Crown Heights, 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago, a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi  Menachem M. Schneerson, accidentally hit and killed 7-year-old Gavin Cato in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The incident set off three days of racially motivated protests and violence during which nearly 200 people were injured and Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian yeshiva student, was stabbed and killed by a group of African-American rioters.

New York and the multicultural communities of Crown Heights are marking the anniversary of the event, which took place on Aug. 20, 1991. What some in the nonwhite majority call an uprising and the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic minority refer to as a pogrom was driven in large part by the hostility, cultural misunderstandings and poor communications that existed at the time between the two communities. On the one hand, the Chasidim felt threatened by hostility within the community, and their African-American neighbors felt that the Chasidim were getting preferential police protection while larger community needs were being ignored.

That was a quarter of a century ago. Today, by all accounts, significant elements of communal relations have changed. Most importantly, the various communities within Crown Heights are communicating with one another. And while some level of mistrust may linger, the contrast is significant: “In 1991, people didn’t even know who the leaders were to talk to each other,” Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center,  recently told JTA. “Now they’re Facebook friends.”

Beyond that, Crown Heights itself is dramatically different. It is no longer just a neighborhood of low-income Jews and African-Americans. Now, higher-income New Yorkers — many of them Orthodox but not Lubavitch — are contributing to the gentrification of Crown Heights. And that has given rise to a new form of conflict, that of competing Jewish communities. Earlier this summer, a symptom of that conflict erupted over an eruv built around the neighborhood by a modern Orthodox synagogue. The eruv, largely criticized by the Lubavitch community,  citing the longstanding objection to an eruv by the late Rebbe, was violently opposed by some Chasidim, who tore parts of it down.

We cannot tolerate this new war, specifically the conduct of those who would seek to impose their religious beliefs on others. That behavior has to stop. But we also see the eruv controversy as an outgrowth of the neighborhood’s expanding gentrification, which threatens lower-income residents, whatever their ethnicity.

On Sunday, a street festival jointly planned by black and Jewish leaders took place in Crown Heights in an effort to bring the community together and mend the wounds since the riots. We embrace that effort, both as a way to address the sins of the past and as a path for everyone who calls Crown Heights home to discover ways to live in peace.

Not in the Olympic Spirit

The Olympic Spirit is supposed to promote healthy sports competition, divorced from political or more serious differences among countries whose athletes choose to compete.

In ancient Greece, warring city-states called a truce before each Olympic Games. The Olympic Truce lasted from a week before the competitions began to a week after they ended. In this way, athletes, spectators and pilgrims were assured physical safety. The idea of the truce was revived in the modern Games, and last October, 180 of the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly voted for a resolution calling for a truce in the Olympics now being held in Rio de Janeiro.

That day, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the General Assembly: “In the Olympic Village, we see tolerance and solidarity in their purest form. Athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees live together in  harmony and without any kind of  discrimination.”

That sort of tolerance and harmony were absent on the eve of the Games, when the Israeli delegation sought to get on a bus to take them to the opening ceremony. The Lebanese delegation was already on the bus, and it blocked the Israelis from entering. A different bus for the  Israeli delegation was quickly found.

Israel and Lebanon are at war. But in Olympic tradition, that shouldn’t prevent them from taking the same bus to an Olympic event. And in fact, the head of Lebanon’s Olympic Committee received a dressing down on Sunday from the Games’ organizers, warning the delegation not to repeat such behavior. The head of the delegation had told Lebanese media that the Israelis were “looking for trouble.”

“The behavior of the head of the Lebanese delegation contradicts the Olympic Charter,” Gili Lusting, head of the Israeli delegation, said in a statement. The charter says “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” The Lebanese delegation violated that ideal when it prevented the Israelis from getting on the bus.

The admonition of the Lebanese Committee reportedly was intended to discourage other delegations whose countries don’t recognize Israel from similar un-Olympian behavior. Nonetheless, when Saudi Arabian judo fighter Joud Fahmy forfeited her match on Sunday, citing an injury, the  Hebrew press speculated that she dropped out so that she wouldn’t have to face an  Israeli opponent in the next round. If that was true, her action prompts an even more fundamental sporting admonition than did the Lebanese: If you don’t want to play with others, get out of the sandbox.

Black Lives Matter, and So Does Israel

Americans of goodwill have rightly been concerned by violence, much of it by police, against unarmed black men, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the rough ride given to Freddie Gray. Jews are no  exception in their reactions. The relative helplessness of segments of the black community in the face of powerful  authority stirs up tribal memories across the centuries, from slavery in Egypt to genocide in Europe. Each killing offends our sense of justice and puts us further from a more perfect America.

That’s why the Black Lives Matter idea resonates with so many in the Jewish community. For older Jews, it is a continuation of the civil rights struggle. For younger ones, it is part of the 21st-century march toward the acceptance of diversity, including Jews of color.

And so it was deeply hurtful when a platform published on Aug. 1 by a coalition  of more than 50 organizations, called the Movement for Black Lives, unceremoniously  accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. It also called on the United States to end military aid to the Jewish state and accused Israel of practicing apartheid. The reaction to the outrageous charges was quick, direct and very much on target.

Liberal Jewish groups that march ideologically and literally with Black Lives Matter quickly denounced the accusation of genocide. The Reform movement called it “offensive and odious.” T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group, said it was “extremely dismayed at the decision to refer to the Israeli occupation as genocide.”

The Movement for Black Lives platform puts liberal Jews in a bind, particularly younger Jews and Jews of color. “Anti-Israel rhetoric like that found in the Movement for Black Lives policy platform is especially troubling because it falsely suggests [that] American Jews — both of color and white — must choose between their commitment to combating racism in the United States and their Zionism,” the Reform movement statement said. T’ruah put it this way: “One can vigorously oppose  occupation without resorting to terms such as ‘genocide’ and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.”

In our view, zero-sum thinking diminishes our possibilities. One can be pro-black lives, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. But it appears that the Movement for Black Lives just doesn’t get it.

So, did the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council go too far in rejecting the Movement for Black Lives platform because of its stance on Israel? We don’t think so. The Movement’s odious declarations on Israel crossed a wide and bright red line. The Movement, in effect, spurned the very Jewish community that is so ideologically and practically supportive of their goals, and that move has consequences.

Black lives matter. But the dishonest  accusations of genocide and the mislabeling of Israel as an apartheid state does nothing to protect black lives.

The Spectacle of the Battling New York Mayors

Political attack dogs, like their furry namesake, come in many breeds. But even in the same breed, no two attack dogs are exactly the same. And so it was with two former Republican mayors of New York City, who treated viewers of  the Republican and Democratic national conventions to wildly different displays.

Rudy Giuliani’s full-throated, high-volume speech at the GOP confab in Cleveland two weeks ago sought to drown out any thought that Democrat Hillary Clinton was anything less than an accessory to murder.

“It was Hillary Clinton who advocated for the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya. Now Libya is in chaos,” Giuliani shouted. “Hillary Clinton is accountable for this and much more.

“Her dereliction of duty and failure to keep her people safe played a major role in the horrific Islamic terrorist murders on Sept. 11-12, 2012 in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four brave Americans: our Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith and CIA agents Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty,” he continued. “And Clinton, and the Obama administration, for political reasons, lied about the purpose of the attacks, including her lying directly to the families of those who were killed.”

Mighty strong words. But those attacks were rivaled by Giuliani’s successor in  office, and former Republican, Michael Bloomberg, who took to the Democratic podium one week later to go billionaire to billionaire against Donald Trump. Unlike Giuliani, Bloomberg didn’t appear to  believe that he had to growl or shout, or even bare his teeth, in order to make his points. But he also was on the attack,  letting his wealth and entrepreneurial success add volume to what was otherwise  a low-key, but focused, speech.

“Trump says he wants to run the nation like he’s running his business? God help us!” Bloomberg said. “I’m a New Yorker, and I know a con when I see one.”

“Trump has left behind a well-documented record of bankruptcies and thousands of  lawsuits and angry shareholders and contractors who feel cheated and disillusioned customers who feel ripped off,” added Bloomberg, now an announced  Independent. He went on to call Trump a “dangerous demagogue,” a “risky, reckless and radical choice.”

We have seen enough of the relentless (even if sometimes entertaining) attacks from both parties. With some 100 days left until Election Day, we hope that the candidates and their surrogates will focus their comments on the policies and positions that really matter, rather than the negativity, insults and accusations of the attack teams. American voters deserve a comprehensive exploration of the issues by the candidates in order to help them decide for whom they should vote, rather than for whom they shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, there is little chance that will happen.

Zika Advances while Congress Dawdles

The mosquito that carries the Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects in  fetuses, has emerged in the mainland United States. More than a dozen new “homegrown” cases of the virus have been reported since last Friday, and Health officials have warned pregnant women not to visit a Miami, Fla. neighborhood where the recent outbreak occurred.

“It is a truly scary situation,” Tom Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday. “This is a really tough mosquito to control.” Some form of federal intervention is necessary in order to control the spread of the disease and to eliminate the Aedes aegypt mosquito that carries it. But, Congress has not responded.

In February, with Brazil and other locations in South America and the Caribbean targeted by travel bans, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus and to help prevent similar outbreaks in the United States. No one expected the president to get what he wanted, and most were optimistic (including this paper) when bipartisan consensus resulted in what  appeared to be a $1.1 billion compromise.

But no final agreement on funding was reached on the Hill before the summer  recess. This was in part due to the fact that Republicans added riders to the legislation, including proposals to restrict funding  for Planned Parenthood and to weaken clean water laws, that Democrats could not accept.

With Congress not set to return to work until after Labor Day, public health agencies have been doing what they’ve been doing all year to fight Zika: using funds diverted from other health programs, such as the fight against Ebola. This is certainly not the way to develop a comprehensive program to fight the virus or to develop a vaccine.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ron Klain,  former White House Ebola response coordinator, suggested that the lack of urgency on Zika may be because the disease is largely out of sight: “Zika is easily underestimated because symptoms are not obvious, and the most grave health consequence — birth defects in babies born to infected mothers — occur months in the future.” But he added: “Already, more than 5,000 people in the U.S. and its territories have tested positive for Zika; more than 300 pregnant women in the continental U.S. have the virus.”

Continued congressional inaction on the Zika threat is unacceptable. Lives are literally at stake. And with the spread of the virus, the health threat is becoming even more pronounced. Partisan bickering and related efforts to win points on other issues are a distraction. There is a growing public health disaster in Florida that the federal government needs to address.

Continuing Skirmishes with the Chief Rabbinate

Israel’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate has racked up a series of recent victories against those who want to expand the country’s religious freedoms. In the Jewish state, religious questions are also political, so Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence to the haredi side in the debate gives the Rabbinate’s narrow, inflexible approach the state’s stamp of approval.

The latest skirmish is over what is known as the Mikvah Bill, which was just approved by the Knesset. It requires that any immersion in a public ritual bath (funded by the government) be conducted in accordance with the Rabbinate’s rules, despite the fact that many of those rules — for example, the prohibition of state-funded ritual baths to be used for non-Orthodox conversions — have previously been struck down by the Supreme Court. This new bill applies as much to women who make a monthly visit to a mikvah as it does to someone converting to Judaism, and could infringe on the privacy of the person visiting the bath.

Last month in this space we criticized the Rabbinate’s exclusion of all but a few diaspora Orthodox rabbis as acceptable for performing conversions. The list of rabbis was secret and, to make matters more confusing, just whose conversions were deemed valid seemed to depend on who was being asked — the Rabbinate itself, or local rabbinical courts.

And then there is the matter of the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. The Rabbinate has walked back its initial acceptance of the compromise brokered by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, endorsed by Netanyahu and approved by the Cabinet. That compromise created an area south of the Kotel for mixed prayers, but did not touch the Rabbinate-run, sex-segregated setup at the Kotel plaza. Now, with the implementation of the compromise in doubt, representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism and the Women of the Wall organization last week notified Netanyahu that they will appeal to the Supreme Court to put the initial agreement into effect.

On all three issues, the growing haredi community in Israel, despite its relative weakness in numbers, is facing off successfully against other Jewish streams which draw much of their support from the United States. But while non-Orthodox groups are mainstream here, they play a relatively minor role in Netanyahu’s political calculus. And in that analysis, the 13 Knesset seats of the two haredi parties in his coalition government speak far louder. While those political calculations may be required to keep Netanyahu in office, the acquiescence should not come at the expense of Israelis’ civil liberties and respect for all Jews.

Netanyahu has said that as the prime minister of Israel, he speaks for all Jews. When it comes to religious freedoms — such as public prayer at the Kotel and an individual’s private experience in a ritual bath — Netanyahu should act for all Jews, as well.

Melania Trump’s 93 Percent

Let’s say it up front: Plagiarism is wrong. It’s wrong when journalists do it. It’s wrong when high school students do it. And it was wrong when Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention last week plagiarized the words of First Lady Michelle Obama in her opening night speech before a television audience of 23 million people.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism is still an issue this week. That is so not because of how it happened, or because it is a “gotcha” moment for opponents of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — although there was plenty of that to go around, including from parts of the media that focused on the presidential hopeful’s wife’s speech to the relative exclusion of domestic and foreign policy concerns. The speech remains an issue because of how the Trump campaign responded to the charge. And it is that response, more than any aspect of the episode, that raises questions about how a Trump administration will function in the 24/7 pressure cooker of the White House.

Mrs. Trump, her speech writers and handlers, and the Trump team made an embarrassing, rookie mistake in a very public setting. While it would have been unpleasant, they could have simply admitted the mistake and moved on. But, that’s not how the Trump campaign decided to respond. Instead, they rolled out the heavy artillery, and tried to minimize the offense or explain it away: “Ninety-three percent of the speech is completely different,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, said Melania Trump plagiarized only 50 words, “and that includes ‘ands’ and ‘thes’ and things like that.” Trump himself tried a different spin, and tweeted: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!”
There is nothing about plagiarism that is “good news.” And the notion that it is okay to copy another’s words without attribution is itself wrong and sends the wrong message — especially with the lame excuse that “ninety-three percent is completely different.”

The doubling down by Trump and Co. in defense of now admitted copying has a disconcerting ring of familiarity to it. We have been told repeatedly that Trump is a tough guy, who doesn’t back down. And now we see that his campaign doesn’t back down, either. “He will punch back 10 times harder,” Melania Trump has said, which begs the question of how a President Trump would respond to the rough and tumble of congressional politics, or the even less friendly challenges of foreign leaders or international trouble makers.

A plagiarized speech by a politician’s spouse may not be a big deal in and of itself, but since Donald Trump aspires to the highest post in the land, he’s going to have to find a better way of responding to the natural, justified and inevitable scrutiny that comes with the office.

Sharansky’s Dark Prophecy

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was in Paris last week for a Jewish Agency Board of Governor’s meeting. Many of the lay and professional leaders from around the world who joined him viewed the choice of venue as an opportunity to express solidarity with the Jewish community of Europe in general, and of France in particular.

These communities are rightly viewed to be under siege, facing mounting threats from a growing Arab population, increasing expressions of governmental condemnation of Israel, and worrying incidents of anti-Semitism. But the meeting’s expression of solidarity and support was turned on its head when, in the course of an interview with JTA, Sharansky predicted that French Jewry is doomed. “There is no future for the Jews in France because of the Arabs, and because of a very anti-Israel position in society, where new anti-Semitism and ancient anti-Semitism converge,” he said.

Sharansky’s foreboding prediction is consistent with the language he used in delivering a message following the January 2015 massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. Back then, he warned of further potential trauma to the Jews of France and the unraveling of France’s liberal traditions. At the time, the number of French Jews leaving for Israel was on the rise. And though the numbers have fallen off this year, Sharansky declared that the Jewish Agency is prepared for an inevitable rise and has dozens of representatives ready to assist new olim from France.

We support wholeheartedly efforts by the Jewish Agency to make aliyah easy and affordable for French Jews and any other Jews around the world. That said, we question the utility of Sharansky’s dark prediction about the French Jewish community, which has some 500,000 members and is the third largest in the world.

Declaring Jewish communities dead should not be the business of the Jewish Agency or of any other Jewish organization. There is a disquieting social engineering quality to such pronouncements, which are not at all helpful to Jews in the area who choose to stay put. And while there is nothing wrong with promoting aliyah for those interested in making the move, care must be taken not to do so in a manner that weakens local Jewish communities. Rather, it is in everyone’s interests — including those of Israel and the Jewish Agency itself — to promote and strengthen historic diaspora Jewish communities.

The Jewish Agency made a strong statement of support for the Jewish community of France by convening its Board of Governors meeting in Paris. It’s very next message should not have been the disquieting implication of Sharansky’s words — that the very Jews with whom the Jewish Agency is showing solidarity should all cut and run.

The Stew of Demonization

There may be many reasons — none of them justified — why 17-year-old Muhammad Nasser Tarayrah jumped the fence around the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron and stabbed to death 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. But even if it is determined why Tarayrah — who was shot and killed by guards after the attack — murdered a child, the case cannot be closed in a larger sense. Not as long as the Palestinian leadership continues to demonize Jews and delegitimize Israel. That drumbeat of hate needs to stop.

A case in point was President Mahmoud Abbas’ June 23 speech to the European Parliament. On the soil where 6 million Jews were murdered after centuries of demonization, Abbas declared, without offering proof, that “certain rabbis in Israel have said very clearly to their government that our water should be poisoned in order to have Palestinians killed.”

Abbas, who was applauded at the time, later retracted the claim. In a statement, his office acknowledged that the assertion was “baseless.” But what seems incomprehensible to us — that anyone would believe that Jews poison wells — apparently seems plausible to the Palestinian leadership and, as a result, to many of the Palestinians they lead. It is reminiscent of the age-old blood libel that Jews bake gentile children’s blood into matzoh. Never true, never proved, but repeated often enough that it was believed. And through the same pattern of demonization the Palestinians have successfully created a wicked image of their enemy — the devious Jew and the Israeli soldier as Nazi — and have peddled their hateful libel to their children.

No matter what it was that drove Nasser Tarayrah to murder a child, one can’t help but express concern that part of what drove him was the stew of demonization cooked up by Palestinian leadership over the past several decades.

We urge Palestinian leadership — whatever their political differences with Israel — to keep their rhetoric focused on their political goals and to established facts. And on this issue, it is important for the United States, Europe and all those who consider themselves sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to push Abbas and his leadership to drop the blood-libel thinking, the lies and the fabrications. Doing otherwise hardens the thinking of even sympathetic Israelis who would like a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and it provides ammunition to those who say Israel has no one to talk to.

Most importantly, Abbas’ unconscionable rhetoric and its blind acceptance by Palestinians and ignorant Europeans puts lives at stake. While the eradication of hateful speech will not end the bloodshed, it is also clear that so long as such speech exists and is promulgated by leadership, there can be no end to the conflict.

No Easy Answers in Orlando Bloodbath

Omar Mateen’s massacre of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., appears to have touched more pressure points than any of the other well-known mass shootings in the last two decades. There is the hate crime of homophobia. Then there is Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in the heat of his attack, raising the specter of a Muslim-American’s “self-radicalization.” There was his everyday violent and erratic behavior, suggesting that mental illness played a role. And there was his easy access to and use of a military-style weapon — unnecessary for ordinary self-defense, hunting or an afternoon on the shooting range.

While each of the foregoing issues is a cause for serious concern, it is simplistic to argue, “The answer is gun control” or “If everyone in that bar was carrying a weapon, this never would have happened.” Moreover, this does not appear to be a case of overseas terrorism and the threat of radical Islam. Mateen apparently got everything he needed right here at home, just like several other well-known domestic terrorists.

Similarly, it’s just not right to blame the carnage on a diagnosis of mental illness and to say that the solution is to mandate treatment for the mentally ill — as the gun lobby does in its opposition to common-sense gun laws. That argument  ignores the problem of military-style weapon availability and stigmatizes those who live with chronic psychological conditions. And it ignores the fact that the overwhelming number of people with mental illness don’t go around shooting people.

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub has sobered a country drunk of the heady progress the LGBT community has made in terms of acceptance, inclusion and same-sex marriage. The Orlando tragedy reminds us that there remain many at the fringes of society who see violence as an effective means of opposing social or cultural progress. Add to that the reported FBI statistics that LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other group — more than African-Americans and more than members of the Jewish community — and we know we have a problem.

Still, we don’t yet know why Mateen did what he did, and it is dishonest to pretend we do. But if all we do in this complex case is blame it on “all of the above” and wash our hands, then there is no chance for the kind of dialogue that is necessary to put a tragedy like this into perspective.

No matter where one comes out on the underlying questions regarding the “why” of Mateen’s actions, we are left with the perplexing and chilling question: What can a society do to prevent people with strong beliefs and haunting demons from taking lives because of them?