Category Archives: Contemporary Life

The Race

In America, the saying goes, anyone can grow up to be president. Well, “anyone” did, and now it seems like everyone else wants to try.

One of Barack Obama’s few accomplishments as president is that he has substantially lowered the bar for future aspirants. In retrospect, it is still mindboggling that citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, presumed leader of the free world, risked its governance on a community organizer of little note, a less than one term Senator with no legislative achievements to speak of. It would be like the Mets deciding to pitch in the opening game of the World Series a soccer player with an attractive personality. It should not be a surprise when the country that elects such a neophyte struggles with tepid economy, a smaller work force, and a global environment in which former US allies look to Russia for leadership and vision. Indeed, today’s news that Russia is trying to eradicate any vestige of US influence in the region suggests the triumph of Putin’s craftiness over Obama’s bluster and naiveté.

Any one of the Republican nominees would be superior, and a few dozen others could also serve quite capably. Another part of Obama’s legacy is the surprising popularity of the three non-politicians in the race. It is as if the American people have realized that if “experience” has produced today’s political climate, then we might as well try a different type of inexperience. It can’t be worse, can it? Probably not, as long as the novice politician retains a sense of humility, a willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them, and an openness to diverse sources of information. Of the three novices in the Republican race, two – Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – certainly qualify from that perspective. The third – the Donald – does not, and awakens ghosts from the distant past.

Almost all presidents have ascended to the office after serving as Vice-President or Governor. Obama is the first Senator since JFK to become President directly from the Senate and only the third in history (Harding was the other). Eisenhower was the last President who entered office as a non-politician but he had merely been the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces that won World War II. Ross Perot was the last non-politician to mount a serious campaign for the presidency, and probably cost George Bush (I) his reelection in 1992, although analysts spin the numbers both ways. But Trump replicates another individual who sought the presidency as his first elective office, and the similarities are fascinating.

Wendell Willkie was also a former Democrat and a successful businessman (frequently described as a “Wall Street titan”) who wrested the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1940 from several better known competitors, famed politicians all: Senators Robert Taft (Ohio)and Arthur Vandenberg (Michigan), and Thomas E. Dewey, then District Attorney of New York County. (Dewey gained the nominations in the 1944 and 1948 while serving as New York Governor.)

Willkie had the misfortune of opposing a sitting President – FDR – but the 1940 campaign saw FDR running for an unprecedented third term, with an economy still struggling, and Nazi Germany rampaging through Europe. It was a winnable election, but Willkie, while a likable chap, was not an especially enthralling campaigner. He also labored to find the right message that would balance the Republican Party’s isolationist tendencies with its internationalist wing. Notwithstanding that Willkie and FDR had almost identical views on World War II – full support for the Allies short of entering the war – Willkie was lambasted by FDR’s running mate Henry Wallace as the “Nazis’ choice for president.” Dirty campaigning is not a modern invention. Ironically, Wallace himself was later exposed as a Communist sympathizer. Willkie never did connect with the voters.

In the end, Willkie won more votes than any Republican in history to that point but lost to FDR 55%-45%. Even more oddly, Willkie died suddenly in October 1944, so had he won the election, he would not have completed even one term (and his running mate died eight months earlier in 1944!).

Willkie did not have strong roots in the Republican Party and that certainly cost him in the general election – a note of caution for Mr. Trump. Lacking a political base, he was unable to overcome the master of appealing to disparate voting blocs, FDR.

Yet, the differences are also dramatic, starting with the political environment. Politics has always been raucous, but today’s widespread exposure of candidates, the incessant campaign season, and the “president-as-celebrity” that has both dumbed down politics and precipitated Obama’s elections have brought all campaigns into uncharted territory. Politicians nowadays have an enormous capacity to bypass traditional media and communicate directly to the people, not only through speeches but also YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other such dominant entities. Trump’s real fame is not as a businessman – he has had ups and downs like most businessmen – but as an entertainer. I once thought that people who want an entertainer or beer buddy or perpetual candidate as president do not vote, but I have been proven wrong. Trump’s appeal is that he can speak in  bombastic generalities to an audience that, to date, is largely intrigued by it.

Will they vote for him? Who knows, and here’s what has brought me to (almost) the point of revulsion: the campaign is just too long, and as it is too long, it lends itself to producing not the best candidate or potential president but the shallowest and most superficial (not to mention, best financed). There is something wrong when candidates drop out more than a half-year before anyone has actually voted! Yes, it is an endurance test, but why? In theory, a President need not be a great debater; Obama certainly isn’t, and the only times he was actually challenged publicly and in person by anyone (Paul Ryan and Binyamin Netanyahu come to mind), he just became snarky. But it’s not as if the next President will have to debate Putin, Merkel, Assad or anyone else. That’s not how policy is made.

In theory, too, a president need not be telegenic or even a good speaker. Abraham Lincoln was not especially handsome and he had a tinny voice (although a legendary way with words). These campaigns produce the best candidates but being a good candidate often has little connection with being a good president; the proof of that proposition dwells in the White House today and he still cannot resist making at least five stump speeches weekly even though he can’t run again.

The good candidate and the good president have almost opposite skill sets but today’s campaigns are almost designed to reward the better candidate and penalize the person who would be the good president. So the campaigns must be shortened dramatically – even six months seems too long – and the party conventions (four days of hot air and balloons) should be eliminated. Here’s the ideal campaign: no candidate can announce, raise funds or mention the word “President” until June 1 of the election year.  Have one national primary – both parties, same day, in July – and one day for the election in November. (Or maybe September 1 and October 1, for the campaign beginning and the national primary.) The top two candidates are the presidential and vice-presidential nominees (unless the latter declines). Stop giving tiny states like Iowa and New Hampshire disproportionate influence over the outcomes of presidential elections. Campaigns would not be as expensive but would be more meaningful. And – I beg – eliminate all polling. Taking daily polls is like taking your pulse every ten minutes; it is both obsessive and worthless. It is mind-numbing – as is the daily punditry. No other country in the world has such an extensive election process. Bad process, bad results.

Everyone knows where this is headed already – so why not vote this November?? Hillary Clinton is ethically-challenged with a cackle that makes one’s skin crawl, and will struggle – thankfully – to overcome Joe Biden. It says something about the state of American Jewry that the first Jewish candidate to be leading the polls in several states this late in a campaign is an intermarried, unaffiliated Socialist. The Democrat candidates are weak, but weak Democrats have won in the past by drawing heavily from the fear chapter in the Democrat handbook. They’ll accuse Republicans – any and all – of being anti-woman, anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-elderly, anti-poor and anti-middle class and promise to hand out more free stuff. I would quite enjoy a Fiorina-Carson ticket being labeled anti-woman and anti-black.

The Republican slate is filled with qualified candidates. None are without flaws, but then, who is anywhere in life? Whom do the Democrats fear most? Judging by the level of attacks, the answers in no particular order would be Christie (for his campaigning skills, his ability to get things done with a hostile legislature, and his knack for communicating his positions in a way that voters understand); Rubio (bright, young, dynamic Hispanic with a keen grasp of the issues – and young almost always beats old in presidential elections); Kasich (for his record of achievement as a Congressman and as a Governor of a critical swing state; and, somewhat less, Jeb Bush (who is suffering from Bush fatigue but whose war chest will not allow the Democrats to steamroll him at any time during the campaign).

Democrats should fear Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina and even Donald Trump – the first two because they cut into indispensable Democrat blocs and the latter because, well, he is unpredictable and all the rules of politics have changed in the last decade. Trump will most likely flame out shortly after the voting starts. Democrats may wish for Ted Cruz because he is very conservative; be careful what you wish for, as there is no brighter, more articulate candidate than the Texas Senator. Win or lose, he will be around for a long time. Mike Huckabee is a sage and folksy presence, a good combination. Almost all the candidates project what is most needed in a president: firm, sensible  convictions that are grounded in reality and a reasonable way of implementing them.

The shame is that there are so many quality people – Graham and Jindal, to name two other  – that there are just too many people running for president to really get a fair hearing by the voters.

Down the road, we can evaluate each candidate’s approach and feelings towards Israel, if only to irritate Ann Coulter. For now, the race is on – even if it is just about a year too early.

G-d’s Hand in History

(The following was published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, on September 11, 2015 –  RSP)

Fourteen years ago today the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States of America, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking America (at least temporarily) out of its complacency and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars. Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.

On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones. Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives ended in sudden acts of unimaginable horror. When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities

Hashem  has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service. That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.

But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurim whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.

As we say in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.” It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.

If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control? Is it possible to understand G-d’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im ? Is there a divine message that we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?

G-d’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Moshiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely-ordained role in history.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, G-d forbid, as our and G-d’s enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence and down to our very day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire. That has been reciprocated, often and in many places still today, with hatred, overt or subtle, with physical violence and rhetorical scorn, and with persistent, baseless and scurrilous attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and/or conduct, all thinly-disguised assaults on the Jewish people.

Some wage open war on Jews across the globe. Others, especially the hostile elements in Europe and America, are still inhibited by the rancid Jew hatred of the Holocaust and so hide their contempt for all Jews behind the veneer of hatred for Israel – BDS and the like. All of this is contemptible and lamentable but little of it is new. It has accompanied us since Sinai, and the spasms of violence that erupt across the globe – so Chazal are teaching us – are on our “account.” When they fight against us, it is because they are waging war against the Jewish idea. But even when they fight each other, and bring enormous, unspeakable suffering upon themselves, at the root of their discontent is the distortion of the Jewish idea and a rejection of   G-d’s plan for mankind.

As Rabbi Berel Wein once explained, “it’s because of us but it’s not our fault.”

The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015) featured a graph that noted the current population of the world’s religions and their future growth. (By 2050, the global Muslim population will almost match the global Christian population, each near 2.8 billion people.) Today, there are 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.4 billion Hindus, even 1.3 billion unaffiliated. At the very bottom of the graph – the last line – are the Jews, hovering at or above (!) zero. We are not even a rounding error in the world’s population, less than that. We are not just statistically insignificant; we are statistically improbable.

“Hashem did not desire you or choose you because of your numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations” (Devarim 7:7). Yet, history revolves around the Jewish people. We are not afforded the luxury of being bystanders but rather of being in the forefront of every major world event and discovery. Our national homeland was not placed at the end of the world – say, New Zealand – where we could safely develop our spiritual aptitudes far from the madding crowd and high above the fray but rather at the crossroads of civilization and in the middle of every conflict.

No nation in the world tries harder to do good to all – even strangers – and no nation is as despised and reviled for those efforts. What does it all mean?

It means that G-d chose us as His vehicle to bring His morality to the world and effectuate His will in history. Rav Shlomo Aviner is fond of quoting Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the famed Italian philosopher and historian who posited – three centuries ago – that whereas the histories of the nations of the world are profane (meaning secular, guided by natural and political forces), the history of the Jewish people is sacred, directed by G-d, and not at all bound by the general laws of history. What applies to other nations and what happens to other nations simply do not apply or happen to us.

It is astonishing that Vico should have recognized that; it is even more astonishing when we – the Jewish people – do not and instead go about our business as if our destiny is that of all nations.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt”l regularly expounded what he called “Masechet Yisrael,” the “Tractate of the People of Israel,” both because it was worthy of study and because it underscored G-d’s plan for us in history. He highlighted three phenomenal dimensions – wonders – of the Jewish people: the wonders of our abilities, our survival and our influence. (See, for example, Rav Aviner’s annotated edition of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s “Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato,” footnote 266.)

We are an extraordinarily talented people, whose contributions to mankind have transformed the lives of billions of people. We need not even mention the disproportionate share of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, a mindboggling statistic that defies rational analysis. As a nation, we have been endowed by the Creator with capabilities that are designed to facilitate mankind’s pursuit of moral perfection, the material good and the welfare of all. The former is the very purpose for which we were given the Torah and prophecy.

The wonder of our survival continues to defy comprehension. No people has ever suffered the devastation of invasion, defeat, destruction, and exile – and twice – and then remained an intact nation that reclaimed its ancient homeland after 19 centuries. It is so inexplicable in human terms that it is the source of relentless irritation to our enemies, who deny it formally but are awed by it privately.

And, despite our insignificant and paltry numbers, the influence of the people of Israel on world events is itself astounding. Scarcely a day goes by without a Jew or the Jewish people in the headlines. The preoccupation of the world – actually, the obsession of the world – with the tiny State of Israel is a constant reminder to us of the expectations that the world has for the Jewish people, our outsized impact on social trends and political movements, and the uneasiness of the world’s powers with this upstart nation that, as the boxing saying goes, punches far beyond its weight class. It has been repeatedly noted that Jews have been in the forefront of great social and intellectual movements of the last two centuries – some good, some not so good – Jews like Freud, Marx, Einstein and others. Many of the high-tech innovations that have revolutionized modern life have originated in Israel.

These are all “wonders,” but none are inherently innate to the Jewish people. They are gifts from Heaven, all intended to provide us the tools with which we can carry out G-d’s will for mankind. Occasionally, perhaps more often than that, we have used these gifts inappropriately, for our own self-aggrandizement or for mere physical gratification, and forgotten or ignored the Giver and the purposes for which it was given. At those moments in history, we are sent reminders, sometimes gentle ones and sometimes less so, that we have strayed from the proper path. The road to return then opens before us, if our eyes wish to see and our hearts are receptive to the messages.

The Torah we were given, Rav Avraham Kook wrote (Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato, Chapter 5) is “not the imagining of the heart, not human ethics, not just worthy desires or appropriate fantasies, not the abandonment of the material world in any of its aspects, not the rejection of the body because of its ‘impurity,’ not the renunciation of life, society, government and authority because of their lowliness, and not the repudiation of the world and its natural forces that were corrupted by sinful man – but rather the exaltation of all of the above.”

This is the future towards which we are heading, notwithstanding all the challenges we face, the incessant Jew hatred that still afflicts too much of the world, the seemingly endless terror and war that is thrust upon us and other good people, and the rebuff of the Divine idea and moral code that is at the core of mankind’s discontent and moral perversions.

“Those who rise up against Israel rise up against G-d” (Tanchuma, Beshalach 16). It is a truism of history that wars against the Jewish people are a displacement for the real adversary that confounds our enemies – their war with the Creator (see Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen). We are simply convenient targets, but attacks on the Jewish people elicit a Divine response in history, and judgment of those nations ensues.

On the annual Day of Judgment, each person is judged both as an individual and as part of a nation. We live our lives not only to perfect our souls in this world but also to advance the goals of the Creator. If our personal judgments are enigmatic, then our judgment insofar as we are part of a nation is even more impenetrable. Those are the mysteries of life and are the exclusive domain of the Judge of all mankind. We can never comprehend why some lives were snuffed out by the godless forces of evil and other lives were spared. All we can do is thank Hashem for His blessings and commit our lives and resources to living in broad, historical terms and not just in the mundane matters of daily life.

The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 97b): “Rabi Eliezer said: ‘if the Jewish people repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed.’ Rabi Yehoshua said to him: ‘if they don’t repent, they won’t be redeemed? Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause a king to rise over them whose decrees are as harsh as those of Haman, and they will repent and be restored to the good.”

The king whose decrees will spur our repentance is not someone like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nevuchadnetzar or Titus; it is someone like Haman – a Persian descendant of Amalek who harbored genocidal ambitions against the people of Israel.

Some things never change.

And some things can change. When we realize our individual vulnerabilities, the opportunities we have been given and the great stakes before us, the moment for both individual and national teshuva beckons. May we all be worthy of inscription in the book of life, and may the current turmoil and our response to it prepare us for redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

Is there a more peculiar intruder into our Rosh Hashana service than the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general who fought against Devorah and Barak, and who is the reference point for so many of our shofar practices? The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) was in doubt as to the precise nature of the teruah sound, because the Torah does not define it. But the Targum interprets that as a yevava, and the Gemara elaborates that it is written in the reference to the mother of Sisera that she “wailed,” Vateyabeiv. One opinion held that she groaned (like the shevarim) and the other held she wailed (like our teruah). So we do both. And all because Sisera’s mother wailed we know how to blow the shofar?

There is more. Tosafot there quote the Aruch, Rav Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi, that we blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. Again, Sisera’s mother. Who exactly are we talking about?

Sisera was the general of Canaan, who tormented the Jews and conquered others, who dedicated his life to killing and marauding, who, when he attacked Israel in this instance with overwhelming force – nine hundred iron chariots – was met by a smaller army led by Devorah and Barak, and was routed. He fled the battlefield into the arms of  Yael, who in short order fed him, bed him – and then killed him.

And Devorah sang about his mother (Shoftim 5:28-30) – even a killer has a mother: “The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices, sobbing, ‘why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?’” And the princesses tried to comfort her:  “They must be dividing the spoils, seizing the maidens for themselves.” But Sisera’s mother knew better, and so “she wailed.”

It’s a poignant story until we stop and realizing that she is crying over his lack of success – this time – in murdering Jews and in conquering the land of Israel. Her son was exceedingly wicked, and we should curse the day on which she gave birth to him. So why is she the source of our shofar practices? What is it that happened to her that we want to recall?

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked me: is the world falling apart? Is this the worst it’s ever been – wars, plagues, terror, insecurity, uncertainty? The answer is – not by a long shot. But there is one thing to ponder, especially as on Rosh Hashana, when all nations are judged: “who will be afflicted by the sword, who will live in peace, who will suffer from famine, and who will have plenty.”

The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 32) states: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korach and his cohorts.” Every generation contains these people. They are not unique.

If you think that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – you are wrong. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it! “Contemplate the years of every generation.” Look around: every generation has vestiges of the generation of the flood, morally depraved and outspoken about it, not at all reticent and sometimes even boastful; every generation contains remnants of the generation of the dispersion, who deny G-d and set themselves over mankind as rulers and dictators; every generation has echoes of Sodom, its greed, selfishness and violence; every generation has its Korach, who denies the Mesorah and think they know better than G-d what the Torah should say. They challenge the Torah leadership with their populism and sophistry.

If so, what is new? To what is there to look forward? Is the whole script laid out for us? No. The Midrash continues: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korach, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Breisheet Raba 24:2). Every person has the ability to write his own page in that book, the Sefer Toldot Adam, the book that was originally published on Rosh Hashana, “this day was the beginning of Your work.”

Too often we think that we are set, we are who we are, and it is what it is. And nothing can change. Just another day, another month, another year, another Rosh Hashana. Sometimes it’s because we have given up, and other times because we are secure in who we are, certain about our course in life and our future. Everything is laid out for us, all going according to plan. We become very comfortable with our course in life, sometimes even with our sins – not even knowing or admitting they are sins.

We sit by the window, looking out at the world, and everything is familiar and recurring – until it is not. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Sisera’s mother had a routine. She knew he would win, even knew when to expect him back from the battlefield. She knew that he would return triumphant, with the spoils of war, with the laurels of his admirers, with the dread of the vanquished. She was certain – that was her life.

“The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices…” As she sat there, she started to sob, then to wail, then to mourn. Her certainty – about herself, about her son, about his and her destiny – was an illusion. It wasn’t real. As she uttered the words – “Why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why is he late today?” – she already knew the bitter truth: her world had suddenly changed. There is nothing in life set in stone. Not my life, not my choices, not my fate.

If our generation contains Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Korach in some form, if it has its share of hedonists, sadists and terrorists of all kinds, that is an unfortunate reality. But realize that our generation also has its true seekers of G-d, Torah scholars, righteous people and purveyors of kindness. So be in the latter group – nothing is fixed – even in the most troubled era, “each person is judged according to his deeds.”

The shofar draws its inspiration not from the anguish of Sisera’s mother, and not because we feel sorry for her, but because we want the shofar to awaken us, to shake us, like it did Sisera’s mother, to grab hold of us and say “life is precious, life is short, there is much to do.” Take nothing for granted, not the least of which one’s religious level in life and one’s aspirations. Everyone can grow and everyone can improve.

The wails of Sisera’s mother are the quality of the sounds of the shofar that penetrate our souls, and her one hundred sobs are the quantity that we require to soften our hearts. We can’t change the world, only our small place in it, beginning with ourselves. Thus we pray that the sounds of the shofar will break through and signal our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty so we may merit G-d’s mercies on us and our families, on our people, our land and our holy city of Yerushalayim, for a year of life of good health, prosperity and peace.



The Denial

President Obama’s insistence that he is not an “anti-Semite” may not be remembered as vividly as President Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” if only because Nixon said his just once while Obama has had to invoke this defense repeatedly in recent weeks, and to an increasingly skeptical audience. Sometimes, indeed, the Prez doth protest too much, methinks. He did state that there is “not even a smidgen of evidence for it,” but then again he once said there is “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS (February 1, 2014). There must be a smidgen of something somewhere.  In any event, Jew hatred is a matter of the heart, and unknowable save through words and actions. Some of the words and most of the actions of this President do not bolster his reputation as a friend of the Jews.

Personally, I would not level such a crude accusation against the President.  I can’t see into a person’s heart, but I am inclined to quote a currently- beleaguered presidential hopeful on a matter of even greater importance: “What difference does it make?” The fact is that there were two recent presidents, Truman and Nixon, who privately expressed much ill will towards Jews, but at critical moments, each made historic decisions (Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 and Nixon’s airlift of weapons to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973) in the face of intense pressure to do neither. So who really cares?  By the way, who exactly called him an “anti-Semite”? I haven’t seen that anywhere, from any Jew in any official or influential capacity. It makes his feigned, pained reaction seem more like an attempt to change the subject than genuine disappointment. Whether Obama is an enemy of the Jews or a friend of the Jews matters less than what he does to the Jews – and to the United States.

We can take him at his word, and still note that Obama has historically been intimate with a number of overt Jew haters – friends, supporters and pastors – and those Jews that he has known tend to be, if not always anti-Israel, then at least unsympathetic to Israel and halfhearted in their Jewish commitment. For sure, there have been many outright Jew haters who kept faithful Jews in their employ, from Nebuchadnezzar who had Daniel on his payroll to Ferdinand and Isabella whose finances were managed by Don Yitzchak Abravanel. And there must have been Jews then who looked at the Jewish ministers who served all those monarchs and determined that they can’t be all bad, because, after all, Jews work for them.

Of course, the President’s offense at being called by some unknown person an “anti-Semite” (“it hurts”) is just a tad treacly, especially given his interest in allowing Iran, a nation that has consistently called for the annihilation of the Jewish state, to develop nuclear weapons and the capacity to use them against Israel. (Of course, “not on his watch.”) That is certainly not the act of a Semite-phile, unless the Semites in question are Arabs, but even they are opposed to the Bad Deal. That searing emotional trauma – of having his love for the Jewish people questioned – might also be doubted by those who perceive Obama’s desire to subsidize Iran’s support of terror to the tune of $150B to be indicative of an uncaring attitude to the fate of Jews in Israel and around the world who have been the targets and victims of Iranian terror for decades, among others. Somehow, having a White House seder before Pesach and a White House Chanukah party before Chanukah are not as meaningful criteria by which to assess a person’s friendship for the Jewish people.

His protestations are also less than credible, if only because Obama habitually iterates clichés that are either demonstrably false or convincingly incredible. For example, just several days ago, he told a group of mostly gullible Jews that if Iran breaches the agreement, sanctions will “snap back” into place. That, of course, is not possible, as existing contracts would be honored, those existing contracts could sustain the Iranian economy for a decade or two, and the “international community,” which Obama purports to “lead from behind” would not go along in any case. Sanctions removed will not return, even after – especially after – Iran gets its nuclear weapon.

He also told those credulous communal leaders that “the military option is still on the table.” That is true. Unfortunately, that “table” is located in a sealed room in a locked house on a remote part of an inaccessible island, but it is on the table. The future president will not have the same military options that Obama has because Iran will be even closer to completing its nuclear program, with perhaps even more unknown sites, and with an even greater chance of the reactors all being “hot” – radioactive – with even deadlier fallout from an attack. Contrary to what Obama says, a future president will have fewer military options. But it is good to know that they will still be on the table.

Clearly, Obama never intended a military strike against Iran and did what he could to thwart Israel’s planned attack. Once Iran became aware of that hesitancy, it gained the upper hand in the negotiations and parlayed that into a stunning diplomatic success, and a humbling diplomatic defeat for the United States. Besides, Obama’s love of diplomacy and distaste for raw power (except against US allies) engenders the absurdity that negotiations are always preferable to military action up to and until the time Iran develops its weapon. Of course, once it develops its weapon it is too late to use military force because the potential Iranian retaliation serves as a deterrent. But it is comforting to know that the military option is on some table, somewhere.

It is worth recalling that during the Senate confirmation hearings of the hapless Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense (true to predictions, he had a brief and undistinguished record after he was confirmed), Hagel blurted out that US policy towards Iran was one of “containment,” i.e., to allow them a weapon and then ensure that Iran be deterred from using it much like the Soviet Union was “contained.” This was said to the horror of the sitting Senators and the consternation of his handlers, who quickly handed him a note of correction that he dutifully read into the record that America’s policy was not containment but the preclusion of the Iranian bomb.

Well, it is clear that Hagel gaffed by telling the truth. By all indications – except for the empty words that emanate from the White House – US policy is containment of the Iranian bomb as nothing will be done to prevent its development if the Bad Deal passes. Then – by which time Obama will be in retirement – the US will learn that the Soviet Union, Evil Empire though it was, was a rational actor with whom nuclear stalemate was possible, while Iran is an irrational, apocalyptic actor bent on fulfilling its demented religious vision of the future.

There is not a credible military option on any table in North America, sanctions are not snapping back, the inspections regime is a farce, the Iranian windfall will lead to an increase in global terror, and the embargo on conventional weapons will soon be lifted as well. Iran is the only country in the world that has an intermediate range ballistic missile capability (2000 miles) without having a nuclear weapon, and they are developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (more than 3000 miles). What are both for, if not the obvious?

All threaten the peace and security of Israel – and America. Assuming that Obama is not an “anti-Semite,” one would be hard-pressed to perceive what policies a real “anti-Semite” would pursue that are different than the ones Obama is pursuing. And that matters more than his anguish about being called an “anti-Semite” or whether or not he really is one.

As bad as the Bad Deal is, Obama’s search-and-destroy mission against all opponents of the Bad Deal, especially Israel and the Jews, is just a sign of bad faith and maybe worse. Indeed, Obama has stated that only Israel opposes the deal and he has singled out Jewish groups – and their money – for opposing him. Note that well: notwithstanding that polls show most Americans opposed to the Bad Deal (and Jews are far less than 2% of the population) and notwithstanding that hundreds of military people and the bulk of the Republican Party are vehemently opposed, Obama chose to underscore Jewish opposition – and their money. Even liberal Jewish groups, some, of course, quite tentatively, exposed these code words for what they are: an attempt to make this a Jewish issue and stoke the flames of Jew hatred, of choosing between the President and the Prime Minister, between loyalty and dual loyalty, between patriotism and treachery, between peace and warmongering.

To date, few Democrats in Congress have had the courage to defy Obama. All have been subject to pressure and some to threats. It is simply implausible that Democrats would support this deal when so many have said for two years that they would not support a deal that acquiesced in an Iranian weapon, that did not include rigorous inspections of all facilities, in which the Iranians did not have to account for their past nuclear development or halt their support of global terror, or have the sanctions regime end not immediately but gradually. This Bad Deal does none of that, and will go down in American history as one of the sorriest examples of politicians placing party over country. There is no other way to say it but that Democrats are arming with weapons of mass destruction a nation that chants “Death to America” and has been at war with the United States since 1979. Those are the leaders of a nation with a death wish.

The Deal is Bad, the optics are bad and the words are worse. No wonder Obama has to deny constantly that he is an “anti-Semite.” Real anti-Semites have always accused the Jews of being a fifth column, of dual loyalties, of egging the world into wars, of using their money and power to manipulate politicians to do their bidding.

It is quite irrelevant whether Obama is or isn’t an “anti-Semite” but he is forced to deny that slur because he fears the severance of the umbilical cord that connects most Jews to the Democratic Party. Jews are a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, and more importantly, Jewish money, sad to say, plays an enormous role in funding the Democrat agenda. Frankly, I believe Obama’s fear is misplaced and most Jews’ ties to the Democrat Party are far stronger than their ties to Judaism or to Israel. He need not fear Jewish abandonment of the Democrats – but what those Jews need is rhetorical cover, an explicit denial of “anti-Semitism” and equally public statements of love and friendship for Israel.

For those Jews for whom liberalism is their true religion, these affirmations allow them to sleep easily at night and write checks to the Democrats by day. They too will bear part of the blame if the Bad Deal passes and they will share much of the blame when Iran gets its bomb. They will have regrets, but they will assuage their grief at community rallies and prayer vigils, and then support the next Democrat who tells them what they want to hear.

As long as the Democrat insists – swears! – that he is not an “anti-Semite” and is hurt to the core by the very accusation. And if the Democrat can shed tears while saying it, that is a bonus.

Obama’s denials of this unsourced accusation is just damage control, an attempt to mend fences with one of his parties’ main sources of support especially now that he knows that his Bad Deal is likely to pass. Will the Jews ignore this hostile act? My guess is that Iran will not necessarily get their bomb even with the deal – other events can intervene – but Obama will get his Jews back.

The Community

“Hillel said: do not separate from the community” (Avot 2:4).

So where is the American Jewish community on the matter of the Iran nuclear deal? In truth, better than expected, notwithstanding the noisy pockets of resistance to the eminently moral and logical opposition to US acquiescence in the creation of an Iranian nuclear threshold state. The matter can be boiled down to its simplest elements: why would the US concede – even a decade hence – the creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb, provide $150B in unfrozen assets to allow Iran to increase its support of terror around the world, agree to allow unlimited acquisition of conventional weapons, essentially rely on Iran to guarantee its compliance with the present limitations and commit to defending Iran’s nuclear program from acts of sabotage – all for a nation whose leaders routinely join public parades in which they and the masses shout “Death to America?”

Furnishing your enemies with deadly weapons in the hope that such will moderate their behavior has been tried – here in Israel – and without success. Pursuant to the Oslo Accords, Israel gave guns and rifles to the PLO – which they promptly used to murder Israelis. That was a crazy idea then; to assist your enemy in building nuclear bombs is infinitely crazier.

So where are the Jews?

The other day, I gave a talk to a group of Israelis, one of whom asked about a pending “civil war” between Jews in America over the Iran deal, about which he had read. I said, with some sadness, that there cannot be a civil war among American Jewry because war requires a battlefield, and there is not sufficient interaction between the right and the left (loosely defined) or between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox to provoke even a skirmish, much less a war.

The dark secret is that there really isn’t an American Jewish “community” as such. It is too fragmented to be a community, and if one expected that a crisis would bring everyone together, well, either a pending Iranian bomb is not a “crisis” or the proposition is untrue.

It’s untrue, and the fragmentation has worsened over the last few decades, as the rate of assimilation and disconnect from a substantive Jewish identity have escalated. For too many Jews, Jewishness is an aspect of their identity, and often one that is entirely ethnic and not at all national or religious. Add to that the skyrocketing intermarriage rate and the offspring of those marriages who have but a tenuous connection to Jewish life and we have a full-fledged crisis that will not be ameliorated even by padding the statistics of the Jewish population of the United States by counting halachic non-Jews or even anyone who claims a Jewish identity.

In principle I have never objected to those who voice disagreement with the policies of the Israeli government when warranted. I have done it myself, of course, but at least my views were always reflecting the views of a sizable segment of Israeli society and usually that of a political party. But today Israelis from right to left, the government and most of the Jewish opposition, decisively oppose the Iran deal as bad for Israel, for the United States and the free world. For American Jews to stand against that type of support is not only anti-Israel but an act of alienation from the fate of the Jewish people. In it, they cast their lot with Israel’s enemies and publicly proclaim that their primary allegiance is to Barack Obama and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party.

Placed in that context, a letter of support for the Iran deal signed by more than 300 “rabbis” is more easily digestible. Their estrangement from the Jewish people and the Torah happened long ago. Almost all the “rabbis” are not Torah observant; apparently only one Orthodox Rabbi – a known leftist and maverick – signed on. Of all the “rabbis” on the list, I would shocked if even one had a weekday Mincha/Maariv in the temple. How many wear tefillin (men, of course)? How many keep Shabbat? How many study the Talmud – not extract stories and parables for sermons, but actually study the Talmud and Codes? These are professional Jewish leftists whose primary religion is leftism, not Judaism.

A letter opposing the Iran deal has already attracted almost 400 rabbis’ signatures, and will be released shortly. But what matters more than the numbers is the message: having abandoned Torah and Mitzvot, the leftist “rabbis” have also abandoned any semblance of Jewish solidarity.

That is why it is cause for hope that several major Jewish organizations of liberal affiliation have publicly expressed their opposition to Obama’s Bad Deal. The Reform movement, caught betwixt and between, officially, publicly and thoughtfully took…no position, seeing the good (?) and the bad. Sadly, they are just immobilized by their liberal ideology. The conflict of identity must be painful. Their reticence is no great surprise, as is their irrelevance to Jewish destiny. On the matter of whether or not to allow nuclear weaponry to a genocidal enemy of the Jewish people, the Reform movement, like their hero in the White House during his legislative days, voted “present.”

But the organizational opponents, as well as senators like Chuck Schumer, deserve credit even though their rejection of the Bad Deal should be obvious. It is obvious, but that doesn’t make their breaking ranks with Obama and company any easier for them. It’s easy for me. But their world views and Obama’s are so synchronized that their rebuff to Obama, who, typically, is handling it with his usual gracelessness, pettiness, and vindictiveness, speaks well of the spark of Jewishness that remains and still animates them. Even combining their rejection of the deal with fulsome praise of Obama doesn’t make it less courageous – and even if, as some have suggested, Schumer wouldn’t have opposed it if he really thought it would not pass does not detract from his willingness to defy the White House. If Schumer would now actively whip votes against it like he regularly did for other of Obama’s harmful legislation, Schumer might even achieve “statesman” status. Hope springs eternal.

Obviously, the Obama-compliant media loves to trumpet the Jews who are supportive of the Bad Deal, being insensate to the realities of American Jewish communal life and the fragile Jewish identity of most American Jews. But they are the exceptions, unsurprising exceptions at that, with very little influence in Jewish life.

As Rabbenu Yonah comments (ibid): “When the community joins to do a mitzvah, it is a crown to the Life-giver of the universe and brings glory to His entire kingdom.” This is the mitzvah of the moment. Now is the time to take sides, and to stand up for the Jewish people, America, and lovers of freedom and combat the forces of evil, tyranny and appeasement. For many Jews, their response will be their defining act of Jewish identity, perhaps in their lives. History will judge harshly those who side with murderous tyrants against the purveyors of good, and no cover will be provided by noting the “reservations” to the Bad Deal that some supporters have.

Win or lose, nothing will be over, and the struggle will continue. May it continue with a strong, united and proud Jewish community.

Versions of Conversions

There are few things that are not politicized in Israel and none more so than the interface of religion and state. Add to that society’s tendency to see every disagreement as a tempest and every tempest as a conflagration, and the news cycle loudly trumpets every innovation or deviation, extracts from them what is necessary to further the media or various interest groups’ agendas – and then moves on.

That and more explains the controversial decision this week by a group of Religious-Zionist rabbis to initiate their own conversion program, largely aimed at averting what is perceived as the crisis of status of Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to halacha – numbering at least 300,000 people and perhaps many more. The subtext is an attempt to bypass, weaken and perhaps even replace the Chief Rabbinate and all its constituents.

As there are already a small number of independent conversion courts, why then is this one – headed by Rav David Stav – so controversial? Why is the Chief Rabbinate against it? And why have many other Religious-Zionist rabbis – luminaries such as Rav Druckman, Rav Lior, Rav Levanon, Rav Baruch Efrati and others – come out vehemently in opposition to this new Bet Din?

Parenthetically, many of the main protagonists here are personally known to me, and I respect all of them. And, granted, it is never good when rabbis argue in public (or in private, for that matter). Of course, all rabbinic disputes are conducted for the sake of Heaven, except when they are not, and sometimes “for the sake of Heaven” has to be defined somewhat loosely. So what is going on?

There is a combustible mix of personalities, hashkafa, normative v. lenient interpretations of halacha, the perceived Haredization of the Rabbinate, bitterness over election defeats and genuine concern over the status of the olim from the FSU who are not construed as full Jews. Where to begin?

Proponents of the new Bet Din announced this week that they had converted a number of children, and child conversion has always been perceived as a way out of this morass. While adult conversion requires the full acceptance of mitzvot, the conversion of a minor who cannot formally accept mitzvot is done “al daat Bet Din,” upon the authority and with the approval and guidance of the Jewish court. It is as if the Bet Din stands in loco parentis and issues its guarantee that the child will be observant when he/she comes of age and has the right to renounce the conversion done on his/her behalf.

The operative principle is the Talmudic notion that we are allowed to confer a benefit on someone even if they are unaware it (as opposed to the assessment of a liability, which requires his knowledge and consent. The working assumption is that attaining the status of a Jew is a benefit – but (so holds the majority opinion) only if the child will be a practicing, observant Jew. To take a non-Jew, convert him, and serve him a ham sandwich renders him liable for actions that were permitted to him in his prior situation. That would be unfair to the convert.

Here’s the dilemma: if a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, or is adopted from two non-Jewish parents, and is then raised in a home that is not observant of mitzvot, can the Bet Din credibly say that the child will live as an observant Jew? On what grounds could such a presumption be made? In a centralized conversion system with defined rules, such a child might be converted only if the parents embrace fundamental mitzvot such as Shabbat, Kashrut, membership in an Orthodox shul and a commitment to send the child to yeshiva. That gives confidence to the Bet Din that the child will not only be Jewish but live and behave like a Jew.

It is an open question whether such is possible in a decentralized, independent system in which no demands are made on the parents and the motivation to convert lies outside the system of halacha and is rooted in nationalist concerns.

Thus, the other day on the radio, one of the proponents of the new Bet Din was underscoring its importance to Israeli society by engaging, unbeknownst to him, in a series of non sequiturs. He explained that leniency is required in all these conversions because there are too many people living in Israel who are not Jews but speak Hebrew, serve in the army, interact with society and marry Jews. “The rate of intermarriage is escalating!” All that might be true but is not really relevant. Hebrew speech, army service, and participation in Israeli society may define someone as an Israeli but it does not make them a Jew according to halacha. There are thousands of Sudanese children who speak Hebrew; that doesn’t make them Jews. Even the fear of intermarriage cannot be allayed by mass conversion of those ineligible, as the American experience teaches us. Frivolous conversions designed to forestall intermarriages just lead the parties to discount the necessity of conversion altogether. Becoming a Jew should require something more than becoming a member of AAA.

Some want to rely on a minority view that people with Jewish fathers (“zera Yisrael”) should have an easier route to conversion. There is some logic to that, especially when those individuals always saw themselves as Jews. They do not feel the sense of displacement of their prior lives that converts who are complete outsiders have. But the classical sources recognize only the full acceptance of mitzvot – accompanied by the requisite ritual acts – as the tickets of entry into the Jewish people. Zera Yisrael, as a mitigator of Kabbalat Hamitzvot, is something new, as it tends to undermine the conventional standard of Jewishness determined by the mother’s status.

The ease with which the radio speaker conflated Israeli-hood with Jewishness belied the reality that those two designations intersect but are not identical. The proof is that there are over one million Israelis who are not Jews. Moreover, the speaker’s contention that the conversions planned for adults will entail full “Kabbalat Hamitzvot” is also not credible; if it were, the authorized Bet Din of the Rabbanut could do (and does) the same. Obviously, then, the standards have to be reduced in order to accommodate the purported masses who wish to convert but cannot do so (only a few thousand apply to convert now annually in Israel) because they cannot or will not embrace the mitzvot.

This is not to belittle the problem, which was caused by the mass immigration of Soviet citizens under a Law of Return that employed Hitler’s standard of Jewishness (one Jewish grandparent) rather than that of the Torah. But the problem is not solved by creating a second tier of converts whose status will be disputed from generation to generation. And, as noted here repeatedly, the Knesset or Supreme Court can determine who is an Israeli. It has no authority to alter the requirements for conversion to Judaism any more than it can change Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday. Of course if the parents genuinely grow in their Torah commitment then the conversion of minors will be effective and resolve most of the problem within a generation or two.

But the solution to a Torah problem does not rest in abrogating Torah principles but in handling all cases individually and sensitively.

That is easier said than done. The Rabbanut has been plagued for quite some time by the presence of some petty bureaucrats who seem to delight in posing obstacles, fabricating demands and even challenging the acceptability of conversions from rabbis whose conversions were properly accepted – and for a long, long time. In truth, little of this is ever known by the Chief Rabbis, any more than the CEO of a manufacturing company will know whether or not the floor worker is tightening every screw. He won’t – but he will have to pick up the pieces when it is discovered that the screws were not tightened properly.

These indignities are too common. A venerable rabbi originally from North America just told me of his dismay in having a conversion of his rejected by a bureaucrat forty years younger than him who merely said “I don’t know who you are,” even if older rabbis there did know and accept him. That is disgraceful, but not as much as the rejection of the young woman who had converted as an infant, was raised fully observant and now told she had to re-convert in order to marry in Israel.

That type of “tormenting the convert,” a Torah prohibition, should invalidate any rabbinic bureaucrat from serving in that capacity, for he is less observant that the people on whom he is sitting in judgment. That too has to change, and competition in that sphere would be wonderful except for the chaos that it causes.

And chaos is would be. Rav Stav ran for Chief Rabbi, campaigning for the establishment of the very Bet Din that he has now established. But he lost, and post-election recriminations never look good. And changes are afoot even in the Rabbanut, but all bureaucracies grind slowly if they grind at all. The Chief Rabbi, Rav David Lau, is perceived as a typical Haredi by those who do not know him, but…and what if he were? If the Haredi world are the holdouts in preserving the purity of Torah law from the modernists who often yearn to shape the Torah according to the prevailing winds, then so be it. We need them.

The irony is that Rav Kook wrote that the galut was noted for its fragmentation of Jewish life whereas as we move closer to the Messianic era – including the re-establishment of the Jewish state – we would once again merit “rikuziyut,” centralization of religious function and national life. Centralization – the bane of modernists who seek the freedom to innovate and compromise without consequences – is actually an indicator of growing unity in the Jewish world that will render us amenable to the coming of Moshiach. Odd, indeed, that the so-called Haredim wish to preserve the Rabbanut (of course, I recognize that they use it largely for their own purposes and discount it when they wish…) while some of the followers of Rav Kook wish to dismantle it. Strange world!

Not every single problem can be resolved. Life is complicated, and the complicated is complicated for a reason. But individuals who genuinely want to be – or have been for decades – part of the Torah world should never be scorned, turned away or disparaged.

What cannot be gainsaid is the assault on rabbinic authority implicit in this new Bet Din (as well as others that have sprung up across the Jewish world because they have found “solutions” to intractable problems, those “solutions” simply being rejected past practices). As this Bet Din undermines the authority of the Rabbanut, so too some other group will reject the authority of the new Bet Din, as a fourth will then spurn the authority of the third. The result is anarchy and the complete collapse of any enduring sense of Jewish nationhood and the unity of Torah.

There is a better way, and it would be best if all parties stepped back from the precipice and found that better way through dialogue of the wise rather than the acts of the impatient.

Hot Season

Here in Israel, the temperatures have topped 100 degrees. Even hotter is the police blotter, which recorded the spasms of violence on back-to-back days last week that still dominates the news and street discussions and has prompted the customary search for Israel’s “lost” soul. Each act of violence – each despicable and contemptible in its own right – is not attributed to the perpetrators alone but to the group whence the perps allegedly emerged. There is something unsettling and unfair about that but it has become fairly standard in Israel. No “religious” person is ever just an individual; no Haredi or settler is ever a lone wolf. Lone wolves can only emerge from certain protected ethnic groups. As for the rest of us, any depraved or fiendish acts of one person are wielded as clubs with which to beat entire groups.

On Thursday, the Mitz’ad Hagaava (“Pride Parade”) in Yerushalayim was brutally invaded by a lone assailant in Haredi garb who randomly stabbed various participants and one police officer. One young girl has died. The photographic accounts reveal his crazed eyes, just as his writings reveal his lunatic ranting and unhinged hatred of the homosexuals and supporters who were marching.

His actions were pure evil and the fact that he had just been released from a decade’s incarceration for committing the exact same crime is testament to a distorted soul. (It is also a staggering police failure; the accused boasted of his intentions in writing from the moment he was freed from prison, and nothing was done to thwart him.) Frankly, it is hard to rationally explain the depth of such hatred. It’s not normal, and one reason why there has been across-the-board condemnations of his vile conduct. Who stabs people because they disagree with them or even oppose their lifestyle choices? It is insane behavior, if not clinically or legally then at least as far as normal people go about their business. Even the Haredi group that was protesting the parade – and with good reason – denounced the assailant. His actions were beyond the pale and if he never again breathes fresh air as a free person, that is fine with me. What a wasted, empty life; I can only suspect that it has been filled with torments unknown to us that has brought him to such a self-destructive and violent state. Personally, I cannot fathom such hatred for anyone who has done me no harm.

There is no Torah precept and no Jewish ethic that can rationalize such bizarre, depraved conduct. (Forget the facile analogies to Pinchas; marching in a parade is not a sin.) No person can take the law into his own hands to attack people who have done nothing untoward to him, whatever their celebrations are about. That part is easy.

This is not: must the “pride” community continue to antagonize the sensibilities of denizens of the Holy City with a parade celebrating what, after all, still remains a sin? Can’t they show a modicum of respect for others? This is not to say that they provoked the violence. No one provokes violence because no human being has the right to attack another human being who poses him no threat. They could have marched anywhere, and this evil nut would have tracked them down. But can’t Yerushalayim at least be off limits – must the very source of G-d’s moral teachings be host to their trampling?

I am not disputing the legal or even civil rights of the marchers, but their judgment. Can’t there be even a little tolerance for those who adhere to a traditional morality? If a group that advocated traditional morality wished to demonstratively parade through Greenwich Village, I would feel that too is inappropriate. Why be in someone else’s face? Why seek to bother people? The “pride” community has won such major victories in the last several years across the world. Can’t it accept its victories with grace and just seek to blend into society instead of standing out? Can’t they tolerate what others regard as sacred?

Again, this is not to say that the parade in Yerushalayim provoked this monster in Haredi garb to violence. We don’t accept this notion of provocation – if anyone doesn’t like it or them, then just have a little self-control. Stay home. Shout nasty slogans from the sidelines. But stab people? Vicious, ridiculous and criminal.

Nevertheless, Yerushalayim should be different. March in Tel Aviv. It’s more welcoming there. To make the point clearer, I am sure that on some abstract level 1000 Jews have the right to march through Gaza or Tehran carrying an Israeli flag and singing Hatikvah without fear of violence, There must be some UN Conventions that protect that right. But is it prudent to insist on every right where people will be agitated by it – not agitated to violence, G-d forbid – but just agitated? It just doesn’t seem very nice.

That aside, I grieve for the dead and pray for the complete recovery of all the wounded because what was done to them should not be done to anyone.

While reeling from this news, later that evening unknown assailants torched two houses in an Arab village in Samaria. One was empty but the other was inhabited, and one infant was murdered and three other family members were injured.

That the assailants’ identity is yet unknown has not precluded wholesale and widespread denunciations of settlers, rabbis, Orthodox Jews, etc. (Today’s rumor suggested the crime resulted from an internal Arab feud, so what follows should be read with caution.) When the suspects are presumed to be from a disfavored class and the victims from a protected class, the usual inhibitions against the application of collective guilt tend to disappear.

Assuming the worst – that it was a band of young settlers taking vengeance for whatever – it should be clear that this type of murder is illegal, abhorrent, embarrassing and unbecoming a Jew. It should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but properly so, not the usual police tactic of mass arrests and leaked accusations to see what shakes out. The situation in Judea and Samaria is difficult, to say the least, but the taking of innocent life is unacceptable. To suggest that all Arabs are enemies because some, even many, are is immoral and heinous. Committed Jews do not act this way. We protect the innocent, and harass the guilty until they are subdued.

I could leave it at that – platitudinous and obvious as it is – but the full picture would thereby not be conveyed. We should understand the context, not to justify what happened but to ensure that it never happens again.

Here’s where I depart from the piling on, especially before any facts are actually known. (At this point, if the police find that Arabs were responsible for this crime, no one will believe them anyway.) We should try, as the liberals always do, to understand the milieu which can produce young people who would allegedly kill the innocent. What is that milieu? The average 20-25 year old in Judea and Samaria has grown up in homes that are situated in the heartland of Israel but territory that the world and one-third of his countrymen consider “occupied,” even as he has been taught that it is holy land given to us by G-d and worth the ultimate sacrifice. He has seen hundreds of his friends and neighbors killed or wounded, with every trip on the highway being fraught with potential danger. He has seen the murderers and attackers of his friends and neighbors arrested, convicted, incarcerated – and then released in prisoner exchanges. As such, he has contempt for the law – law that does nothing to protect his life and his home.

He has grown up hearing his country’s media blame him for the absence of peace – not just in Israel but across the Middle East and probably the world. He has witnessed numerous terrorist attacks against his friends and neighbors that are simply not reported by the media, including some 75 attacks (shootings, stoning of cars, and the occasional

firebomb) just in the last two weeks. Few in the general society even care about it. He sees the wailing and lament over the loss of any Arab life and the complete disregard over the loss of or injury to Jewish life – and he deduces the obvious: no one really cares if he is killed or maimed. He sees that the army and government are less interested in defending him that in ensuring that he doesn’t build a home next to his parents. He has seen Jewish attacks in Arabs – rare as they are – denounced as “hate crimes,” while Arab attacks on Jews deemed political, legitimate and even justified as acts of a national liberation movement.

He has lived under left-wing governments that openly wish to expel him from his home,

and right-wing governments that promise him full support during each election campaign only to immediately revoke the promises after victory, only to repeat them during the next campaign. He has grown up thinking that the whole world and many of his countrymen are unsympathetic to him and is strengthened only by his faith that he is doing G-d’s work. He trusts no one outside a small circle of like-minded people, and with good reason. As such, he has contempt for all human authority.

All of that might be true but none of that justifies the murder of innocent life. Even if – especially when – logic and emotion might suggest a ruthless response to a provocation – that is when the committed Jew is constrained by the Halacha, a Higher authority, and must rein in his baser passions, eschew all his rationalizations and stay his hand from harming the innocent. It is evident that violence breeds violence, and growing up in a climate in which violence and the fear of violence are palpable and prevalent takes it toll. The wonder is that acts of Jewish violence against the innocent are exceedingly rare, and that is a tribute to the parents, rabbis and educators who are largely successful in rearing youth who are law-abiding, passionate and dedicated to the land and people of Israel.

It’s not just that the murder of the innocent is what our enemies do, not us (as many have said in the last few days), and not just that it is a diplomatic disaster (the world

obsesses over the death of a single Arab life at the hands of a Jew far more than it does at the death of hundreds of thousands of Arabs at the hands of other Arabs); it is simply that the murder of innocent life is a moral and legal wrong, a desecration of G-d’s name and all that we hold dear, and the antithesis of the Jewish ethical ideal.

All this is warranted: acts of self-defense against an aggressor, joining the IDF, pressuring the government, punishing the guilty, etc. But the Jew who attacks the innocent just because the enemy has attacked our innocent has, indeed, sunk to their level. The disgrace is that it happened; the consolation is that it is a fringe phenomenon with attacks seldom carried out and Halacha serving as an appropriate constraint even when passions run high. One who reads only of “settler violence” in the foreign press without any reference to the far more extensive Arab violence against the settlers is

being purposely misled by those interests that are hostile to the Jewish narrative in the land of Israel. Jewish life is also precious. The murderers who killed an infant thinking they are accomplishing something worthwhile have not only perpetrated a great evil but also have endangered Jewish life as well.

This too shall pass. May the guilty be caught and punished severely, may tolerance reside even in those who think that only they are right and their antagonists are both wrong and immoral, and may the land of Israel find true peace and brotherhood under the reign of the Almighty.


PS   Check out this radio interview I did with Voice of Israel on morality, just hours before the criminal attack in Yerushalayim. It’s the Yishai Fleischer Show, accessible at