A Man of Consequence

A Man of Consequence

     One thought kept occurring to me as I read and enjoyed David Friedman’s account (“Sledgehammer”) of his years as the United States Ambassador to Israel: Friedman is arguably the most consequential ambassador that the US has ever had to any country in its history. There have been famous ambassadors, usually because they were celebrities appointed to these positions for political reasons having no diplomatic backgrounds at all, but none were consequential. George F. Kennan, anonymously authored the famous “Long Telegram” that created the containment policy that shaped US-Soviet relations for decades and was later celebrated for it, but that was several years before he became US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Most ambassadors just execute the policy they are given and try to improve trade, cultural or diplomatic relations, or put out fires, between the two countries.

     David Friedman stands alone as the most consequential ambassador in American history. That is because he not only shaped US foreign policy to Israel but he helped execute a sharp reversal of America’s policy in ways that benefited the United States, Israel and the Middle East. In retrospect of even just a few years, those were amazing achievements, which to be sure, he credits President Trump, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and others who worked on it. But as ambassador he was the driving force.

     Under Friedman’s watch, gone were the days when the State Department would lament “violence on both sides” when Israel was the victim of Arab terror and responded forcefully or preempted such attacks. Gone were the days when the Palestinians received generous American funding regardless of their nefarious conduct, duplicity, support for terror, subsidizing terrorists, and inimicality to American interests or values. Gone were the days when Palestinians were given a veto over US foreign policy initiatives with its friend Israel or its allies in the region. Gone were the days when the US feared the reaction of the “Arab street” – meaning, the most violent actors in the region, even if it was not really the “Arab street” – if America recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital city, moved its embassy there, recognized the Golan Heights, unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self defense, closed down the PLO mission in the US and its consulate in Yerushalayim, isolated the PA diplomatically, dampened the ardor for the two-state illusion, etc. Gone were the days when Israel could not enter into agreements with other Arab countries with which it has shared interests and no basis for hostility, all because the Palestinians did not like it.

     Those were sea changes in American foreign policy, and none came easy. The proof is the ferocious resistance each of these changes ignited in the State Department, whose policy towards Israel remained essentially unchanged for a half century trapped as it was in circular reasoning, illogic, assertions without evidence, wishful thinking and occasionally overt hostility to the Jewish national home. Many presidents have learned over the years that the “striped-pants set” (as Truman, who also suffered this, derisively termed them) in the State Department conducted their own foreign policy whether or not it coincided with that of the President.

     Friedman made clear to the first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson who embraced the traditional State mindset, that Friedman responds to the President and executes his wishes, not those of State. It not only made for contentious exchanges with State before Mike Pompeo became the Secretary and wholeheartedly endorsed the shift in policy, it also almost derailed his nomination. Friedman became ambassador only after winning confirmation by a razor-thin margin and enduring vicious and malevolent personal attacks from Democrats.

     Fortunately for the reader, Friedman spares none of his critics. He was accused of being a “right-wing supporter of settlements” (horrors!), and an opponent of the two-state delusion (double horrors!!). New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand challenged him privately as to the propriety of American providing “humanitarian aid” in abundance to Israel whose people “live well,” and so little money to Gaza. She apparently was unaware that the US provides zero humanitarian aid to Israel. New York’s other Senator, Chuck Schumer, the self-styled “shomer” of Israel, told Friedman he is a “pretty good guy” but could not vote to confirm him. “I’m not giving Trump the win. Sorry.”

     New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker, whom Jews gush over (like the two above) because he patronizingly tosses Hebrew phrases at them even while voting to allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons with US money, told Friedman “yihiyeh b’seder,” it will all be good – in private. When the hearings started and the cameras switched on, he attacked Friedman for all the pain he caused and for the “ugly words” he used (Friedman had castigated J Street for their opposition to Israel’s right of self-defense during one of the Gaza wars in vituperative language that invoked self-hating Jews during the Holocaust). And Booker then voted against confirmation. One Jewish congresswoman urged Friedman to promise that the US embassy would not be moved to Yerushalayim – even though she had repeatedly voted in favor of moving the embassy. Did I mention that politicians are deceitful or is that a redundancy?

     His relationship with Donald Trump went back decades; Friedman was his bankruptcy lawyer in a number of failed deals. It is fair to say that he saw Trump as sort of a lovable rogue with a history of hondling merchants and suppliers and threatening to withhold any payment after the work was done. (He doesn’t mention it but this approach failed once when Trump realized he was dealing with one vendor who was mob-related.) In an amusing anecdote, Trump’s approach also failed with Friedman when after one deal closed, Trump tried to re-negotiate the legal  fee, not realizing that Friedman (anticipating this “technique”) had already taken his fee from the money distributed at closing. Despite all that, it was clear that Trump always had Israel’s best interests in mind. It was also clear that Friedman wanted only one thing from Trump’s victory: the ambassadorship to Israel so that both countries could benefit from the planned policy changes. It worked.

     Yet, it was complicated and controversial at times. In a vignette  not related in the book, it seems that Mike Pompeo made a practice of inviting every new ambassador to his office, taking him to the big round globe near his desk, and asking the ambassador to point to the country he now represents. Invariably, the new diplomat would find the country on the globe to which he had been dispatched and point to it. And Pompeo would turn the globe, point to the United States, and say “this is the country you represent, and don’t forget that.”

      Well, Friedman was routinely accused by his enemies at State and other Arabists of representing Israel to the detriment of America. He unabashedly visited the Kotel (duchaning there – he is a kohen – at every opportunity) and Judea and Samaria. He accompanied the President to the Kotel, something which was supposed to be outlandish. The dual loyalty canard was raised.  And in one acrimonious encounter, a State staffer admonished Friedman and told him: “Don’t be so Jewish. You represent the United States of America. Tone down the Judaism in your work.” Friedman furiously lambasted him for the thought, and for using language he would never use towards any other ethnic group. Such was life in the big leagues.

     It is incontrovertible that Friedman represented America, and not Israel, but he did perceive that what was good for Israel was generally good for America. The Abraham Accords were the most prominent outcome of that notion and it is also true that America’s standing in the Middle East improved dramatically compared to what it was under Obama, and even today under Biden, when the US is again perceived as an unreliable ally.

     How consequential was David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel? He was instrumental in effecting such momentous changes in American foreign policy that even the Biden State Department is finding it nearly impossible to reverse all of them, and not for lack of trying. And it came from taking a fresh look at what had failed and not simply repeating it and what might work and nurturing it. It came from loving America and Israel, and appreciating what two essentially decent countries could accomplish working together.

    America, Israel and the world are in a better place because of it. That is a man of consequence.

A Society Adrift

     Whenever something goes wrong in a family or society, it is helpful if the very first order of business is the assignment of blame (all right, maybe not the first, but it should be on the list). Who or what is at fault? In America today there is no shortage of culprits for its malaise, although, typically, the most obvious factors are ignored.

     The United States is plagued by economic woes – the highest inflation in forty years – rising energy costs, diminished stature on the world stage, social dysfunction, a widespread feeling that the country is on the wrong track and there is no conductor capable of guiding it back, a loss of faith in democracy, politicians and the electoral system and worst of all, uncontrollable crime and violence that erupts sporadically in small towns and is a constant presence in the large cities.

     Much attention is paid to gun violence, quite naturally, and especially the mass attacks on schools, stores and workplaces that now characterize American society. It is tragic, to be sure, and it is even more tragic to conclude that people have become inured to it because of its redundancy and the politicians’ immediate retreat their policy positions that have never and will never be implemented because of a fundamental policy disagreement in American society. Politicians posture, preen for the cameras, nothing changes and then they do it all again a few weeks later.

     Meanwhile, innocent citizens are gunned down, stabbed or otherwise assaulted in the cities. Arrests are generally not made, if made the criminals are rarely prosecuted, if prosecuted they are even more rarely incarcerated except if they are recidivists and the courts are bound to incarcerate them. Petty theft – petty to the politicians but not to the store owners or home owners who bear the costs for them – is not prosecuted at all. It is a culture of chaos, a milieu of mayhem.

     Why can’t America control its gun violence? Granted more people are killed annually by knives, fists or automobiles, but still the question must be asked: how do young men acquire weapons that they soon use to murder innocent children, men and women? And why can’t they be stopped?

     The simple answer is that the Second Amendment provided every American with the right to bear arms (please: it was never meant to be limited to members of a militia) with reasonable and regional restrictions. It is a fundamental right, baked into the American psyche. There is pride and strength of character in being able to exercise the right of self-defense. It is widely documented that guns save millions of lives every year by judicious use (often just displaying a legal weapon deters a potential assailant). The data are mixed on the homicide rates in countries that prohibit gun possession by the good people; some such countries have low homicide rates and others much higher, understandable because only the criminals will have guns.

      Indeed, Israel would be wise to liberalize its gun laws and allow more innocent and decent citizens to own and carry guns, especially considering the plethora of illegal weapons in the Arab sector and their propensity to use them. Police rejoice over the seizure of dozens of weapons, when hundreds of thousands still remain in Arab villages and towns. More liberal gun possession among good Israelis would be an ever greater deterrence to Arab terror and especially if the authorities ceased harassing good Jews who defend themselves against Arab attacks.

     But back across the pond, adding to problem has been the police response in many of these situations. If the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is by a good guy with a gun, then if the good guys with guns stand by – for almost an hour, as in Texas, and do nothing – that should not only be worthy of dismissal, but reflects a complete breakdown of societal order. But let it be stated clearly: the police are not the answer to this problem. As has often been stated, when seconds count, the police are just minutes away. The police investigate crimes that have been committed and make arrests, at least in theory; the police rarely deter crime.

     Yet, how do we get from that basic right of gun ownership to supplying every 18 year old nut job who wants one with a semi-automatic weapon? And here we come to the crux of the matter, the inability to think out of the box, and the hardening of positions – positions that are as hard as the coffins of the victims. Politicians loudly and angrily propose new restrictions, seemingly unconcerned that none of the proposals would have averted any of the recent spate of killings. Both mass shooters passed background checks. They didn’t buy their weapons at gun shows. Most of the homicides committed in America in the last few weeks anyway – in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere – involved illegal weapons, which, last I checked, already had laws proscribing their ownership, as there are other laws, last I checked, outlawing homicide. It seems the problems lie elsewhere than in the composition of the laws. And in the short term, secure the schools and provide guards, as is routine in Israel; surely in the trillions of dollars printed in the last two years and spent on many frivolous things, some of those bills can be steered to protecting children.

     Gun rights advocates correctly assert that decent, law-abiding people should not lose their rights because a handful of criminals abuse theirs. No one – I shouldn’t say no one; who knows? – but no one would suggest that if there were a wave of automobile rammings the authorities should start limiting sales of automobiles.

      It would be prudent – and painfully obvious – that guns should not be provided to those who are mentally ill. But that is often a subjective judgment. Besides, the mentally ill have very successful advocates who have succeeded in prohibiting forced confinement and closing down most American asylums, all of which has lead to forty years of the homeless mentally ill living on American city streets. Great victory! And we are told not to stigmatize the mentally ill. Of course, to deny them a constitutional right – their Second Amendment rights – would stigmatize them. That is how reason and common sense are sacrificed on the altar of leftist pieties.

     No one would argue that the mentally ill should be provided with weapons. The problem is that few are arguing that they should be identified and banned from owning weapons. There are red flag laws in place in many jurisdictions that are designed to weed out potential miscreants but they are difficult to enforce and not always effective.

      It is obvious that children referred for counseling for fantasies of violence (Parkland, Uvalde, perhaps even Buffalo) should be listed as ineligible to buy weapons of any sort, maybe even butter knives. But their advocates see that as stigmatization. Since most gun deaths in America are suicides, it would be sensible to ban access to firearms to anyone who suffers from depression, bi-polar disorder, homicidal fantasies, etc. Nonetheless, there is no will to do that, and even if it was done, buying an illegal gun in America is as easy as buying an illegal narcotic.

     Instead, it has become clear that America is willing to tolerate the occasional mass homicide, collectively wring its hands, listen to the politicians spout their mendacities and nonsense, help the victims grieve, make speeches that do nothing and pass laws that will change nothing.

     And that is not even the real problem. The real problem is the lack of religious faith in America and the absence of objective morality. I have often said that sixty years of values-free public education has produced sixty years of values-free citizens, at least those not otherwise educated in basic moral norms. America saw no moral worth in hanging the “Ten Commandments” in public school classrooms and now wonders why children have no conception of “You Shall Not Murder” and “You Shall Not Steal.”  There is no holiday of Shavuot on which those are read. Homicide and theft are options, life style choices. Ask any one of these teen age shooters of schools and stores, or their contemporaries opening fire on city streets against each other and against civilians, why is it wrong to murder someone? I am convinced they could not articulate a cogent answer. So why not?

     It is not as if they have fathers who teach them right from wrong. It is not as if they have received a religious or moral education. It is not as if they have been taught that there is a G-d who created us all in His image and prescribed ethical laws by which mankind is to live. Generations of Americans have largely grown up without any of that. What they have endured is unstable, broken homes, no fathers, poor education, endless indoctrination in victimization narratives that feed their anti-social sense of deprivation, ready exposure to narcotics of all sorts, rationalizations for all their misbehaviors, and, yes, a steady diet of mass shootings that they see get people’s attention.

     They also see a political class wholly incapable of resolving any of society’s problems in a definitive way and whose sole focus is on re-election and self-enrichment. That is a society adrift. And the only way to begin to reverse it is to have another moral awakening in American society that will instill divine values – G-d, faith, family, and virtue. At present, given the leadership, that is a tall order.

Beyond Yom Ha’atzmaut

(First published yesterday on Israelnationalnews.com)

Yom Ha’atzmaut always unleashes an outburst of pride in the State of Israel, properly and justifiably so. It is natural to be moved and inspired by the proliferation of flags across the streets and cities of our country and to bask in the astonishing achievements of a state that was born in struggle, built through tremendous self-sacrifice and commitment, and has produced for its citizens a prosperous, free, and (for the most part) Jewish society.

     And then Yom Ha’atzmaut passes and we are confronted with problems that only seem to deteriorate with each year and with a political establishment that is locked into its own fanciful world, oblivious to the chaos it is fostering. If a person wanted to destroy the Jewish state, there are several steps that he could take (with Iran just being a distraction).

     First, he would cede large swaths of the country to hostile elements. As Defense Minister Benny Gantz noted in private the other day, large portions of the Negev and the Galil are being lost to the Jewish state. (As Defense Minister, one would think that he would do more than whine about it.) There are many parts of Israel today that are off-limits to Jews, “no-go” zones where Jews would be endangered if they entered. We have become accustomed to the large red road signs that prohibit the entry of Jews to Area A in Judea and Samaria. It is not farfetched to believe that the day might soon come when we see those same road signs in pre-1967 Israel, warning Jews not to enter these areas for fear of their safety. He would also reinforce to the Arabs that the Temple Mount is theirs, not ours, and that they are the real sovereigns in the territory in which they live.

     Second, he would want to fill the country with non-Jews. If one-quarter of Israeli citizenry is already non-Jewish, he would try to import tens and hundreds of thousands of others to further dilute the Jewish character of the State. And then he would turn a blind eye to the fact that a large percentage of this population opposes the very notion of a Jewish state and actively seeks to undermine it – and finds representation of this view in the Knesset. There are not many countries in the world that would seat legislators committed to its downfall and who openly collaborate with its enemies. In fact, I cannot think of another country aside from Israel that permits it.

      Third, he would embolden the Arabs in Israel to believe that they can violate the law with impunity, obstruct Jews who want to plant trees on state land, attack the security forces wantonly, taunt them recklessly, neither arrest nor prosecute them for their crimes, and permit illegal building wherever and whenever they desire. He would allow Arabs to steal cars from Jewish neighborhoods, and not investigate those crimes or arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. He would encourage chaos – and only enforce the law for and against Jews.

      This is happening for two reasons. There is a palpable fear that enforcing the law against Arabs will provoke riots that will then be broadcast globally. It is as if only the Jewish state must accept a certain level of crime from its inhabitants, even if good people thereby suffer. Thus, Arabs can stone Jews, rampage through neighborhoods, harass Jews on buses and even trash the emergency room at Hadassah Hospital – without any consequences. On Reshet Bet, Hadassah’s Director even claimed – incredulously – not to know the identity of the saboteurs. Somehow, I think if the perpetrators were Haredim, he would know and the media machine would be blaring their identities. It is more than infantilizing them. It is allowing a hostile entity free rein to destabilize society and demoralize its good citizens. The second reason is below.

      Fourth, our putative destroyer would adopt a policy of preempting terrorist attacks rather than deterring the terrorists. Certainly, even preemption requires great dedication and skill, and we pay a heavy price for that. But ultimately, we recognize that preemption is imperfect, and that some attacks will occur. But they are less likely to occur if the society that dispatched them (and cheers them on) felt the sting of their dastardly deeds as well. If they knew the price that would be paid, and paid immediately – loss of funding, deprivation of rights to the Temple Mount or in Hevron, increased settlement building, deportation of the guilty, etc. – they would be more likely to deter their own hostile agents. Inevitably there is an element of collective punishment in all sanctions but presently, the only people being collectively punished are Israeli Jews. We are the ones who must be constantly mindful of potential rammers when we stand at intersections and potential stabbers when we walk the streets. Alas, we will be told, if we employ methods of deterrence then riots would inevitably take place, and no one wants that televised. And so the enemy wins.

     Fifth, he would try to chip away at the Jewish character of the state, bending halacha to solve social problems caused by the leftist establishment and undercutting the spiritual leaders of the nation. To date, these efforts are making it more difficult to determine who is a Jew and what foods are kosher.

     Finally, he would want to make the survival of Israel’s government dependent on the approval and acquiescence of the most hostile elements in the society. This way, these parties can assure their voters that they are achieving their nefarious goals through cooperation rather than through confrontation. Thus, they will milk the current government as much as they can for as long as they can – and we will pay the price. What Lenin said – that capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them – is gaining a strange resonance here as well. We are consciously subverting the very foundations of the Jewish state of Israel, while the politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of the long term consequences of their actions and gloat over the short term consequences. It is self-interest above all. And this is the second reason why Arab marauders are allowed to intimidate and assault Jews with impunity: a strong hand will cause the government to collapse.

      I recognize that stating that politicians are mendacious is like asserting that the sun rises in the east –  but at least the sun only rises once a day. We are descending to new depths. The government of “all the people” doesn’t even represent a majority in the Knesset. It endures, limping along to the detriment of the country, primarily so that one group should remain in power and one group should not be in power. Right-wingers who should know better continue to prop up the government, and they too should never again be allowed near the levers of power. Note that I was not among those who were implacably opposed to this government. Many of the problems with which they are dealing were allowed to fester under previous governments, which also had a greater interest in preventing televised riots than strengthening Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. But the current government’s “survival at all costs” mentality is a clear and present danger.

      This is a wonderful country with wonderful people, and the pride we Jews take in it is well deserved. It is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Certainly, there are challenges, as the land of Israel is only acquired through suffering (Berachot 5a). But like in some other democracies, the political class has failed us. It creates problems, and its solutions to other problems create even more problems. Perhaps the government intends to prove that we survive only through miracles and divine providence. Nevertheless, we cannot rely on miracles. We deserve better. And we need to fear less what our enemies might do to us than what we are doing to ourselves.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 18

(This is the third year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to have a shorter seder so guests will not have to struggle to stay awake or is it better to have a longer seder filled with divrei Torah that ends very late? What about when young children are involved?

I have often marveled at people who measure a seder (or for that matter, the Rosh Hashana davening) by its length. “We finished at 11:00 PM…at midnight…at 3:30 AM,” as if time is the essence and the substance ancillary.

The fundamental mitzvah of the seder is to transmit the narrative of the Exodus to our children, the background, the story, and above all the implications for today. It is to convey to them the grandeur of the night on which we became Hashem’s eternal and chosen people. How that is done varies with every family – but that is what must be done.

Thus, the length of the seder should be organic, not forced, and depend on the age and knowledge of the guests, and especially the children. It is as foolish and counterproductive to send children to sleep after they ask the Four Questions as it is to sing Chad Gadya with most of the company already sleeping on the floor from the lateness of the hour and the effects of the wine. And I have never much seen the value in having children read rote divrei Torah that they copied in school without fully understanding what they are reading.

Every family strikes it own balance but there are certain prerequisites. Each child, on his/her own level, must be informed of the events of this majestic night, and the purpose of the maror, matzah and the wine. All guests should ponder the implications of exile and redemption, of enemies rising in every generation to destroy us, and of Hashem’s watchful hand that has preserved us until today.

Often the most meaningful discussions will occur at the meal. Sometimes it is necessary to speak privately to the youngsters who will not remain awake for the meal. But clearly the length should be natural and secondary to the quality of this exalted evening.

Is it proper to go on a Pesach program in a place like Dubai, United Arab Emirates?

First things first: Pesach was meant to be celebrated in the land of Israel. That is the Torah’s clear intention, and even if there is no formal mitzvah of aliyah l’regel today, nonetheless there is still a virtue in being in Israel and experiencing the fifth kos – that Hashem will bring us to the land He promised our forefathers.

If one is not celebrating in the land of Israel, there is certainly a value in celebrating Pesach at home. The transformation of the Jewish home from its normal state into its Pesach mode is truly magical. The impression made on children – of parents and grandparents, of cousins and extended family, of traditions unique to each family – is indelible. Even Bubby’s special Pesach dishes will be cherished forever, unlike those of some anonymous chef. And although it is understandable that some families feel compelled to go to a hotel because of the inability to accommodate large numbers of relatives in one house they should still be mindful that the advantage also has some disadvantages.

Once a decision has been made to observe Pesach outside the home it doesn’t really matter in what country it is being celebrated. I remember that before the first Pesach after Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt there were enterprising hoteliers who advertised about observing Pesach in Egypt, “back where it all began.” Thankfully it didn’t catch on.

Dubai is much friendlier and genuinely appreciates Jewish and Israeli visitors, which is a very heartwarming change in this part of the world. But to fly over Israel to celebrate Pesach elsewhere? There is something odd about that. At least stop in for a visit either before or after Pesach. Chag Kasher v’sameach!

Is it proper to ask someone to leave your makom kavuah in shul?

The old joke just happened to me. A few months ago I was somewhere in northern Israel, found a shul for Mincha, walked in ten minutes early, and saw one person sitting already. The shul contained about 150 seats. I sat down in the middle of the shul. Two minutes later, a fellow walked in – now the third person in shul – approached me and said (in Hebrew): “you are sitting in my seat.” I burst out laughing – and graciously moved over two seats.

There is certainly a value in having a makom kavuah, which is derived from no less a personage than Avraham. It helps our kavanah and it also stamps a particular hallowed place with our personal commitment. Yet, too much is made of it. In our shul, I instituted a rule that a makom kavuah would be honored up to one minute past the start of davening. After one minute (allowing for watch discrepancies), you were no longer entitled to “your” seat, which, if it meant so much, you would have graced with your presence in a more timely fashion.

Underlying this conclusion was the halachic reality that makom kavuah does not necessarily mean a particular seat but rather a particular area. And within four amot (roughly, seven feet) of that seat is still considered your makom kavuah, as the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 90:60) notes. So it is not necessary to be so insistent on a particular seat, and certainly not to be aggressive or abrasive about it.

As it is, the aforementioned shul in northern Israel did not assemble a minyan for Mincha that day until 12 minutes after sunset, by which time I had already davened. I wondered that, perhaps, if the members were less adamant about their personal spaces they might attract more people.

Is it proper to learn during chazarat hashatz?

No, and I plead guilty with an (inadequate) explanation.

The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 124:17) exhorted us to be careful not to learn during chazarat hashatz. The repetition of the amida is intended today not so much to fulfill the requirements for those who can’t read (a rarity) but instead to enable us to focus on this communal tefilah given the difficulties we all have in concentrating during our private tefilot. To learn Torah is not only a wasted opportunity (even if we still answer amen) but engenders the idea in others that the repetition is not that important. For every one person who will learn, five others will be checking emails on their cell phones and ten others will be conversing.

The prohibition seems straightforward and years ago I made a conscious effort to stop. I failed, for several reasons, but was bolstered in my waywardness when I came across a teshuvah of Rav Menachem Azariah of Fano (102:8) who wrote (in the 16th century; this is not a new phenomenon) that learning Torah during chazarat Hashatz is improper but most Jews are not careful about this because they have already fulfilled their obligation of tefilah and so grab whatever mitzvah they can during this period.

Most later poskim rejected the contention of the Rema miFano but nevertheless conceded that the issue was usually not framed as an outright prohibition but rather as inadvisable given that the less learned will then do what brings them pleasure – idle conversation and the like.

Rav Kook generally noted that divine service requires orderliness. It is as sensible to learn while davening as it is to daven while learning. Each element of avodah demands our utmost attention and is the commandment of the moment that must be fulfilled. The temptation for Talmud Torah is enormous – but even that temptation, I tell myself, must be controlled. It is undeniably true that the greatest of our Torah sages were meticulous in not learning during chazarat hashatz.