Friday, May 16, 2008

Kaddish for Pollard

We have never been able to get our arms around the Pollard case, never been able to get the whole story of what happened a generation ago or figure out why there is such intense governmental opposition to his being released after serving so many years. There are bits and pieces of information and much rumor, but not a full picture. We can speculate and yet we cannot confirm that our hunches are on the mark.

Maybe or probably, from the outset of this long affair Jonathan Pollard has been saddled with loads of bad karma, of not being able to catch even a small break. What he did was wrong and criminal and it is not right or helpful to his cause to claim otherwise. There are different gradations of criminality. Where does Pollard fit in? From the outset, U.S. officials have said that what he did was far worse than the information that is on the public record, claiming that for security reasons they cannot give critical details. A quarter of a century later, this is an argument that is hard to swallow, particularly when we consider information that has become public regarding espionage by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Journalists, including Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, and a respected investigative reporter who undertook the assignment for this newspaper (something that I helped to arrange), have written that Pollard’s wrongful activity was extremely serious and damaging.

However, even putting aside our sentiments about Israel and how they affect our reaction to this case, hard questions remain. Was a life sentence warranted, especially when we consider the outcome of clearly far more damaging breaches of U.S. security involving Pakistan, China and the Soviet Union? The legal process was flawed, ranging from the incompetence if not negligence of Pollard’s first lawyers and the blatant deceptions of Joseph diGenova who prosecuted the case to the fierce insistence of the CIA that the keys to Pollard’s cell be thrown away. Add to this the cruel bias of the sentencing judge, the wrongful prosecution of Pollard’s former wife and the way the federal appellate court that included Ruth Bader Ginsberg handled the challenge to the draconian sentence. As I said, Jonathan Pollard has bad karma.

Now there is the case of Ben-Ami Kadish who is accused of being linked to Pollard and of engaging in espionage about the same time that Pollard was, as well as working with the same New York based Israeli official. This new affair is already puzzling and, I think, out of focus, the prospect being that we will not be able to get our arms around this affair either and will rely on leaks, rumors and charges that may or may not be true. What Kadish did occurred a generation ago and there apparently is no comparable espionage case in all of U.S. history of a prosecution so many years after the alleged wrongdoing. It is of interest that although, in the words of the New York Times, Kadish “could face life in prison or possibly the death penalty,” he was released on relatively low bail and, as of this writing, he has not been indicted.

There is no question that Israel must not recruit persons to spy on this country and it is no answer or justification that the U.S. may be withholding information that is vital to Israel’s security. Nor is it an answer that there is a likelihood that the U.S. has engaged Israelis to spy on their country, although that may not be the case, as pursuant to a U.S.-Israel agreement Israel must provide American officials detailed information regarding weapons development and deployment and intelligence and security activity. Under the rules of the game, there is no level playing field between the superpower that often provides it with diplomatic and other critical assistance and the Jewish State.

It has been reported that after fessing up to the FBI, Kadish received a phone call from his Israeli contact of years gone by instructing him to lie to American authorities. If true, this tidbit is hard to take and provides additional proof that not all Israeli officials are smart.

Our media – meaning Jewish publications – have speculated that apart from a dislike of Israel in certain Washington circles, the new case is intended to quash any push for clemency for Pollard in the final months of the Bush administration and also to make the legal path harder for Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, the two former AIPAC staff members who are being persecuted – oops, prosecuted – on what I believe to be trumped up espionage charges. I do not doubt that prosecutors do bad things far more often than most of us are willing to acknowledge in order to achieve what they regard as just results, yet I doubt that these explanations are valid.

We will likely learn more about the alleged Pollard-Kadish connection. When we do, I believe that there will be surprises. The claim of substantial overlap between the two cases raises the question of why FBI counterintelligence personnel did not get to Kadish much earlier. It is intriguing that while he has not been a Federal prosecutor for many years, on the day that Kadish was charged deGenova was able to discuss with reporters details of the new case. This suggests that he has been in the loop.

There may be additional questions as to whether Israel lived fully up to its Pollard-related commitment to provide the U.S. with full disclosure of any similar espionage activity. If what we have been told so far about Kadish is on target, the future looks bleaker than ever for Jonathan Pollard.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Rabbi Nachman Mandel, ע״ה

The writer of these lines has written previously about Rabbi Nachman Mandel, his first grade rebbi at RJJ on Henry Street sixty-five years ago. My twin brother Allen and I were nine years old when we entered his class, fourth graders for secular studies who were now together with children three or four years younger than we were. That circumstance and our coming to RJJ in November, two months into the school year, did not constitute a formula for easy adjustment. In fact, the adjustment was difficult and extended.

But while it wasn’t easy, we benefitted enormously from the love of Rabbi Mandel, a gentle and caring teacher who had a major impact on our lives and, although he remained at RJJ for a relatively short period, many students benefitted from the experience of being in his class. Rabbi Mandel taught first grade elsewhere and, at some point, relocated to Los Angeles where he continued to teach. All told, he was a first grade teacher for seventy years. When he passed away immediately after Pesach, thousands mourned the loss of a remarkable Torah Jew.

About fifty years after we were in his classroom, Allen and I were in Los Angeles for Shabbos, davening in the shul where he davened. He grabbed a hold of us and took us out of the sanctuary so that he could give each of us a kiss. I said to him, “Rebbi, I have a problem.” He asked “What is it,” to which I responded “the grades that you gave me.” He said simply “Mir ken dos m’saken zein” – it can be fixed.

That was his philosophy of chinuch, his philosophy of life, his approach to children. Children must not be discarded. They can be fixed. We should all learn from the example of this elevated man, this wonderful Jew.

Monday, May 05, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - May 2008

In the 1970’s, the distinguished Harvard social scientist, James Q. Wilson and others, advanced a theory about urban decay and crime prevention that is referred to as “Broken Windows,” the idea being that the neglect of minor signs of decay in a neighborhood – such things as broken windows – will result in more serious decline, the likely consequence being the moving away of more stable families and increased criminal activity. At a practical level, their argument was that to fight or reduce crime, it is necessary to confront the small problems, the seemingly minor urban pathologies.

This theory has been widely discussed and examined and along with other theoretical developments and policy changes, it resulted in major modifications in the way police resources are deployed and, it is said, in the reduction of crime in nearly all of urban America, although doubtlessly there have been other contributory factors.

While the application of “Broken Windows” to police work was a novelty, the underlying concept is familiar, it being that neglect breeds additional neglect and, most likely, more serious neglect. In our religious teachings we have the thought, aveira gorreres aveira, that the toleration of sin results in further transgression. When small problems or wrongs are ignored, they serve as building blocks for greater wrongs and ultimately there is a culture of tolerance of wrongdoing, so that we scarcely see that which is wrong. This is what is meant by the term avar v’shana, that the repetition and familiarity of wrongdoing leads to the attitude that what is wrong is acceptable, if not also appropriate.

It isn’t practical or even necessary to expect perfection in human affairs. People aren’t perfect, as we acknowledge in our prayers during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. We are limited in our capabilities and understanding and so enveloped in self-interest to sufficiently appreciate at times what is happening in the world in which we live. We are also limited in the resources that are needed to bring about improvement, even when we recognize that improvement is needed. We may not have the physical or emotional strength to bring about change or we may not have the time to do things that we know need to be done. Inevitably, we settle at times for less than the best, whether in personal matters or in all kinds of associations.

There is, however, a critical difference between recognizing that we fall short and the attitude that falling short is acceptable.

Whatever limitations we bring to our primary responsibilities, they are inescapably present in our communal activity, particularly in those activities that are voluntary. The attitude is that we can be remiss in that which is voluntary because, after all, we are not being paid.

This is wrong, if only because it results in the tolerance of neglect. Sadly, in too much of our communal life the attitude is don’t do today what can be put off until tomorrow and, worse yet, don’t do it at all because who cares. There is a culture of neglect that is harmful and has bad consequences and this is especially evident in our schools where what is at stake is the education of children, their development as Jews and into healthy adulthood. When the needs of a student are neglected, that is a situation of broken windows. When contributions are not properly acknowledged, that is also a broken window. Another is when there is inadequate maintenance. In my experience, on the administrative side of yeshivas and day schools, there are too many broken windows.

I have been told over the years that I am too harsh, too determined to impose my intensive standard on others. Perhaps, although I wonder why a more lax standard is more appropriate than one that insists on addressing problems and issues in a timely fashion.

What is at stake is more than minor and certainly not abstract. Elsewhere in this Newsletter I point to some notable achievements at our schools. Over a great number of years I have argued in different settings that yeshivas and day schools in the aggregate do a terrific job when we consider the pressures they face, financial shortfalls, the stringencies of a dual curriculum and the need to serve multiple constituencies. I often marvel over the dedication and achievements of the faculty, people who invariably are low paid. But what our schools accomplish is undermined, at least at the level of perception, when the first things that people see are the broken windows and the warts and flaws.

We must inculcate in our schools the attitude that neglect is wrong, even though perfection cannot be achieved. That is the standard that we actually use in our religious life. We do not say that we can transgress today and will be observant tomorrow. We know that aveira gorreres aveira.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Praying and Swaying on the Plane

The removal of an Orthodox Jew from a United Airlines flight because he ignored instructions to be seated while davening Shmoneh Esreh (the Amidah or standing prayer) before the plane took off raises the linked and yet somewhat separate questions of what accommodations to their distinct practices religious persons may request or expect from others and, secondly, the extent to which other persons or entities are obligated to accommodate these practices.

From newspaper accounts, neither party to the incident was crowned in glory. The passenger was doubtlessly sincere and yet it is doubtful that it was necessary for him to daven at that moment. Why not earlier? I believe that in view of clearly stated halachic or religious legal teachings regarding exigencies during prayer, he could have acceded to the request to be seated.

The fact that he could have acted differently doesn’t necessarily get United off the hook. I have witnessed gratuitous insensitivity on airlines toward religious Jews by flight personnel. Although the passenger had no right to expect accommodation, would it have been difficult for the airline to accommodate? Was the plane that close to take-off?

The issue of prayer on a plane is not mere curiosity about the exotic behavior of people who are different. Religious Jews, as well as members of some other religious groups, are required to pray during set time periods and this inevitably means that on long flights they must calculate when they can fulfill this obligation. At times, this is a tough challenge for we Orthodox who may be praying and swaying while the plane is swaying.

Most often, flight personnel are tolerant, even if they aren’t always pleased. On ordinary flights which typically have few or no Orthodox, there isn’t much of an issue. El Al is a different story, as I trust most readers know. There is the added determination of certain Orthodox to daven with a minyan, for it results in critical liturgical advantages. The favorite gathering place for the group is adjacent to the lavatories where there is standing space, an unappetizing arrangement because other passengers have difficult access, the roar of the engines restricts the ability to hear the prayer leader, the likely proximity to persons who are dressed immodestly and the prospect of unpleasant odors. Yet, these circumstances do not deter the minyaneers.

My firm practice is to daven alone, at my seat or nearby if space is available and there are many Orthodox who do likewise.

Air travel is but a tiny slice of the accommodation conundrum. Deeply religious folks, such as Orthodox Jews and Muslims, are apt to have truckloads of requirements that do not accord with the way things are conducted in the larger society. As the outside world becomes more permissive, religious obligations may generate additional zones of desired accommodation. The list includes dress and other forms of religious appearance, hospital and burial requirements, food issues and workplace arrangements.

For all of the American ethos of tolerance, a desideratum exalted by secular Jews, there is much reluctance to accommodate religious persons, even when to do so entails little sweat. Animus toward religion trumps principle. I have for four decades worked for workplace protection of Sabbath observers against discrimination, a crusade that has received little support from secular Jews and, in recent years, from Orthodox organizations that see more fruitful public relations benefits through other activity.

The reluctance to accommodate religious Jewish sensibilities even when others are not inconvenienced was on display years ago in the celebrated Yale dormitory case when this university that is infused with tolerance refused to accommodate several Orthodox undergraduates who refused to avail themselves of the coeducational dormitory facilities that students must pay for. This shameful episode should be contrasted with Harvard’s recent decision to alter the schedule for its swimming facilities to accommodate Muslim women who out of modesty do not want to be in the same pool with male students. That entailed a direct inconvenience to other students, raising the question of whether liberal institutions are more keen to the sensibilities of Islamic students than to those sincerely articulated by religious Jews.

Another illustration is provided by Noah Feldman, greatly gifted and hypocritical, who went to court to oppose an Erev in Tenafly that would have inconvenienced no one and now is a staunch advocate of Shariah or Islamic religious law.

Although I advocate accommodation, I believe that there are limits, they being when inconvenience to others is significant and also when accommodation means that other people will have to act in accordance with our religious practices. There is a vast difference between not being able to use a coeducational pool – so you don’t swim! – and losing a job because of the inability to work on Shabbos. Alas, the former generates greater support from secularists.

More than a decade ago, I parted company with much of the Orthodox establishment on the so-called Get Law that requires persons married in a religious ceremony to arrange for a Get or religious divorce before their marriage can be undone in a civil proceeding. I felt that we must not require others to embrace our religious practices. My further point was that the Get Law, earnestly promoted as an antidote to the Agunah problem, would be a feeble instrumentality against recalcitrant religious spouses. Time has proven me right.