Monday, March 25, 2002

A Time to be Silent

The dreckmeisters who are responsible for the shameful Jewish Museum exhibit are on a well-trodden cynical path that unites third-rate artists and museum officials who share the view that sensation is a far better drawing card than talent. In New York alone there are thousands of artists who receive little or no attention, although many are gifted. They lack an eye for self-promotion and the willingness to shock just for the sake of shocking.

There are also no-talent Andy Warhol wannabes – himself both gross and grossly overrated – whose goal is to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. They instinctively sense that all they need to do is to pass off sick art as the real thing. The stuff sells because the media play it up and because museums that are eager for paying customers exhibit it. The Jewish Museum is following an ignoble tradition.

Its exhibition is called “Mirroring Evil,” the incredible point being that certain artifacts of modern culture evoke Nazi imagery. This from a Jewish museum! The concept is inadvertently apt because if the museum would look in the mirror it might recognize that rather than the clich├ęd images of Coca Cola and Lego, the displays are themselves evil. Statements by several of the featured dreckmeisters add to the innate indecency of the exhibit.

The museum has made things worse by its own language. An ad placed in the Times deepens the pain and raises the question of whether museum officials are attempting a sick joke or just don’t get it. One question in the ad asks, “How has art helped to break the silence?” What silence?

There should be silence in the face of an evil that is too monstrous to describe. Instead, we have an ever-escalating array of Holocaust-related activity and advocacy, the result being that the destruction of European Jewry has been cheapened. It has become a political football, just another item on the stuffed agenda of public life and one of many unfortunate historic occurrences. We have eschewed silence, thereby eroding both the memory and spiritual dignity that should intensely inform our reaction to the Holocaust. Instead of prayer and meditation, we have noise.

There have been meaningful evocations of the Holocaust, such as Yad Vashem, Elie Wiesel’s Night and moving lamentations written by the Bobover Rebbe and Rav Shimon Schwab of blessed memory. But the tide has turned decisively against silence and therefore against memory. If there is anything to be said in favor of those who mounted this exhibit, it is that they are honest in their determination to banish silence.

We must face up to the truth that we are overwhelmed by Holocaust-related activities that involve ambulance chasing lawyers, greedy accountants, expensive experts and consultants, publicity hungry politicians, fundraisers, organizational machers and too many others to mention here. The Holocaust is now being represented by litigation, political activity, press releases, staged events and fundraising excesses. Along the way, some attention is paid to the survivors, although in the main they now serve as useful props for their exploiters.

If the Jewish Museum has sinned by imitating museums that have judged art by a sensation quotient, it is also the case that it is following in the footsteps of our recent communal life. For all of our claim to want to help the survivors and their families, they have received paltry sums.

It’s telling that we have to say that the Holocaust and its remembrance is not about lawsuits. I don’t care whether the Swiss, Germans, Poles, French, Austrians or any other European countries or corporations are compelled to hand over more funds. The murdered are no less murdered because their alleged representatives are appearing in courtrooms around the world or because the media carry hundreds of stories about activities to recover stolen funds or property. What the Swiss and others have stolen largely remains stolen because these were masterful thieves.

For all of its apparent good intentions, we do not need an organization of the children of Holocaust survivors two generations after 1945. If we continue on the present path, before long we’ll have a grandchildren’s organization. We do not need the backroom deals of the restitution agencies, some of which have been implicated in sealing the theft of Jewish property in Germany. We do not need self-important machers treating Holocaust funds as their personal play dough. We do not need the nasty politics and in-fighting that has from day one been the story of the Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington.

We do not need political hacks staging press conferences to announce that this or that 90-year old survivor has gotten a check for $392.50 or to announce such famous victories as banks allowing survivors to deposit their modest restitution checks without being charged the customary fee.

Individuals who want to pursue their claims should obviously do so without the raucousness and phony sincerity that have accompanied much of the recent litigation. If they prevail, with few exceptions their victory will be trivial, certainly in human terms but even in monetary terms.

It is right to denounce the Jewish Museum because of its shameful exhibit. The tawdry art on display may set a new low for Holocaust insensitivity but it is unlikely to be the last low, unless our community pulls back from the excesses and inanities that increasingly characterize our Holocaust-related activities.

There is, as Solomon wisely wrote, a time to speak and a time to be silent. Jews have come to believe that silence means weakness, that it is a surrendering to our enemies. We evoke as examples the unfolding Holocaust when too many Jews did or said nothing and also the long period when Soviet Jews were the Jews of silence. It remains that there is a time to be silent. After too much noise and too much activity that send a message that Holocaust remembrance is about litigation, politics and money, we need to be the Jews of silence.

Monday, March 11, 2002

Jews and Journalists

A number of New York City tax assessors were recently arrested in what may be the most serious public scandal to hit us in a long while. They are accused of taking bribes in exchange for substantially reducing the assessments on major buildings, resulting it is said in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. According to prosecutors, the chief conspirator is a former assessor now in private practice, a respected Jew who contributed to and raised money for communal causes, including the Israel Symphony Orchestra and the New Israel Fund.

The story was front page in the New York Times and there were long investigative follow-up stories for several days. So far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a word in the Anglo-Jewish press, although there are key Jewish angles, including the possible involvement of prominent landlords who benefited handsomely from the scheme.

Are our newspapers right to ignore the story?

Not if we use the standard that is employed regularly when the perpetrators are Orthodox. Then there is a feeding frenzy as reporters seek to uncover every connection that puts the religious community in a bad light. We learn about shuls and schools, charities contributed to and the organizations in which the accused persons are involved. Wouldn’t it be right to read in our newspapers that a top macher for the New Israel Fund - an agency that is as self-righteous as it is anti-religious – has been accused of being a class A corrupter?

The answer is no because as they say – or used to say – two wrongs do not make a right. Orthodoxy-bashing does not provide a license to bash someone else. Jewish media should report on wrongdoing by Jews only when there is a clear communal angle, as when an institution is accused of criminal activity or has been the victim of such activity or when a Jew who has a significant organizational or institutional position has been charged. Otherwise, the story should be left to the general media to cover.

This is, in fact, the usual practice. Our publications do not pay attention to run of the mill crime stories, except I believe when the fellows at the mill are Orthodox. There may be a credible explanation for this differentiation; mine is media bias against the Orthodox.

Even when there is a significant Jewish angle which merits coverage in our newspapers, there are ample reasons for restraint. Screaming headlines and overheated stories should be avoided, if only because there is still more than residual validity to the once popular notion that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.

Restraint should be the rule also because of the frequency of prosecutorial inflation, the tendency to make accusations that go beyond the known facts or to use inflammatory language when announcing arrests. This practice – which, of course, some prosecutors avoid – arises in part because there often isn’t a complete picture at the early stages of a proceeding. It is convenient to ignore elements that may raise questions about guilt and it is comfortable for prosecutors to exaggerate because the stratagem attracts media attention – and few members of this fraternity are publicity-shy – and it provides leverage for the plea bargaining that usually occurs down the road. The legal and ethical basis for this approach to prosecutorial discretion has never been disclosed, presumably because there isn’t any.

There certainly aren’t any good reasons for journalists to buy into a practice that is suspect. Yet, prosecutorial overkill plays into the hands of crime reporters who lap up every heated charge and spicy detail as if they are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reporters invariably operate under deadlines and other conditions which result in an extraordinary amount of carelessness.

If we utilize the standard that I have suggested, Jewish newspapers are right to ignore the tax assessor indictments. This is not a Jewish story. By the same standard, because Temple Emanuel is a major congregation and its head cantor has an important role in its services, it is appropriate for our publications to treat the cantor’s arrest on serious pedophilia charges as newsworthy from a Jewish standpoint. Even so, there is good reason for a restrained approach, including the sad display of prosecutorial abuse that accompanied this man’s arrest. He was picked up early in the morning or actually during the night and the operation included a small media army whose interest was perked up by the salaciousness of the story.

For the general media, every criminal case is inherently worthy of attention, although of course, they all do not receive equal attention. There is, I think, a connection between the responsibility of Jewish media and the responsibility of publications and news sources that serve the general society. Unless the fact is fully integral to the story, the general media have no business reporting on the race, religion or ethnicity of persons accused of criminal acts. This should be obvious in view of the opprobrium attached to bigotry or any form of stereotyping. It is a standard that should be easier to meet than the equally valid goal of Jewish newspapers not providing coverage to criminal charges brought against Jews unless, as noted, there is a clear communal aspect.

It remains, though, that the general media regularly offend by dwelling on and even highlighting story lines that emphasize religion, race or ethnic background. Of course, they are selective in their discrimination, essentially giving attention to members of distinctive groups, such as Blacks and Orthodox Jews. With respect to the latter, the New York Times and Daily News are repeat offenders, often including situations where there is no apparent reason to explore that which should be off-limits. Strange or not, the Daily News has gotten worse since Mort Zuckerman, chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, took control of the newspaper.

Sunday, March 10, 2002

RJJ Newsletter - March 2002

I recently visited a small Russian Jewish high school to determine whether it is eligible for certain support. The place was a mess, with the library in total shambles, and the academic program was at a low level. The Talmud teacher could not read the text. At an annual cost of $4,000 per student for a dual curriculum, the school could have done better, but certainly not much better.

Welcome to the underclass of day school education, a world occupied by starved schools, students from poor and immigrant homes, woefully inadequate facilities and severely limited programs. Although not at the school that I visited, there is usually one saving grace, as the terribly underpaid but devoted faculty – especially in Jewish subjects – compensate for some of the shortcomings through their heroic dedication.

When I think of these schools – how little they have and the lack of concern about their situation – it’s hard to sympathize with those who claim that at $20,000 or more per student, special education is short-changed. All children deserve, of course, an education, the opportunity to develop their skills to the greatest potential and to acquire knowledge and competency that will allow them to live more fulfilling lives.

There is therefore something sacred about special education, which doesn’t make it into a sacred cow. Why is there constant agitation – charges and angry demands – about this educational sector when nearly all the rest of education is provided with far less, when as at the school that I visited there are students who will fall far short of their potential because the education they are receiving is primitive and limited, because the schools they attend must get by on a fraction of what is available elsewhere?

If educational resources and funding were free-flowing, so that schools were given all that they need to have to do a credible job, a case could be made for giving lots more to special education, on top of the substantial sums that are already given. Funding, however, is zero sum, so that choices must be made and preferences in one direction inevitably mean that there will be less to go around in other directions. In public school systems everywhere, special education is gobbling up an ever-increasing share of the budget and this has a direct bearing on what is available to support the rest – and lion’s share – of the program.

Two powerful forces contribute enormously to this development. As more students fail in regular classrooms or seem to have special needs, the trend is to shift additional students into special education. This trend is accompanied by ongoing lobbying to provide more services and experts for the children in special education. There are speech experts, hearing experts, counselors and other professional and the bill for all of this adds up to an enormous figure. The extraordinary thing about this is that for the privilege of not entering a regular classroom and having few students to worry about, the experts are invariably paid a good deal more than the teachers who are on the firing line in classrooms with a full complement of students. There is something wrong about this.

It is at times problematic whether special education is beneficial. While there are situations when students require entirely separate classrooms, in others it may be better to integrate the special needs students into regular classrooms. There is, in fact, much talk about mainstreaming, yet the imperialistic nature of special education works against the accomplishment of this goal. Too many students are confined to entirely separate programs for all or nearly all of their education, an experience that cannot imbue them with self-esteem or prepare them adequately for adulthood and fruitful careers. At the least, greater consideration should be given to whether at $20,000 per participant, there might be better ways to deal with special needs within regular classrooms.

This isn’t to advocate the elimination or even sharp curtailment of special education. It is to urge restraint and balance, to consider the claims made for this educational sector in light of the impact of the larger educational enterprise for which we and society have responsibility, as well as in light of the impact on all students, whether in special ed or in regular classrooms.

Friday, March 01, 2002

The Accuser’s Tale

What do Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon have in common, apart of course from their service as Prime Ministers of Israel? Probably a good deal, including devoted even heroic service to the Jewish State. There is apparently another shared factor, something that may have escaped most of us, namely their alleged willingness to betray Israel.

The apparent sins of Messrs. Peres, Rabin and Barak arise primarily from their negotiations with Yasser Arafat and the PLO and their concessions regarding land. Mr. Netanyahu earned his credentials as a seller-outer by conceding much of Hebron and other territory, pursuant to agreements made by his predecessors. But is Ariel Sharon a betrayer? Isn’t he the fellow of Lebanon fame or shame two decades back? A war hero, as a couple of the others are, who has taken forceful action against Yasser Arafat and terrorists? How can he be accused of acts that border on treason, which is what the charge of betrayal is really about?

If you think it absurd that anyone would make such an accusation, consider the following excerpts from three pages of ads in last week’s Jewish Press. They were placed in the name of “Friends and Families of Victims of Oslo.” I have changed the punctuation because in addition to the more serious sin against decency and truth, those who are responsible for the ads are unlearned in the basics of the English language.

• “You – Arik Sharon by staying in office and keeping these ‘disloyal –
incompetent Leftists’ in office with you – are betraying your people and your country.”
• “You – Arik Sharon are now as ‘responsible for these murders‘ as are your Oslo associates who imported their friend Yasser Arafat and his army into our country.”
• “After listening to the ‘speech of surrender’ by this ‘fake Shimon Peres clone’ called Arik Sharon, this ‘Peres clone’ in effect said to the people of Israel: ‘You people of Israel – ‘be damned.’ My first and foremost loyalty is to stay in power and for this I am beholden to Shimon Peres and his Leftist friends.”

Sick and sickening? Of course. These ads are three pages of an amalgam of paranoia and hate. They follow many similar ads and presumably are the forerunner of more such bile.

There is no direct way to challenge people who write in this vein. To attempt to engage them is an exercise in futility and it unwittingly accords a measure of legitimacy to their lunacy. Dementia is a condition that is impervious to reason and facts, they being the primary staples of civil discourse. Because hate is dynamic and always has the capacity to escalate and even breed violence, it is necessary to challenge the haters and those who give them aid and comfort. There is, as we sadly know, a rather recent history that we cannot forget.

It is necessary, in particular, to challenge the Jewish Press for publishing material that crosses so far into entirely offensive territory. I know that these pages are presented as ads, but it says something that no names are provided. I doubt that the paper accepts all the material that is submitted as ads. Nor does the First Amendment and freedom of the press provide a sanctuary or justification for publication of this material. Freedom brings with it responsibility and, hopefully, a measure of restraint and it always entails the obligation to make choices and to exclude that which is totally offensive and defamatory.

It cannot be said too strongly that no Jewish newspaper should publish a stream of hate messages accusing Israel’s leaders of selling out their country. There is a right – and it is also a necessity – to criticize, to question and challenge governmental policies, at times in sharp language. This right was expressed in many publications not long ago when Mr. Barak was Prime Minister. As tough as the criticism was, it was expressed in language of disagreement and generally in recognition of the pressure he was under and the difficult choices he faced.

Disagreement about Israeli security is inevitable because the situation that the Jewish State is in does not allow for ready and foolproof solutions. The country is located in a very dangerous part of the world. In addition to the Palestinians and terrorists, it has to consider and contend with the virulence of Islamic fundamentalism and the persistence of Arab hostility. As much as some of us may think otherwise, it cannot ignore world opinion and diplomacy or the mood at the White House and U.S. State Department.

Israeli leaders make their decisions and negotiate in clouds of doubt. There are no easy choices, no sure-fire successes. There are sleepless nights, arguments with trusted and respected colleagues, constant media scrutiny, pressure from the U.S., intelligence briefings that provide frightful information and they know that every important security decision they make may endanger the lives of soldiers and civilians. Israel’s leaders also know that as events unfold, their choices may turn out to have been errant.

None of this makes them immune to criticism. Precisely because the stakes are so high and there is always the prospect that their actions or choices may prove to be wrong, it is necessary to question and to disagree. It is even proper to say that, as for example in Mr. Barak’s actions, the security of Israel is being endangered. There is plenty of room for disagreement about the Golan and negotiations with Syria, whether Israel should have withdrawn from South Lebanon, whether Israel should remain in Gaza and how much of the West Bank should be ceded.

What there isn’t room for is the kind of hatred expressed in these ads, a hatred that is predicated on the notion that the whole world hates Israel and Jews, that everyone else is our enemy, and that Jews who disagree with this assessment are themselves self-haters. Israel has too many dangerous enemies, but it is nonsense to believe that the whole world hates us. It is dangerous to believe that Israel’s salvation or security lies in our hating everyone else.