Lies, Statistics and News Reports: Hagel and “Friends of Hamas”

Leon Panetta (right) and Barack Obama (center) announcing the  nomination of Chuck Hagel (left).

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s rare for light to be cast on the origins of a rumor. But a recent revelation about a charge made against Chuck Hagel before his confirmation as Secretary of Defense does that — and might provide us all some illumination too.

Contrary to what some have surmised, I didn’t and don’t feel there is enough hard information about the now confirmed Defense Secretary on which to make a judgment of his attitude toward Israel. As attacks mounted on nominee Hagel, though, I suggested that Jews should think twice and thrice before attacking a public figure for animus to the Jewish state on the basis of pickings as slim as those gathered to criticize him.

More after the jump.
Several people, including some pseudonymic letter-writers to a magazine that published my article, took my suggestion that bandwagons are best inspected before being leaped onto as support of Mr. Hagel. I explicitly wrote, however, that he might well not make a good Defense Secretary, and that I can’t claim to know one way or the other. All that I pointed out was that, despite a maladroit phrase Mr. Hagel once used — for which he apologized — and unsubstantiated claims of a similar sin, there was no actual evidence for the charge made by some that the man is “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” I pointed out, too, that a Secretary of Defense does not make U.S. foreign policy, and that it behooves us American Jews, in a world containing all too many all too real enemies of Jews, to not imagine, or inadvertently create, new ones.

An edifying postscript to the Hagel hubbub emerged this week. In the midst of all the sturm und drang over the nomination, a conservative website (a “news source,” as it happens, that the angry letters to the editor suggested I consult for my education) reported suspicions that Mr. Hagel had received foreign funding from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” The story, of course, spread across the blogosphere with the speed of a brazen lie, which is precisely what it was. There is no such group.

And this week, the tale of how the charge came about was told — by the fellow who originated it, albeit unwittingly.

New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman explained how, digging for a story, he had asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill if Mr. Hagel’s Senate critics knew of any controversial groups that he may have addressed. Had the nominee perhaps “given a speech to, say, the ‘Junior League of Hezbollah’ […] or the ‘Friends of Hamas’?” the journalist jocularly queried.

Not realizing that politicians and their aides can be humor-impaired, Mr. Friedman compounded his little pre-Purim joke with a follow-up e-mail to the aide, asking if anything had turned up about that “$25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?”

Before Mr. Friedman could say mishenichnas Adar, the website had its scoop. The report, by one Ben Shapiro, informed its readers:

Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called ‘Friends of Hamas.’

And so, other websites immediately ran with the fiction. For good measure, Mr. Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Countless inboxes welcomed the “news”; countless heads nodded knowingly.

Whether or not Mr. Hagel turns out to be a happy surprise or great disappointment, one thing is undeniable: Anyone who values truth — the “signature” of the Divine, in the Talmud’s description — must make painstaking efforts to be objective, and eschew the siren-call (to mangle a metaphor) of the bandwagon.

Lies, overt and subtle, large and small, are, unfortunately, the fertilizer (in both senses of the word) of politics today. They are regularly foisted upon us all from every political corner and by both major parties’ “activists.” We are being gently misled and manipulated whether our source of information is right-wing talk radio or NPR, Rush Limbaugh or Diane Rehm. True objectivity and fair-minded discussion are as rare as Yangtze River dolphins.

And so, if we really insist on having opinions about political matters, we do well to absorb different perspectives, to weigh them fairly and to realize, constantly and deeply, that not everything portrayed as obvious or fact is necessarily either.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

Allowing Women To Choose

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Well-informed, they say, is well-prepared; and knowledge is power. An exception, though — at least in the judgment of some — seems to be when Jewish women in Israel are contemplating ending their pregnancies.

When an Israeli magazine announced it would bestow an award on a group called Efrat, “pro-choice” advocates (seldom have “scare quotes” been so appropriate) howled in outrage.

Efrat provides women with information about abortion, as well as financial support for mothers-to-be who are under economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies. The group’s detractors characterize it as preying on women at an emotionally vulnerable time.

More after the jump.
Efrat, however, does not parade with offensive placards in front of medical facilities like some American groups. Nor does it seek to shame women in any way. Its goal is simply to advance “a woman’s right to free choice,” by providing expectant women who want it with accurate information about medical matters and the development of the lives growing within them; it also offers needy such women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term things like food packages, cribs and strollers. The group claims that, since its founding in 1977, 50,000 babies were born as a result of its work.

Strangely enough, that is precisely part of what irks some of the group’s critics. “They’re using the woman for demographics,” complained a protest organizer, Tzaphira Allison Stern, mixing pregnancy with politics. “Why shouldn’t a woman have an abortion?” she asks rhetorically in Efrat’s name. “Because we need the baby so there are more Jews, and so there are more Israeli soldiers, so we can defend the land and continue the occupation.”

Ms. Stern is also piqued by her assumption that “the organization works only with Jewish women, rather than with Arab, Druse or Christian women, which illustrates that they care only about politics and not about women’s health.” Like many Jewish charities, Efrat indeed focuses on the Jewish community, but it is in fact open to any woman from any background.

Denigrators of Efrat condemn it, too, for what they allege was the group’s role in the death of a young man this past October. Stopped by police after a traffic accident, the distraught man pulled a gun and threatened to kill his pregnant girlfriend, prompting police to shoot him.  He died of a wound to the head, and the tragedy, schlepped along a convoluted path, was laid at Efrat’s door. Critics claimed that an Efrat employee had convinced the young woman to carry her child to term, which agitated the young man, and hence that the group was responsible for his fate (“death by counseling of another person” presumably). As it happens, Efrat insists that it has no record of any interaction at all with the young woman.

When Israel’s two chief rabbis came out in support of Efrat, the opposition grew even more heated, even though Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yona Metzger made clear that when he opposes termination of pregnancies he is “not talking about a pregnant woman who has psychological, medical or familial reasons” for considering such a move, but rather women who do so “due to financial considerations,” which, he explains, is “where Efrat comes in.”

The activists, nonetheless, were only further activated. “This is another step in the radicalization of religious figures,” declared Hedva Eyal, who runs an abortion hotline in Haifa, “and is part of the discrimination against women that we are witnessing… with respect to their decisions over their own lives and health.”

Left unexplained is how allowing women to make fully informed decisions about babies they are carrying — yes, babies; Israel permits abortions even into the third trimester of pregnancy — is discriminatory. An equally over-activated Nurit Tsur, the former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, scoffed that “the Chief Rabbinate… has been infiltrated by haredi elements,” as if any authentic Jewish approach condones abortion for financial considerations.

There are many issues where contemporary mores stand in stark contrast with truly Jewish values. But both the modern mindset and the authentic Jewish one are in agreement that important decisions should be made with as much pertinent information in one’s possession as possible, and that limiting the acquisition of such information is wrong.

In cases of life and death — even when it may be only potential life that is at stake — the ideal of informed decision-making is paramount, at least in theory. In reality, it seems, some would force it to pay homage to some imagined “higher” feminist ideal, where women are somehow best served by being denied information.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

Prisoners of Preconceptions

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Even with protective cover from Senator Charles E. Schumer — as determined a defender of Israel as there ever was — and even speaking only for myself, I hesitate to address the overwrought reaction in some corners to President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. I don’t want to be labeled an anti-Semite too.

Not that there wasn’t or isn’t cause for some concern about Mr. Hagel. He is famously on record as having once referred to AIPAC as the “Jewish lobby,” and in the past questioned the wisdom of too hastily employing military force against Iran. But such things — you might want to sit down — do not an anti-Semite or unconscionable isolationist make.

More after the jump.
At least not to reasonable eyes. Unfortunately, some tend to the visceral rather than the rational in such matters, prisoners of their own preconceptions. Despite the clear and ample evidence to the contrary, they just can’t stop pegging the president as less than committed to Israel’s wellbeing, and can be counted on to shoot at anything that moves if Mr. Obama set it into motion. So Mr. Hagel was immediately judged by some as bad for Israel, if for no other reason than that his nominator was the Dark Prince himself. Thus does circular reasoning attain its orbit.

A mindset is a terribly hard thing to move.

Mr. Hagel may turn out to be unsuited for the job of Defense Secretary. But that is a judgment to be made by Congress, based on the candidate’s testimony at his confirmation hearings — not by a trigger-happy pundit gallery.

Do Mr. Hagel’s critics even know what a Secretary of Defense does?

Hint: He does not make U.S. foreign policy. He oversees the operations of the military and, as part of the chain of military command, is answerable to the Commander in Chief. (Of course, that will hardly reassure those who choose to project their darkest fears onto Mr. Obama; cue the circular reasoning. And so, unfortunately, it goes.)

Particularly irksome is that the media has adopted the moniker “pro-Israel” for what would more accurately be characterized as pro-Likud.  Employing the phrase implies that, somehow, anyone who dares to wonder whether every building project in Israel is a geopolitically wise thing to do is somehow insufficiently concerned with the country’s future. But not every legitimate right is rightly acted upon. I can understand (although I’m no less irked for the fact) how a believer in Israel as a re-established Davidic Monarchy might see Israel’s thumbing its nose at the (admittedly largely unsavory) family of nations as some sort of religious imperative.  But that is not the approach of mainstream Orthodox Jewish theology — i.e. the teachings of the universally recognized Torah leaders of past generations and our own.

No, those interpreters of Judaism insist that the Messianic Age is yet to come, and counsel Jews as individuals to embrace modesty, and as a people to demonstrate a degree of deference to the nations of the imperfect world in which we float. Just as Jews in the Middle Ages or pre-Holocaust Europe had to pay (often distasteful but nonetheless necessary) homage to the nobleman or Czar, so do contemporary Jews bear a responsibility to take the feelings — yes, even unjustified, even hypocritical, even evil-fueled feelings — of the rest of the world into account. Even in a world with a Jewish state in the ancestral Jewish land, we are still in exile.

Maybe the Israeli right is right, and there’s a rational reason why contested population centers must be expanded, no matter what the United States or European countries say. Maybe there’s some larger-picture strategic need to do such things even if they alienate important global players, even Israel’s closest friends. But one thing is clear — or should be: Doubting those maybes, as all recent American administrations have done, is no sign of unconcern with Israel, and certainly not of anti-Semitism.

Senator Schumer spent some time with Mr. Hagel the other day, and emerged from their long conversation satisfied that the nominee’s views, both concerning Iran and Israel, are in consonance with his own. Mr. Hagel apologized for calling AIPAC a “Jewish lobby.”

To be sure, even if the nominee is approved, none of us can know the future. “In no man do I place my trust,” goes the prayer taken from the Zohar, advice for the ages. We cannot assume that even leaders who have demonstrated good will toward the Jewish people (or, today, the Jewish state) will always remain the same. But neither do we have the right to indulge in unwarranted panic attacks.

No question about it, it’s a dangerous world for Jews and for Israel. But that’s all the more reason for eschewing alarmism. We have all too many all too real enemies out there. What we really don’t need is to imagine, or create, new ones.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

Lions in Winter

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Winter might conjure pleasant memories of playing in the snow, but it is hardly a season most of us would consider symbolic of childhood. We more naturally associate the “winter of life” with a time when it is only our hair, if we even have any, that is snowy.

Yet, the earliest stage of life is precisely what winter represents, according to the Maharal, in his Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Genesis 26:21).

There he assigns a stage of human life to each of the year’s seasons. A Western mind might associate nature’s annual coming-to-life in spring with childhood, the warmth of summer with youth, autumn with pensive middle age and cold, slow moving winter with life’s later years — think “Old Man Winter.” The Maharal, though, described things differently:

  • He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age;
  • summer’s warmth and comfort to represent our middle-years;
  • spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of youth.
  • And winter to evoke childhood.

More after the jump.
Winter? Childhood?

On the surface, to eyes unaided by deeper recognition, it might indeed seem strange; winter, after all, is a stark time, a season barren of activity and growth.

But the superficial image betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven’t appeared ex nihilo. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months, the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer’s mercury was falling. The evidence of life that at last presents itself with the approach of Pesach has been actively preparing its case since Chanukah. See for yourself. Go outside and inspect the leafless trees’ branches. The buds may be biding their time, but they are clearly there, ready to explode with green when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life’s potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day as an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype, when chaos may seem to be operative but when potential is at its most powerful? The Child, after all, as Wordsworth put it, is indeed “father of the Man.”

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, (Deuteronomy 20:19). Even though the verse’s context (forbidding gratuitously felling trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end (“Is a man a tree of the field?”), other Rishonim, like the Ibn Ezra, read the verse as making a straight comparison. And the sifrei nistar similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words.

And so the approaching winter celebration of Tu B’Shvat, the day the Gemara calls the “Rosh Hashana for trees,” should make us think about the potential that can lie in apparent chaos.

It’s a timely thought for other reasons too.

A month after Tu B’Shvat comes Purim, when we celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless and tragic situation into a joyous one. Esther was the bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

And this time of Jewish year is when we read in shul about Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), how, in the oppressive prison that was ancient Egypt, a redeemer came of age and, at the command of Hashem, brought people to bloom.

So a conspiracy of factors pushes us to ponder the power of potential — in Jewish history (Esther and Yetzias Mitzrayim); in the seasons of the year (those winter buds and sap); and in life (all the illustrious people who were once childish ones).

The thought might reassure and animate us, even those of us with sa’aros levonos, or white hair. For what emerges from the Maharal and Jewish history and the seasons is the lesson that what matters more than how many years may have managed to get behind us is the potential we still carry within us.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


A Jewish “Connection”

Noah Pozner (2006-2012)

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most people, asked if there was any specific Jewish connection to the recent horrific murder of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, would probably respond “Noah Pozner,” one of the six-year-old casualties.

There’s another Jewish connection, though, or at least an imagined one, to the massacre.  Even while the slaughtered innocents were still being prepared for burial, neo-Nazi websites began to assert, on the sole basis of their operators’ fevered imaginations and an ugly sort of wishful thinking, that Adam Lanza, the mass murderer, was a Jew.

Or at least, the bloggers claimed, a half-Jew (although from which half the evil emerged was left unclear).

More after the jump.

We don’t know him from Adam.

One site proffered evidence, too: The name “Adam,” it explained, is exclusively used by Jews.  (How clueless we’ve all been about, among others, Adam Smith and Adam Clayton Powell.)

An Iranian website,, quickly joined the contemptible chorus, adding the accusation that the notoriously self-censoring Western media, which had provided nary a word about Mr. Lanza’s alleged Jewish parentage, had actively conspired to hide it.  The article was revealingly titled “The Common Roots of the Palestine and Sandy Hook Crimes.” (A second article on the site focused on post-massacre calls for gun control, explaining how “Jewish rabbis” in America fear a possible wave of attacks against their fellow Jews because of Israeli actions. It carried the headline “The Zionist Lobby’s Gun Control Plan For America.”)

Such hatred-fueled fantasies presented as fact (and accepted as such by millions of ignorant or malevolent people in certain parts of the world, including some of the mental backwoods of our own country) alarm many Jews – and, for that matter, many non-Jews uninfected by the virus of anti-Semitism.

To me, though, they are also a source of pride, and even bring a smile of sorts to my heart, if not quite to my face.  Because they illustrate the uniqueness of Jews.  The Jewish People’s “chosen-ness” is not, of course, justification for haughtiness or, G-d forbid, derogating others.  The Torah teaches that all mankind is created in the image of G-d and possesses wondrous potential.  Being chosen here means being charged with setting an example to others of life in service of the Divine. (Sometimes we succeed; sometimes, lamentably, we don’t.)

And yet, there are intriguing indications of Jews being somehow… different.  The wild and inexplicable hatred of others for us is one. Jews introduced monotheism and morality to the world; the disproportionate abundance of Jewish contributions to society has been wondered at by observers as diverse as Mark Twain, Bob Dylan and Ann Landers.  And yet, confoundingly, we are hated at any given historical period or happening, for whatever “reason” can be conjured from thin air by malignant  minds.

What other ethnicity or religion has merited a special note from “The Google Team” that searches for information about it (in this case, the word “Jew”) “may have” yielded “results that were very disturbing,” and the conglomerate’s assurance that “the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google”?

Being hated isn’t pleasant, but it can still be reassuringly telling (especially considering who the haters tend to be).

Recent days also saw the loss of a special man, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.  I recall his quiet but powerful recollection to an Agudath Israel group in Washington of how he first heard about Jews, in 1945.  He was undergoing rehabilitation at a New Jersey military hospital after losing an arm fighting in Europe in World War II.  Another injured soldier in the facility mentioned having helped liberate a concentration camp, and described what he had seen. Mr. Inouye asked what the inmates had done to merit being starved, gassed, stacked like firewood and cremated in ovens.

The soldier’s answer, Mr. Inouye recalled, “changed my life.” The man explained that the inmates had been Jews, and “Well you know, Dan, people don’t like Jews.”

Mr. Inouye was flabbergasted at the idea that a people can be so hated, not for anything they had done but simply because of their peoplehood.  And, after doing historical research and meeting countless Jews, he became a lifelong admirer and friend of the Jewish people, and an indefatigable defender of Israel in the Senate to the day of his death.

It’s been a sad few weeks.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

A Film Informs My Sh’ma: Powers Of Echad

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

As a single young man in 1977, I once found myself in a science museum where I viewed a just released short film that — there’s really no other way to put it — expanded my consciousness.  It apparently did the same for many others and remains to this day, despite powerful advances in special effects, an impressive work.

More after the jump.
Produced the year I encountered it by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten begins with a simple scene, a picnic in a Chicago park.  As predicted by the voice-over, though, the camera pulls away from the picnic, at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds.  The zoom-out continues straight up, so that, in a few seconds, the picnic blanket is but a dot of color against the green expanse of the park, which soon enough, with the camera continuing to soar heavenward, itself shrinks to a speck.  Then the viewer sees the outline of Lake Michigan, then North America; the earth’s cloud cover next fills the screen, and then earth itself, which itself quickly recedes into the distance.  Eventually we see an image of our solar system and then the galaxy to which it belongs, before it, too, becomes but one of many galaxies.  The camera seems to fly ever backward, until it reaches the farthest reaches of space.

The effect is visceral, or at least it was for me.  It recalled to me how, as a child, I would sometimes lie flat on my back on our lawn on a clear dark night and concentrate my vision on the starry sky until I felt an inexplicable and sudden shock.  It was as if the sheer vastness of the stars, of the universe itself, had somehow reached out and seized me; it was a frightening experience, yet one that, when feeling brave, I would occasionally seek out.  Although Powers of Ten on a screen could not quite evoke that childhood shudder, it visually captured, maybe even more compellingly, the vastness of the cosmos.

The film, which proceeds from outer space to inner space, zooming back in to the picnic and then further, into the skin of a picnicker, into one of his cells and its DNA, then into an atom and an electron, has been recently celebrated on the 35-year anniversary of its release.  (Charles Eames passed away the following year, in 1978, and his wife Ray, in an arresting irony, died precisely — to the Gregorian calendar day — ten years later.)

The short film actually plays a role in my life as an observant Jew, thrice daily when reciting the fundamental Jewish credo, the Sh’ma (at morning and evening prayers and before retiring). The Sh’ma declares G-d’s transcendence of time and space, and, as we pronounce the word echad (“one”) halacha prescribes that we try to conceptualize, to the degree we can, the immensity of the universe – “above and below and in all four directions” (Brachos 13b) — and the fact that the Creator of it all is not of it at all but “beyond” it and in control of it.

One of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for G-d is “Makom,” which literally means “place.”  The Talmud explains that the word describes the Divine because “the universe is not His place, but rather He is the ‘Place’ of the universe.”  

Leaving — even in our imaginations — the dimensions of time and space isn’t an option for us mortals.  We are like the two-dimensional residents of Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satirical fantasy world, trying to comprehend three-dimensional existence.  There is a reason the Hebrew word for both time and space is “olam,” rooted in “ne’elam,” which means “hidden.”

And yet, we are required all the same to concentrate, as we recite the first verse of the Sh’ma, on G-d’s transcendence of time and space.  That can be done in an entirely intellectual manner, without any sort of visualization.  I find it helpful, though, when I recite the Sh’ma, to try to capture something of the feeling I felt as a child lying on the lawn on those starry nights. Images from Powers of Ten, as they did 35 years ago, provide me a “visual” to accompany the intellectual recognition of the scope of the olam.

I doubt that the Eamses ever thought of their film as something that would come to invigorate a Jewish religious devotion.  But that’s what it did, at least for this Jew.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

It’s All in the Angle (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.


Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

When Palestinian Authority presidential adviser Ziad Al-Bandak paid his respects recently at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the Palestinian’s visit there “a marketing of a false Zionist alleged tragedy.”

A newly appointed Romanian government official, Dan Sova, averred earlier this year that “No Jew suffered on Romanian territory” during World War II. (Tens of thousands of Romanian Jews were killed on Romanian territory, and hundreds of thousands others deported to their deaths. The historian Raul Hilberg concluded that “no country, besides Germany, was involved in massacres of Jews on such a scale.”)

We tend to get exercised by Holocaust denial, and for good reason. The refusal to accept the facts that part of the ostensibly civilized world went on a genocidal murder spree over the years 1938-1945 and that most of the rest of the world didn’t much care implies a certain regret that the genocide failed.

In the end, though, deniers of that historical truth are-at least outside the Arab world-generally marginalized, recognized as either mentally deficient or depraved.

More after the jump.
But then there are those, even among our fellow Jews, who are, if not Holocaust deniers, then Holocaust deriders. Like a writer for Tablet, an online magazine, who recently wrote (Warning: deeply offensive quote ahead) that

Each time we clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau, each time Elie Wiesel threw another anonymous anecdote of betrayal onto a page, I eyed it askance, thinking What did you do that you’re not talking about? I had the gut instinct that these were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like ‘triumph of the human spirit’.

And more (if the reader has the stomach for it):

I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race-conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.

And, finally, there’s a more subtle challenge to the memory of the six million, though in a way more disturbing for its subtlety. Call it Holocaust fatigue.

Like some recent blogging by a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the premier American Jewish news service. Reporter blogs allow journalists to let their hair down a bit and offer reports that are more informal and personal than the writers’ official, supposedly objective products. The blog entries are thus windows on their writers’ minds.

This particular writer, who produced a short, straightforward report on the recent Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, used his blog platform to present his followers a “real time” series of observations from MetLife Stadium on August 1. Meant to be droll and funny, they came across, at least to some readers, as more smarmy than savvy.

One entry reads: “8:02: First mention of the Holocaust (‘Auschwitz,’ ‘Nazis,’ ‘ghetto,’ ‘gas chambers’).”

A second one reads: “8:19: Another mention of the 6 million.”

And a third: “8:20: Hitler mention: On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games began at a stadium of similar size in Berlin…”

The writer doesn’t spell out his precise feelings about the references, but in the context of the “sassy” tone of the blog, it’s pretty clear that he found them somewhat… tiresome.

The Holocaust has, sadly, been misappropriated in the service of various purposes. But if ever there were a proper and fitting place for invoking the designs of the would-be destroyers of Klal Yisrael, indeed, of Judaism, then a mammoth Jewish celebration of Torah is it. “Yehei Shmei Rabba” declared by 90,000 Jewish voices in unison was thunderous testimony to the fact that our enemies, again, have failed and that both our people and our Torah have emerged from unspeakable national tragedy faithful and strong.

I don’t mean, of course, to in any way compare Holocaust fatigue to sewage like Holocaust denial and Holocaust derision. The latter are evils, the former an unfortunate problem.

But it’s a problem, a deeply discomforting one, all the same.


The Write Stuff: Tips To Help Get Your Letter to the Editor Published

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sometimes — usually after the New York Times deigns to publish a letter of mine on behalf of Agudath Israel of America — I’m asked how one “gets a letter” published in a (rightly or wrongly) respected periodical.

Well, the first step is to become the spokesperson for a national organization.

Just joking. It may help a letter’s chances for publication if it is signed by an organizational representative. But it can also hurt them. In any event, most published letters are from individuals writing as such.

One doesn’t, however, “get a letter” published. All one can do is submit a good candidate, one with a chance of striking the fancy of a letters editor. Major publications can receive hundreds of letters a day, from which to choose a handful. There are no shortcuts here (unless the editor is one’s brother-in-law). But “Rabbi Shafran’s How-To Guide” for writing a letter to the editor, below, might be helpful.

Rabbi Shafran’s eight pieces of advice follow the jump.

  1. Never Write and Send a Letter.
    That is to say that, after writing one’s letter, one should tear it up (or delete it from the screen). At very least, set it aside for a few hours. Letters always improve with subsequent re-writes, and excesses of emotion in a first draft tend to be softened somewhat-usually a good thing-in a second one.
  2. Cut.
    Long letters, like long sentences (like this one), are more demanding of readers, and trying to address all five points one would like to make when readers only have patience to consider one or two is counterproductive since it is confusing and off-putting, and since most readers in any event tend to just skim letters pages and settle on the shortest, punchiest offerings. Brevity is best.
  3. Become The Other.
    As one writes — and re-writes — a letter to the editor, it is important to put oneself in the minds of readers. If writing in a non-heimish Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Orthodox Jew? A baal teshuvah? If in a non-Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Jew? Considering one’s letter from an assortment of different perspectives will often inspire a well-chosen change of phrase or word or thought. Engineering a letter to engender empathy or respect isn’t always possible; but when it is, it’s a good idea.
  4. Resist Negativity.
    There’s a fine line between well-earned indignation and ranting. It’s best to couch even deserved criticism in words that earn a reader’s consideration rather than inspire him to grunt and move to the next letter.
  5. Keep Your Eye on the Prize.
    Remember that the overarching, ultimate goal is not to “score points” or even, necessarily, to present an unassailable argument. It is to affect others, to make them think about what you have to say. A point won at the expense of the reader’s good will is a tactical loss. Always think tachlis (substance).
  6. Write for the Uninformed.
    Don’t assume that the reader knows what you do. Include a reference to the article or editorial it addresses, and its date. And, if you use a Hebrew or Yiddish word or Jewish concept, include a succinct definition between commas or parentheses.
  7. Bait the Editor.
    Give your letter something “tasty” to help make it stand out from others the paper may have received on the same topic. It might be an original insight, your special credentials for addressing the issue, some surprising fact, or a bit of humor or cleverness (in which latter cases it should be tried out first on one’s spouse).
  8. Pay Attention to Packaging.
    Substance is paramount but superficiality counts. Misspellings or grammatical errors are invitations to editors to file a letter in the “circular file.” In addition, a letter to the editor should always include the telephone number[s] of the writer, so that the editor can call to confirm that it was indeed sent by the person signed to it.

Of course, the most important factor of any good letter to the editor is that it has something cogent to say. So before using the checklist above, see to it that your letter meets that requirement. If it does, even if the editor isn’t your brother-in-law, go for it!

Attack At Ozar Hatorah School In Toulouse, France

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The murderous attack on the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France this morning is a tragedy that rightly tears the hearts of Jews and people of good will everywhere. More than a tragedy, though, it is an expression of evil, of the Jew-hatred that masquerades as many things but in its essence remains wickedness alone.

Agudath Israel of America joins in the mourning for our four brothers murdered in cold blood today, a teacher and his two children, and an 8-year old child. And we pray for the wounded 17-year-old’s full and quick recovery.

We also call upon the French authorities to leave no stone unturned in the search for the perpetrators of this repulsive act. Evil left to fester will only spread.

Running, Racism and Resentment

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

When I recounted seeing a small group of unusually dressed men in shul last Sunday in Staten Island and realizing that they were trying to catch a minyan before participating in the New York Marathon (which begins in that borough), my daughter asked me if any of them had a chance of winning the race.

“Nah,” I said. “It’ll be a Kenyan.” Four of the New York race’s past ten men’s race winners, after all, hailed from that African country. Actually, make that five now. (Congratulations, Geoffery Mutai.) A fellow Kenyan came in second.

My daughter’s face, I thought, evidenced some surprise, as if I had espoused some rank racism. So I explained that Kenyans seem particularly physically endowed for long-distance running. Kenyans, that is, and Ethiopians (another citizenry with disproportionate wins in marathons) who belong to the lithe and limber Kalenjin tribe.

More after the jump.
If believing that different populations have different abilities constitutes racism, I guess I am a racist. But the word’s pejorative meaning is more properly reserved for assigning negative human character traits-like dishonesty, laziness, drunkenness, or untrustworthiness-to particular racial or ethnic groups. People have free will, of course, and every individual should be judged on his own merits.

Recognizing that there are differences in aptitudes among different peoples, however, should be no more objectionable than noting physical differences, like the fact that Hutu tribesmen are stocky and relatively short while their Tutsi neighbors are lanky and taller. Or that one doesn’t come across many Ashkenazi (or for that matter Sephardi) fullbacks.

Even excellence in mental attributes, like the commonly perceived abilities of Asians in mathematics, or of Jews in business or science, should not be seen as insulting others. Even if the perceptions are accurate, they are of limited import.

The Torah refers to the Jewish people as “a wise nation” but that doesn’t mean we’re all intellectually gifted. Even Jews who aren’t the brightest candles in the menorah have a Divine mission on earth no less precious than the Rogachover down the block. And Chazal’s honorifics customarily run not to words like “genius” or “brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d-fearing.” That’s what counts.

It’s plausible, of course, that Chinese or Jewish intellectual accomplishments-or Kalenjin dominance of marathon running-are due to something other than genes; cultural and environmental factors certainly play important roles. What’s more, even fact-supported stereotypes are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as gene pools become more jumbled with each generation.  

Still, some population-associated abilities remain, and some people seem to have a hard time with that. They waste precious time feeling bad for themselves and resentful of others, losing sight of a grand life-truth: It doesn’t matter what abilities we possess; what matters is what we do with them.

Similarly, some people of modest means resent the more affluent. They may suspect (as do some affluent people themselves) that prosperity is the result of superior intelligence. (This, despite the ample and readily available evidence to the contrary.) As believing Jews, though, we should know that economic fortunes are determined wholly by Divine will; they ultimately remain beyond logic and inscrutable to us mortals.

Which thought leads, inevitably, to the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Some among the crowds in lower Manhattan and their counterparts in other cities may well have worthy complaints and clear goals. But what one hears most loudly and most commonly (as even a few minutes at Zuccotti Park were more than enough to demonstrate to me) is simple resentment of the fact that wealthy people… are wealthy. Why, many protesters seem to be saying, and angrily, them and not us?

What a sad way to waste life. Instead of identifying one’s own blessings and setting oneself to the task-the privilege-of utilizing them as fully as possible for as long as possible, those demonstrators self-immolate in the heat of their anger over not being someone else.

But they are a good spur for the rest of us to remember that what matters in this world is not what we have, physically or monetarily, but what we choose.

Most of us wouldn’t waste a millisecond envying a Kenyan’s speed or stamina. None of us should waste even half that time resenting what someone else has.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]