Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Not in Sanctification of Money

When the sun sets each day, there are fewer surviving Holocaust survivors than there were when the sun rose. And when the sun sets, there are more claimants for Holocaust funds, as additional lawyers, organizations and functionaries join the already long queue. In short, as the Holocaust litigation docket expands, there is a reciprocal decline in the benefits that may be paid one day to the survivors.

I know that it is difficult to write about the Holocaust without running the risk of trivializing that which was terrifying and beyond comprehension and description. There is another difficulty because to write about Holocaust-litigation and restitution efforts runs the risk of offending survivors. There is now a third risk in that criticism of Holocaust litigation and the organizations that benefit from it may provide material for Holocaust deniers and the likes of Norman Finkelstein, the CUNY professor whose obscene book, “The Holocaust Industry” has made him the darling of Europe’s neo-Nazis.

For nearly 25 years, we experienced something like communal amnesia about the destruction of European Jewry, as if the trauma and pain conspired to obliterate memory. This was changed by the Six-Day War, emergence of Soviet Jewry and the new sense of ethnicity and militancy embraced by many Jews. The Holocaust became a communal and philanthropic priority, with museums and memorials and all kinds of projects in just about every nook and cranny of Jewish communal life.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that the Holocaust would eventually be yoked to class action litigation and organizational needs and greed, two of the dubious charms of American civilization. In fact, Jewish organizations were active on the restitution front long before American Jewry awoke from its slumber. An old-boys network came into being long ago, gaining control of restitution funds and property confiscated from Jews.

In the process, these organizations anticipated or borrowed from the Swiss by creating a bureaucratic maze that made it impossible for survivors or their heirs to regain property, especially in Germany. The sordid story has been covered in detail in The Jerusalem Report, but American Jewish publications have maintained a “see no evil, know no evil” policy, in line with their practice of giving our dysfunctional army of organizations a free ride as they squander each year well in excess of a billion dollars in communal funds.

There are Jewish organizations that are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on Holocaust funds generated by the class action litigation of the past decade. They will have to wait in line until the lawyers, accountants and assorted functionaries take their cut and the surviving survivors get their meager shares. If all goes according to plan, organizational patience will be handsomely rewarded.

If the funds were to be allocated to Jewish education or to sustain communities and institutions that are the direct continuation of what was destroyed in Europe, there would be justification for the use of Holocaust funds for communal purposes. That is not what is happening or likely to happen.

It’s time to regain perspective about the evil that befell our people. The families cheated by the Swiss banks that were in the steal business and those whose property was confiscated have every right, of course, to pursue their claims. As a community, though, we need to shift course and recognize at long last that our actions are sending the terrible message that our Holocaust-related activity is not about memory or renewing tradition but about money and how we can get our hands on lots of it.

To make matters worse, our efforts are aimed in part at securing Holocaust funds for other groups that are willing to stay in the background as Jews fight the tough battle. I attended one meeting on the Swiss funds, in the offices of the lead attorney, a good man who is not seeking a fee. Toward the end of the meeting, a group of Gypsies demanded a share of the settlement and we were told that they would be included, as would other non-Jewish groups. This situation is more pronounced in the slave labor litigation.

It turns out that we Jews are on the front lines and giving the impression that Holocaust-memory is about money and all along we have silent partners who will not get their hands dirty but who are eager to reap the fruit of our activity. Isn’t this nice?

Increasingly we have become caught up in a seedy business that we should stay away from. We cannot justify what we are doing on the ground that a small number of survivors will receive modest payments.

It’s time to say enough, to insist that the destruction of European Jewry not be treated as a pocketbook matter. It’s time to feel once more the searing pain and awe of the Holocaust, to know that court cases distort memory.

Jews were murdered because they were Jews and not because they wanted to preserve their property. They were murdered Al Kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-D’s name, and not in sanctification of money.

Monday, March 19, 2001

A Stone Would Have More Mercy

We do not need Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney, to demonstrate that prosecutors can be bullies, vindictive and blind to justice. These qualities have been abundantly on display in many cases, perhaps most notably in the celebrated trial of Patty Hearst who was kidnapped, kept blindfolded for weeks in a closet, physically and sexually attacked and then prosecuted for joining in the criminal acts of those who had terrorized her. A stone would have shown more mercy.

It is unlikely that Ms. White will investigate President Clinton’s pardon of Patty Hearst. She is off to the races, however, on the clemency proffered in the Skwere case, although all that the President did was to reduce the sentences to what they probably should have been in the first place. Ms. White is determined to have her pound of flesh and then some. She is bereft of any sense of restraint in her crusade against a small and rather defenseless group, against a tiny community of people who live modestly and accomplish much good.

This sharp criticism of the prosecutor is not meant to serve any exculpatory purpose. What was done was wrong, terribly wrong, and apart from the fraud that was committed, an entire community has been tarnished and hurt. Beyond the particulars of the case, I am troubled by the foolish and dangerous tendency of chassidic leaders to enter political waters that involve risks that they do not even begin to understand.

If this case results in the reversal of what I regard as the instinct of chassidic leaders and their followers to embrace political opportunities, it would mean that some good has come out of this tragedy. There is no reason to be optimistic.

The wrongful acts of those convicted in the Skwere case do not give license to prosecutors to demonize a community, to use ugly language that is perhaps unprecedented in U.S. law. In an early stage of the case, I was asked by a highly respected defense attorney whether a formal complaint should be filed with the Justice Department. Guilt by association has no place in American life and it should not become part of the arsenal of a prosecutor who is incapable of distinguishing between the wrongful acts of a few and the hateful impulse to stigmatize an entire community.

This maliciousness has extended into the recent period – in court papers, in grand jury leaks, in providing misleading information to the media. After Mr. Clinton had acted, the media dutifully accepted and reported the U.S. Attorney’s false claim that the fraud amounted to $40 million, which is four times the true figure.

As we know, Ms. White is focusing on the Clinton clemency which occurred after 1) Mrs. Clinton met with the Skwere Rebbe during her campaign, 2) the Skwere community gave her nearly unanimous support and 3) the President – with his wife present – met with the Rebbe. Unless we are prepared to criminalize politics, there was nothing untoward about what happened. It takes little imagination to see that when candidates meet with union leaders, corporate heads, lobbyists and leaders of ethnic and religious groups, those who are being wooed have shopping lists and the support they give is determined by the degree of candidate receptivity to what is being requested.

The Skwere Rebbe is admired far outside of the boundaries of his small community, especially for his kindness and efforts to help others. He has literally been obsessed by the feeling that the prosecution was excessive. Even if he were not emotionally caught up in what had transpired, he would be under a moral obligation to assist persons in his community. In short, it was not only his right to ask the president for clemency, it was the right thing for him to do.

The sense of community that is the essence of Skwere is beyond the understanding of prosecutors who denigrate the lifestyle of its inhabitants and who could not restrain their feelings.

As wrong as the fraud was, what the U.S. Attorney’s office has done in this case is a lot worse. Those who were convicted of fraud are in prison and even with clemency, their sentences are quite long. They are paying a tremendous price for what they did. But what they did arose primarily from stupidity, out of a misguided view that they were helping their community. The prosecutors, on the other hand, are acting in cold blood and under the cover of governmental authority. They know what they are doing and why and their cruelty is deliberate.

This criticism will not deter Ms. White’s office one whit. They are on a bully-ride, with the encouragement of the media and probably public opinion, as well. It’s easy to pillory chassidim. The Skwere’s know this from their own history, a history of persecution and triumph.

Sunday, March 18, 2001

Skwere Trial

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in September 1998)

Shortly after the holidays, the trial of a half-dozen religious Jews accused of defrauding the government is scheduled to begin in the Federal Courthouse in White Plains. All but one of the defendants are members of the Skwere chassidic group and residents of a small town known as New Square in Rockland County.

As the case has proceeded to trial, there have been some disturbing elements, although they do not challenge the confidence all of us must have in the judicial process. Media comment – Jewish and general – has assumed the guilt of the accused, a familiar feature when the defendants are Orthodox Jews. Too many of us have a selective view of the principle that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.

New Square residents did not help matters with their frenzied reaction to the federal investigation, a posture that undercut confidence in their cause. Although what they did was wrong, it fundamentally was the confused reaction of people who did not understand what was happening and whose view of governmental action is liberally tinged with traces of paranoia, the unhappy legacy of centuries of persecution and destruction, too often at the hands of governmental agents.

Nor are the actions and words of the government beyond reproach. In pre-trial submissions, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District has suggested that the Skwere community is on trial, not merely individuals who may have acted wrongfully. The claim is made that –

“. . . many male members of the New Square community choose to pursue religious studies rather than vocational or professional training, and many female members of the community elect to marry in their teens and raise large families. These choices have contributed to the development of a community that cannot sustain – and has not sustained – itself economically, even with the assistance of legitimate governmental subsidies. As a result, the defendants and others have, for many years, chosen and undertaken to supplement the income of community members, and to fund the religious and educational institutions within the community, by defrauding the federal government.”

This smacks of the entirely unacceptable notion of communal guilt. By living in New Square one is guilty, if not of any crime then of attitudes and behavior which somehow must be regarded as harmful to society. Overwhelmingly, in fact, Skwere chassidim live honorable lives.

So far as I know, there is no precedent for the “community is guilty” tack taken by the U.S. Attorney. It is not difficult to imagine the outcry that would ensue should comparable language be used when minority group members are accused of crimes.

If the government would like to provide a full profile of New Square and its reliance on public funds, it would note that governmental expenditures are substantially below what they are elsewhere, if only because public school education which annually costs an average of $10,000 per student in New York is non-existent in the community. The need to invest in social programs to counteract pathologies that are rampant elsewhere is also very low.

New Square was established as a haven from unwanted secular influences, as the government notes, and also as a haven from materialism and hedonism. There is a quiet dignity to the town’s way of life. It is true that most young men pursue religious study, a choice that, to my knowledge, has not been criminalized. As for the adults, most, including women, work, although their income scarcely lifts them above the poverty level.

If it matters, the community has survived primarily because of the modest life-style of its members and the financial assistance given by outsiders, mainly non-Skweres, who admire the dignity and decency of a chassidic group whose members live a simple, religious life.

While New Square is not on trial, despite the government’s unfortunate efforts to the contrary, the case has taken a heavy emotional and physical toll. The point was made in a memo prepared by a medical doctor, a Fellow of Johns Hopkins University, who knows the community. I quote from it at length because it is a moving document that tells an important story:

“I have come to deeply respect this unique community which turns to me for medical care. The sincerity of their religious commitment and the simplicity of their life-styles have impressed, even inspired me time and again.

“The psychological well being of this community has been shattered. Psychological disorders of every sort are shockingly prevalent. Sleep and eating disorders connected to fears real and imagined now abound. Symptoms of paranoia and panic disorders are in evidence in many patients.

“This astonishing turnaround in the community’s psychological well being is clearly coincidental with the intensification of a grand jury investigation into alleged financial misdeeds by some village leaders. The details of this care are unknown to me. It is the human wreckage that has been created in its wake with which I am intimately familiar. From housewives to geriatric patients none are left unaffected.

“This is not a worldly community, and they seem not to be equipped to deal with the stress of the past few years. Because they have no advocate, I would like to express my concern for a lot of fine hard working men, women and children.”

None of this excuses fraud or lessens any individual’s possible guilt. But it adds a perspective to a picture that the government has distorted. Instead of the community being the guilty party, it has become the victim. In many other situations of fraud where institutions have been involved, the strong tendency has been to work out a civil settlement that includes penalties, presumably because the object of governmental action is to combat fraud and not to destroy an institution that provides needed services. In the case of New Square, despite efforts to bring about closure, the government has driven a hard bargain, one that is cruel to people who do not deserve to be treated cruelly.

I write this shortly before Yom Kippur, a period of reflection and forgiveness. Is it too much to ask our government to seek both justice and mercy?

Monday, March 12, 2001

“Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman Are At It Again”

Agree with them or not, there is much to admire about Michael Steinhardt and Edgar Bronfman. They’re billionaires, of course, which puts them in rarefied territory, although even with the market meltdown they have plenty of Jewish company. Like the superrich generally, they get attention, have status and are presumed to be knowledgeable and wise. While experience and logic suggest that certain of these attributes are not necessarily associated with wealth, especially inherited wealth, there has never been a society where money counts that has viewed matters differently.

What distinguishes Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt is their determination to circumvent the established Jewish organizational network by creating their own initiatives and then pressuring others to go along. Michael Steinhardt, in particular, recognizes that it’s impossible to reform our vast mountain of institutional waste and irrelevance. These Jewish dinosaurs will not disappear because dinosaurs do not become extinct rapidly, however dysfunctional they may be. The very bulk of our mad, mad organizational world acts as a protective shield, as an inertial force standing in the way of change. So we go on spending more than a billion dollar a year on these dodos, which will continue so long as people with money are willing to fund organizations that accomplish nothing.

Instead of exercises in futility, the Steinhardt-Bronfman duo establishes its own approaches to contemporary issues. The most notable is Birthright Israel, a huge venture that demonstrates the capacity to leverage relatively small personal contributions to compel support from sources, such as the Jewish Agency and Federations, that may have other ideas about how to spend their money.

The intrepid pair is now fixing on fixing Israel’s image through a new public relations effort to be called Emet. As has become standard fare in the early stages of their ventures, there is much jockeying and acrimony as those who are entrenched seek to resist or at least limit the poachers. I suppose that the philanthropists will have their way, not because they will spend tons of their own money – possession is nine-tenths of status and what you give is far less important – but because everyone believes that Israel’s public relations need to be improved.

Many yearn for the voice and eloquence of an Abba Eban. What we too often get as Israel’s spokespeople are men with jowls who look like Boris Yeltsin and sound like him. They are no match for Hanan Ashrawi and others who are adept at turning the discussion away from terrorism toward Arab children who have been killed and maimed.

Messrs. Steinhardt and Bronfman will be able to create a new public relations mechanism. It may be effective at the margins, but it is unlikely that it will have much of an impact on how Israel is perceived, in part because public relations is a low profession that is most effective when the stakes are small and small fibs go unchallenged.

I doubt that improved public relations could convert Deborah Sontag into a competent journalist, bring fairness to CNN, teach civility to Christiane Amanpour or change the reportage of dozens of newspapers that are not especially friendly toward Israel. There is a culture in both the print and broadcast media that encourages hostility to the Jewish State and it is sustained by too many Israeli journalists and Jewish writers, notably Ha-Aretz, one of the world’s most over-rated newspapers.

When we reflect on the anti-Israel media line-up, it’s extraordinary that American public opinion continues to be overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. This suggests that Israel might be doing some things right.

It’s hard to figure out what the Bronfman-Steinhardt initiative might add to what CAMERA and others are doing, unless it adopts a distinctively confrontational style and that is unlikely to happen. I believe that there are occasions when we must take off the kid gloves.

That should have been the American Jewish reaction several months ago when the Los Angeles Times plunged deeper into the sewer of anti-Semitism with a cartoon as vile as any that has even appeared in a major American newspaper. As stunned as I was by the cartoon and the dishonest email response by its creator to those who challenged him, I was even more shocked by the absence of any organized communal reaction. Far more than we need a new organization, we need a new militancy, a willingness to say that there is a difference between criticism of Israel and old-fashioned hatred of Jews.

Thursday, March 01, 2001

March 2001 - RJJ Newsletter

Two of the handful of remaining day schools for Russian Jewish children are at the brink of collapse because of declining enrollment and, more importantly, declining financial support. At least in the U.S., Russian Jews are yesterday’s story, yesterday’s cause. There are new causes, things called Jewish continuity and commitment. Of course, educating Russian Jewish children has little to do with these goals.

The Russian Jewish experience has not turned out well and not only because of communal parsimony. It’s been more than a challenge to counteract the powerful secular baggage that accompanied these Jews when they left their homeland. They arrived in the Goldene Medinah with aspirations that, with some exceptions, did not include a rebirth of Judaism. What has been saved is a tiny fraction, yet this is significant, for we have been taught that saving a single life is equal to saving the entire world. What has been saved is substantially the result of yeshiva and day school education, the result of programs and commitments that are now vanishing.

This mirrors the ever-tenuous situation of outreach day schools. Too many within Orthodoxy fail to understand that our educational institutions are by far the best instrumentalities for imparting Jewish practices and values to children who live in marginally religious or non-religious homes. The sad fact is that outreach schools constitute a steadily declining share of American day school enrollment, a situation that is made worse yet because most mainline Orthodox schools no longer accept marginally religious children, either because of space limitations or because they fear the impact on the school’s program or image.

We continue to talk a good game about kiruv, as if it can proceed without chinuch. The yeshiva world which has accomplished so much now acts as if we can somehow bring families closer to Yiddishkeit without children having a place to study Torah. Because of the lack of schools that will take them in, far too many Jewish children whose parents might consider a Jewish day school are not studying in Orthodox institutions. They are by and large either in non-Orthodox day schools or in public school. They are also out of our sight and out of our minds and hearts.

The situation is likely to get worse because of misplaced priorities and the absence of effective leadership. Our community has always relied on Torah leadership. It was this leadership that in a previous generation built and shaped the day school movement. We need the direction of Roshei Yeshiva, the people whom we revere and look to for guidance. Nowadays, they are gung-ho about religious schools for Russian children in Israel, which is understandable and meritorious, provided that commensurate concern is shown toward the spiritually impoverished in our own community.

The Roshei Yeshiva are also deeply committed to the establishment of kollels, which too is vital, as elevated Torah study is our lifeline. But here, too, there must be a sense of proportion, both in not exaggerating the achievements of kollels or their capacity to transform communities and also without neglecting more basic Torah education.

As incredible as it may seem, the kollel phenomenon is advancing rapidly at a time when the Orthodox day school world is contracting in many communities. It too often appears that the Roshei Yeshiva are more the led than the leaders, that they go where the money is. If wealthy Orthodox Jews decide that kollels must dominate all else in Torah education, so be it.

The argument is made that kollels produce a trickle down effect, a contention that is scarcely supported by experience. Besides, a trickle is just that and we need lots more, particularly at the level of basic Torah education.

A top-flight kollel was established several years ago in Staten Island by a single contributor. Staten Island is the home of thousands of Jewish children who receive no Torah education. Many of these are in families of Israeli or Russian origin. For all of the high quality of this kollel, it has not had the slightest impact on the community. It could as well be located in Yahoopitz. To be fair about it, our Staten Island schools are also not accomplishing as much as they should in this regard.

When Jewish schools close down or when Jewish children do not have a day school to attend, what happens is usually out of sight and therefore out of mind. Still, we ought to know where the responsibility lies. At least to an extent, the losses that are being experienced are the consequence of choices being made by communal leaders.