Category Archives: Israel

The Candidates on Israel

There must be a better way to elect a President.

The interminable campaign – I think the candidates for the 2020 election are already organizing – becomes a little more serious in a few weeks when real live Americans actually start voting. It is bizarre that so many candidates have already dropped out, long before even a single ballot has been cast, but not as bizarre as the fact that there were so many candidates to begin with.

It is a good time then to look at each of the Republican candidates for president and their attitudes towards Israel. Three caveats are in order. First, I am among those who believe that the Israel factor should not be the sole determinant of a person’s voting patterns. It goes without saying that an anti-Israel candidate could never win my vote. Nonetheless, if a candidate rated 90% support (however that is measured) and another candidate measured 80% support, it is not unreasonable to examine his/her positions on other issues. This is especially so since those other issues will tend to influence their dealings with Israel.

Second, it cannot be underscored enough that, fortunately, Israel is not a major issue in this campaign, or, for that matter, in the world today. An analysis published last week of the anticipated global hot spots in 2016 did not even mention Israel. Israel would benefit inordinately from the benign neglect of American diplomacy, which would certainly be an improvement over the hostile American diplomacy of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry era and also allow Israel – if it can summon the will – to take the elementary and effective security measures needed to stem the rising tide of Arab terror.

Third, any of the Republican candidates – and I mean any – would be an improvement over the current occupants of the White House and Foggy Bottom. Like many erstwhile American allies, Israel has been treated by the Obama administration more like a nuisance and an irritant than as a friend and ally. Of course, it hasn’t been completely negative; that can never be given Israel’s strong support in Congress and with the American people. But Obama has been an annoyance to Israel since the beginning of his tenure, and that is manifest not only through the strengthening of Israel’s enemies (Iran’s nuclear bomb is at the top of that list, along with US support for the Muslim Brotherhood) but also through PM Netanyahu’s persistent fear of taking the initiative against Arab terror and changing the dynamic of the conflict, both in order to avoid provoking Obama.

None of the Republican candidates bear that animus, or at least that ill-concealed contempt for Israel and its leaders that Obama and his acolytes have had, and that Obama spent 20 years listening to his pastor’s sermons.

That being said, the Republican candidates on Israel break down into three different categories: superstars, establishment and ciphers.

There are four superstars in the Republican galaxy on the Israel question, in no particular order: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Marco Rubio. It is not just the kishke factor that excites some Jews but rather their essential worldview. They see Israel as a friend, not just an ally. They see Israel’s fight against Arab-Islamic terror as identical to America’s fight. They would not – as John Kerry does every time – rattle off the egregious Islamic terrorist acts across the world (from Bali to San Bernardino) and never mention Israel as a victim of Arab-Islamic terror.  They do not share the Obama-Kerry opinion that “Islamist terror” (strike that – Obama-Kerry never attribute Muslim terror to Muslims; call it “violent extremist man-made disasters”) in Paris, Madrid, London, New York, etc., etc., is unconscionably evil, whereas Arab terror in Israel against Jews has a rationale, is understandable, and really all Israel’s fault anyway.

That is a completely different worldview. Added to that, these superstars have no illusions about a “peace process,” have no interest in the creation of an irredentist Palestinian state that will serve as a base for radical Islam, and are rightfully content to let Israel handle its diplomacy and settle in its heartland as many Jews as it deems feasible. Strangely, they do not wish to dictate to the sovereign State of Israel where Jews should live! It is impossible to imagine that any of these four gentlemen would become more enraged by the building of a few homes in Samaria than by the detonation of a nuclear bomb in North Korea.

For years, Mike Huckabee has become a fixture at banquets of pro-Israel Jewish organizations and delivered speeches that could shame Israeli prime ministers with his unabashed support for a strong, confident Israel, the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies. Ironically, Cruz and Rubio’s foreign policy approaches differ markedly – except when it comes to Israel. All three – and Ben Carson – root their love for Israel and their appreciation of Israel’s historic rights and unparalleled struggles to the Bible. That depth of understanding and commitment is not subject to change. It is hard to imagine any of them lambasting Israel for defending itself against Arab terror, calling for restraint and “proportionate” (and thus ineffective) responses, or pressuring Israel to make more concessions to purchase ephemeral “good will” from its Arab enemies.

Then there are the establishment candidates, those who are pro-Israel, support Israel, want a strong Israel, but are also wedded to the traditional American diplomatic posture that supports the “peace process” – notwithstanding how ludicrous the phrase, much less the process, has become. They seek to balance support for Israel with alliances with Arab nations as well. That is not inherently bad, except when it leads the United States into the quagmire of double standards – castigating Israel for trifles while ignoring extreme violence, abuses and corruption in those Arab allies.

Numbered in this group are Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. They are all what we would traditionally call “pro-Israel” – make no mistake about that – but they differ with the superstars in being grounded more in realpolitik than in a heartfelt attachment to Israel based on values and policy. In truth, we have never really had a President of the first category. Even Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both motivated by good instincts, were still bound to the machinations of their diplomatic corps – some of whom served, it seems, for many years, and in both Democratic and Republican administrations. George Bush I was clearly in this “Scowcroft” mold, and further slanted by the execrations of James Baker.

The giveaway in all this is any reference to the phrases “revive the peace process” or “good will gestures.” These reveal that a candidate is beholden to Arabists at the State Department, has based his diplomatic goals on hackneyed clichés unrelated to reality, and will conduct the usual push and pull with Israel even as Israel tries to navigate through the treacherous waters of the hostile, barbaric neighborhood in which it is situated.

That notion of “reviving the peace process” leads to the third category – the ciphers. They are candidates whose positions are difficult, if not impossible to discern, and in this category we find Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul. A cipher is not bad, just risky, because it is really unknown how they would respond to any situation. Rand Paul is an admitted isolationist, and therefore long perceived as hostile to Israel. That is untrue, as he has made clear and without compromising his values. Even Rand Paul has come around to accept the importance of military aid to Israel, not only because it benefits the US economy (70% of that aid is spent in the US helping American companies) but also because he recognizes Israel’s role in furthering US interests in an unstable part of the world. He lost favor years ago because of his opposition to foreign aid (again, he has backtracked on military aid to Israel) but it is hard to quibble with his comment that it is nonsensical for the United States – broke and indebted to the tune of $19,000,000,000,000 (nineteen trillion dollars; that’s a lot of zeroes) – “borrowing money from the Chinese to give to foreign countries.” There is something quite sensible about that.

Carly Fiorina is an excellent candidate – talented, articulate, grounded, and capable. But support for Israel must be based on something more than “I’ve met Bibi.” I’ve met Bibi too, but he has also met a lot of other people too. Carly will be a cipher until she addresses these issues more explicitly.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. (If elected, will he be referred to as “The President” or “The Donald”?) As a New Yorker, he certainly has a long and positive history with Jews. Many Jews – religious Jews also – have worked and still work for him. Famously, he was once the Grand Marshal of the Salute to Israel parade. But his campaign has been based on being the “anti-politician,” not bad per se(others have been elected running on that platform, like U.S. Grant), but rendering his stance on the issues, even on other issues, unknowable. He has boasted of his “unpredictability,” that he will not reveal his positions in any depth or detail so as not to give our adversaries any advantage.

That sounds better that it actually is, and what it is – is ludicrous. No one would buy a suit of “unpredictable” size, order “unpredictable” food in a restaurant, or marry someone of “unpredictable” character. Why then would anyone vote for a president who rejoices in his unpredictability? He needs to become slightly more specific on the issues. It is not enough to answer questions about specifics – the Middle East too – by saying “they won’t know what hit them,” “their heads will spin,” or “I’m rich and successful.” Indeed, not all of his deals were successful, as the WSJ reported last week, as a number of his companies went into bankruptcy and he teetered on the brink of personal bankruptcy himself.

Does anyone know how Trump relates to the Middle East? To Israel? To the settlements? To the “peace process”? To the Iran nuclear deal (except that it is the worst ever)? If Israel annexed Judea and Samaria, how would he respond? He hinted that he is not averse to the re-division of Yerushalayim or asking Israel for “sacrifices” for peace. I would state clearly my feelings for Trump as President – he is entertaining to be sure – but I too choose to remain unpredictable.

To quote Donald Trump, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would be “disasters” on the Israel factor. Sanders is a hard-core leftist whose sympathies are not with the Jewish state. And all we need to remember about Hillary Clinton is this: as the world burned, ISIS expanded and Islamic terror metastasized across the globe, Iraq fell and North Korea further developed its nuclear program, she chose to harangue – in most personal, insulting and undiplomatic language – Israel’s Prime Minister because a minor municipal official in Yerushalayim announced that day tenders to build apartments in the northern part of Yerushalayim. That is treatment that she never afforded any rogue, any scoundrel, or any terrorist across the world, and only those who don’t wish to see it will fail to see it.

As most of her Jewish supporters care more about abortion rights than Israel’s survival, this should not trouble them. But it does give us an insight into her mindset and worldview going forward. Voter beware!

Of course, any leader can change while in office, so we can only rely on current assessments. At this point, any and all Republican candidates would be far superior, for the United States and Israel to the alternatives.


Hilltop Youth

The Hilltop Youth are the targets de jour, a small group of teenage boys and girls, who have spent the past several years illegally settling various hilltops in Judea and Samaria in order to promote Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel for both religious and political reasons. And, if one believes the media and politico’s reports, they or like-minded young people have been responsible for spontaneous and unprovoked attacks on random Arabs, wanton damage to their property, all culminating in the horrific arson-murder in the village of Duma.

That there is little to no evidence of any of this has not stopped the recriminations, the administrative detentions without charge, and the assaults on their character, if not also their bodies. I have never met even one of them, which qualifies me as much as anyone else to address their situation.

The rise of these youth, assuming for a moment that at least some of the aforementioned allegations are true, is said to reflect a failure of Religious Zionism who have produced such “unruly weeds,” as they have been called. But nothing could be further from the truth. Are any of these young people “Religious Zionists?” Are they disciples of Rav Avraham Kook or his son Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, zt”l? Are they followers of Rav Reines, zt”l? Do they believe in the integration of Torah and the modern state? Are they great Torah scholars? What makes them “Religious Zionists?”

Religious Zionism has been accused for decades by its detractors of an undue focus on Jewish settlement in the heartland of Israel to the exclusion of all other interests of the movement, especially the infusion of Torah values into all aspects of Jewish statehood. I have never found that to be true, but do concede that, but for Religious Zionists, there would be little settlement in Judea and Samaria, and those areas would have likely already been surrendered to Arabs and strengthened their terror state.

It is ironic that accusers of the Hilltop Youth have attached them to Religious Zionism because of only one indicator: they live in the settlements. It is as if the detractors have reduced Religious Zionism to that one dimension – which they in any event despise – and concluded that, ipso facto, they are now exemplars of Religious Zionism. I would urge Religious Zionists to reject the indictment and the label, and certainly to lose the guilt.

Again, assuming the truth of some of the accusations, what would possess youth raised to observe Mitzvot and to love the land of Israel, to commit crimes and oppose the State? (I must confess that the allegations of the authorities that there are groups of young people who are actively planning to overthrow the government and install a monarchy are bizarre, farfetched, unworthy of serious consideration and the type of youthful exuberance that can be found, in analogous context, on American college campuses for the last fifty years.)

Nothing justifies attacks on any innocent person or his property, but we should for a moment consider the world in which these young people were raised. If they are older teens, they grew up during the years of Oslo, with the Arab terror movement growing in strength and confidence. They have not known even a day in which they could ride their highways without fear of stones, Molotov cocktails, or bullets being sent their way. They have been raised with the sad reality that if their parents wish to add a room to the family home, they will be denounced for their efforts by the US State Department and the United Nations, and prevented by their government. If they wish to build a block away, they might provoke a war. They see Arabs building all around them, living without any fear, and they have been made to feel like heroes to many Jews, but like villains and criminals to too many Jews, including officials in the government and those malevolent NGO’s who are funded by European governments and monitor every building block and every field.

They have attended too many funerals of their peers, and heard too many pious, politician speeches praising them, promising more building and more security (always around election time) and seeing none of it. They have witnessed the Arab terrorists who have killed and maimed their families and friends arrested and incarcerated – and then released to commit more acts of terror. They have grown up in an atmosphere of lawlessness – where often he who takes the initiative is rewarded and he who hesitates is lost or dead. They have seen Israeli courts order evictions of their neighbors from land purchased from Arabs with good money, only to have their ownership reversed on the most specious grounds with the money, of course, not returned.

They have seen people on the left take the law into their own hands when it suits them (the original Oslo negotiators were in violation of Israeli law) and they have seen people on the right take the law into their own hands when it suits them. In 1995, no less a personage than Ariel Sharon called on the youth of Judea and Samaria to “take the hilltops,” settle them so that the government cannot surrender that territory to the Arabs (bitterly ironic, in light of what Sharon himself would later do). This wasn’t hidden – Sharon said this in Israel, but I heard it from his own mouth in a lecture he gave in our shul. “Take the hilltops!” And we wonder why there are “Hilltop Youth”?

They have seen their government evict Jews from Gush Katif, and they have seen their government brutally evict their neighbors from Amona and elsewhere. They have been taught how the pre-State underground was lauded and lionized, and how even the Underground from the 1980’s (granted, there is a difference) found support in Israel, even its government and judicial system, and brought a halt of several years to Arab terror. They have seen Arabs burn their fields, steal their crops, and rustle their cattle – with little or no response from their government who fear international condemnation if they arrest Arabs for these “petty crimes.”

They have literally grown up under the gun in an abnormal environment wherein death and mayhem are constant companions, where hundreds have awakened one day as small children to learn that their beloved third or fifth grade teacher was shot and killed overnight by Arab terrorists. And the tears and protestations of their government notwithstanding, the measures that could diminish or end the conflict are not taken. All they hear are words and more words, praised by some for their courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice, as some politicians prefer to kick the can down the road even as others just use their government positions to enrich themselves. And they know there is no hope in sight of anything changing – just more terror, more death, more funerals, more victims, more wounded, more maimed, and more criticism and prattle from their hapless political elders. They have seen their government impotent, for the most part, in the wake of the most recent wave of Arab terror.

Hillel’s astute aphorism is timely: “Do not judge a person until you are in his place” (Avot 2:5).

Being reared in such an unpleasant environment has to take a toll, on both sanity and respect for the law. Frankly, I am surprised that anyone can endure such persistent trauma and remain normal, and gratified beyond words that the “Hilltop Youth” are such a marginal phenomenon. That more than 99% of settler youth are devoted, law-abiding Jews, filled with love of Torah, mitzvot, the land and people of Israel, and permeated with a spirit of self-sacrifice that inspires an entire nation (whether or not that nation realizes or appreciates it) is a tribute to, yes, their parents, teachers, Rabbanim, communities and the true Religious Zionist ethos.

Given all of the above, and lest the reader think that it serves to rationalize alleged bad behavior, it is important to note why the “Hilltop Youth” are wrong if they are committing any crimes at all.

Firstly, assaulting the innocent is a sin, a violation of the Torah which we all cherish. Damaging the property of innocent people is a sin, a violation of the Torah. Anyone who takes the Torah seriously will eschew any sin – and to live in Israel and not take the Torah seriously is a weird contradiction, albeit not an uncommon one. It is easy to observe the laws of the Torah when they do not challenge us; it is much harder when they do challenge us, but that is when the greatness and faith of the Jew is revealed. That is when our free choice comes into play.

Just because the enemy delights in attacking our innocent does not justify violating the Torah and attacking their innocent. We are obligated to punish the guilty – but not the innocent. We are mandated to follow the Torah at all times.

Secondly, attacks on the innocent are immoral. Justice demands that a human being can only be judged for his crimes and his crimes alone. While I do not subscribe to the pap that 99% of the Arabs of Israel are good, decent, law-abiding people (according to an Arab poll publicized by the ZOA, 67% of “Palestinians” support stabbing and murdering Jews!), no person is a legitimate target simply because he/she belongs to an ethnic group. To treat people accordingly is criminal, reprehensible and immoral, and those crimes should be prosecuted in accordance with the law (the law; that means with witnesses and evidence presented in court).

Thirdly, random attacks on Arabs, such as they occur and if they occur, are counterproductive to the cause of Jewish settlement, the justice of our claims to the land of Israel, and even the viability of the State of Israel. The Torah teaches us that the land of Israel is so holy that it cannot tolerate the shedding of innocent blood. We have to maintain a level of morality – even in wartime, and as the Torah prescribes – in order to be worthy of the land of Israel. To attack the innocent like the Cossacks attacked us, if indeed such takes place, undermines our moral right to the land of Israel. Self-control is always needed, and people who lack self-control will often respond viscerally and violently to any provocation. That is neither moral nor wise.

There is lawlessness in the land of Israel, like there is anywhere in the world and at any time in history. The youth can occasionally act lawlessly as the authorities can occasionally act lawlessly. Those who lump together all “Hilltop Youth” as worthy of condemnation, prosecution, or, as one wag put it, “cauterization,” are also responding viscerally and recklessly. That too is wrong. Those who are more outraged by young people singing an idiotic, repugnant song than they are about Arabs stabbing Jews to death should check their values. A little perspective is in order.

Don’t condemn entire groups for the alleged acts of the few. That principle should apply to Jews as well as to Arabs.


Dark Days

At the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, Yehuda mounted a spirited defense of his youngest brother Binyamin, accused by the mercurial monarch of Egypt of stealing the royal goblet. Yehuda, certainly, assumed Binyamin’s innocence and that the stolen merchandise had been planted in Binyamin’s sack, but could not know for sure. Indeed, other brothers, in the language of the Midrash (Breisheet Raba 92:8), castigated Binyamin as “a thief the son of a thief,” for he was the youngest child of Rachel who had stolen her father’s idols. Apparently, Yehuda felt that even a potential thief, with a pedigree of crime, deserved a defense and the proper administration of justice.

These are dark days in the land of Israel, and not just because the daily spate of Arab terror against Jews – stabbings, ramming, with the occasional shootings – shows no signs of abating. The government has settled in to its typical response of defensive measures, more barriers, more speeches, and calling for vigilance and perseverance by the population, and, of course, insisting that the rule of law be maintained. Yes, the rule of law.

It is painful to write what follows, and for some they will violate the unwritten rule that support for the State of Israel, whatever it does, must be instinctive, complete and unwavering. Perhaps it is the attorney in me that feels the need to raise awareness of these matters.

The recent allegations that the Shabak has engaged in torture against Jewish suspects in order to extract from them confessions are disgraceful, humiliating, a desecration of G-d’s Name and an embarrassment to the State of Israel. It must be conceded that they are only allegations, but so are accusations of criminal conduct. Four attorneys representing the accused – but deprived access to them for several weeks – last week detailed the alleged abuse: physical torture, beatings, burning and prodding of various parts of the body (including sensitive and private areas), sleep deprivation (in one case, three days), sexual abuse and other forms of debasement. True, even these are just allegations, but allegations grounded in physical evidence and first-person reports. The one adult arrested, released after three weeks of such maltreatment, returned to his yishuv after his interrogators admitted they had no evidence against him. His rabbi reported that he returned a broken man, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and dysfunctional. The parents of a minor (most of those in custody are minors) were interviewed on Israeli television on Monday and claimed that their child – after three weeks of enduring such brutality – tried to commit suicide. He showed his parents the slash marks on his wrists, which weighs slightly more than the Shabak’s denial of the attempted suicide.

The predicate for these arrests was the arson-murder of an Arab family – parents and an infant child – in the village of Duma last summer. The crime, whoever committed it, Jew or Arab, was heinous, horrific, unthinkable and deserves to be prosecuted. The guilty should be arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated. But “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Devarim 16:20) – justice must be pursued but only through means that are also just.

The secular Israeli civil and human rights groups have been noticeably silent, along with American Jewish organizations (including some Orthodox ones) who are quick to condemn Israel for any mistreatment of Arabs. Of course, those civil and human rights organizations are less interested in civil and human rights than they are in defaming Israel on the world stage and bringing about its speedy demise. The suffering of Jews – whether at the hands of the Arab terrorists they coddle and defend or at the hands of the Shabak – is less interesting to them.

PM Netanyahu, and others in government, have denied the allegations of torture, decried the attacks on the Shabak, and asserted that the interrogations have been “lawful.”

That is not the most encouraging statement, if only because “lawful” in Israel is not identical to what is “lawful” in, say, the United States. Israel routinely, and the United States, sporadically, have used “enhanced interrogation techniques” on any number of Arab terrorist suspects over the years. But fair-minded, reasonable people should be able to distinguish between physical force used to extract information from terrorists about imminent or pending terrorist threats – and physical force used to extract confessions. The former saves lives. The latter? The latter ruins lives and debases the society that engages in those medieval practices.

As one of the Israeli attorneys put it last week, and notwithstanding the protestations of government officials, Israel has allegedly crossed the line that separates civilized countries from countries (he put it mildly) “that we would never want to be.”

Soon after the attack on the Arab family in Duma, Defense Minister Yaalon claimed that “we know who did it, we just don’t yet have the evidence.” That statement alone is jarring, as the only way the authorities could know who did it is with “evidence,” even the testimony provided by informants, either Jewish or Arab, or DNA evidence, or sightings of the criminals on the ubiquitous cameras in Israel. That, too, is evidence; whispered suspicions are not. And despite some indications that the crime might not have been committed by Jews – and it very well might have – the accusations against Jews do fit the narrative that sees right-wing settlers as homicidal, racist maniacs and Israel as an enlightened society that prosecutes its own when there is wrongdoing and is not reluctant to release convicted Arab terrorists to flaunt its “morality.”

If the first contention is false and disgraceful, the second is embarrassingly naïve if the motivation behind it is an attempt to win favorable plaudits from the “world community.” That is part of Israel’s persistent and futile effort to score world “public relations” points by mollifying Arabs and, in this case, persecuting Jews. But the only thing the “world” actually cares less about than Jews killing Arabs is Arabs killing Jews, and the effort to placate world opinion by finding Jews to scapegoat , by extracting confessions through torture, or by easing restrictions on Arab movements that have facilitated the most recent wave of terror is a fools’ errand and unworthy of a civilized society.

MK Betzalel Smotrich (Bayit Hayehudi) caused a stir last week, and was repudiated by his party leader, when he asserted that Jews in the current context cannot be “terrorists.” It’s a subtle, nuanced point that has much to commend it. Jews, r”l, can be murderers, thieves, and scoundrels but not “terrorists,” because terror transcends the immediate act and aims to engender fear – terror – among all potential victims. Thus, we must ask ourselves basic questions: are Arabs terrorized in the State of Israel? Are Arabs living in fear that their homes will be burnt or invaded and their families killed, or that their cars will be shot at on the roads? Are Arabs afraid to hire Jewish workers, lest their employees suddenly turn on them one fine day and try to murder them? Are Arabs afraid to walk the streets of Israel lest a random Jew stab them in the neck? Are Arabs afraid to stand at a bus stop or street corner lest a Jew ram them with his car?

The answer is “no,” to all of the above. Let’s get real: in the land of Israel today, only Jews are terrorized, not Arabs. The only fear Arabs have is that they will be killed trying to murder Jews, and I’m not even sure they fear that.

Those who have claimed that persecuting and then prosecuting the Duma suspects will save lives because otherwise Arab terror will be emboldened are… well, they are not really paying attention to current events. Anyone who believes that Arab terror – in Israel or anywhere in the world – can be “provoked” should not be allowed anywhere near the reins of power or influence. It is a risible notion.

Even worse, this case could be pronounced “solved” as a result of confessions allegedly extracted under torture. This is exactly what happened to Jews during the Middle Ages and thereafter, in the Inquisition and during other dark periods of our history: Jews forced to confess to crimes to which they did not commit. No confession extracted through torture should have any credibility, and every civilized judicial system deems those confessions inadmissible. No civilized society should extract confessions or otherwise fabricate evidence even to convict the guilty. It should be noted that Jewish law bars the use of any confession, period.  And the ignominy is exacerbated by the reality that the suspects allegedly tortured were primarily minors – children, teenagers.

Despite all the protestations, this episode has tarnished Israel’s image, and the brutality alleged has been so shocking that it has stunned most Jews into an embarrassed silence. That too is shameful.

If indeed Jews are responsible, r”l, then it is a low point in modern Jewish history, and highlights, among other things, the detrimental consequences of growing up in an environment in which terrorist attacks, sudden death, and grievous injury are daily realities. That is not normal, and a failure of successive governments. Of course, even if that were true, the Torah still prohibits acting upon those aggressive impulses, and nothing excuses the wanton murder of innocent people. It cannot be emphasized enough that the murder in Duma was a dastardly crime, and whoever committed it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and punished accordingly, Jew or Arab.

But prosecutions require evidence lawfully obtained, and the epitome of tainted evidence is the forced confession. The preservation of a civilized society depends on the execution of civilized laws, and on judges who will enforce those civilized laws, not judges who will whitewash the alleged criminal misbehavior of the authorities and turned a blind eye to alleged abuse of minors.

And here’s something that we all know. As sad as it is for the victims, and as frustrating as it is for the society of good and decent people, sometimes the guilty get away with their crimes. Famously, OJ Simpson beat two murder raps; certainly LAPD would have built an even stronger case had he “confessed.” Sometimes murderers are not caught. It happens more often than people think. Sometimes those who are guilty as sin are acquitted by juries. Nazis by and large got away with the unspeakable atrocities they committed against the Jewish people. And, sometimes murderers are caught and then – is it really possible? – released in a prisoner exchange to taunt the families of their victims and plot new terrorist acts.

It is immensely frustrating, but that is when the “rule of law” as a concept and value – not as a hackneyed cliché – must be actualized. To state that “we know who did it but we have no evidence,” so we will then go about and fabricate evidence, is the stock-in-trade of third world dictatorships and totalitarian societies. To beat confessions out of people (allegedly) is vigilante justice, not real justice.

Fortunately, there is a G-d, and that G-d finds ways to punish those who commit crimes without witnesses or evidence. So we are taught. That principle applies to alleged criminals as much as to those who allegedly torture people they suspect are criminals.

May G-d have mercy that no innocent people have to suffer because of the dishonorable conduct of the few. I hope the allegations against the incarcerated are untrue and the allegations against the Shabak are untrue. And may we merit living in an era in which the security forces of Israel fight their real enemies, that those enemies are finally subdued, and that all Jews return to service of G-d, love of Torah, fulfillment of mitzvot, and love of Am Yisrael.

The “-Ism” Prism

Chanuka is the festival of lights, so it is both natural and paradoxical that the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles must ideally take place in the darkness. The lights of Chanuka come to dispel the darkness. But consider the association of Chanuka with darkness; so much of Chanuka revolves around darkness. The Midrash expounds the second verse in the Torah as referring to the four exiles that Jews will endure in our history, the third being the Greek-Syrian exile that ended with the triumph of Chanuka. “And ‘darkness’ – that is the Greek exile that darkened the eyes of Israel with its harsh decrees” (Breisheet Raba 2:4).  And the very form of the mitzvah of Chanuka emphasizes the darkness. When do we light? The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 21b) states “from the time the sun sets until pedestrian traffic ceases in the market,” further defined “until the Tarmodeans, wood sellers, are no longer walking in public.”

And where do light? Again, from the Talmud, “the mitzvah of the Chanuka candles is to place them out the entrance of one’s home, outside,” where it is dark, facing the public domain. The common custom of lighting inside is a compromise born of misfortune – “in times of danger it suffices to light inside on one’s table.”

Why then is Chanuka a commandment that is celebrated in the dark?

Five times in the last six weeks – and I wasn’t looking for it – I have come across similar statements made by five different individuals, I assume without coordination, all in the nature of: “if Orthodoxy and feminism are incompatible,” or “if Orthodoxy and egalitarianism are incompatible,” then I want nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Or, as one put it, “until I became a feminist, I had no idea that the Torah was so anti-woman.” Or, if the halacha is not changed, and the Mesorah is not flexible enough to accommodate my desires, then I am out. At a certain point I realized – again – how history and especially Jewish history repeats itself, and how time and again Jews lose their way and willfully self-destruct.

We have had many “–isms” threaten our faith over the centuries, beginning with Hellenism in the Chanuka story that swept away most Jews from observance of Torah. There have been other “–isms” even more recently – Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Objectivism, Feminism, Egalitarianism, etc. All have several things in common. They each presented singular overarching theories that to believers will solve all problems that they wish to see solved. And they all have been designated by their Jewish adherents as the “ikkar,” the essence, with the Torah relegated to something “tafel,” secondary. The “–isms” were so intellectually and psychologically dominant that they became (or become) the standard by which Torah is to be judged. And here is the basic rule of Jewish history: whenever the “–isms” became the lodestar, the touchstone, the benchmark by which all else – including the Torah – is measured, Jews were lost to Torah, by the thousands and tens of thousands. It is as if the believers concluded: If the Torah, a mitzvah, a minhag, a Jewish value, or a Jewish idea does not accord with one of the “-isms,” then they must be rejected, for G-d surely did not intend that, if there even is a G-d.

Even worse, the “-isms” became objects of worship, veneration and adoration, even more than the Torah. I once encountered a young person who had rejected the mitzvot and become an objectivist, a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand who was Jewish herself but non-practicing. Nothing I said could persuade him; some of her ideas made sense, and some were preposterous, but this young person was unmoved, even when I asked if my interlocutor realized that a choice between the Torah of the living G-d and…. Ayn Rand is really no choice at all!  There is nothing to compare! No matter. Rand it was. Whatever becomes the measure of all things – and is not Torah – is a ticket on the slow train to one’s spiritual doom.

And of course, none of the “–isms” are completely negative, otherwise they would not attract thinking Jews. In fact, the opposite is true. Each “-ism” had or has many fine features. Our Sages (Masechet Megila 9b) spoke glowingly of Hellenism: “’Let G-d expand the boundaries of Yefet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem’- may the beauty of Yefet reside in the tents of Shem,” son of Noach and ancestor of Abraham. There is beauty, harmony, and even nobility in Greek culture, properly indulged and characterized. It can find its place even in the tents of Shem. For a time, our Sages even permitted the Torah to be written in Greek and read in public – the only language afforded such a privilege.

Is there not the kernel of a good idea in Socialism – the democratic control over the means of production? It might not be my cup of tea, but it sounds fair. Only a Jew could have thought of Communism – an end to private ownership, the epitome of the egalitarian society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Sounds great in theory! Ayn Rand – self-help, self-sufficiency, individual rights, capitalism – wonderful. But it’s not Torah, so it’s flawed. All these doctrines were flawed in theory and practice, but it is not as if there is nothing attractive in them.

And the “-isms” also have in common that each ideology snatched pious Jews away from their faith – beginning with Hellenism (as history records: most Jews became Hellenists – that’s why the Maccabees were a minority in their own land among their own people) to all the modern movements. Socialism, Zionism, and Communism made inroads in every yeshiva in Europe. There were frum Jews – ordained rabbis from the finest yeshivot in Europe – who became staunch Communists and by the time they realized what Communism had in store for Jews, it was too late. There were distinguished, pious Jews who became revolutionaries – for socialism, Communism, against the Czar and others – and relinquished the Torah life as well. All these ideologies, in vastly different ways, were immensely seductive. The temptation to change the world, join the avant garde, and be part of mass international movements was extremely appealing.

Zionism is different in that the core of Zionism always was a Torah concept – the Return to Zion as promised by the Torah and our prophets. But there were many people who threw away Torah for secular Zionism – saying, in effect, “the mitzvot are only necessary for the exile!” – itself an incorrect paraphrase of a point made by the Ramban (Devarim 11:8). Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Eshkol and too many others all attended Yeshiva in their youth, and gave it up religious observance. They didn’t have to abandon the Torah life; Religious Zionism has demonstrated how one can be an observant Jew and a Zionist. But abandon Torah they did in order to create the “new Jew” who became remarkably like the old Jew who abandoned Torah for other “-isms.” Likewise, there are people who still grievously distort the Torah for anti-Zionism, which is also just another “–ism.”

I fear that the same thing is happening with feminism and egalitarianism. They are also just “-isms,” and each of them also contain some good – equality, fairness, sensitivity, an end to abuse, increased opportunities, etc. But each of them also contains ideas and practices that contradict the Torah as well, and therein lies the danger. The fundamental departure from Torah that characterizes these two “-isms” is the assertion that males and females are the same and therefore men and women are “equal.” Men and women are no more equal than an apple and a tomato can be said to be equal. They have some things in common, some things in which they are distinguished, and different roles (even different brachot). To build an ideology on that proposition is essentially to repeal parts of the Torah, nature and common sense.

Whenever something is designated as a counterforce to Torah, is deemed to be an idea or value that supersedes or transcends Torah, or is perceived as the barometer by which the Torah is to be measured – then you know you are on the wrong track. Whenever any “–ism” comes forward and says, “worship me, the Torah must obey me,” and induces one into thinking that if the Torah cannot be harmonized with the “-ism” then the Torah is flawed, know that you are on the wrong track. Then the person has to have the inner strength and fortitude to say “I may be a Hellenist, Socialist, Zionist, Feminist, Egalitarian, etc. but ‘ahd cahn.’ Only up to here. I can go no further without abandoning what is most precious to me, the Torah and its mitzvot.”

Shlomo, in his wisdom, summarized our obligations: “fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man in his entirety” (Kohelet 12:13).  Any ideology that takes us away from Mitzvot –  intentionally or unintentionally, permanently or temporarily – is flawed, invalid, and unworthy of a Jew. Those who believe in G-d and His Torah must internalize that our lives will not be measured based on how good Hellenists we were, or Socialists, or Communists, or Feminists or followers of Ayn Rand – but how good and faithful Jews we are. We delude ourselves at our peril into thinking we can have it all and embrace it all and harmonize it all. We can’t. The “-isms” of history swept away countless numbers of Jews; the modern ones still do.

The purpose of Chanuka is to illuminate the darkness outside, not to bring the darkness of the outside into our homes. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe  said the Mitzva of Ner Chanuka was so formulated – light candles in the place of darkness at the time of darkness – “so that we should bring our light into a darkened world,”  until the Tarmodeans – i.e., the mordim, the rebels and revolutionaries, can no longer stand in the public domain.

In times of danger, when the outside world beckons with its temptations and heresies, entices us to look at the world through the prism of an “-ism” and not through the Torah and our Mesorah, and tries to cajole us into making additions, subtractions and amendments to the Torah, then we have to ensure that our homes, our places of holiness, remain pure, and the jug of oil in our hearts is unsullied by alien ideas. We may not be able then to enlighten the world but we can keep our homes and families spiritually safe and secure.

Only then we will again be imbued with G-d’s spirit and worthy of having His presence dwell among us. Only then can we anticipate His protective hand that will shield us from the turmoil and struggles ahead, as He did to our forefathers (and foremothers) in those days in this season.



The Seam

Generally, there are two types of pass defense coverage used in football (read on; this is not about sports). The more common one was man-to-man coverage in which each defender is assigned to a particular offensive player. Over the years, defenses have often shifted into zone coverage, in which defenders are assigned to a specific territory on the field (of course, unknown in advance to the offensive team). In the latter circumstance, the task of the quarterback is to beat the zone by exploiting the “seam” – those areas on the fringes of the coverage, usually between two defenders.

Muslim terrorists have become masters at exploiting the “seam” in the culture, legal system and values of the Western world, and certainly in the United States and Israel. They know how to exploit the immigration system in order to gain entry to their target countries, and they know how to manipulate the social system to receive government benefits as they settle in and plan their attacks. This has become an especially acute problem in Europe. They know exactly how to take advantage of the constitutional protections that are guaranteed to honest and decent citizens to enhance their lives, and they utilize those protections in order to preserve their interests, conceal their plans and execute their terror. This has become an increasingly grave problem in the United States.

They know when to claim the First Amendment privileges of the free exercise of religion to inhibit surveillance of their mosques that preach radical Islam and call for jihad against the infidel, when to assert the freedom of speech to defend their calls for the imposition of Sharia law and the dissemination of the most extreme interpretations of the Koran, and they know when to complain about intrusions on the freedom of association. They know, quite well, how to conceal their communications, and how the American value of individual privacy – taken to an extreme – facilitates their capacity to commit acts of terror. They know how to exploit the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, and how the Fifth Amendment affords them the right against self-incrimination.

Those who are citizens enjoy an abundance of rights that make early detection of their nefarious schemes very difficult and make pre-emption and effective prosecution almost impossible – even as the sophistication and dedication of law enforcement makes their eventual capture almost a certainty. Israel struggles with this as well; the tools at their disposal to deal with Arabs who are Israeli citizens are much more limited than the tools they can deploy against Arabs who are not citizens.

And here’s the largest “seam” – the opening in the defense coverage that is the easiest to abuse: the recognition that most Americans, and especially the elitist establishment, would rather protect the core values, rights and privileges for all – including terrorists – even if it comes at the expense of innocent Americans, murdered by radical Islamic terrorists. It is easier – and somehow more comforting, I suppose – to mourn, grieve, light candles, pray for the souls of the victims and an end to evil than it is to amend the Constitution, certainly, but even to restrict somewhat the rights of non-citizens. Maintaining those values provides a reassuring sense that the world as we know it can endure, even if that becomes less and less likely. When Obama says that we can fight the war on terror while maintaining our values – and when that sentiment is echoed by his usual liberal acolytes including Jewish groups – he is partly correct but misses the larger point: some things have to change because the constitutional protections afforded our enemies have given them the upper hand. Only the blindest followers of Obama believe that San Bernardino will be the last of the attacks on innocent Americans.

So, too, Israeli leaders often mouth the same platitudes, even if they have fewer restrictions on government conduct, but rather than take the strong action that can change the dynamic and successfully prosecute to victory a war on Arab terror, it is content to indulge 2-4 terrorist attacks per

day on its civilian population. That is not to say the government wants it to happen; it is just that the costs of waging such a campaign currently exceed the benefits of waging it.

All of which leads to the Donald Trump phenomenon, even if we can concede that the attacks on him and his plans (and I have my own) serve the political establishment’s need to divert attention from its failure to stem the growth of radical Islamic terror and just change the subject to something it finds, together with the media, much more pleasing: screaming at someone and creating a different bogeyman instead of the obvious one. It is easier to have a public enemy to revile and hate than it is to have to deal with a public enemy that lurks in the shadows and could be your next door neighbor.

Hence the predictable objections to Trump’s plan – if you can call it that – to bar all Muslim non-citizens from the US until the political class “can figure out what’s going on.” True to form, Trump’s plan is brazen, bombastic, lacking in any detail and completely unfeasible. Would he ban IDF Bedouin soldiers from visiting America, for example?  How would customs officials ascertain who is a Muslim – ask each person?? (Would they tell the truth?) Does the United States wish to ban visits by Filipino Muslim tourists? Obviously, he doesn’t really mean all Muslims, but there is a segment in the society of the simple that persists in interpreting generalizations as if they were categorical and universal principles. If you haven’t yet noticed, Trump can be a little, say, imprecise, when he talks.

On the other hand, Trump’s plan is unassailable when the M&M Test that someone recently suggested is applied: If you have 100 M&M’s in a bowl, and two (or ten) are poison, would you eat M&M’s from that bowl? I assume most people would not take the risk. In other words, however this matter is approached, and notwithstanding all the sanctimony, phony piety and promises of stringent vetting, isn’t it likely that some – 1%, 10% or some other percentage of new arrivals on these shores –  will be radical Muslims dispatched by ISIS to murder innocent people? Of course, especially since that is ISIS’s stated intention. We should at least be willing to concede that even if some Americans would prefer to enact Draconian measures to preclude that eventuality, most do not, and there will be a price paid for that in the real world, not the fantasy world in which blame for the future terror will be ascribed to gun control, climate change, Republicans or something else.

The Trump card has an Israeli parallel as well – the popular slogan “Ain Aravim, Ain pigu’im” (No Arabs, No Terror) – an equation that is true per se but also unworkable and unsustainable. For every person in Israel who would want such a program implemented, there are probably 10-15 who do not, and that is also a conscious choice made by the citizenry.

To propose policies that sound great but have no realistic chance of implementation (“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” or “health care for all that will bring down costs and improve quality”) is sheer demagoguery and many politicians do it. The response to Trump has also been demagogic, and primarily an effort not to encase the responders in the sugary goo of faux morality but to deflect attention from their own failures. To date, the response to the most recent act of radical Islamic terror has been Congressional legislation, enacted on a bi-partisan basis to great fanfare, to tighten a visa waiver program that would have done absolutely nothing to prevent the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Add to that the claim by several talking heads that a ban on immigration for a certain religion is unconstitutional. Such a claim – “the Constitution bans religious tests!” – is laughable on its face. The Constitution, in Article VI, paragraph 3, states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” i.e., there can be no religious test mandated to qualify to held federal elective office. What does that have to do with immigration? Nothing! But don’t spoil the fun for the demagogues on the left. Certainly, at least, restrictions on immigration from certain countries would seem to be common sense.

Demagogues know well how to exploit people’s fears, insecurities and general ignorance. In the United States in recent times, it has been critical to winning elections. Trump’s popularity such as it is (bear in mind that 70% of the Republican electorate does not want him as nominee, according to the ubiquitous polls) owes to his status as the anti-politician, the one whose every word is not poll-tested or focus-grouped in advanced. He sounds real, like a human being with emotions if not always the clearest thoughts. Many modern politicians (Hillary Clinton is at the top of that list) come across as plastic, artificial, scripted and, frankly, utterly boring. Personally, I don’t think that Trump has a chance at becoming the Republican nominee, much less the next president, but I never thought Obama could win one, much less two, elections. All the shibboleths of American politics have been refuted – if the economy is this, if terror is that, if you can’t win Ohio, etc. All these mean nothing because the electorate is so volatile, and relatively few people actually vote.

What I do know is the “seam” of freedom that Muslim terrorists exploit will exacerbate the decline of Western society unless it is reversed. One American value – the reluctance to single out a group or religion by name – has led to the Obama and liberal media tap dance that shuns the use of accurate labels in favor of euphemisms and dissembling. That includes the height of absurdity: calling radical Somali Muslim terrorists living in Minnesota “Minnesotans,” as in “Three Minnesotans Arrested for Terror Plot.” Hey – the problem is not Minnesota, the land of the nice, but people who have come from abroad to take advantage of Minnesota Nice to wreak havoc on America.

Justice Robert Jackson, famed Nuremberg prosecutor, once wrote that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” In times of war and danger, there have always been provisions that have been suspended temporarily with the recognition that society would revert to the norms once the dangers passed. The backlash against Trump would seem to indicate that America wishes to gamble the security of its citizenry in order to retain the unity of the Constitution, while the backlash against the backlash means that not everyone is as keen on that compromise as the elites feel the rest of the nation should be.

In the meantime, Trump’s unrealistic suggestions are a diversion from the sad reality that the US has already been infiltrated by radical Muslims, America’s borders remain porous and accessible to all intruders, the seam is still exploited by Muslims who are quick to claim victimhood whenever Muslims attack the innocent and the government hasn’t a coherent plan or even a clue how to avert the next incident, except reliance on luck or Providence.

Good luck with that, G-d bless, and Happy Chanukah.

The Jayvee Team

By now, it should be obvious that the real Junior Varsity team is not ISIS but instead occupies prime real estate in the White House. It is Obama and company who have been outsmarted, outmaneuvered and (willingly) been rendered irrelevant by Islamic terrorists across the globe when they otherwise haven’t been aiding and abetting Islamic terror, as in Iran. It has been more than a century since the United States has been perceived as so feckless and useless on the world stage, its leaders specializing in increasingly vacuous speeches that portray an alternate reality to the murder and mayhem that is sweeping the planet.

Nothing more typifies that alternate reality than memories of the Nobel Peace Prize bizarrely awarded Obama in 2009 for reasons yet unknown and in retrospect are quite risible. Can one recollect a winner of the Peace Prize who then presided over so much war, destruction, loss of innocent life, proliferation of evil and triumph of evildoers? Perhaps the Peace Price awarded in 1973 to Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho for the Paris Peace Accords, for their role in “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” At least then something had been negotiated – and at least Le Duc Tho had the integrity to refuse the award, perhaps anticipating that 18 months thereafter, South Vietnam would be defeated and would cease to exist.

The Jayvee team in the White House has made the world a much more dangerous place, with radical  Islamic terror spreading and with a complete inability and unwillingness on Obama’s part to even name the enemy, much less confront it (and this does not refer to climate change). Perhaps he would be wise to take to heart this news report that depicts the future of Belgium, Europe and is soon coming to a theater near us.

Frankly, there is an abundance of amateurish leadership around the globe, and Israel is no exception. Make no mistake: the Jewish victims of Arab terror in Israel are clear and bloody signs of Netanyahu’s failed leadership. Every day – every day – there are stabbings and shootings, dead and wounded, and every day there are powerful, evocative, emotional and heartfelt speeches about what will be done, speeches that invoke the strength and resilience of the Israeli people and their steadfastness in the face of the terror onslaught.

But speeches which praise the Israeli people’s vigilance and call on them to protect themselves against the guns and knives of the Arab enemy underscore the abject failure of this Israeli government in the primary function of government: to protect their citizens from harm. Everyone knows there are measures that can be taken that keep hostile Arabs away from their favorite crime scenes, and everyone knows that there are measures that can be employed to deter these wanton attacks on Jews. Everyone knows what they are and most – except for the loony left – would recognize and support these wartime measures as prudent and necessary.

Pre-emption is insufficient when the attacks require nothing more than a child with a knife or an adult with a gun or a car. That the effective deterrence is not undertaken leads to the inevitable conclusion that – as happens too often – too many official Jews are comfortable being in the position of victims than they are doing the difficult and sometimes nasty work of defeating the enemy. Israel suffers, like the rest of the world, in not having real, transformative leadership – individuals who wish to change a bad dynamic by being proactive and prescient. PM Netanyahu – who, we are told, naturally deserves support at this critical time, to rally around the flag, etc. – has benefited from that pattern. He is a classic run-out-the-clock politician, keeping the seat warm while ensuring that no one else – whom

he considers worse than and therefore unfit to lead – takes the position from him.

He might be right about that (he also might be wrong) but one cannot recall a single measure that he has utilized that has dramatically changed anything in Israel’s favor since he has been prime minister for almost seven years. Everything is defensive, everything is always on hold (including building in Judea and Samaria), everything is designed to ensure the survivability of his coalition just a little longer. Everything is designed to just kick the can down the road a little further. There is no long range plan, just the short-term attrition of Jewish life – more dead, more wounded, more terrorized, more empty streets and stores and the eager expectation of the next eloquent speech.

We have grown accustomed to the pervasive Western reluctance, and perhaps fear, of naming the enemy we are facing. Obama and his acolytes are masters at this obfuscation, labeling the enemy “violent extremism,” which might be a tactic of the enemy but is assuredly not the enemy itself. (Proof? I tried to research this “enemy” on Wikipedia, source of all modern knowledge. Strangely, it has no entry for “violent extremism.” So how is one supposed to fight an enemy that hasn’t even been identified on Wikipedia??)

Just like Obama is nebulous and euphemistic when it comes to identifying the enemy of civilization, PM Netanyahu also falls back on euphemisms and clichés. By every reasonable account, by his statements and his actions, Mahmoud Abbas is an enemy of Israel and a fomenter of terror against Jews. But Israel’s prime minister will never use that language, as it serves his purposes to prop up that preposterous evildoer.  That may serve Netanyahu’s purposes, but it doesn’t serve Israel’s purposes.

Henry David Thoreau said very insightfully (quote found at, a wonderful website) that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The world today is hacking at the branches of evil – focusing on capturing this terrorist or thwarting that act of terrorism – but studiously ignoring the root that continues to grow and spread and dominate.

The fear of giving evil its name did reach its farcical limits Monday night before the NFL football game. Robert Kraft, Patriots owner and proud supporter of Israel, was asked and agreed to have a moment of silence before the game in memory of young Ezra Schwartz Hy”d, the American yeshiva student gunned down in cold blood by an Arab terrorist last week at the Gush Etzion junction. And the moment of silence took place on national television.

It left me – forgive the Patriot pun – somewhat deflated. There was no mention that Ezra was Jewish, that he was murdered in Israel, or that he was murdered by Muslim-Arab terrorists. None of that. He was killed, like too many others, by terrorists, while “studying abroad,” the announcer said. The average American viewer must have thought he was murdered in Paris, or Mali, or some other place on the globe where last week Muslims killed innocent people.

Does it matter? Of course it matters. Netanyahu’s effort to link terror against Israelis to terror against Frenchmen and others has failed. The world doesn’t buy it, Obama/Kerry don’t buy it – not because it isn’t true but because they have convinced themselves, and Israel has failed to refute it well enough, that terror against Israel is justified – because of whatever – occupation, settlements, Temple Mount, Israel’s existence, etc. Terror in Paris, Mali, London, Madrid, New York and anywhere else is the unnamed evil against the purely innocent. In Israel, they would claim, both sides are wrong and engender not the murder of innocents but a “cycle of violence.”

It would have sent a powerful statement to announce the moment of silence “in memory of Ezra Schwartz who was murdered by Arab terrorists al Kiddush Hashem, Ha’am, v’ha’aretz,” but that would never happen. But why could it not be mentioned that he was murdered in Israel? This is where  trepidation mixed with political correctness renders good people incapable of confronting Islamic terror.

I can almost hear the discussions in Patriot land, from the lawyers and the PR people: “You can’t mention Muslims or Arabs for obvious reasons. You can’t mention that the victim was Jewish – too parochial. You can’t mention that the murder happened in Israel, because Gush Etzion is in disputed territory and the world doesn’t recognize it as Israel. You can’t say it happened in Palestine because…well, there is no such thing as Palestine and that would anyway tick off most Jews. So we will just say he died in a terrorist attack ‘abroad.’ ‘Abroad’ covers it. The Jews will be happy because they will read into it what they wish, and few else will know what the announcer is talking about, except that we are all against terror especially if we keep the source of terror conveniently amorphous.”

I assume that Kraft’s heart was in the right place and his intentions were noble, and suppose that even mentioning the word “terrorism” was the great breakthrough; nor should Kraft himself be criticized at all for the bland execution.  This is the world we live in, with even accurate sentiments diluted and sifted to eliminate the slightest offense to even the most evil of human beings.  This is the world that is the legacy of the Jayvee team in the White House that flies around the globe dispensing empty rhetoric, promoting a retreat from leadership, an acquiescence to terror, hollow displays of force and exhibiting sheer petulance when challenged. Perhaps in the rhetoric vs. action department, Obama and Netanyahu despise each other so much because they are so similar. Good people deserve better.

Meanwhile, the good people await today’s body count, and tomorrow’s, r”l.

The Interview

RSP – It has been almost a year since the release of my latest book, “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” Recently, Dr. Alan Brill interviewed me about two of my books and general thoughts on Torah and life as they emerge from my writings. The interview in large part is reprinted below, and can also be accessed here.

Alan Brill: Recently, I interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn about his new book. In that book, the only rabbi mentioned by Einhorn as his personal friend was Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. That, in turn, lead to this interview giving the world further insight into the Right Wing side of Modern Orthodoxy.

When asked about his Orthodox affiliation, Rabbi Pruzansky replied:

Labels are hard for me. The two primary rabbinic influences in my life – Rabbi  Chait and Rabbi Wein– defy easy labeling. I choose to fly solo, taking the best from a variety of different movements and when necessary distancing myself from those movements on certain issues. I’m happy to be RWMO, but that doesn’t fully categorize me either. I’m a voice in the RCA but not that influential… Most of the organizational and rabbinical politics accomplish nothing and, frankly, bore me…  I prefer to see myself as a “country preacher.”

Pruzansky’s down home preaching has made him both a role model for some and a problematic lighting rod of controversy to others. One of my former students, who currently serves as rabbi in a major Modern Orthodox pulpit, has a congregant who forever urges him to be more like Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, urging him to use Pruzansky as a role model. On the other hand, some consider Rabbi Pruzansky as a Jewish Jeremiah Wright (G-d forbid!- RSP) tainting all those who applaud his sermons.

My interview with Pruzansky, however, is not on his politics, his controversies, his view of President Obama, or his views of Open Orthodoxy. Rather, I turned to his books in order to understand his basic religious message.  He is the most articulate of the local Orthodox rabbis, and he has written three books:   A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Yehoshua (2006),Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) and his latest, Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014).

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility (2014) is a clearly written and direct work reflecting his sermons and preaching. The message is that we have to make proper decisions in our careers, marriages, child rearing, and financial dealings.  We have to take responsibility of our lives with its necessary challenges of career, marriage, and child rearing.  The book is a musar book emphasizing self-sufficiency, right choices, and a (very) strong Protestant work ethic. Even quotes from popular works like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers belie a concern for the formula for success.

The work is a model of the implicit Centrist Orthodox critique of the Haredi life. One should plan for a career, not get married until one support a family, don’t let rabbis make your decisions, no learning while supported by others, and not to expect miracles in life or politics.

The country preacher’s thoughts on the book of Genesis show the importance of free enterprise, the necessity of the small state rejecting the state giving free handouts which make us into slaves, the importance of being anti-union, the fundamental importance of being pro-private property, and the necessity of gun ownership. The book is solid musar for Republican values – with some nativism and tea party ideas included.  The book surprised me in how much it was built on yeshivish musar works and not YU related works. But unlike those musar works, here we have a proud use of personal responsibility  for one’s worldly life.

Arguments on the topic of personal responsibility have been hot one in recent years. For example, there have been numerous shows on FoxNews by Bill O’Reiley among others on the topic of personal responsibility (herehere andhere),; Nicholas Kristof penned a response, Now, there is a recently released study by the political scientists Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash,Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility (2015), which argues that the idea of personal responsibility is the fundamental divide in the US today between liberal and conservative and the notion of personal responsibility can be used to sort out the current divisions surrounding race, gender and religion.

The book is gold mine for an anthropological study of upper middle class Centrist Orthodoxy. If we want to compare Pruzansky’s message to an opposite work, I would recommend the works of Rabbi Avraham Twerski’s musar. Twerski also deals with the contemporary anxiety of making money and the struggles of family life, but Twerski does not stress responsibility, rather he stresses the importance of turning to God, seeking comfort in prayer, coping with stress, maintaining one’s self esteem by being part of community, and assuring his readers that God will extend his mercy to the unemployed like he helped the Jews in Egypt. A message like Twerski’s creates a very different religious anthropology than that created by Pruzansky’s message.

Pruzansky’s book can also be compared to the 16th century Polish Rabbinic homilies- by the Kli Yakar, Levush, Maharashal Maharal and others– on wealth, family, and responsibility as discussed in the still untranslated work by Haim H. Ben-Sasson, Hagut ve-Hanhagah (Jerusalem, 1959). Unlike the poverty of Rabbinic Jews in the 19th and early 20 th century, the upper middle class concern with making wealth of the 16th century  Polish city Jews deserves comparison to our own age.

The other volume discussed in this interview  Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Shoftim (2009) uses the book of Judges to understand contemporary Israel politics. Modern Israeli politicians are compared to the flawed ancient Judges, ethics are learned from the prophet driven battles, and the need to utterly destroy one’s enemy is learned from the battle against the Canaanites.  The volume makes use of many of the recent Israeli Religious Zionist commentaries produced in Hardal yeshivot on the book of Judges that seek to draw modern political messages from the early prophetic books.

I thank Rabbi Pruzansky. Read the interview, learn about this country preacher, one of the leaders of Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy.

The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.

1) What is your message of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, it means the assumption of personal decision-making about one’s life choices. Major issues in life must be decided by the individual and cannot be outsourced to others. Only in that way can the individual’s unique personality be expressed and realized. Add to that the importance of accepting responsibility for failures or mistakes, which builds character and deepens integrity, and provides a platform for learning from one’s experiences.

2) What is the need for self-sufficiency?

Ultimate decisions on choices of spouse, career, place of residence, etc. must be made by the individual (even after he or she consults and receives guidance from others); otherwise, the person is living someone else’s life.

No person, however, is ever completely self-sufficient. We rely on family, friends and community to provide us with the framework and infrastructure in which we can grow, live and thrive. But we should strive for self-sufficiency in terms of decision-making.

For some, the advantage to having another person make critical life decisions for a questioner is that it frees the questioner from having to take any responsibility for his decisions. For others, that might relieve them of the insecurity engendered by those very decisions. For most, I would think, it deprives them of the capacity to develop and enrich their personalities and to live as free people.

I note in Parshat Lech Lecha: “Individuality is not only a blessing but a fulfillment of God’s will in creation. We are allowed – even encouraged – to pursue our individual talents and destinies, all within a Torah framework. We may become Jewish doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, inventors, scientists, businessmen, entrepreneurs and thinkers. To live in a box stifles creativity, and the attempt to produce cookie-cutter children grows stale…”

3) What is the esteem gained by being part of the Jewish people?

To be a member of the Jewish people is a privilege and a gift. In essence, it is to be entrusted with carrying G-d’s moral message to the rest of the world. One naturally should feel pride in the assignment, but that pride should not feed one’s ego. Rather it should be used as motivation to fulfill the mission that G-d granted us. Indeed, it should induce humility – the humility of the servant executing his tasks on behalf of the king and knowing that the sense of nobility he feels is not innate in him but a reflection of his role as servant.

4) Should people go to rabbis to make decisions for them?

A person should always consult others before making a major decision about which he is conflicted, just to hear other ideas and perspectives. But for a person to allow another person to make a major decision for him is abdicating one’s own humanity and living someone else’s life. That is essentially slavery (avdut), and the antithesis of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) and right of free choice we were given. Rabbis can have greater insight at times, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that rabbis necessarily have divine inspiration and an unerring perspective on world affairs.

Rav S. R. Hirsch spoke of the tzelem elokim as man’s capacity to be a free-willed being. A failure to exercise that capacity is essentially dehumanizing. Of course, it has to be exercised with care. Man not only possesses a nefesh hasichli – spiritual and intellectual inclinations – but a nefesh habehami – animalistic tendencies – as well. One must be careful to use his gift of the image of G-d (tzelem elokim) to promote the former and harness the latter.

5) You define the goodness in matriarch Sarah’s life as successful. How is the Torah’s goal success? 
   Faithfulness to Torah certainly does not guarantee wealth, but why would we define “success” by the size of one’s bank account? Sadly, too many people are afflicted with that mentality. Chazal spoke of the virtues acquired through poverty, although they didn’t of course recommend it. The poor and the rich are both in challenging situations, and that is the basic test of man: to be able to serve G-d under all circumstances, and we are all therefore placed in different circumstances. But faithfulness to Torah produces success as we should define it – being a proper servant of G-d, at peace with G-d and man, blessed with family, and an absence of any sense of deprivation. etc.

6) When is it OK to blame the victim – such as Dinah- for not showing personal responsibility?
   We don’t blame the victim enough in our society. Usually the victim plays some role in his victimization – usually but of course not always. It is the concept in torts of contributory negligence, which is perfectly logical but rejected by most people when it comes to their personal lives. Distinctions are necessary – of course, im ain deah, havdala minayin? (without knowledge, how can we make distinctions?) – and not all cases are identical. Even in torts, contributory negligence is adjudicated by percentages, 1% to 99%, and everything in between.

That being said, no person has the right to harm, molest, assault or otherwise take advantage of any person, even if the victim is responsible for his bad choices. The onus of guilt remains on the perpetrator. Thus, contributory negligence is a matter of civil, not criminal, law. A criminal cannot excuse his crime by saying the victim should have known better than to walk in a dangerous neighborhood. Chazal were clear that Dina went out looking for trouble and found it – but that is a moral lapse. It did not give anyone the right to attack her.

7) How does revelation on Sinai connect to the value of responsibility?

If man was created as a free-willed being capable of being held accountable for his actions, part of Creation has to entail the revelation by G-d of His will and morality to mankind.

That is how the Jewish people enter world history, never to leave it. We were liberated from Egypt in order to be free-willed beings who can receive His Torah, serve G-d and transmit His morality to others. The Torah is misplaced if it is given to human beings who are not responsible for their actions. We have to use our minds to understand G-d’s will as best we can and control our bodies – rein in our impulses – to serve him as well.

8) Why and how do people need limits on their lives?

It’s this week’s sedra – כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֪ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו. (“Man’s inclinations are towards evil – i.e., instinctual gratification – from his earliest youth.”) Man’s animalistic tendencies will emerge unless they are constrained and redirected elsewhere. Man left unchecked – by Torah, law, conscience, society, etc. – will naturally try to consume, abuse and torment others. Man left unchecked lives a pure animalistic – animal soul nefesh habehami existence, seeking only to gratify his physical needs as best and as frequently as he can. That is why we were given the Torah and the nations limited by the Noahide laws.

9) What do you say to someone poor and born into a cycle of poverty with lack of models for responsibility? 
Personal responsibility includes responsibility for others, especially the needy or downtrodden. Far better than the handout is the personal involvement in their lives – mentoring, guiding and, when necessary, easing them through and out of financial hardship. But we do not believe that circumstances define a person. Hillel “obligated the poor” (mechayev aniyim) to achieve and lift himself up as he did, (Yoma 35b). If it is done by one, it means it can be done by all.

Nonetheless, growing up in hardship – whether the inner city or the Pale of Settlement – makes it more difficult, and that’s where character and values are indispensable. What ails society today is not the dearth of money but the dearth of values. So many people have money and still have corrupt values.

10) The approach in the book has little on mizvot, ritual or Torah, almost everything on marriage, finances, child-rearing, career, and stress of life. What does this say about the community and its issues? What does it say about your approach to the rabbinate?

Nothing! We are defined as a people of mitzvot but that was not my intention in writing. There are many books that deal with the technicalities of Jewish observance. But one can be a Shomer Mitzvot – and be corrupt, even have idolatrous leanings, and not at all feel a connection with G-d. Those are greater focal points for me, because I assume observance of Mitzvot.

11)  If this is the Torah perspective, then why have there been so many rabbinic scandals- both financial and sexual- in the last few years?

It seems like a lot, but in actual numbers it is not that many in real terms. More than 3% of Americans are either in prison or on parole. What percentage of rabbis are miscreants? Far less. Of course that is small comfort when even one is too many. That being said, the Torah is perfect, not the Jews and certainly not the rabbis. A depraved person who learns Torah is lambasted by Chazal, because he will eventually use the Torah for his depraved purposes. Sadly, none of this is new.

12) Where do books you seem to have used like  Thomas Sowell and Frederich Hayek on economics, Frank Chodorov on libertarianism,  and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers fit into a Torah perspective?
In a general sense I am a big believer in “believe there is wisdom among the gentiles” “chochma bagoyim taamin.” If non-Jews have a particular insight into the world, or they frame a Torah concept in an especially enlightening way, then I am delighted to learn from them and use it. But “don’t accept that there is Torah among the gentiles” “Torah bagoyim al taamin” – they do not have a divine system through which they can sustain and transmit those ideas.

13) Is it just coincidence that the perspective in your book in favor of the small state, anti-union, pro-private property, pro free enterprise, and the importance of gun ownership is very similar to certain Republican platforms. If one is already a Republican with these positions, then why do I need Torah?

What’s the cart and what’s the horse? The Torah always has to be the foundation of all our ideas and values. To the extent that Torah ideas coincide in certain aspects to the Republican Party, I am gratified – for them. Good for them, but it doesn’t really affect us. In any event, the ideas and values in the Torah are of divine origin; the Republican Party platform? How shall we say it? Less so.

The puzzle then is why so many Jews are practicing Democrats – and the answer is that overwhelmingly they are not practicing Jews.    But when the Republican Party deviates or would deviate from the Torah, I would not hesitate at all backing away or repudiating that part of the platform. Bear in mind that politics in America is inherently secular but that Republicans are much more likely to be churchgoers and religious than are Democrats. That itself certainly plays a role in explaining the symmetrical aspects of the conservative philosophy and the norms of Torah.

14) Should shuls have gun clubs? What role does the gun club play in your shul?

The gun club is not officially part of Congregation Bnai Yeshuran  but most of its members are somewhat affiliated with the shul. We did offer (off premises) firearms training years ago for those interested many years ago. We also hosted karate for many years, which I consider quite similar. Self-defense is important for all Jews, a basic Torah requirement. We need not be squeamish about the right to defend ourselves. I do not believe we have any hunters in shul!

Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim

  1.       What is your concept of a national leader based on your book?

The ideal leader is a righteous autocrat who is wise, honest, humble and devoted to the welfare of his people. It is no coincidence that this models the philosopher-king; it should. The problem is that the theory is great but it is hard to find such people in reality, at least not in a sustained way. The failure of Jewish leadership in ancient times – and the accounts of the few exceptions – is the story of Jewish history.

  1.       How is the leader to bring national solidarity?

National solidarity, for Jews, comes from a shared sense of commitment to G-d’s service and therefore our national destiny. We all have the same mission but we were all given different roles in that mission. The task of the leader is to actualize the fulfillment of the national mission by facilitating the performance of the individual roles.

  1.       Why do we need pragmatic thinking in politics and to accept less than ideal judge who make  mistakes?

    I don’t think we have to “accept” poor leadership but the reality is that we have to endure it and overcome it. There is mediocrity in every field, so leadership is no exception. Personally, I think we are too hard on leaders who make mistakes. As long as they accept responsibility and have learned from them, they probably have an advantage over leaders who think they are infallible. In American politics today, there are no second acts. But Israel – and many other countries – has a habit of recycling leaders who have been rejected before. In fact, almost every prime minister in the last three decades has been booted out of office at least once and then restored – if not to the top job then to other top positions.

The world is divided into righteous and wicked, but most people are entrenched in that third category, the intermediates (beinonim). They will usually know what is right but lack the will to see it through.

  1.  What is the concept of the degradation of community?
    Often during the period of the Judges, when just part of the nation was attacked the tribes that were unaffected felt no need to join in the battle because they lost a sense of nationhood.. Too often, the Judges went to battle with just a small number of tribes, and even then participants had to be solicited. This happened to Gideon, Yiftach, and Shimshon’s case – when he had to fight alone – stands out even more. The sense of community – of nationhood – was lost, and as we saw, only a king governing from a new national center – Yerushalayim – could restore that unity.
  2.  In your opinion, why should Jews (or Israel) ignore the Geneva Conventions and other human rights conventions?

I am not saying Israel should categorically ignore the Conventions, which have a value even if they have changed over time. It does purport to regulate the conduct of war between nations, and does it successfully except when it does it spectacularly poorly (such as when a nation chooses to breach it and suffers no consequences – Syria, 2013). Nor did it help Jews during the Holocaust.  But if one side in a conflict vitiates the Conventions, then it is foolish to abide by them and give the enemy the advantage. E.g., an enemy that hides behind civilians, that attacks civilians, that does not fight in military uniform, etc. – in that context, the Conventions should not apply. Indeed, most of the world would not similarly restrict themselves, and so Israel should not be subject to that double standard.

  1.       Your position seems very different than those Roshei Yeshiva who teach that human dignity and human rights are never removed from a person. Do you have any thoughts on why you see things differently?

Not at all. I believe very strongly in human dignity and human rights because all human beings are created b’tzelem elokim. But I believe as well, and would be surprised if the other Centrist rabbanim did not, that human beings can so tarnish their image of G-d (tzelem elokim) that it is gone. That happens when a person becomes an animal, completely under the sway of the animal soul (nefesh habehami). Nazi murderers were in that category, like prehistoric man who did not possess an image of G-d.

I can’t believe that other Orthodox leaders would perceive them as human beings like the rest of us, just sinners. Those who wantonly stab innocent people because of their lust for Jewish blood are in the same category. Their image of G-d is so corroded that it is gone. That is why society executes those people.

Indeed, the executed prisoner is called the cursed of G-d. G-d had a certain plan for human beings when He created us and gave us an  Image of G-d. These murderers forfeited that and leaving them hanging from a tree is an “embarrassment” to G-d whose plan went awry. So hang them and take them down right away.

  1.  How and why do we use the prophets  of Navi for guidance?

If we can’t learn from it, then there would have been no point in recording it for posterity.  I make this point in the introduction to the book on Yehoshua: “The Jewish people had many prophets…so why are only the words of 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses recorded? Only the prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down, and that which was not needed for future generations was not written down (Megilah 14a).”

In Rabbi Wein’s approbation (haskama) to that book he wrote that it is “an excellent piece of work and scholarship. The danger in it and the criticism that you will undoubtedly receive is in your attempt to fit event and insights from Sefer Yehoshua to the present-day Israeli scene. Many of the leading rabbis of our time have warned against attempting such comparisons.” Wein continued his words: “However, this is not a unanimous opinion for otherwise what is the purpose of studying Tanach…”

Those are the two sides. My efforts were along those lines: to extract from Yehoshua and Shoftim – the books that describe the initial conquest and settlement of the land of Israel – all the lessons that we can apply to the modern conquest and settlement of the land of Israel. The similarities are eerie. And if we can’t gain this wisdom from the Navi, “what is the purpose of studying Tanach?”Actually, we do not learn halacha from Navi but only from Chazal, but this is a different quest.