Thursday, May 28, 2009

Abuse Breeds Abuse

We have been treated to a torrent of articles alleging sexual abuse of children who attended Orthodox schools. The tone of the reporting is accusatory, with no heed paid to the actual record of these schools or to the norm that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. This may be justified, especially where abuse is claimed, because the presumption of innocence refers to legal processes and standards to determine guilt and not to whether the accused has clean hands. Wrongful behavior is wrong not because it is subject to criminal sanction but because it is contrary to values and practices that are essential in civil society.

Yet, it is unsettling that the appropriate efforts to root out abuse and protect children often resemble a crusade. Crusades bring an excess of emotion and fear and with emotion and fear there is the heightened prospect of distortion and false accusations. I quote once more Justice Brandeis’ chilling statement about the wages of fear. Referring to the Salem Witch trials, he wrote, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”

That there have been incidents of sexual abuse in all schools, including the Orthodox, cannot be denied. There is also sexual abuse in home situations and I suspect that it is more common and serious than what occurs in schools. Abuse must never be excused or covered up. When there is credible evidence of abuse – credible here means a lower degree of proof than may be required for other claims of wrongdoing – immediate steps must be taken, including removal of the wrongdoer from the school or home and the notification of public officials.

We read of an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in yeshivas and this is a lie and itself serious abuse and the debasement of truth is greater still when false charges are made by an Orthodox assemblyman or a faculty member at Yeshiva University. I am intensively involved in yeshiva and day school education and over the years I have asked persons involved in various schools whether there has been abuse at their institutions. Overwhelmingly they have answered that there hasn’t been and I believe them.

My view of abuse was powerfully influenced by the articles Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in the 1990s for the Wall Street Journal. She detailed how dozens of teachers, day care workers and religious personnel were falsely accused and harshly punished. There were suicides, lives were ruined, families shattered as the crusaders ran amok and unchallenged in Washington State, Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere.

It is appropriate to ask why in the many articles alleging abuse no mention is made that this is a field where there have been a significant number of wrongful charges. Does anyone seriously believe that every abuse charge is truthful? Should we not be concerned when teachers or professionals are wrongfully accused and their families thereby suffer horrific and lasting pain? It is possible to strongly condemn abuse and still be alert to the reality that some charges are errant or false.

I write this on a day when the Times published a letter by a Holocaust historian who refers to the “fallibility of individual memory.” There is abundant research demonstrating that even shortly after events have occurred, witnesses distort, often inadvertently, what they have seen. As time goes on, the tendency to embellish or exaggerate is enhanced and this is certainly the case when individuals try to recount traumatic events that may have occurred a long time ago. To this issue is added the problematic status of what is referred to as repressed memory, meaning the capacity to recall many years later in adulthood events that the person was previously not aware of and which may have occurred during childhood.

Legislation pending in New York to open new windows of opportunity to report abuse many years later is ill-advised, despite the apparently good intentions of its authors. In an act of principle and courage, the Rabbinical leaders of Agudath Israel have come out in opposition, highlighting the potential damage to institutions that can scarcely defend themselves against charges relating to events that may have occurred many years previously.

The Rabbis need to do more. They should declare that no matter what the circumstance, no part of a teacher’s body should come into contact with any part of a student’s body. Each school should schedule sensitivity sessions alerting faculty and staff to such restraints and also their responsibility to report when there are indications that a student has been abused at home. As I have suggested, I believe that home abuse is a more serious problem than what occurs at school.
There are those who will read these lines as a whitewashing of abuse, of downplaying the seriousness of wrongdoing when it does occur at schools. Without exception, when I have been asked to give guidance in abuse cases I have taken a strong position. My argument here is that any system of justice or moral code must strive to protect innocent people against false accusations. I should add that our society is awash in strong evidence that many individuals who were accused and convicted of murder – some even executed – were later proven to be innocent.

It is in the nature of a sin that it breeds additional sins. Abuse breeds additional abuse and this, too, is something that we should be concerned about.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Our Two Tuition Crises

There is much talk about the tuition crisis, about how day school parents feel that tuition is now out of their reach and also about how the scholarship application process is demeaning. We are told that other options are being explored, ranging from public school education that somehow would be linked to religious instruction to charter schools and now also low-cost day schools. This conversation was described nicely by Gary Rosenblatt a couple of weeks ago in a column that came with the unfortunate and inaccurate headline, “Day School Model May Now Be Thing of Past.”

We cannot precisely know what the Jewish educational terrain will look like when the dust settles – if it ever does – but what is certain is that the day school model will endure, albeit somewhat changed, which is generally true of all social arrangements. There will be additional charter schools and they will eat further into non-Orthodox/Modern Orthodox enrollment and, more critically, into the Judaic commitment of their students. The Solomon Schechter system will continue to erode, reflecting mainly the astounding decline of the Conservative movement that not long ago was heralded as American Jewry’s largest.

What is uncertain is how the tuition crisis will play out within the day school world, whether schools will be alert to what more parents are saying or whether they will continue to increase tuition significantly each year, further contributing to the tuition crisis. Efforts to launch low-cost schools where tuition will be half or less of what is charged at the more expensive day schools seem to be beyond the talking stage. If these institutions can offer a viable and reasonably good quality dual-curriculum at below $10,000, the necessary question is why at what seems to be comparable schools tuition is in the $20,000 range and, in some places quite a bit higher. Since the expensive schools are surely nonprofit, what are they spending so much on?

There is no simple answer. It may be that for a dual curriculum, $20,000 isn’t high when we consider that in New York and New Jersey the average cost to educate a single-curriculum publicschooler is about $15,000. Also, the carrying cost for new and improved facilities and to service existing mortgages may have a significant impact on day school operating budgets and therefore also on tuition charges.

It remains that in many ways, the tonier day schools fancy themselves as private schools with expensive layers of bureaucracy starting with the top educator who no longer can be called “principal” because he/she is now the headmaster, at times with principals serving below at the same school. There are department heads, all sorts of auxiliary staff, extra-curricular activities galore and other fine and expensive touches. This could be justified if per school enrollment was high. Typically, day school enrollment is relatively low. This obviously adds to the per student cost. It should also result in a greater sense of fiscal prudence.

While we hear much about the crisis resulting from escalating tuition, there is a second tuition crisis that escapes our attention although it affects far more schools and parents. With few exceptions, yeshivas and Beth Jacobs (girls schools) in the yeshiva-world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy, as well as Chabad day schools and immigrant schools, charge low tuition and even so they are hard pressed to collect anything close to full tuition from many parents. As improbable as it may seem, there are schools that spend below $5,000 per student for a dual curriculum and at these institutions and some others, tuition income does not amount to $3,000 per student. This is the tuition crisis that we do not read about, although it encompasses dozens of schools and at least several tens of thousands of students.

Family size and economic hardship account for the inability of thousands of fervently Orthodox parents to pay what may be regarded as fair tuition. As is obvious, the fertility rate is high and I believe it has risen within the yeshiva-world sector. Contrary to the nasty caricature that many embrace, fervently Orthodox fathers are overwhelmingly in the labor force, and there is a high proportion of working mothers, despite their family and home obligations. Many of these men and women teach in our schools or have other low-paying communal positions. Even those who are good earners by ordinary societal standards often cannot make ends meet because of the large number of mouths to feed, tuition charges and other expenses arising from their religious commitment.

Poorer schools scramble and struggle to collect tuition, yet they are severely handicapped by financial realities, including this year’s severe downturn, and also in most instances by their abiding sense of mission which translates into a willingness to accept or retain students whose parents pay relatively little tuition. This is in contrast to the demeaning scholarship processes favored by far more affluent institutions. Few fervently Orthodox schools utilize the FACTS tuition arrangement which squeezes and debases both parents and schools and which is employed now at a great number of high-charging day schools.

The poorer schools also scramble and struggle to raise funds. They compete in a crowded field and within a community that is blessed with an astounding array of chesed activities that also seek support. Contributions to Orthodox day schools is not a priority in nearly all of American Jewish philanthropy, not in the Federation domain and not even, in fact, among many of the Orthodox.

Most fervently Orthodox schools get by because they are extremely low-cost, skimping on everything, especially on faculty salaries as they rely on the dedication of teachers who work hard and care despite being paid little and often late. This isn’t a story that we read about. The next time we hear about the tuition crisis, is it possible to pay attention to this situation which involves far more schools and students than the tuition crisis that we do read about?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Everyone Blew It

Although it is of course welcome news, the dropping of the charges against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman is not an entirely satisfactory outcome. They weren’t acquitted, which means that a cloud will remain over these two former AIPAC staff members. There are unanswered questions and unfinished business. This is a story without any heroes. Everyone blew this one, from the Justice Department and FBI to the entire American Jewish establishment, as well as our media. We did not have the courage or self-respect to challenge a prosecution that stank from day one. The greatest disgrace was AIPAC’s perfidy.

Hopefully, we will learn more about the case, why under a statute enacted nearly ninety years ago that had never been even remotely used for such a purpose, Rosen and Weissman were accused of serious crimes when what they essentially did was what diplomats, lobbyists, journalists, etc., do routinely each day in Washington. Perhaps we will learn about who else in Jewish life, American and Israeli, are targets of the FBI, the intrepid folks who excel in trivial pursuits even as they are asleep on the big stories, as they were on 9/11. Our G-men and AIPAC share the distinction of being vastly overrated.

The issue of wiretapping has taken on greater importance since the revelation that Representative Jane Harman of California is a victim of what Justice Brandeis described in the infancy of the tactic as dirty business. Why aren’t our organizations and media asking who else in Jewish life is being surveilled and bugged? Why aren’t we challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the power-hungry boss of the House of Representatives who is ever-ready to protect crooks in her caucus yet who seemed eager to throw Harman to the wolves.

One explanation for our timidity is that nearly twenty-five years after Jonathan Pollard’s arrest, we still are afflicted by the trauma arising from his actions.

During the eight years of what may be properly described as George W. Bush’s “Injustice Department,” there was an abundance of dubious prosecutions and miscarriages of justice. Too many U.S. Attorneys around the country embraced Rovian machinations and prosecuted people who should not have been prosecuted. The AIPAC matter may be nothing more than an ambitious U.S. Attorney in Virginia bringing charges that ultimately could not stick. Still, there is in our ranks, not only among the Orthodox, many who worshiped at the shrine of the Bush Administration. They should contemplate the AIPAC prosecution.

After quickly sacking two loyal staffers, AIPAC pretended to act as if nothing had happened, continuing to revel in hoopla and boasting. It still has to contend with Steven Rosen’s lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. My hunch is that it will do all it can to settle.

The organization also needs to contend with a changed environment, including a new administration with which it does not have close ties and – I hope that this is not wishful thinking – a Jewish community that is less enamored of the antics of a group that for far too long has been infused with an instinct for gratuitous exhibitionism. There are hopeful indications of AIPAC altering its style, if not its message.

Whatever lies ahead, we ought not dismiss the harm that AIPAC has caused through its loud and incessant boasting that it is all-powerful. Immature kids do that. We do not need this kind of proof that Jews can be stupid. It should be a no-brainer that AIPAC’s determination to secure bragging rights played directly into the hands of the Mearsheimers and Walts and others who proclaim that U.S. Middle East policy is hostage to the Israel lobby. How can we cry foul or anti-Semitism when enemies echo what AIPAC has proclaimed about itself?

As a collateral matter, has anyone noticed that AIPAC’s style does not play well on college campuses?

The larger question concerns substance and not style. It is whether AIPAC’s activities make a difference. According to an editorial in these pages last week, while the organization is “imperfect,” it is “indispensible.” I disagree, believing that the organization’s clout is greatly overrated, a theme developed in the same issue of this newspaper by Jerome Chanes in a fine review of a new book on “America’s Israel Lobby” by Dan Fleshler.

The Bush years represented the zenith of AIPAC’s engagement with the White House and the administration, the period when its exhibitionism went out of whack. During the same period, there were major developments, including Israel’s withdrawal from Gush Katif in Gaza, the Lebanon War, the Gaza War, Israel’s relations with China and the accessibility to Israel of U.S. military technology. On each of these issues, AIPAC’s role was just about nil, not because it was neglected but because on critical diplomatic and military matters inevitably the organization is not in the loop.

This despite the thousands of AIPACers who scurry around Washington going through the open door that is getting members of Congress to say nice things about Israel. Even on matters of foreign aid, the record is nothing for AIPAC to boast about.

If AIPAC can control its instinct for self-promotion and also the instinct for timidity when push comes to shove, it can still play a useful role, albeit one that is of significantly less significance than too many of us attribute to the organization. AIPAC needs to tone down and it also needs to pay heed to the reality that, as is true of Israeli public opinion, American Jewish opinion about Israel is divided on key issues including how best to deal with the Palestinians and the Iranian threat.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Guessing About Iran

When nations are in conflict – and often when they are not – diplomacy is largely a guessing game. When the stakes escalate, so does the guesswork. States cannot be certain about what they will do down the road, in some measure because they are undecided and also because they cannot know for certain what the nations with which they interact will do. There is intelligence gathering, some of it errant and much of it irrelevant, and also rhetoric and speculation as diverse scenarios are simulated. When push comes to shove, matters can get out of hand or have a life of their own and whatever planning or diplomacy preceded the later events, what was planned and expected is readily discarded.

When a nation’s security is at stake, its calculations should allow for a greater margin of error, which is to say that this is not a time for rose colored glasses. Planning must be based to a significant extent on the worst case scenario and borrow in a sense from the clear and present danger test that for decades determined when government could limit otherwise constitutionally protected speech. The greater and more proximate the danger, the greater the right of government to allow reasonable suppositions to restrict First Amendment rights. Likewise, the greater the danger to a nation’s security, the greater is its right – and probably its obligation – to allow its fears and suppositions to determine policy.

The danger Israel faces from Iran is real and it is different from any that it has faced for more than six decades from Arab neighbors bent on causing serious harm. For all of the animus of Palestinians and other neighbors, there is a more or less balance of power in the relationship and there are tacit understandings about boundary lines. Since policies and actions are determined by mortals who are prone to miscalculate, from time to time these boundaries are transgressed. Even then, the danger is contained. Not so regarding Iran whose president constantly advocates Israel’s destruction and is the force behind his country’s nuclear ambitions.

There is plenty of room to debate how Israel should react or, for that matter, how our government should react. A strong case can be made for patience and diplomacy, for a containment policy conceived along the lines of American policy toward the Soviet Union during the more than four decades of the Cold War. A weaker case can be made for preemptive military action now because of a host of critical military, logistical, diplomatic and other impediments. Admittedly, this is a guessing game and that is not likely to change any time soon.

What isn’t guesswork is the threat from Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been clear about his intentions and it is reckless and worse to dismiss his words as play acting. What Iran is doing is a clear and present danger and it would be wrong for Israel not to consider it as such.

What we are hearing from some quarters echoes the reaction of too many in the media to Hitler and Stalin. No less a journalistic worthy than Walter Lippmann wrote after Hitler came to power that Jewish complaints about him were badly misguided. At the New York Times, we now have Roger Cohen pounding away on the theme that Washington must get tough with Israel and be far more conciliatory toward Iran, claiming that Jews remaining in Iran tell him that they are happy with the regime and do not feel threatened. What would Mr. Cohen require to reverse his apologetics for a country whose leader demonizes Jews and Israel?

I expect that before long the Times will nominate Cohen for a Pulitzer Prize. The newspaper just garnered another five of these, adding to questions about how these awards are selected, and it celebrated the news this past Sunday in the “Week in Review” with a self-congratulatory page listing all of the Times staffers who have been so honored. The fourth name on the list is Walter Duranty who was the bureau chief in Moscow from 1922 to 1936. He received a Pulitzer for his 1931 “coverage of the news from Russia.” Indeed, 1931 was a particularly bad year in the workers’ paradise as through Stalin’s deliberate actions millions starved to death. In 1931 and before and after, Duranty covered up Stalin’s crimes. Several years ago, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. acknowledged this additional blot on the reputation of our most notable newspaper.

The defense of Iran also comes from sources outside of journalism. In its April 17 issue, the Forward published an ad signed by about 200 Jewish organizations and individuals sharply attacking Israel on Iran. Is it an excuse that the Forward was paid for this extreme exercise in Israel bashing by the usual suspects, including the crazies from the Neteurei Karta and Noam Chomsky? The statement makes the Durban declaration about Israeli racism seem like a love letter to the Jewish State. We are told that “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program,” Ahmadinejad has not called for Israel’s destruction, Mordechai Vanunu is lavishly praised and that in order to get “support for an Israel military strike against Iran,” Israel uses memory of the “Nazi Holocaust.”

Can the Forward use the First Amendment or the fact that the extreme Israel bashing was contained in an ad and not an article or editorial as fig leaves to cover its publication of so puerile a statement?

While most of us are still guessing about what Israel or the United States should do, there is no such hesitation among those who constantly attack Israel. Whatever the issue, Israel is wrong.