I've had some letters published in the Jerusalem Post this year, but some -- unaccountably -- were not, so I figure I'll post them, along with anything else I written in the vain hope of publication:
(A few of the ones to the Post were in fact published.)
To the Editor:
Your editorials, and those of columnists such as Nicholas Kristof, have not only laid the blame for the recent Gaza-flotilla events on Israel, but have opposed its blockade of Gaza in general. I wonder: Do you believe that unfettered shipping to Gaza would not include munitions, which would promptly be used against Israel? What will be your reaction when a more-accurate missile hits a kindergarten in Sderot or Ashkelon? “Oops”? And if you’re thinking of international inspection, well, I can’t guarantee that it won’t work, but Hezbollah’s rearming under the nose of the UN forces that are tasked with its prevention should make one uncomfortable with such a suggestion. No, the blockade is, unfortunately, justified. And as for the recent killings? When a gang of men start beating someone with pipes they quickly lose my sympathy, as they should yours.
To the Editor:
Tony Judt makes the strange assertion that the Palestinians engage in terrorism (which, to his credit, he recognizes as morally indefensible) because, as the much-weaker party in negotiations with Israel, they can bring no other pressure to bear. But historically terrorism has had quite the opposite effect on Israel, causing a hardening of public opinion against concessions and reinforcing its suspicion that people for whom anything goes can’t be trusted to honor agreements. Israel’s most generous offers have come at times of relative quiet. All of which should lead one to question Palestinians’ inability to secure an agreement, and to wonder at their attachment to murdering civilians.
To the Editor,
While it’s reasonable to point out the absurdity of any gays making common cause with Hamas, the argument that the Spanish gays’ rejection of Israel’s delegation is wrong because of how “progressive” Israel is toward gays is likewise wrong. If we were the monsters they claim we are – wantonly oppressing Palestinians, indiscriminately killing civilians, flouting international law and standards of conduct – then they would be right to reject our delegation, no matter where we stand on homosexuality.
No, the only sensible reason for them to accept us is that we really are the Good Guys; that the blockade of Gaza is, if not a perfect, then certainly a reasonable and legitimate reaction to the behavior of Gaza’s citizens and government; that the attempts to run the blockade are anything but “humanitarian” and that the events of the Mavi Marmara reflect the morality of the Israeli position and the immorality of the flotilla’s.
That’s not to say that the Spaniards will accept such an argument, only that it’s the only argument they should accept.
To the Editor:
It’s refreshing to read David Brooks as he skewers the traditional attitude towards dealing with Assad, but he misses a larger point, and in so doing makes a similar mistake. The basis for the realpolitik of treating the world’s Assads as if they are legitimate statesmen is that it will ultimately do more good than harm. Brooks is equally convinced that it will do more harm than good (“their efforts were doomed”).
In fact – and this really should be obvious to anyone familiar with the concept of Time – neither side can do more than guess; and given the complexity of the world and our limited nature, the guesses are rarely any good. Our challenge is to make the best decisions we can given our imperfect knowledge of the past and present, and our complete ignorance of the future. I’ve always been against propping dictators up (even Brooks’ “normal” ones), because supporting their misdeeds could only be excused, if at all, by an impossible level of certainty about the outcome. The fact of the Arab Spring vindicates my position, not because I knew it would happen, but because our puffed-up statesmen and diplomats didn’t know that it wouldn’t.
In A new deal for Israel? (8/4) Uri Savir writes: “A house in Ariel costs approximately 40 percent of what the same house in Netanya would cost. On top of that, almost NIS 100,000 of mortgage benefit goes to the house owner in Ariel, Karnei Shomron, etc.”
Is he suggesting that the government is making up the 100,000 shekel shortfall? That seems wildly improbably. The claim about the price difference is dubious in the first place, but since Savir can toss these things off without feeling the need to support them, I guess my only recourse is to ignore them. I would like to think, though, that the ‘Post has some kind of editorial review process that would raise such questions.
When it comes to more nebulous claims, like his statement that our upholding of humanitarian values has been compromised by “the occupation” (my quotes), I can’t really expect you to question whether the position is logically tenable. Where would it end? Bet when he says that “15.36% of the investment in public housing goes to the settlers,” another startling and suspect claim, wouldn’t it be worth your while to say that you’d like to see some support, or do you not care if it’s one of the 47% of statistics that are just made up on the spot?
Peace Now, for instance, is known for some very creative accounting when toting up how much “the Settlements” are costing the country. I think that’s a story in itself; in fact, a story that your paper might want to report. But by the same token you should avoid publishing just any claim that any well-known individual cares to make.
R. Yosef Blau writes persuasively about the mis-education of many Religious-Zionist youth. He focuses on their being taught a simplistic (and inaccurate) view of our place in the world, our conflict with the Arabs and the religious value of our territorial patrimony.
I think he is quite correct, but I also think that the problem is, in a way, deeper: It’s not simply that we have given up on teaching nuance, tolerance and a deeper understanding of our sources. We have given up on teaching, period. Our community, along with the surrounding culture, has adopted the idea that teaching children to know things and do things – what we once called Education – is neither possible nor necessary. Not possible, because we have lost our ability to maintain discipline. Not necessary, because the really important work is in socializing and engaging the children – knowledge can come later, but if we don’t get their emotional commitment now, we never will.
Religious Zionists are sometimes even more extreme in this view than members of other communities, out of concern that their children will either give up religious observance or join the Haredim.
The result is not only widespread ignorance, but a puffing-up of the kids’ sense that their opinions are as valuable as anyone’s and they need no consultation before ditching school to “defend” an outpost, commune with Nature or deface a mosque.
The most telling remark in R. Blau’s piece is that “the message communicated is that demonstrating is more important than learning”. It’s true, but it should be seen in context: In today’s education almost anything is more important than learning.
The corrective is not simply to improve teaching – how effective can that be when the whole activity is devalued? It’s to get our educators (and parents) back to doing their jobs, which do not include heart-to-heart talks, rap sessions, watching movies, going to demonstrations or attending strings of airy “symposia”. They are addicted to “informal” education, and like all recovering addicts they should avoid their poison completely, lest they slide back.
To the Editor:
If I take penicillin to treat my pneumonia, but only half the recommended dosage or only for three days, not only will I probably not be cured, I will have helped to foster antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria. By Jenna Jordan’s logic (Op-ed, October 4th), this means that penicillin isn’t a sufficient treatment for pneumonia. In fact, it would be unwise to take it unless one were prepared to supplement that treatment with, let’s say, a macrobiotic diet.
To the Editor:
Your editorials on Israel, the most recent being Nicholas Kristof’s, invariably depend on what “every negotiator knows” about “the framework of a peace agreement”. Setting aside the fact that there are negotiators, diplomats and academics who disagree, in a world where everyone who was anyoneknew that the Soviet Union was here to stay and knew that the Arab dictatorships were, at least, stable, shouldn’t you be considering that these negotiators may be, y’know, wrong? It’s not as if they’ve got some history of correctly predicting what happens in the Middle East. How many of them said that Israel leaving Lebanon would end in Hezbollah attacks, or that leaving Gaza would end with a Hamas takeover and constant rocket fire?
This doesn’t prove them wrong, mind you. I’m sure they can explain how some unforeseen factor (an Israeli blunder, perhaps?) skewed the results. Still, it certainly fails to prove them right.
To the Editor:
The respondents to Sarah Schulman’s essay have all missed her point, which is that a good record of human rights in one area doesn’t somehow offset a bad record in another. I have always been against pro-Israeli boosters who tout our democratic values, medical contributions, Nobel prizewinners or foreign aid to refute claims that we are oppressing the Palestinians. What’s the connection?
No, were we actually oppressing the Palestinians none of that would make up for it. Fortunately, we are not oppressing them (though I realize this will not resonate with much of your readership). Professor Schulman’s essay fails on the facts and on the interpretation of the facts, rather than the moral logic. Her respondents mostly agreed with her description of the situation but faulted her morality, and so were wrong on both counts.
Daniel Gordis’ diatribe is both uncharacteristically whiney (“Bumper stickers, after all, are so much more appealing than thinking.” “What are we going to cheer instead? Moderation? Thought?”) and uncharacteristically ill-conceived. Whatever he may think of “not one inch” as a policy, he should contrast it with one under which Israelis will not “continue to die, year after year, endlessly”. It may be a stupid policy. There’s room to say it isn’t a policy at all. But instead of attacking it on its demerits, he chooses guilt-by-association with Michelle Bachmann and American armchair Zionists, and derides them all for the temerity of thinking they know better than “all of Israel’s leaders”. Is that an argument? Is there some axiom that asserts that at least one of Israel’s leaders at any given moment must be right? Has Gordis himself never argued a position for which he found no support among our leaders? If not, he belongs to a very exclusive club.
He then turns to the legislative initiatives about the Supreme Court. There are many who have given calm, reasoned explanations for these laws, and precedents from other Western democracies. Whether they’re right or wrong, none of them rely on the times being “dire”, and the fact that they “horrify” this or that group isn’t exactly relevant to the kind of elevated public discussion that Gordis claims to seek. Also, the fact that the Court is “well-functioning”, even if granted, has no bearing; none of the proposals is meant to make it more efficient, but rather more representative.
I wouldn’t have expected Gordis to describe our democracy as “fragile”, and I suspect that in another context – one where he’s not desperate to drive home these bombastic points – he would say the opposite. That’s just my suspicion, mind you, but what I find even harder to credit is that he actually shares the opinion, recently expressed by ex-president Clinton, that writes off much of our electorate. He’s been too consistently reasonable in the past for me to believe that he thinks our democracy is fragile because the wrong people have the vote. Maybe he had a deadline and was fighting off the flu. I don’t know, but I prefer to give those who disagree with me the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately, my search for the nuance in Daneil Gordis' Dose of Nuance has once-again come up empty.
To promote nuance in our public discourse regarding Israel and the upcoming US elections, one would certainly have to at least raise some of the following questions:
- Is injecting Israel into the presidential race morally wrong, imprudent, neither or both? Why?
- Should Netanyahu refrain from publicly promoting Israeli positions with which President Obama disagrees? If not, how can he prevent their being used by the Republicans?
- What authority can and should Netanyahu exercise over public statements made by members of his government – whether Danon, Lieberman or Barak?
- Are the complaints about Netanyahu’s interference in the election overwhelmingly partisan? If so, is there anything he could do short of keeping silent on vital national issues (see question 1) that would generate positive comments from the complainers?
Rather than deal with any of the above, Gordis contents himself with snarky comments like “Netanyahu is probably too busy preparing for his next appearance in a thinly-disguised Romney video…” That may secure his bona fides with certain groups of intellectuals, but it does nothing for the reader.
Reading that line in Daniel Gordis’ piece (Not just France with humous, Opinion, 14-12-12) I was reminded of a conversation I had years ago with an American relative. He told me confidently that George Bush would go down in history as America’s worst president to-date. I asked him why and, this being before the invasion of Iraq, he cited Bush’s opposition to stem-cell research and gay marriage. Now my relative is well-versed in politics and American History, which he teaches in high-school, but the fact that Warren G. Harding was possibly inducted into the KKK while in office and James Buchanan essentially presided over the descent into Civil War, that other presidents may have been blunderers or tools of vested interests or reprehensible in their personal lives – obviously none of this can compare with the depravity and destructiveness of opposing stem-cell research and gay marriage!
It should be clear to the reader that the stated reason cannot possibly have been the actual reason. As to the actual reason, my assumption – with all due respect to my relative – is that one simply could not exist in his social milieu and not hate Bush. It had nothing to do with politics, much less with policy; it was about whether one could view oneself, and be viewed by one’s peers, as an enlightened, moral individual or be lumped with the ignorant, the reactionary and the bigoted.
Gordis’ dismissal of Bibi because he [stuck] his thumb in Obama’s eye with the E1 announcement and failed to keep pressing [the Palestinians] to come to the table so a few scattered souls around the world would see that we’re not the obstructionists… is, if anything, even less compelling than the anti-Bush arguments.
So, as with my relative back then, I’m left to assume that Gordis can’t consider Netanyahu for Prime Minister because of the damage to his self-image and position in his social and professional circles. Which of course tells me nothing at all about the candidates and much more than I care to know about Gordis.
There’s an episode of West Wing in which President Bartlet humiliates a religious-conservative talk-show host at a Talk-Radio gathering. He does so by asking her for various personal advice in light of biblical laws of ritual purity, bride-prices and so forth, highlighting how ridiculous they sound. She had no rejoinder, but hey – if the leader of the free world heaped scorn on me in front of all my colleagues I’d probably be flustered too.
Still, his tirade begged a very simple response: “Mr. President, you’re right: Those laws are stupid. But, as a religious man yourself you believe that many statements in the Bible are of ultimate truth and importance. Please tell us which ones are right and which are wrong. In fact, we can cut out the middleman and just have you tell us directly what it is that God wants.”
So when Daniel Gordis praises the newfound “pluralism” in Moshe Feiglin’s willingness to shake a woman’s hand but has only contempt for the religious school that suspended a girl for singing in public, he’s essentially saying that pluralism – “A form of society in which minority groups maintain their independent cultural traditions” – is wonderful… as long as the cultural traditions are good ones.
I like to believe that Jonathan Rosenblum’s heart is in the right place; that he is fundamentally and unselfishly interested in doing good; that his essays spring from that interest. Still, his latest addition to the corpus of Haredi apologia strikes me as both disingenuous and misleading.
He inveighs against the moral failing of feeling superior to one’s neighbor, and then immediately mentions how secular Israeli society suffers from youth violence while Haredi society is immune. While on the subject he finds space to defend Haredim against the accusation of blind obedience to their rabbis.
But the main thrust of the essay is a plea for tolerance and letting go of anger. Given the timing and the reference to his sons – who study in yeshiva rather than serve in the army, but whom he admonishes to learn dedication and self-sacrifice from our soldiers – I can only assume that he’s encouraging non-Haredi Israelis to give up their anger at Haredim for not sharing the various national burdens.
It’s hard to argue in favor of anger towards our neighbors, our family. There’s a prayer, Tfilat Zacah, that we say just at the onset of Yom Kippur. In it, knowing that the coming day, even with our genuine repentance, will not absolve us of sins we have committed against our neighbors, we tell God that we don’t want anyone punished on our account and forgo any claims we have against others. This is very-much in the spirit of Rosenblum’s homily.
But there’s an exception: We explicitly reserve the right to demand that which we are legally owed and can enforce in court. Bringing that point to our context, one can give up one’s anger but steadfastly demand that Rosenblum’s sons, and their whole cohort, get up from their studies and report for duty. One can demand that Haredim contribute their fair share to the GDP and to government revenues (note: It may be that they do – I don’t have the facts before me – but I strongly suspect otherwise). One can demand that their political parties aspire to govern, not merely trade votes for the narrowest of sectarian interests. And in general, one can demand that Haredim, as a group, participate equally with their compatriots in their mutual quests for national independence, for physical and financial security and for the betterment of society.
And one can demand that the terms of this participation be set, like everyone else’s, by our elected representatives, rather than by the Haredim themselves.
For a fairly brief essay, Donniel Hartman’s Letter to President Abbas provides quite a number of statements with which I could take issue, but picking at its rhetorical scabs is trite and tiresome, and frankly: I’m after bigger fish. Here’s what I’d like to know:
1. Hartman pleads with Abbas: Don’t prove the naysayers right. Can we assume, then, that if Abbas answers in the negative the naysayers will indeed have been proven right? That may sound facetious, but in fact it’s a symptom of a serious underlying problem. Let’s come at it from a slightly different angle.
2. What exactly would Abbas have to do to make Hartman say that trying to make peace with him is counterproductive? Does such an act exist? Because if not, if the proposition that Abbas wants to make peace cannot be falsified by observation, then it moves from the realm of logical discourse to that of faith. Is that what Hartman believes, the Abbas’ bona fides are axiomatic?
3. We don’t have 30 more years… Kerry has opened up a … short-term window of opportunity. Somebody should ask “When was the last time the window for peace in the Middle East wasn’t closing?” That, too, could seem like caviling, but someone should certainly ask “What does it look like when the window is closed? Could it be reopened, and if so, what meaning is there to its closing?” In fact, doesn’t the statement that Kerry has opened up a window imply that it had previously been closed?
4. And finally, where are the journalists taking people to task for vapid and self-serving public statements. Why was “How many ‘acts of genocide’ does it take to make a genocide?” a one-time occurrence, when public figures daily say things that are contradictory, meaningless, misleading or insupportable?
Even when interviewing people that they don’t like, our journalists are more likely to sneer and make snide comments than to ask penetrating questions, leaving the reader frustrated and – more importantly – the citizenry uninformed.
In “Eternity Envy”, Jonathan Rosenblum takes us through a progression from average religious Americans through Evangelicals to our forefathers at Sinai and their unquestioning acceptance of the commandments to Rava’s passionate dedication to learning, ending with today’s Haredim. Although there was no attempt to imply a logical progression, the overall flow fits well with the general Haredi fear of seeming under-zealous. “If kashrus supervision is good, isn’t more supervision even better? If modesty is good and covering-up is modest, isn’t covering-up more even better? If separating the sexes is good, isn’t more separation better? And if learning Torah is the best thing, how can one ever excuse doing anything else?”
It’s hard to refute the logic, but when they get to five different supervisions on an oven-cleaner, “Taliban” women dressed like walking tents, and His-and-Hers sidewalks, even Haredim are apt to take stock. And it may occur to people that even if spinach were, pound-for-pound, the healthiest food you can eat (I have no idea, it just came to mind because of Popeye), that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to eat only spinach.
And this is where Rosenblum’s implicit conclusion is unwarranted. Extolling the virtues of passionate Torah learning doesn’t show, ipso facto, that it trumps all other activities all the time. It’s possible that physically defending one’s people will sometimes take precedence. To be clear: I’m not stating that it does, though I believe that. I’m satisfied to point out that Rosenblum hasn’t demonstrated that it doesn’t. Nor am I saying that we’ve struck the proper balance with Hesder, or that absent our being surrounded by vicious enemies it would still be good for yeshiva boys to take a couple of years off to serve. These are difficult issues, and I think they share a Heisenberg-like property that the more specific one gets in proposing a solution, the less confidence one should have in it.
But the fact is, Rosenblum’s failure to mount a rigorous defense of the Haredi position on serving in the army (or in national service, for that matter) is beside the point. What really gets to the rest of the country’s citizens is this idea the Haredim have that they get to decide whether to serve or not. For all the talk about loving their fellow Jews and defending us all with their learning, they make it clear that they’re very-much them, and not us. They vote in the most sectarian fashion possible, and their representatives make no pretense of trying to run a country. My impression is that when in conflict with their surroundings they either retreat or bully, not compromise. For all Rosenblum’s vaunted respect for those who do military service, I doubt that his shul says the prayer for them on Shabbos – and if by chance it does, it’s not typical of the Haredi shuls I’ve attended or heard of. Some Haredim have spoken openly of “secession”, and even if they haven’t been taken seriously, the underlying mindset seems to typify their community.
That, I believe, is the fundamental issue, of which army service is but one application.
6/11/13, JPost (A Reply to Gideon Sylvester)
One typical definition of cheesy is “hackneyed and obviously sentimental”, so your connection to “Blessed are the cheese-makers” is not so far off after all.
It’s one thing to extol the efforts of Berry and McGee, and of the Bereaved Parents’ Forum. Mercy and self-abnegation are qualities that, whether or not they are always appropriate, belong in everyone’s spiritual repertoire.
But there are other qualities equally important, if less photogenic: Thoughtfulness and truthfulness, for instance. Conflating Israel’s being under attack with Israel’s being responsible for its being under attack is neither thoughtful nor truthful. Rather, one has to be willfully obtuse to entertain such an idea. (Either that or one of those EST people from the 70’s who would tell you to take responsibility if a safe fell on your head, but you’re too young for that.) And just to be perfectly clear, when you write of “idealists who envision a perfect Jewish state at peace with its neighbors”, you imply that our lack of peace is due to our lack of idealism – otherwise you were just throwing words together at random.
Another tendentious apposition of terms is “Making peace is tough, and taking risks is frightening,” which implies that we lack sufficient backbone to make peace, that we need the determination to overcome our fear. This ignores the fact that fear engendered by risk is there for a reason, and that “overcoming” it may be a very, very bad idea. Thousands of people were murdered in the wake of Oslo. Did granting weapons, safe haven and legitimacy to terrorists cause that? Would worse have happened otherwise? Impossible to know. But it’s certainly reasonable to assume that the “risks” we took at Oslo ended up going against us. Risks often do that – that’s why they’re called risks. You seem to ignore the very real possibility of terrible consequences if we follow the path you encourage.
Likewise, meeting with The Other isn’t always beneficial – it depends who The Other is. Sometimes you end up like the social worker in 1,000 Clowns: “I didn't like Raymond Ledbetter, so I tried to understand him, and now that I understand him, I hate him!”
You’ve got some ideas that may be worth examining, but you’ve got to look at them, and at everything around them, clearly.
To the editor,
Like most essays on this topic, your editorial missed the essential question. It isn’t whether a top executive can affect the company’s bottom-line by millions in either direction; it’s whether the Compensation Committee has the slightest chance of knowing that about him in advance.
And not only would they have to know that, but they’d have to know (with a fair degree of certainty, considering how much of other people’s money is riding on it) that the 10-million-dollar executive will benefit the company more than a 1-million-dollar executive (by a substantial amount of money or with a substantially higher probability), and in fact more than ten 1-million-dollar executives, 100 middle-managers or 200-300 line workers.
If, with a modicum of life-experience, you’re entertaining that idea, you’ve already lost.
To the Editor,
A few weeks ago I had dinner with an old friend. Driving him back to his home in Har Nof, a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, I was warned to be careful of the pedestrians, who make no distinction between the sidewalks and the street. My friend wondered aloud about what caused this phenomenon and I proposed a theory: It demonstrates their dismissal of any rules but their own.
This came back to me on Friday when I read Jonathan Rosenblum’s paean to Abraham Lincoln. While I share his reverence for Lincoln’s humility, his forbearance and his fair-mindedness, I couldn’t shake the thought that the piece had to be seen in the context of Rosenblum’s campaign to prevent, or at least ameliorate, the Haredi draft. I may be reaching, but I saw this as his way of encouraging the political victors to be magnanimous.
Which brings me back to the jaywalkers, and to a point that I haven’t heard anyone make in the debate over drafting Haredim; a point that I think is central. Despite the terminology of “equalizing the burden” on one side and “destroying our lifestyle” on the other, the real debate has been over whether the Haredim are part of this country or not. Rosenblum has argued that the Army neither needs nor wants the Haredim, that Haredim contribute heavily to Israeli society in many ways and that, left to their own devices, many of them would enlist anyway. All of which misses the point that the rest of the nation doesn’t recognize the right of the Haredim to decide whether, when and how they will serve. Lincoln was willing to put up with almost anything from the South, including an indefinite prolongation of slavery, but he cast the country into war and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives rather than accede to the South’s claim that they were not subject to the Union.
Most of us have not thought of the Haredi issue in these terms, at least not consciously, but it peeks out here-and-there; take for instance the suggestion made in some Haredi circles that they actually go so far as to formally secede from the State of Israel, and of course there is the wall-to-wall agreement that their young men will all go to jail rather than serve. Aside from the purely legal issues, the refusal of most, if not all, Haredi synagogues to say the prayer for the welfare of our soldiers is infamous, despite Rosenblum’s protestations of respect for their self-sacrifice; and when the country’s security is threatened, there’s always film of Ben Gurion Airport thronged with Haredi yeshiva boys skipping town.
Obviously, this is a problem, but it’s a different problem from the one we’ve all been talking about. It’s not about the Army, it’s not about service or sharing burdens, nor yet about the importance of learning Torah. It’s about whether we’re all citizens of the same country. I have no program in mind, but one should always begin by establishing the reality of a situation, and I think a big part of that reality is this secessionary mindset. We need to inculcate the feeling of fellowship, of shared fate, shared rules and – to the extent possible – shared vision. The correct mix of carrots, sticks, self-effacement and sternness is beyond my capacity, but if I’m right, this may get better people thinking about it.