Unfair Play

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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”

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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

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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

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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

Reading Between the Hardlines

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Mere days after senior Hamas operative Muhammad Hemada Walid al-Quqa blew himself up preparing a bomb, The New York Times noted, in a recent front page story about the Muslim Brotherhood, that “some of [its] offshoots – most notably Hamas – have been tied to attacks.”

“Tied to”?

That phrase would seem to imply some tenuousness or doubt. In reality (which, despite “alternate facts,” still exists), Hamas has been openly attacking and murdering Israeli civilians and soldiers since 1987, demonically celebrating its every “success.”

A study published in 2007 by the Journal of Economic Perspectives, an apolitical academic publication, found that, of the scores of Palestinian suicide bombings that took place from September 2000 through August 2005, 39.9 percent were carried out by Hamas. (The repugnant runner-up was Fatah, at 25.7 percent.) And then there are the rockets that have rained down on Israel from Gaza in more recent years.

As to the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as the paper of record records, hatched Hamas, while it has been trying to present a more pleasant face of late, one of its mottos is more telling: “Jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish!”

Several days after The Times referred to the Brotherhood’s spawn as merely “tied to” attacks on Jews, Hamas chose a new leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar.

Mr. Sinwar was sentenced decades ago in Israel to four life terms for the murder of Palestinians he suspected of collaboration with Israel. According to Israeli security experts, he also played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of attacks against Israeli soldiers.

The new Hamas leader was also one of the founders of Al Majd (“Glory”), a precursor of Hamas’s military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

After serving more than 20 years in jail, Sinwar was released in 2011, one of the 1,000 Arab prisoners exchanged for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Times, along with many media (the BBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Guardian and ABC News, among others) referred to Sinwar as “hardline” or a “hardliner.” While that description isn’t inaccurate (“hardliner” meaning “a person who adheres rigidly to a dogma, theory, or plan”), some other adjective might have been more informative, something, perhaps, like “convicted murderer.”

Interestingly, as it happened, another “hardliner” was in the news, too, last week: David Friedman, President Trump’s designate for ambassador to Israel. That was the word used by many of the very same media noted above to describe Mr. Friedman.

Mr. Friedman has not, to anyone’s knowledge, ordered the murder of anyone, or founded a terrorist group. His hardliner-ness consists of his past skepticism about a two-state solution to the Israel-Arab conflict and various intemperate statements he made about Jews and others who he feels have advocated for Palestinians to the detriment of Israel.

Last Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the nominee. In light of some of Mr. Friedman’s earlier statements, I was prepared to be uninspired. But the give-and-take between Mr. Friedman and his Senatorial inquisitors left me, instead, impressed. Deeply so.

Mr. Friedman was composed (even when pro-Palestinian activists obnoxiously interrupted the hearing, shouting slogans – one, righteously blowing a shofar – before being escorted out of the room by security personnel), eloquent, thoughtful, fair-minded and – most impressively – willing, under oath, to publicly and without reservations, renounce the extreme things he had said or written as a private citizen.

“While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics,” he said, “I regret the use of [harshly insulting] language.”

Asked by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker if he believes, as he had once seemed to say, that former president Obama is in fact an anti-Semite, Mr. Friedman, without hesitation, replied: “Not at all. I don’t believe that for a second.” (Halevai other erstwhile Obama-defamers would own up to their own excesses.)

Pressed repeatedly (and disturbingly – just how many apologies were required?) by various senators to address the issue of his past statements, Mr. Friedman didn’t get upset. Nor did he offer the typical politician’s “non-apology apology.” He stated clearly and forthrightly: “There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize or justify [the words I used], I cannot. I regret [them].”

Mr. Friedman proudly and convincingly expressed his desire to fortify the American-Israel relationship, and demonstrated that he has no animus for Arabs and wants to see peace between Israel and the Arabs in her midst.

Of course, and unfortunately, many obstacles stand in the way of that goal. Prime among them, his “fellow” hardliner in Gaza and the all-too-many others like him.

© 2017 Hamodia

What the Doctor Ordered

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A Dutch doctor who ordered an elderly dementia patient’s family to restrain her as she was given a lethal injection was recently cleared of wrongdoing by a panel that considered the case.

In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to decriminalize physician-assisted euthanasia. Since then, thousands of Dutch citizens (more than 5000 in 2015 alone) have been helped by doctors to kill themselves. The law requires that the patient’s suffering be “unbearable and untreatable.” In four years, though, the number of mental health patients killed by euthanasia has quadrupled.

According to a report issued by a Regional Review Committee, the unidentified patient, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago, wrote a living will saying she wished to die when the “time was right.”

Her condition deteriorated and her aging husband, unable to care for her, had her admitted to a nursing home, where she told staff members that she wished to die, “but not now.” Although some doctors said she was “gloomy” and “hopeless,” one doctor reported her “cheerful and peaceful.”

The home’s senior doctor asserted the time was right because of a deterioration in the woman’s condition, and the woman’s husband concurred, although the report states that the patient had “never verbally requested euthanasia.”

A sleep-inducing drug was placed in her coffee, but the more than 80-year-old woman resisted the injection intended to kill her. The doctor then asked the relatives of the woman to hold her down while she administered the lethal injection.

“I am convinced that the doctor acted in good faith,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, the committee chairman, although he added that “we would like to see more clarity on how such cases are handled in the future.”

Part of the calculus for achieving that clarity, whether made explicit or not, will be economic considerations. A University of Calgary study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal identified “substantial savings” that Canada, whose doctor-assisted euthanasia law closely resembles the Netherlands’, can reap from its annual health budget by killing willing patients rather than caring for them.

End-of-life care can be long and expensive, the report explains, while euthanasia costs just a few dollars per patient.

Here in the U.S., the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that there is no Constitutional right to assisted suicide, but that states have the power to allow or prohibit it. To date, five states have passed laws permitting the practice.

Despite the power of states here,  issues pertinent to physician-assisted suicide laws can still wend their way to the nation’s highest court.

In 2006, for example, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to halt physician-assisted suicide in Oregon by contending that prescriptions written for that purpose did not meet the Controlled Substances Act’s requirement of serving a “legitimate medical purpose.”

The High Court ruled that Mr. Ashcroft could not block the law that way, but in a dissent to that ruling, the late, lamented Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that the legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide “ultimately rests, not on ‘science’ or ‘medicine,’ but on a naked value judgment.”

In a speech two years earlier about a different subject, Justice Scalia raised the specter of assisted suicide one day being embraced by the Court. After decrying the Court’s discovery in the Constitution of “a variety of liberties” that “were so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that they were criminal for 200 years,” Mr. Scalia added that his colleagues might be prepared to discover a Constitutional right to assisted suicide, too.

“We’re not [yet] ready to announce that right,” he said, sarcastically. “Check back with us.”

Justice Scalia’s death last year made that facetious comment less humorous. Thankfully, though, the man designated by President Donald Trump to assume Mr. Scalia’s still-vacant seat, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, has a clear paper trail on the issue, in the form of his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”

“Human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable,” Mr. Gorsuch wrote, in support of the existing laws in most states barring assisted suicide.

Society’s task, he said, was balancing “the interests of those persons who wish to control the timing of their deaths and those vulnerable individuals whose lives may be taken without their consent due to mistake, abuse or pressure in a regime where assisted suicide is legal.”

In light of cases like the Dutch patient’s, and calculations like those in the University of Calgary study, a perceptive, thoughtful, conscientious mind like Judge Gorsuch’s on the High Court is just what the doctor ordered.

© 2017 Hamodia

Fortunate Fallout?

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The fallout of what has most alarmed some about President Trump’s immigration executive order may turn out to be a blessing.

There are certainly reasons to question the order, which restricts immigration from seven countries, suspends refugee-admission for 120 days and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely—and is, at this writing, halted by a federal court.

There are the humanitarian concerns that have been highlighted by much of the public and many media; and the fact that immigrants from problematic lands are already subject to very strict, multi-layered vetting procedures. And then there is the fact that no Americans have died as a result of terrorist acts in the U.S. by immigrants from any of the seven targeted nations.

What’s more, the blacklist doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon – the countries that yielded the 9/11 attackers.

But the most disquieting concern about the executive order was raised by, among others, former CIA Director and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“We’ve fed ISIS a major argument,” he contended, “that I think will help them in recruiting, and that increases the chances of a potential attack in this country.”

He went on to explain that Islamic State operatives and recruiters will seize upon the president’s targeting of some Muslim-majority countries to make the case that the West is at war with the religion of Islam rather than with the scourge of terrorism, a contention that was strongly rejected by President George W. Bush and President Obama.

That fear of the executive order playing into terrorist hands resonates strongly with many, as it did with me in the days after the order was signed. Ensuing events, though, led me to a very different place.

One doesn’t have to harbor particularly positive feelings about the mass protests that came in the wake of the executive order to recognize their impressive magnitude: Almost immediately after the order’s signing, 10,000 protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Battery Park, another 10,000 in Boston’s Copley Square, thousands more in front of the White House, and many hundreds in major airports and city spaces across the nation.  And protests persist to this writing.

I don’t like large noisy demonstrations, even in support of ideals like human rights. Mobs remind me of, well, other mobs, like those of the past and the present that were or are informed by things other than humanitarianism – things like animus for the West, for Israel, for Jews. They are ugly organisms, amalgams of evil individuals bound together by hatred. Even the innocuous roar of citizens protesting some insult to the environment or new regulation, a sound that occasionally rises 13 floors to my office in lower Manhattan, makes me shiver.

Maybe it’s in my genes, or the residue of some vicarious memory of what my father, hareni kapparas mishkavo, recounted to me about how the Jews in his Polish town in the 1930s had to stay inside and lock their doors as Pesach approached, when groups of marauding churchgoers, spurred by angry sermons they had heard, would move down the streets looking for Jews to attack.

Still and all, aside from the inevitable anarchists and rabble-rousers dedicated to nothing more than anarchy and rabble-rousing, many – I suspect most – of the protesters of the president’s order were people of sincere good will expressing sincere concern for other people, of other religions and nationalities, and for refugees fleeing persecution or war-torn lands.

What I came to realize was that the sight of such mass protests can’t have been entirely lost on the Muslim “street.” There might, in other words, be a silver lining to the immigration order kerfuffle in the vocal opposition (justified or not) it elicited from a broad swath of American citizens.

I imagine an Islamic State recruiter trying to convince a confused Arab or African teenager seeking some “higher” calling to join a terrorist cell targeting Americans. “Trump, that kufr!” Malevolent Mohammed rails at his charge. “He hates ‘the prophet,’ hates Islam!” But the boy has seen images (these days, even dusty desert villages are “on the grid”) of American citizens – the very people he is being urged to murder – standing up for Muslims. It’s got to at least confuse the kid.

Some readers (probably many) will see an overactive imagination here. But there have indeed been Muslim extremists who, exposed to unexpected Western good will, have turned their lives around. Is it irrational to hope that the reaction to the recent presidential order might serve to help others do the same?

Maybe only a few will be impressed, and there will always be bad people. But every ex-terrorist-wannabe counts.

© 2017 Hamodia

Making News, Literally

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Even for someone who, in his day job as Agudath Israel of America’s public affairs director, is regularly sent dubious “news” stories from members of the public, a young man’s recent admission that he successfully purveyed total fabrications as facts was startling.

A reporter for the New York Times managed to track down Cameron Harris and convince him to talk about how, during the presidential campaign, when charges of a “rigged” election were made, he decided to make news. Literally.

The 23-year-old created an entity he called “ChristianTimesNewspaper,” and crafted a story for it that he headlined: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse.” Even though no such thing had actually occurred.

Mr. Harris then located a photograph to run with the story, of a man standing behind black plastic boxes bearing the label “Ballot Box.” The photo was from a British election and the man was unidentified. But Mr. Harris gave him a name in the caption he produced for the photo: “Mr. Prince, shown here, poses with his find, as election officials investigate.”

The article beneath the headline explained that “the Clinton campaign’s likely goal was to slip the fake ballot boxes in with the real ballot boxes when they went to official election judges on November 8th.”

“This story,” a final note helpfully added, “is still developing, and CTN will bring you more when we have it.”

Electronic news moves fast these days – at the speed of light, actually – and the explosive story, well, exploded. Mr. Harris estimated that he made about $1,000 an hour in web advertising revenue as his “reportage” began to spread.

Not dissimilar was what came to be known as “Pizzagate,” another fictional claim, in this case, that the New York City Police Department had found evidence of the existence of a human trafficking ring linked to members of the Democratic Party.

The owner of one pizza establishment named in the story received hundreds of threatening phone calls as a result, and a gunman, seeking to “investigate” the situation himself, entered the eatery with an assault rifle, and fired the weapon.

Such shenanigans do not cast doubt on the election results. Even though he lost the popular vote by several million, President Trump just as clearly won the electoral vote, the decisive one.  And it’s highly unlikely that fake news played any decisive role in any state. What’s more, there were mischief makers on the other side of the political contest too. Like prankster Marco Chacon, who, seeking to make the more gullible among candidate Trump’s supporters look silly, created what he called “RealTrueNews” which “reported” what Mr. Chacon assumed most people would recognize as over-the-top satire.

He overestimated the reading public, however, and many of the preposterous stories he posted were picked up and reported as fact, even by some reputable news organizations.

Fake news and hoaxes are nothing new. In 1835, a front-page article in the venerated New York Sun claimed that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon. The story caused enormous excitement throughout the country and overseas. And it wasn’t even an election year.

It all brings to mind the words of Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1807, wrote that “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

The story is told that when someone told the Satmar Rav, zt”l, that the only truthful thing in a newspaper was its date, he responded that even that was an untruth, as the paper was actually printed the day before.

One needn’t take literally the charge that nothing in the media is true, though, to be healthily skeptical of anything one reads or hears. Such skepticism is all the more justified these days when the term “media” includes not only somewhat professional, if biased, reporters and interpreters of news but an army of piratical purveyors of partisanship (take that, Spiro Agnew!).

Some semblance of truth about current events can be reached with effort, by reading opposing editorial stances, doing some research to ferret out facts from falsehoods and then applying critical thinking to the results.

But the sad fact remains that, at least for consumers of mass media, the passage of more than 200 years since Mr. Jefferson made his comment hasn’t greatly changed the accuracy of his calculus.

© 2017 Hamodia

 

Agudath Israel of America Statement on President Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

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The immense contributions of immigrants to American life need no elaboration, nor does the importance of immigration to our great nation.  The world refugee crisis, moreover, must compel our deep concern for those fleeing persecution, as did so many of our own forebears.

President Trump’s recent executive order seeks to protect the nation’s citizens from terrorism, an unarguably honorable quest.

The strict vetting process that has long been in place has certainly helped keep terrorists and their recruiters from entering our country.  The executive order is aimed at temporarily strengthening that line of defense.  As such, it is laudable.  But only if its focus is on places, on countries that are hotbeds of violent radicalism, not on religious populations.

And only if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees, who do not deserve to be caught up in nets intended to catch their oppressors.

We urge the administration to continue to evaluate the geopolitical situation and exercise great deliberation as it forges a permanent immigration policy, so that what results will well balance security concerns with human and religious rights.

Perceiving the Good

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More than 40 years ago, at just about this time of year, the rebbi insisted I leave class. I readily obliged.

The details of what prompted my banishment, while amusing, aren’t important. All you need to know is that someone had called out something while the rebbi’s eyes were in his sefer, and that it hadn’t been I. (Admittedly, on a number of occasions during my schooling I would have rightfully been accused of various violations of rules or decorum. That particular time, however, I happened to be innocent.).

Irate at the unfairness of it all, I marched to the office of the principal, Rabbi Joel Feldman, shlita, announced with righteous indignation that my punishment had been unjust, and declared that I had no intention of ever returning to that shiur. I was convinced, I declared, that the rebbi, while a fine man, had it in for me.

I was surprised by the principal’s reaction. He didn’t ask me to identify the criminal (and, honoring the high school omertà code, I would never have told him anyway), but simply said, “Well, I can’t send you to the lower shiur; you’d be bored. So I guess I’ll send you to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shiur.”

Rav Yosef Rottenberg, shlita (may he have a refuah shleimah), was Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim’s “high shiurrebbi at the time and its eventual Rosh Yeshivah. I was taken aback but readily accepted the offer.

That marked a turning point in my life. Although the shiur was somewhat over my head, I made some effort (for a change), and actually did some learning. Rabbi Rottenberg, a brilliant Torah-scholar and talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, truly became my rebbi. His broad knowledge of both Torah and worldly matters, not to mention his well-honed sense of humor, were inspiring. When I graduated, he recommended me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, where I learned before returning to Baltimore and continuing my studies in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.

I owe any hatzlachah I had thereafter to Rabbi Feldman, Rabbi Rottenberg… and Rebbi X (not his real initial), the one who ordered me out of shiur.

I don’t write those words facetiously. Hakaras hatov is due for any tov, intended as such or not. Why else, the baalei mussar ask, could Moshe Rabbeinu be “indebted” to the water or to the earth to the point where Aharon had to strike them to bring about the makkos of dam, tzefardeia and kinim? Inanimate objects can’t be objects of what we call “gratitude.” They can, though, be objects of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which is for our own benefit, not that of the objects.

And that requirement to recognize good exists even when the good is sourced in something negative. In last week’s parashah, Moshe is described by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish mitzri,” an “Egyptian man.” Midrash Tanchuma has it that the reference is to the “ish mitzri” Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, whose death was the cause of his flight to Midyan. Moshe, in other words, in a sense, owed much to that Mitzri.

Many years after being kicked out of shiur, I myself, ironically, served as a rebbi and principal of a yeshivah, in an ‘out-of-town’ community. And one day, I found myself forced to leave – not just the classroom but the institution. A new overseer, working with a board of directors with a very different vision than I had of what the yeshivah should be, told me that he couldn’t guarantee my position for the following school year.

I was heartbroken to leave my beloved yeshivah and community. And more, to be forced to entertain something I had often said I would never do: move to New York. But Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, had asked me to join Agudath Israel’s staff. Tearfully, my wife and I and our young family left our home of 11 years.

Fast-forward a few more years, after we had acclimated to our new location, and I to my new job, which I grew to deeply appreciate. One Shabbos in shul, I saw Rabbi Y. (not his real initial either), the overseer who was the cause of our exile. He was related to someone in the community and had come to visit.

First reaction: Oh, no! Not him!

But then, a deeper, more profound thought dawned: I owe this guy my new life. And I said to myself, as all feelings of hakaras hatov should ultimately impel us to say, “Baruch Hashem.”

© 2017 Hamodia