Monday, December 29, 2003

120 Years

Sixty years ago, my twin brother Allen and I were in our first year at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. We were fourth graders, that is for what used to be called English. For Hebrew, we were in the first grade, in a class with students three or four years older than we were, a circumstance that arose entirely out of the sudden death of our father five years earlier. Our rebbi or religious teacher was Rabbi Nachman Mandel, who by 1943 had already taught first grade for about ten years, at RJJ and elsewhere.

Good first grade rebbis are hard to come by. Rabbi Mandel was good, as is his first cousin, Rabbi Baruch Pollack, who is in his fifty-third year teaching that grade. There must be something in the family genes.

The first grade experience was not easy for Allen and me or for Rabbi Mandel. We were rambunctious and more than a bit mischievous – or at least I was. If classmates from those early years are to be believed, I was more in trouble than in the classroom. Doubtlessly, there were ample grounds for the yeshiva to tell our mother to let another school have the privilege of educating us. In fact, for several years we switched to another yeshiva, coming back to RJJ during high school. But in 1943-44, we persevered, in large measure because of Rabbi Mandel’s patience and caring.

It’s doubtful that these days boys like us would get the chance that we got. Yeshivas were more tolerant back then and less nervous about accepting and retaining students who don’t easily fit in. They were inclusive, always trying to get more students and not because of the tuition income since many parents paid little or nothing. School officials and lay leaders understood that it was their responsibility to provide a religious education, as well as a good secular education, and this responsibility was not limited to the best and the brightest or easiest students.

The attitude nowadays in many of our schools is that students who deviate from the norm because they have learning or emotional problems or come from marginally religious homes should be someone else’s responsibility. Even when seats are available, it’s a trifling act to turn away, often on spurious grounds, some who seek admission and it takes little sweat to toss out a kid.

There are schools, especially in the New York area, with more applicants than there are seats. It remains, though, that there has been a sea change in attitude as yeshivas seek greater homogeneity in the student body and in the families that they serve. Problem students or those whose families deviate somewhat from religious or other norms are not welcome. Students who are behind educationally or difficult in other ways are in too many instances expelled. It’s easier to get rid of a student than to be patient and caring. Out of sight is out of mind.

In more than fifty years of intensive communal activity, much of it devoted to yeshivas and day schools, nothing pains me more than the awareness that certain of our schools are cold and hard toward parents and children. In most yeshivas, principals have the sole authority to decide who gets in and who does not and, more critically, who remains and who does not. I could never accept such a responsibility because the stakes are too high. But there are principals who acting without principles are determined that these decisions are theirs alone to make. That’s terribly wrong.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is the example of the Beth Jacob of Borough Park, an all-girls elementary school with 2,400 students that is led by Rabbi Oscar Ehrenreich, now in his fiftieth year as principal. He has molded a school with a strong educational program, Judaic and secular, that is purposefully inclusive. Attention is paid in a discreet way to children with special needs or with emotional problems or from broken homes or social and other difficulties. Rabbi Ehrenreich has created an environment in which students can grow emotionally and educationally.

There isn’t space to recite all of Beth Jacob’s special touches, ranging from the way students from needy homes participate in activities requiring payment without the children knowing that payment hasn’t been made to the pairing of successful students with at-risk kids to mentoring arrangements that involve volunteers. There are about 200 graduates each year and the school makes a tremendous effort to see that each girl is accepted by a good high school.

Sadly, this inclusive and tolerant approach is not in evidence at schools that even boast about their exclusivity and have no hesitation about expelling students. Is it any wonder that despite much rhetoric about the tragedy of at-risk children, the situation continues to worsen? Where do the principle-less principals think the students they throw out will end up?

And this brings me back to Rabbi Mandel. He never became a principal or administrator and always remained a first grade rebbi, for many years at a Los Angeles yeshiva. He has retired and Yeshiva Rav Isaacson-Toras Emes in Los Angeles will honor him on Sunday, January 18 for seventy – yes 70! – years of devoted service to Torah education.

If we add Rabbi Ehrenreich’s fifty years to Rabbi Mandel’s seventy, we have 120 years – the fullest lifespan – of caring and devotion, of service to G-D and His people. 120 years of spiritual and educational achievements that have made a difference in thousands of Jewish homes, in the lives of so many who are now themselves grandparents and parents of yeshiva and day school students.

Rabbi Mandel and Rabbi Ehrenreich have glorified religious Jewish education. There are other excellent people in the field whose achievements need to be noted. But I wonder about those in yeshiva and day school education who preach and practice exclusion, people who deliberately or inadvertently are cruel to parents and children. What will they have to say when they complete their 120 years?

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Geneva Discord

Clear and present danger is a familiar term. As a legal doctrine, introduced by Justice Holmes immediately after World War I, it serves as a rough yardstick to determine whether our governments can restrict basic rights, notably freedom of expression. To curtail liberty, the threat to security or some other fundamental governmental responsibility must be overt.

In an opinion upholding the conviction of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act, Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reformulated Holmes’ doctrine by adding the element of probability. Even if the danger was clear and present, if its realization was improbable, greater latitude would be given to individual liberty.

I will leave it to the constitutional law fraternity, of which I once was a member, to figure out how a concept that in its language and intent is clearly on the side of freedom of expression was employed by both Holmes and Hand in the immediate cases before them to curtail freedom. If we leave the legal arena and explore the political and psychological underpinnings of the concept, it’s evident that the governmental obligation to provide for the security of its citizens will nearly always tip the balance in the direction of allowing actions that are more restrictive of liberty than the pristine words “clear and present danger” would ordinarily permit.

In short, it’s usually better, indeed morally obligatory, to err on the side of caution, to use national security as a sincere – as contrasted to cynical – reason to take actions that limit basic rights. Caution, is in fact, an underlying theme of many social relationships, as when people drive or when banks require additional security. We act prudently or cautiously in much of what we do and while individuals may throw caution to the wind if others are not hurt thereby, governments must minimize risk. That is why we accept all kinds of post-9/11 inconveniences and indignities, at airports and elsewhere.

Which brings me to Israel. Whatever we may think about peace negotiations and the countless issues that swirl in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dangers facing Israel are clear and present and they are not at all discounted by their improbability. The dangers faced from Palestinians and other Arabs are not imaginary or speculative and this is not because of suicide bombers and terrorism. The Israeli government’s obligation to be super-cautious arises from the depressing recognition that too many in the Arab world regard any agreement with Israel – any concessions made by the Jewish State – as interim steps that do not alter the goal of destroying Israel. This is a frightening reality that transcends by far the threats to security that are Israel’s daily fare.

Since its security is endangered and what qualifies as adequate security is a question that cannot be determined by a universally accepted calculus, Israel’s leaders are morally obligated to err on the side of caution and to make decisions that provide for an extra measure of security. They have no obligation to make Washington happy, although they cannot ignore or openly offend the White House, nor are they obligated to march to the tune composed by editorialists, foreign governments, the architects of the Geneva Accord and the retired heads of the Shin Bet.

That’s why the security fence being built is a necessity and not just a good idea and why Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan is preferable by far to Washington’s Roadmap. His speech last week at the Herzliya Conference was extraordinary, at once bold and eloquent, and I think a major document in the history of the State. The fact that the Times went bonkers over it and Palestinians denounced it adds to my feeling that he is on the right track. He is right that Israel should exit from Gaza because it is not in Israel’s interest to control the Palestinians and because remaining there makes Israeli military personnel and other Jews vulnerable without adding to the nation’s security. Hopefully, as well, as the Prime Minister said in this speech, “there soon will be a democratic Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.”

Even as Israel is given the strong benefit of the doubt on how to protect itself, there is room for debate and disagreement over particular policies. Whether and where to build the security fence is a case in point. As wrongheaded as the Geneva Accord is, the hysterical reaction to it in some quarters is overblown and self-defeating because it feeds the impression that Geneva’s opponents are intransigents who will not support any concessions. The advocates of the Accord have a right to their position and they certainly do not have a lesser right to express their views than those who advocate a much harder line.

Yossi Belin’s grandstanding is a turn-off, I suspect including to some who share his outlook. His eye is always on the media and on political forces outside of Israel. The Geneva Accord isn’t his first scheme and I suspect it won’t be his last as he wanders in the political wilderness.

Israel must be given great latitude in security matters. No country faces the dangers it faces and no formula can delineate what constitutes sufficient security. There is a corollary point, which is that as Israelis and Jews of different viewpoints express their opinions about what Israel should do, it’s a good idea for everyone to remember that they are skating on thin ice, that what they advocate is based on what they now know and feel and their views therefore may be subject to change.

I supported Oslo, as did many others, and I have had a change of mind about an incremental approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon and leading Likudniks are now more amenable to territorial concessions. Ideology adds nothing to Israel’s security and it may detract from it because to ideologues new information or new developments are usually inadequate reasons to reconsider their positions.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Scarves and Other Dangerous Objects

It looks like the nation of liberte´ and egalite´, but certainly not of fraternite´, is about to outlaw the headscarves worn by Muslim schoolgirls, they being regarded by officials as symbols of Islamic fundamentalism. French feminists have advocated the ban, claiming that girls are being coerced to cover their heads. As elsewhere, there are objections when girls come to school overdressed, but never when, as happens far more frequently, they come to school underdressed.

If headscarves go, so will skullcaps on Jewish boys, they too being alleged symbols of religious coercion in the eyes of the ever-vigilant defenders of church-state separation, a breed that for far too long has distorted intellectual discourse with its rabid hostility to religion. Danger lurks everywhere, even on the heads of little schoolgirls and little schoolboys.

Islamic fundamentalism is the most significant political development in the contemporary period and it is a clear and present danger to world peace. The Middle East is but one stage, for much of Asia is already convulsed by an ideology that is antithetical to democracy and tolerant of terrorism. Shock waves are being felt in the Former Soviet Union and to a lesser, but escalating, degree throughout much of Europe. It’s frightening to contemplate the course being taken by tens of millions of people whose moderates are extremists by any ordinary calculus. The history and ideology of Islam are blood-stained.

But the issue posed by headscarves is not terrorism or even coercion. It is the ability of those who claim to speak in the name of civil rights to be tolerant of those who are different. Scarves are inanimate; at the most, they are symptomatic of a problem and their removal will not remove the problem. If they do not impede the education of students, they ought not be proscribed.

As for coercion, all of fashion partakes to one extent or another of compulsion. Headscarves are no more the product of coercion than are the sartorial atrocities promoted by Rap culture and embraced by Black and other youth who have been conditioned to believe that clothing which makes them look ridiculous is proper attire. What about the elements of style aimed at young girls, even preteens, which makes them feel that they must dress in a sexually provocative way?

The gendarmes presumably have in mind direct coercion, such as threats and physical acts against girls who are not head-scarved. These incidents must not be ignored, but governmental action should be directed against those who coerce and not against those who voluntarily wear scarves.

A ban on headscarves will not counteract that which is hateful in the Islamic mindset. Admittedly, there may be no effective way to root out the seeds of hatred and the encouragement of violence. But the likely result of the proposed ban is the giving of aid and comfort to Islamic extremists by reinforcing the notion that Muslims are outsiders in a world that is hostile to them. Even assuming that the ban can be enforced – a dubious prospect – it will breed resentment and rather than curtailing fundamentalism, it will feed the trend.

Any society that claims to be tolerant should accept the right of Muslim students to wear head coverings. They aren’t political or ideological statements and essentially they are not religious garb. They are worn out of a sense of modesty which most of us do not accept. Is respect for this attitude incompatible with the ideal of freedom?

It apparently is for those who dislike any manifestation of religion. I believe that French officials are prepared to act because they find the idea of girls wearing headscarves repugnant and antithetical to their notion of modernity. The fact that some girls may be coerced, wrongful as it certainly is, serves as a convenient justification for limiting the civil rights of Muslims.

In general, there is an animus toward religion, including its most neutral forms, in Western societies. This is evident, as well, in the constitutional battle over the Pledge of Allegiance. The goal is the eradication in public places and life of any religious sentiment, even the most indirect and moderate. The doctrine of church-state separation is employed as a club to limit the freedom of religious persons. Headscarves become dangerous objects and, somehow, the word “God” is a violation of the Constitution.

Fanaticism is the enemy of reason and liberty. It is the enemy of reason because neither experience nor logic can dislodge what fanatics have come to believe. It is the enemy of liberty because fanatics are determined to impose their views. The fanaticism of those who detest every religious expression is today far less dangerous than Islamic fanaticism, but it is no less an enemy of reason and liberty.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Rough Justice

Why should we have thought that justice could emerge from the ashes and bones of millions of murdered Jews? Why should we have thought that the smell of burnt corpses would be stronger than the smell of money? Even those who are optimistic about the human prospect should have reflected on whether there could be meaningful restitution to survivors and family members of those who did not survive. Why did we not see that the morally corrosive force of money would transform efforts to seek justice into profit centers for the greedy and well placed, that evil would beget new evil, albeit on a much lesser scale?

A road map cannot sufficiently clarify what all of the restitution litigation, settlements and participating organizations are about. There is the Swiss bank settlement, German slave labor fund, litigation against insurance companies and much more purporting to seek justice against those who stole from Jews, those who abused Jews and those who were complicit in their murder. There have been celebrated victories, as lawyers, accountants, experts, consultants and organizations have feasted on the tragedy that befell our people. True, there are those who have acted honorably and have eschewed any personal benefit. But there are lawyers who have reaped in a day’s work as much and perhaps more than Simon Rozenkier, recently featured in the New York Times, has been paid from the slave labor fund in compensation for the torture and gruesome medical experiments that were inflicted on him in Birkenau which left sterile.

Mr. Rozenkier is suing to get more, an action vehemently opposed by most in the Jewish restitution establishment. Stuart Eizenstat, a good man who has stumbled badly in his determination to forge agreements, argues in a Forward article against Rozenkier’s claim, saying that the new suit violates the agreement with Germany. Why should a person who has not been properly compensated lose his right to redress this wrong?

As he obliquely acknowledges, Mr. Eizenstat got snookered by Germany when it reneged on an understanding that there would be a special fund for people like Simon Rozenkier. In fact, we have all been snookered. We and just about everyone else were conditioned to believe that the agreements would result in some justice to victims. We have been snookered because we and just about everyone else were led to believe that the settlements were for Jewish victims, while in fact we have been fighting the battle on behalf of those who are not Jewish. Much of the restitution funds are for such persons.

While litigation grinds on, we have a good idea of what Jewish victims will receive. It’s evident that the Swiss have successfully pulled off one of the great bank robberies in history and that European insurance companies have successfully cheated a great number of Jewish clients. With few exceptions, survivors have gotten a pittance, if that. Many have not applied, either because they are repelled by the notion that payments can serve as restitution for Nazi crimes and/or because they believe that at the end of the day their efforts would be for naught.

In a period when corporate and Wall Street abuses have led to greater transparency in financial transactions, we know little about how much has gone to enrich those who are involved in the restitution enterprise. We have a right to know how much has gone to individuals and to organizations. We do not need additional small-print ads purporting to inform survivors of their rights. We need information presented in clear language detailing how much has gone to each lawyer, each accountant, each consultant, each advisor, each expert, etc., and how much has gone to the restitution bureaucracy and different organizations.

If this information were available – and it’s not likely to come our way any time soon – we would be shocked and, despite our usual lethargy, probably angry. Without public disclosure, an already sordid story is certain to become more sordid. This is an issue that cries out for investigative journalism by the Jewish media. Our newspapers and other publications must ferret out this story.

Mr. Eizenstat’s book on restitution negotiations is called “Imperfect Justice,” a title that suggests that the agreements fell short of achieving justice. His Forward article refers several times to “rough justice,” the suggestion being that the settlements approximated a just resolution. There is a different and I think more apt way of looking at the term, which is that the justice accorded to the survivors and their families has been harsh and unfair, at times even cruel, as in situations like Simon Rozenkier’s. I asked a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who attends the evening Talmud class that I go to whether he had applied for any of the restitution funds, in compensation for the murder of his parents and all eight of his siblings in Auschwitz. He said that he had, but that his application had been rejected.

Our approach to restitution has been a huge mistake. It has created the wrongful impression that Holocaust memory has a dollar sign attached to it. It has resulted in most people with legitimate claims receiving either nothing or very little and it has limited the ability of persons with legitimate claims to pursue their own cases. It would have been preferable to encourage individual claimants to go after the crooked Swiss banks, the crooked insurance companies, the evil German conglomerates.

We made a mistake and it ought not be compounded by any Jew or Jewish organization impeding those who now want to bring their own litigation.

If we could, we should jettison the entire restitution establishment. It is expensive and largely ineffective and some parts of it are even morally corrupt. Since it is very unlikely that the restitution establishment will disappear, at the least we need to distance ourselves from the lawyers, accountants, functionaries and organizations that are feasting off our still open wounds. They do not add to our memory of the Holocaust. They desecrate it.

Monday, December 01, 2003

No to Same-Sex Marriages

There are plenty of reasons why not to write about the Massachusetts ruling mandating same-sex marriages in that state. Why stand in the path of the Gay tidal wave which targets and smears opponents of such marriages as bigots and worse? This is the most powerful and relentless interest group that the country has seen in a long while and its recent track record is extraordinary. The Gay Rights movement enjoys the unconditional support of key cultural elites and other centers of influence. While surveys show that by a considerable margin Americans continue to oppose Gay marriage, we are enveloped in a public relations apparatus that is likely to convince many who now feel that marriage is between a man and a woman and to think otherwise is to pervert and destroy the institution of marriage that same-sex marriage is, in fact, a civil right.

So why write once more against a development that now seems inevitable, even though not long ago it was regarded as a good deal less than a long shot? Yesterday’s foolish thought has become today’s nightmare. I write because it is necessary to stand up against those who seek to intimidate and to silence opposition to Gay marriages. While we may not be able to prevent them from happening, we may be able to limit the damage to our society.

It is false to history and a distortion of the truth to charge that those who insist that marriage is between a woman and a man are prejudiced and hostile to civil rights. No democratic society has legally sanctioned same-sex unions, at least not until recently, and the billions of people in these societies and their governments who looked at marriage in terms of heterosexual unions were not bigoted. It is remarkable that in a torrent of judicial activism, four judges out of seven on Massachusetts’ highest court have discovered a new constitutional right that is based on nothing more than their personal attitudes. There is nothing in any legal literature to support their radical imposition of a misguided view of privacy and civil rights.

It is of note that the four judges did not rely on provisions of the U.S. constitution, including the 14th Amendment, and they did not order Massachusetts officials to immediately give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If Gay marriage is a fundamental human right, presumably the judges in the majority should have invoked the Bill of Rights and they should have directed that marriage licenses be issued to Gay couples. Why did they ask the state legislature to act?

In addition to the direct damage resulting from the decision, there is much collateral damage and the toll will continue to rise. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law – a decision that I support on privacy grounds – Justice Scalia charged that the majority had involved the High Court in America’s cultural wars. Sadly, this assessment now seems to be on target.

The United States is mired in contentious social conflict with the middle ground disappearing in front of us. Each side seeks to prevail on the issues and in the forum or political territory that is most favorable to its prospects. The heck with people on the other side and there is scarce concern about the erosion of what holds us together. Thus, the right wing is triumphant in Congress and at the White House, while the ultra-left prevails in courtrooms and in much of the media. As the fighting intensifies, moderate views are disappearing.

The Gay marriage decision has further polarized this country. Instead of settling for legal status for homosexual partnerships which would have been a compromise position, Gays have forced a confrontation with Americans who look at marriage in traditional terms and they have been able to do so because this segment of Americans is high status, wealthy and influential. If one looks at the New York Times and other media powerhouses, it appears that we are left with but one civil right that counts. Blacks and other minorities, as well as the poor, must settle for occasional lip service.

There is much to abhor in the policies of the Bush administration, including the traducing of civil liberties and the rights of accused persons by Ashcroft’s Justice Department, reckless economic actions, even greater recklessness regarding the environment and a cluster of policies that make the rich richer and the have-nots even more desperate. There will be a day of reckoning for the sins that are being committed by those who in the name of compassionate conservatism are mostly compassionate about conserving the privileges of the privileged.

And yet, the Gay marriage issue and the collateral juridical hostility to religion have presented me with a dilemma. As much as I am repelled by the hyper-reactionary acts of the Bush administration and the unctuous excesses of right-wing talk radio, I am probably more upset by the invalidation of the Pledge of Allegiance and now the Massachusetts ruling. If I have to choose between unqualified judges who distort Federalism and judges with credentials who reject a neutral and very limited role for religion in the public square, I would prefer the latter over the former.

I suspect that this dilemma is shared by others of a liberal inclination and that several Democratic presidential nominees are beset by internal conflict, even as they remain silent about Massachusetts’ validation of same-sex marriages. I believe that they have been cowed into silence because they have been convinced that to oppose the Gay rights movement on any issue is tantamount to political suicide. In my view, they are misjudging the American electorate, although not the left-leaning segment of the Democratic party that has once more gained control of the primary process.

This leaves Mr. Bush in a strong position. He has invested little political capital in opposition to Gay marriages, probably because it is not necessary to say much since the opponents of such marriages have no where else to go.

As the cultural wars intensify, the prospects for the Democratic Party become bleaker. Powerful conservative forces believe that they must engage in total political warfare in order to protect their values. Much can happen between now and Election Day 2004, especially regarding Iraq. By the present look of things, the Massachusetts high court has made things much easier for President Bush.