Taken together, these events underscore what those Jews involved in American Conservative and Reform Jewish communities already know: The institutional structures of both movements and their affiliated members increasingly share the same cultural norms, particularly with respect to liberal social issues. Studies have shown that a growing number of Conservative and Reform Jews agree on hot-button social issues such as interfaith and same-sex marriage, ordination of gay rabbis, and descent—the latter being the idea of granting Jewish status to people who have only one Jewish parent of either sex. (According to halacha, or Jewish law, Judaism passes solely from mother to child, not from father to child.)
The fact that many members of the Conservative movement share a socially liberal agenda with their Reform brethren is not what threatens the movement’s future. The seminary’s support of transgender rights was about secular law and civil rights, and is largely irrelevant to the movement’s religious focus. But the United Synagogue’s decision to allow non-Jews to become synagogue members could severely compromise the movement’s ability to fulfill its legacy as a distinct way to follow Jewish tradition in the modern world.
Given the convergence between the movements, the real question is whether Conservative Judaism can maintain and further a religious identity and mode of observance distinct from that of Reform. The matter is critical, because according to the 2013 Pew Report, while Reform Jews now constitute 35 percent of the overall American Jewish community, practicing Conservative Jews in the United States make up 18 percent, which represents about a one-third drop over the past 25 years.
If Conservative Judaism becomes one with Reform in both theory and practice, how can it survive as an independent movement?
The norms of practice Schechter advocated were traditional, which is why, aspirationally, the classic Conservative synagogue service is almost identical to an Orthodox service and why the classic Conservative home life revolves around keeping kosher, keeping the holidays, and maintaining a strict division between the Sabbath and the rest of the week. Schechter spoke of a “Catholic Israel,” made up of “the committed people.” Where he differed from Orthodoxy was in the realm of belief. Schechter’s traditionalist approach grew from a historical perspective, one that situated the study of both biblical text and halacha in the overall cultural context in which they developed. This approach was highly problematic for those who viewed Judaism as God-centered and the Torah not as a historical document but as literally a gift to the world from the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Still, as the historian Jonathan Sarna has observed, Schechter’s original vision of two branches of Judaism—Reform and traditional—was reflected in the actual daily practice of Judaism in much of the United States until the 1930s, at which point the traditionalist camp openly fractured. The most open area of conflict became mixed seating in synagogues, which had been the common practice of Reform temples since the late 19th century. Increasingly, Conservative Jews wanted synagogues that allowed families to sit together, and the debates grew so heated that the matter was actually litigated in American courts in the 1950s in a series of cases. This situation provided Orthodox authorities with the opportunity to denounce publicly mixed seating as incompatible with halacha and established the differentiation between the norms of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
As all this was happening, Conservative Judaism’s middle-of-the-road message proved to be a good fit for many American Jews wanting to live a modern but still traditional life, and the movement was the dominant force in the community from the end of World War II through the 1960s. But as the second half of the 20th century progressed, Orthodox Judaism began to carve out a more distinct identity defined by much stronger norms of traditional practice. This phenomenon, documented by Samuel Heilman in his book Sliding to the Right, explains how the religious and cultural standards of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism began to diverge even more substantially. For Conservative Jews who were interested in living a Torah-centered life, Orthodoxy became more attractive. Aggressive outreach by pockets of Orthodoxy, notably Chabad-Lubavitch, contributed to the appeal of a Judaism perceived as more authentic than the normative practices characteristic of Conservative Judaism.
In the latter decades of the last century, Reform Judaism took a turn toward the more traditional. Some of its adherents began embracing once-discarded practices such as Hebrew prayers, the celebration of life-cycle events, and the wearing of yarmulkes, tallitot and even tefillin. To some Jews who had been raised Conservative, Reform no longer felt “churchy.” Even more important for its growth, the Reform movement began to attract a portion of the growing number of intermarried couples—in part because Reform clergy were open to performing such marriages. The Reform movement also changed the halachic standards for “who is a Jew” by adopting the Patrilineal Resolution in 1983, allowing the determination of Jewish status to be based on either parent. In practice, this new resolution created the presumption that children of mixed marriages are to be considered Jewish as long as they publicly manifest a positive and exclusive Jewish identity. Taken together, these reasons may help explain why the Pew Report found that 30 percent of Jews who had been raised Conservative had migrated to Reform over the previous four decades.
Unlike Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement is composed of discrete institutional arms with parallel authority. The United Synagogue governs synagogue-related matters, and the affiliated educational institutions train the clergy and other professional leaders. Regarding matters of halacha, however, the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly—the international association of Conservative rabbis—has the final say. The RA has established a lawmaking body known today as the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which governs the movement outside of Israel. This committee is charged with the responsibility for adopting legal positions that are considered halachically acceptable as well as promulgating Standards of Rabbinic Practice. Individual congregational rabbis may look to the committee’s decisions for guidance, but they have considerable latitude in making their own halachic decisions for their respective communities. But they are strictly bound to a set of official rules called the Standards of Rabbinic Practice.
Two of the three Standards of Rabbinic Practice relate to intermarriage. One prohibits a Conservative rabbi from performing an intermarriage. Another defines Jewish membership according to the mother’s religion or a halachic conversion. (The third requires a get, a Jewish writ of divorce, before remarriage.) The new United Synagogue standard allowing non-Jewish members was designed to avoid conflict with the Rabbinic Standards of Practice, since it does not change the current legal definition of Jewish status. In other words, the United Synagogue draws a theoretical distinction between membership in a shul and the traditional halachic standards for defining who is a Jew.
That said, the real issue is not whether the United Synagogue Standard can be aligned in theory with the movement’s Rabbinic Standards but what impact this, and other initiatives concerning intermarriage, will have on how Conservative Judaism is practiced on the ground.
Simply put, a wide embrace of certain types of outreach measures to intermarried couples by Conservative synagogues has the potential to dissolve the movement down the road. Clergy, staff, and lay leaders need to weigh carefully just what will be gained—and lost—before they move forward on initiatives directed toward the intermarried.
As intermarriage escalates, it will be difficult enough for the Conservative movement to maintain its 73 percent in-marriage rate.First, one must ask why an intermarried couple would choose a Conservative synagogue over a Reform temple. Aside from the fact that Conservative rabbis are still barred from performing intermarriage ceremonies, most traditional Conservative services are less accessible to non-Jews than Reform services, given their length and the amount of Hebrew. These demanding services prompt many in-married couples with one Conservative and one Reform partner to opt for the Reform affiliation. How can we realistically expect otherwise of an intermarried couple, even if one of the partners grew up in a Conservative synagogue?
Thus, while it is highly questionable whether Conservative synagogues will gain members by greater outreach to intermarried couples, it is almost certain that there will be losses of both a qualitative and quantitative nature from doing so. It is already the case that some Conservative rabbis allow an interfaith couple to have an aufruf—a pre-wedding honor—in their synagogues and allow public congratulations to interfaith couples on their engagements and weddings. Has this helped the movement gain adherents? There is no sign this is the case.
Parents who feel strongly about their children marrying Jews will lose the support of a synagogue community that reinforces their views on this matter. These parents will have to work twice as hard to buck the growing trends. As intermarriage escalates, it will be difficult enough for the Conservative movement to maintain its 73 percent in-marriage rate without synagogues acting in ways that seem to suggest there is no greater virtue in two Jews marrying each other than in a Jew marrying a non-Jew.
In areas with large Jewish communities, parents seeking to pass on some form of traditional Judaism to their children and grandchildren may simply go elsewhere if their synagogues go too far down the intermarriage outreach path. We can assume that these parents will be among the most dedicated and serious members in a Conservative synagogue, those who often form the core of Shabbat attendees and exert an influence on the religious norms of the community. Their departure will alter the spirit of Conservative synagogues considerably.
Finally, assuming these outreach efforts become common in Conservative synagogues, rabbis who stand their ground and refuse to go along will have a more difficult time getting hired and retaining their jobs. The same phenomenon occurred in the Reform movement when it decided to give rabbis the choice of performing intermarriages.
Realistically, as long as Conservative Judaism retains its existing halachic positions prohibiting intermarriage and retaining matrilineal descent, most intermarried couples wanting to seek out Judaism still will gravitate to Reform. Moreover, given the escalating rates of intermarriage and the documented lack of interest among Jewish millennials across the board in joining synagogues, Conservative affiliation will likely continue to decline despite these outreach efforts. If the movement’s next steps to counter this decline will be eventual permission for its clergy to perform intermarriages and the adoption of a version of the Patrilineal Resolution, Conservative Judaism will then be indistinguishable from Reform except for the makeup of the prayer book and the length of the Torah services.
The Reform movement already provides a much-needed space for intermarried couples to grow together regarding Judaism and raise Jewish families. “Under the Chuppah,” a recent study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, shows that intermarried couples wed solely by a Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged than other intermarried couples, more likely to join a synagogue, and based on early data concerning childrearing, significantly more likely to raise their children as Jewish.
Still, the Brandeis study also provides evidence suggesting that observance on the part of intermarried couples is not the same as that of mainstream Conservative Jews. Compared to in-married couples, intermarried couples married by a sole Jewish officiant are less likely to raise children as Jewish by religion, select a Jewish preschool, have a special meal on Shabbat, attribute importance to keeping kosher, discuss Israel and Judaism with friends and family, and donate to Jewish or Israeli causes.
These findings by the Brandeis study can be profitably compared with a study just released about levels of Jewish engagement among alumni of Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s network of summer camps. This study, based on over 5,000 Ramah alumni, provides ample evidence that institutional efforts to develop traditional norms of Conservative Jewish observance can be highly successful. The study found that Ramah alumni reported significantly high levels of Jewish identity, ritual observance, and connection to Israel, as well as extremely low rates of intermarriage. Significantly, nine out of 10 respondents stated that it is very important or essential for their children to marry Jews.
This survey may contain some “upward” bias based on the reality that the most Jewishly connected Ramah alumni are also the most likely to have participated in the study. Still, it cannot be denied that the Ramah culture has proven effective in keeping former campers strongly attached to Conservative Jewish practice. It is telling that about 70 percent of Ramah alumni belong to Conservative, Masorti (the name used for Conservative Judaism outside North America), or so-called traditional egalitarian congregations.
Through its camps, day schools, youth groups, synagogues, and part-time Hebrew schools, Conservative Judaism has sustained a core community of American Jews whose daily lives substantially revolve around Jewish tradition, even if not in a way that conforms completely with strict halachic observance. There are indeed standards of observance among rigorous Conservative Jews. These include Shabbat dinners and attending services, especially on Shabbat morning. Such Jews celebrate all the festivals, even if synagogue attendance is lighter on the second days of Pesach, Succot, and Shavuot. They attend services on the evening of Tisha B’av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, even if most Conservative Jews do not fast the entire day. Traditional Conservative Jews still hold a seven-day shiva for a deceased parent, and many go to a minyan once a day for 11 months to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, even if fewer observe all the mourning customs such as refraining from listening to live music and buying new clothing during the year of mourning.
Traditional Conservative Jews may not daven three times, or even once, a day, but by and large they do keep kosher homes with two sets of dishes and they refrain from eating nonkosher meat when outside their homes. Of course, not all self-identified committed Conservative Jews maintain these norms, but anyone who spends time in Conservative Jewish communities in this country will see these general patterns of observance common among the core. And many Conservative Jews who do not follow these patterns will readily acknowledge that they probably should.
Significantly, most Conservative Jews also insist on, or at least prefer, an egalitarian worship community and feel strongly about gay rights from a ritual perspective. The Conservative movement essentially represents the only realistic alternative for this group, a reality reaffirmed by recent rulings by the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America proscribing roles for female clergy. The ability to offer traditional, egalitarian services provides the Conservative movement with a ready-made niche.
The Pew Report showed that Conservative Jews in general have higher measures of engagement with the tradition than do Reform Jews.In retrospect, the Conservative movement has made some major blunders when it comes to encouraging the conservation of Jewish tradition. Consider the Responsum on the Sabbath, issued in 1950 by the movement’s law committee. This opinion, which was part of an overall plan to revitalize Shabbat observance among Conservative Jews, allowed driving on Shabbat (but only to attend services) and permitted the use of electricity to enhance the day’s enjoyment. The goal was to reintroduce Shabbat in a way that authors of the Responsum believed was possible for mid-20th-century American Conservative Jews.
The Responsum justified its leniency on these matters of Jewish law by applying halachic precedents to the science governing the production of electricity and the operation of automobiles. In practice, however, embracing such leniencies only provided a reason for further criticism of the movement by the Orthodox—and made no practical difference to the majority of Conservative Jews who were going to drive on Shabbat regardless of whether they received permission.
Committed Conservative Jews, regardless of whether they drive or use electricity on Shabbat, have always appreciated the benefits of keeping its 25 hours holy. Such benefits were emphasized by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, who wrote a strong minority opinion to the Responsum emphasizing the importance of a Shabbat experience grounded in home and quality family time. In language that is still remarkably relevant today, Bokser spoke of the importance of Shabbat as freedom from machines and modern life’s complexities. His opinion did not parse the halacha but rather presented a sociological and psychological argument for why a normative, traditional Shabbat experience matters.
Conservative Rabbinic leaders should follow Bokser’s lead. They should focus on developing, communicating, and selling to their membership a set of ritual norms of observance currently being practiced by the movement’s most dedicated Jews. An emphasis on thicker forms of traditional practice will provide the best path not only for retaining the core but also for reclaiming other traditional Jews who feel that Conservative Judaism has lost its footing.
It is not too late for the Conservative movement to right its direction. The Pew Report showed that Conservative Jews in general have higher measures of engagement with the tradition than do Reform Jews. Rates of intermarriage among Reform Jews are almost double those of Conservative Jews. Conservative Judaism needs to build upon and strengthen these distinctions rather than competing with Reform in areas in which it is bound to lose ground.
In short, the Conservative movement needs a return to Schechter’s mission of conserving Jewish tradition by focusing its educational and spiritual energies on enlarging and strengthening a root group of Conservative Jews who are drawn to tradition. The movement should refrain from attempting to widen a tent that is already losing its shape and structure. Instead, it should commit itself to a collective effort to develop a stronger, distinct, religious identity based on what it can legitimately claim as its unique legacy. Such a path may not result in an explosion of new adherents, but it will maintain Conservative Judaism’s distinct definition—and chart a course away from its self-destruction.
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Saving Conservative Judaism
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.