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 >>
My first encounter with the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, the late president of Agudath Israel of America and the man who hired and mentored me as the organization’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call offering praise and criticism.
It was the mid-1980s, and I was a rebbe, or Jewish studies teacher, in Providence, Rhode Island at the time. Occasionally, though, I indulged my desire to write op-eds, some of which were published by the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.
One article I penned in those days was about the bus-stop burnings that had then been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.
Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods began to display images that were, to put it genteelly, not in synch with the religious sensibilities of the local residents, for whom modesty was a high ideal and women were respected for who they were, not regarded as means of gaining attention for commercial products.
Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were either spray-painted or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a synagogue for every burned bus-stop shelter. It was not … Read More >>
If you’ve followed the news in Israel at all, you probably remember the shooting rampage at an “LGBT Youth Center” in Tel Aviv. [If you don't know the acronym, good for you, and please let me not be the one to inspire you to look it up.] With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, it was immediately assumed that the shooter was charedi, and that it was a hate crime:
“This hate crime needs to be a turning point and to give strength,” [MK Tzipi] Livni told hundreds of Israelis who rallied in Tel Aviv to protest the attack, in which 15 people were also wounded.
Mike Hamel, the head of the Aguda, Israel’s LGBT organization, said such an attack was unprecedented in Israel.
“We have joined the list of ‘civilized’ countries in which hatred is the standard,” he said. “I don’t know whether the incident was directed at youth, but it appears that it was directed at the community. This is baseless hatred that cost us dearly – this is what needs to be understood.”
Hamel said that “elements represented by [Shas leaders] Eli Yishai and Benizri that are fostering hatred are still stronger than the increasingly favorable attitude … Read More >>
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 >>
I really must avoid spicy foods – even my wife’s scrumptious jalapeno pepper-laced cornbread – before retiring at night. The recipe’s great, but for someone approaching 60, it’s a recipe, too, for indigestion-fueled nightmares.
The scene: the Kotel Maaravi, or “Western Wall” in Jerusalem. The time: some future point, may it never arrive, when Anat Hoffman’s vision of the holy place has been realized.
Ms. Hoffman, of course, is the famously melodramatic chairwoman of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” who has orchestrated countless demonstrations (with adoring media and bevy of cameras in tow) in the form of untraditional prayer services at the holy site; who has reveled in being arrested for her provocations by Israeli police; and who is celebrated by temple clubs and coffee klatches across the United States as the Jewish reincarnation of Rosa Parks. She recently told a Jewish newspaper in California that the Wall should become, in effect, a timeshare. “For six hours a day,” she explained, “the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”
Those “others,” in Chairman Hoffman’s hope, will presumably include not only the group she leads (and which she characterizes as … Read More >>
When a “movement” has more media appearances than members, do we notice something amiss? When a group claiming to favor prayer calls for dismantling a place of worship, do we smell smoke? And when leaders of an organization demand “Ahavat Yisrael” and then express outright revulsion for all who oppose their agenda, do we finally penetrate the veneer?
This is the tragic saga of the “Women of the Wall,” which portrays itself worldwide as advocating for “women’s rights,” but in Israel is known primarily for dishonoring a Holy Site with political circus – and sowing offense and discord.
They claim to speak for women, but disparage their spirituality. Chair Anat Hoffman referred to traditional prayers at the Wall as “men-only,” discarding those of millions of women annually. Founding member Phyllis Chesler asserted that recognition of their group will “acknowledge women as spiritual and religious beings, capable of non-coerced autonomous, independent, and halachic prayer.” She imagines that traditional women, “forced to obey ultra-misogynist views,” are lacking in all of the above.
But founding and current member Prof. Shulamit Magnus takes the crown. She claims that only women ignorant of Judaism oppose them, and having invented this fact, then declares that … Read More >>
It’s a story I tell a lot, since, well, its point comes up a lot. Blessedly, my audience, at least judging from its response, hadn’t heard it before.
The psychiatrist asks the new patient what the problem is. “I’m dead,” he confides earnestly, “but my family won’t believe me.”
The doctor raises an eyebrow, thinks a moment, and asks the patient what he knows about dead people. After listing a few things – they don’t breathe, their hearts don’t beat – the patient adds, “and they don’t bleed very much.” At which point the psychiatrist pulls out a blade and runs it against patient’s arm, which begins to bleed, profusely.
The patient is aghast and puzzled. He looks up from his wound at the slyly smiling doctor and concedes, “I guess I was wrong.”
“Dead people,” he continues, “do bleed.”
I interrupted the laughter with the sobering suggestion that it’s not only the emotionally compromised victims of delusions, however, who see the world through their own particular lenses. Most of us do, at least if we have strong convictions. And the yields of those sometimes very different lenses are the stuff of conflict.
My brief presentation took place … Read More >>
I’ve never hidden my disdain for the “Women of the Wall,” and with Anat Hoffman’s new “compromise” proposal to rip down the Mechitzah on a daily basis, that’s not about to change any time soon.
A woman I’ve known for several years is now heading up a new group called Women For the Wall, for “preserving the sanctity of the Wall.” It’s not just a counter-movement, it’s a group of traditional Jewish women celebrating who they are.
Please check them out, and support the right of the majority to pray undisturbed!
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 >>
The Women of the Wall must be one of the most offensively misnamed groups in history. They don’t represent the Wall, they don’t represent the vast majority of the women who pray there, and they don’t represent sincere prayer.
As she was led off by police, their director, Lesley Sachs, was caught on video shouting out: “to all women from all denominations, there is more than one way to be a Jew!” Her actions were never about joining the others in prayer, but about disrupting them.
MK Michal Rozin said it best: “It’s not a religious issue, it’s a political issue.” Of course, it’s a religious site, and thus the first question should have been whether or not it is appropriate to stage a political protest in a place where others are accustomed to praying in peace.
This is why the proposal from Natan Sharansky, much as it is being celebrated in the press, is actually drawing a more positive reaction from Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz than from the group. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Rabinowitz said that he will not oppose the plan “for the sake of unity and out of … Read More >>
A short personal observation about the Sharansky plan is here.
Back in 2009, I was troubled by the reaction of many of my friends to President Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world.
I had shared the same concerns they had about Mr. Obama during his first campaign for the presidency – his Chicago politics background, his attendance of a church headed by a rabid racist, his association with other distasteful characters, the suddenness of his rise to political prominence. But after his election (which happened somehow, despite my vote for his rival) I tried to focus not on the past but the present. And I found his Cairo speech pleasantly surprising.
That he chose to address the Islamic world in itself did not disturb me. Were I in his position, I reflected, were I a person of color who lived in a Muslim environment as a child and now the leader of a free world plagued by Islamic extremism, I would have made the same choice, seized the golden opportunity to try to reach the Muslim masses with a message of moderation.
And, continuing my thought experiment, I imagined myself saying much what the new president did. He spoke of Islamic culture’s accomplishments, extended a hand of … Read More >>
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?
It’s rare for light to be cast on the origins of a rumor. But a recent revelation about a charge made against Chuck Hagel before his confirmation as Secretary of Defense does that – and might provide us all some illumination too.
(Contrary to what some have surmised, I didn’t and don’t feel there is enough hard information about the now confirmed Defense Secretary on which to make a judgment of his attitude toward Israel. As attacks mounted on nominee Hagel, though, I suggested that Jews should think twice and thrice before attacking a public figure for animus to the Jewish state on the basis of pickings as slim as those gathered to criticize him.
Several people, including some pseudonymic letter-writers to a magazine that published my article, took my suggestion that bandwagons are best inspected before being leaped onto as support of Mr. Hagel. I explicitly wrote, however, that he might well not make a good Defense Secretary, and that I can’t claim to know one way or the other. All that I pointed out was that, despite a maladroit phrase Mr. Hagel once used – for which he apologized – and unsubstantiated claims of a similar sin, … Read More >>
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 >>
After davening the other day and not in the main shul, a couple of fellows — one of them a medical doctor — asked whether I shared their assessment that President Obama is 1) a die-hard fundamentalist Muslim, 2) an anti-Semite and 3) obviously a hater of Israel whose policies are aimed at destroying the Jewish State. They were shocked that I did not share their view. I was not shocked to hear what they had to say because, sadly, such sentiments are increasingly heard within the Orthodox community. We are in the grip of heavy doses of paranoia and heavy doses of hatred. What makes the reality worse is that both the paranoia and the hatred are dynamic. What is being expressed today is more extreme than what had been expressed previously and what is being expressed today is likely to be mild by comparison with what will be said tomorrow.
What I am referring to is not the taking of conservative positions on a host of public issues. It is understandable and, from my perspective, correct that on a range of social issues, religious Jews do not accept liberal positions. It is also understandable, even though I … Read More >>
Like the repeatedly pummeled victim of depraved bullies who decides it might just be best to stay away from the schoolyard during recess, Israel recently opted to not show up to be judged by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body with venerated members like Congo, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Malaysia and Qatar.
The UN body and a number of individual countries, including the United States, pleaded with Israel to not be the first country to refuse to appear for an HRC “Universal Periodic Review.” But the Israeli government, in its chutzpah, decided to just say no to presenting itself for assault yet again by a group that has demonstrated a deep and troubling fixation on one political dispute in a world in which, elsewhere, authorities routinely amputate body parts, blithely murder citizens, incarcerate innocent people without trial and look the other way as human beings are enslaved and sold like sides of beef.
The New York Times, predictably, did its own huffing, munificently conceding that the HRC is “not without faults” but asserting all the same that the Middle East’s only stable and free democracy was showing “an unwillingness to undergo the same scrutiny as all other … Read More >>
Well-informed, they say, is well-prepared; and knowledge is power. An exception, though – at least in the judgment of some – seems to be when Jewish women in Israel are contemplating ending their pregnancies.
When an Israeli magazine announced it would bestow an award on a group called Efrat, “pro-choice” advocates (seldom have “scare quotes” been so appropriate) howled in outrage.
Efrat provides women with information about abortion, as well as financial support for mothers-to-be who are under economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies. The group’s detractors characterize it as preying on women at an emotionally vulnerable time.
Efrat, however, does not parade with offensive placards in front of medical facilities like some American groups. Nor does it seek to shame women in any way. Its goal is simply to advance “a woman’s right to free choice,” by providing expectant women who want it with accurate information about medical matters and the development of the lives growing within them; it also offers needy such women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term things like food packages, cribs and strollers. The group claims that, since its founding in 1977, 50,000 babies were born as a result of … Read More >>
Even with protective cover from Senator Charles E. Schumer – as determined a defender of Israel as there ever was – and even speaking only for myself, I hesitate to address the overwrought reaction in some corners to President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. I don’t want to be labeled an anti-Semite too.
Not that there wasn’t or isn’t cause for some concern about Mr. Hagel. He is famously on record as having once referred to AIPAC as the “Jewish lobby,” and in the past questioned the wisdom of too hastily employing military force against Iran. But such things – you might want to sit down – do not an anti-Semite or unconscionable isolationist make.
At least not to reasonable eyes. Unfortunately, some tend to the visceral rather than the rational in such matters, prisoners of their own preconceptions. Despite the clear and ample evidence to the contrary, they just can’t stop pegging the president as less than committed to Israel’s wellbeing, and can be counted on to shoot at anything that moves if Mr. Obama set it into motion. So Mr. Hagel was immediately judged by some as bad for Israel, if for no … Read More >>
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 >>
American politicians tainted by scandal and forced to resign their positions usually explain that they want “to spend more time with their families.” Issam al-Aryan, a top advisor to Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who recently tendered his own resignation said he is overly “occupied with my work as head of the Freedom and Justice Party bloc in the Shura Council.” He must not lack for family time.
The scandal that attached itself to Mr. al-Aryan was that he had publicly invited Israeli Jews of Egyptian descent to return to their erstwhile home. “Egypt,” he told Jews who had fled Egypt over the years, “is worthier of you than Israel,” which, he explained, is a “racist, occupying entity.”
There was no rush of Egypt-born Israelis to take up Mr. al-Aryan’s offer, or for that matter any evidence of even a single Jewish individual who was enticed by the prospect of leaving a modern, prosperous country, not to mention his ancestral homeland, for a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated pit of poverty and political upheaval. What did come quickly, though, was the backlash against the Egyptian politician for his impudent invitation.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan, for example, lambasted Mr. al-Aryan, insisting that “Egyptian … Read More >>
I was heartened by the responses I received to my essay last week, in which I suggested that Jews of good will on each side of the issue of women’s prayer groups at the Kosel Ma’aravi make an effort to empathize with those on the other.
Even as someone who wishes to see the Jewish religious tradition of millennia upheld at that holy spot, I still consider it important to try to appreciate how women used to women’s or mixed-sex services might feel in a segregated national Jewish prayer area where the only group services are men’s. And I expressed my hope that those women, too, will try to put themselves in the shoes of men who embrace halacha and thus may not hear women’s voices raised in song. Where such empathy might lead was not my point; the empathy itself was.
I heard, among others, from several non-Orthodox rabbis who (even though they prefer a different setup at the Kosel than I) expressed their appreciation for what I wrote. Heartening too was that I didn’t receive a single communication from anyone in my own charedi community eschewing empathy for those unlike us. (Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising, … Read More >>
It’s easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman. Her guerrilla gatherings of women in vocal prayer services at the Kosel Maaravi, or Western Wall, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court decision and in affront to the traditional Jewish men and women who most frequent the prayer site, are legend. That’s largely because Ms. Hoffman, head of “Women of the Wall” and executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, makes sure the media are summoned and present to record her activities and detainments, which number eight at last count. She can bank, too, on the support – although some of it is uneasy – from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman’s goal of “liberating” the Wall from Jewish religious tradition – halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting – would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist’s side are political agitators. Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.
Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah … Read More >>
In retrospect, the phenomenon of Internet-trained Rabbis serving in Conservative and Reform congregations was bound to happen.
For decades, the liberal movements have tightly managed their Rabbinic placements. The size of each class at HUC or JTS (plus Ziegler in LA) is limited, and each year’s graduates band together as an informal cartel, setting acceptable starting salaries for congregations of different sizes. While this has made it difficult or impossible for smaller congregations to afford a Rabbi, it has also ensured that the Rabbis are able to quickly repay the roughly $100,000 they spent for five years of training — and make quite a decent living from then on.
I recall over a decade ago that there was some controversy when new, “non-denominational” Rabbinic schools were founded. But now, these “non-movement” schools constitute a movement of their own, churning out new rabbis at an impressive rate. All you have to do is commit two or three hours a week (and $8000), and write a 2000 word paper at the end on “any Jewish topic” to prove you’ve learned something, and that’s it, you’re ready to be called Rabbi. And some of those rabbis are, says the Forward, … Read More >>
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 >>