Sunday, February 26, 2006

Divesting Our Timidity

The familiar pattern of American Jews - those who care - being more on edge about Israel than the Israelis seems to have changed. Ever since the creation of the State, while we in the U.S. fretted about each scrap of bad news and more than a few of us were often in a state of mild paranoia, Israelis appeared relaxed as they went about their chores, knowing that they lived in a dangerous neighborhood and there was little that they could do about that. It's now the Israelis who are jittery, at least that's what I sense as I write this column from Israel, six months after my last trip which coincided with the Gaza withdrawal.

Gaza has something to do with the changed mood. Getting out earned Ariel Sharon a trip to several European capitals where those who always said that he was a bad guy now said nice things about him, but it earned Israel little respite from attack. Terrorists have established more than a foothold in what Israel abandoned. Hamas is riding high and Mr. Wolfensohn is busy shnorring for the Palestinians. It's not a happy picture.

Israel will have to deal with Hamas as part of its Middle East diplomacy. The U.S. is doing its best to bolster Ehud Olmert and Kadima by taking a tough stand on Hamas, yet my bet is that after the votes for the Knesset are counted and a new government is formed, geopolitical realities will dictate a new tone from Washington and Ms. Rice will once more put the squeeze on Israel.

While Hamas merits loathing, the fear and trembling now evident in Israel arises far more from Iran and the cover it is getting from Russia and certain Western democracies. Given Israel's capacity to respond and the likelihood of a harsh U.S. reaction should Iran take offensive action, it is highly unlikely that Israel will be endangered. Unfortunately, "highly unlikely" is not a sufficient safety net when nuclear weapons are available to a country that has reached the level of moral depravity attained by Iran.

Reading Israeli newspapers is an exercise in selecting what dire news to focus on, whether the madness gripping the Islamic world, the implications for Israel of spreading Iraqi instability, or danger signals in Egypt and Jordan. Any new problem in Islam somehow ends up at Israel's doorstep, which is a key lesson of the Danish cartoon conflagration. Islamic rage has a thousand faces, each ugly and each pointing nastily at Israel.

The divestment campaign is icing on the poisoned concoction of anti-Israel hatred. It has made progress in the U.S., yet what we face here is nothing compared to the virus that is spreading in Europe. Nominally, divestment is an economic tactic aimed at pressuring Israel to make concessions. At its core, it is the equivalent of Hamas' denial of Israel's legitimacy. As many have noted, in a world that has an abundance of autocratic regimes, Israel alone is singled out for constant opprobrium, invariably by those who wrap themselves in the mantle of democracy and human rights. Score one more for liberal hypocrisy.

As bad as divestment activities are, it is yet more disheartening to ponder the response of its opponents, of those who advocate for Israel. There is an excess of gentility, of writing letters to newspapers and other publications, of organizational statements, of other rhetorical devices that are familiar tools in the arsenal of the impotent. We need more passion and more anger and, yes, even a dose of paranoia. We need to stop defending Israel or making excuses for this or that happening or policy and instead we need to challenge the moral credentials of the fig-leafed charlatans who in the name of human rights are themselves morally rotten to the core. We need to take on far more forcefully the academics, clergy, journalists and the rest who are Israel-haters.

This includes the fifth columnists in Israel, led by the Judaism-haters and Israel-haters at Haaretz who without let-up attack Israel. It is of note that the Haaretz campaign runs on two parallel tracks, with the newspaper's anti-religious stance operating side-by-side with its anti-Israel stance. I have not seen a single issue of Haaretz that did not include at least one article - often there are more - beating up on the Jewish State and claiming that what is being done for compelling security reasons is deserving of strong condemnation. In Haaretz' perverted worldview, terrorists, suicide bombers, Iran, Islamic rage, the encirclement of Israel by enemies are all no more than trivial pursuits.

Haaretz is, in short, a source - even a finishing school - for diplomats and journalists to be taught anti-Israel sentiments. Many of us are exercised over what we regard as biased reporting on Israel in major U.S. newspapers, including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and, of course, the newspaper we most like to hate, the New York Times. What appears in these publications ain't nothing compared to the daily swill emitted by Haaretz. In any case, reporters at these newspapers take their cue from what they read in the English edition of Haaretz and what they send back is diluted when compared to the original source.

Haaretz gives aid and comfort to the divestment rabble. I do not know what the rules of the game are in journalism, whether there is an understanding that newspapers do not point fingers at each other. I sense a growing tendency in the U.S. for publications to criticize what appears elsewhere. Whatever the journalistic culture in Israel, we in this country should not be restricted. American Jewish media should speak out against Haaretz's deprecations. Irrespective of what our newspapers do, we need to divest our timidity. It's time for us to take off our kid gloves and use sharper language against the Europeans and others who promote divestment and against the newspaper that nurtures this movement.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Debate Within Chabad

None of my columns has evoked anything close to the reaction to the two articles questioning the direction Chabad is taking in too many places and situations. Overwhelmingly, those who commented were critical, some very strongly, but there were more than a few expressions of support. Several days after the second article appeared, a Chabad emissary in the Former Soviet Union and his wife came to see me. They knew nothing about the articles. They heard that I had helped Chabad institutions in the FSU and they needed help. Three days later, I was at a Chabad school in Brooklyn. It is seeking a one-million dollar interest-free building loan from a fund for which I have responsibility.

Similar stories could occupy an entire column and more. I will just add the following about the request two or three years ago from perhaps the leading Chabad Rabbi today that I provide guidance regarding difficult administrative issues. This led to a brief paper that was shown to a senior shiliach or emissary who circulated it to the entire worldwide Chabad network. At his suggestion, my name was deleted from the document.

Chabad is world Jewry's largest movement. When I raise questions about the direction it is taking, they arise from concern and not hostility. I questioned why Alan Dershowitz was featured at the recent conference of emissaries. Of course, the issue isn't Dershowitz - he is, in any case, a powerful advocate for Israel - but the implications of the invitation.

It turns out that there was strong opposition to the Dershowitz invitation within Chabad. As one emissary put it, there were "email fisticuffs." Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, Chabad's man in Cambridge who arranged the invitation and who sharply criticized me in a letter published last week in this newspaper, wrote on the Shluchim website that "there is hail and brimstone regarding the invitation" within the movement. In his letter, Zarchi claims that "no Jew at Harvard has done more to support halachic Judaism than Professor Alan Dershowitz in his capacity as faculty advisor to Chabad at Harvard."

We should wonder what advice he is giving regarding intermarriage in view of an article under his byline in the Harvard Crimson called "Why Judaism Must Embrace Intermarriage." Not Jews, but Judaism which is our religion; not just accept, but embrace. The article, published at his instigation, was doubtlessly read by thousands of Jewish students and many faculty, people who were exploring what Jewish path to take. It included such interesting sentiments as "Judaism must become less tribal, less ethnocentric, less exclusive, less closed off, less defensive, less xenophobic, less clannish."

This was written in 1997 and there is no indication that he has changed his mind. We have more recent indications of his views in Abigail Pogrebin's just-published book ("Stars of David") of interviews with Jewish notables, including Dershowitz. His interview concludes: "When I'm in the synagogue, I don't believe a word of it and I'm totally irreligious. When I'm sitting on the beach under the stars in Martha's Vineyard, I get a leap of faith."

I would rest my case, except, again, the issue isn't Dershowitz or Zarchi who has accomplished much good in Cambridge or what I think. The issue is what is happening in Chabad as world Jewry is being radically transformed by Judaic abandonment, by the wholesale rejection of our principles and practices. In the name of tolerance, too much that is alien is being tolerated. An example is the extraordinary recent Chanukah Menorah ceremony in Tiblisi, Georgia. Chabad's Chief Rabbi and the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church performed the ceremony, with the Christian leader lighting the Menorah and the two clergymen singing the blessings, one in Hebrew and the other in his native language. I am looking at a photo of the event as I write.

Too much of this is going on and that's the bad news. The better news is that there is heightened concern and discussion within Chabad regarding the issues that I have raised. What I did not know is that much of this predates my columns, but the focus is now stronger. As a shliach put it in an email, "all issues that you raised have been and are actively discussed by shluchim on an on-going basis." I am also encouraged by what a noted FSU Rabbi wrote: "I am sure that there is one person who will be eternally grateful to you and that is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Zecher Tzaddik Levracha."

A similar sentiment came from an eminent Chabad lay leader who pointed to a discourse many years ago by the Rebbe (published in Likutei Sichos, Vol. I, Parshas Vayigash). The Rebbe said "One is constantly obligated to be concerned with every one, regardless who it may be, and to bring him closer to Yiddishkeit. Nevertheless, one must always keep in mind never to budge from principle. Befriending others and bringing them closer to Yiddishkeit must never compromise Torah and mitzvoth. For there is a well-known saying: When someone is drowning one must save him; but one must also take great care not to be drowned oneself." Also, while we must befriend everyone, we "must do so by way of bringing them closer to Torah, that is, one must bring these people to Torah without compromise, as opposed to adapting the Torah to the minds of the people."

This is why the issues that I raise are about Chabad, not about Alan Dershowitz. As a man of honor, he now owes one-thousand dollars to a charity of my designation, a pledge that he made if I could refute his denial of my claims. The contribution should be to Bobbie's Place, the wonderful voluntary project that provides new clothing each year to thousands of needy Jewish children. This charity is named, in his words, in memory of the "wonderful woman who baked great hallas" - my mother.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Our Four Mothers

Most of us are far more drawn to news about science than we are to science. When James D. Watson's The Double Helix was published in 1968, I gobbled it up, fascinated not by the details about the mystery of the genetic code but by the details of competition among scientists who understood that the first to resolve the mystery would win the Nobel Prize and earn lasting fame. Francis Crick and Watson came in first, with Rosalind Franklin perhaps unfairly deprived of her share.

The scientific breakthrough was epic and what has ensued is breathtaking. While doubtlessly scientists competed and played games before Watson and Crick, their story serves as a marking point in the marketing of scientific achievement. For all of their brainpower, great scientists are human and they aren't any more immune than the rest of us from the foibles that are inherent in the species. Grandeur and greed can be found under one scientific tent.

There is rivalry and back-stabbing, public relations and exaggerated claims and, as the recent South Korean cloning scandal shows, at times there are claims that are fabrications. More commonly, there is a rush to publish findings that need additional examination, findings that may be challenged or altered by new research.

Which brings up the claim or news - proclaimed nearly everywhere in oversimplified fashion, including on the front page of the New York Times "Week in Review" - that nearly half of all Ashkenzai Jews are descended from four mothers whose antecedents were likely in the Near East. Even if they weren't Sarah, Rifkah, Leah and Rachel, for traditionalists it is good to know that the "four mothers" concept somehow has been validated. It is even more comforting to know that we aren't descended from apes, although I am certain that primatologists would insist that first came the monkeys and then came the mammas.

I have read the American Journal of Human Genetics report on "The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of A Recent Founder Event." Twenty scholars, an astounding number, are listed as responsible for the report, with Professor Richard Villems of the University of Tartu in Estonia identified as the key contact. We are witness to the globalization of science. I contacted Dr. Villems and he was helpful and modest, saying that the findings are largely the handiwork of Doron M. Behar of the Technion in Haifa.

Another interesting point: The Journal notes that it received the report on September 28, 2005, accepted it for publication on December 6, 2005 and published the electronic edition (which is what I have) on January 11, 2006. I wonder whether there was a rush to publish before the findings were adequately peer reviewed, particularly by geneticists who might take issue with what has been claimed. This is not a gratuitous question because there apparently is disagreement, as I shall indicate, on one crucial point.

The report that a substantial proportion of Ashkenazim have distinctive maternally-transmitted DNA identified as four subgroups of the K family is apparently beyond challenge, although the sample size strikes me as too small to support what is being claimed. In addition, because there are open questions regarding the other half of Ashkenazim, the total picture is somewhat blurred. What is claimed for the K cluster is that in the course of the Jewish migration from the Near East into the Roman Empire and then into the Rhine Basin, there was a genetic "founder event" or "bottleneck" that triggered significant contraction in the maternal genetic composition.

A founder event is defined as "the establishment of a new population by a few original founders (in an extreme case, by a signal fertilized female) which carry only a small fraction of the total genetic variation of the parental population." As Professor Villems wrote to me, this means that some genetic mechanism had by chance favored four variants of maternal lineages. We aren't told why or how this occurred. Indeed, as the report notes, "the question of a founding event in the maternal history of Ashkenazi Jews" is in dispute, with some geneticists "reaching the conclusion that there is little evidence for such an event." The time and place of this claimed founder event is inevitably uncertain, which supports the conclusion that while researchers can with confidence report on contemporary genetics, when they reach way back into history they are on slippery ground.

Likely, in due course the report about these four mothers will be qualified and refined as additional research is conducted. We will learn more about the past than we now know, but all of the research in the world will not uncover all historical secrets and genetic research is, in an important sense, historical research.

The intriguing thing is what such research can tell us about the recent past and contemporary Jewish life, whether it can shed light on the incidence of intermarriage and its impact on the genetic composition of Jews. We might also wonder whether the key role played by women in the genetic transmission among Ashkenazi Jews provides support for the halachic concept that the transmission of Jewish identity is via mothers.

Genetics is a risky subject and not primarily from a purely scientific standpoint. Jews know how attitudes toward genetics can breed racism and other evils. Experts in this growing field should ponder whether all of life's mysteries merit resolution. Likely, though, genetic research will continue at a rapid pace because it is triggered in large measure by the ambition of truly bright scientists.

As war is too serious a business to be left entirely to generals, genetics is too serious a business to be left entirely to scientific specialists. As additional research is conducted, hopefully there will be discourse as to how to proceed and this will include ethicists, theologians, sociologists and experts from other disciplines whose views should be taken into account when scientists determine how to proceed.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


When this website was established, its purpose was to allow access to my articles in the Jewish Week and other publications. At the time, comments were not posted. After I began contributing to the website referred to as Cross Currents, I decided to allow comments on this site as well. With all that is on my plate, mainly communal responsibilities, I cannot keep up with the comments that are being posted. I have withdrawn from Cross Currents and I have decided to return to the original purpose of this website, which is to permit ready access to my writings. There will be no further posting of comments.

Anyone desiring to comment directly to me can do so via email to I will endeavor to respond to signed communications.