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I Abstain from the Outrage

True or False?

  • The U.S. abstention to the recent U.N. resolution was the first time an American administration declined to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israel and opposed by her.
  • The resolution is groundbreaking, and pledges the territory captured by Israel in 1967 to a Palestinian state.
  • It would remove Yerushalayim and the Kosel Maaravi from Israeli sovereignty.
  • It is one-sided, placing the blame for the stagnated peace process squarely on Israel.
  • President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have sold Israel out.

The first four are demonstrably false.  The fifth, too.

Please don’t read further if you are not willing to consider a perspective different from the one you expect from this rightly respected newspaper and other “pro-Israel” news sources and organizations, including the wonderful one that employs me, Agudath Israel of America, which, like many other Jewish groups, condemned the U.S. abstention.  I am resolutely pro-Israel but not necessarily in agreement with every Israeli administration’s positions.  And, as I have pointed out on several occasions, while I proudly represent Agudath Israel, and convey its stances to the public and media, I exist as an individual too, and I write in these pages and in others from my own personal perspective.

Still here?  Good.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, there have been 42 U.S. vetoes of Israel-critical resolutions – but, over the course of eight U.S. administrations, including the Reagan and George W. Bush years, more than 70 “yes” votes or abstentions. The recent Security Council abstention was noteworthy, though: it was the Obama administration’s first non-veto of a critical-of-Israel resolution in its eight years, the lowest count of any president since 1967.

The recent resolution has no practical effect and takes no position that has not already been taken by the Security Council (and most of the world’s governments).  It does not determine borders; it only reiterates the tired truism that Yehudah and Shomron are “occupied” territory.  Technically, that is not entirely accurate, since the land was not under any state’s legitimate sovereignty before its capture, but it is true that, of all the captured territory, only Yerushalayim was annexed by Israel.

And Yerushalayim’s status, although not recognized at present by the U.N., will not change in negotiations, should the peace process ever resume.  As Secretary of State Kerry said in his detailed post-vote speech, there must be “freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.” He reiterated that point, too, a moment later, declaring that “the established status quo” at religious sites must be “maintained.”

U.N. resolutions concerning Israel have long been consistently, notoriously and laughably one-sided.  This one, though, as it happens, while calling on Israel to stop building in settlements, calls too on Palestinians to take “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror” and to “to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.”  That, at least for the U.N., is in fact groundbreaking.

As to Messrs. Obama and Kerry, consider a thought experiment.  Imagine – just as a theoretical possibility – that they both actually care deeply about Israel.  In fact, over his nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Kerry was a reliable, stalwart and unapologetic defender of Israel.  Pretend that Mr. Obama is of similar mindset.  (Which he is, but if you’re convinced otherwise, just pretend.)  And that they both believe, honestly and deeply, that (whatever you or I may hold to be true) only a two-state solution can ensure Israel’s security and integrity, and that continued settlement-building gives the Palestinians an excuse (unjustified, but still) to not engage in peace negotiations.

What would the two men then rightly do, with only days left for their administration, if a resolution reiterating the world’s objection to that building activity and calling for negotiations were put on the Security Council table?  Veto it, against their convictions about Israel’s wellbeing?  Or try to send a message, as they prepare to leave the world stage, about what they feel is best for Israel?

They might be entirely wrong about that (although they might be right).  And, yes, the overwhelming blame for the lack of peace is unarguably on the Palestinian leadership and populace.  And yes, all of Eretz Yisrael is bequeathed to the Jewish People.

Still and all, the American leaders’ determination to issue a final, passive call for what they believe is in Israel’s best interest does not bespeak disdain for Israel, but precisely the opposite.

Which is why all the shouts of “betrayal!” and “traitors!” and “complicit!” are so very wrong and so very sad.  This is an administration that has stood by Israel time and time again for eight years, and that mere months ago forged a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package for Israel, the largest for any U.S. ally ever.

One can consider Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry (and most Israelis, as it happens, because a clear majority are in favor of a negotiated two-state resolution) misguided, if one must.  But one cannot slander them as Israel-betrayers.  Must everyone be either “with us” or “against us,” “friend” or “enemy”?  Can no one be with us and a friend but with a different perspective than our own?

What the outgoing U.S. administration wants from Israel isn’t capitulation to her enemies.  What it has always sought is a sign of willingness on the current Israeli government’s part to simply act decisively on its declared commitment to a peace process aimed at a two-state solution.  To be sure, even a restarted peace process is far from assured of success; there are many issues that could prove intractable.  And yes, there have been moratoriums on “disputed territories” building in the past, to no avail.  But an acceptance of yet another one, instead of a continuation of the recently accelerated pace of building, will put the ball again in the Palestinian court, and offer something to an angry world.

Yes, that world is unreasonable, obnoxious and ugly.  Not to mention ridiculously hyper-focused on Israel, when so many truly unspeakable true human tragedies exist elsewhere, ignored.

So why, so many ask, should its opinion matter to us?  That sentiment is what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed when he said, in the wake of the Security Council vote, that “Israelis do not need to be lectured of the importance of peace by foreign leaders” and that “Israel is a country with national pride, and we don’t turn the other cheek” and that he has had “enough of this exile mentality.”

And it is what he expressed, too, by summoning ambassadors of countries who voted for the resolution, and the American ambassador as well, to reprimand them, on the day that Christians consider the holiest on their calendar.  “What would they have said in Jerusalem,” an unnamed Western diplomat later fumed, “if we summoned the Israeli ambassador on Yom Kippur?” Think hard about that.

It may feel gratifying to snub one’s nose at real or perceived enemies. Personally, though, I am a talmid, so to speak, of Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, zecher tzaddikim liv’racha, not of Reb Bibi Netanyahu.  I believe that we are indeed in exile, in galus; that “secular Jewish nationalism” is wrong and dangerous; and that a modicum of modesty is demanded of all Jews, especially those who claim to represent other Jews.  I believe that humility, not arrogance (and certainly not “kochi v’otzem yadi”) should be the operative principle of Klal Yisrael, and of anyone who deigns to lead a “Jewish state.”

Maybe, with the help of the Trump administration, Israel will be able to cow the 2.8 million Palestinians in “the territories” into submission.  And maybe Hamas will not be able to seize whatever peace-seeking Palestinian hearts and minds are left.  Maybe all will be well, Israelis will sleep safely and the fears of the Obama administration will prove to have been without warrant.

Maybe.

But whatever may happen in the future, what the present requires of us, al pi mesoraseinu, I believe, is hatznea leches and hakaras hatov, not snubbing, sneering or insults.

© Hamodia 2017

 

Misguided Magical Thinking

On June 5, 1944, Erwin Rommel, the greatest German general of World War II, left occupied France to return to Germany for his wife’s birthday the next day. He was expecting an American invasion of Northern France, but a storm in the region, and the chief German meteorologist’s prediction that the weather would not be changing soon, led him to conclude that an invasion was not imminent.

Mrs. Rommel’s birthday is, of course, more remembered by history as D-Day, when American troops landed at Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control.

The following year, when U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese to surrender, a questionable translation of a Japanese word in Japan’s response may have led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A translator rendered mokusatsu – which literally means “kill with silence” and may have been intended to signal a simple reluctance for the moment to respond – as “reject.” President Truman took Japan’s reply as a statement of defiance, and ordered the bombings that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, half of them after months of agony.

More than thirty years earlier, the Titanic sunk, and more than 1500 people drowned in the North Atlantic Ocean. Ship lookout Fred Fleet, who survived the disaster, told the official inquiry into the tragedy that had he had binoculars, he would have spied the iceberg that sank the ocean liner in time to avoid it. Binoculars had in fact been on board, but were in a locked cupboard. The ship’s former Second Officer, David Blair, who had been removed from the ship before it sailed, neglected to leave the key with his replacement.

A birthday party, a mistranslated word, a missing key – each proved momentously consequential.

As did, more recently, a click on a computer keyboard. The consequences were not – at least as far as we know now – as momentous as the party, word or key. But history may have been changed by the click all the same.

Back in March, Clinton campaign chief John Podesta received an email warning, ostensibly from Google, informing him that someone “just used your password to try to sign into your Google account.” The message continued: “Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”

An aide, suspicious of the message, sent it to a Clinton campaign computer technician to check it out.

“This is a legitimate email,” the aide, Charles Delavan, replied. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

And with a subsequent click on the “Google” message, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his personal account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the use of possible Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a “phishing” attack, an attempt to fool the recipient into allowing access to his account. He had meant, he said, to type that it was an “illegitimate” email or that it was “not legitimate.”

Whether the pilfered emails, which included embarrassing exchanges about various people and things, played a truly pivotal role in eroding Mrs. Clinton’s apparent lead during the weeks before the election cannot be known. But that they drew great and negative attention isn’t disputable.

And neither is the truism that historical happenings can hang on what seem trivial, almost random, things. To some people, that is just evidence of the folly of the cosmos, the meaninglessness of life. To those of us, though, who realize that human life and history have ultimate meaning, and that a Divine hand guides both our personal lives and the collective one of the world, such “trivialities” are not trivial at all.

We tend sometimes to lose ourselves in the turmoil of our hishtadluyos, the efforts we make, as we are enjoined to do, to effect desired outcomes – personal, communal, political. And we begin to think, in the backs of our minds (or, worse, even in their fronts) that our actions per se directly bring about the results that follow. It is that sort of imagining that fuels the wild passions some exhibit about politics.

An antidote to that misguided magical thinking, a reminder of Who is always ultimately in charge, consists of contemplating just how easily the world can change through no intentional action of our own, or of any mortal.

© 2016 Hamodia

We, the Jury

It’s probably safe to say that not since the 26 seconds Abraham Zapruder filmed of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 has a moving image of a killing been viewed more often than that of the April, 2015 fatal encounter, in North Charleston, South Carolina, between police officer Michael Slager and motorist Walter Scott.

The 50-year-old Mr. Scott was pulled over by Mr. Slager for a broken brake light. For reasons unknown, the motorist left his car and fled. The policeman shot and killed him.

The report filed by the officer report stated that he had deployed a Taser against Mr. Scott to stop him from fleeing, that the two men then struggled over the electrical shock device, that Mr. Scott gained control of it and attempted to use it against Mr. Slager, prompting the officer to shoot eight rounds at Mr. Scott, striking him five times.

A passerby caught the event on his mobile phone camera and, after hesitating for fear for his own safety, made the recording public.

The video clip showed Mr. Scott running away, nothing in his hands, and Mr. Slager, at a distance of 15-20 feet, coolly shooting at the back of the fleeing man. The film also seemed to show the officer, after the victim had fallen, retrieving something, possibly a Taser, from his patrol car and placing it next to the dying Mr. Scott.

Last week, a jury in Mr. Slager’s state trial (whose members had the option of finding him guilty of either murder or manslaughter), after 22 hours’ deliberation and repeated viewings of the video, remained deadlocked. Reportedly, 11 of the 12 jurors favored a conviction.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin, 17a) teaches us that when the Sanhedrin judged a capital case, a unanimous verdict would automatically be vacated.  (For the reason, see Rashi and the Maharatz Chayes.) Unanimity, when a life is at stake, is unacceptable.

In American federal felony trials, however, as well as in trials on serious charges in various states, South Carolina among them, a unanimous verdict is required. And so, faced with the deadlock in the Slager case, the presiding judge declared a mistrial, and the lead prosecutor announced her intent to retry the defendant.

Most of us, and rightly, are sympathetic to police officers when they feel compelled to use their weapons. Police live dangerous lives, and many have been murdered in the course of their duties protecting us all. And in many of the cases where white officers like Mr. Slager have been accused of needlessly shooting black suspects like Mr. Scott, we tend to think that things aren’t always – excuse the expression – black and white.

Sometimes, though, they are.

Whether or not, as some have charged, the holdout in the jury box was motivated by racism, the video makes undeniably clear that Mr. Scott was unarmed and fleeing, and that Mr. Slager shot him at a distance, repeatedly, in the back.

Many African-Americans, unfortunately, automatically assume that if a white police officer shoots a black man it must have been because black lives don’t matter to white cops. That assumption is misguided; it ignores the inherent and considerable dangers of police work and the disproportionate representation of black men in criminal activity, resulting in a heightened sense of threat some officers might have when confronting them. (That’s not an excuse, only a reality.)

But disabusing those who jump to such conclusions about police shootings requires diligently investigating each case where a black person is hurt or killed by a police officer, and vigorously prosecuting any officer accused of using force wrongfully. As seems clearly to have happened, lethally, in the Slager case.

North Charleston’s police chief Eddie Driggers understands the importance of that.  After watching the video, he minced no words, saying simply, “I was sickened by what I saw.”

Michael Slager will be retried by the state, and also faces federal charges of violating Mr. Scott’s civil rights and using a weapon during the commission of a crime. Usually, it is unjustified to expect a particular verdict. Usually, the public isn’t privy to what is needed to judge an accused person innocent or guilty. Usually, there is no way for people, even members of a jury who have heard much testimony and weighed much evidence, to know what in fact took place.

This, though, is not a usual case. And its outcome could help reassure American minorities that they are treated the same as everyone else in our country, or help confirm their worst suspicions.

© 2016 Hamodia

A Very Different Future American Jewish Community?

The dovetailing of the incoming American administration’s apparent views on many issues of concern to Orthodox Jews and the remarkable demographic changes taking place on the American Jewish communal scene may herald an American Jewish political and organizational future that will look very different from the current one.

An opinion piece of mine that recently appeared in Haaretz about that, which the paper titled “Like It or Not, the American Jewish Future Is Orthodox, and Deeply Conservative,” can be accessed here.

If it’s not accessible, write me at [email protected] and I’ll send you the text.

Desert Ghosts

Iran was Jimmy Carter’s Waterloo.

Just as Napoleon’s fate was sealed on that bloody Belgian battlefield, so was Mr. Carter’s by the metal and human carnage strewn across Desert One, the area south of Tehran where U.S. special operations forces attempted, and then were forced to abort, the rescue of American hostages held by the just-established Islamic Republic of Iran.

Too much information to process in that sentence? You must be a millennial.

Well, then, some ancient history: Back in 1979, the Shah of Iran, a friend of both the U.S. and Israel, was overthrown (while in the U.S. for medical treatment) by followers of a malevolent Islamist cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in what became known as the “Iranian Revolution.” What resulted was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which persists today.

During the turmoil, a group of Iranian students, acting in the name of the revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage. Anguished, like all Americans, by the situation, then-President Carter attempted and failed to negotiate the hostages’ release. Eventually, he authorized a military rescue operation. On April 2, 1980, the attempt, known as Operation Eagle Claw, failed, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian and the destruction of two aircraft – not to mention of any chance Mr. Carter may have had for re-election.

Ronald Reagan won that year’s presidential race, and, in a final insult to Mr. Carter, “Supreme Leader” Khomeini ordered the release of the hostages, who had been held for 444 days, the moment Mr. Reagan concluded his inauguration speech.

Why the history lesson? Because Mr. Carter, who engineered the 1978 Camp David Accords peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, has since become a relentless critic of Israel – and, last week, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling on President Obama to officially recognize an Arab state called “Palestine.” “I fear for the spirit of Camp David,” he pleads. “We must not squander this chance.”

The former president, as is his wont, grossly prevaricates, claiming that “most” Palestinians live “under Israeli military rule,” somehow glossing over the more than two million Arabs living under the Palestinian Authority – and the 1.7 million Arabs living under Hamas’ dirty thumb in Gaza. And Mr. Carter is revealing, too, by referring to “600,000 Israeli settlers in Palestine,” a number that can only make sense if one includes all of the Jewish residents of Yerushalayim.

The former president also claims that “Israel is building more and more settlements, displacing Palestinians.” Whatever one may think of the expansion of settlements in Yehudah and Shomron (and I think it is counterproductive), virtually all such communities have been built on fallow land. Palestinians may, legitimately or not, lay claim to some of that land. But “displaced,” like all words, has a meaning.

All in all, Mr. Carter would have done better to have instead written an op-ed for the Arabic daily Al-Quds, the largest circulation paper in the region (whose name is the Arabic one for Yerushalayim, and which once presented “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as factual). He could have used some of the same language he employed in his New York Times offering – expressing his “fear for the spirit of Camp David” and declaring that “We must not squander this chance.” But the “chance” would rightly have referred to Israel’s longstanding offer to hold direct, unconditional talks with the P.A., which, to date, Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly rebuffed. Such talks, of course, would well embody the “spirit of Camp David.”

Most egregious, though, is not what Mr. Carter writes, but what he doesn’t. That would include the unfortunate but most pertinent fact that the “Palestine” whose recognition he urges would be comprised of a fractious populace with at least two mutually antagonistic governments, at least one of which is pledged to the destruction of Israel. No mention, either, in Mr. Carter’s nearly 900 words, of Palestinian terrorism or the declared goal of Islamist groups with enthusiastic adherents in “the territories” to not coexist with Israel but, chalilah, replace her.

Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And therein lies the irony. Each of those gangs, whose hatred and violence are the true obstacles to peace in Israel and the pacific “Palestine” for which Mr. Carter pines, is generously supplied with weapons and political support by none other than his old nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Decades later, in its own way, it’s still making a fool of Jimmy Carter.

© 2016 Hamodia

 

Harassment, Hijabs and Hoaxes

Widespread reports over the weeks since Election Day of harassment and hateful graffiti aimed at minorities reminded me of something the legendary Agudath Israel of America leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, taught me, the first time I had the honor of interacting with him.

I don’t doubt that some of the scrawled swastikas are just what they seem to be. All it takes, after all, to create one is a hateful mind and a broad-tipped marker, neither of which is usually in terribly short supply.

But no one can really even know whether a graffito in fact reflects the writer’s sentiments or was cynically intended to incite others. And, as to the accounts of intimidation by alleged pro-Trump hoodlums, many lack any corroboration or evidence.

Like the claim of an unnamed black girl on a city bus in Queens, that, the day after the election, several white girls from St. Francis Prep, a local Catholic high school, told her that, now that “Trump is president,” she belonged “in the back of the bus.”

A local newspaper called it a “shocking echo of the Jim Crow South.”

When asked for details that might help apprehend the harassers, though, the alleged victim declined to cooperate.

Then there was the University of Louisiana student who, that same week, told of how two white men, one wearing a Trump hat, stole her wallet and hijab. Confronted with contrary evidence, however, she admitted fabricating her tale.

Many of the recently reported episodes of hate crimes are vague, involve unidentified culprits and are unsupported by witnesses. Often the police aren’t even called, and often when they are, the stories don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Sometimes the alleged victim is even the perpetrator. Kean University student Kayla McKelvey pleaded guilty this past summer for having fabricated threats against black students like herself, sowing panic over the campus.

What has Rabbi Sherer to do with all this?

Well, my first encounter with the man who later hired and mentored me as Agudath Israel’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call.

It was the mid-1980s, and I was a high school rebbe in Providence, Rhode Island. Occasionally, though, I wrote opinion pieces, for the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.

One piece I penned was about bus stop burnings that had been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods displayed images that offended the sensibilities of the local residents. Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were vandalized or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a shul for every burned bus stop shelter. It was not a pretty time.

My article was an attempt to convey the motivation of the bus-stop burners, wrong though their actions were. Imagine, I suggested, a society where hard, addictive drugs were legal, freely marketed and advertised. And a billboard touting the drugs’ wonderful qualities was erected just outside a school. Most people might never think of defacing or destroying the ad, but would probably understand the feelings of someone who did take things into his own hands. For a chareidi Jew, I wrote, gross immodesty in advertising in his neighborhood is no less dangerous, in a spiritual sense, and no less deplorable.

Rabbi Sherer had somehow seen the article and he called to tell me how cogent and well-written he had found it. But, he added – and the “but,” I realized, was the main point of his call – “my dear Avi, you should never assume that the culprits were religious Jews. Never concede an unproven assertion.”

I was taken aback, since hotheads exist everywhere. But I thanked my esteemed caller greatly for both his kind words and his critical ones. I wasn’t convinced, though, that my assumption had really been unreasonable.

To my surprise, though, several weeks later, a group of non-religious youths were arrested for setting a bus stop aflame, in an effort to increase ill will against the religious community. How many of the burnings the members of the group, or others like them, may have perpetrated was and remains unknown. But Rabbi Sherer had proven himself (and not for the first or last time) a wise man.

To be sure, there may be, and probably are, haters out there who are harassing citizens they don’t like, or putting their lack of artistic talent and good will on public display. Their actions rightly evoke our outrage.

But it’s important to remember, even amid outrage, that accusations are easily made, but assumptions shouldn’t be.

© Hamodia 2016

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

Glimmer of Light in a Dark Campaign

Well, we’ve all had some time by now to recover from the year-and-a-half-long national convulsion that passed for a presidential campaign. Might there be something positive to point to in an experience most of us would prefer to somehow un-experience?

Well, there’s no way to make any sort of purse, much less a silk one, out of this particular sow’s ear. But still, in the campaign’s waning days, there was a flicker of civility to behold.

It came at a time of particular tension for the Clinton campaign – after FBI chief James Comey’s first statement revealing the discovery of a new trove of possibly problematic e-mails, and before his second one revealing that the trove was untainted.

It took place at a Clinton rally at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. As President Obama addressed the large crowd, a protester wearing a military uniform stood up at the front of the gathering, holding aloft a pro-Trump placard. Predictably, a wall of loud, sustained boos resulted.

In professorial tones, Mr. Obama told the crowd to calm down. When it didn’t, he raised his voice. “Everybody! Hey! I told you to be focused and you’re not focused right now. Sit down and be quiet for a second!” The boos faded to a muted murmur.

“You’ve got an older gentleman,” the president lectured his listeners, referring to the protester, “who is supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing… This is what I mean about folks not being focused. First of all, we live in a country that respects free speech. Second of all, it looks like maybe he might have served in our military and we ought to respect that. Third of all, he was elderly and we got to respect our elders.”

The incident was reminiscent of one in 2008, at a Republican town hall meeting in Minnesota, where Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s opponent at the time, also had to deal with supportive but misguided booing – and did so decisively.

A supporter had said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency, and the crowd loudly vocalized its approval. But Mr. McCain refused to bask in the anger.

“I have to tell you,” he said. “Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

“Come on, John!” someone shouted out. Others loudly labeled Mr. Obama “liar,” and “terrorist.”

Then a woman who had been handed a microphone said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not, uh – he’s an Arab.” Mr. McCain retrieved the mike and replied: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

Such moments of comity are all too rare in the tumult of of campaign-tornados, like the recent one, that swirl angrily with snide innuendo, malign spin and outright lies – all eagerly drunk in and spat out by partisan pundits. But those moments are the ones consonant with the concept of menschlichkeit.

Pleasing, too, if not unexpected, was hearing Mrs. Clinton, the day after the election, tell her supporters that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

As it was hearing Mr. Obama, that same day, declaring that “we are now all rooting for [Mr. Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.”

The president’s decency was all the greater for his citing that of his predecessor. “Eight years ago,” Mr. Obama recalled, “President Bush and I had some pretty significant differences. But President Bush’s team could not have been more professional or more gracious in making sure we had a smooth transition so that we could hit the ground running.”

It’s no secret that I have come to judge the current president much more favorably than many in the Orthodox Jewish world. But I came to that conclusion only after Mr. Obama, to my lights, demonstrated his commitment to the safety and security of Israel and Jews. Until then, like others, I feared what the punditocracy was preaching about the purported Muslim, chassid of unhinged hater Reverend Wright, husband of a black power radical and all-around evildoer who had somehow infiltrated the White House.

Like many, even among some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, I have concerns about the president-elect. Heeding Hillary’s admonition, though, I am keeping an open mind, and will let future facts lead me where they will. I am hoping that the new president, like his predecessor, will come to pleasantly surprise me.

© Hamodia 2016

Ripe Citrons and Ruby Slippers

On the first day of Sukkos, after tens of thousands of Jews had paid princely sums for flawless specimens of a particular citrus fruit, payments were made by others, too, for a very different reason.

That day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History launched a public campaign to raise $300,000 in order to restore and preserve a pair of slippers, those that were worn by the main character in the 1939 film production of a children’s classic.

“The shoes,” explained the Smithsonian, “are fragile and actively deteriorating.”  Their color, appallingly, “has faded, and the slippers appear dull and washed-out. The coating on the sequins that give the shoes their hallmark ruby color is flaking off its gelatin base. Some threads that hold sequins in place have broken.”  Something had to be done.

The campaign, which aimed at repairing the footgear and constructing a special temperature-controlled and light-controlled enclosed environment to ensure that the slippers last into perpetuity, was intended to span three weeks.  By Shemini Atzeres, though, it had already exceeded its goal, and donations continue to pour in.  Support came from 41 countries, with the highest concentration of donors in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.  And likely the fictional town of Chelm.

To paraphrase the prayer recited by mesaymim, “We expend funds and they expend funds.”  And what an intriguing contrast the respective mass expenditures provide.

“Conserving an American Icon” is what the Smithsonian dubbed its save-our-slippers movement.  “Icon” is a word borrowed from the Greek, and can mean “idol.”  Whether the good-heartedly nostalgic donors to the Keren HaSlippers, for their adoration of physical objects,  can be categorized as idolaters is not something I am prepared to say, or qualified to judge.  But such simpleminded devotion can prove something of, if an irresistible pun can be forgiven… a slippery slope.

After Yom Tov, of course, many esrogim were either consumed fresh or, processed, as jelly.  Others were just put aside to petrify.  While the fruits were immensely valued for seven days, they had an expiration date, so to speak, one unrelated to their freshness.  And that speaks to the essential difference between how a Jew looks at an esrog and how a sentimental soul sees a theatrical relic.  The esrog is a means of performing a mitzvah, not an inherent object of adulation.  It is valuable for the opportunity it provides to serve Hashem, a means toward a goal, not something to be venerated.  And so, once its purpose as a path toward the performance of a mitzvah has been fulfilled, it reverts to a mere fruit.

To be sure, there are objects in our own world that possess inherent holiness, like kodoshim, meat or flour-offerings from korbanos brought in the Beis Hamikdash; or, today, a sefer Torah.  But kodoshim is, in the end, consumed or burned, and a sefer Torah’s holiness derives from the words it contains, not from ink and parchment themselves; and when it is no longer usable, it is buried.

There are, moreover, Jews who treasure objects that were once used by great tzaddikim. But only, at least properly, because of the objects’ connection to those tzaddikim, who were in fact worthy of veneration because of the lives they lived.  Rather different, to greatly understate things, from an artifact of a theatrical production.

Non-Jews, and Jews unfamiliar with their spiritual heritage, if aware of the prices paid by observant Jews for esrogim, must think us strange.  After all, the most beautiful, symmetrical, aromatic lemon in the Trader Joe’s bin commands at most fifty cents.  And it has a nice, smooth skin, too.

And if they knew of all the other substantial expenditures we make, for talmud Torah, for Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim (for Pesach alone!), for kosher meat, for tzeddaka… they would surely think us entirely unhinged. They, though, don’t comprehend what a mitzvah means to a heartfelt Jew.

If only they could truly appreciate the meaning of a mitzvah, they would perceive the deep contrast between cherishing a meaningless prop and valuing a precious objet d’mitzvah.  If they only, so to speak, had a bren.

This past Sukkos gave us an example how starkly divergent are our world and the one “out there.”

A set of footwear was confirmed in the status of an icon, and a large sum was dedicated to its preservation – at least in the hopes of curators and now grown-up children – for eternity.

And a mitzvah was, as every year, performed at considerable expense by Jews, affording them actual access to eternity.

© 2016 Hamodia