Category Archives: Journalism

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Illusions of Objectivity

Some American journalists assigned to the political beat are having a hard time.  Their dilemma is named Donald Trump, a man they don’t feel they can cover objectively.

Those troubled are reporters with a liberal bent, and that, of course, means most of the profession.  The vast majority of mainstream print and electronic media personnel are well entrenched on the left end of the political spectrum. To be sure, one needn’t be a social or political liberal to regard the Republican presidential candidate with concern – many in Mr. T.’s own party are distancing themselves from him – but “progressive” citizens have a particular revulsion for the controversial candidate.

And so, while the intrepid reporters soldier on in the quest for fairness, impartiality and objectivity, they are finding it hard to maintain their professional standards, or even the façade of neutrality.

Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times’ “media columnist,” lamented his and his colleagues’ predicament.

“If you’re a working journalist,” he wrote, “and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes… you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”

“You would move closer,” he continued, “than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg’s honest confession of discomfort is commendable.  But it’s also somewhat amusing, because, while Mr. Trump may be an outsize (one might even say yuuuge!) challenge to the media’s objectivity, the notion itself of journalistic impartiality is more veneer than substance.  There are other fairness challenges that reporters routinely face and fail.

In fact, Donald Trump doesn’t really pose so great a trial for reporters.  Even if they regard him as dangerous, his words have famously spoken for themselves; all that the media has to do is quote him.  He’s not a very guarded or subtle person; he says very much what he means. So there is no need, and should be no temptation, for any journalist to treat him any differently than anyone else.  Just share what the guy says.  That’s enough.

The greater challenge to idealistic members of the media is the need to recognize and confront their broader biases when it comes to other subjects.  Like, say, religion.

Fully 91% of those who work at national news organizations, according to a Pew survey, say they don’t consider it necessary to believe in G-d to be moral.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those respondents disdain religious people or institutions, but it does raise the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that they may harbor at least some subtle bias regarding religious believers or their ideals.

This column last week noted one recent example.  No major media news report (and, for that matter, no major media opinion columnist) saw fit, when reporting on Mrs. Ghazala Khan’s decision not to speak, as her husband did, at the Democratic National Convention, to note some traditional religions’ concept of modesty.  The idea that a woman might consider it inappropriate to speak before men is simply beyond the imaginings of most reporters.  Were they forced to confront it, they would likely dismiss it as backward, oppressive or even immoral.  Olam hafuch ra’isi.

And then there are the general Jewish media, which are transparently prejudiced against Orthodox Jews, at least chareidi ones, a fact well evidenced both in their choices of what stories about the “ultra-Orthodox” (a pejorative phrase itself) to cover or to ignore and in the tone of chareidi-world stories they consider newsworthy. That isn’t surprising; most of their reporters and columnists are non-Orthodox Jews, and they surely shlep their personal baggage to their keyboards – whether they are aware of it or not.  As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

The not-so-secret “secret” here, which applies to both the general Jewish media and their non-Jewish counterparts, is that reporters, despite their imaginings of themselves as objective, are human.  And, as such, they are just as biased and close-minded as any other mortals. So, rather than wring their hands over how to cover Donald Trump, they would do better to consider the possibility that some more subtle, hence more troublesome, biases inform their reportage of… other things.

© 2016 Hamodia

Silence Can Be Golden

What’s omitted from a discussion can sometimes speak quite loudly.  And sometimes quite disturbingly.  That’s true, I think, about the national conversation about the Khizr and Ghazala Khan/Donald Trump contretemps.

Unless you’ve been summering in the Australian outback and off the grid, you likely know that the most memorable moment of the Democratic National Convention (at least if the idea of a woman presidential nominee somehow didn’t make you swoon) was the speech delivered by the aforementioned Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-born, Harvard Law School-educated American citizen.  Mr. Khan has worked in immigration and trade law, and founded a pro bono project to provide legal services for the families of soldiers.  The Khans’ son, Humayun, an Army captain, was killed in 2004 while protecting his unit.

At the convention, Mr. Khan identified himself and his wife, who stood at his side, as “patriotic American Muslims,” and sharply condemned Donald Trump for what the Khans see as his bias against Muslims and divisive rhetoric.  “You have sacrificed nothing,” he added, addressing Mr. Trump, “and no one.”

Mr. Trump, in subsequent interviews, responded to that accusation by arguing that he had raised money for veterans, created “tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures [and] had tremendous success.”  And he also speculated that the reason Mrs. Khan hadn’t spoken was because, as a Muslim, “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.  You tell me.”

Mrs. Khan explained her reticence in a Washington Post essay.  “Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me,” she wrote, “I could hardly control myself. What mother could?”

The punditsphere went wild, mostly with applause for the Khans and derision for Mr. Trump.  There were the expected right-wing “exposés” of the Khans’ (nonexistent) connections to terrorist organizations, but the responsible responses to the showdown were critical of the Republican candidate and sympathetic to the Gold Star parents.

But while there is no reason to doubt Mrs. Khan’s claim that she was just too anguished by the memory of her son to speak, something that should have been considered somewhere in all the seeming millions of words that were produced on the row simply wasn’t.

That would be the possibility that a woman might choose, for religious reasons, to not avail herself of center stage and a microphone.  All sides of the controversy seem to have agreed to the postulate that tznius is a sign of backwardness, or worse.

That was unarguably the upshot of Mr. Trump’s infelicitous insinuation, that Mrs. Khan’s silence at the convention was religious in nature, and evidence that Islam is intolerant and repressive.

To be sure, there are sizable parts of the Islamic world where women are in fact cruelly oppressed, where physical abuse, forced marriages and “honor killings” are unremarkable.  But what Mr. Trump was demeaning was the very concept of different roles for men and for women, the thought that a woman might, as a matter of moral principle, wish to avoid being the focus of a public gathering. He was insinuating, in other words, that a traditional idea of modesty is somehow sinister.

Islam, though some Muslims may chafe at the observation, borrowed many attitudes and observances from the Jewish mesorah.  Islam’s monotheism and avoidance of graven images, its insistence on circumcision, its requirement for prayer with a quorum and facing a particular direction, its practice of fasting, all point to the religion’s founder’s familiarity with the Jews of his time. As does that faith’s concept of tznius, even if, like some of its other borrowings, it might have been taken to an unnecessarily extreme level.

I don’t know the Khans’ level of Islamic observance, but Mrs. Khan wore a hijab as she stood next to her husband at the convention podium.  So it is certainly plausible that her decision to not speak in that very public venue may have been, at least to a degree, informed by a tznius concern.

A concern that the plethora of pundits chose to not even consider, thereby, in effect, endorsing Mr. Trump’s bias on the matter.

To be sure, and most unfortunately, tznius isn’t an idea that garners much respect in contemporary western society.  Moreover, Mr. Trump’s relationship with any sort of modesty is famously fraught.

But it is particularly disturbing that his insinuation that traditional roles for men and women bespeak repression and backwardness went missing in the national discussion, altogether unchallenged by the ostensibly open-minded men and women of the media.

© 2016 Hamodia

Letter in the New York Jewish Week

The letter below appears in the June 24, 2016 issue of the New York Jewish Week:

Editor:

Gary Rosenblatt asserts that, as per the headline over his recent June 17 essay, “Ruth’s Conversion Would Be Rejected Today” by the Israeli rabbinate.

The Jewish religious tradition, however, sees precisely in the biblical Ruth’s conversion the sine qua non of conversion to Judaism.

Both Ruth and Orpah, her sister-in-law, loved and wanted to accompany their mother-in-law Naomi in her trek back to the Holy Land.  Both wanted to be part of her life and people.  But only Ruth refused to be dissuaded.  She insisted that, “thy G‑d [will be] my G‑d” – which, along with her other declarations, represent kabbalat hamitzvot, “acceptance of the commandments” of the Torah.  The Talmud explains that, while a convert need not be conversant with all areas of halacha, he or she must, in principle and with full sincerity, accept its authority.

What the Israeli rabbinate has attempted to do is ensure that conversions in the Jewish state comply with the timeless requirements for a non-Jew to miraculously become a Jew.  “Converting” people who do not meet those requirements misleads those well-intentioned people, casts doubt on the Jewishness of true converts and does Klal Yisrael a well-intentioned but lamentable disservice.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

Letter in the New York Times

Re “Everybody Into the Pool” (editorial, June 1):

Far from being “unmoored” from the Constitution, offering sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools that service traditional communities is well within the bounds of both the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law.

Orthodox Jews, moreover, are not the only New Yorkers who hew to a different view of modesty than the contemporary one. Traditional Muslims, many Christians and women of no particular ethnicity or faith have similar convictions. Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying “No people with traditional values allowed.”

The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion. It is simply a laudable recognition of the multicultural nature of our city.

Concern for the needs of others unlike ourselves is another religion-based but universal ideal. It is one that your editorial board might consider embracing more consistently.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York

Handling Success With Care

Back in 1941 (no, I don’t remember it personally, but it’s documented), there was an American Jewish establishment group called the “Joint Boycott Council.”  It objected vehemently to Agudath Israel of America’s policy of sending packages of food and religious items to beleaguered and endangered Jews behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe.  The JBC considered that effort an affront to its own judgment that the risk that the Nazis, ym”s, might intercept the goods outweighed what Gedolim of the time considered to be the Jewish obligation.

The group picketed Agudath Israel’s offices that year and its chairman described the Agudah as “a sickly weed transplanted from foreign soil to the liberal American environment,” lamenting how it, and presumably the Orthodox Jewish community it served, will only “continue to poison the atmosphere.”

The Council is now long forgotten, but my, how the “sickly weed” has grown.  The Torah-true community in America proved itself not only hardy but a towering tree that bore, and continues to bear, most wondrous fruit.

Those of us born well after 1941 often take the thriving of Torah life and study for granted.  We hear about the challenges our parents and grandparents faced in the previous century, celebrate their accomplishments and feel secure in the world they forged for us.  That’s not a problem, of course… at least not until it is.

Case in point: Several suburban frum communities are expanding greatly these days, attracting Torah Jews from near and far.  The law of supply and demand won’t be violated, and what ensues are increased property values and willingness, on the part of some long-time homeowners, to “trade up” to larger homes in other areas.

That’s fine and good; and so is the effort by real estate agents to make the case to residents of such communities that they can benefit financially from the new desirability of their dwellings by putting their houses on the market.

What isn’t fine and good, though, is pressuring residents by visiting them, unbidden, to make that case.  And what’s even less fine and good is doing so on non-Jewish holidays, when residents are be more likely to be home but are undoubtedly more likely to resent uninvited guests.

Such solicitations have caused some towns, including Toms River, New Jersey, to update their “no-knock” rules and related laws, adding real estate inquiries to measures that already limit other types of solicitations.

An Associated Press story about that particular New Jersey town was recently widely published by media here and overseas.  It may be a local story, but when an item involves Jews, money and irate neighbors, it somehow tends to… hold… special interest.

The news article quoted one Toms River resident who claimed to have been badgered by an aggressive real estate agent to sell his home.  In local media, several others complained about feeling pressured by Orthodox Jews’ overtures.  The fact that a “no-knock” ordinance was unanimously endorsed by the local Township Council itself indicates that others had, or feared, similar experiences – and should be a wake-up call to us all.

Yes, to be sure, some of the pushback against the pushiness might be tainted with pre-existing resentment of Jews.  But that’s really beside the point. In fact, it intensifies the point.  Because acting in ways that give people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us, aside from being wrong, well, gives some people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us.

There is no doubt that the great majority of frum real estate professionals in Lakewood and elsewhere hew to high standards and promote their services in proper manners, using advertisements and mailings. But the small number (it may in fact be only one, but that’s one too many) who feel that it’s “just business” to be aggressive and intimidating toward potential clients are causing ill will against the entire community.  What’s more, they are ketanei emunah.

Because if they believed, as Jews should, that their parnassah comes from Above, and that our efforts to make our livings are entirely in the realm of hishtadlus, “simple, normal effort,” they would never imagine that acting more aggressively than others in their field could yield them some advantage or anything more than what was decreed for them in Shamayim on Rosh Hashanah.

And they should know, too, that the truest measure of Jewish success is acting “with pleasantness toward others,” in ways that make others say “Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah” (Yoma 86a).

© 2016 Hamodia

Blame Terrorism, Not Songs

Some politicians and pundits – including several writers in Haaretz – seem misguidedly intent on extending blame for Jewish terrorism across Orthodoxy, even to the charedi community and its Torah educational system. And several have pointed to a song played at Jewish weddings as Exhibit A.

I recently shared some thoughts on the matter with the readers of Haaretz. The piece is here and here.

 

Merits, Not Munitions

The reporter’s question: “Should the chareidim serve in [Israel’s] military, or at least serve in some other capacity such as recognized public service commensurate with military service?”

The query was posed to me in my capacity as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison.  My response: In the view of chareidim, they are already doing so.

I explained that a religious Jew sincerely believes that his or her life, based as it is on religious observance, charity and Torah-study, helps ensure the security of Jews.

Raw power, after all, doesn’t win wars.  Even strategy isn’t decisive.  Often, what turn the historical tide this way or that are simple, unexpected happenings.

The Byzantine Empire fell when it did because a single gate to Constantinople was left open in 1453, allowing the Turks to invade and take the capital city.

World War I was famously set off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Less known is that his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had abandoned his plan.  But the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn that took their vehicle to the very spot where Princip was standing.  The car stalled and Princip took advantage of the situation, firing the shots that would yield the death of 17 million people.

In October, 1907, an aspiring teenage artist took a two-day entrance exam for the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.  He thought he did well and was shocked to be informed that he hadn’t made the cut.  Dejected, he pursued a different life-path, eventually becoming the Führer of the Third Reich.

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took a rare leave from his post in France in 1944 to celebrate his wife’s birthday on June 6, reassured by miserable weather that the Allies would not be invading France that week.  With the weather’s sudden improvement, the Normandy invasion began in the early morning hours of Mrs. Rommel’s birthday.  By the time her husband returned to France, it was too late to repel the decisive offensive.

Some regard such history-altering occurrences as mere happenstance.  But a believing Jew knows that history is in Hashem’s hand.  That isn’t always evident, but it’s always true.

It was both, though, during the 1967 Six-Day War.  While some attribute Israel’s victory over three neighboring Arab countries, aided by others, to superior military prowess, then-IDF Director of Operations Major General (and later Israeli president) Ezer Weizmann, noting the fact that for 3 straight hours, IAF planes flew from one Egyptian airstrip to another destroying the enemy planes without the Egyptians ever radioing ahead to warn their own forces of Israeli attacks, credited “the finger of G-d.”  Haaretz’s military correspondent at the time contended that “Even a non-religious person must admit this war was fought with help from Heaven.”

The futility of trying to predict geopolitical matters is no less evident today.  Although Russia is committed to keeping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power and Turkey is backing the Sunni majority and pushing for Assad’s ouster, the two countries have maintained generally good relations.   A year ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, celebrated an agreement for Russia to invest in a major gas pipeline, to pump Russian natural gas through Turkey to Europe.  And Mr. Putin praised his Turkish counterpart as “a strong man” willing to stand up to the West.

More recently, though, after the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai by ISIS, which Russia claims is aided by Turkey; and then Turkey’s downing of a Russian air force plane that Mr. Erdogan says violated Turkish airspace, Kremlin ideologue Dmitry Kiselyev described the Turkish leader as “an unrestrained and deceitful man hooked on cheap oil from the barbaric caliphate [ISIS].”  A recent headline in a pro-government Turkish newspaper asserted that “Putin tries to deceive the world with his lies.”

What relations between the two nations will look like a year hence, whether the war of words will evolve into a missile-and-mortars conflict or blow over, is nothing anyone can know.  But one takeaway, here as from so many happenings, is that the only thing one can reasonably expect from history is the unexpected.

I spared the reporter all those observations, offering only what he sought, a sound-bite with which (hopefully) he will balance the piece he’s writing.  But it was more than a soundbite.  It was a truth – in fact, a Chanukah truth: Divine providence is at work in the world; and spiritual merits, not superior munitions, are what matter in the end.

© 2015 Hamodia

Where “Objective” is Defective

I’m not among those who grow apoplectic at the New York Times’ reportage from Israel.  There are, to be sure, occasions when, in misguided attempts to achieve what passes these days for “evenhandedness,” the Old Gray Lady misses the mark.  But I have found most (I wrote “most”! – please hold off with the angry letters!) of the dispatches from Eretz Yisrael to be informative and objective.

What isn’t either of those things, though, is how the paper has repeatedly chosen to characterize the Har HaBayis. In fact, “misleading” and “deceptive” are the most descriptive words to come to mind.

After a recent clash between Israeli police and Palestinians at the site, for instance, a September 16 New York Times report referred to the holy place as the site where the Jewish temples were “believed to have once stood.”  Another story, three days earlier, described it as a site “revered by Jews” but “one of the three holiest sites in Islam.”  Why not “revered by Jews and Muslims,” or “Islam’s third holiest site and Judaism’s holiest one”?  Something is rotten in the state of New York.

Similarly, two years ago, a Times video referred to the Har HaBayis as the place “that Jews call the Temple Mount…” and that “Jews widely believe was the site of the Temples.”

Call the Temple Mount?  That’s what it isBelieve?  Yes, like we believe the sun is hot.

No historian, at least in a state of sobriety, entertains the slightest doubt that the Bayis Sheini stood on the mount for centuries, having been built there nearly 1500 years before Islam’s founder’s grandmother was born.  Both Jewish and, l’havdil, Roman sources recount that korbanos were offered on the mizbei’ach there.  (The historicity of the Bayis Rishon is part of our mesorah, but the lack of contemporary non-Jewish writings from the time deprives historians the documentary “proof” they demand.)

That the Har HaBayis was conquered by Christian, and then Muslim, forces, and that churches and mosques were built upon the site, is undeniable.  Equally undeniable, though, are the site’s true Jewish origins – brightly reflected in the life and prayers of Jews over the course of known history.

Every observant Jew recalls the Beis Hamikdash every single day of the year, in each of his or her tefillos – recited, of course, facing in the direction of what we “widely believe was the site of the Temples.”

Then there are our holidays, like the one just past, where our Mussaf tefillos include a lengthy bemoaning of those Temples’ destructions.

The words “Yerushalayim” and its synonym “Tzion,” the city whose holiness derives from the holiness of the Makom Hamikdash, pass our lips at least ten times every morning.  Before breakfast.

There is “shabchi Yerushalayim” in Pesukei d’Zimrah, “ohr chodosh al Tzion to’ir” in birkas Krias Shma, Boneh Yerushalayim in Shemoneh Esrei, another reference in Tachanun, and others throughout Shacharis.  And let’s not forget Korbanos.

And then, after breakfast, well, if one had a bowl of cereal, his Al Hamichyah would mention Yerushalayim two more times.  And if bread was consumed, one of the brachos of Birkas Hamazon, of course, expresses our hope that Hashem will be “boneh b’rachamov Yerushalayim.”

What distorts the vision of the “paper of record” is, of course, a deep commitment to fairness and objectivity.  There is, after all, a “Muslim narrative,” too, a claim to the Makom Hamikdash by another religion, indeed one that, at least in numbers of adherents, dwarfs the Jewish one.

But fairness, of course, doesn’t mean considering every claim to be the equal of every other one.  When the New York Times refers to the events of September 11, 2001, it describes them as a concerted attack by Al Qaeda on the United States, not as “a series of plane crashes believed by Americans to have been Islamist attacks but considered by many in the Arab world to have been the work of the American government or a Jewish plot.”  At least it hasn’t done so yet.

It’s an unfortunate reminder of our galus that the Bais Hamikdash isn’t standing where it once did.  But we must accept that sad fact.  It is wrong to seek (other than through our tefillos) to change that current reality, halachically wrong to walk onto the Har HaBayis, and doubly wrong to endanger Jews by offending those who occupy the site.

But what’s also wrong (attention: New York Times) is to pretend that its history isn’t established and clear.

© 2015 Hamodia

Two-Way Traffic on the Haredi Highway

Have you ever wondered why, in light of the slew of “I survived Orthodoxy but saw the secular light!” essays and books, there no counter-flood of similar writing by some of the many who came from other Jewish places to Orthodoxy?

Why are there are no vivid descriptions of what impelled some Orthodox Jew toward traditional Jewish observance?  Why no accounts of the emptiness of secular lives they experienced, or the inadequacy they perceived in less observant ones?

Are there no tales to tell of parents who deprived their children of even a rudimentary Jewish education?  Who responded negatively to their progeny’s explorations of their Jewish roots?  Or who lived lives that contradicted what they preached to their young?

My thoughts on the matter can be read here.