The Cuban Initiative

President Obama’s overture to Cuba – reversing a staple of American diplomacy of more than fifty years – fits the pattern of his conduct of foreign policy since he took office. He has routinely courted enemies and alienated friends. The latter approach – think Israel, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. – is peculiar both in statecraft and in life. The former approach at least, in theory, has the merit of fulfilling a dictum of our Sages: “Who is powerful? He who turns his enemy into a friend” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Ch. 23).

That is in theory. In practice, it is laudable only if the enemy actually becomes a friend, as opposed to remaining an enemy exploiting the weaknesses of the moving party to strengthen itself, enrich its rulers and further enslave its people. Judging by the early statements from the Cuban dictators, only a dewy-eyed optimist or a person of the political left who is ideologically comfortable with Marxism would anticipate any success here. Obama’s rationale – “if something hasn’t worked for fifty years, it is time to try something different” – begs the question: what exactly hasn’t worked? If the goal is to isolate Cuba to force political liberalization, then Cuba has been isolated, is impoverished, and is not self-sufficient. Every inducement to change is in place, if the dictators so desired. But political liberalization has always been a pipedream, as dictators rarely need to be responsive to the needs of the citizenry, and especially not when the regime’s opponents are regularly jailed for long periods of time for even mild protests.

The Cuban government has certainly expressed an interest in American dollars and investment, but it is farfetched to conclude that any of that bounty will filter down to the average citizen. In any event, rogues find it relatively easy to wait out a sanctions regime, and in recent years have dangled spurious concessions in front of Obama’s diplomats to successfully induce their dismantlement (Iran, Russia). There is no reason why this should be different and every reason why it should be exactly the same – same game, same tactics, same outcome.

That being said, what exactly is the value of a boycott? It seems to have worked only with the apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia but those were unique situations – minority governments suppressing the majority population. (Few seem to care that, at least in Zimbabwe, blacks are persecuted more today living under the Mugabe regime than under the white government.) Otherwise, boycotts are usually not successful, and not only because they create an underground market for needed goods and services. I have seen Cuban cigars for sale in Canada, Denmark, Russia and Israel. Most of the world’s countries do not seem to be bothered by the excesses of the Cuban regime. Even the United States exhibits selective outrage against Communist dictatorships, doing business with Russia and China for decades while shunning Cuba. Certainly the human rights records of those two countries inspired Cuba for much of the last half-century, and America’s relaxation of sanctions against Iran has enabled big business to restart relationships with that human rights-abusing, Holocaust-denying and nuclear bomb-building government.

So, why was Cuba singled out?

A number of possibilities exist. Cuba under Batista was an American ally and a magnet for investment (especially mob investment). The loss of that capital surely grated. Cuba is also a scant 90 miles from Florida, and the presence of a Communist outpost so close to US soil was always a cause for concern. Of course, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 gave the US a black eye and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange, both of which surely underscored Cuba’s negative image in the American eye. And the Cuban émigré community is a potent political force, especially in Florida, and consists of people who suffered enormously to other US nemeses in that part of the world,under Castro. Many have relatives who are still stuck in that island prison. Those reasons are surely valid but do not explain the shunning of Cuba as compared to other US nemeses in that part of the world, such as Venezuela in the last 20 years.

There is another possibility: American foreign policy has always been a bit schizophrenic, in part because of the unresolved clash between the realists and the moralists. There has always been a moralistic streak in US diplomacy, which represents the highest aspirations of the American character. This country – until recently – always tended to embrace fellow democracies and other nations that shared core American values. Those countries were showered with support and embraced with friendship. But, by the same token, the realists recognized that no country has permanent allies or friends but only permanent interests, and the promotion of those interests has frequently demanded the maintenance of relations with some unsavory governments.

This type of diplomacy required “holding one’s nose” while doing business, and encompassed dictators across the globe, from Latin America to the Pacific to Africa. It was best exemplified by a statement attributed to FDR and referring to Nicaragua’s Somoza (the first): “Somoza may be an SOB but he’s our SOB.” Needless to say, that quote – and sentiment – has been applied to many other dictators who have been allied with America.

Such an approach is not completely unreasonable. The person or nation that wishes to associate only with the completely righteous will find itself lonely and isolated. It is unrealistic to expect the complete isolation of every scoundrel. On the other hand, that association will inevitably drain the good character out of even the most resistant entity. (Targum Yonatan, explaining the injunction in the Decalogue against murder, admonishes Jews “not to be friends or partners with murderers.” There is a moral price that is paid for those relationships; often, evil itself becomes less horrific and the innocent suffer even more.)

Furthermore, there is an argument to be made for non-interference by outsiders in another country’s domestic affairs (if only the world would leave Israel alone and not become apoplectic every time a porch is built in Jerusalem!), but that too can be taken to an extreme. That attitude would justify the world’s disregard of the Holocaust in its time, Stalin’s and Mao’s genocide in their own countries, and of course even lesser abuses of any country’s citizens. That would be unconscionable.

How then does the US retain relations with some evildoers and simultaneously maintain its self-image as defender of liberty, freedom and other moral norms? Perhaps – and this is pure speculation – by singling out some countries – like Cuba – for “special” harsh treatment as an affirmation of American values. Is it fair? Not really. But such is far better than turning into an amoral entity like Europe that for decades sought to sell out Israel for Arab oil and is presently just selling Israel out, period. Even paying lip service to core values has lasting significance.

It is a stretch to say that Obama’s planned recognition of Cuba is designed to “open up” Cuba so that the average citizen is lifted out of poverty, or that the air of liberty will suddenly waft through that Communist jail and transform the society, or even that a post-Castro Cuba will find its way back into the free world. Cuba is not destitute because of the US boycott; there is nothing marketed here that Cubans cannot import from the rest of the world – Latin America, Asia and Europe. Cuba is destitute because its rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the citizenry, and jail anyone with an untoward thought. Ceasing the boycott while keeping the same corrupt system of government will help the elites and not the people.

Many remember the Cuban boat people who risked their lives fleeing to US shores on rickety boats. The test of this relationship will be whether or not those who wish to leave are allowed to leave, those incarcerated for their opposition to Castro will be released, and those American dollars invested in Cuba better the material lives of those who stay.

Why then is Obama doing this? Because he can. He is a man much more comfortable with the rhetoric and ideology of the Third World, and sees the American boycott of Cuba as a relic of America’s imperialist past. Indeed, the moral preening of US diplomacy has, in recent years, only been exercised against Israel. One example suffices: a recent study reported that 96% of those killed in US bombing raids in Syria have been civilians, but Israel was forced to stand down from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza because roughly 30% of those killed were civilians. And, yet, Israel was accused by the State Department of “not doing enough” to avoid civilian casualties. Go figure.

Obama has sought to re-orient American foreign policy and the outreach to Cuba is part of that. The good news – if there is any good news – is that this reorientation is unlikely to be continued by Obama’s successor because it is empowering many objectionable agents. The bad news is that, by then, the power of Iran and the militarism of Russia, among others, will be very difficult to reverse.

NOTE: My new book “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” can be ordered at a discount from Amazon.com and at a slightly greater discount at  Sales@gefenpublishing.com, or purchased at fine Jewish bookstores. Enjoy!

– RSP

Jerusalem on Trial

How often does a United States Supreme Court decision affect you personally? The decisions of the Supremes certainly touch our lives, but usually without the immediacy of one case now awaiting decision.

Here in Israel, we have been blessed with the birth of a grandson, and his arrival brings not only great joy but also the confusion that has engendered the case of Zivitofsky v. Kerry. Our grandson was born in Jerusalem, and, under current US consular practice, his place of birth will be recorded on his American passport as “Jerusalem,” and not as is done elsewhere in the world, with the country name rather than the city name. Indeed, if he had been born in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, his place of birth would be recorded as “Israel.” Not so in Jerusalem, capital of Israel for, oh, going on 3000 years and the focal point of the impending holiday of Chanuka.

This discrepancy exists because, as is well known, official US policy does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, notwithstanding repeated promises and Congressional legislation to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. What is less known, and outrageous, is that official US policy does not even recognize Jerusalem as a city in Israel. That is a remarkable incongruity. Jerusalem is considered to be a disputed city whose ultimate fate is yet to be negotiated, and those born there, apparently, are stateless.

A number of years ago, the Zivitofsky family (Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky, the father, is a tremendous resource to the Jewish people in the realms of halachaminhag, science and now law) sued to have their Jerusalem-born son’s place of birth on his US passport be recorded as “Israel.” Their appeal was first denied by the Consulate, and a sympathetic Congress then passed a law mandating that any American child who is born in Jerusalem shall have his passport state that he was born in Israel. (That happened in 2002; the child in question is already Bar Mitzvah age, so long has the matter been meandering through the legal and political system.)  The bill was signed into law by President Bush, who nonetheless attached a signing statement arguing that this Congressional act was an unconstitutional violation of the president’s right to conduct foreign policy. The State Department, on those grounds, refused to implement the law. The Zivitofsky’s sued in US federal court, and the denial of their right to sue was upheld until the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered that the matter be decided on the merits.

When it was finally heard, their claim was systematically rejected on the grounds that this was a political/diplomatic question, and therefore solely the purview of the President. The appeal of that ruling is now pending before the Supremes.

How will the case be decided? The lamentable rule of thumb has usually been that “the Jews lose.” Most cases in memory of parochial Jewish interest have been decided against what could be called “the Jewish side.” It certainly does not help that the three Jewish justices who currently sit on the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan) were notably hostile to the appellant’s case. When one adds to that number the clear opposition to the law of Justice Sotomayor, it means that the Zivitofsky’s have to run the table – gain the support of all five other justices – in order to prevail.

It is certainly possible, although, as is frequently the case, Justice Kennedy might again prove to be the swing vote. Three other justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Alito) appeared to be favorably disposed to the law and appellant’s arguments (with Justice Thomas reticent as always). How is this for irony? If the Zivotovsky’s prevail, it will be because five Catholic jurists outvoted three Jews and upheld the Jewish connection to Jerusalem!

At first glance, the case appears to be unwinnable. The recognition of foreign governments and their territories is a presidential prerogative. The president is the official who is primarily responsible for the conduct of foreign policy, with Congress playing a subordinate role. Here, too, the government argued that registering the birth of an American citizen in Jerusalem as “Israel” would negate one of the norms of US foreign policy since 1948: that the status of Jerusalem is to be determined through negotiations between the parties and not unilaterally by either side. Recording in a passport that, in effect, Jerusalem is Israel (even so-called West Jerusalem), would undermine that, and presumably ignite the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

What are the counter-arguments? (The oral argument before the Court can be read and even heard in full; it makes for fascinating reading and listening.) Issues were raised by some of the justices in support of the law that even appellant’s attorney did not mention in oral argument. For example, the passport would simply record “Israel” (not Jerusalem, Israel), same as for a child born in Tel Aviv. There is nothing on the face of the passport that makes any kind of political statement; a reader would not even know that the child was born in Jerusalem.

Justice Kennedy suggested attaching a disclaimer to the passport to avert the political problem – to the effect that nothing recorded on the passport should be perceived as tantamount to recognition by the United States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such is done with Taiwan, which is not recognized as a country by the US but whose US citizens born there are listed as having been born in Taiwan, not, if appropriate, Taipei the capital.

Appellant argued in the alternative – that the information on an individual’s passport is a personal choice and therefore does not at all imply any formal diplomatic recognition, and that even if it does imply recognition, Congress has the right to override the president’s view, as was done more than a century ago when the Congress recognized Cuba over President McKinley’s opposition. (He later came around.)

Justice Scalia, logical as always, questioned whether recording a geographical fact in an official document amounted to formal diplomatic recognition, and asserted that Congress had the right to pass a law even if it angered the Palestinians or anyone else.

Indeed, Justice Alito underscored the farcical nature of this diplomatic dance by asking, rhetorically, does the United States recognize a birth certificate issued by Israel for those born in Jerusalem? Of course. Does the United States maintain that Israel is not sovereign in Jerusalem, such that Israel would have no right to prosecute a crime committed by an American in Jerusalem? Of course not. Additionally, diplomats and presidents who wish to visit with Israeli leaders and speak before its Parliament all go to Israel’s capital.

It emerges then that obviously some – in fact, many – attributes of sovereignty are exercised by Israel in Jerusalem and accepted by the United States – despite the State Department’s refusal to recognize the births of Americans there as occurring in Israel. As such, it falls under the purview of a congressional statute that should be enforced, regardless of the diplomatic consequences.

Appellant further claimed, slightly less persuasively, that individuals have the right to self-identify on their passports. The point was to negate the argument that recording “Israel” was the equivalent of recognition, but it leaves open the possibility of “Palestine” someday appearing on American passports as well.

Clearly, if the Court wished to do so, there are ample legal grounds to uphold the statute. There are also compelling logical grounds: for how long will the United States tap dance around the reality that Jerusalem is a city in Israel, much less its capital? Even farce should have its limits. We are no longer in1948. We are 47 years past the reunification of Jerusalem as one city under the sovereignty of Israel. If Barack Obama or John Kerry faced a Final Jeopardy question with their fortunes at stake that asked for the capital of Israel, they would both know what to answer. So,  why not stop the charade already?

In a week or so, hundreds of Jewish bigwigs will descend on the White House for the annual Chanukah party. Rather than making small talk with the President, half of the VIPs should ask him to free the ailing Jonathan Pollard and the other half should ask him to recognize Jerusalem as a city in the State of Israel. That would be an effective and intelligent use of their face time, perhaps accomplish some good, and vitiate the need for the Court to decide.

It would also justify the party itself, for Chanuka without Jerusalem is lame – just as Israel without Jerusalem is missing its soul. Let us hope that the people who attend and the Jewish organizations they represent can save one soul and redeem one holy city.

The Rebbe

I am a mitnaged (non-Chasid) of good stock and longstanding. My father was born in Pruzhana (hence my name), famous as one of the four “Karpas” towns where Chasidut never took root and Chasidim never settled. (The others were Kossova, Rassein and Slutzk.) I come by my hitnagdut honestly. It is in the genes.

Therefore I am well-positioned to write that few books have impressed me this year as much as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “The Rebbe,” a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. It is an unusual biography in that it does not follow a chronological narrative but is rather a topical discussion of the issues with which the Rebbe dealt during his remarkable life into which biographical data are woven. More than six decades since the Rebbe’s assumption of the mantle of leadership of Chabad, we take for granted its successes, its pervasiveness, even its ubiquity in Jewish life. We should not take it for granted – because none of it had to be. Chabad was a small movement in 1950, having barely survived the devastation of the Holocaust. Today, its scope is breathtaking, and there are not many Jews who have not encountered a representative of Chabad, somewhere.

Few rabbis are leaders of standing; the Rebbe was such a leader, and the success of Chabad is attributable to him.

There are certain facets of the Rebbe’s life that were truly remarkable. His intellect – in a wide variety of spheres, including the sciences; his stamina – he would regularly meet people through the night until the time for Shacharit (he seemed to need exceedingly little sleep); his sensitivity – in one vignette, a Chasid revealed that the Rebbe covered his face while davening in his semi-private alcove so that people should not stare at him, but uncovered his face when he was visited by a disfigured former Israeli soldier so that the latter should not feel that the Rebbe was trying to avoid looking at him; his openness – he treated men and women, Jews and non-Jews, young and old with the same respect and courtesy; his prodigious memory (an eyewitness told me that the Rebbe immediately picked up a conversation with him, a relative unknown, without batting an eye and after an interval of…ten years); and, of course, his knowledge of Torah that left a legacy of the equivalent of hundreds of books filled with Torah insights of extraordinary depth, substance and complexity.

As an outsider, I was less aware of the closeness of the Rebbe to his predecessor, the Previous Rebbe, his father-in-law, including weekly visits to his grave that could last hours, something that provided him with inspiration but is quite detached from the life of a Mitnaged. Certainly the succession controversy – which lasted more than a year when the Previous Rebbe died – was unknown to me and caused deep unrest within the Rebbe’s family. The choice – between two sons-in-law – shaped the relationship of the two sisters (the Previous Rebbe’s daughters) for the rest of their lives. And even if the Rebbe’s brother-in-law reconciled himself to his new status – he received a major appointment in the Chabad hierarchy – his wife was less impressed. After the controversy over the removal from the Chabad library of some of the Previous Rebbe’s books by the Rebbe’s nephew (a federal judge ruled that the legacy had to be returned and was rightfully the property of Chabad as an organization and not any person or family), the sisters apparently never spoke again.

What shines through every page is the Rebbe’s selflessness – the complete dedication of his life and all his energy to bringing Torah and Mitzvot to every Jew. The dollars he gave out were not to be kept but to be given by the recipient to the charity of his choice. (One NYPD officer, accompanying a local politician to the Rebbe, received a dollar, and dropped it off immediately in the collection box at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-town Manhattan!) He saw the waning of Jewish observance well before it became a “crisis,” and began campaigns that are, by now, routine and familiar parts of the international Jewish landscape: the tefillin campaign (“are you Jewish?”), Shabbat candle lighting for every Jewish mother and daughter (including the Friday ad in the NY Times announcing the proper time), the public Menorah lighting (an issue that the US Supreme Court eventually ruled on, and in Chabad’s favor), the study of the Rambam’s works, and of course, the establishment of Chabad houses in 49 states across the USA – only South Dakota lacks a permanent Chabad presence that can service its 350 Jews – and more than 100 countries across the world.

Some of these are of dubious halachic import – but the objective was and is to establish points of connection between a Jew and his/her heritage, wherever we are in the world and whatever level of observance we have at the time. The goal is to remind every Jew that every mitzvah done by whomever, wherever, is a legitimate service of G-d, elevates our lives and benefits the individual and the society in which he/she lives. No persona or organization has touched more Jewish lives in the last century.

For sure, the Rebbe was a man of great complexity. There are stories with conflicting resolutions and even contradictory messages. For example, to some people with problems he gave advice but told them they had to decide for themselves; to others, he offered no advice at all. Still others – especially Lubavitcher Chasidim – were ordered to do one thing or another. This meant that the Rebbe approached each person as an individual, as unique. One size did not fit all.

The classic cases of direction involved assignment on shlichut – the staffing of the Chabad houses across the world. That was done by the Rebbe, and the shlichim – husband and wife – were expected to follow the Rebbe’s directives “like a soldier following the orders of the general.” He did not seem to take “no” for an answer when he dispatched a representative, nor even when that representative felt he was failing. Indeed, it is astonishing how few Chabad houses have “failed,” i.e., gone out of business, closed up shop, and very often in environments that are inhospitable to traditional Jews. Additionally, the Rebbe would frequently be consulted about shidduchim among his adherents, with a mental data base of people that reached the thousands.

Perhaps above all he instilled a love of all Jews in his followers, the first prerequisite for a Chabad shaliach. Whereas a traditional community has to strive to maintain halachic standards (Shabbat observance, the intermarriage taboo, etc.), Chabad has the luxury of being able to welcome all Jews, even occasionally non-Jews, into their sanctuaries. As a rule, Chabad does not do conversions, but they certainly have succeeded in “family reunifications,” encouraging Torah study and mitzvah observance until the non-Jewish spouse is ready for a proper conversion. I have personally witnessed and been part of that experience.

Of course, any leader is subject to criticism, and the Rebbe had numerous detractors outside his world. Not all criticisms found their way into this book – and just as well. Other Chasidic groups routinely attacked Lubavitch, sometimes physically; many Jews resented Chabad’s efforts at kiruv – then, in the 1950’s, unknown and perhaps even unwanted in Jewish life. Relations in Crown Heights between the Jewish and non-Jewish residents were not always tranquil. These matters are given relatively short shrift in the book, perhaps because the unsuccessful often carp at the successful – and Chabad has been an enormous, even unimaginable, success.

The Rebbe realized before most that women had a powerful, indispensable contribution to make to Jewish public life. He was not uncomfortable around women, something that is occasionally found in other Chasidic courts and in the Lithuanian world as well. He also stood out for his staunch opposition to territorial concessions by Israel and routinely shared his unvarnished opinions with Israeli political leaders. He was enormously active in the liberation of Soviet Jewry but behind the scenes rather than through public demonstrations, having been personally burned by the evil of  Communism in his own life.

One controversial area not skirted is the Moshiach question, which certainly has colored public perceptions of Chabad in the last quarter century. Here, Rabbi Telushkin takes the unequivocal position that, of course, the Rebbe, being deceased, was not Moshiach, cannot be Moshiach, and during his lifetime did not fulfill most of the prerequisites for the Moshiach as outlined in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Of course, not being Moshiach is hardly a criticism; it is the fate of everyone who is not Moshiach! But there is something quite noble about a rabbi’s followers thinking he might be Moshiach. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98b) states that disciples in different academies felt that Moshiach’s name was – no coincidence – the name of the head of their academy! In this regard, Chabad is no different, except since the Rebbe’s passing, when such talk should have stopped. (If Moshiach can come from the dead, then why not King Shlomo, Rebbi Akiva, Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, etc.?) But the deep personal attachment that many Chabadniks have to the Rebbe makes that conclusion somewhat understandable, if misguided and even heretical. One hopes that it will fade over time; it doesn’t help that Chabad had no succession plan in mind when the Rebbe died. Despite that – and this is a tribute to the Rebbe’s greatness – Chabad has grown since his death and not contracted, as some Chabad detractors predicted. The spark that he lit continues to ignite Jewish souls everywhere.

Did the Rebbe ever claim to be Moshiach? To answer this question, the author cites a number of clear and public examples in which the Rebbe denied it vehemently, even urging his followers – once, angrily – to desist from such speculation. But such talk only grew after the Rebbe’s stroke – two years before his death – left him unable to speak or move. Some of his most fervent followers interpreted his silence as tacit acceptance of their claims, when in fact it was just the silence of physical infirmity. To a mitnaged, one price of Chasidut is the suspension of one’s critical faculties in deference to the Rebbe’s (any Rebbe’s) will or wishes, a price that most of us who live in the other world will not pay.

The Rebbe’s slow demise was sad, and one winces when reading about the frustration that this most energetic, vibrant and charismatic of men must have felt when illness was thrust upon him, stilling his voice forever, with disagreement among the physicians as to how much he was able to understand. (The other great frustration – mentioned in the book several times but apparently rarely by the Rebbe in public – was the Rebbe and his wife’s childlessness.) Charisma also comes with a price: the Rebbe refused to be hospitalized after a serious heart attack in the 1970’s, so his followers were hesitant to hospitalize him after the stroke. That delay of 4-5 hours, some of his doctors said, worsened his condition and exacerbated the extent of his debilities.

Nonetheless, reading the book is calisthenics for the soul. It enables us – through the life of one dominant Jewish figure, one of the few real Jewish leaders of the last century – to realize how much one individual can accomplish, how much goodness can be promoted, how much love of Israel and humanity are possible. It is all possible if one looks beyond the self, and tries to serve G-d by serving His creatures and immersing ourselves in His Torah.

It is impossible to read of “The Rebbe,” and – even we retain our hitnagdut – not to be inspired by such a person and such a life. If we can’t all be Chabad, then at least there should be a little Chabad in all of us.

Great News!

My new book, “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” finally arrives on these shores next week.

Tzadka Mimeni, in the format of essays on each Torah portion, extracts from the Torah itself applications of the Jewish ethic of personal responsibility in areas as diverse as dating, marriage, parenting, family life, employment, divine service, military service, acts of kindness, repentance, ownership of private property, wealth, Torah study, mitzvot, modesty, justice, gratitude, Jewish national life, holiness and more, offering a profound vision for modern man and his search for meaning and happiness. Volume One – on Breisheet and Shemot – is now available.

It can be ordered at a 25% discount from  Sales@gefenpublishing.com, or purchased at fine Jewish bookstores and at Amazon.com. And – SPECIAL – if my two other books – visible to the right >>>>>- are ordered as well, Gefen will offer free shipping!

Enjoy, and please offer feedback.

-RSP

 

Clarification!

Let me be absolutely clear: The “savages” referred to in “Dealing with Savages” were terrorists such as those who perpetrated the horrific massacre in Har Nof last week. Indeed, Mike Huckabee began his FOX program this past week referring to the perpetrators as savages. Which they were. But I certainly did not, nor did I intend to, call all Arabs or Muslims “savages,” nor do I, obviously, believe that to be so.

I condemn those who support those savages, and I include in their number those who aid them, assist them and even – as happened last week – those who raucously celebrated the dismemberment of four rabbis and the death of the Druze police officer.

But to extrapolate from that sentiment and apply it to all Arabs or all Muslims is repugnant to me, and a complete distortion of what I wrote and intended to write. To the extent that my words could be misinterpreted, I take full responsibility and regret the lack of clarity.

    I wrote, in part: “Of course, [Arabs] who wish to stay and be peaceful, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, are welcome to stay.”

     There is much more that I can cite about my previous post, but the controversy swirling around it traces, in essence, to a JTA report that omitted that phrase – and others – and thus sought to portray me as a raving lunatic who hates all Arabs and perhaps all non-Jews, and wishes ill upon all of them. G-d forbid.

I strongly advocate the rights of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. I strongly condemn terrorists and their supporters. That, after all, was the Bush Doctrine: “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” What is remarkable is that the overwhelming majority of victims of radical Muslim terror today are not Jews or Christians – but Muslims. Good Muslims therefore have a self-interest, and not only an obligation, to denounce such terror in all its guises.

I find the murder of Jews and all innocents  intolerable, and it was with those images in mind that I wrote.

The gist of my remarks offered suggestions on how terror in Israel could be deterred. The government of Israel is wrestling with this very issue. Many people wrote in support of those suggestions. Some people took issue with one, two, several or all of the measures – while pointedly offering no suggestions of their own.

I wish there was greater outrage, among rabbis, Jews, Christians and Muslims at the loss of life. Among Jews, there is often sadness, grief and mourning – but little constructive is offered that might deter future attacks. Indeed, I wish there was greater outrage at the ongoing carnage in Syria, in the endless suicide bombings that kill Muslims weekly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone care about the loss of life – beyond the platitudes? I am certain there are many people who care, and I wish they would suggest concrete ways to change the situation.

We must always take care to protect the innocent. Israel has done an outstanding job in making its diverse, multi-ethnic society hospitable to all. Israeli Arabs who are peaceful and appreciative make important contributions to their society in all aspects. They deserve our respect and admiration. If my words did not make that clear enough, then I offer my sincere regrets. The fact that few Israeli-Arabs depart Israel to live in other Arab countries is eloquent testimony to their appreciation of their freedoms in Israel and a refutation to those who would castigate Israel for “discrimination.”

That the threat of violence hangs in the air is most troubling. It is unacceptable in a civil society to express displeasure or seek to resolve disputes through violence. That three more Jews were attacked and wounded tonight in Jerusalem is also unconscionable. More is required than mere condemnation of terror, sympathy for the victims, and life goes on. Because for some, it doesn’t. Complacency also kills.

There is already too much hatred in the world. To the extent that my remarks, even unintentionally, added to that hatred, I certainly apologize. I would like nothing more than for all Bible-believing people to recognize the rights of the Jewish people to our historic homeland and enable the Jewish people to live in peace. In the end, despite all the overcharged rhetoric, that remains my passion and the reason why I wrote what I did.

Let us remain calm, faithful and strong.

 

Response

(The following in similar form was submitted to the Jewish Link as a response to Rabbi Goldin’s response. They declined to print it this week.)

To the Editor:

I thank my dear colleague Rabbi Goldin for his response to my concerns. I do trust, as I am sure he does, that nothing awry, unusual or illegal will be found in the operation of any other batei din. One correction that he made is indeed welcome: under the current guidelines, contrary to what I wrote, sponsoring rabbis may be part of the conversion court as well.

In that regard, I erred for the best of reasons. The complete separation of the two roles – sponsoring rabbi and dayyan­ ­– was part of the original protocols established. That made sense for the reasons I outlined last week. But they were changed – perhaps at the very beginning – because of the insistence of small town courts that they did not have the manpower (i.e., “rabbi”-power) to consistently isolate the sponsoring rabbi from the conversion court. The language was then amended to permit such affiliation. I was unaware that they were changed, so, in any event, here in Bergen County, we always adhered to the original standard. We never allowed a sponsoring rabbi to be part of the conversion court in any respect. Never. All sponsoring rabbis knew that. I just assumed other batei din did the same. Our way made sense, and still does. The safety measures that I outlined last week were in place – but in Teaneck. That the protocol in DC applied the amended standard was, in retrospect, part of the problem. I assume as well that trying to re-implement the original standard will meet with the same objections of the small town courts.

Without re-hashing what has already been written on this matter, there is one questionable situation that remains that is neither slanderous nor speculative. It is clear from Rabbi Goldin’s own account that concerns were raised about the character of our DC colleague long before the voyeurism charges were adduced. These concerns were known to a very small group in the RCA, and resulted in our colleague’s dismissal as chairman of the GPS committee. Clearly there were red flags. Which begs the question: why were the allegations sufficient to remove him as head of the GPS committee but insufficient to remove him as head of the DC Bet Din, which, in retrospect, would have been a blessing for everyone concerned?

I don’t for a moment suspect mens rea on the part of the small group that decided his fate. If anything, it seems like negligence born of compassion. But, if the new committee is investigating (among other things) what went wrong in DC, and one thing that went wrong was the failure of the leadership in both oversight and effective response to the original DC misconduct, it is indeed odd that someone from that same leadership should serve on the committee – indeed, as chairman of the committee. No person should investigate himself. The errors, such as they were, in the end reflected poorly – apparently, as the formation of the committee itself indicates – on all batei din and all rabbis.

We have suffered inordinately in the last 25 years because of the accusation that rabbinic scandals are swept under the rug, investigated privately or not investigated at all. There should be accountability for poor decisions, however well-intentioned. Retaining someone as head of a Bet Din when it was known – regardless of justification or the peculiarities of the DC system – that he was exploiting conversion candidates to work for him in his home, in his university office, for donations, et al – was an error of judgment. The RCA could have sought his dismissal or could have insisted that the Beth Din of America dismiss him. The Executive Committee could have been apprised and offered its recommendation. None of that was not done, and victims paid a steep price for that. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but hindsight is 20/400 when the lights are dimmed, the curtains are drawn, the walls are erected, and the wagons are circled.

Consequently, there are many people – rabbis and laymen who have spoken to me – who feel that an outside investigation that includes no members of the RCA is warranted in order to fully explore how such errors were made and in order to regain public trust. A movement is already under way calling for such an investigation. And if, as media report, the female victims here are considering suing (among others) the RCA for malfeasance, such an investigation will happen sooner or later. Sooner is better. That is neither slander nor speculation, nor are any insinuations or accusations being made. It just seems like elementary yashrut and common sense.

I thank Rabbi Goldin for his kind words about me. The feelings are mutual. And in navigating those treacherous waters between dueling expectations for the conversion committee, and between maintaining the status quo and the vehement demand for modifications, I wish him much success. I, too, hope the work of the committee bears positive fruit.

– RSP

Breaking News!

Well, not really…

One week from tonight (Wednesday, November 19), I am honored to be receiving the Rabbinic Leadership Award at the annual banquet of the American Friends of Sderot. The dinner will begin at 6:00 PM, and will be held at the Hilton Meadowlands (free parking included!).

For well over a decade, the Jews of Sderot have been on the front lines of the Arab terror war against Israel. Situated less than a kilometer from the Gaza border, Sderot has been the recipient of more than 10,000 Arab rockets and missiles during that time frame. One cannot walk more than 15 seconds anywhere in Sderot without encountering a bomb shelter. They are ubiquitous – at bus stops and in public parks, in playgrounds and commercial districts. They are testament to the capacity of evil people to perpetrate their evil and the capacity of good people to remain steadfast and resolute, and not to surrender to that evil.

At the heart of Sderot is the Yeshivat Hesder led by Rav Dovid Fendel, a native Long Islander. Notwithstanding its location – and perhaps due to its location and the iron will of Israeli youth – it is one of the largest Hesder yeshivot in Israel, educating hundreds of students annually. The yeshiva as well is fortified with reinforced concrete – roof, walls and dormitory – to enable it to withstand the onslaught of enemy evil. And the yeshiva administration and student body (all IDF soldiers, past and present) are renowned for teaching Torah throughout Sderot and going to each neighborhood under fire in order to bring strength and courage to the beleaguered residents.

I try to visit Sderot at least once a year, spend some time in the yeshiva, with the residents and in the shopping areas, and I did again this past summer during Operation Protective Edge. The good people of Sderot and the Yeshiva at its heart have taught all Jews never to run from evil, never to cower before our enemies, and never to abandon our principles and values in the face of challenges. Both continue to inspire all Israel with their sacrifice, strength and perseverance. They remind us that we can grow, prosper, contribute and advance the destiny of the Jewish people notwithstanding the “background noise” of our enemies.

I invite all of you to attend the dinner or otherwise contribute to the American Friends of Sderot, so we all can have a share in what they have built and we all can reap a small part of the heavenly reward that is theirs. Those wishing to attend or contribute are invited to log on to https://www.sderot.org/dinner, or call 718-673-4945.

I look forward to personally greeting all attendees. Thank you for your support.