Fear Itself

image_print

A navi I’m not, but, still, it was good timing. Several weeks back, at the height of the fears fomented by bomb threats against U.S. Jewish institutions, I wrote an article for an Israeli newspaper gingerly pointing out that, of the nearly 150 threats and building evacuations and searches, not a single bomb had been found.

All that is needed, I noted, to make an effective anonymous crank call, is an unlocked cellphone and a prepaid SIM card – and “using the internet to make an untraceable call is even easier.”

I pictured a shlub without much of a life making such calls, to wield “power” or get attention, “Maybe he is even capable of true violence,” I wrote, “but then again, maybe not.”

It turned out, of course, that many, if not most, of the threats were indeed baseless, although it wasn’t a shlub who made the calls (hey, I said I’m not a navi) but, apparently, an emotionally compromised individual in Israel.

Jew-hatred surely exists, even in the U.S. There are, as there have long been, bands of neo-Nazis, radical leftist “defenders of Palestine” and other assorted misfits with overheated imaginations preparing to wage war against an imagined Jewish menace.

I’m personally acquainted with anti-Semitism, too. When I was a youngster in Baltimore, during recess one day, a group of non-Jewish neighborhood boys asked my classmates and me if they could join our baseball game. Nice kids that we were, we said sure. Once at bat, though, the opposing team suddenly lost interest in the game and turned our own Louisville Slugger bats against us. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

And a few years later, as a teen, when my father and I would walk to shul, we’d regularly hear “Heil Hitler” shouted at us by kids. In fact, mere months ago, the same phrase was aimed at me by one of a group of boys on a city bus. (I regret not having calmly asked him his name and tried to turn the encounter into a “teaching moment.” Alas, I was so disgusted, all I could summon to say to him was a frustrated “What in the world is wrong with you?”)

But it must be admitted – and appreciated – that, unlike in some European countries, there is very little actual violence against Jews in America today. In 2015, the ADL cited fully seven cases of stones or eggs having been thrown, or bb-pellets shot, at Jews – nationwide, over the course of the year. The sort of serious anti-Jewish knifings, shootings and arsons that have occurred elsewhere are simply not part of the American scene.

And as far as mainstream America is concerned, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in the country. My personal experience, despite outliers like the boy on the bus, corroborates that.

More emblematic of America than name-callers or stone-throwers were the non-Jewish riders of the subway in New York City in February who, encountering anti-Semitic graffiti on a subway map, banded together to erase it. Or the Montana town that, faced with a planned anti-Jewish march nearby, issued a resolution “denouncing hate, bigotry, and intolerance, which today masquerade under euphemisms such as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right.’”

We Jews, for good reason, live our lives against a subtle backdrop of fear, even in countries as wonderful as the one we American Jews are fortunate to call home at present. But keeping perspective is always proper. One of the k’lalos, after all, in the Tochachah in parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:36) is that we will flee at “the sound of a rustling leaf,” that we’ll perceive enemies where there aren’t any. And that is a bane, not an ideal.

There are times for anxiety, to be sure. But there are also times, too, to feel deeply thankful for our security. The words many attribute to R’ Nachman miBreslov, that, on the narrow bridge that is the world, the main thing is “not to be afraid at all,” are not, in fact, his words. What he wrote (Likutei Tinyana, 48) was not “lo l’fached”—“[one should] not fear,” but, rather, “shelo yispached” – “[that one] not become fearful,” not, in other words, frighten himself.

I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to potential danger for Jews. I’m not in the “It can’t happen here” camp. Of course “it” can. Jewish fortunes have turned on dimes throughout history.

It just isn’t happening now, and it behooves us to reflect on that great brachah.

© Hamodia 2017

The Riddle of the Fours

image_print

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah.

Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of what we call the letter daled, whose value is four).

Let us move fourward – please forgive (fourgive?) me! – on the question of… why.

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our mesorah teaches, is particularly aimed.

Which it why the Seder persists, not only in the memories of all who are reading this, but in those of countless Jews who have strayed far from our mesorah.  So many Jews who are, tragically, alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have drifted too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own “versions.”  (I once, long ago, joked before a group that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

Part of the brilliance of the Haggadah is its employ of “child-friendly” elements.  Not just to entertain the young people at the Seder and keep them awake, but to subtly plant the seeds of important ideas in their minds and hearts.  Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy – and of the most effective sort.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah.  Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood.  It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Before the event that we celebrate on the Seder night took place, a multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants were in Mitzrayim. Each individual rose or fell on his or her own merits.  And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave Mitzrayim.  Those who did, though, who emerged from their blood-adorned doorways and passed through the channel of the Yam Suf, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of an interwoven whole, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but inexorably linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love.  We impress our charges with the fact that they are links in a shimmering ethereal chain stretching back to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and then entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to HaKadosh Boruch Hu – at Har Sinai.

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very precise one.  We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.  Although the father of the home may be conducting the Seder, he is acting not in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a nurturer of the neshamos of the children present, an imparter of identity.  And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Mothers, of course, are the parents who most effectively mold their children, who most make them who they are.  That, interestingly, parallels the halachic determinant of Jewish identity, which is dependent on mothers.  While a Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It’s only speculation, but it has long struck me as having the ring of emes.  The recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reflective of that halachic status-determinant, and, at the same time, reminding us of the inestimable importance of mothers.

Because the Haggadah, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ resolutions take place.  We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four kosos and all, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2017 Hamodia

Black Hats Don’t Always Mean Bad Guys

image_print

In an enlightening example of how the rush to publish “juicy” stories without doing the requisite research can lead media to propagate falsehoods, a New Jersey radio station, NJ 1015, broke a story recently that was, well, itself broke – bereft, that is, of fact.

The news station, the flagship broadcasting arm of the Townsquare New Jersey News Network, apparently taking its “information” from a blog, described what one of its personalities, Jeff Deminski, called a “truly disgusting situation,” one that, he asserted, “most will be afraid to talk about because they want to be politically correct” – i.e. uncritical of Orthodox Jews.

Lakewood, New Jersey, as is well known, is home to a large and growing Orthodox population.  A large mall is being considered by the local township’s planning board.  Some Orthodox residents are in favor of the project, others opposed (so much for the image of a solid Orthodox bloc).

The blog and the radio station asserted that 1,200 Orthodox Jews had signed a petition opposing the mall, on the grounds, among other things, that it might include stores owned “by goyim.”

Another commentator on the station, Sergio Bichao, quoted the petition further as fretting that “the presence and influence of non-Jews,” should the mall be built, “is terrifying.”  Mr. Bichao took the opportunity to reprise other alleged local Orthodox nefariousness, like the community’s utilization of the school board to spend “tens of millions of public dollars on tuition and transportation for students to attend out-of-district special-education and religious schools,” to the detriment of “black and Latino” public school students; and accusations against “Lakewood developers and religious leaders of promoting ‘blockbusting,’ the practice of scaring off homeowners with the specter of an invading ethnic minority — in this case, Orthodox Jews — in the hopes of driving down real estate prices in order to spur a buyer’s market.”

Never mind that the law requires school districts to provide special education in appropriate settings to all its school children (even Orthodox Jewish ones), and that insufficient funding is available to the Lakewood district to maintain its current educational needs; or that the actions of one of two individuals acting on their own who aggressively offered to buy Lakewood-area homes were attributed to the entire Orthodox community – or that their methods were widely condemned by other Orthodox residents and leaders.

All that matters is that the bad guys be the ones with the black hats.

But what also matters, or should, is truth.  It turns out that the blog had it wrong (and has since removed the post and issued a correction).

The “petition” that contained the offensive language was an open letter created by one misguided fellow. The actual petition that had garnered 1,200 signatures consisted of two lines of text, reading, in a medley of Hebrew and English: “We are requesting from Cedarbridge Corporation [the developer promoting the mall project] to withdraw from their involvement in making a shopping center in our town.”

The signatories to that petition have reasons to oppose the mall project.  Aside from traffic issues and such, there is the fact that among the values held dear by the Orthodox community is a rejection of materialism – the sort of excess on which shopping malls are arguably predicated.

Smaller commercial projects, aimed at providing material necessities rather than enticing people to buy stuff they don’t really need abound in the community.  And their proprietors include both Jews and non-Jews.

What’s more, the sort of businesses that inhabit malls nationwide include some, owned by Jews or by non-Jews, whose advertising and storefront displays are far from consonant with the Orthodox stress on modesty.

But whatever side of the “mall in Lakewood” issue anyone may be on, there is – or should be – only one side worthy of backing on the issue of news organizations’ responsibility to do due research on stories they provide the public – particularly when an inaccurate story is likely to engender animus toward an identifiable racial, ethnic or religious group.

Why I’m Not Bullish on Fearless Girl

image_print

For two decades, I’ve passed “Charging Bull,” the iconic bronze statue that stands near Wall Street, twice every workday when I walk from the Staten Island Ferry to my office in Manhattan. Now, I have to pass her too.

I was never particularly fond of the beast, which always struck me as a bronze descendant of the Golden Calf. Now ‘Fearless Girl,” a new statue of a young lady in high tops who leans in defiantly just a few feet from the bull’s horns, leaves me equally unimpressed.

Read more here.

Callousness or Conscientiousness?

image_print

The most incriminatory and unarguable allegation leveled by some Senate Judiciary Committee panelists against Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch was, apparently, that he isn’t Merrick Garland. Guilty as charged.

Mr. Garland, of course, for anyone blessedly short of political memory, was former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016. Republican senators refused to schedule a hearing for that nominee since, they argued, a new president would be inaugurated a mere ten months later.

In this observer’s mind, and entirely unrelated to either my feelings about Mr. Obama or the fact that Judge Garland is Jewish, that refusal was a failure of congressional conscience. No matter how lame a presidential duck may be (and ten months is a substantial amount of time for a waterfowl to limp about), a sitting president has a right to nominate a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat; and the legislative branch, a responsibility to fairly consider him.

But the fact that something unconscionable was done cannot change reality. Bad things happen (or are wrought), but life must go on. Mr. Garland’s mistreatment does not implicate Mr. Gorsuch in any way. And the latter, as per his reputation and his thoughtful responses during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, is an individual eminently qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Less incriminatory, and entirely arguable, were two other charges brought against the nominee: that he once made remarks disparaging to expectant mothers, and that he showed callous misjudgment in a fraught legal case, ruling for an employer against an employee.

In the first case, a former law student of Judge Gorsuch alleged that, in a course at the University of Colorado Law School last year, he told his class that employers, specifically law firms, should ask women seeking jobs about their plans for establishing a family, and implied that women routinely manipulate companies when they are interviewed, in order to extract maternity benefits.

Asked if the charge was true, Mr. Gorsuch replied, “No.”

“I would have never have said [such a thing],” he continued, “I’d be delighted to actually clear this up.”

In a letter to the committee, another student in the class disputed the account. And a former law clerk for Mr. Gorsuch, Janie Nitze, said that when she heard the allegations, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” She and 10 other female former clerks also sent a letter to the committee in support of the candidate. In it, the 11 women asserted that “The judge has spoken of the struggles of working attorneys to juggle family with work obligations; not once have we heard him intimate that those struggles are, or should be, shouldered by one gender alone.”

The second attempt to portray Mr. Gorsuch as an ogre involved the case of a truck driver who was fired for abandoning his cargo trailer when its brakes froze in sub-zero temperatures. The unfortunate man, after repeatedly being told by the company to stay put since help was on the way, decided – entirely understandably, considering the temperature and the malfunctioning of the heater in the truck cab – to detach the trailer from the cab and drive away.

The legal question in the case was whether a “whistleblower” provision that protects a driver when he “refuses to operate a vehicle” because of safety concerns covered the trucker who chose instead to operate his vehicle.

It may have been heartless for the employer to fire the trucker, in other words, but did it violate the letter of the statute? Judge Gorsuch, in a dissent to a 2016 ruling by his two colleagues on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, contended that it did not.

For that stance, the nominee was painted as heartless himself, unconcerned with the “little guy.” But an American judge, of course, no less than, l’havdil, a posek in a monetary issue, must render his dispassionate judgment, devoid of sympathy or antipathy toward either litigant, “big company” or “little guy.” The Torah enjoins us to not “favor the face of the poor one” in court (Vayikra, 19:15).

In 97 percent of 2,700 cases, Mr. Gorsuch noted, his judgments were part of unanimous decisions; and he was in the majority 99 percent of the time.

No, he’s not Merrick Garland, it must be conceded. He is Neil Gorsuch.

And eminently qualified for a seat on the republic’s highest court.

© 2017 Hamodia

Unfair Play

image_print

In the current polarized political atmosphere, where “team” mentality – “our guys are great, yours are bums” – seems to be the default state of mind, and where objective, thoughtful fairness is the rarest of birds, it must be particularly hard to be a black conservative Republican.

Like Justice Clarence Thomas, Stanley Crouch and Thomas Sowell before him, Dr. Ben Carson, the once-presidential candidate and now Housing and Urban Development Secretary, was recently reminded of the perils of that identity, when an entirely innocent comment he made was blown out of all proportion by a horde of players from Team Black and Team Democrat.

As he began his first full week leading HUD, which provides housing assistance to low-income people and development block grants to communities, and enforces fair housing, Dr. Carson spoke to a standing-room-only audience of the agency’s employees.

He praised them for their dedication to HUD’s mission of “helping the downtrodden, helping the people in our society to… climb the ladder.” And then he extolled the United States as a land of opportunity, saying: “That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The positively lupine reaction to that eloquent paean to America was to pounce on Dr. Carson’s pointedly loose use of the word “immigrant” with reference to African slaves brought to these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the overheated comments that suffused the media, one would have thought that the doctor had extolled slavery rather than the aspirations of slaves, that he had made a direct comparison rather than a clear contrast.

Pundits and academics across the land rent their garments at the desecration, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota railed that Dr. Carson had shown a “stunning misunderstanding of history… a very scary thing,” and declared that the doctor’s perspective makes him unqualified to lead HUD.

I don’t know what sort of president Dr. Carson would have made, had he prevailed in the Republican primary. He certainly showed misjudgment by imagining that civility is something appreciated by the American electorate.

But I find it easy to envision that he might be just what an agency like HUD needs: someone who recognizes that, however dismal one’s past was or one’s present is, the healthy attitude is fortitude, seeing opportunity in the future and recognizing the role one can play in his own destiny.

Dr. Carson’s personal story exemplifies that well. A poor student in Detroit with, by his own recounting, an anger management problem, he “ask[ed] G-d to help me find a way to deal with this temper” and studied Mishlei. The passuk, he says, that spoke to him most powerfully was “Tov erech apayim migibor…” – “Better a patient man than a mighty one, [better] a man who controls his temper than one who overtakes a city” (16:32). He set himself to the task of self-improvement and earned a full scholarship to Yale, working summers as, variously, a clerk in a payroll office, a supervisor of a crew picking up trash along the highway and on an assembly line. At Yale, he worked part-time as a campus student police aide.

In 1984, when he was 33, Dr. Carson became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, the youngest doctor in America at the time to hold such a position. And he went on to distinguish himself, pioneering groundbreaking surgeries and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., in 2008.

Interestingly, an American president, during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives, made a similar point to the one that earned Dr. Carson such opprobrium.

He said that “Life in America was not always easy. It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves… But… they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

That was Barack Obama, in 2015.

Dr. Carson, in his speech, pledged to lead the agency with an “emphasis on fairness for everybody… complete fairness for everybody.”

How shameful that fairness seems to utterly elude the “team players.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Mitzvos and “Making It”

image_print

In aveilus, I do not listen to music these days. But there is ambient music in many places that can’t be avoided, so I try at least not to enjoy it. Which doesn’t usually pose much of a problem.

Two places, though, where I have to spend a bit of time each weekday and where there is sometimes music – live, no less – are the ferry terminals in Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

There, too, the offerings are usually less than pleasurable to my ear. The strange lady who plays a saw hasn’t made an appearance in years; and the Mexican mariachi ensemble shows up only occasionally.

But there is an amazingly talented string quartet that sometimes shows up on the Staten Island side, and plays classical pieces for those waiting for morning ferries. It’s the kind of performance people willingly pay to see in a concert hall. And here it’s offered for free (though there’s a bucket for donations), and it is greatly appreciated by the crowd.

In the past, I would try to get up close to the music and to marvel at the dexterity of the musicians, their bows sailing slowly or swiftly, but always precisely, across the taut strings. These days, though, I stand back and try – it’s hard – to not find pleasure in the sounds. The onlookers stand there transfixed.

Until, that is, the doors to the ferry open. The spell is then broken and the mass of music aficionados suddenly morphs back into a bleary-eyed mob of commuters as the herd heads for, as P.T. Barnum would call it, the egress.

If the musicians are bothered by their rapidly dissipating audience, they don’t show it. They clearly are playing in the moment. The impromptu concert attendees, though, move quickly on, to something more important to them: their jobs.

Some are working stiffs, no doubt, low on the economic totem pole. Others, though, are headed to a particular place on the other side of the bay, a place called Wall Street. I overhear them sometimes talking about megamergers and stock options and bonuses; and the numbers they drop into their conversations drop my jaw as well. Maybe it’s just braggadocio, but if these guys make anything near the sort of money they claim, I can’t imagine what they do with it all. Okay, so they pay full tuition at their kids’ private schools; as we all know, that can amount to quite a pretty penny. But none of them, it would seem, have children in yeshivah or kollel. How may yachts, really, can one family use?

Financial “success” is something universally pursued, and no community is truly immune to the redifas hamammon virus. Jews, too, a noted baal mussar once noted, are easily infected; after all, he remarked, one of our ancestors was Lavan.

But, of course, not all yerushos are equal, and Lavan’s in this case is most properly shunned.

And improperly embraced, which embrace can lead to things like “cutting corners” in business dealings or taxes; or even to discussions of commercial matters or the stock market on Shabbos, something clearly forbidden by the halachah of v’daber davar.

To be sure, there’s nothing technically wrong with having prodigious economic goals. One can live a life of Torah and mitzvos and pursue financial achievement too. But the “too” is so very vital. Because only one of those things – mitzvos or “making it” – can in the end be one’s ultimate life goal. The other must be relegated, like the concert is by the ferry passengers, to second place – at best.

That point, I think, is made, obliquely but undeniably by the Tanna Rabi Yitzchak, who (Bava Basra, 25b) advised that, when davening, “One who wishes to become wise should face south; and [one who wishes] to become rich should face north.” That advice, the Tanna explains, is based on the fact that, in the Kodashim, the shulchan, which represents sustenance, is in the north, and the menorah, which represents wisdom, is in the south.

This is not the place to expound on the halachic ramifications of reconciling that advice with the Gemara in Brachos (30a) about facing Eretz Yisrael and the Makom Hamikdash. (Readers are pointed to the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on Orach Chayim 94; 1-3.)

But however one might endeavor to put Rabi Yitzchak’s advice into action, one thing is self-evident and certain: It is impossible to simultaneously face both north and south.

© 2017 Hamodia

Deportation Vexation

image_print

My wife and I don’t employ an undocumented housekeeper – or a documented one, for that matter. But we recently met someone in the former category. “Leah” greeted my wife and me as we arrived at the home of some friends who had invited us for a Shabbos seudah. Our hosts had not yet returned from the shul where they daven, and so I retired to the living room, and my wife went to the kitchen and spoke a bit with Leah, who had immigrated from south of the border.

It turns out that Leah loves working for our friends, and considers them among the nicest people she’s ever met. We weren’t surprised. We have good taste in friends.

It turns out, too, that she lives in fear of deportation, now that the administration is engaged in a crackdown on “illegal immigrants.” On February 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began carrying out “fugitive enforcement operations.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 680 people were arrested in five cities that week.

It wouldn’t seem, though, at least at first glance, that Leah really has much to fear. The crackdown is aimed at criminal elements, and she, other than having immigrated unlawfully, is a law-abiding person. In the words of President Trump’s recent tweet, “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” Not housekeepers. Or gardeners, like the ones the president referred to in 2013 when, according to someone present, he told a group of young people born to undocumented workers: “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami… my golf course is tended by all these Hispanics – if it wasn’t for them my lawn wouldn’t be the lawn it is; it’s the best lawn.”

In fact, going after undocumented criminals was precisely the policy of the previous administration, which deported no less than 409,849 people in 2012. In 2015, The ICE, in “Operation Cross Check,” arrested more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal records in one week. And even when the Obama administration shifted its enforcement priorities so that the vast majority of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants would not be subject to immediate deportation, it still went after convicted criminals, terrorism threats and recent immigrants with gusto.

So what, if anything, has changed?

Well, the language, for starters. Mr. Trump called the crackdown “a military operation,” though that description was walked back by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who explained that the president had been speaking descriptively, not literally.

But there is, in fact, a larger pool now of potential deportees, more people deemed enforcement “priorities.” An undocumented immigrant needn’t have been convicted of a crime to be deported. He or she can simply be charged with a crime, or deemed to have committed an act that an immigration agent considers, on his own, a deportable offense. What’s more, for the first time, ICE policy now allows the arrest of undocumented immigrants who have only immigration violations on their record, if they happen to be discovered in the course of law enforcement actions.

That, it seems, is what Leah was frightened of. While stories of ICE personnel conducting random “raids” in various public places, and their supposed plans to arrest people on their way to worship have been decisively debunked, she had heard of undocumented people with traffic misdemeanors being arrested.

Leah might take heart in the president’s apparent shift on DACA, former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows “dreamers,” people who illegally immigrated as children, to remain in the U.S. and work.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump vowed to “immediately terminate” the program. But – deeply angering some of his more anti-immigrant supporters – he has since softened his tone, calling most of the roughly 840,000 immigrants “incredible kids” and the topic of their status “one of the most difficult subjects I have.”

And while he weighs the issue of “dreamers,” and lawmakers of both parties in Congress are trying to devise legislation to carve out a special status for them, the administration is still issuing work permits to undocumented people under the DACA program.

That is an encouraging sign, at least to those of us who feel concern for young people brought over to the U.S. as children, and for all immigrants like Leah, who are only seeking better lives for themselves and their families. We Jews, both inherently and in light of our own recent history, should have a special appreciation of their hopes to one day become full-fledged American citizens.

© 2017 Hamodia

Bursting Our Bubbles

image_print

Ever heard of Chartbeat? Assuming you answered no, well, neither had I, at least not until last week, when it was reported that the web analytics company released a new analysis of the reader preferences of 148 news organizations.

The apolitical company tracks what news stories are being read most at any given moment, along with where those readers came from and how long they spent on each story. Because so many news sources use the service, Chartbeat has abundant data that can be usefully crunched.

Which is precisely what two researchers at the firm did, first using readers’ political views to divide media into those tending to have more liberal readers and those with more conservative ones. The New York Times and the Washington Post are examples of the former; the Wall St. Journal and Forbes, of the latter.

The researchers then studied how many articles organizations in both groups published about a given news event, along with the amount of time their readers spent with the stories.

The Chartbeat analysis suggests that stories were generally covered equally by all the news sources, but that readers of particular political bent seemed to avoid certain stories: those challenging their pre-existent positions.

James Shepperd, a University of Florida professor of psychology, has written about that fact. “Generally,” he says, “people prefer information consistent with their beliefs, views and prior behaviors, and avoid information that’s inconsistent” with them.

That’s true not only in politics. One study of Belgian and Dutch soccer fans found that readers were significantly less interested in news about their favorite team after a loss. Losers tend, in the study’s neological nomenclature, to CORF, or “cut off reflected failure,” while winners prefer to BIRG, or “bask in reflected glory.”

That’s unfortunate. We lose out by not exposing ourselves to points of view diametric to those we currently hold. Whether those points of view end up helping us more finely hone our own different ones, or whether they make us reconsider our assumptions, they are exquisitely valuable.

By CORFing and BIRGing, as we are so often inclined to do, we deny ourselves the ability to truly objectively analyze happenings and topics. There are almost always two sides to any story, and an accurate conclusion can really only be reached by weighing them both.

As a certain ex-president said in his farewell address: “We [have increasingly] become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on [all] the evidence that is out there.” Perceptive guy.

There are, of course, certainties in life, convictions we rightly embrace without reservation. A committed Jew affirms that Creation has a purpose, and that the goals of his own life are defined by Hashem’s will as communicated through the Torah and its interpreters. Most people  also consider near-certain the consensuses in specific realms of people presumed wiser in those realms, be they doctors, lawyers or tax advisors.

But to proclaim, without examining all sides of a particular controversial policy, action, official or piece of legislation, that we just know without question that it or he or she is good or bad is, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

And even when we have made our personal analyses and taken positions and made the cases for our opinions, it is always beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps even their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our intelligence and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

That realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of Chazal’s statements (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah,  21:2) that just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently. A quest for truth requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated these days with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery; our society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty, not only in the realm of dress and mores, but in attitudes and stances as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so many are so certain of so much.

Trumpeting opinions that haven’t been honestly subjected to the test of different ones does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; on the contrary, it suffocates them.

© 2017 Hamodia