Point Counterpoint: Keep the Focus on Jewish Substance

To the editor,

Rabbi Steven Wernick’s response (“Rebranding helps USCJ envision its future in a rapidly changing Jewish world”) to my op-ed, “Conservative Jews deserve more than PR,” is very interesting — yet saddening. Rabbi Pesach Lerner and I wrote about Jewish substance, and he differentiated between PR and branding. Regardless of that narrow distinction, neither can save a company selling a product of little interest to consumers.

His quote from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is apt indeed: “We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life” (my emphasis added). It’s not about PR or branding, it’s about Judaism.

In that vein, Rabbi Wernick points out that “those impacted by Conservative Jewish communities” are “more likely” to be Jewishly educated and involved. More likely than whom — those who connect with no Jewish community at all? He makes a tremendous leap, making the bold assertion that these Jews are “highly engaged.” All the evidence at hand refutes that claim entirely.

He similarly states that we “denigrate” what he describes as a “diversity of Jewish wisdom and practice.” Yet we spoke of the beliefs, standards, and educational opportunities that the Conservative movement itself once considered mandatory. Diversity in Jewish practice is found in flourishing Jewish communities of North African, Iranian, Yemenite, German, Lithuanian, and Hungarian origin — often within blocks of each other, or side by side at the holy Western Wall.

Laxity vs. involvement is a poor-man’s diversity, and neither PR nor branding offers a rich solution.

—Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis – Torah.org and co-editor of Cross-Currents.com

Conservative Jews Deserve More than PR

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

Responding to a dramatic decline in membership, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm has hired the Good Omen PR agency to survey hundreds of its members and “develop a new ‘position statement’ for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.” Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.” The problem, however, is far more essential than branding.

According to the Pew Survey, the once-dominant Conservative movement has lost one-third of its members in the past 25 years.1 It now comprises merely 18% of American Jews – and only 11% of those under 30. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census determined that Schechter school enrollment plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Rabbi Wernick responds to these daunting numbers by saying, “we need to stop shraying our kups about everything that is bad, and get to work.” But will they do what must be done?

The movement has traveled this road before. Less than 30 years ago, there were early indications that the movement was past its heyday.2 At that time, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue formed a joint commission to create a statement of principles for the future of the movement – a document called “Emet Ve’Emunah.”

It was hardly the success they touted it to be; the commission was unable even to agree upon Who or what it worships. Instead it validated perceptions of G-d as divergent as the Supreme Being found in the Bible, and a vague “god” who is “not a being to whom we can point,” but simply a force “present when we look for meaning.”3 The movement discarded previous standards and offered no guidelines – it simply endorsed the disparate views of its members.

Immediately prior to the establishment of JTS in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein wrote that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.” Throughout its history, the Conservative movement has attempted to span the chasm between the commitment to tradition of Orthodoxy and the open pursuit of American liberalism found in Reform — and has proven Rabbi Eisentein’s words prophetic. As the Reform movement moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservative “middle” followed it further out to sea.

Consider how Conservative Judaism has progressed from mixed pews to the present day. It now endorses same-sex marriage, and although it continues to prohibit intermarriage, it dropped its ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders just last year. If formal acceptance of intermarriage is subject to ‘rebranding’, is the conclusion in doubt? By following a poll of members, the PR-driven ‘brand’ of 2016 will be still more nebulous than the ‘principles’ of 1988. This may improve short-term retention, but will only hasten the movement’s decline.

This tragedy hits home. Just over a year ago, Daniel Gordis, grandson of the Chairman of the Commission that wrote Emet Ve’Emunah, authored “Conservative Judaism: A Requiem.” He wrote poignantly of the implosion of the Conservative movement, which he termed the direct consequence of “abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance.” In order to stand for something, a religious movement cannot rely upon “interviewing hundreds of [members]” to determine its standards. On the contrary, it must make demands.

In my youth, I (YM) was inspired by Solomon Schechter students who knew how to read Hebrew prayers. But in college I quickly realized that in order to find people who took Judaism seriously, you prayed with the Orthodox. And then I visited Jerusalem. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fifty years ago, much of American Jewry believed that the Orthodox were a dying vestige. Rather than accommodating its members, Orthodoxy did the opposite — expecting full-day Jewish education for every boy and girl. Every PR firm would have derided this as ridiculous. In just the past twenty years, however, enrollment in traditional Orthodox day schools has more than doubled.

The Conservative movement could still choose Jewish substance. At its founding, the movement unabashedly professed belief in the Diety Who gave our Torah, hired some of the greatest Talmudic scholars to teach at JTS, and expected a baseline of true Halachic observance from every Jew. Effort spent upon branding could be far better spent upon increasing the educational opportunities for its members, especially the declining numbers of young adults, to help them meet this standard.

Yes, returning to such high expectations will undoubtedly inspire the Jewishly uninspired to leave — but this has happened repeatedly throughout our history. Only those who retained “Jewish substance” retained Jewish grandchildren.

It would be tragic indeed if the movement were to try to hide its decline behind a marketing blitz, rather than refocusing upon the core tenets that have made Judaism relevant for thousands of years.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.


1 I no longer have the original source for our statement. I am aware that Steven Cohen, a respected sociologist and HUC professor, reports a smaller but still dramatic decline of 21% among “American Jewish adults who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue,” but that, of course, does not contradict a claim that self-identifying Conservative Jews have gone down over 33%.

Our statement is in accordance with the survey data, or could even underestimate the decline. The 1990 NJPS identified a “core Jewish population” of 5.5 million Jews, and 40.4% of households were identified as Conservative (p. 33), which would lead to an estimate of 2.23 million Conservative Jewish adults and children. The 2013 Pew Report used a somewhat different methodology to identify 6.7 million Jews, of whom 18% were identified with the Conservative movement, or 1.2 million. This would reflect a decline of over 45%, and adjusting the total population as determined in either 1990 or 2013 (as few believe the total Jewish population actually grew 20% during that 23 year interval) would only make the decline of those identifying themselves with the Conservative movement even steeper.

2 See statement of Robert Gordis, Chairman, on p. 14: “it is frequently proclaimed that Conservative Judaism is in decline.”

3 See pp. 17-18. Kassel Abelson, then President of the Rabbinical Assembly, writes on p. 6 that “we succeeded in setting forth various viewpoints in the same document without papering over our differences” and “we found ways to include multiple opinions without indicating a preference for one view over the other, since they were all legitimate points of view in Conservative Judaism.” Clearly, the very nature of G-d is among the areas where “multiple opinions” were deemed legitimate.

The Symptoms are Not the Problem

Doctor_discusses_x-ray_with_patientIn the wake of the declaration by the leading rabbis of Agudath Israel of America (a body called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages) regarding Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, many seem to have confused issues of Jewish practice with Jewish doctrine.

The JTA’s article about the Council’s statement concluded by noting that “it comes days after the RCA formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis,” thus connecting and implying a close relationship between the two. The Jerusalem Post discussed the Agudah and RCA statements within one article, further blurring key distinctions. Many comments in social media, as well, focused upon women as rabbis or other particular observances of Open Orthodoxy as issues of concern to the Agudah Council.

The Forward, always anxious to cast Charedim as angry or violent, declared that “Agudah Rabbis Declare War.” Asher Lopatin, Dean of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), wrote a response to the statement in which he argued that Open Orthodoxy stands for “creating an inclusive, welcoming, open community, where passionate Jews can, and should, disagree, but should never seek to impose their own ideas on others…” and will “continue to build an Orthodox community which brings us together rather than divides us.”

The Moetzes, however, made no mention of women rabbis. It did not discuss observance of particular elements of Halacha, Jewish law. And, of course, it said nothing about political control or impinging upon the right of any Jew, passionate or otherwise, to disagree. A medical analogy is apt: if someone has headaches due to a life-threatening illness, Tylenol will not cure him; attention must focus upon the underlying disease.

Lopatin is being less than forthright. For better or worse, “Orthodox” is a moniker with meaning. In the common vernacular, Orthodox Judaism is understood to be that “form” of Judaism committed to the credo maintained by Jews for thousands of years. Just as the Reform movement sought to unilaterally change the definition of Judaism 200 years ago, Open Orthodoxy seeks to impose a new definition upon the word “Orthodox” (and has even attempted to stifle dissent as it does so).

The statement of the Moetzes addresses one issue, and one issue only: that Open Orthodoxy and its institutions “reject the basic tenets of our faith,” and therefore “is not a form of Torah Judaism.” It is not about specific Open Orthodox practices, which Halachic opinions it follows, or who they do or don’t count for a minyan. The issue, said the Council, is what Open Orthodoxy believes.

As the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told the media, this is something the rabbis were “mulling around for months.” Nothing that they said is either surprising or new to those who have followed discussions of this new movement.

Over two years ago, Zev Farber, recipient of the highest form of ordination from Chovevei Torah and the former coordinator of the Vaad HaGiyur, the Conversion Council of Open Orthodoxy’s “International Rabbinic Forum,” wrote that “the Deuteronomic prophet,” whom he pointedly did not identify as Moses, “was still a human being” of “limited scope… [who] could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.”

Needless to say, this is to traditional Jewish belief as a ham sandwich is to kashrus.

Yet rather than condemning this statement outright — much less questioning the validity of conversions conducted under Farber’s supervision — others within the Open Orthodox community called this merely “a non-conventional answer” at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject.”

The above is but one example. What the Moetzes concluded, after examining statements and conduct across the range of Open Orthodox institutions, was that it could not remain silent, hoping that this sort of excess would disappear and more sober opinions, ones consonant with traditional Judaism, would dominate. On the contrary, representatives of Open Orthodoxy continue to state, and educate others to adopt, beliefs not merely at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” but several light years beyond.

There are those, particularly in the Reform movement, who advocate for a “big tent,” in which most anything can claim to represent “Judaism.” Traditional Judaism has always taken a different approach, requiring observance of 613 Commandments and a similarly comprehensive list of beliefs, thirteen of which are so fundamental that Maimonides identified them as mandatory for anyone wishing to self-identify as a “Torah-observant” Jew — that which we have called “Orthodox” in recent centuries.

There are several practical ramifications of the Council’s statement, all of which are straightforward. Graduates of Open Orthodox institutions (regardless of gender) should not be considered Orthodox rabbis, at least as the term Orthodox is commonly understood. Orthodox synagogues should not appoint Open Orthodox rabbis to lead them. Communal organizations should not present lectures by “Orthodox” rabbis who are, in actuality, “Open Orthodox.” And, perhaps most critically, the media should no longer claim that “Orthodox” rabbis are entertaining a new idea or change in Jewish practice that only Open Orthodoxy could possibly condone.

In the end, it’s not about women, exclusion, or politics; it’s about truth in advertising. It’s about ensuring that when people are told that a particular opinion is “Orthodox” or grounded in traditional thought, it actually is. And in that regard, the Agudah’s Council has done the Jewish public a great service.

The Har Nof Massacre, Knife Attacks, and BDS

After nearly a year of fighting for his life, a fifth rabbi just passed away, murdered during morning prayers last November. The terrorists of that morning did not target a discotheque, settlement or military base, but a synagogue in West Jerusalem. They proudly desecrated a Jewish House of Worship in order to murder religious leaders, American, British and now Canadian, all men who came to the Holy Land only to immerse themselves in learning and teaching.

The Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” Arab leader, celebrated the “martyrs” who butchered these innocent scholars.

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Just two days prior to the Rabbi’s passing, a pair of knife-wielding assailants stabbed an eighteen-year-old charedi (ultra-Orthodox) man outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh – the latest in a wave of violence against Jews in Israel. Ponder this ghastly detail: witnesses saw the attackers attempt to board a schoolbus filled with charedi children.

There is a pattern to these attacks. The Jihadists have not, as some argue, targeted Israelis at random. An extraordinary number of the victims have been in uniform – but not that of an IDF soldier, symbol of the “occupation” they purportedly oppose. Rather, a disproportionate number of those targeted – as in the examples cited above – have been visibly Jewish, clad in the distinctive attire of Orthodox Jews.

For numerous reasons, a terrorist concerned about the current political dispute would view Charedi Jews as unfavorable targets. Peaceful scholars of ancient texts, the charedim are underrepresented in Israeli’s military. Jews of the “old Yishuv” moved to Jerusalem long before the Zionist movement existed, without a scent of nationalist aspirations. Mainstream charedi Rabbis have consistently approved the principle of ceding land for true and lasting peace.

There is even the infamous “Niturei Karta” fringe group that calls for the destruction of Israel – though rejected by other charedim, they at least dress the part. This being the case, a terrorist attacking someone in charedi garb might conceivably be assaulting a political ally.

Yet despite all of the above, stabbers excessively target Orthodox neighborhoods and Orthodox Jews. This is not the “Intifada of the Knife,” but the “Intifada of Unmasked Anti-Semitism.” It is not about occupation or even about Israel; it is about Jews.

Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel claim to be different, modeled upon the boycott of South Africa. This, however, is belied by troubling facts. No one during that era picketed individual South African businesses, or threw their products off store shelves. No one contemplated requiring an artist of South African descent to disavow South Africa’s open racism before performing. And, of course, no one paraded through streets lifting knives overhead, like a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders proudly did at a recent BDS demonstration in London.

This is not to say, however, that it is challenging to find a previous boycott endorsing hatred and even violence towards Jews – given the Nazi boycotts of the 1930s. That is the accurate paradigm. Again and again, today’s purported “anti-Israel” demonstrations slip into a familiar and ugly pattern of anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why are the Regents of the University of California forced to address increasing acts of anti-Semitism at campuses statewide? It is no mystery. At UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis, BDS campaigns immediately and inevitably led to anti-Semitic vandalism and posters – swastikas, grafitti such as “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and “grout out the Jews,” even flyers blaming Jews for 9/11. At UCLA, divestment activists questioned the eligibility of a candidate for student government solely because she is Jewish. For weeks following BDS events, Jewish students report verbal and even physical harassment for wearing signs of Jewish identity, whether skullcaps or Magen David necklaces.

BDS activists can neither claim that this is mere coincidence, nor that they are uninvolved. Attendees at divestment meetings note the repetition of common anti-Semitic canards such as Jewish control of government and wealth, and claims that marginalization of Jewish students is justified by the Mideast conflict. Invited speakers characterize grisly murders of Jews as a “response to occupation,” claim to be merely “anti-Israel” while posting anti-Semitic memes to Facebook, and whitewash Hamas – a terror organization whose charter calls for genocide, and whose leaders openly celebrate the murder of Jewish civilians and even children – as a “progressive, left-wing” organization merely leading the “resistance” against Israel.

Precisely because honest criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, the BDS campaigns of today must be opposed and condemned. Groups sponsoring these events appear unable to tell the difference, and routinely feature speakers who cross the line from one to the other. “Anti-Israel” cannot continue to serve as a code phrase for incitement and anti-Semitism – precisely what is found so pervasively today.

The Non-Jewish AIPAC

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests. Thank you for your interest, and thank you to the editors of Ami Magazine, Rabbi & Mrs. Yitzchok and Rechy Frankfurter, pdf-icon for permission to post.

Please see also the “Q&A with Rav Scheinberg,” or view the full-color PDF (of both story and interview) at right.

A glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms is provided at bottom.

The Non-Jewish AIPAC
A Philo-Semitic Christian organization helps ensure the safety of Jews and the People of Israel

This past Wednesday, August 12, the members of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, an Orthodox congregation of 300 families in San Antonio, Texas, woke up to a disturbing surprise. Anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and vandalism defaced cars and buildings surrounding the shul.

“This is not the San Antonio community,” averred Rav Aryeh Scheinberg, who has served the congregation for forty-five years. “The religious community, the civic community, the law enforcement community have all been terrific.”

Yet Rav Scheinberg reserved special praise for the response of one particular close friend and supporter: Pastor John Hagee, founder and senior pastor of the nearby Cornerstone Church. As soon as Pastor Hagee learned what had happened, he dropped his busy schedule, and he and his wife came to join Rav Scheinberg for two hours at the shul.

The investigation is ongoing; officers believe it unlikely that any organized hate group was involved. Nonetheless, Pastor Hagee was happy to send a message: “If a line has to be drawn, draw it around Christians and Jews. We are united.”

Pastor Hagee was not alone in his concern for Rav Scheinberg and his congregation. Gary Bauer, a Southern Baptist, Domestic Policy Advisor to Ronald Reagan and a past Presidential candidate, shaken, called Rav Scheinberg. Author and Pastor Victor Styrsky sent a text message, reluctant to call and disturb the Rabbi during that busy time.

What do Pastor Hagee, Gary Bauer and Pastor Styrsky share in common, besides their evangelical Christian faith? They are key officers of an organization founded by Pastor Hagee over ten years ago: Christians United for Israel.

Continue reading “The Non-Jewish AIPAC”

Q&A with Rav Aryeh Scheinberg

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests, along with the cover story.

How long have you known Pastor Hagee?

We have a 34-year relationship, a 34-year friendship.

That is when he decided to run a Night to Honor Israel. Did you know him before then?

We had only met once prior, at a community event. We began to share time together when the Night to Honor Israel was emerging in response to criticism of Israel. He wanted to promote the wonderful favor that Israel did for the free world in bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor. And we began to speak with each other on an ongoing basis.

Did you have conversations about his idea before suggesting to the Federation that they should talk with him?

Yes, I had heard him out myself. My feeling was not based on discussion with others or extensive research, just the feeling that you get about a person when you meet them.

In the first years, until people learned to trust him and believe that he had no proselytizing agenda, and that he was what he said he would be, I had to represent him to different communities, to different Jewish leaders. I gave them my personal testimony, if you will, of his sincerity, the authenticity of his support for Yidden and desire to help Eretz Yisroel.

After a while, he became a known commodity. People in the national Jewish leadership came to recognize his idealism and altruism. So my role became less intense, less constant in the need to represent him to others.

I still say I’m a gatekeeper and advisor, because there are people always trying to reach him. He has to know who he needs to see. He relies on my advice and the advice of some others.

It’s an unlikely alliance.

The whole movement is “unlikely,” but it’s happening. It’s happening and it is something which has to be Yad HaShem. MeAyin Yavo Ezri. CUFI is a growing force for political advocacy at a time when we have no friends in the world outside North America.

Non-frum Jews need them in another way, also: their belief in Scripture. They say, “Eretz Yisroel belongs to you because the Torah says so.” We don’t have to believe their Bible, but they believe ours. We should hope that non-frum Jews will think about what he’s saying.

He’s a person, obviously, of power. He has strong, passionate beliefs. And he’s a visionary. He’s not politically correct. He acts based on what he thinks G-d wants, which is consistent in most areas of political and social life with what an Orthodox Jew should want.

What about the obvious religious chasm?

We’re both aware of that; obviously we all think of our own Acharis haYamim. But when we open the Wall Street Journal and look at the political scene, we don’t think about the end of days, but what is going to happen today or tomorrow. We have so many issues that we need to be active about now.

Why should we talk about the end of days when we have such concern about next week, or next month? When we have such concern about Iran and the well-being of the United States, are we growing stronger or weaker – there are just so many issues of the survival and security of the present that eschatological discussions are a luxury.

But “sof kol sof” doesn’t he believe you need to accept their religious founder to go to Heaven?

He has already worked that out, and gone on record saying that that’s not the case, that Torah-True Jews will have a “special grace.” Bottom line, he does not believe that our salvation depends upon a change of faith.

How do you view his personal interactions with the Jewish community?

I’ve seen him in very sensitive, tender moments. I’ve seen him with genuine tears at Yad VaShem. I’ve seen him being courteous to an elderly person who came to him when thousands were waiting.

I’ve seen his sensitivity to my needs, to Orthodox needs. Whenever there is any event, he’s concerned about Kashrus. Wherever I go with him, or any even where there are going to be Jews, there’s going to be a Kosher meal. Even for Jews that haven’t seen a Kosher meal in a long time.

He visited Jonathan Pollard in jail when few paid attention to his case. He sat in jail with Pollard for three or four hours. I viewed him as a visionary doing epic things, changing the feelings of Christians for Jews. And then I saw the lengths to which he was prepared to go to encourage and diminish the pain of a single Yid.

Whenever we go to Eretz Yisroel together we stop at the Wall and pray for each other’s well-being, as well as Eretz Yisroel and Klal Yisroel.

Why did he come to Rodfei Shalom after the vandalism?

There was no agenda, he didn’t know the media would be here. He came to ask what he can do, and how they can help – to be mechazek by standing with us. He conveyed the feeling that we are family. He supported our building campaign in 2007, and even told me that we didn’t need to recognize it – though we did, putting his name on the board room, where we meet. But he responded Wednesday as if it were his own church that had been attacked.

It’s clear that he cares about the entire Jewish community, but has a special relationship with you.

He has often said publicly that I’m the closest of all his friends among the clergy, Christian and otherwise. We’ll talk about things of a personal nature that may not be a topic of conversation with others. If there’s an issue that is vexing or troubling to him, he will call and ask for my prayers.

Ours is a mutual relationship. It just happened. It developed on a basis of mutual trust, respect and love.

J’Accuse. You Have Hurt Me, Lisa

Lisa, I am very disappointed and personally hurt by your words directed against me.

You and I have communicated before. We are in agreement on many issues, and have always been amicable with regards to the exceptions. So I find it difficult to adequately express my surprise and pain to have discovered your essay, in which you accuse me personally of bloodshed.

Yes, you did accuse me personally. You said it explicitly: “The entire Hareidi community spilled this blood.” I have the Fedora hat. I have the beard, the big black yarmulke, and the Tzitzis. And I pray in the right synagogues. You meant me.

I warned that hateful essays would be written. I just didn’t expect someone like yourself to be the writer. Your words were painful precisely because your accusation was both hateful and personal.

I understand that you disagree with our continued fealty to the Book of Leviticus, but our calling a certain act “to’eva” has not, in our community, ever encouraged murder. That is simply because the same Torah that calls that action “to’eva” also requires us to love every Jew, to not hate our brethren, and above all, not to murder. I am not somehow collectively responsible for everything written by a charedi person on a website, and I chose different words myself — but despite what you claimed in your essay, at no time did the website you mentioned ever refer to a person as to’eva, just a parade.

You said that the “small rabbis in the Hareidi community” are calling people to’eva. Can you identify one, or did you simply make an assumption that Hareidim “must” think that way? I suspect the latter — for if you had actually wanted to know what our Rabbis say regarding those with homosexual inclinations, you might have watched or remembered the interviews of HaRav Aharon Feldman and several others in the 2001 movie “Trembling Before G-d.” You would have seen how they balanced uncompromising love for the Torah with uncompromising love for every Jew.

But even without learning what we actually think, surely you observed that Schlissel was in jail for the last ten years, rather than sitting in a class in a charedi neighborhood. If it were true, as you assert, that referencing the Bible leads our extremist members to murder, surely it should have been someone who was actually in our community for the past decade who committed this horrendous crime.

In actuality, there was near silence about the upcoming parade, rather than condemnation. Did you notice that the same website, which has had five articles after the attack — including the incident itself, “Why the Gay Pride Parade Stabber is a Murderer,” an update on the victims, calls for the police chief to resign, and widespread condemnations — had no coverage whatsoever prior to the attack? The (secular) commenter on charedi affairs for Channel 10 noticed the charedi silence, and reflected that Schlissel was more likely to have been driven crazy because the community ignored the parade.

I challenge you to find another population group of 900,000 people — whether Israelis or Americans — with a similar murder rate to ours. Charedim do not murder, neither Arabs or Jews, and neither do we encourage it, with an unparalleled degree of uniformity. This does not mean perfection, because we remain human beings. But we certainly do better than any other group of similar size. Israel’s annual murder rate (excluding victims of terror) is 1.7 per hundred thousand. When was the last time you heard an accusation of murder directed against a charedi person? Surely you know the media would have made quite certain we all knew about it.

Yes, you’ve accused the most peaceful community in Israel of encouraging murder.

We are and remain human beings. We, like any other community, have our share of the mentally ill. We, like any other community, trust the police to do their job. Instead we had a single unhinged individual do a heinous act ten years ago, and when the police let him loose they apparently didn’t contemplate the possibility that he might not be cured of his illness, and might go back again, “k’kelev chozer al kei’o — like a dog returning to its vomit.”

This isn’t to say that the charedi community was entirely absent from the scene — charedim direct and are Jerusalem’s predominant members of the United Hatzalah organization, whose volunteer first responders make Israel’s emergency response time the fastest in the world. That same community that you claim wished to murder those at the parade, was there in numbers to rescue them.

They represent the true heart of the charedi community, willing to sacrifice work and family time to help those in need of urgent care — regardless of whether the person is Jewish, much less his or her level of religiosity. There was one murderer, and dozens of volunteers ready to drop what they were doing to try to save his victims. Is it not obvious that most charedim aim to save lives, not take them?

Yet you didn’t ask questions. You expressed no sympathy for the phenomenon of mental illness and how horrified Schlissel’s family — and extended family — most assuredly are. You reserved no words for the police who released this person from prison three weeks before the parade, and failed to keep an eye on his behavior. Instead, you accused me, simply because I am charedi, of participating in his act — and encouraged your readers to hate me as a result. I hope you can see why I might feel personally hurt.

As I was finishing this essay, I learned that Shira Banki, one of the six victims of Yishai Schlissel, succumbed to her wounds today. She was 16. HaMakom Yinachem, may G-d console all her family and all who mourn our loss.

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.