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 >>

The Pesach Plan

The group of Novardhoker yeshiva bochurim and their rebbe (and his rebbetzin)—along with a number of families—were packed into the train’s stock cars in the summer of 1941. Since Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, and his talmidim, then in Soviet-conquered Lithuania, had declined the offer of Russian citizenship, the Soviets were providing them an all-expense-paid trip to Siberia. Occasional pieces of bread and cups of water were also offered at no charge during the weeks of travel. Not to mention the cruise across a lake on a barge to the work camp where my father, may he be well, the youngest of the yeshiva group, and his rebbe and friends, would spend the years of the Second World War.

The Siberian summer is oppressive; insects left the exiles at times unrecognizable for their swollen faces. Winter in the taiga, of course, brought challenges of its own, including 40 degree below zero temperatures.

In his short memoir, “Fire Ice Air,” my father recalls that even as the yeshiva exiles arrived in the East, Pesach was already on their minds.

And so, as they worked in the fields, some of the boys squirreled away a few kernels of wheat here … Read More >>

How to Teach Propaganda

Professor Amy Kaplan at the University of Pennsylvania explains to faculty how to inculcate hatred for Israel into the college curriculum — even if the course in question has nothing to do with politics or history. As she makes clear, it is very easy for a professor to not merely “expose young students to new ideas” but to influence as well. This is why students — and their parents — must choose carefully whom they wish to influence their thinking.

Audio courtesy of StandWithUs; video posted by ElderofZion.

Meat and Murder

I have an abiding appreciation of animals. My family has shared living space at one point or another over the years with: a small goat, a large iguana, a beautiful tarantula, an assortment of rodents of various sizes, and scores of tropical fish (the latter our only current pets).

We didn’t choose some of those creatures. Several were Purim gifts from talmidim of mine when I served as a rebbe. The boys meant well and I came, in time, to appreciate each present. The only one we didn’t keep very long was the goat, which repeatedly escaped from our back yard to feast on a neighbor’s lawn. (We sold her—the goat, that is—within a few weeks to a girl who lived on a farm.)

We always treated our animals well—buying and feeding the tarantula the live crickets it craved and making sure the mice and hamsters got their exercise and fresh air. (The untimely demise of that one member of the order rodentia left too long in the sun was entirely an accident, Chana; there is no reason to feel bad.) And I try to be careful, as per the Talmud’s exhortation regarding animals, to feed our fish before … Read More >>

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 >>

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

The Super Bowl Maariv

On the morning of the recent Super Bowl football game, a shul in New Jersey sent out this e-mail to its membership:

There will be a minyan for Maariv at __________ Synagogue (name deliberately omitted) at ten minutes after the beginning of the Super Bowl halftime.

How should one react to this? One could be benevolent , in the spirit of the Berditchever Rebbe who, paraphrasing himself, might have said: “O L-rd, how wondrous is Thy people. Even in the midst of the Super Bowl, they think of Thee!”

Or one could be severe and paraphrase Isaiah 1:12: “Mi bikesh zos miyedchem — who asks this of you, saith the Lo-d, to trample on My holy ground and daven with trivialities in your heart!”

Or one could simply laugh, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “L-rd, what fools these mortals be.”

This is one multiple choice where one could choose all three and still not be entirely wrong.

To be benevolent: This is a praiseworthy attempt to assure a minyan for Maariv. The membership is watching the football game (together with 111 million other people) and unless an accommodation is made, there will be no … Read More >>

Give Gays a Chance

(A slightly edited version of this article appears, under a different title, in the February 24 issue of the Forward)

The recent mini-drama of Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag’s suspension as chief rabbi of his native Amsterdam for signing a document about homosexuality, and his subsequent reinstatement, might well serve as a spur for considering the traditional Jewish attitude on the matter.

Whether homosexuality is fixed or changeable is an open question. There are well-informed people on either side of the issue. Whether the Jewish religious tradition is fixed or changeable, however, is not arguable – at least not for Torah-loyal Jews.

The Torah explicitly prohibits homosexual contact (whether by the homosexually inclined or anyone else). There have been Herculean (and often Bullwinklian) efforts in recent years, even by some nominally “Orthodox” Jews, to cast the Torah’s explicit prohibition of male homosexual activity as meaning something other than what Jewish tradition has understood it to mean for several thousand years. But those millennia in the end are what matter to Jews concerned about what the Torah says to them rather than what they would like the Torah to say.

The Torah does not command hatred of homosexuals or label … Read More >>

Open Season on Charedim — and Torah

One hopes that readers here are not part of the population that peruses tabloids like the New York Post. If they were, though, they would have seen a recent opinion piece that called Jews “a small minority of the population… granted special privileges” who “wield power disproportionate to their numbers” and whose “behavior violates the law and infringes on the rights of others.” Wielding “considerable political clout,” and “flexing their political muscle,” they represent “a dangerous trend that has been allowed to fester and grow for decades.” Jews also receive “special treatment” by those in power and deny “the civil rights of [crime] victims.” When criticized, the writer explains, Jews simply dismiss their critics as anti-Semites.

Moreover, the piece reports, Jews represent “a demographic tidal wave” and threaten to become “dominant” in the United States. Warning that it is time to head off the coming misfortune, the writer concludes that our “silence is acquiescence.”

Oh, my mistake! It wasn’t “Jews” to whom the writer, an “activist” named Ben Hirsch, was referring, but rather “strictly Orthodox Jews.” Forgive me.

One wonders, though, how Mr. Hirsch manages to convince himself that there’s some qualitative difference between a generic bigot who … Read More >>

Titanic II and Yeridos Hadoros

Yeridos Hadoros translates as “the Decline of Generations”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech had an interesting piece last week at 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 >>

Praying for Contemporary Captives

It was over a decade ago, in the wake of a spate of terrible terrorist attacks on Jews in Eretz Yisrael, that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah called upon Jews to recite chapters of Tehillim (they suggested chapters 83, 130, and 142) in shul after davening, followed by the short prayer “Acheinu,” a supplication to G-d to show mercy to His people. Many shuls, to their great credit, to this day still dutifully seize that special merit at the end of their services. None of us can know what dangers that collective credit may have averted, may be averting still.

It occurred to me, though, that recent events might well inspire us—not only those of us Jews who look to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah for guidance, but all good-hearted Jews, charedi, “modern Orthodox,” non-Orthodox, “traditional,” and secular-minded alike—to consider reciting the holy words with special concentration, and the short prayer with an additional, somewhat different, intent.

For we have witnessed of late…

 Reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Jews, even children, by other Jews who were, ostensibly, dissatisfied with their marks’ level of modesty.

 The exploitation of media to bring such outrages, and exaggerations of … Read More >>

Shark Feeding Frenzy

When my husband was a flight surgeon on the US Air Force base in Guam, he witnessed a feeding frenzy by sharks. Daily, a huge garbage truck would gingerly back up to the edge of a cliff, and dump the waste into the Pacific. In 40 seconds sharks made mincemeat of the garbage, leaving disposable dishes floating. In another 20 seconds those were also disposed of by sharks. If you can’t go to Guam, you can see a shark feeding frenzy on the Discovery Channel. Or you can follow the current media frenzy against haredim in Israel.

Perhaps this is what Rabbi Chanina had in mind when he stipulated, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkey Avot 3:2).

Here are examples of the media frenzy.

(a)Yair Lapid showed a video in December on Israeli TV, which featured the most extreme peripheral haredim whose behavior is considered outrageous by almost all haredim and ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

(b)The NYTimes has blown out of proportion issues related to controversies in Beit Shemesh, on buses, and at conferences. On December 28 the weekday NYTimes gave wide … Read More >>

Gingrich Schools the Media — and we would do well to listen

Jonathan Rosenblum’s article on media manipulation was written before Newt Gingrich stared down CNN’s John King last night. Gingrich received not one, but two standing ovations for denouncing the media’s descent into smear campaigns instead of permitting Republicans to first discuss issues of substance. The audience leapt to its feet, because the only people who fail to recognize the media’s leftist bias are those who share or exceed it. The Associated Press, playing its assigned role, simply omitted the multiple standing ovations from its report, although even a single standing ovation is a rare and notable phenomenon in a candidates’ forum.

The same bias that the media displays against Republicans, it also displays against religion, with the worst treatment reserved for traditional Judeo-Christian religious denominations. The only people who fail to recognize the media’s anti-Charedi bias are those who share or exceed it. The result is that it is foolish to believe even a word of what is written about Charedi Jews. I may have written about this often, but even so, I was fooled.

When I heard the Tanya Rosenblitt story, I knew that there was something more there than met the eye, but I could … Read More >>

Who’s afraid of Tim Tebow?

by Michael Freund

This past Sunday I got a first-hand glimpse of one of the hottest phenomena in American pop culture and sports.

The venue was Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, the occasion was the first round of the National Football League playoffs.

Just prior to the start of the game between the New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons, after the Giants had come onto the field, eight of their players headed toward the end zone, where they did something entirely unexpected.

These hulking and intimidating behemoths, who make their living by strapping on layers of protective body gear and pummelling their opponents, each knelt down on one knee, bowed their heads, and offered a silent prayer.

This act has come to be known as “Tebowing,” after Tim Tebow, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, whose signature prayerful genuflections have become a popular and internet sensation.

Tebow, who has led his team to some stunning comeback victories, including this past weekend when he tossed an 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime to defeat the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, is an unabashed fan of his Christian faith. He talks about it in interviews and does not shy away from publicly thanking … Read More >>

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 >>

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.

Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

by Dovid Kornreich

There is a recurrent theme that I’ve read on Jblogs and newspapers, and it has two parts:

1) Chareidi society somehow engenders extremism and these incidents in Beit Shemesh are its bitter fruit.

2) Neglect by the rest of Chareidi leadership to publicly condemn the extreme acts is a form of acquiescence by silence.

The response to the first charge is that your average chareidi individual living in, let’s say Bayit Vegan or Har Nof, shares very little of the *cultural* values and norms of Mea She’arim Chareidim. The sad reality is that Chareidim are an extremely factionalized and subdivided group, and the divisions are deep and operate on many different levels of which outsiders simply have no appreciation.

True, on religious and political issues vis-a-vis non-Chareidim and especially the non-religious, most Chareidim seem to rally together as a unified group to oppose a common threat. But socially, there is very little meaningful contact between Mea Shea’rim Charedim (and their RBS offshoots) and the rest of the Chareidi population.

So one can’t credibly say that “Chareidi society” engenders violence, extremism, intolerance etc. There is very little *culturally* that unites all Chareidim. And it is the uniquely … Read More >>

Pilloried With Hillary

One of the many downsides of a world that moves as quickly as ours is that many of us feel we must react to events in “real time” rather than after some research and thought. Leon Wieseltier once wisely remarked that the concept of such immediate reaction (he was speaking of blogs) is predicated on the ridiculous idea that our first thoughts are our best thoughts. Reactions, in other words, are one animal; thoughtful judgments, an entirely different genus.

Enough time has passed—I hope—for a measured, non-knee-jerk, objective look at events of several weeks ago that were very quickly reacted to by many in the Jewish world. The events comprised a trifecta of sorts of alleged anti-Israel sentiment: a speech by the U.S. Secretary of State; remarks by an American ambassador; and the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s response to a question.

It didn’t help, of course, that a presidential election is looming. Republican candidates led the charge, claiming that the trio of (as they portrayed them) dastardly comments were just proof to their charge that the current administration hates Israel.

The remarks Hillary Clinton reportedly made at a private gathering in Washington were indeed offensive. Ms. Clinton seemed to … Read More >>

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 >>

Beit Shemesh from the Inside

Ami Magazine, though just one year old, has repeatedly proven itself up to the task of presenting “the other side of the story” against an uninformed and often hostile non-Orthodox media. Among the best examples is surely this week’s essay on “Beit Shemesh in Turmoil” by Sam Sokol, an American charedi resident of the city. While I strongly recommend getting a copy, the following quotation corrects the record in a number of critical ways:

As a resident of Beit Shemesh, it is hard for me to maintain my composure and objectivity when reporting on the extremism problem in Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit. While the entire country howls against the Charedim for their complicity in the threats and violence against little girls, and the Prime Minister calls for the law to be applied in defense of these innocent schoolchildren, I seethe when I think of all the American black-hatters who have risked their personal safety and taken time out of their schedules to defend the children with their own physical presence. Indeed, this is not a Charedi issue at all, but an issue of Jewish terrorism practiced by a local fringe group. Though they do not bear arms, their strong-arm … Read More >>

They Will Come for You, Too

For all the protests to the contrary, recent news articles (and comments right here on Cross-Currents) have demonstrated why Agudath Israel felt the need to warn against confusing the behavior of isolated thugs with the sincere religious convictions of many Orthodox Jews. With alarming speed, the voluntary separation of genders in public spaces has been muddled with spitting on seven-year-old children.

Like it or not, or whether our favorite writer Naomi Ragen has heard of it, it is true in Halacha that a man should not walk behind a woman. Manoach walked after his wife, and for this reason was called an Am HaAretz (ignoramus). You and I and most everyone else might not consider sitting behind a woman to be problematic, but I know many Chassidim do — and I’m not willing to tell them how to observe their religion. Freedom of association and freedom of religion apply to Chassidim too. If they don’t want to sit behind a woman, does that mean they don’t deserve to ride public transportation?

Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely is the most recent to demonstrate that she doesn’t believe that Chassidim should have these freedoms. She recently, with her entourage and … Read More >>

A Much Needed Response

I have been too busy to post as often as I wanted, and yet wanted to say something, anything, about the fool who said his “rabbis” told him it was ok to spit at a child because she wasn’t dressed the way he wanted. It’s shocking, it’s appalling, and of course has been used to stir up an anti-charedi media frenzy — as if the men and women who voluntarily separate on public transportation are somehow related to lunatic sikrikim (loosely, fanatics) who listen only to the “rabbis” found in their feeble imaginations.

So it was something of a relief to receive the following in my inbox, from the authoritative source of charedi Rabbinic thought in America, putting to rest once and for all the idea that these thugs have rabbinic backing and sparing me the task of writing something more coherent myself:

Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement today:

Reports of recent events in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh are deeply disturbing.

Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – … Read More >>

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

Questions Aren’t Fatal

When, as a teenager, I first read about the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient set of social laws dating from the time of our forefather Avraham, I was greatly troubled.

Elements of the code, instituted by a king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, bear clear similarities to various of the Torah’s laws. What, I asked myself, were laws that would only be given to the Jewish People at Sinai doing inscribed on tall stones centuries earlier?

So naturally, I brought my question, like countless others about science, history and other things, to my rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He just looked at me in his inimitable, sympathetic way, and posed a question of his own. “And Avi,” he said with deliberation, “just what do you think Avraham Ovinu spent his entire life doing?”

My question, I immediately realized, wasn’t much of one. A fundamental datum about Avraham, I knew but didn’t consider, is that he spent his days tirelessly spreading the word about the Creator of all, and sharing elements of His Torah (whose laws, the Midrash teaches us, were known to, and studied by, our forefathers).

Did I …

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?