Monday, March 31, 2003

One Neighborhood, Two Sets of Rules

We all know that there are three things that count in real estate: Location, Location, Location. North of 96th Street on Park Avenue, there is El Barrio, with tenements, men hanging around during the day, garbage all around – in short, a lower class neighborhood. South of 96th Street there are luxury apartments, fancy shops and affluence. A few short blocks make a world of difference.

So it is in the neighborhood called the Middle East. West of Jordan there is Israel and to the northeast there is Iraq. Both are now places of suicide bombings, the use of civilians as human shields, mistreatment of prisoners and the use of schools and religious places to hide arms and terrorists. There should be one set of rules for both places, one Geneva Convention and one standard for the media to judge what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, here too, geography makes for a world of difference, at least at CNN, BBC and nearly everywhere else in medialand. When Iraqis use men and women as human shields or stash weapons in mosques, they are strongly attacked for using tactics that nearly universally are regarded as offensive to decency. When Palestinians do much the same in Gaza or the West Bank, the likes of Christiane Amanpour regard them as heroes who are fighting against a brutal occupying force.

Israel’s siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where as many as 200 terrorists took shelter was roundly condemned by governments, including the U.S., and the media, despite painstaking efforts to protect both the Church and its clergy. In the end, Israel yielded to pressure and the worst of the lot were exiled to Gaza where doubtlessly they are now eyeless and uninvolved in terrorist activity, as they while away their time chewing sesame seeds.

Super-serious and supercilious as always, Dan Rather intoned on CBS radio that Israel had destroyed the entire Jenin refugee camp. That was a falsehood that he never retracted. Nor did he or other reporters seem to care that Israel had suffered substantial losses in Jenin because it took extraordinary steps to avoid harming citizens who were being used as human shields. Instead of reporting this, the media broadcast around the world to many tens of millions of listeners a fabricated story of Israeli atrocities.

Our government is greatly distressed because American prisoners of war were displayed on Iraqi television, apparently in violation of the Geneva Convention. Israel should be so lucky that its soldiers in Arab captivity would be so mistreated. For them there are no television appearances, no Red Cross, no Geneva Convention and no prisoner exchanges. Their fate is torture and death, as well as the complicity of silence by some of the same reporters who now speak of Iraqi barbaric treatment of U.S. soldiers who were taken prisoner.

There is no reason to suppose that when the war ends the media will learn from the Iraq experience and look differently at Israel’s confrontation with terrorism. The double standard is not a recent invention and while recent events have put it into sharper focus, its continuation is predicated on media nastiness toward Israel and that is not likely to change any time soon. Even as the Iraqi campaign spreads and thousands of innocent civilians are being killed or injured, there is a drumbeat of criticism of Israeli actions that unfortunately result in the death of a very small number of civilians. The New York Times has maintained its nearly daily quota of at least one anti-Israel story that describes how the Israeli military mistreats Palestinians.

In a sense, Israel abets the negative image portrayed by the media by allowing reporters to closely monitor its military operations. Reporters covering Israel are as closely attached to army units as Ruth was to Naomi, although only for the “whither thou goest, I shall go and where you lodge, I shall lodge” portion of the speech. As battles were being fought In Jenin and Gaza and elsewhere, there were reporters and cameramen on the scene and also Arabs who were too eager to give a distorted view of what was transpiring to journalists who were too willing to be duped.

Especially since the media employ a double standard, Israel should restrict access to its military activity. Israel and its supporters also should take a more aggressive approach in refuting media distortions and it must call newspapers and broadcasters to account when they employ a double-standard.

On the road to war, the Bush administration strongly signaled its intention to announce a road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace after Saddam Hussein is deposed. It was already evident before hostilities with Iraq that Israel would have difficulty accepting certain of the provisions of the road map. Furthermore, the indication was that Israel would be subjected to great pressure from the U.S. because of commitments it made to Great Britain and Arab countries that in one way or another have supported the U.S. decision to go to war.

Now that fighting is underway and Arab public opinion has coalesced against the United States, there is the powerful likelihood that the terms of the road map will be made harsher for Israel and that the White House will be determined to compel Israel to accept conditions that Israeli leaders believe are injurious to their country.

While American Jewish supporters of Israel generally support military action against Iraq, it turns out that Arab and Islamic resentment and alienation will serve as the catalyst for what might may be a crisis in American-Israeli relations as the Bush administration seeks to maintain – I think understandably – a measure of good will in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This is a troubling development, but it should not be all that surprising. While the outcome of the war against Iraq is predictable, it is never easy to predict in advance of hostilities what the post-war geopolitical alignment will be like.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Social Insecurity

We must hope and pray that the war will be over quickly and that it will be successful.
The American experience has been that after war – at times, long after – there are apologies for the harm done to the innocent and judicial rulings reversing wartime rulings that sanctioned extra-constitutional laws and actions. This isn’t helpful to those who are long dead or even those who are alive and who suffered because a climate of fear dictated that harsh action be taken to protect against real and imagined enemies. Yet, apologies and the post-facto invalidation of questionable laws and acts are not meaningless. History and truth have their claims.

There is a fascinating dualism to America’s approach to war. We seem to be saying that it’s right to suspend certain liberties when there is danger and that it is also right to repudiate later on this suspension of liberty.

In war and events that precede it, governments and societies err on the side of caution because the calculus of war is always inexact and those who have the responsibility to lead and decide are obliged to take into account threats that may not come to pass. If calculations of risk are to a great extent suppositions in wartime when the enemy is identifiable, they are on even shakier ground when terrorism is viewed as the enemy. Fear, whether of unknown or phantom or real enemies, enlarges the safety zone carved out by leaders. They seek to protect citizens by curtailing the freedom of citizens.

The emotions generated by fear are further fueled by nationalism and patriotism, usually with the assistance of the media, although they too often have second thoughts when the crisis has passed. While it is right to support a nation’s leaders in wartime, because patriotism and nationalism are powerful forces those who rely on emotional elements to generate support need to show a measure of restraint. This is far easier said than accomplished.

Terrorism isn’t a mirage. It is clear and present and a danger and it demands emergency measures. Unfortunately, too much of our country’s approach to security relies on the promotion of insecurity. What we most need, as Israel has shown, is effective behind the scenes intelligence. Instead, we have duct-tape madness, an alert system that relies on false alarms and a continued lack of confidence in the CIA, FBI and the rest of the massive bureaucratic intelligence services that too often are more engaged in turf wars than in conducting war against terrorism. As I wrote after September 11, if the quality of Israel’s intelligence would be of the level that we have experienced in this country, G-D forbid Israel would have been destroyed by the enemies who surround it.

What is now happening is largely a response to the failure to anticipate and prevent September 11 –isn’t it incredible that this failure has yet to be investigated! - and also to ensure that should anything untoward happen, officials could claim that they warned us that there would be further acts of terrorism.

Apart from prudence and alertness, there is little that ordinary citizens can do to counteract enemies on our shores. We can best advance our nation’s well-being by going about our lives in a normal fashion, again in line with how Israelis have attempted to act in the face of dangers that dwarf anything confronting the U.S. The scare tactics employed by our Homeland Security people scare no one but us.

In the name of security, air travel has become an increasingly difficult ordeal, with indignities being justified as necessary to avert terrorist acts. In the process, the airline industry which is vital to the country’s economic well-being and security is near collapse. Hard-pressed state and local governments are being compelled to go deeper into debt, allegedly to protect the million – or perhaps many more – possible targets that might be attacked. We are expected to accept all that is occurring unquestioningly.

As always, there are those who profit from the insecurity business, including those who sell security equipment and services. The insurance industry is being aided and abetted by the climate of insecurity as it pulls off one of the great rip-offs that this country has seen by massively increasing rates in anticipation of payments that it will never make.

When the war against Iraq is won – and hopefully very soon – the U.S. will still be engaged in the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorists. Only that then the stakes may be higher and our goals more difficult to achieve because much of the world is against us and Islamic fundamentalism is apt to become more potent. There will be tough choices and great temptation to fight the war against terrorism primarily by inducing a sense of greater insecurity. The war against terrorism is almost certain to be prolonged and it will be a war without normal boundaries and without readily identifiable enemies. This imprecision is likely to breed additional fear, for the unknown is a potent breeding ground for fear.

Left free to roam in the psyche of a society, fear transforms rumor and supposition into assumed truth. Persons who are even loosely connected to suspected terrorists are transformed into co-conspirators and the assumption generally is that those who are suspected of terrorism are all guilty. It’s easy, even comforting, to yield to fear and there is some justification for allowing emotions to take over because the stakes are terribly high and the risks are great. Today’s terrorism is of a geographic scope that is unprecedented and because of the possibility of chemical and biological warfare, it is also of unprecedented danger.

In every war that America has fought, this country’s democratic principles have been its greatest strength. We must understand this, especially when we go to war against terrorism.

Monday, March 17, 2003

The War of the Jews

As I write – the day before Purim – it appears certain that the war against Iraq is about to start. According to Pat Buchanan, an unrepentant serial anti-Semite and others in his Amen Corner of Jew-haters, this is a Jewish war. At least that is what he said the other day on CNBC as he went beyond Congressman Jim Moran’s offensive statement that the U.S. is heading into a war with Iraq because of the Jews and into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion territory by concocting a vast conspiracy involving Jews in government and the media.

Why do TV and cable talk shows give so much prominence to Buchanan? The First Amendment may give him license to fantasize and lie and preach hatred but it obviously does not oblige anyone to give him space and airtime. So far as I know, no other bigot is given the opportunities regularly afforded to this one by the broadcast media. Our defense organizations do kazatzkes on their heads trying to limit obscure and entirely inconsequential hate-mongers while they seem to accept the notion that Buchanan is different. I was recently asked to join with other Jews in a protest against an appearance by David Duke, a loathsome character who is far less of a threat to Jewish well-being than Buchanan is.

The other participants in the CNBC program duly protested against the notion of a Jewish conspiracy, yet they did not do so with passion. The angriest retort was from Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic and an excellent journalist, who exploded when Buchanan included his magazine among the conspirators.

One possible explanation of why Buchanan gets away with comments that are far more odious than anything that was said by Trent Lott is that he is regarded more as a celebrity than as a public figure in the political sense. The rules for celebrityship – how outrageous they can be – are different and more lenient than they are for political personalities. Thus, while Buchanan has said things that are at least as bad as what Le Pen has said in France and Haider in Austria, since he speaks as a journalist and not as a leader, he is given a good deal more leeway. Indeed, Buchanan’s pathetic showing in the 2000 election season has added weight to the conclusion that he is a political lightweight. This circumstance provides little comfort.

Buchanan is essentially a far right-winger and like others of the right wing, he blends a touch of populism into his message of hate. Congressman Jim Moran is elsewhere on the political spectrum, he being an anti-war Democrat who has now demonstrated anew the old political truth that the ideological extremes manage to find common ground in their defamation of Jews. Buchanan and Moran are well matched and they are not strange bedfellows. Under much pressure from within his party, Moran has apologized for his “insensitive” remarks, a word that leaves me wondering what exactly it is that he apologized for.

The strange thing about the charge of Jewish warmongering on Iraq is that there have been few major public issues during the past generation on which American Jews have been so divided. My rough guess is that there are at least as many of us who are against the war as there are those who are for it and that among those who are for the war, more than a few are ambivalent. There are Jews who support President Bush’s determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein and by force if need be, yet who are also fearful of the consequences to Israel, both during military action and afterwards.

It is the case that Jews who are more committed to Jewish life are, in the aggregate, more solidly in the pro-war camp than are those Jews who are significantly less attached to our community and traditions. Even so, this provides paltry support for the absurd claim that Jews have concocted a conspiracy to draw America into war or even to Moran’s silly notion that were it not for the Jews, the President and his key advisors would not be on the course that they have taken.

By my rough calculation, Jews who support the President’s Iraq policy constitute no more than 1% of the entire population of the U.S. I know that our tribe is powerful and influential, but certainly not that powerful and influential.

For all of the loathsomeness of the recurring theme of a Jewish conspiracy to dominate or to bring about war, we need to reflect on whether we have contributed to a wrongful perception of how much power we are exercising through organizational activity that is mainly meant to induce contributors to contribute and politicians to pay attention. We tend to boast about our strength and accomplishments and while boasting is nearly always inherent in organizational life, the fact that we are blessed – or as I see it cursed – with so many organizations results in an abundance of boasts about our power and influence that is virtually impossible for persons who are not Jewish to ignore.

I have touched on this theme previously and Michael Kinsley dug into it in an on-line essay for Slate. He collected some quotes from AIPAC’s website, such things as President Clinton’s description of this lobby as “stunningly effective” and Newt Gingrich’s exuberant claim that AIPAC is “the most effective general interest group…across the entire planet.”

American Jews have never understood that real power is discrete and that our public persona which is primarily designed for fundraising and publicity purposes is an open invitation to others to consider us mega-powerful. Put otherwise, our army of organizations have contributed to the bizarre idea that we actually have control of the
U .S. Army.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - March 2003

We constantly hear and read about Jewish unity or the lack of it. Unity refers not so much to the absence of disagreement, a state that is unattainable in human relations, as to a sense of community or commonality, the feeling that however much we Jews may differ, we are one people, am echad. This ideal remains a goal, but in practical terms it is a far off goal and nowadays it is a rhetorical device, perhaps the topic for a sermon. In view of what has transpired in contemporary Jewish life, inter-Jewish unity is illusory. Our unity – our am echadness – has been shattered by the wholesale rejection of our traditions, beliefs and practices by a large segment of American Jews, many of whom are of questionable halachic status. We can hope that we would be one, but we aren’t.

What about Orthodoxy unity, the internal relationships of the ten percent of American Jews who identify themselves as Orthodox? They should have a sense of community, in part because of their limited numbers and also because of their commitment to halacha and to Torah studies.

From the look of things, the Orthodox are beset by intensive, seemingly ceaseless, conflict. Their divisions are real and they are not trivial, for they intrude into nearly all that occurs within Orthodox life, including education, attitude toward Israel, relations with the non-Orthodox, reaction to modernity and lifestyle. Worse yet, the situation is worsening, as our different parts are increasingly set apart and bereft of any cooperation, a point that was underscored during last year’s Washington rally for Israel.

Nearly forty years ago, I sat in the Staten Island home of Reuben Gross, along with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, both of blessed memory, and we devised what came to be the National Jewish Commission of Law and Public Affairs or COLPA. I was the first president of this volunteer group of Orthodox Jewish lawyers and social scientists. We played a pivotal role in forging a body of law that can be described as the rights of religious persons, most notably the rights of Sabbath observers. That was one of our major achievements. Another important accomplishment was the spirit of cooperation among major Orthodox groups, ranging from the Modern Orthodox to the yeshiva world. Our legal briefs – and they were quite a few – were on behalf of a united Orthodox community.

In the 1960’s I was active in both the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel. While I was alone in this, at least such a pattern of voluntary organizational activity was possible. It no longer is.

Sadly, as the Orthodox community has grown in confidence and accomplishments, the sense of community has eroded. In an ironic way the growth itself may be a catalyst for the loss of cooperation because as subsections within Orthodoxy have become stronger, they have gone their separate ways.

Religious conflict among people who are relatively close and yet also separate partakes of the same psychological dynamics that often make family conflicts so intense, even brutal. As the Orthodox have become stronger, they have in a sense turned on each other, coming with regard with greater distaste those with whom they share much than how they regard other Jews who are more distant on the religious continuum. While we may understand the emotional roots of what is occurring in our community, Orthodox in-fighting is no more pretty or comfortable than family in-fighting.

Apart from the emotional aspect, intra-Orthodox divisions do, in fact, occur over serious issues. These issues can be summed up as the divergent reactions to modernity, with the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors increasingly distancing themselves from what is occurring in the host society, while the Modern Orthodox embrace as much of modernity as they can somehow rationalize as consistent with halachic requirements. To complete the picture, the centrist Orthodox accept certain aspects of contemporary life and reject others. There is even an ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe that constantly attacks the rest of Orthodoxy and this group appears to be far more at home with irreligious and even anti-religious Jews than they are with most other Orthodox Jews.

There is scant reason to promote friendly relations with this well-funded and publicity-hungry fringe so long as it conducts an on-going campaign against other religious Jews. However, with respect to the rest of Orthodoxy – 95% or more of the community, there is now an obligation to promote unity, to emphasize the feeling of one-ness and being part of the same religious community, even in the face of diversity and a measure of conflict.

In particular, it is to be strongly urged that the era of bad feeling that has prevailed for far too long among the various segments of Orthodoxy come to a close. The yeshiva world and the world of Yeshiva University needs to cooperate more even as they pursue somewhat divergent paths. This means that each sector must recognize that the preserving and building of Torah Judaism in this country is a partnership. This partnership is often evident at the local level, in our shuls and schools and in other activities, as well. What is absent is a similar feeling at the larger communal level.

There is much that separates Yeshiva University and the yeshiva world and this is not going to change anytime soon. I am not advocating that we ignore the differences. I am advocating that we look at what brings us together in the common goal of preserving our great heritage.

Kiruv and Chinuch

What follows is the sort of story that most yeshivas and day schools would trumpet. Rightly or not, at RJJ we have strictly adhered to a policy of modesty in public relations for thirty years, issuing no press releases and reserving mention of our achievements for the Newsletter. We do not like hoopla or hype and while we have been told that we have suffered as a consequence because too few knew of our good work, that’s the way we are.

Now to the story. It’s my view that the separation, especially in the yeshiva world, between chinuch (Torah education) and kiruv (outreach) is damaging to both vital activities. Contemporary Jewish life requires that these two primary modes of preserving our heritage be integrated, even intertwined, particularly in our schools. They are integrated in the small number of day schools that serve immigrant or newly-observant families. In some of these schools, nearly all of the students are from marginally religious homes. Without wanting to diminish the importance of what these day schools have achieved, the Judaic benefits often are not lasting.

It’s preferable to have “kiruv” students mainstreamed in regular yeshivas and day schools. Unfortunately, most of these schools are not interested in such students because of space limitations or the inability/unwillingness of parents to pay the asked for tuition or simply because they don’t want them.

Of the students at the Staten Island schools, notably JFS, 122 are placements through Oorah, a fine kiruv organization that encourages marginally religious parents to send their children to a Jewish school, rather than public school. Oorah subsidizes part of the tuition – about $1,500 per student – which obviously is far below what it costs to provide an effective dual religious and secular educational program.

These students – and they aren’t the only ones we have from marginal homes – are not separated or labeled as outreach students. They are mainstreamed in every respect, although they do receive tutoring and other Judaic enhancements. The results over the years at JFS have been just short of spectacular, as the students have grown in their religious commitment and nearly all have continued on to Jewish high schools. Few day schools in the U.S. match JFS’ remarkable record.

Mainstreaming works because it is the better way. JFS also has the benefit of the talent and commitment of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich, the Dean, and his devoted staff. Zev Wolfson, the noted philanthropist, and Staten Island’s own outstanding outreach leader, Rabbi Nate Segal, have provided support for the special attention that these students receive.

We hope that our parents and supporters are proud of what has been accomplished. As I think of it, what RJJ did for JFS not very long ago is a glorious chapter in the history of American Jewry.

Monday, March 10, 2003

When Will It End?

PETA, the nasty organization that promotes the unethical treatment of humans, has sunk to a new low. Not long after its already notorious letter to Yasir Arafat protesting the use of a donkey in a suicide bombing while saying nothing about the murder of civilians, the group has launched a “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit that in pictures and words equates the murder of millions with the treatment of animals. I expect that the sociopathic mentality that drives these misfits will conjure up new violations of human dignity.

Fifty-eight years – two full generations – have passed since the Nazi death machine was crushed. Fifty-eight years after the destruction of most of European Jewry, the Holocaust is more alive than ever in our minds and actions and more alive in the minds and actions of many others. It exists as metaphor and ideological slogan, as an opportunity for litigation and publicity, as a spur for fundraising. As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, activities exploiting the Holocaust continue to increase. If only a fraction of what is now being done would have been done while Jews were being murdered by the tens of thousands!

The situation is certain to get worse. A reader has sent me a tape of a “comedy” routine performed recently on HBO by Sara Silverman, a young woman of little talent and much vulgarity who apparently has discovered the old idea that being outrageous and obscene is regarded in some quarters as being funny. Since Silverman is Jewish and has no sense of boundaries, it’s not surprising that the Holocaust serves as a verbal prop for her outrageousness.

It’s also not surprising that popular culture has exploited the Holocaust. What happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere is in the public domain, both as historical fact and as a contemporary issue. Inevitably, there will be movies and television shows and all the rest that we have become accustomed to. While often the intentions are good, the inevitable result is to trivialize, if not also to cheapen and coarsen. In Hollywood and on Broadway, Springtime for Hitler is year-round.

Interestingly, as a subject, slavery has been treated with greater reverence, at least since the Black Revolution of forty years ago. Why the contrast? Could it be that through our own promotion and exploitation of the Holocaust we have created a Frankenstein that we can no longer control?

There are Jews who have desecrated the Holocaust. Mel Brooks is no Sara Silverman but there is a common denominator. Last year, the Jewish Museum, one of our major cultural institutions, made a distinctive contribution to the desecration of the great genocide. Even PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” has Jewish roots. We are told in its press release that “the project is being funded by a Jewish philanthropist who has also worked with Jewish organizations that highlight the atrocities of the Holocaust. The project is under the direction of Matt Prescott, who is Jewish, and members of whose family perished at the hands of the Nazis.”

The Holocaust is being vulgarized by popular culture and by those with an ideological agenda. In a way, it has also become the victim of the abandonment of Judaism by the vast majority of American Jews for whom very little is sacred. If our past does not occupy their hearts and souls with feelings of awe, why should they regard the slaughter of Jews as a transcendent experience that must not be cheapened?

Sadly, we have promoted the image that commemorating the Holocaust is about money, with abundant helpings of public relations and small measures of solemnity added to complete the picture. We are awash in litigation and restitution and whatever else our obese organizational infrastructure can attach a dollar sign to. For all of our advocacy and smug celebrations of puny triumphs, Holocaust survivors have, with few exceptions, come away with a pittance and this isn’t going to change because most of them are now dead and those who aren’t serve primarily as useful foils for the noise-makers and money-seekers.

Those whose families have bank accounts and insurance policies that were not honored or art that was stolen should be encouraged to seek justice. The rest of us should butt out of the money game. The more we attempt to extract money, the more will others regard our restitution efforts as opportunistic.

Let’s face it, while they have had some uncomfortable moments, the Swiss have pulled off one of the great bank thefts in world history and nothing we now do will alter this. Major European insurance companies have succeeded in the steal business and that too isn’t going to change. We need to tell class action lawyers to chase other ambulances and the Big ____ (fill in the dwindling number) accounting firms to focus on other rip-offs. The conference-hopping corps of Holocaust professionals should be exiled to retirement in Miami where they may run into survivors who have been duped into believing that they will be taken care of. Most importantly, let us remove the $ sign from Holocaust activities. We must remember, of course, the great tragedy of our people but we must remember in ways that are solemn and appropriate. As I wrote some time ago, the murdered Jews died in sanctification of G-D’s name, not in sanctification of money.

The chance of any of this happening is about zero. Too many in organized Jewish life now have a stake in exploiting the Holocaust. They no longer know how to act otherwise. It’s fifty-eight years since the Nazis were crushed. The number of survivors decreases each day, yet we expand our alleged advocacy on their behalf. I imagine that when 2045 arrives and, at most, there will be a tiny number of Holocaust survivors, these activities will still be expanding.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Kosher No More

I believe that kosher food laws are a valid application of a state’s power to protect against fraud. Whether they are needed or wise is another matter. Now that the issue of constitutionality has been settled because the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling invalidating New York’s law, it’s time for those who have supported these statutes to consider whether to press for a revised law or to recognize that in the scheme of kosher food certification, government’s role is now very limited and may result in confusion.

Early signs are not promising. Quickly after the Supreme Court announced that it would not consider the issue, New York officials got into the act declaring that they would do all it takes to maintain that which need not be preserved. Governor George Pataki is especially determined that Albany find a way to resurrect the dead. Predictably, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and others have vowed that New Yorkers will continue to have an arrangement that few now rely on. Apparently no one in officialdom thinks that it might be a good idea to close down the office that has supervised kosher food inspection, an act that would save a bit of money during New York’s unprecedented budgetary crisis.

In fairness, the officials cannot be faulted, for they are reacting to the painful sounds coming from some of the Orthodox. Agudath Israel’s spokesman has declared that the invalidation of New York’s regulatory scheme is “disappointing and dangerous.” Dangerous to whom? People who eat kosher don’t rely on the state’s inspectors to ensure that their butcher or restaurant isn’t passing off as kosher something that isn’t. I am certain that the inspectors themselves have not relied on the now invalid law to determine where they eat or shop. People who eat kosher depend not on the state but on certification agencies (several of which may not be all that reliable) and on individual rabbis, as well as on their faith in proprietors whom they trust.

State inspection arrangements may have the unintended consequence of misleading consumers. There are clear violations of kosher standards that New York’s inspectors have never paid attention to. There is a cadre of rabbis – they claim to be Orthodox – who have a single standard to determine whether they will provide certification, namely whether they are paid handsomely for this activity which requires little exertion since they supervise nothing. It is well known that some certified restaurants and bakeries sell or serve bread on Pesach – I think that this is against our religious law – and they are undisturbed by the state’s diligent inspectors. The fact is that the notion of a comprehensive state supervision system is largely a mirage.

When New Jersey’s kosher law was struck down several years ago, that state devised an arrangement which essentially allows each proprietor who claims to be kosher to indicate who or what standard is being relied on. Thus, as in the case of the Comack butchers who challenged New York’s law, a butcher could display a certificate indicating that the shop is certified as kosher by Rabbi X, a Conservative rabbi whose standards differ from what the Orthodox require. If Reform clergy certify as kosher something that isn’t kosher by anyone else’s standard, that would be okay under New Jersey’s present arrangement.

There is talk of New York going in the same direction, which would be a bad idea. Any state involvement in enforcing any kind of kosher food law could give rise to the same constitutional challenges that have led to the demise of New York’s and New Jersey’s statutes. More importantly, New Jersey’s approach could mislead a consumer who adheres to halachic parameters of kashruth and relies on a certificate signed by a rabbi who unbeknownst to the consumer adheres to a far less stringent standard.

If, as now is the case, all bets are off regarding what a state can regard as kosher, those who have advocated state action should face reality and change course. I cannot figure out why any Orthodox group would now want states to have kosher food laws of any kind. At the most – and here too I am skeptical – they should advocate the strengthening of anti-fraud laws to include kosher food laws as the ground for legal action by those who have been deceived.

My skepticism arises from a sense that judges will not want to get into this thicket. Furthermore, by pressing an issue that no longer should be pressed, Orthodox groups are giving an opening to those who mock our religious practices. This past Sunday’s New York Times featured a smart-alecky column on the Comack case that included the nasty comment that inspectors “were guided by a 16th century code of Jewish law.” The reference is to the Shulchan Aruch, an epic spiritual and intellectual achievement that has guided Jews and helped sustain us for twenty generations.

Despite all the reasons why state officials and Orthodox leaders should allow kosher food laws to expire, that’s not likely to happen, in large measure because politicians go to extremes to serve groups, even when there’s no reason to. What is happening to kosher food legislation is just a tiny part of the large dysfunctional picture of how laws are enacted to accommodate the imagined needs of certain groups.

At the same time, groups do not know when to let go, when to acknowledge that a law or program or some other governmental benefit has outlived its usefulness and it’s time to move on. Groups live on perception, on how public officials and the public look at them. They are fearful that if they do not try to retain what they already have, they will be looked at as weak and not deserving of attention or respect. By clinging to that which is no longer necessary, groups primarily deceive themselves.