Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism

The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.

It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:

  • The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.*
  • The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law
  • The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se).
  • And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.

The question we must ask is simple: are these neutral humanitarian concerns, or excuses with which to mask discrimination? The difference is found in how these arguments are employed in other situations: one who applies humanitarian principles across the board is genuine, but one who encourages global condemnation of a single group or country — while ignoring equal or greater violations by an opposing or third party — might more accurately be called a bigot. And there’s the problem.

marianne3It is true that the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant is producing limited power at this time – due to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to provide more fuel until Hamas, the organization governing the Gaza Strip, pays its past due balance. Israel, by contrast, continued to provide electrical power to Gaza even during last year’s war, though Hamas owed Israel over $60 million for previously-supplied power at that time.

Israeli electrical service to Gaza was only interrupted when an errant Hamas rocket hit the power line. Employees of the Israel Electric Company then worked in bulletproof vests and helmets in order to restore power to 70,000 residents of Gaza just days later.

And despite accusations that Israel “destroyed” the Gazan power plant during the war, that plant resumed operation within two months of the war’s end. So a neutral concern for Gazan residents would direct opprobrium primarily against the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, those responsible for cutting the power. BDS activists, however, protest against Israel.

As for medical equipment and care, we must wonder why the Flotilla bypassed Morocco, Algeria, and most notably Egypt, countries along its path where the life expectancy at birth is significantly lower than it is in the Gaza Strip. Yes, despite what you’ve heard about “genocide” in Gaza (a smear designed to stir up grotesque comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust), a baby born in Gaza can expect to live nearly three years longer than one born in Egypt — due in large part to access by Gazans to treatment in Israel (where the life expectancy of both Jewish and Arab citizens is still higher).

A neutral concern for human rights and international law would also have motivated the flotilla to dock in Algeria, where Freedom House upgraded the state of press freedom to “Partly Free” only last year, or Libya, where attempts at freedom of expression could be greeted with the death penalty — as could the announcement of an LGBT relationship (in Algeria, one would only get a few years’ imprisonment and a large fine for that). Yet the “freedom flotilla” sailed straight for Gaza — and not because hundreds of homosexual Palestinians have fled to Israel to avoid discrimination, harassment or death.

A naval blockade during hostilities is a conventional defense tactic, and Israel claims the Gaza blockade will end as soon as Hamas ceases its efforts to import weapons with which to kill Israelis. This argument is buttressed by the interception of a shipment of advanced Syrian rockets, paid for by Iran and intended for Hamas use, just prior to the outbreak of last year’s war. But under European Union law, Spain has no similar justification for its summary deportations of refugees who jump the fence from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Yet the Flotilla did not stop there to protest this undisputed violation of international law, nor suggest that Hamas cease attempting to import weapons as a method with which to end the blockade.

Discussion of the “security of food supplies” is also a troubling subject for BDS supporters to raise, as Israel continues to facilitate entry of 800 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza every day. These imports halted only briefly during the 2014 Gaza War, when Hamas deliberately fired rockets at the border crossing. Egypt, on the other hand, has closed its border with Gaza completely, and is razing an entire city — the Egyptian side of Rafah — to prevent terror attacks against its soldiers. Yet again, the Flotilla accuses neither Hamas nor Egypt of indifference to Gaza — only Israel, the only one of the three that has acted reliably and consistently to ensure the security of food supplies.

As for cultural exchange, it’s interesting to note that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas will tolerate the presence of an Israeli Jew in any territory under their control, whereas, by contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy greater freedoms than Arab citizens of any Arab country — including mixed Jewish-Arab schools, Arab professors and students in Israel’s top universities, Arab Knesset members, and even a leading contestant on MasterChef Israel. A Palestinian in Lebanon is barred from at least 25 professions, including law, medicine and engineering, but BDS does nothing to protest open discrimination against Palestinians by other Arabs.

And when it comes to self-determination, the flotilla sailed past Morocco, which continues its occupation of the Western Sahara and control of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Palestinian Arabs comprise the majority of the citizenry of Jordan — itself eighty percent of the old British Mandate for Palestine. Yet, once again, the flotilla does nothing for the independence and self-determination of millions of ethnic Palestinians languishing under the Hashemite clan (originally of Saudi Arabia).

So yes, let’s not be so fast to say that BDS and the recent flotilla are nothing more than a recent manifestation of age-old anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the Nazi Boycott of the 1930s and false incitement against Jews throughout the Middle Ages. Let’s offer the proponents of BDS the opportunity to provide new and more reasonable justifications for their positions and actions that are neutral, humanitarian, and have nothing to do with bias against Jews.

Because the ones provided thus far have done precious little to prevent us from slipping inexorably towards that ugly conclusion.

* As the Washington Post determined, the “aid” comprised a flat package able to hold a small solar panel, and a single nebulizer.

On Princeton and BDS

My letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly:

Somewhere during my education, I was taught that you get to have your own opinions, but not your own facts. This being the case, the recent divestment letter (Inbox, April 22) and referendum are still more troubling than previous letter-writers have allowed.

According to both its American and British authors as well as the text itself, UN Resolution 242 expects Israel to withdraw from “territories” – not all, but rather some, and only upon conclusion of a peace agreement giving Israel secure borders. Israel already has withdrawn in order to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, and even without a peace agreement, from the Gaza Strip.

Said resolution also requires “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every State in the area.” The PLO, which immediately rejected Resolution 242, stated as recently as 2010 that “the Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as the Jewish state.” Hamas, of course, seeks genocide, the extermination of every Jew, in its charter.

So we are left to confront the reality that 76 professors ignorantly or deliberately falsified the record and inverted the facts in order to satisfy their personal biases. This, along with a student referendum based upon this and similar falsehoods, risks sacrificing Princeton’s reputation for academic integrity on the altar of political correctness.

The Need for RFRA

While Rabbi Shafran outlined so well the failure to protect religious freedom from the gay marriage agenda, the headlines are piling up fast and furious to show us why legislation to protect our rights is so badly needed — and the Obama administration is clearly leading the charge.

In oral arguments in favor of same-sex marriage being a national right, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explicitly said that as a result, religious universities would be unable to function in accordance with their own beliefs:

Not satisfied with that answer, Justice Alito brought up the Bob Jones case, where the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. He asked if the same would apply to a college or university that opposed same sex marriage.

“You know, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli said. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It’s going to be an issue.”

And today we read of a criminal investigation of two ministers operating a for-profit wedding chapel, because they can only consecrate the union of a man and a woman. In Colorado, of course, a baker was forced out of the business of making wedding cakes, because he refused to make one for a same-sex wedding.

Note than in the Idaho wedding chapel case, someone called them up two days after the law went into effect. With apologies to those who insist it’s simply coincidence, I find it chilling — signs of an effort to deliberately shut all “people of [traditional] faith” out of the business world.

Baltimore Take-Aways

Here in Baltimore, we’re buckling down the hatches and hoping to weather the storm. Unrest is expected in “the Northwest” but no one is quite sure what that means. Schools all dismissed early and it’s been recommended that children stay indoors. So far, it’s a snow day in April; iy”H it will remain so.

I’m sure some of what I say here will be controversial, but here are my opinions on the facts as I know them.

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

People who have nothing to hide have no problem making eye contact with a police officer, and certainly they don’t respond to eye contact by bolting. This has nothing to do with “running while black,” and everything to do with “running from a cop.”

It is the responsibility of the Baltimore Police to keep public order. Especially in a high crime area, the fact that Gray went running off at top speed was an extremely good reason to detain him, start a conversation and find out why he was running away.

Then, upon detaining him, there was ample reason to bring him into custody. He was carrying a switchblade, which which is apparently against the law — I can’t tell you if that’s true for everyone or only for those with a criminal history, but Gray has seen the inside of a prison several times over the past 7 years. He was scheduled to be tried in May on drug charges. Officers apparently suspected he was involved in drug activity, but they never got to question him about that.

There is No Evidence (Yet) that Police did Deliberate Harm

Thanks to an abundance of cell phone videos, we know what police did when they dragged him to the van and when they put leg irons on him (apparently he was being violent). Nothing that we can see explains how he received the severe spinal injury which eventually caused his death.

According to policy, he should’ve been buckled in. If a prisoner is being violent with you, then cuffed or not it’s difficult to buckle him in without risking personal harm. The officers decided not to risk being head-butted or even bitten. I think we can understand that — but it was still wrong. If it took three officers to do it safely, then three officers should have been involved.

There was also no obvious physical injury, nothing for police to see and no indication of police brutality. The spinal injury was the only injury he suffered.

The remaining question, then, is whether the driver of the van deliberately chose to give him a “rough ride” as some sort of “payback” for being violent with them. I can’t answer that question, and I’m sure no one can until the investigation is complete.

If the arresting officers didn’t hurt him, and didn’t give him a rough ride, then how did he get hurt? Did he get jostled the wrong way? Did he slam himself into the side of the van for some reason? We may never know. The demonstrators don’t seem to be waiting.

He Should Have been given Medical Attention More Quickly

Someone being held down by police is immediately going to start saying “I can’t breathe,” in order to get police to relax enough to let them escape. A cuffed person will complain his wrists hurt — and Gray was recorded doing exactly that. Similarly, for someone detained by police to claim to need medical attention is a frequent tactic to avoid going to central booking. This last tactic just delays the process and means more time in custody.

This is something that officers know to explain, to distinguish between those just trying to delay from those who really have a problem. They ignored Gray’s complaints instead, and this was wrong as well.

The Demonstrations are Senseless

The Mayor of Baltimore is black [I would use the more politically-correct term African-American, but the hashtag is #blacklivesmatter]. The Police Commissioner is black. The majority of the city council is black. At least 25% of the police force (including, according to some reports, at least one of the arresting officers) is black. So I wonder if all these people protesting could please clarify who it is, among the mayor, police force and city council, who doesn’t think black lives matter?

Obviously, they do. Obviously, they want to find out what went wrong. Obviously, they are already working on it diligently, and not trying to cover anything up. Isn’t it incredibly premature to “take to the streets?”

No, the Mayor Didn’t Deliberately Let Them Riot

Much has been made of the following quote from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:

I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters would be able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate, and that’s what you saw this evening.

Some have pounced on this statement, claiming that she was admitting that they intentionally provided “those who wished to destroy” with the necessary “space to do that.” But I think it’s obvious to any honest, thinking, unbiased person that this is not what she said. She said that in providing the protesters with space in which to “exercise their right to free speech,” this inadvertently gave space to “those who wished to destroy.”

Zero Tolerance Actually Works

Zero-tolerance doesn’t mean tolerance for false arrests. Zero-tolerance isn’t an excuse for officers to get it wrong, and officers shouldn’t be given quotas requiring a certain number of arrests. What zero-tolerance does mean is that even minor crimes are not tolerated. If people want to protest, and you let them congregate in legal fashion, that’s one thing. But if you let them block traffic and you don’t intervene, they will up the ante. They will throw rocks. They will destroy police cars. They will set fires.

In Israel they have the opposite problem. If something like this had happened in Jerusalem, the border police would’ve been there busting heads. As we know, the Israeli border police act completely outside the bounds of law and order, covering their nametags, wantonly clubbing bystanders and arresting people who photograph them in action (well, at least they did that third one before cellphones made it impossible to stop the photos from appearing).

Here, the police were hampered not only by numbers, but by a policy of excessive restraint in the face of not merely protests, but violence.

We can hope that tonight will be better — due to the presence of overwhelming force. But if police had been given authority to quell the protests and clear the streets, if they didn’t need to fear lawsuits if they shoved a person illegally blocking a street (the rock-throwing thugs, of course, had no such fear), it’s likely they could have regained the streets last night, and neither a CVS pharmacy nor a nearly-completed facility for the elderly would have burned to the ground.

Such is the consequence of fettering the shotrim, the people who guard us and ensure that we obey the laws — and who are authorized to use force when necessary.

Prepare for Round Two

The investigation will be completed soon. It is almost certain that whatever disciplinary action is warranted for failing to buckle Gray in or failing to respond to his medical complaints, it will hardly satisfy the mob thirsting for blood, or in this case, a charge of murder.

One can hope the Mayor has learned that its not only the demonstrators who deserve freedom to operate.

Fruitful Conversations about Fruitful Continuity

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner & Rabbi Yaakov Menken

In a recent editorial in The Forward (“Be Fruitful and Multiply — Please?”, Dec. 12), Jane Eisner sets aside the Pew Report’s alarming statistics regarding non-Orthodox intermarriage and assimilation to focus upon fertility, which she terms “an even more fraught issue.” Yet it is unclear why she believes the decline in childbearing to be the dominant cause of the diminution of the non-Orthodox community, nor why begging women to have more children will contribute significantly to a reversal.

[This response was initially accepted for publication in The Forward itself, but subsequently they decided not to print it. We believe this an unfortunate decision both for The Forward and its readership.]

Eisner correctly states that non-Orthodox fertility hovers around 1.7 children per family, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. But Zero Population Growth will not preserve a Jewish community whose children are deserting it. The Pew Survey reports that fifty percent of married Reform Jewish adults have a non-Jewish spouse, and children of intermarriage are much less likely to be raised as Jews. Even beyond that, one-third of young Jewish adults raised as Reform Jews now classify themselves outside Jewish denominations. So in reality, Reform families must produce over four children on average (the Pew Survey’s assessment of Orthodox fertility) to simply maintain the Reform population, unless declining affiliation is addressed as well.

This is not to say that Ms. Eisner is wrong to take a hard look at the non-Orthodox decline. It is that she has deliberately ignored its primary factor, and overlooked the positive example set by another Jewish community in precisely that area.

The Orthodox always had a high fertility rate – but until shortly after World War II, Orthodox children often found their way into Conservative and Reform congregations. Today the overwhelming majority of young adults raised Orthodox retain their Orthodox affiliation and, of course, marry other Orthodox Jews.

Given Eisner’s deep concern about the decimation of the non-Orthodox community, it is noteworthy that we have seen scant (if any) examination in The Forward of what Orthodox families began to do differently. If The Forward wishes to make a positive contribution to the non-Orthodox future, it might begin by regarding the Orthodox less as a curious afterthought or a forbidding “other,” and more as brethren with a shared interest in Jewish continuity – and with much acquired wisdom to share.

This past summer, Eisner listed a series of stereotypes about Orthodox Jews, specifically Haredim: “We say that Haredim are misogynist, perhaps homophobic, possibly corrupt, [and] unduly swayed by their rabbis.” But negative caricatures should not influence how The Forward reports upon something as beneficial as Jewish fertility. A 2012 Forward editorial entitled “The Undeserving Poor?” questioned financial assistance of the impoverished who have children – not regarding those who choose to become single mothers and live on welfare, but hard-working Hasidic families staggering under the expense of feeding large broods and providing them with full-day Jewish schooling.

The non-Orthodox community has fought against any form of relief from the expense of private education. For the Forward to then malign Jewish families weathering financial double jeopardy adds insult to injury. Instead of censuring the fecundity of Hasidic parents, The Forward might note that increased aid for parochial education would have greatest impact upon non-Orthodox families, those which regard Jewish schooling as optional and for whom cost is therefore a significant factor.

Nor is The Forward’s negativity limited to substantive topics. A frequent contributor recently claimed that her Satmar mother was so focused upon picayune details that what “clinched” the marriage between her daughter and another Satmar woman’s son was that both women wore the same hair coverings. Shortly thereafter, the same writer conceded that the style in question is common to all Satmar women – rendering her portrayal of her mother at best a work of therapeutic but prejudicial fiction.

The Forward frequently publishes similar articles by non-Orthodox adults raised in Orthodox families, but rarely do we hear from the much larger number of adults who have moved in the opposite direction. Pew Research projects that over 110,000 Orthodox adults did not grow up Orthodox, and by most estimates, women constitute the majority of that figure. How does that reflect upon Eisner’s perception of Haredim as misogynist? Why would college-educated high achievers (of either gender) become blind adherents of corrupt homophobes?

Perhaps it is time for understanding to replace mockery. Would it not better serve The Forward’s readers if, among a plethora of recent articles about Sheitels, one came from a woman who wears one?

Though perhaps she would prefer to write about something more consequential than Sheitels. If current trends continue, the 110,000 adults who adopted Orthodoxy will have more Jewish grandchildren than the collective membership of today’s Reform or Conservative movements. But to learn how Orthodoxy’s rejuvenation might be relevant to the non-Orthodox world, one must acquire a more honest awareness of Orthodox beliefs and practices, especially in the area of raising our next generation.

Today’s Orthodox Jews know that to inspire children to stay Jewish, Torah must encompass our lives. It must be not merely part of our days, but our roadmap for life.

And so that is what we teach them. In shul they pray next to their parents as well as retirees, and see that we all study the same Torah, the Torah that has guided Jewish lives throughout our history.

Of course, we send them to Jewish schools. A “dual” curriculum is demanding educationally and financially, but Jewish education through High School is the best method of retaining Jewish commitment into adulthood. It is well worth the sacrifice.

When it comes time for young men and women to seek a marriage partner, they invite parental involvement – because they are seeking not merely to fall in love, but to find someone with whom to build a family and future upon a vibrant past. Each couple starts the process over again, thus preserving the Jewish people.

Is there a way to capture some of that inspiration and commitment, without being Orthodox? One thing is certain: searching for the answers is a far more productive approach than belittling Orthodox successes – and begging for children.

Speaking about the Jerusalem Attack

WMAR TV in Baltimore came to the Tfillah (prayer) at the Shomrei Emunah Synagogue. I think they asked me to speak on camera because I have a daughter in Jerusalem now.

Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On the contrary, he sells it short, as the field of computer science has since its inception. If AI isn’t as scary as he imagines, it’s not because of what a sentient computer could do, but because it can only happen with a sentient computer.

Professor Alan Turing of Manchester University is often referred to as the “father of the modern computer” without much exaggeration. He and his peers changed our world – but they believed that the field of computer science would progress in a very different way. Whether or not anyone envisioned a global information network, enabling you to read this article on a handheld wireless device, they certainly believed that by the end of the last century, computers themselves would “awaken,” and add information on their own initiative. While the relevant field is usually called artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness is arguably more accurate; the intent was to produce a computer able to demonstrate creativity and innovation.

Turing needed an impartial way to determine if a computer was actually thinking. He proposed, in a 1950 paper, that if a teletype operator were unable to determine after five minutes that the party at the other end was a computer rather than another human being, then the computer would have passed the test. Turing proposed development of a program that would simulate the mind of a child, which would then be “subjected to an appropriate course of education” in order to produce an “adult” brain.

With all the phenomenal developments in the field of computer science, we are but marginally closer — if, indeed, we are closer at all — to developing a “child brain” than we were then. “Eugene Goostman,” recently declared to have passed the Turing Test during a competition at the University of Reading, was simply a chatbot programmed with evasive answers. It presented itself as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (who spoke English as a third language) not because it possessed the faculties of a young teenager, but to cover for its many errors and fool the assessors. Deceptive programming isn’t the intelligence Turing had in mind.

But “Goostman” was also in no way unique. Since 1990, inventor Hugh Loebner has underwritten an annual Turing contest at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. And every year, all of the contestants are programs intended to fool the judges, and nothing more; the creativity or passion comes not from the silicon, but only from the programmers behind them.

As it turns out, Turing was preceded by over a millenium in determining his standard of human consciousness. The Rabbis of the Talmud stated the following, in Sanhedrin 65b:

Rava made a man. He sent him before Rebbe Zeira. [R. Zeira] spoke to it, but it did not answer. R. Zeira said, “are you from the scholars? Return to your dust!”

What the teacher Rava created was a Golem, an artificial humanoid that certain righteous individuals were purportedly able to create via spiritual powers. Much like a robot, it could obey commands and perform tasks – but it could not engage in conversation. The Maharsha explains why Rava’s Golem was unable to properly answer R. Zeira:

Because [Rava] could not create the power of the soul, which is speech. Because [the Golem] did not have a neshamah [soul], which is the spirit that ascends above, [but] only the life spirit which is also in animals, which descends below, [R. Zeira] said to it, “return to your dust.”

What this Talmudic passage and commentary tell us, then, is that creating an artificial consciousness isn’t nearly as simple as Turing imagined it to be. The Maharsha essentially tells us that intelligent speech is a manifestation of the soul invested in human beings — not something that programmers can simply drum up with several pages of well-written code. When Turing wrote that “presumably the child brain is something like a notebook … rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets” — he was making an assumption that, today, seems positively foolish.

Yet without any true progress towards development of artificial thought, many in the research community remain undeterred even today. Ray Kurzweil, now Director of Engineering at Google – and one of the great innovators and thinkers in computer science – predicts we’ll achieve this goal in 15 years, simply because technology progresses exponentially. An article in Princeton Alumni Weekly recently stated, regarding a prominent professor of psychology, that “if the brain is just a data-processing machine, then [Professor Michael] Graziano sees no reason we cannot create computers that are just as conscious as we are.”

That “if,” of course, is simply a restatement of Turing’s invalid assumption. Today’s supercomputers already process information more rapidly than we do, have larger memory banks, and of course have essentially perfect recall. Computers can see well enough to drive vehicles and hear and transcribe speech. But they cannot find meaning in what they see, nor respond as humans do to what they hear.

On the contrary, the failure to produce a semblance of a thinking computer should be causing a lot of second thoughts about the nature of human consciousness itself. We have proven that the brain is not simply a data-processing machine. When our most dedicated thinkers are unable to produce human thought, or even make substantive progress after decades of effort, are we perhaps not fools to imagine it developed by accident?

“No Haredim Enlisting Anymore”

Just a few days ago, Yair Lapid delivered an eloquent eulogy for Gilad Sha’ar, one of the three boys murdered by terrorists. In his remarks, which were entitled “We Need One Another,” he urged people to set aside rage, hate, and the desire for revenge — he called, instead, for unity and love. And he said that we must “rediscover the paths that connect all of us,” to choose the latter option when pondering “that which divides us, or that which binds us; the suspicion or the trust.”

It is obvious to all of us that Gilad, Eyal and Naftali have brought us together, and Lapid’s remarks aptly caught the spirit of the day. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be discomforted by the contrast between his unifying words, and his actions as a politician. This would, indeed, be an excellent time for us to turn away from the path of confrontation, and towards a path of building trust. MK Lapid himself, as a member of the Cabinet, can kick-start this process.

Subsumed in the horrid news of the discovery of the three boys was an otherwise important interview published late last week, which, awful though the timing may be, speaks directly to how Lapid’s actions have divided us. Rav Avraham Baron, the former Chairman of the association of Hesder Yeshivot, called for the cancellation of Lapid’s failed Enlistment Law. If the Supreme Court does not invalidate this law, he predicted, “we won’t see even a single Haredi enlist… and there will be a social and financial crisis that will enlarge the schism in the nation.”

In his words, “the rabbis have no faith in the Army today.” In the Haredi community, this is quite an understatement, but it is important coming from the Chairman of the Hesder yeshivot. He recognizes that any effort to change the Haredi community by fiat is going to backfire. He added, for that matter, that the law threatens the Hesder yeshivot as well.

Lapid attempted to dictate the terms of Haredi enlistment, complete with provisions that applied the criminal penalties for draft-dodgers to yeshiva scholars. This, of course, was a red line that the Gedolim, our leading Rabbis, had previously said could not be accepted. They were prepared to deal with financial penalties and other limitations, but not depicting Tzurba MiRabbonon, young Torah scholars, as felons.

To some extent, one can understand Lapid’s failure to foresee the results of forcing his “solution” upon the Haredim — that yeshiva students would view the prospect of incarceration for following the dictates of their Rabbis to be less of a threat than a privilege, and enlistment would plummet. But how anyone educated in the Yeshiva system — such as Yesh Atid’s token Haredi, Dov Lipman — could display the same myopia, is beyond me.

In order to resolve the situation and permit the development of a workable model for working Haredim (pun intended), akin to what already flourishes in America, two things have to happen. The first is, as Rav Baron specified, that there must be a new law which incorporates the idea that “whoever can sit and study Torah should study.” In other words, the law must respect the sincere belief of the Haredi world that Torah study protects our nation. The law must leave the decision of when to leave yeshiva to the students themselves, in consultation with their Roshei Yeshiva.

The second requirement is the development of a model for national service which bypasses the Haredi objection to the Army’s secondary role, as described by Jonathan Ostroff in the [Canadian] National Post: “Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the secular state of Israel wanted the army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. Haredi Jews did not, and still do not, want to be melted down.”

As also mentioned by Ostroff, we’ve been down this road before. Sixty years ago, the government attempted to force conscription of Haredi women, and buckled in the face of unanimous and absolute opposition from the leaders of the community. The Haredim today are a far larger and more prominent sector of Israeli society — so even more than sixty years ago, the government must work with the Haredim to pursue a mutually-acceptable solution, rather than trying to dictate terms.

Lapid has shown us that he can truly talk the talk. Will he follow it with action?

The PCUSA and the Banality of Evil

The recent action of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) to divest from American companies doing business with Israel does not merely harm relations between our communities. It demonstrates the veracity of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Without question, the majority of those who voted for divestment are not anti-Semitic; they just found it easier to follow the crowd, observe current political correctness, and engage in evil in the name of good.

Was it evil? Leading the charge for divestment, Robert Ross explained on June 13 that he targeted Hewlett-Packard because it “furnishes the computer hardware for the Israeli Navy and the biometric scanners for checkpoints, through which all Palestinians (but no Israelis) in the occupied West Bank must pass.” Let us examine this statement.

Among the activities of the Israeli Navy is an ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is not occupied or controlled by Israel, but by Hamas, an internationally-recognized terrorist organization which repeatedly attempts to import weaponry for terrorist activities. Egypt also limits goods destined for the Gaza Strip, and for the same reason. Food, supplies and humanitarian shipments all reach the territory after inspection. So divestment appears to censure Hewlett-Packard for protecting Israeli civilians against terrorism.

But it is the second of the asserted reasons which makes this explicit. Biometric scanners — now used in the world’s airports to expedite frequent travelers through security — were installed for the sole benefit of residents of the Palestinian Authority who wish to cross into Israel. The problem is similar to that of the US-Mexico border, but far more lethal: the crossings needed by PA residents are exploited by terrorists to attack Israelis, whether in its cities or at the crossing itself.

As HP itself explained: “The Basel System was developed to expedite checkpoint passage in a secure environment, enabling people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way.” The PCUSA cannot claim ignorance; it is punishing Hewlett-Packard for helping Israel to avert terrorist attacks while easing the passage of working noncitizens into Israel proper.

Presumably the PCUSA does not want Palestinian families to go hungry – but the sole remaining alternative is to dismantle the checkpoints and return to the situation of 2002, in which 135 terrorist attacks massacred 451 Israelis and injured 2,348 more. The removal of many of these checkpoints has been cited in the kidnapping of three boys merely one week before this vote. The PCUSA has not endorsed any effort to protect Israeli children, and that is exactly the problem.

Neither does this action reflect a consistent policy of not investing “in militarization, human rights abuses, or threats to public health.” Motorola Solutions, for example, maintains offices in Russia, Dubai, and Vietnam, all of whose legal systems limit political and religious freedoms, including the free practice of Presbyterian Christianity. The PCUSA did not divest because Motorola Solutions devices assist in the persecution of Christians in any of these countries; only because they fight terrorism in Israel.

Ross and his allies whitewashed the consistent Palestinian history of choosing terrorism over peace. He states incorrectly that “Zionism led to the forced displacement of most of Palestine’s indigenous population” while ignoring the forced displacement of (and pogroms against) Jewish communities across the Middle East. He even criticizes those Presbyterians who object to “firing rockets into Israeli neighborhoods and in violent attacks on Israeli citizens.” If hatred and incitement are indeed prevalent in Palestinian schools and media, and violence results, he holds Israel to blame – all the while denying that this is biased or anti-Semitic.

Such appalling sentiments, though, are not without precedent in the Presbyterian Church. In 1936, C.M. Kerr, the minister of St. David’s Church in Halifax, wrote the following: “Have you ever considered that the Germans are now treating the Jews exactly as the Jews once treated other peoples whom they thought might contaminate them? That is to say they set out to exterminate them.”

The anti-Semitic fictions of the Nazi Era have been updated but not erased. In this regard, the PCUSA is returning to its roots – but not roots to which one would expect them to wish to return.

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Did a Frothing Press Help Serve the Truth?

According to those in the know, Mayor Bill de Blasio was to have delivered his greetings and departed with his press entourage before the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, rose to address the assembled at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner. Instead, the mayor was running late, Rav Perlow’s speech was moved up, and both hizzoner and his press ended up with front row seats. And in a departure from his norm at the annual dinner, the Novominsker chose to address an urgent Inyana D’Yuma instead of delivering more general remarks.

To judge from the coverage that resulted, one could be forgiven for thinking that Rav Perlow had ascended the podium and called for open warfare.

The press reached into its bag of stereotypes and pulled out a familiar caricature of “angry” charedim, though the antipodal video is available for all to see. The Forward said that Rav Perlow’s “fiery” speech “stunned” the dinner, and quoted an anonymous “Jewish leader” as claiming the comments of the Rosh Agudath Israel were “divisive,” along with other adjectives which would besmirch the Rebbe’s kavod to even repeat. [What sort of “leader” is willing to offer only an anonymous critique of Rav Perlow’s statement was, of course, not outlined by The Forward.] The NY Daily News reported that the Rebbe “blasted” non-Orthodox Judaism. The video posted online was captioned: “Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Perlow Rails against Danger of Reform, Open Orthodoxy Movements.”

Many distorted the comments still further, as if Rav Perlow had spoken not about digressions from normative Judaism, but about the Jews who have been led astray. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, called Rav Perlow’s remarks “disparaging comments about our people.” Michael Powell of the NY Times claimed that the Rebbe “offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews” (and, still worse, suggested that Mayor de Blasio should have opined on a Jewish religious matter). Emily Hauser, blogging in – once again – The Forward, said that he “slandered virtually every Jew on the planet.” And there are more in this vein.

In actuality, the listeners were so visibly “stunned” that they kept eating, drinking and listening as if nothing extraordinary had been said – because it hadn’t. The press corps was most exercised by his offhand dismissal of the non-Orthodox movements, but Rav Perlow himself was much more concerned with Open Orthodoxy, which is now ordaining rabbis and sending them to take posts in Orthodox congregations. This makes the foreign ideas and untenable innovations coming from its school and leading alumni much more dangerous to the integrity of Torah Judaism.

With regards to the heterodox movements, the Rebbe commented that they “have no future, they almost have no present, and… will be relegated by the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the World] to the dustbin of Jewish history.” They were yesterday’s challenge. The leaders of these groups have no bone to pick with Rav Perlow, but with the Pew Report and other surveys showing that “Jews of No Religion” and intermarried families are engendered by abandoning the path of Halacha.

The distortion of the Rebbe’s observation about ideological movements into an attack upon their members is no accident. Most who describe themselves as “Reform” or “Conservative” are at most peripherally affiliated with those movements – they attend synagogue biannually, and give no special credence to the words of their clergy. Unless deceived into taking the Novominsker’s statement as a personal insult, they could instead ponder its accuracy.

When the dust settles, that could yet happen – and the press will have made it possible. These articles made both Rav Perlow’s clear condemnation of “Open Orthodoxy” and his dismissal of heterodoxy a far more public matter than they would have been otherwise. Both Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox have heard that somewhere in New York can be found a Jewish leader who stands for truth and standards.

The [grey] lady doth protest too much, methinks. It would not be the first time that the media’s overwrought reaction to the statements of a Gadol turned out to serve a positive end.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.