Friday, April 23, 2004

A Strange Way to Show Tolerance

There are but two problems with ultra-modern Orthodoxy. One problem is its style. The other is its substance. All the rest is commentary.

Certainly, money is no problem. What these folks preach resonates with some of our super-rich who love to hear how the rest of the still small Orthodox world has fouled up Jewish life. Despite their minimal achievements in Jewish education, scholarship and chesed activities, the ultras score big in public relations and fundraising because Orthodoxy-bashing sells.

The ultras speak of inclusion and tolerance, suggesting that this is what separates them from other Orthodox Jews. It turns out that their notion of tolerance is selective, that somehow they manage to be intolerant, even nasty, toward religious Jews who are more traditional than they are. They rarely say anything not nice about the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox or about their leaders or organizations. The gloves come off when they go after Jews with whom they should have a closer affinity. A case in point is the recent dinner of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the upstart seminary established by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a man of talent and ambition. The event featured a coarse attack against Yeshiva University by Howard Jonas, Chovevei’s lay chairman and the founder of IDT, who demonstrated anew that money can buy a great deal – including communal positions – but not wisdom or class.

Why the attack? Dinners are supposed to be tepid affairs at which persons who part (or pledge to) with some of their money are found to have extraordinarily admirable qualities that even close friends and relatives were previously not aware of. Why charge that at Yeshiva University, the “gutless and spineless” have joined “in a coalition with the mindless and senseless”? Mr. Jonas has formidable charitable accomplishments and he has promoted Torah study at his company. Intolerance is not his style, which adds to the puzzlement over his remarks.

Within the ultra subgroup there is an environment that encourages hostility toward the other Orthodox, as if this is the subgroup’s reason for existence. Even as the ultras claim the high ground of tolerance and openness, they can’t avoid bashing the Orthodox. This is how they distinguish themselves from other Orthodox Jews. This instinctive quality is evident when the ultra feminist claque gathers and also at Edah conferences.

If the ultras want to have a seminary, that’s fine, but can’t they go about their business without being hostile to those who embrace a more traditional brand of Orthodoxy? Incidentally, while it is true as the New York Times reported that the bulk of Chovevei students are drawn from what might be regarded as Yeshiva University’s ranks, because of the size and continued growth of Y.U.’s seminary, the impact on it is no more than minimal. The Jewish Theological Seminary may be more adversely affected because its enrollment is relatively small and it will lose more traditional applicants to Chovevei.

On the substantive side, the ultras uncritically accept modernity, as if the Orthodox critique is little more than the eruptions of Neanderthals who mindlessly reject nearly all that modernity offers as they seek a return to the ghetto. In the compound term “Modern Orthodox,” being modern is the dominant element. There is the ultra’s preferred slogan, “the courage to be modern and Orthodox,” as if it takes courage to be modern.

While the ultras find fault with religious Jews, they scarcely identify what it is in modern life that they do not accept. Are they unconcerned about the smorgasbord of social pathologies that harm young people, specifically including Modern Orthodox youth? The ultras are agitated because they believe that too many of the educators in day schools are charedi. There is no apparent concern about cable, drugs, movies, language, popular culture and all of the rest that is available in the wonderful world of modernity. If we just got rid of the frummies, day schools would be wonderful.

The ultras, along with other Modern Orthodox, deserve to be respected on certain issues that divide the Orthodox, notably attitudes toward Israel and secular education. But they need to be more understanding of why many religious Jews who espouse an openness toward what society has to offer have moved toward greater religiosity, toward an escalating break with modernity. There are more than a few ex-moderns who have similar family and educational backgrounds as the ultras and have the same kind of jobs but who have come to believe that much of modernity is contrary to Torah law and morality.

Co-education – particularly at the high school level - is a useful illustration of this point. Those who advocate single gender schools are often derided, yet there is abundant evidence that opponents of co-education are on solid ground. At the least, they deserve a more respectful response than being characterized as fundamentalist fanatics. The ultras ought to reflect on a recent article in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, a respected Modern Orthodox principal and the brother of Avi. Its title is “Morality in Our Day Schools and High Schools.” Rabbi Weiss writes:

“Anyone who has any contact with Hebrew Day High School kids understands that the level of morality and modesty in both girls and boys has sunk to the lowest levels in our history.” And then, “In one high school that I visited, the age of sexually active girls was as low as the eighth grade. One young man in a reputable Hebrew Day High School proclaimed that his goal for his senior year was to ‘score’ with every freshman girl. Morality has sunk to levels in which we, as a united Jewish community, must cry out, ‘Will they make a harlot of our sister?’ ”

Is it too much to hope that instead of attacking the Orthodox, the ultras will attack this situation? Is it too much to hope that their sense of tolerance will be expanded to include other religious Jews?

Monday, April 19, 2004

Ariel Sharon’s Finest Hour

No Israeli Prime Minister has been reviled as much as Ariel Sharon and none has shown a comparable talent for strategic planning. Although what lies ahead is risky and uncertain, what is certain is that he has scored a remarkable diplomatic triumph. While we need to be grateful to President Bush for the backing that he has provided, even more we must appreciate the resourceful Israeli leader for thinking out of the box, for departing from conventional wisdom about Palestinian-Israeli relations. Mr. Sharon has survived military, legal and political battles – although not unscathed – but what we are witness to is his finest hour.

It now remains for him to go forward, hopefully with the begrudging support of fellow Likudniks. He already enjoys widespread support among Israelis.

The core of Mr. Sharon’s vision is the realization that neither Israeli security nor its relations with Palestinians can be determined via negotiations, whether they be bilateral or multi-lateral. This isn’t because he has no faith in diplomacy. Rather, he knows that there is no one on the other side of the table to negotiate with, that after Oslo and Camp David and all the rest there has been little progress and continued terrorism. Yet, he isn’t willing to accept the status quo and allow the unfolding of events to determine what Israel should maintain and what it should yield. He understands that demographic trends and developments in the Islamic world may ultimately pose greater threats to Israel than all of the suicide bombers and Hamas and other terror groups. Israel must therefore act unilaterally, but hopefully with American support, to alter the status quo.

What Sharon is proposing may not succeed because while Israel may be able to create certain facts on the ground, there obviously are other participants and factors that will shape the Middle East. Still, he is willing to act now while Israel has the leverage to take unilateral steps. His multi-faceted strategy includes these elements:
• The marginalization and irrelevance of Yassir Arafat and the futility of negotiations with the Palestinians.
• Establishment of a security wall or fence to shield Israel against most terrorist attacks.
• Swift and harsh retaliation when Israelis are attacked.
• Withdrawal from Gaza and much of the West Bank.
• Retention of major West Bank and Green Line population centers.
• Establishment of a Palestinian state.

This is an ambitious plan and it might be too much to expect its full implementation. A Palestinian state cannot be brought into being by Israel. If history is a guide, Hamas will opt for suicide bombers and Arafat will prefer to remain in Ramallah and continue to steal. At the least, the Prime Minister already has made remarkable progress, most spectacularly on the so-called refugee issue.

There is much more on Mr. Sharon’s mind these days. There is the mini- or perhaps major-revolt within Likud and within his coalition as opponents of withdrawal accuse him of endangering Israel. Such accusations are the inevitable fate of any Israeli leader who dares to advocate the yielding of territory. It matters not that prior doomsday accusations arising from the Sinai and South Lebanon withdrawals turned out to be quite overwrought. The notion that Mr. Sharon would sell out Israel is at once absurd and obscene, but as is often the case, ideology – and especially in the form of nationalism – trumps both civility and common sense.

As in the past, Jewish hardliners in the U.S. are even more vociferous and outrageous in their vilification of Sharon than their counterparts in Israel. I guess that it takes courage to insist from the war zone of New York that Israeli soldiers risk their lives to protect those who insist that not an inch of Gaza be yielded.

Mr. Sharon’s plans may be derailed by the decision of Israel’s Attorney General whether to charge him with corruption. The country’s Chief Prosecutor who has been trigger happy in other situations has recommended an indictment. While news leaks suggest that the evidence against one or both of Sharon’s sons may warrant prosecution, there is little to connect him to wrongdoing. If an indictment is issued, the consequence will be political turmoil and the torpedoing of Mr. Sharon’s plans. Of course, if the Attorney General decides not to bring charges, he will be open to accusations of a cover-up.

This is therefore a no-win situation and another area where the wisdom of those who devised our constitutional system serves the important goal of governmental stability and is consistent with the ideal of democracy. As we know from the recent Clinton experience, a sitting president cannot be indicted. In Israel, by contrast, the criminal investigation of prime ministers appears to be an ongoing sport. When a ruler is democratically chosen, as Mr. Sharon was, there are good reasons why he should be exempted from criminal charges while he remains in office.
More generally, Israel’s juridical and legal arrangements are a mess and the situation is worsening. There is a great need for legal reform, but few seem interested in pursuing this goal. There are grants and projects for nearly every other activity in Israel and I cannot figure out why judicial and law reform are on the back burner.

What is at stake in the decision whether to charge Sharon is not merely his honor and political fate. What also is at risk is the opportunity to go forward with a creative and courageous plan that seizes the imagination, a plan that has the potential of strengthening Israel. Ariel Sharon’s finest hour can become one of Israel’s finest hours.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Taking Issue With Judge Korman

In his recent opinion explaining why his distribution plan provides that three-quarters of the excess funds set aside for Jews from the Swiss bank settlement should go to elderly Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Judge Edward R. Korman of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn relied substantially on a needs assessment prepared by a team of Brandeis University scholars for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). I raised questions last week about this approach. While Judge Korman’s task is daunting, there are important issues about his formula that need to be addressed.

The underlying assumption of any plan to allocate excess Holocaust funds to Jewish survivors is that the recipients are Jewish. They must obviously also be survivors of Nazi tyranny and elderly. It’s easy to figure out who meets the last criterion; determining who is Jewish and also a survivor is a good deal more difficult.

There is sharp disagreement over the number of Jews in the FSU. Russian and Ukrainian governmental censuses have yielded low numbers, but some demographers have produced estimates that are above one-million people. Without reliable surveys, it is not possible to clarify the issue. It follows that we do not know how many elderly Jews remain in the FSU.

Even before the collapse of Communism fifteen years ago, there were benefits to USSR residents who asserted Jewish identity, which represented a sharp reversal of the pattern that had prevailed for at least two generations. Being – or claiming to be – Jewish made it easier to obtain an exit visa. Israel took in more than one-million such claimants, only to learn that many were not Jewish. For Jews who still live in the FSU, Jewish identity opens the door to community-sponsored social services, including the large-scale Hesed programs established by the JDC. These programs have been and will continue to be primary recipients of the excess funds under Judge Korman’s jurisdiction. It turns out that a great number of Hesed participants do not meet one or more of the basic requirements.

According to the Hesed data provided in the Brandeis report, 44% of its clients are not Nazi victims or survivors. The figure may be higher because Hesed services persons as young as fifty-five and they cannot be survivors. In the tens of thousands, there are Hesed clients who are not Jewish, even according to the loose definition employed by JDC. It estimates that “30% of those clients who do not identify themselves as Jews (all non-victims) are actually Jewish, but choose not to identify themselves as Jewish.” This claim is counter-intuitive and, I believe, wildly inaccurate in view of the tangible benefits that now accrue to those who assert Jewish identity.

However we look at the numbers, a significant proportion of Hesed clients are not eligible for excess Holocaust funds if such funds are earmarked for Jewish survivors. Because money is fungible, it makes little difference whether Judge Korman instructs that excess funds received by JDC go only to Jewish survivors.

Any effort to identify Nazi victims is sensitive and fraught with complications. The standard employed by Judge Korman is whether Nazi actions resulted in harm, direct or even indirect, to Jews. The excess funds are being distributed to Jewish survivors who are members of what is called the “Looted Assets Class,” which Judge Korman identifies as “incredibly large.” He quotes approvingly the assessment of his Special Master that “there is scarcely a victim of the Nazis who was not looted, and on nearly an incomprehensible scale.” Accordingly, he assumes “that all survivors of the Holocaust are valid members of the Looted Assets Class.”

This assessment turns history on its head. Large parts of Russia – and other USSR regions where Jews lived – were not under Nazi control and there could not have been Nazi looting of Jewish assets. In fact, looting there was and on an incomprehensible scale because the Soviet Union was a ruthless totalitarian state whose Communist regime looted private property. With exceptions, Jews in the USSR could not have lost assets through Nazi looting because they scarcely had any to lose. It was the Soviets who impoverished the Jews and the rest of the population.

In effect, in order to help FSU Jews who need help we are distorting history and using funds intended to compensate those who were looted by the Nazis to compensate those who were looted by the Communists.

I am not unmindful of the situation of FSU Jews, nor am I uncaring. Some of my work now involves Russia and Ukraine and I expect to make another trip within the month. Elderly Jews in these countries need help, notably improved medical care, and Holocaust funds should be used for this purpose, but not to the extent contemplated by Judge Korman. The claims of Israel are strong because it is the Jewish State and a great number of ex-FSU Jews now live there.

There is also an obligation to consider the emotional needs of American survivors. In the aggregate they are leap years ahead of FSU Jews economically, yet they bear emotional and physical scars that must not be ignored. There is a great difference between an elderly Jew living in the Soviet Union who was indirectly affected by the Holocaust and someone who was in Auschwitz or other death camps, witnessed the murder of Jews and in all likelihood close relatives and who bears the concentration camp numbers etched until death into his or her skin.

For far too long, Holocaust funds have been controlled by organizations that have used survivors as pawns as they have indulged in cronyism and luxurious living. At times, they have been complicit in the looting of survivor assets. Swiss settlement funds should be made available for the many elderly survivors in the U.S. who need assisted living facilities and such funds also should go directly to the successor communities of European survivors whose property was looted and who for more than half a century have provided meaningful services to their members who have survived.