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Archive for March, 2011
New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt and I both attended a briefing by the PLO’s ambassador to Washington and ended up writing columns about it. My version is here.
Gary’s take is much braver than my own: He contrasts the Palestinian spokesman’s seeming moderation with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s “hard-line comments about Israeli Arabs and other issues.” Israel, he concludes, must find ”more creative ways” to convince the world and American Jews “that Jerusalem really wants a two-state solution”:
The mood at the event was one of many growing indications to me that the current Israeli government has become a source of embarrassment to many liberal American Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu better not wait until late May to come to the U.S. and present a new proposal for advancing the stalled peace talks. With the situation deteriorating on the hasbara [public relations] front, something must be done a lot sooner than Netanyahu’s scheduled appearance at the annual AIPAC conference, which begins May 22, and it better be more substantive than past efforts.
Most American Jews want to feel proud of the Jewish State, not frustrated or ashamed. It doesn’t help when they read of continued settlement growth, the flotilla debacle, Foreign Minister Lieberman’s hard-line comments about Israeli Arabs and other issues, or that the Knesset conducted inquiries into the funding sources of NGOs, or that the Chief Rabbinate is increasingly rigid on matters of marriage, divorce and conversion.
The reader comments that follow indicate the angry pushback he is going to face: readers call him a “shanda for the goyim” and suggest the Jewish Week has been bought out by J Street or the Saudis.
Gary’s piece and the reaction offer a hint of the Jewish trend to come: a growing divide between Israel Firsters who want to maintain the status quo, even at the risk of further eroding Israel’s already dismal global reputation, and a quieter majority who feel a dramatic push for negotiations is good for Israel, good for the Palestinians, and good for the collective Jewish standing.
The Times’ “Our Towns” columnist Peter Applebome reports/editorializes on efforts to establish a Hebrew-language charter high school in Highland Park.
His beef: Trenton is approving/imposing charters on behalf of special interest groups over the real needs and desires of local communities:
Charters are supposed to provide alternatives to failing schools, but Highland Park’s are considered among the best in the state. And New Jersey’s schools, for all the well-documented failings in places like Newark, score near the top of national rankings, so new charters are being asked to fix what’s broken and what’s not. The process being championed by conservatives like Mr. Christie, whose children attend private schools, is taking decisions from local districts and giving them to the state.
Supporters of the Hebrew-language charters are bound to challenge Applebome on the costs of charters. When he quotes the school board president saying “the expansion of charters came at the expense of existing schools,” he doesn’t raise the counter-argument: that districts are only told to pay charters for students who would ostensibily have been in public schools anyway. But school boards rightly suspect that many of the folks interested in Hebrew-language charters would otherwise go to a private Jewish day school — in other words, the charters bring more kids into the public system.
Sharon Akman, a real estate agent who proposed the Hebrew-language high school, says the school “would provide a distinctive education model that would help students in gaining college admissions”:
“It’s getting harder and harder to get into college, so it’s essential these kids have something identifying them in some kind of unique way,” she said. “Coming from a Hebrew-language school that stresses community service is going to give them an edge.”
Perhaps. Akman may even believe this. In their public statements, backers of charter schools (like Michael Steinhardt’s Hebrew Charter School Center), never, ever use the word “Jewish.” (They can’t, or they’d immediately run afoul of church/state statutes.) Instead, they use phrases like “rigorous early childhood dual language program committed to fostering academic excellence and a high degree of Hebrew language proficiency.” They insist they are preparing ”children for … today’s global community through its focus on foreign language acquisition.”
Yet you know and I know that the push for charter schools is about Jewish identity. Yes, non-Jewish kids can and are enrolling in these schools. But Steinhardt and others aren’t putting their millions into this to spread the beauty of the Hebrew language. Their goal is Jewish identity-building for people who either can’t afford day school or who consider the supplementary Hebrew school model inadequate.
You wouldn’t know that from their literature. But Jewish observers who aren’t filling out charter applications don’t hesitate to talk about charters in those terms. Here’s Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, headmaster at Sinai Akiba Academy, a Jewish day school in Los Angeles:
But we need as many options as possible to attract the vast pool of Jewishly undereducated kids. Hebrew charter schools may offer a worthwhile, though only partial, answer to the question of how to draw more children into Jewish education.
Here’s Rabbi Elie Kaunfer:
The biggest barrier to Jewish literacy is knowledge of Hebrew. But Hebrew as a second language is on the rise in a number of new forms: Middlebury Language School now offers Hebrew, Hebrew immersion early childhood programs like at Kavana in Seattle are on the rise, and (regardless of what you think of them) Hebrew Language charter schools are poised to expand across the United States.
Here’s Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, past president of Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network:
Highly visible Hebrew charter schools have been started to provide a publicly funded alternative to day schools.
It took me about 10 minutes to Google these quotes and others — don’t think those who oppose charter schools on church/state grounds can’t find or haven’t found them just as easily.
I’m ambivalent about Hebrew language charter schools, and am even open to arguments that the wall between church and state is way too high. I won’t question the sincerity of those who insist that Hebrew, currently spoken by about 7 to 9 million people on the planet, is the global language of the future.
But it’s disingenuous to say Hebrew-language charter schools have nothing to do with Jewish identity. And the fact that supporters can’t be up front about that makes me question the whole enterprise.
Slate’s Jack Shafer, no fan of NPR, understands why its disgraced fundraising executive played along with two supposed Muslim donors who were sharing slurs about Jews and Republicans. Why? Because indulging idiot millionaires was his job description:
[W]e’d last about 15 seconds in the fundraising business if every time a potential donor said something crazy or offensive, we told them to shut their pie hole. When people donate money, they feel even more entitled than when they’re sitting in their home bank-vaults running their fingers through their cash. Rich people love to give their money away, but they’re always attaching strings, and one common string is “You agree with me, right?”
I bet most of the Jewish communal professionals lining up to condemn NPR know exactly what Shafer means.
Better late than never: In a news release emailed this afternoon, the ZOA called on NPR fundraising executive Ron Schiller to resign over “anti-Semitic” remarks he made to two Republican pranksters — although, in fact, Schiller resigned yesterday.
I am now waiting for ZOA to call on NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) to resign — after all, she resigned today.
Blogging at HuffPost, Rabbi Jacob Adams of Manhattan’s Aish Center uses the classic Argument from Ignorance to affirm the existence of God.
In a nutshell: Given what he describes as the “wildly minute” chance of a self-replicating RNA molecule appearing on the Earth, and science’s inability so far to of offer a naturalistic explanation,
I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
There are various insupportable assumptions in his argument; in the appendix to her novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, Deborah Eisenberg Rebecca Goldstein summarizes the basic flaw:
[T]here are obviously many things we don’t yet understand in molecular biology, and, given the huge success that biologists have achieved in explaining so many examples of incremental evolution in other biological systems, it is more reasonable to infer that these gaps will eventually be filled by the day-to-day progress of biology than to invoke a supernatural designer just to explain these temporary puzzles.
Goldstein also demolishes the improbability argument:
The odds that the phone company would have given you your exact number (if you could have wished for exactly that number beforehand) are minuscule. But it had to give you some number, so asking after the fact why it should be that number is silly.
But there’s a mystery I can’t explain: Last time I checked, the article has attracted 4,968 comments! I am amazed that so many people not only would read this article (or any article, for that matter) but be inspired to comment. And what I really can’t get is why anyone would be inspired to chime in, after, say, the 150th comment or so. At that point, what exactly could one add to the argument, or any argument?
Former Jersey Jew Alan Paul, who moved his family to Beijing in 2005, writes about his first Rosh Hashanah in China, with services “held in the ballroom of an athletic club atop a downtown building”:
Being part of a small group also offered a stark contrast to the massive high-holy day events back in New Jersey. My presence felt more important in this small group. And being gathered together in a ballroom in the middle of this huge city where no one else was really aware that it was in any way a special day made me understand an obvious truth; we are a tiny minority. It is easy to forget this in New Jersey, where life stops and schools close on the Holy days.
In Beijing, it took some real thought and effort to mark the event, and that forced us to pause and really examine what was important to us and consider all the things that made us who we are.
Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. A few phone calls later and …
Meet Alvin Wong. He is a 5-foot-10, 69-year-old, Chinese-American, Kosher-observing Jew, who’s married with children and lives in Honolulu. He runs his own health care management business and earns more than $120,000 a year.
Reached by phone at his home on Friday (and referred to The Times by a local synagogue), Mr. Wong said that he was indeed a very happy person.
Why “observant Jew”? When the latest results were first released, Gallup explained that Jews scored the highest of any US religious group in terms of “well-being” (emotional health, physical health, work environment and healthy behavior) and that the “very religious” generally “scored higher in the study in each subset than their nonreligious counterparts” – perhaps reflecting the “social aspects of attending religious institutions.”
JTA reports on theater prof Mel Gordon, who believes Jewish humor as we now know it was pioneered in the mid-1600s by the roving jokesters known as badkhns. Gordon explains:
The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.
Here’s the money quote:
“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”