however, rejected the quietist approach. Aided by an unlikely … Read More >>

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A False Choice

A few months ago, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, one of the most veteran and respected educators in North America (as well as someone from whom I have gained much), published a Guestlines piece in Mishpacha Magazine entitled “Unconditional Love Has Its Limits,” which predictably generated a good deal of buzz. I return to that piece now in light of a pamphlet on the subject of parenting disenchanted teenagers by Rabbi Uri Zohar, Israel’s most famous ba’al teshuva and a highly respected talmid chacham.

Rabbi Aisenstark’s goal in writing seems to have been to empower parents to actually parent – to offer guidance and set limits – in an era in which many are so terrified of losing their children that they make that result more likely by giving in to every demand and succumbing to every pouty look.

The Mishpacha cover highlighting Rabbi Aisenstark’s piece read: “Do We Love Our Children More than We Hashem?” That eye-catching blurb was presumably based on the well-known story – cited by Rabbi Aisenstark — of the father of Rabbis Shimon, Mordechai, and Moshe Schwab, who banged his hand down at the Seder table at mention of the Evil Son and proclaimed, “I love … Read More >>

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An Apology and a Rebuttal to MK Rabbi Dov Lipman

I erred. Big time.

Two years ago, the confrontation between parents and students in the national religious Orot girls school in Ramat Beit Shemesh and a small subgroup of the “Yerushalmi” community living nearby received saturation coverage in the Israeli media. Grabbing the most attention was a wrenching 13-minute video shown by Channel 2 anchor Yair Lapid, which focused on the trauma suffered by a young student in the school, as a result of being spit and screamed at by those protesting the school.

The confrontation at Orot brought Rabbi Dov Lipman, a relatively recent American immigrant, to public attention for the first time, and helped launch Yair Lapid’s political career. Lapid announced his entry into politics shortly after the video aired. Though Lapid referred to those menacing the girls as “chareidi extremists,” he intoned ominously at the end of his introduction, “Is this what we can expect in the rest of the country?”

As if to bring the point home, the video concluded with an interview with a self-diagnosed “healthy man” (who by his appearance and dress appeared not to be from the “Yerushalmi” community, but a relatively recent ba’al teshuva), who was asked what would be the … Read More >>

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Outmaneuvered by Two Young Women

For well over a decade, I ran a media relations office in Jerusalem on behalf of Agudath Israel of America. I used to think I did a pretty good job. Not any more.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni have run a multipronged response to the well-oiled publicity machine that is Women of the Wall. Despite spotting WoW a 24-year head start, they have managed in that brief period to completely reset the terms of the public debate. And they have done so while raising families and running their own businesses, and without taking a penny in salaries.

A successful campaign to change public opinion today is not a matter of writing op-eds at a stately pace or putting together a documentary of traditional women speaking about what the Kosel means to them — all of which I once did. It is more like a rapid-play chess game. There is no respite. One has to keep changing tactics in response to shifts on the chessboard. An understanding of modern media and the ability it provides to reach large numbers of people quickly is absolutely essential.

Responses must be … Read More >>

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Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

A member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America once remarked to me that things would be going splendidly in our world were it not for our propensity to continually shoot ourselves in the foot. What took place at the Kosel on Rosh Chodesh Sivan provides a textbook example.

The enduring image of the Rosh Chodesh davening should have been of thousands upon thousands of religious girls and women davening and reciting Tehillim with intensity, their voices never rising above a whisper. Nowhere in today’s world is such purity to be found as in a gathering of Jewish daughters praying or reciting Tehillim. Even before I reached the Kosel, the sight of so many Bais Yaakov girls brought tears to my eyes.

The images broadcast worldwide should have been of the tiny Women of the Wall (WoW) group totally engulfed in the much, much larger group of religious women praying at the Kosel — numerically batul beshishim.

The idea of filling the area directly in front of the Kosel and almost the entire KoselPlazawith frum women and girls completely flummoxed WoW. When they first got wind of the large numbers of women who would be at the Kosel, they … Read More >>

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When Sincerity Is Not Enough

Two weeks ago, we read in Parshas Shemini how on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon Hakohein, brought a “strange fire in front of Hashem” and were consumed by a “fire that went forth from before Hashem.” Targum Onkelos translates a “strange fire” as one “not commanded by Hashem.”

Later this summer, we will read of Korach and his followers. Korach made a specifically democratic argument against the “appropriation” of any special role in the Divine service by either Moshe Rabbeinu or his brother, Aharon Hakohein: “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy. . . “

Nor can there be any question of the sincerity of the followers of Korach. Moshe warned them that only one of those who brought the incense offering would survive, and yet 250 showed up the next morning and placed the incense on their censors. Their evident sincerity did not avail them, and each one perished in the same fashion as Nadav and Avihu.

From these two famous episodes, we learn three things. First, when it comes to Divine service, modern categories, like “rights of religious expression” and “equality,” are misplaced. Hashem … Read More >>

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Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?

Already five years ago, a prominent American rosh yeshiva told me that we might be approaching the end of a miraculous period in which the secular Israeli government became the prime supporter of Torah learning on a scale unprecedented in Jewish history. If the new coalition guidelines are implemented, that moment has arrived.

The incoming government coalition results from a concatenation of long-range political trends and a series of inexplicable blunders by veteran politicians. First, we’ll consider the long-range trends. From 1977 until 2005, the Israeli public was divided primarily over the “peace process,” a trend that became even more pronounced after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Each side was willing to offer the chareidi parties whatever was required to join their coalition to prevail on the issue of paramount importance to them.

Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Israelis have soured on the possibility of peace and concluded that further territorial withdrawals will only result in the creation of another launching pad for rocket and terrorist attacks. That consensus closed the great fissure in Israeli politics. With issues of war and peace dormant, the possibility of new coalitions around other issues arose. Chareidi parties no longer hold the balance of power on the issue of paramount importance to most voters. Indeed for much of the non-chareidi public, the chareidim themselves are the most important issue.

Still, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was eager to retain the traditional alliance between Likud and the chareidi parties, in forming his new government. One does not sever old and reliable allies when the political roadmap ahead is filled with potholes. Unfortunately, the math did not work out. For one thing, Netanyahu made two bad decisions: He did not time new elections to coincide with the height of his popularity, and he decided to merge Likud and Yisrael Beitanu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, immediately found himself under criminal indictment. As a result, Netanyahu ended up with ten less mandates than anticipated.

Second, Shas leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri feared having Bayit Yehudi headed by Naftali Bennett in the coalition, where it would threaten Shas’s control of the state religious establishment. Netanyahu had his own reasons for not wanting Bennett in the cabinet. The result was to drive Bennett’s settler party into the arms of the yuppies of Yesh Atid party, whose leader Yair Lapid has been a persistent critic of the settlement enterprise.

That unlikely pairing could unravel rapidly if President Obama pressures Israel for concessions to the Palestinians in return for American action on Iran. But it held rock firm throughout the drawn out coalition negotiations. The issue upon which Lapid and Bennett found common ground was “equality of service” – shorthand for greater chareidi participation in the IDF or national service. Interestingly, in an interview with Mishpacha during the campaign, Bennett did not once mention “equality of service.” He presented himself as someone who would provide Netanyahu’s “backbone” against negotiations leading to a Palestinian terror state.

Continue reading → Can We Do Anything to Lessen the Hatred?

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Principle or Pragmatism?

I was on Israel English-language TV last week debating the army draft issue with Yochanan Plessner, the head of the government committee established to make recommendations on the issue in the last Knesset. The moderator began by asking me: “More and more Israelis are asking themselves whether it’s fair that young men like Yochanan Plessner [who served in an elite combat division] should go off at the age of eighteen, risk their lives, endure great hardship, in order to defend us – all of us – while at the same time eighteen year old yeshiva students are exempted from that burden. Rabbi Rosenblum, is that fair?”

I have heard chareidi debaters counter this argument: Well, is it fair that we have to do all the Torah learning for the country?

It’s safe to say that argument has never convinced a single non-chareidi. Not just because of the emotional response – How many yeshiva bochurim are killed in the tents of Torah? – but because it misses a fundamental distinction: Yeshiva bochurim are doing what they most want to do. IDF recruits are acting under legal compulsion

The argument of “equality of burdens,” in short, cannot be easily dismissed, on … Read More >>

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One Appointment Worse than the Next

Barry Rubin of the Gloria Center, one of the Middle East’s shrewdest analysts, was in an unkind mood last week, as he himself admitted. The common element joining President Obama’s three appointments last week – Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan as Director of the CIA – is, in Rubin’s view, that “they are all stupid people” of the worst sort – “stupid, arrogant people, with terrible ideas.”

Unfortunately, there is little to contradict Rubin’s harsh judgment. Each holds views that make it impossible for them to understand Middle East reality, much less do anything about it. Hagel, for instance, is a “realist,” which is a doctrine having nothing to do with reality. Among the central planks of realist doctrine is that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is at the center of all the Middle East’s problems, and that the United States’ interests are significantly damaged by the lack of resolution of that conflict.

Speaking at “J Street’s” first annual conference in 2009, Hagel said, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central, not peripheral, to U.S. vital security interests in combating terrorism, preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, stability in the Middle East and … Read More >>

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Gaza As Metaphor

It is too early to assess the outcome of the just ended Operation Pillar of Defense. For one thing, we do not know whether the ceasefire will hold or for how long. Nor do we know what commitments were made by the Americans to Israel in return for not embarking on a full-scale ground operation. Nor do we know what undertakings, if any, were made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government to interdict the smuggling of additional Fajr-5 missiles and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.

But it is not too early to assess the strategic consequences of Israel’s 2005 evacuation from Gaza. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote a powerful mea culpa last week for his earlier support, for then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

Though the arguments for withdrawal raised by Stephens and others at the time were not self-evidently wrong, there is little gainsaying Stephens’ current assessment. “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.”

At the time of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon insisted that if rocket fire continued from … Read More >>

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The Foreign Policy Debate Ahead

Foreign policy has long been considered the one area in which President Obama has a decisive edge over challenger Mitt Romney in the eyes of most voters. Or at least that was the case until Sept. 11 2012, when mobs overran the U.S. embassy in Cairo and Al Qaeda terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, together with three other State department personnel.

Voters do not normally pay a great deal of attention to foreign affairs, at least in the absence of obvious disaster or war, and that has served to protect President Obama’s foreign policy from closer voter scrutiny. While the United States’ determination and ability to secure its vital interests and guard the stability of the international order have declined on his watch, these are matters far from the purview of most voters. As long as the President removed American troops from Iraq – no matter what the cost in terms of expanding Iranian influence in the country – and is well along in the process of doing so in Afghanistan, voters were sure to give him the nod over Governor Romney when it comes to guiding America’s foreign affairs over the next four years.

September 11 2012 changed all that, and the events of that day and the administration’s response to them will likely dominate discussion of foreign policy until November 6. From the point of view of a candidate locked in a very close contest, it is understandable why Romney would punch away at Obama’s greatest foreign policy vulnerability: By putting the President on the defensive, Romney can negate Obama’s perceived foreign policy advantage. But in truth, the events of September 11 are just a subset of more general policy failures that Romney will have to address if he is elected.

Let us first understand why September 11 constitutes a virtual refutation of the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy – its outreach to the Moslem world. Obama entered office with a near mystical belief in his powers of persuasion and the force of his charisma. That confidence was most on display with respect to the Muslim world. Both as a candidate and after his election, Obama touted his formative years spent in Muslim Indonesia and his knowledge of Koran.

His much publicized 2009 Cairo speech was the high point of his outreach to the Muslim world. There he proclaimed, without a scintilla of evidence, the identity of Islamic and American values: “[Islam and America] share common principles – principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.” He used that same speech to apologize for a litany of American wrongs to the Muslim world, including having acted “contrary to our ideals” in the interrogation of Muslim prisoners. And he implied that anti-Muslim prejudice, Islamophobia, lies behind criticism of Islamic intolerance, anti-Semitism, and misogyny: “We cannot disguise hostility to any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”

Yet for all the apologies and bowing to Arab potentates, the United States is no more popular in the Middle East than under President George W. Bush. According to the Pew Center, America’s unfavorability ratings in the both Egypt and Jordan are higher than they were four years ago. The day after the Cairo embassy was overrun by mobs so were a number of other U.S. embassies around the Middle East.

Obama’s failure to boost America’s popularity – a highly overrated quality at any rate — highlights one of the central follies of the Obama administration’s reading of the Muslim world – the assumption that anti-Americanism is primarily a result of American actions rather than growing out of indigenous forces within Islam and the deep sense of failure that pervades Arab and Muslim societies when they compare themselves to the West.

There is much evidence that Obama actually believes the bromides he offered in Cairo about the identity of Islam and democracy. He consistently portrays radical Islam, with its expansionist theology, as a fringe phenomenon in the Islamic world, and the problem of radical Islam as primarily one of a few terrorists groups. As Middle East analyst Barry Rubin puts it, the Obama administration is focused on law enforcement actions against Al Qaeda, while Islamists take over entire countries.

Its misreading of the Arab and Muslim world led the administration to take a far too sanguine view of Arab Spring and to take too little account of the dangers of posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of true liberals, in countries under transition. Obama placed Muslim Brotherhood representatives in the front row of his Cairo speech. And the administration provided Egypt’s new Muslim-Brotherhood-led government with $1.3 billion of emergency aid, with no strings attached. Yet President Mohamed Morsi did nothing to prevent the Cairo embassy from being overrun by rioters. Nor, it seems, did it ever occur to the President or Secretary of State to demand that he do so. Even President Obama had to admit afterwards that Egypt is no longer “exactly an ally.”

The slightest dip into Muslim Brotherhood theology – the group also spawned Al Qaeda and Hamas – and its rampant anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism would have warned the administration that this would be the case. At root, the Obama administration’s inability to understand the limits on Muslim Brotherhood moderation derives from the refusal of liberals to take religious seriously. But religious principles cannot be abrogated overnight. As the leading living Muslim Brotherhood theorist Khariat el-Shafar puts it, “No one can come say, ‘Let’s change the overall mission’ [i.e., the Islamization of all aspects of society]. . . . No one can say, ‘Forget obedience, discipline and structure.'”

The murder of the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists put to rest one of the central boasts of the President Obama’s campaign – i.e., that the killing of Osama bin Laden marked the end of Al Qaeda – and turned it into at best a symbolic victory. Protestors in Cairo and at other embassies in the Arab world chanting, “Obama, Obama, we love Osama,” brought the point home.

And the assassination called into question the administration’s Libyan policy, by highlighting the degree to which the Western-supported overthrow of Gaddafi created a vacuum in Libya into which jihadi terrorists have poured.

IN RESPONSE TO THE EVENTS of September 11, top administration officials – Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney, and the President himself quickly settled on a narrative: the trigger for Cairo riots (and those that followed the next day in Yemen and elsewhere), as well as the events leading to Ambassador Stevens murder was a trailer for an insulting film about Islam apparently produced in America. That narrative, the falsity of which should have been quickly realized by every sentient being, was the outgrowth of both politics and ideology.

Continue reading → The Foreign Policy Debate Ahead

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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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