A Magical Encounter

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Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting.  “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind.  As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry.  I laughed and said, “I wish!”  The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers.  What aptitude we have lies in our tefillos, not the hocus-pocus little Musa was eagerly imagining.

I don’t know if it had been his mother who informed the boy then that we Jews are sorcerers (she had walked ahead), or whether it was something he had been taught earlier.  But it’s unlikely that the characterization was intended to endear us to him.  Whether my friendly demeanor and denial of the charge will in any way prevent him from absorbing his “chinuch” is something I’ll not likely ever know.  But one can hope.

The view of Jews as sorcerers is an ancient one.  When half of Europe’s population perished in the 14th century’s Black Death, Jews were less affected than their neighbors (something commonly attributed to our regular hand-washing, an activity shunned by non-Jews at the time).  Jewish communities were massacred on the assumption that their members had poisoned wells or cast magical spells on their neighbors

Apparently the imagining of our sorcery, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, persists today.  Last year, Tehran University professor Valiollah Naghipourfar was asked by an interviewer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting whether jinns, or demons, can “be put to use in intelligence gathering.”

His response was: “The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews.”

And in 2013, Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Namir charged that evil Jewish (and Christian – the fellow’s an equal opportunity paranoiac) demons had possessed Palestinians, and were behind a Gazan mother’s attempt to murder her child.  She was, Mr. Namir explained, possessed by “sixty-seven Jewish jinn.”  Palestinian exorcist Sheikh Abu Khaled reported that “most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”

And so it goes.

It’s easy today to become oblivious to how some ignorant people among our neighbors see us. After all, we regularly come into contact with unbigoted, friendly non-Jews.  The morning of the day I’m writing this, a bus driver who could have ignored the bearded, black-hatted man walking up a hill instead signaled happily that I didn’t have to rush, that he’d wait for me. From my desk at Agudath Israel’s headquarters, I regularly see respectful public officials who have come to visit.

Sure, we all realize that there are third-world inhabitants with benighted attitudes toward Jews, who cling to dark fantasies about the Yahuds.  But we don’t often imagine that our neighbors might be sullied by such psychological slime. My post-Shacharis interaction was a little reminder, I suppose, a reality check.

And yet, it’s not hard to understand the assumption of our wizardry.

To be sure, divination and witchcraft are foreign to Jews and forbidden.  As Bilam will remind us this Shabbos, as he does each year, “There is no sorcerer in Yisrael.”

But isn’t the fact that, through millennia of persecution and attempts at our annihilation we Jews persist as a nation… if not magical, miraculous?  And aren’t the achievements of Jews, not only in the most meaningful realms like Torah and chessed, but even in fields more readily appreciated by “the world”… astonishing?

There is indeed magic here, though, of course, it’s not the right word.  We’re not sorcerers, chas v’shalom.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something supernatural – in the word’s most basic meaning, “beyond physical nature” – behind our survival, in our successes, and lying in our future.  As we prepare to enter Bein Hametzarim, our mourning should be tempered by that thought.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Non-Crime of Omission

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I have to admit that there was one assertion in Michael Oren’s recent book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” that disturbed me greatly.  As I wrote two weeks ago, I found his book’s main points, which he outlined in essays for Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, to be factually incorrect.  But I was taken aback by Mr. Oren’s description of how President Obama left Israel off a list of countries the president lauded for aiding Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010.  That omission – especially considering Israel’s prodigious role in rescue and recovery efforts after that disaster – seemed to contradict my positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.

On pages 132-133 of his book, Mr. Oren writes how his “foreboding only deepened” when Mr. Obama, on January 15, three days after the earthquake struck, made an official statement in which he announced that American personnel were on the ground in Haiti and that “help continues to flow in” as well from “Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others.”   Israel’s omission from the list, Mr. Oren writes, made him feel “like I had been kicked in the chest.”

The passage greatly bothered me.  As it apparently did the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas.   But whereas I just puzzled over the passage, Mr. Kampeas actually researched its claim, and compiled a timeline of events that January.  What he found was that Israel’s rescue activities – powerful and laudable though they were – only began the day after Mr. Obama spoke.

A day earlier, on January 14, four Israeli situation assessors did arrive in Haiti, joining the Israeli ambassador of the neighboring Dominican Republic, but it was only on the 16th that the Israeli field hospital was first set up.  Anyone less negatively inclined than Mr. Oren could easily imagine the president asking a member of his staff to find out from Haitian officials which countries were on the ground searching for survivors.  And receiving the answer he incorporated into his speech.

So Mr. Oren’s feeling kicked in chest was, to put it mildly, unwarranted.  Perhaps he wanted Mr. Obama to list all the countries that had plans for rescue operations, but there were many more of those.  There would have been no reason to mention only Israel.

Why harp on Mr. Oren’s book?  And why reiterate Mr. Obama’s numerous actions on behalf of Israel’s security, as I have several times?

For a simple reason: One of Judaism’s most fundamental principles is hakaras hatov, literally “recognition of the good.”

One may certainly disagree with any of the president’s actions one doesn’t like.  But one may not overlook what he has done.  I listed a few things two weeks ago in my earlier essay on Mr. Oren’s book.  There is, however, much more, like increased military aid to Israel, like Iron Dome, like Stuxnet.  And like his words when he visited Israel two years ago.

“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here,” he declared, “tended the land here, prayed to G-d here.”  And he called the fact of Jews living in their ancestral land “a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”

Needless to say, as the Zoharic prayer “B’rich Sh’mei,” recited by many when the Torah is removed from the aron, has it, we are not to put our trust in any man.  And the hearts of leaders, in any event, are in Hashem’s hands, and subject to the effect of our own merits.

But none of that absolves us of the holy duty to be makir tov, to recognize the reality of good things and to give credit where it is due.

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In Judaism, Love Doesn’t Always Win

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In their rejoicing over  the recent Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, various Jewish groups grievously misrepresented Judaism.  An essay of mine about the Jewish religious tradition’s true take on homosexuality and the formalization of same-sex unions appears in Haaretz, at

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.663962

You may have to register to access the piece (registration is free).  But the paper does not permit me to post the piece here.

I have some further thoughts about the recent decision, and hope to share them here soon.

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Oren Gets Ornery

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It’s axiomatic that diplomats must be, well, diplomatic. That might explain why Michael Oren, a current member of the Knesset (Kulanu) but who served as ambassador of Israel to the United States from 2009 until 2013, kept his disillusionment with President Barack Obama under wraps until now.

In a Wall St. Journal op-ed to promote a new book he’s written, Mr. Oren has accused Mr. Obama of, if not quite in the WSJ headline-writer’s contention, “abandon[ing] Israel,” at least (in Mr. Oren’s actual words) “abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America.”

A serious charge, though, in its own right.

Mr. Oren acknowledges that “contrary to many of his detractors, Mr. Obama was never anti-Israel” and “significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish State.”  The president, moreover, “rushed to help Israel in 2011 when the Carmel forest was devastated by fire.”

Presumably the ex-ambassador appreciates, too, Mr. Obama’s swift and strong warning to Egyptian authorities in 2011 that they had better protect mob-besieged Israeli embassy guards in Cairo.  And the president’s informing the Arab world in his 2009 Cairo speech that the U.S.-Israel bond is “unbreakable.”  As well as things like the administration’s condemnation of the Palestinian Authority’s “factually incorrect” denial of the Kosel Maaravi’s connection to the Jewish people.  And its vetoing of every anti-Israel U.N. Security Council proposal raised during its tenure.

But never mind all that (and more).  Mr. Obama stands accused by Mr. Oren of two sins: openly disagreeing with Israel, which Mr. Oren contends had “never” happened before; and neglecting to provide Israel with advance copies of statements concerning U.S. policy in the Mideast.

Sin #1, according to Mr. Oren, consisted of Mr. Obama’s telling American Jewish leaders in 2009 that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lack of movement toward a peace process “erodes our credibility with the Arabs.”  And the president’s “void[ing of] George W. Bush’s commitment to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement.”  And Mr. Obama’s call for a temporary “freeze of Israeli construction” in contested areas.

Sin #2?  President Obama didn’t share a copy of his Cairo speech with Israel ahead of time, even though it contained “unprecedented support for the Palestinians” and “recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power.”

Strong evidence for a guilty verdict, it might seem.  Some pesky facts, though, get in the way.

American disagreement with Israel was unprecedented?  Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Clinton (let alone Carter) all publicly took issue with various Israeli policies and actions.  Pesky fact.

Support for a “two-state solution,” as it happens, has been American policy for decades (not to mention the current desire of a majority of Israelis – and the hope, at least so stated, of Mr. Netanyahu).  Thus, whatever one may think about the idea’s wisdom, not advancing it certainly erodes Palestinian hopes, and the credibility of the U.S. as an effective advocate for a peace agreement.  Pesky fact.

As to the terms of a final peace agreement – if ever there is one – Mr. Obama has never – never – said or implied that major settlement blocs or Jewish Jerusalem will not end up as part of Israel.  When he famously spoke about an agreement “based” on the 1967 lines, he also added, in the very same sentence, that it would include land swaps to ensure Israel’s security – code for land Israel considers essential.  Pesky fact.

As to a construction freeze, Mr. Netanyahu actually ordered one, for 10 months, in 2009.  The Palestinian Authority irresponsibly wasted the opportunity to negotiate then.  Would another freeze yield a different result?  No one can know.  But urging Mr. Netanyahu to try again isn’t an abandonment of anything.

Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech, while it indeed included outreach to the Arab world (a wise, if doomed effort), contained not only a clear call on that world to accept Israel but a condemnation of  “baseless, ignorant, and hateful” Arab Holocaust denial, and of Arab nations’ “threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews.”

No, he didn’t announce an invasion of Iran in that speech.  He referenced that country’s past evils and asserted that the U.S. is “prepared to move forward” to help prevent “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”  Mr. Oren, and others, might consider that approach misguided. But the leader of the free world is entitled to his own opinion about what will best protect Israel and the rest of the world.  And he may even be right.

Mr. Oren didn’t respond to messages from the New York Times last Thursday.  He had a book party that night.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Thoughtless Jewish Jeers

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I’m trying to understand the sort of mindlessness that expressed itself in the jeering of Treasury Secretary Jacob (“Jack”) Lew by some Jews at a recent gathering.

The third Jerusalem Post Annual Conference which took place in Manhattan on June 7 and featured Israeli and American officials and journalists, was convened with the hope of garnering international attention.  It succeeded, if only in the widespread reportage of the way some in attendance reacted to Mr. Lew’s measured and accurate words.

Applause ensued when he told the crowd that the U.S. continues to consider Israel’s security a top priority as it negotiates a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities and that “we must never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.”

The Treasury Secretary then explained how the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran were intended to pressure that country to agree to negotiations about limiting and monitoring its nuclear program, and that they succeeded.  The first murmurs from the crowd were heard then.

And then, when he asserted that Iran’s movement toward a nuclear weapon had been arrested for now, and that an agreement, if one is signed, would thwart the outlaw nation’s suspected designs, the booing began in ugly earnest.

Mr. Lew is an Orthodox Jew with impeccable pro-Israeli security credentials who worked in the 1980s with Natan Sharansky to secure freedom for Soviet Jews and served for a year as Mr. Obama’s Chief of Staff.  With the knowledge of a true insider he went on to assert that “We are not operating on an assumption that Iran will act in good faith” and that “No administration has done more for Israel’s security than this one.”

Members of the audience openly jeered.  One called out “Nonsense!” Another shouted “Chamberlain,” a reference to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who tried to appease the Nazis.

According to one Israeli journalist present, it was “one of the surliest receptions ever accorded to such a high-ranking administration official by a Jewish audience in the United States.”

Jerusalem Post editor Steve Linde tried to quiet the audience.  Mr. Lew, looking sad, pleaded, “I only ask that you listen to me as we’ve listened to you,” to no avail.

Clearly taken aback by what transpired at its conference, the Jerusalem Post subsequently published an editorial calling Mr. Lew “a true friend” of Israel.

I do get that some American Jews regard any deal with Iran, even one that will include monitoring of all Iranian nuclear facilities and strict limits on Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon, as a bad idea.  Even though the only alternatives are to do nothing or to attack Iran, which knowledgeable Israeli and American military and intelligence experts say would only somewhat set back Iran’s nuclear program and would further incentivize the rogue nation’s determination to attack Israel and the West.

But don’t those who feel that war is preferable to a deal realize that it is not only uncouth but counterproductive to express their view by booing an Administration official (much less an accomplished, informed and pro-Israel one like Mr. Lew)?

Apparently not.  The mentality of such jeerers is that Jews are no longer in galus, that Israel doesn’t need the U.S., that her existence constitutes the geulah shleimah and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, if not Moshiach himself, his harbinger.

The catcallers were likely among those who decried the U.S. Supreme Court decision the very next day that ruled in favor of the White House and undermined an act of Congress that aimed to allow U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to request passports listing Israel as their birthplace.

As nice as it would be for the U.S. to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Yerushalayim, all American presidents since 1948, when the U.S. recognized Israel, consistently held the position that no state has sovereignty over Jerusalem.  George W. Bush, no less than President Obama, refused to enforce the Congressional action.

And the ruling, in any event, was not about Israel per se, but rather about who gets to chart foreign policy, the President or Congress.  Should Congress’s and the White House’s positions be reversed at some point in the future, the decision will prove to Israel’s benefit.

It was though, a timely reminder that the world, including even Israel’s closest friends, is not yet ready to recognize the unbreakable Jewish bond between Yerushalayim – the object of Jewish yearning for millennia – and Klal Yisrael.

A reminder, in other words, that we’re still in golus, jeerers and all.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Our Children are Children Too

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Predictably, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to grant some relief to parents of nonpublic school children as they struggle to shoulder the costs of tuition has come under attack from public school union leaders – like American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in this venue recently.

Ms. Weingarten portrays the situation as a zero-sum game, and proponents of the governor’s plan as unconcerned with the nation’s public schools.

No redder herrings have ever graced a trail.

All Americans, including those of us who choose private schools for our children, have a stake in a healthy public school system.  We know that the vast majority of the nation’s children will be educated within the walls of public schools, and that, thus, the tenor of American society will depend on the quality of education in public schools.

No one wishes to deprive the public school system of any of the funding it deserves.  And if the New York Education Department’s current annual $20.6 billion Operating Budget (plus its $12.8 billion five-year Capital Plan Budget to cover costs associated with building new schools, renovating existing buildings and investing in other new assets within school buildings,) is insufficient for providing a quality education to New York’s public school children, it should be increased

That, however, has nothing to do with the issue of helping parents who, for religious or other reasons, choose private schools for their children.  The approximately 400,000 students in New York nonpublic schools are 400,000 children who are not costing the state the more than $20,000 per student that goes toward each public school child.  There are modest entitlements that the state provides nonpublic school children, in the form of transportation, textbooks and special education programs.  But the heavy burden of tuition for such kids falls on their parents.

Many of whom are lower- or middle-class.  And so the governor’s plan will set aside $70 million to give low-income parents a – ta da! – $500 per child tax credit.   It will also establish a $50 million 75% tax credit for contributions to scholarship funds to benefit low and middle income parents.  Note the “m” in “millions,” and the “b” in the “billions” that comprise the Department of Education’s Operating Budget noted above.  There are 1000 millions in a billion.

There are, as it happens, also substantial funds in the governor’s plan earmarked for public schools, notably a $20 million tax credit to improve public education and a $10 million one to reimburse public school teachers for supplies expenditures.

The governor’s plan, therefore, “yank[s] the ladder of opportunity out from under” no one.  It simply provides some degree of aid to parents of children in nonpublic schools – without in any way affecting the tens of billions of dollars (note that “b” again) earmarked for New York’s public schools.

Ms. Weingarten suggests that commitment to public education “must be embedded in the precepts and values of our religion.”  To be sure, concern about the wellbeing of others, especially children, is a high Jewish ideal.  If Jewish values, though, are important to perpetuate, it would seem that a reasonable path to that goal would be helping needy Jewish parents afford Jewish educations for their children.  UJA-Federation, which has spoken out in favor of the governor’s plan, certainly sees it that way.

Moreover, another fundamental Jewish ideal is “mishpat,” which might best be translated as “fairness.”  Applied to children – all children – in New York schools that ideal would seem to lead toward rectifying, to whatever degree possible, a disturbing fact.  Namely that the approximately 15% of New York parents who educate their children in nonpublic schools, which must comply with a host of state curriculum, testing and attendance rules and expenses, are taxed like all citizens, save the public school system millions each year, and yet receive a pittance in government assistance for their children’s education relative to what all public school students’ parents effectively receive.

Why Ms. Weingarten seems to see helping some American children – including those in Jewish elementary and high schools – in a constitutionally permitted matter as somehow less worthy than helping other American children is a mystery.  But she would do well to ponder the truism that nonpublic school children are children too.

Or, as Ms. Weingarten herself writes, most poignantly, “The American dream belongs to us all.”

© 2015 The Jewish Week

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Who’s In Charge?

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Some of us can remember when taking a plane was a pleasant experience, even exhilarating.  Those days, of course, are long gone.

It used to be – if “good old days” syndrome hasn’t played with my memory – that only well-dressed and genteel folks flew, and that airport and airline personnel were uniformly polite and helpful. These days, air travel is a largely unpleasant affair.  Airports are crowded; cabins, even more so.  Seats are too close together, and fellow passengers, as a result, occasionally surly.  Professional staffs can be less than congenial.  Flight delays are frequent.  And then there are the “security measures.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, was established, and eventually made part of the DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, also created at that time.

Among the TSA’s 60,000 employees are the people who make passengers take off their shoes (good thing the “shoe bomber” hadn’t swallowed the explosives instead), pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, “pat down” shoeless passengers.  They’re the folks who confiscate your water bottles.

And who, it turns out, according to a secret DHS “Red Team” report, managed to miss a good number of weapons and mock bombs smuggled past them, in 67 out of 70 tests.  That’s a 95% failure rate.

DHS head Jeh Johnson initially played down that impressive percentage.  “The numbers in these reports,” he said, “never look good out of context.”  He declined, though, to add any context.

The TSA weapons scandal overshadowed a less-noticed earlier one, the revelation that the agency reported a large number of lost, stolen or missing security badges, along with uniforms and other devices used to control entry to restricted airport areas.  Over two years, more than 1,400 badges reportedly went missing at one airport alone, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.  And 270 at San Diego International Airport. O’Hare International reported 336 lost uniform items over a similar period of time, and Philadelphia International, 253.  Washington Dulles International lost 343 uniform items last year alone.

Yet, as incompetent as the TSA seems to have been, there have been no successful acts of air terrorism over the years since it was created.  Now, what explains that?

Those of us who recognize a Higher Authority than the TSA know the answer.  We realize that we are not to rely on miracles, and must employ hishtadlus, human efforts, to effect our protection.  But we comprehend, too, that it isn’t our efforts in the end that yield our wish but, rather, the will of that Higher Authority.

The best laid plans, after all, employing the most capable people, can result in disaster.

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter ordered a Delta Force operation to rescue 52 diplomats held captive at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Of the five helicopters that arrived at the staging area, one encountered mechanical problems, another got caught in a cloud of very fine sand, and a third suffered a cracked rotor blade. The mission was aborted.  And as the copters prepared to leave, one crashed into a transport aircraft, destroying both aircraft and killing eight servicemen.

By the same token, challenges that, by all logic, would seem hopeless sometimes turn out unexpectedly well.

In 1943, after more than three years of German control of France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function.  That Erev Shabbos Parashas Vayishlach, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government’s shock troops, decided it was time to end the Jewish worship.

As noted in “Butcher of Lyon” (Empire/Harper & Row, 1983), the shul’s rabbi survived the war and recounted how a member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the shul that night during Kabbalas Shabbos.   Armed with three hand grenades, he planned to lob them into the crowd from behind, and to flee before the explosions.  After quietly opening the door, he entered the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi, who was standing facing the tzibbur, and pulled the pins.

What the intruder saw at that moment, though, so shocked him that he froze wide-eyed in his tracks, barely managing to drop the grenades and flee.  Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the unexpected sight of his intended victims’ faces.  The mispallelim had suddenly, as if on cue, turned around as one to face him.

The would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at “Bo’i visholom,” as the tzibbur turned to welcome Shabbos.

So, on your next flight, as you pass through that metal detector, remember that your safety isn’t really in the hands of the bored-looking TSA people monitoring it, but in an immeasurably higher place.

© 2015 Hamodia

 

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Musing: Appraising Children

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The teaser headline on a Business Insider article —  “The ultimate status symbol for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side is not what you’d expect” — is explained by the piece in what seems a surprisingly positive way .

The status symbol isn’t “a ski home in Aspen” or a “private jet” or “a closet full of Birkin bags” (whatever they may be).  It is children.  Or in the piece’s rather gauche words, “a whole mess of kids.”

Unfortunately, the reason for the great valuing of children, the piece depressingly explains further, is that “it’s expensive to raise kids.”  Thus, progeny are a way to “flaunt your wealth.”

How sad.  Yes, children are expensive to raise and school and clothe and feed.  And, yes, they are priceless.

But their immeasurable value doesn’t lie in what they cost.

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Bias Ne’eman

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By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias.  But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world.  Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.”  And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg.  The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” apartments “originally built as a senior housing development,” as examples of real estate purchases – and notes that “meanwhile, in Brooklyn… Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting” the new development.

The piece goes on to describe some local residents’ dismay at the notion of an influx of chassidic Jews; as well as accusations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.

There is a legitimate story here, and there are two sides to it.  People who have lived for years in a rural, bucolic setting are understandably concerned about possible changes to their neighborhood. Then again, neighborhoods change (as we “wandering Jews” have all too often experienced).  And upstate New York is a prime area for both business and residential development – which will yield the region economic benefits.

The JTA piece gives prominent voice to local residents who feel they had been “hoodwinked” by the Jewish developer, and seems to endorse that assertion (see “Step 2” above).  I have no idea whether the developer acted ethically.  The article, however, ignores his denial of any wrongdoing.

And is marketing a development to a particular community somehow offensive?  Would it be if the community at issue were blacks or Asians or Swedes?

What’s more, as if to ensure that readers not dare to think of harboring any good will toward the chassidim seeking a better life upstate, the writer takes pains to note the “cautionary tale” of the Ramapo school board in Rockland County, which “had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.”

The implication, of course, that the Ramapo school board cynically plundered public schools is the gnarled (and somewhat anti-Semitism-tinged) narrative of some local residents.

The truth of the matter is rather less exciting:  The state funding formula, and laws mandating the provision of textbooks, school transportation and special education services to all school children, simply left insufficient funds to maintain some extracurricular programming and teachers in the district’s public schools.  As to “selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices,” one (non-chareidi) real estate appraiser pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving the sale of a public school.

Were the JTA offering an opinion piece, its snark and disregard of objectivity would be, although distasteful, acceptable.  Op-eds, after all, are expected to be partisan.  But the piece is a news item.  And Journalism 101 requires fairness and the presentation of both sides of an issue.

JTA is generally a responsible news organization and the writer of the Bloomsburg piece is someone I think highly of; I don’t believe he was motivated by conscious ill will. But, as a non-chareidi Jew, he may share some of the subliminal negative feelings all too many harbor toward those they regard as backward or extreme in their mode of living.

When I contacted him to express my chagrin at his piece, he responded that he simply described things as he saw them.  Asked about his article’s cynical tone and lack of objectivity, he declined to defend it, writing only that “I know I’m right.”

Such things confirm my conviction that general Jewish media – and non-Jewish media – would be best served were their reporters on things Jewish to bear surnames like Johnson or O’Brian.  Distance is what best serves objectivity.

As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

© 2015 Hamodia

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Ramapo School Board Bashing Spills Onto NYT Op-Ed Page

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The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group.  And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.

The writers claim that the school board has “denied” public school children “their state constitutional right to a sound basic education”; that it “persistently failed to act in the best interests of its public school students”; and that it “slash[ed] resources in its public schools [while] vastly increas[ing] public spending on private schools.”

The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.

The facts:

  • State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers.  Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.
  • East Ramapo’s demographics – approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools – and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it is in fact one of the poorest.
  • The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

And providing those legally mandated services is precisely what the board has done, in accordance with its statutory obligations.

Unfortunately, after those expenditures were responsibly made, insufficient funds remained to maintain some extracurricular programming in public schools – thinks like music or sports teams.  Those are valuable activities, to be sure, but they are not part of students’ “constitutional right to a sound basic education.”  And with no money to continue the supplementary programming, the board had no fiscally responsible choice but to end them – until the state provides increased funding to the district.

As East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein (who is not an Orthodox Jew) noted, “You can blame it on Jews, you can blame it on yeshivas, but the flawed state aid formula and funding cutbacks are the real culprit.”

Thus, the school board’s following the law is what has earned it the opprobrium of Ms. Tisch, Mr. Sciarra and others. They seem unaware, or choose to ignore, the salient fact that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones in yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, need and are legally entitled to textbooks and a way to get to school.

The insinuation that imagined sinister charedi villains (some do indeed wear black hats) on East Ramapo’s school board have systematically plundered the pot of local education funds to favor yeshivos over public schools is, bluntly put, an invention.  And a deeply irresponsible one, to boot, as it has fostered blatant resentment of Jews in the local community. There have been outright anti-Semitic comments made in public places, including school board meetings.  One parent suggested that “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.”  Another compared the board to “the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

Indeed, with increasing national attention being focused on the East Ramapo school district, local anti-Semitism is going viral and metastasizing into something far more dismaying, far more dangerous.

When a newspaper like The New York Times features an op-ed provocatively entitled “A School Board that Victimizes Kids,” the text of which surrounds a prominently displayed “kiddush levana osyos” pull-quote announcing “In a mostly Orthodox Jewish community, minority students suffer,” the harsh glare of incitement envelops us all.

It is refreshing to discover that not all East Ramapo’ans are being hoodwinked by the rabble-rousers. Consider the words of Brendel Charles, a black councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, who admitted to Tablet Magazine that, while “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community,” she came to realize, after her husband joined the school board, “that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Would that Ms. Tisch and Mr. Sciarra reach such enlightenment.

© 2015 Hamodia

 

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