Archive for March, 2008

Scoop Of The Day: Reporters Are Human

Monday, March 24th, 2008


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The thorough reporting job on the front page of the New York Times today (April 1) describing the depth of anti-Semitism of Hamas, in its sermons and broadcasts, should be commended by pro-Israel readers, particularly those who have complained about the coverage by the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger as biased in favor of the Palestinians.

But I’m not holding my breath. In fact, pro-Israel critics no doubt will respond to today’s story by exclaiming,” what took so long?”

It reminds me of an evening some years ago, at the height of the second intifada, when Clyde Haberman, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times (and now a columnist for the paper’s Metro section), bore the brunt of anger and frustration from a large audience at an upper West Side Orthodox synagogue. He was on a panel dealing with Mideast media bias, along with Sidney Zion (a tough old-school journalist to the right of Begin on Israel), as well as a spokesman for the Israeli Consulate, and me.

There was heated discussion about whether the mainstream media was anti-Israel, and Clyde, a fine reporter (and graduate of the Soloveichik elementary school in Washington Heights) who has a low threshold for those who would put the Times in that category, was left to defend the paper, and growing increasingly frustrated.

The Israeli spokesman and I tried to make the case that there was little if any overt anti-Israel bias in the mainstream U.S. press, particularly compared to the European press, but the crowd wasn’t buying it. And most of their increasingly heated questions were aimed at Clyde.

At one point a woman asked why the Times had not covered the fact that Palestinian militants held training camps for youngsters, teaching them how to use weapons and indoctrinating them with hatred of Israel.

“Ah, but we did that story,” Clyde responded quickly, his voice rising. “In fact it ran on Page One.”

Undaunted, the woman responded, “well, why don’t you do it again?”

At that point I thought Clyde was going to explode, but he replied: “Why don’t you just stop reading the paper and save yourself the aggravation?”

(This was before the local boycott of the Times in the Jewish community. When that occurred, and I notified Clyde that a group of Jews had decided to cancel their subscriptions to the Times during the 10 Days of Repentance, he shot back: “Why don’t they do it during the 49 days of the Omer?”)

Two points here: One is that if you have it in for a publication (or radio or television network), convinced of its bias, there is little the institution can do to change your mind. Indeed, an editor of the Baltimore Sun once complained to me that “if we put the entire Torah on our front page every day,” it wouldn’t satisfy critics in the Jewish community.

Point two is that even journalists are human. They can get emotional and they have long memories - something to keep in mind when dealing with them.

If this remembrance prompts you to write a note to Steven Erlanger, complimenting on his reporting on Hamas, do it today. He is leaving his post soon after three and a half years, and will be succeeded by Ethan Bronner, who covered the region for the Boston Globe before coming to the Times where he has served on several desks, most recently as deputy foreign editor.

Bronner, who is Jewish, has family ties to Israel and is highly knowledgeable on the Mideast, is well aware that he will be closely watched for his alleged reporting biases.

But at least he’ll know he is being read.

YU Controversy Goes Beyond Rabbi Schachter

Friday, March 7th, 2008


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The subtext of the controversy over the recent shocking remarks made by Yeshiva University rosh yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter — where he appeared to advocate shooting the Israeli Prime Minister if the government would “give up Jerusalem” — is less about the rabbi himself and more about the division within the Orthodox community over da’as Torah [literally, Torah knowledge, but meaning possessing a higher level of Divine insight].

Until recently, one of the clear lines that separated Modern Orthodoxy from those further to the religious right was that it did not subscribe to the belief in da’as Torah. That is to say Modern Orthodox Jews believed that Torah scholars should decide matters of halacha, or Jewish law, but not necessarily be sought out for their views on other aspects of life, from politics to personal choices about who to marry or what job to take, as many haredim do.

But that separation has been eroding, and there is a generational divide within Modern Orthodoxy, and more particularly within the Yeshiva University community.

As YU has trained a number of rabbis who excel in Talmudic learning, they in turn have developed strong relationships with students who often study with them for two, three or four years or more. In addition, most of these students first spent a year or two after high school learning at yeshivas in Israel, where the norm was to have a rebbe as a source of guidance and advice not only in Jewish law, but on spiritual and personal matters, especially since these students were thousands of miles from parents, family and friends.

So it is not surprising that these students seek out a rebbe with whom they can bond when they return to America, and that many of these Orthodox Jews, now in their 20s and 30s, are more inclined to consult closely with their rebbe on a wide range of issues than would their parents. A number of these young people tend to subscribe to the notion of da’as Torah, and while they do not necessarily view their rebbes as prophets, they believe these men have greater insights into the Divine because of their breath of Torah knowledge.

The parents of these young people tend to view such devotion with a mix of admiration and skepticism - proud that their offspring take Jewish practice so seriously but wary of sacrificing one’s own powers of choice and independence to another, regardless of how learned.

In the case of Rabbi Schachter, the controversy is not only over what he said - he has a history of making blunt pronouncements on Israeli policy, feminism, and the differences between Jews and non-Jews - but on his position within Orthodoxy, at the fulcrum between the modern and charedi worlds.

He is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, a highly respected Torah scholar throughout the Orthodox community and, most recently, a key decisor for the Rabbinical Council of America on conversion issues.

But despite his “modern” credentials, many believe that in temperament and outlook, he is more closely aligned to the more traditional yeshiva world.

So the argument among many in the older generation of Modern Orthodox Jews is that this man, however great his scholarship, can be judged as flawed and chastised for intemperate remarks he makes. And they would argue that the very nature of such remarks undermines the idea that the rabbi could possess da’as Torah.

The younger set, though, bristles at any criticism of a man of such sage-like stature and tends to believe that the barbs against him are politically motivated by those who want to take Rabbi Schachter down a notch.

YU’s leadership is in a difficult position because it recognizes both the level of embarrassment Rabbi Schachter can cause in the “real” world and the fact that he gives the rabbinic school much of whatever standing it has in the influential right-wing yeshiva world.

But then, that’s what YU has always been about, seeking the balance of Torah and ma’adah [secular knowledge], in the words of its motto.

Defenders of the rabbi say he should be viewed as above reproach and continue in his various roles of leadership; critics would agree that a rabbinic leader should be above reproach and say that is why Rabbi Schachter should be disciplined.