Category Archives: News

Why Would American Orthodox Jews Fund a Campaign That Vilifies Them – and Israel?

A piece I wrote for Haaretz can be read here.

If you would like a PDF copy of it, just e-mail me at [email protected] with “Haaretz piece” in the subject line.

Arab Vs. Arab

Right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: It’s pronounced something like “gutter,” with the stress on the first syllable and the “g” a bit harder than the one in that English word, though not as hard as the “c” in “cutter.”

When it comes to Qatar’s current geopolitical situation, though, things are more complicated.

The small country, which juts out like a sore thumb from the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf, has been effectively put into cherem by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a consortium of nearby countries consisting of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is widely seen as the force that spearheaded that economic excommunication, making the accusation that Qatar is aiding terrorist groups.

The GCC made 13 demands on its neighbor, including ending its relations with Iran and closing down the Al-Jazeera broadcasting station, all of which conditions, as was expected, Qatar ignored. Neither side is expected to back down any time soon.

In an Arabian example of the law of unintended consequences, the boycott of Qatar has only driven it further into an economic alliance with Iran, to the benefit of the latter.

The U.S. position on the intra-Arab crisis has been somewhat less than consistent. President Trump, perhaps with visions of his festive reception in Saudi Arabia back in May still dancing in his head, quickly tweeted his backing for the Saudi-led effort: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

Well, the Departments of State and Defense did, and, surprised at not having been consulted by the Commander in Chief, seem to have explained to him that Qatar is the (relatively) good guy in the fight. The President subsequently phoned the Qatari emir to offer his help in resolving the crisis, even proposing that a summit of leaders of the blockading countries and Qatar be held at the White House. This month, in fact, culminating year-long negotiations with Qatar by the State and Defense Departments, the U.S. and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the fight against terrorism.

Qatar’s no angel, to be sure. It maintains a cozy relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite its renunciation of violence several years ago, remains a force for promoting Islamist extremism. And Qatar hosts the leadership of Hamas, implicating the country in the terror group’s murderous attacks on Israelis.

But the Saudis’ claim to be the regional bulwark against terrorism is itself something of a bad joke.

As Senator Bob Corker, who serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently: “The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing.”

While there is no evidence that the Saudis directly fund terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia is the “foremost” foreign funder of Islamist extremism in the U.K., according to a just released report from a British think tank, The Henry Jackson Society.

It estimates that the Saudi government and charities spent an estimated $4 billion exporting Saudi Arabia’s harsh interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism, worldwide in 2015, up from $2 billion in 2007. In 2015, there were 110 mosques in the U.K. practicing Wahhabism, compared to 68 in 2007. The money is primarily funneled through mosques and Islamic schools in Britain, according to the report.

“Influence has also been exerted through the training of British Muslim religious leaders in Saudi Arabia,” the report noted, “as well as the use of Saudi textbooks in a number of the U.K.’s independent Islamic schools.”

The Saudi embassy said that the claims made by the report were “categorically false,” which should reassure no one at all.

The Saudis, moreover, have been funding mosques throughout Europe that have become hotbeds of extremism, according to former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir William Patey.

According to people in the know like Sir William, terrorism isn’t really a concern of the Saudis. The royal family simply fears a scenario where the Muslim Brotherhood could foment political upheaval in the kingdom. If Islamists want to blow up Western targets, well, that’s unfortunate, but it’s not what keeps the princes up at night.

And so, we have Qatar with its Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas connections; and Saudi Arabia with its global Wahhabi “outreach.”

It’s an ugly, ugly neighborhood.

But there’s some solace to be taken here, in the fact that the bellicose neighbors are being kept nice and busy fighting only among themselves.

© 2017 Hamodia

Demographics Denial

The italics in the following seven paragraphs’ phrases are mine.

Haaretz column headline, in the wake of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo at the Kosel: “Netanyanu to American Jews: Drop Dead.” An article headline in the same paper: “Israel Preps Diplomats for Backlash From U.S. Jewish Community Over Kotel Crisis.”

A Guardian headline: “Jewish diaspora angry as Netanyahu scraps Western Wall mixed prayer plan.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky: “We’re fighting all efforts to weaken the Israel-Diaspora relations.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett: “The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face.”

And, speaking of slaps, Former Jewish Agency head and ambassador to the U.S. Salai Meridor: “[The Kosel decision is] a slap in the face to world Jewry.”

American Jewish Committee chief executive David Harris: [The decision is] “a setback for the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews.”

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America: “We urge all [executives] to communicate with their local Israel consul-general and share with them the community’s disappointment… [and how] disastrous conversion legislation would be for global Jewry.”

My list is much longer, but space is limited. If you haven’t divined the italics’ intention, they are meant to call attention to the implication that phrases like “American Jews” or “Diaspora Jewry” are synonymous with members of the Reform and Conservative movements.

It’s an implication that, at least for the uninformed and simpleminded, makes some sense. After all, Orthodox Jews in the largest Diaspora community, our own, comprise only about 10% of the Jewish population.

But government officials and Jewish thinkers might be expected to be both informed and intelligent. And, thus, to know that 1) most American Jews have no interest in the Kosel (according to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, a mere 43% of even Reform members say being Jewish is very important to them – and that doesn’t include the 30% of American Jews who are unaffiliated with any movement); and that, 2) the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those who actually live their Judaism (not to mention, support Israel) are… the Orthodox.

Reform lays claim to being the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. Its official magazine, “Reform Judaism,” claimed a quarterly circulation of “nearly 300,000 households, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions.” But very few (maybe only me, who inherited a subscription from Rabbi Sherer, z”l) actually ever read it, and the periodical folded in 2014.

And its final issue’s cover story, tellingly, celebrated Jews who sport tattoos, an issur d’Oraisa.

Which leads to the unpleasant but undeniable truth that the non-Orthodox Jewish movements have, by effectively abandoning Jewish observance, diminished much of American Jewry’s connection to its religious heritage.

Even more tragically, by “rewriting” the halachic concept of conversion, they have effectively created a multiplicity of “Jewish Peoples” in the Diaspora. Once upon a time, an American baal teshuvah’s halachic status as a Jew could be all but assumed. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The majority of many a Reform temple’s members are simply not Jewish.

And what segment of the American Jewish community produces large circulation, well-read newspapers (like this one, the only Jewish daily in the country) and magazines? One guess.

According to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, in fact, within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. More than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger, moreover, are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel estimate that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

With the growth, baruch Hashem, of the American Orthodox community has come increased communal and political standing as well. My colleague Rabbi Abba Cohen, who has headed Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office for decades, notes that the Orthodox community has clearly moved “beyond mere ‘access’ to” public officials, “which it has had for some time,” to a point, today, where “Orthodox advocates not only find open doors but are sought out and invited into the process.”

When realities like those are delivered, however, the messengers are verbally assaulted, accused of “triumphalism.”

But it’s not “triumphalism,” it’s triumph. Not of any population but rather of Yiddishkeit, of the Jewish convictions and practices that defined the lives of all Jews’ forebears until, historically speaking, fairly recently.

It’s really time that media, politicians and the pundits faced that fact, and began to qualify their use of “American Jews” and “Diaspora Jewry” accordingly.

© 2017 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Statement on Recent Jewish Federation Stances

Leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America and local federations have spoken out loudly about their disappointment in the Israeli government’s decision to suspend the Kotel resolution and about a contentious conversion bill that was recently put on hold.

A self-described Jewish state, of course, must maintain some Jewish standard, both with regard to its holy places and its definitions of personal status.  The only reasonable standard in all such matters is that of the mutual Jewish past, the Jewish religious tradition, or halacha.

There are those, unfortunately, who agitate for different standards in Israel.  That is their prerogative as individuals.  But the historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened.  Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.

It also entirely ignores the American Orthodox community, which harbors quite different sentiments.

The most conservative estimates are that 10% of American Jewry is Orthodox.  The Orthodox community, moreover, is poised to become a much more prominent sector of American Jewry.  More than a quarter of all American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox.  And even at present, the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those whose lives are infused with Judaism (and, not to mention, who are among the most strongly involved with Israel) are the Orthodox.

Any American Jew can, again, hold and promote a personal position on any issue, including the current ones in Israel.  But federations are communal entities, not private ones.  By proclaiming positions on religious controversies and ignoring the convictions of American Orthodox Jewry, federation leaders do grave damage to the very Jewish unity they profess as a goal.

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The Terminology of Terrorism

The June 19 attack in London, in which a man plowed his van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers exiting a mosque, killing one and injuring 10, was no less heinous than attacks by Islamists on other innocent people.

The London attack was the subject of scores of news reports over ensuing days.  But that didn’t prevent National Public Radio social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to, in the wake of the attack, reprise a March study by three Georgia State University researchers who maintain that non-Islamist terrorism is largely, and irresponsibly, downplayed by the media.

The fact that violence against Muslims and Islamic institutions are occurring more than ever is unarguable. Mere days before the recent attack on the London worshippers, in Malmö, Sweden, a man with neo-Nazi links drove his car into a group of Iraqis who were peacefully demonstrating against tightened Swedish asylum rules. Thankfully, no one was injured in that attack.

Six people, though, were killed and nearly 20 wounded in January, when a white nationalist opened fire on an Islamic cultural center in Quebec City. That same month, an Islamic Center in Austin, Texas was destroyed by a fire. Last month, a man fatally stabbed two people and injured a third, after he was confronted for shouting what were described as racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls on a train in Portland, Oregon.

Mosques, moreover, have been vandalized with increasing frequency over recent years and months, both in the U.S. and across Europe.

All that said, however, the study touted by NPR, whose report was picked up by a broad assortment of other news outlets, is seriously misleading.

The study’s researchers examined news coverage from the database LexisNexis Academic and CNN for terrorist attacks – defined as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” – in the U.S between 2011 and 2015. They found that “attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks.”

Quite a shocking discovery, at least at first read. But a second read is in order.

The first chink in the armor of the researchers’ conclusion lies in the definition of “terrorist attacks.” According to the study’s characterization, terrorism encompasses not only shootings, stabbings and bombings, but arson, too – and graffiti and eggings and phone threats (“the threatened or actual use of illegal force…”).

To be sure, all those things are ugly and evil, and in many cases may be rightly classified as hate crimes. But the word terrorism, most people would likely assert, should be reserved for actual violent attacks on actual human beings.

Another less obvious but more trenchant vulnerability in the researchers’ conclusion about the ostensible under-reportage of non-Muslim-committed crimes lies in the academics’ failure to distinguish between acts born of anger and those born of ideology.

The vast majority of Muslims worldwide are concerned with things like dietary laws, fasts and praying; they do not seek to kill people. Which is why the word “Islamists” has been coined to refer to those who in fact wish to murder innocents – including innocent Muslims whom they consider to be infidels.

As odious as those who attack Muslims are, and as deserving as they are of prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, most if not all of them are motivated by raw anger and misguided notions of revenge, not by any ideology of ridding the world of those who follow Islam. Before 2001, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. were almost unheard of.  While there are certainly haters of Muslims – and Jews and blacks – out there, there are no “Christianists” seeking out non-Christians to kill, as there are Islamists seeking to murder those who believe differently than they do.

That is a distinction with a dire difference. The Georgia State researchers aver that “U.S. media outlets disproportionately emphasize… terrorist attacks by Muslims – leading Americans to have an exaggerated sense of that threat”; and they lament that “it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.”

The reality, though, is that Islamism is a clear, present and determined danger to all civilized people, non-Muslims and Muslims alike. And the public perception of that fact is entirely justified, as is the prominent reportage of ideology-driven murder and mayhem.

The researchers’ and NPR’s desire to point out the prevalence of non-Muslim crimes is commendable. But it does no one any favor to try to minimize the singular threat to civilization today that is Islamist terror.

© 2017 Hamodia

The Kotel: A Public Space, not A Public Square

The Israeli Cabinet’s recent decision to not upend the public prayer status quo at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, was met with howls of outrage from a broad cross-section of non-Orthodox leaders and representatives.

The decision, however, viewed objectively and reasonably (rare perspectives these days, unfortunately, about most everything), was prudent and proper.

When it was liberated by Israel in 1967, the Kotel became a place of peace and Jewish devotion. Anyone who wished to worship there, traditional and nontraditional, Jew and non-Jew alike, did so. Since the great majority of those who flocked to the site over the years were, as remains the case, Orthodox Jews, a mechitza, or separation-structure, between men and women was erected; and the standards for public, vocal prayer were in accordance with Jewish religious tradition over millennia.  (The Holy Temple that stood on the Temple Mount in ancient times – the source of the Kotel’s holiness – had a mechitza as well, as the Talmud recounts. And women did not serve there as cantors, as halacha considers it a breach of modesty for men to hear women singing.)

Those standards were, even if they may not have been the personal ones of all visitors to the Kotel, respected by them for decades, and the Kotel plaza remained a place of amity – a Jewish societal oasis of sorts, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious beliefs prayed side-by-side.

That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of strife, by a self-described feminist group, led by firebrand Reform activist Anat Hoffman.  She has made no secret of her desire to force a change to the status quo, and to import the American model of a “multi-winged Judaism” to Israel.

As a step toward that end, she organized monthly protests in the guise of prayer services.  The response from some haredi hooligans was predictable – anger and attempts to quash the services, where women were chanting – and the feminist group seized upon that ugly reaction by having it captured by the camera crews it made sure to have in tow.  The vast majority of Orthodox Jews at the site did not act on the anguish they felt.  But feel it they did.

Anyone, of course, including Ms. Hoffman and her supporters, is entitled to his or her own views.  But there are limits, at least among civil people, to what one may do to promote one’s views.  And seeking to be “in the face” of people interested only in the introspection that is Jewish prayer crosses that line.

Those determined to “liberalize” Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues, and to promote their visions as much as they wish in the media and the public square.  But the Kotel, while it is a public place, is not a public square.  It is not a place for political or social or religious crusades to be waged.

Ms. Hoffman and her supporters have made clear, moreover, that the current Kotel controversy is only a part of a larger plan to bring American-style “religious pluralism” to Israel.  That goal might sound wonderful to many American Jews, but what it would in fact do is, by creating multiple standards for marriage, divorce and conversion, create a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples” in the Jewish state.  That would not be wonderful at all.

Regarding the Kotel, as it happens, in 2004, the Israeli government set aside an area along the Wall to the south for “nontraditional” prayer.  But the activists, with their “pluralism” goal firmly in mind, insist on having their vocal “egalitarian” services more prominently alongside the regular, overwhelmingly Orthodox, visitors to the Kotel, who, they know, are deeply pained by attempts to utilize the Kotel to effect social or religious change.

Rather than balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today – and, in the future, to be sure, other groups with their own social agendas – can promote their causes, and “pluralism” proponents can advance theirs, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity, as it has been for half a century.  And that means maintaining the Jewish religious standards at the root of all Jews’ histories for public prayer there.

Some can howl with outrage at that suggestion.  But, if they are caring Jews, they can choose instead to regard it as reasonable, and thereby help restore peace among all Jews at the Kotel Maaravi.

Agudath Israel Reaction to Kotel Plan Freeze

Agudath Israel of America released the following statement today:

The Israeli Cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo of normative, traditional Jewish religious worship at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, is a prudent and proper one.

The Kotel was a place of peace and Jewish devotion for decades after its liberation in 1967.  That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of protest in the guise of prayer, by Women of the Wall and its allies overseas.  That has been a tragedy.

Every man and woman can, as always, pray privately and with genuine emotion at the site.  But maintaining a standard for vocal public prayer is only sensible and proper.  That standard, since 1967, has been halacha, codified Jewish religious law.  Those determined to “liberalize” Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues.  To cause anguish and anger to the thousands of traditional Jews who regularly pray at the Kotel, however, is not what any Jew should ever wish to do.

Rather than balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today – and, in the future, other groups with their own social agendas – can promote their causes, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity.  As it has been for half a century.

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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

Make Learning, Not War

I don’t know about you, but until President Trump’s trip to the Middle East last month, I had never heard of a “sword dance.”

Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, you’ll recall, were welcomed to Saudi Arabia at the Murabba Palace, near Riyadh, where they joined a lively group of Saudis clad in traditional Arab garb and headdress in a ceremony known as the ardah, whose choreography includes the brandishing of swords, in rhythm with tribal chanting and drumming.

Sword dances, I came to discover, are a feature of much of the Arab world, but also of other cultures, like those of China, Turkey, India and Pakistan.

A sword is also the image on the Saudi national flag, and weapons of various sorts are prominent in other countries’ flags as well, like Angola (a machete), Kenya (spears), Oman (swords) and Mozambique (an AK-47 and bayonet). Hands clenching two AK-47s are featured on the Fatah movement’s flag, which also includes the image of a hand grenade and is graced with some blood-red Arabic text as well. (I can’t find a translation of the words but am pretty sure they aren’t “give peace a chance.”) Hamas’ logo settles for swords…

To read further, please click here.