Category Archives: Journalism

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A Tale of Two Testimonies

“Gentlemen! Start your engines!”

Or, maybe better, “In this corner, heavyweight champion…!”

Neither phrase was actually blasted from a loudspeaker on either June 8, when ex-FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, or last Wednesday, the 13th, when it was Attorney General Jeff Session’s turn to answer questions. But, predictably, the reactions to the two men’s sworn responses to committee members’ questions came flying as fast and furious as any race car or boxer’s hook.

Mr. Comey, who served in the Department of Justice before being appointed to head the FBI in 2013, has the distinction of having drawn harsh criticism over the past year from both sides of the political aisle.

Last summer, Republicans condemned him when he told the media that he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state.

Democrats, for their part, castigated him for his pointed criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s actions. Then, when Mr. Comey announced mere weeks before the election that the FBI was reopening the investigation of Mrs. Clinton, her supporters were further outraged.

Being blasted by both sides in a dispute is often a sign that one is doing things right. Mr. Comey is clearly not beholden to any party, only to what he sees as his duty as a public servant.

That image was only enhanced, at least for me, by his Senate testimony, much of which focused on his impression that, in a private meeting with Mr. Trump on February 14, the president had subtly tried to pressure him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s erstwhile national security advisor.

Having subsequently been fired by the president, Mr. Comey was asked by Senator John Cornyn, “If you’re trying to make an investigation go away, is firing an FBI director a good way to make that happen?”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Comey replied, “but I’m hopelessly biased given that I was the one fired.” That admission, to me, reflects a self-awareness all too rare in government today.

The partisan pugilists, though, took it as an admission that undermined Mr. Comey’s entire testimony. They also focused on Mr. Comey’s having shared with the media a memo to himself about his uncomfortable meeting with the president, written right afterward and intended to preserve his immediate impressions.

Fast-forward five days. Mr. Sessions acquitted himself well, too, convincingly condemning accusations that he had had conversations with Russian officials about the presidential election as an “appalling and detestable lie.”

The attorney general, too, was seized upon by the partisan pack, mainly for what it characterized as “stonewalling” – his declining to respond to questions about private conversations he had with the president. But, as Mr. Sessions explained, since Mr. Trump is protected by executive privilege, he, Mr. Sessions, did not feel he could relate information that the president might not wish to become public. Many of us might relish the thought of hearing about those conversations, but the attorney general’s point is entirely defensible.

The only conflict between Mr. Comey’s and Mr. Sessions’ testimonies lay in their description of what transpired on February 14, when Mr. Comey emerged from his private meeting with the president and expressed to the attorney general that he, Mr. Comey, felt that such a one-on-one meeting was improper.

Mr. Comey said: “I don’t remember real clearly. I have a recollection of him [Mr. Sessions] just kind of looking at me – and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory – but I kind of got… his body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Mr. Sessions, for his part, testified that he did in fact respond to Mr. Comey’s expressed discomfort, and that he agreed with him on the importance of maintaining proper protocol.

As explosive contradictions of testimony go, this was more a fizzled-out sparkler than a bombshell. The discrepancy between the “body language” of Mr. Comey’s recollection (especially qualified by his admission that his memory of the moment is unclear) and the short response of Mr. Session’s remembrance is hardly the stuff of perjury.

And so, what the two testimonies leave me with is a favorable impression of two upstanding public servants responding as best as they feel they can to Congressional questions.

Pundits are expected to take sides here, to find some fault in Mr. Comey or Mr. Sessions. But I don’t see any glaring ones. I’m left only with a positive impression of two honorable men.

Is that allowed?

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia

Open Season on the Orthodox

The description of the scene fairly leapt off the page: Shabbos at the Kosel, people davening, a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair, a group of Orthodox Jews approaching…

“…like a big-league pitcher [one religious Jew] cocked his arm and flung the rock at the man in the wheelchair. The rock hit him in the middle of his forehead, his neck reeled back and blood oozed down this face… Then the adorable little children, who only seconds ago were throwing candy [at a bar-mitzvah boy] turned into savages and started picking up rocks and hurling them at the man. Two of them grabbed the brightly colored prayer shawl from around the man’s neck and cracked it like a whip in his face.

“Some Americans tried to intervene but were themselves stoned. Nearby guards stood by, apparently assuming that the man was getting just punishment for his crime: using electricity on the Sabbath.”

That report appeared in the November 15, 1994 issue of the Arizona State University daily paper, The State Press; it had been recommended for publication by the chairman of the university’s journalism department and the director of the school’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. It was, after all, compellingly written and important.

Only one problem: what it described never happened.

Eventually (although after being read by thousands), the report was retracted, when a law student dared to demand corroborating facts and none were found. Pressed for the truth, the aspiring 24-year-old senior journalism major who had penned the piece admitted that the entire account, from start to finish, had been the product of nothing but her own fertile imagination.

It was a particularly gross, but far from singular, example of journalistic malpractice in the realm of reportage about Orthodox Jews. In Moment Magazine’s February, 2000 cover story, which carried the title of this column, I detailed a number of more subtle, but perhaps even more disturbing for the fact, journalistic “liberties” taken by media when “reporting” on the Orthodox community. And in the years since, countless others have come down the pike.

Only last week, a video by an Israeli broadcaster, Reshet TV, depicted reporter Guy Hochman walking around Bnei Brak holding an Israeli flag. The video showed two chareidi motorcyclists grabbing the flag and breaking it.

Another news organization, however, Kol Hazman, reported that the video had been orchestrated by Mr. Hochman himself. And an eyewitness recounted that, before the depicted incident, the reporter had walked “for four hours on the streets of Bnei Brak without being attacked.”

Then a man claiming to be one of the motorcyclists claimed he had been asked to break the flag as part of a “satirical skit,” and just wanted to be of assistance to the reporter.

At first, Reshet TV denied that the video had been manipulated. Several days later, however, the respected Israeli business newspaper The Marker reported that, apparently, it had been, and that the broadcaster had dismissed both Hochman and his editor.

Are there chareidim who act indecorously? Of course there are. But what does it say that media seek out misbehavior, and even, when they can’t find any, fabricate it?

Depressing, no? But we must remain hopeful that, even after so many years of anti-chareidi animus, haters might one day come to their senses.

Just before Pesach, a CNN program depicted Israeli chareidim as a threat to the country, as potentially doing to Israel what the mullahs did to Iran. I wrote an article for a secular Jewish publication pointing out the ridiculousness of that contention.

Most of the responses I received were positive. In the opposite category, though, was one from someone I’ll call E. S. (he signed his full name), a self-described Conservative-turned-Reform Jew. He called chareidim “an abominable blight upon world Jewry and an absolute curse within Israel,” and wants “the entire detestable bunch” to be driven out of Israel “with bayonets and bullets.”

There was more, too, but I’ll spare you. The degree and illogic of the loathing, though, seemed familiar; I remembered something, and decided to write him back.

After politely responding to various accusations he made, I wrote: “I’m heartened, though, by my knowledge that no less a luminary than Rabbi Akiva once remarked that, back when he was an ignoramus, he would have viciously bitten any Torah scholar he came across ‘like a wild donkey’.”

“So I retain hope,” I concluded, “that one day you, too, may have your mud-covered glasses wiped clean.”

His, and others’.

© 2017 Hamodia

An Impossible Pretzel

Some people, it seems, like some dogs with teeth planted firmly in mailmen’s legs, just can’t let go.

Take Peter Beinart.

I have no problem with the columnist and former The New Republic editor’s expressing liberal Zionist views, much as I may disagree with some of them. There is room in this world for different perspectives.

Nor am I particularly vexed by his longtime opposition to President Trump; the president has certainly left himself open to criticism on many occasions. Mr. Beinart’s past insinuation that the president harbors tolerance for anti-Semitism was a silly and unfounded charge, but there are always plenty of those to go around.

What’s more troublesome is the columnist’s refusal to give Mr. Trump credit when it is due, like after the president’s speech last week at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the museum, and belying once and for all accusations of his insensitivity toward the Jewish people, the president spoke of how “the Nazis massacred six million Jews,” how “two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide.”

Addressing survivors present, he said, “You witnessed evil, and what you saw is beyond… any description,” and asserted that, through their testimony, they “fulfill the righteous duty to… engrave into the world’s memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.”

He also spoke of Israel as “an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people.” And he deemed Holocaust denial “one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world,” concluding with the words: “So today we mourn. We remember. We pray. And we pledge: Never again.”

Enter Peter Beinart. Well, not into the museum, but into the pages of the Forward, where he cited Mr. Trump’s recounting of the story of Gerda Weissman, who, in 1945, as an emaciated 21-year-old veteran of Nazi work camps and a death march, was liberated, and elated to see a car sporting not a swastika but an American star. Her liberator turned out to be a Jewish American lieutenant, Kurt Klein, and they eventually became husband and wife.

Mr. Beinart reflects on “how [Mr. Trump’s] views might have affected people like Gerda Klein had he been president back then.” The original “America Firsters,” war-era isolationists, he contends, “shared a mentality” with the president – to protect the United States’ “shores and its people” and to “not squander money and might safeguarding foreigners in distant lands.”

“It is this mentality,” he asserts, “that earlier this year led Trump to propose a budget that cuts U.S. funding for the United Nations in half,” which could bring about “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it.”

The postwar Displaced Persons Camps, Mr. Beinart goes on to remind us, were administered by a U.N. commission, and paid for largely by the U.S. President Trump, he confidently states, “would likely have seen it as a prime example of other countries ripping America off,” and would “surely have disapproved,” in 1946, when anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland “sent tens of thousands of Jews streaming across the border into U.S.-administered DP camps in Germany,” of allowing any of them onto our shores.

Because Mr. Trump is president, Mr. Beinart concludes, “the Gerda Kleins of today are unlikely to see America’s symbols the way she did.”

One needn’t be a proponent of a Mexican wall to recognize that there is no comparison between, on the one hand, caring for people who narrowly escaped a multi-national genocidal effort only to face murderous pogroms, and, on the other, welcoming every foreigner seeking to improve his economic welfare.

Nor need one like Mr. Trump’s immigration ban to understand that, justified or not, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is somewhat more plausible today than it was regarding Jews in 1946.

Mr. Beinart, though, insists on twisting Mr. Trump’s sentiments into an impossible pretzel, into something cynical and hypocritical.

“He praises Holocaust survivors today,” the columnist writes about the president, “because it’s politically expedient. But his actions desecrate their memory. Had he more shame, he would not have spoken at the Holocaust Memorial Museum at all.”

But Mr. Trump, Mr. Beinart surely knows, isn’t currently running for office. And if there’s one thing most everyone agrees about, it’s that he expresses things bluntly, as he believes them to be. Had Peter Beinart more shame, he would not have written his article at all.

© 2017 Hamodia

Black Hats Don’t Always Mean Bad Guys

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.

Bursting Our Bubbles

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

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

Making News, Literally

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

 

The Boys Who Cried “Anti-Semite!”

The sobbing of some political liberals, including, of course, many Jews, that ensued after the presidential election results were tallied has turned into wild wailing with the appointment of Stephen Bannon as senior counselor to the president-elect.

Those observers were shocked enough back in August, when Mr. Bannon, the executive chairman of the politically conservative Breitbart News, was put in charge of Donald Trump’s campaign.  Now, though, mouths are foaming.

Partisan condemnation of Mr. Bannon’s recent appointment was expected.  169 House Democrats signed a letter to Mr. Trump characterizing his new appointee as a purveyor of anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called him “a champion of white supremacy.”

In the Jewish world, the Union for Reform Judaism accused Mr. Bannon of being “responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia.”

The Anti-Defamation League said that Bannon is “hostile to core American values.”

Forward editor Jane Eisner, asserted that with Bannon’s appointment, “the anti-Semitic sentiments of the far right are closer to the center of political power than they have been in recent memory.”

And the National Council of Jewish Women pronounced its verdict: “Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his [Trump] administration.”

The actual evidence for labeling Bannon an anti-Semite, or enabler of anti-Semites, or racist, or all-around monster is slim. No, actually, nonexistent.

Not that a yeoman’s effort hasn’t been expended to make the case.  The news organization that Mr. Bannon has headed since the death of its founder Andrew Breitbart in 2012 is certainly not to many people’s tastes (my own included).  It makes famously right-leaning Fox News seem like a liberal lamb.  And it has a penchant for putting provocative headlines on entirely reasonable (if arguable) opinion pieces.

Headlines like: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”  That Breitbart piece, written by political conservative David Horowitz, was an unremarkable gripe about the fact that Mr. Kristol, a dean of American conservatism, had written critically about Donald Trump.  Mr. Horowitz noted how “Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Hamas” have “openly sworn to exterminate the Jews,” and shared his feeling that the Obama administration was not adequately facing that threat to Jews and to America. “To weaken the only party that stands between the Jews and their annihilation, and between America and the forces intent on destroying her,” Horowitz wrote, “is a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven.”

Whatever one might feel about that article’s thesis, it was run-of-the-mill  intra-Republican kvetching and not, by any measure, anti-Semitic.

Another piece of “evidence” for Bannon’s malevolence is the claim of his former wife, in divorce documents, that, while seeking a private school for his children, he made a remark about “spoiled” Jewish children.  Needless to say, unsupported (and denied) accusations in divorce proceedings deserve no one’s attention.

The strongest charge against Mr. Bannon is his statement in an interview last summer that Breitbart News is “the platform for the alt-right.”

But, as has been noted before in this space, the “alt-right” means different things to different people, and includes widely disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism.  The fringes of the movement, though, can include racism, opposition to all immigration and anti-Semitism. The fringes of the “progressive” wing of American politics, too, include Jew-haters (though they dress up their hatred as “anti-Israel” sentiment).

Imagining that Mr. Bannon meant to include the alt-right’s tattered fringes in his statement is ungenerous, and unsupported by the actual content of Breitbart offerings.  As far back as 2014, he explicitly predicted that racism would eventually get “washed out” of right-wing movements.

As it happens, not only was the late Mr. Breitbart Jewish, but the news service carrying his name was started by a Jewish lawyer and businessman, Larry Solov, who conceived it during a trip he made to Israel with Mr. Breitbart.  It was to be “a site,” Mr. Solov wrote, “that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.”  Which it has been.

I don’t automatically accept the veracity of what I read at Breitbart, or in The New York Times.  Every news medium, whether it admits it or not, has its slant and partialities.  A semblance of accuracy can only be gained by reading, and balancing, a variety of media, fully aware of each one’s biases.

Racism and anti-Semitism are malign, to be sure.  So, though, is, carelessly and without evidence, casting labels like “racist” or “anti-Semite” about.

© Hamodia 2016