Archive for June, 2009

Using Anonymous Quotes

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Here is a timely question from a reader:

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt,

Whether you agree with him or not about The Jewish Week’s articles he cited, Marvin Schick does raise a fair question about the use of anonymous sources. Could you articulate what is the Jewish Week’s policy regarding the use of anonymous sources in the stories that you publish. And, to his point, what horrible retribution would have happened to the anonymous sources that were quoted had you published their names?


Nathan Vogel

My response:

Mr. Vogel, referring to Marvin Schick’s paid-for column in the June 19 issue that strongly criticized a Jewish Week article the previous week, asks a reasonable question. First, a little background:

The June 12 Jewish Week news story focused on allegations that Rabbi Dovid Cohen, a prominent posek (halachic decisor) in the charedi community, said publicly, at a Shabbat lecture, that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law as long as one doesn’t get caught, according to people in attendance.
Rabbi Cohen later denied that he made the statement. But according to at least seven people who were in the audience and who wrote letters attesting to what they heard, he did made the statement — and added that he would deny it if ever asked, noting that since it was Shabbat, no one was recording or taking notes on his remarks.

At the request of those involved, The Jewish Week agreed not to divulge their identities.

I once wrote a column on the subject of anonymous sources, noting our frustration in getting some people to speak on the record, i.e. allowing themselves to be quoted by name.

Every newspaper prefers fully identifying those who are interviewed for a story because it gives the story that much more credibility, especially if the person has an expertise in the area he is discussing.

For example, it is far more convincing to say that John Smith, the director of accounting at the Wharton School of finance, says “most Americans can’t add,” than to say “one accounting expert says `most Americans can’t add.’”

But in the real world of journalism, virtually every publication I know of quotes people without attribution at times, often giving a reason for the person asking that his or her name not be cited. Sometimes it’s a matter of one’s personal safety; more often it is a whistleblower afraid of losing his or her job or unwilling to risk professional, political or social repercussions.

The main criterion is a belief that the information you are being given is accurate.

In the case at hand, we felt the information we had been provided by the sources who requested anonymity was solid. We read the letters they had written affirming that they had heard Rabbi Cohen make the disputed remarks. In addition, we spoke to an official of the Rabbinical Council of America, where the letters had been sent, attesting to the accuracy of information we had been given. And we were convinced that the letter-writers were under strong social pressure, and in some instances rabbinic pressure, not to go public with their statements.

That’s a long answer to a short question, but in essence, if we believe that anonymous sources are credible and offer the only practical way to get important information out, we make use of that information.

Iran: Obama Is Catching On

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

President Obama made a significant statement about Iran yesterday, a seeming reversal of attitude, but it did not get the attention it deserved in the mainstream press here.

“The difference between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” the president said in an interview with CNBC and the New York Times.

“Either way,” he continued, “we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons.”

That doesn’t sound like the Obama who for many months has been focusing on diplomacy and finding common ground with the Islamic theocracy.

It was quite an understatement to say that the leadership in Teheran “has caused some problems in the neighborhood” — like undermining Western military and political efforts in Iraq and scaring the hell out of Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and Israel, with plans to dominate the region militarily.

But the New York Times ran the story on the bottom of page 13, and the thrust of that report was about Obama avoiding U.S. interference with Iran’s election turmoil.

Perhaps Obama is coming to understand, in the wake of the apparently rigged national election in Iran and the repressive response to mass demonstrations, that there is little motivation among Teheran’s top leadership to accommodate the U.S.

Let’s be clear: Iran is led by religious and military forces that vigorously oppose the West. The candidates for president were carefully chosen and are part of the system of theocratic rule. Moussavi does not deny the Holocaust but he supports Iran’s nuclear program. There is no reason to think he would take the country in a progressive direction, since he or whoever else serves as president does so at the discretion of the supreme religious leader.

The question now is how this realization will effect Obama’s calculations about negotiations with Iran in the coming months, and what happens if those talks go nowhere.

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Hmm, Where Does That Leave Us?

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Two new books are sitting on my desk, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

One is by Aaron Klein, a young journalist who made aliyah from the U.S. and it catalogues a litany of woes facing Israel. Its title: “The Late Great State of Israel: How Enemies Within and Without Threaten the Jewish Nation’s Survival.”

Nothing new here, just the Iranian nuclear threat, Palestinian terrorism, internal Israeli division and corruption, etc.

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Today I received a book from Israel by Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua Kemelman of Jerusalem. He explains that we are enduring “an epidemic of spiritual and national assimilation in the diaspora” and have lost six million Jews to intermarriage and assimilation since the Holocaust.

His book is called “Diaspora Is Jewry’s Graveyard.”

Read together, these books don’t seem to leave us much of an option.

How Iran Could Bolster Israel

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Ah, if only logic applied to the Middle East.

Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, has a provocative piece in the July/August issue of the magazine, entitled “How Iran Could Save The Middle East.”

His thesis, well worth considering, is that based on the Mideast cliché, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” key states in the region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt could form an alliance with Israel based on their common opposition to and fear of Iran, especially a nuclear Iran.

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What many Westerners fail to realize, Goldberg points out, is that there is a deep and bloody divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, going back centuries. The key Arab states are led by Sunnis, while Iran (which is Persian, not Arab) is ruled by a Shia theocracy.

“The remarkable thing about this moment in the Middle East is that Arab leaders speak about Iran more critically than even [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu does,” writes Goldberg.

He adds that it might be too late for an Israeli-Sunni alliance, in light of Israel’s battle against Hamas last winter, which makes it more difficult for the Arab states to enter into an agreement with Jerusalem.

But he suggests that if Israel made a significant overture, like freezing settlement activity, it could convince the Arab states to work with Israel in lobbying Europe, China and Russia against allowing the Iranians to build a bomb.

Mideast history suggests that such practical steps won’t happen, but just maybe the looming dark cloud of a nuclear Iran - an Iran in the ascendancy and seeking to assert its authority in the region — will convince pragmatic heads to prevail.

Rabbis Who Dissemble (The Ethics of Lying)

Friday, June 12th, 2009



One of the most disturbing aspects of a controversy we covered this week never made it into the story, due to constraints of deadlines and space.

The report was about a prominent Orthodox rabbi’s alleged statements suggesting that it is permissible to cheat on one’s tax return, presumably because Jews only have to be honest in their halachic dealings, and not necessarily in activities outside of that universe.

The rabbi in question is a halachic expert with much communal responsibility and respect who was responding to a question put to him following his Shabbat talk at a synagogue two years ago – and noted that he could not be quoted on Shabbat and would deny ever having made the statement.

Several people in attendance wrote letters to the Rabbinical Council of America, a prominent Orthodox group, urging that the rabbi, who is not a member of the RCA, be removed from its Vaad Haposkim, a panel of halachic authorities.

The RCA responded that, based on the rabbi’s subsequent denial to them, the case was closed. Some people who say they heard the controversial statement in shul that day claimed “whitewash,” and were appalled when other rabbis insisted that the complainants were fabricating the story.

The rationale then given was that it is permissible to do whatever is necessary (including lie) to protect kavod haRav, the honor and reputation of a rabbi, and for the good of the community.

This argument isn’t new. Being untruthful dates back to the Bible. Abraham said his wife, Sarah, was his sister to protect himself, Isaac did the same regarding Rebecca, and Jacob told his father, Isaac, that he was Esau to get the blessing of the first son. Some biblical commentators were upset with the subterfuge, others said the ends justified the means.

The debate has continued ever since, and it turns out that Jewish texts are rich, complex and nuanced when it comes to the ethics of lying. In Jewish law, one is obligated to tell the truth as a witness in court, but beyond that, there is no command: “thou shalt not lie.” Indeed, the Talmud suggests one can tell a lie for the sake of peace.

But how do we define “peace,” and what are the boundaries today in protecting the reputation of someone who winks at, if not allows, unethical and illegal deeds?

Surely if a halachic authority would be seen eating a cheeseburger, his reputation would be finished, on the spot. So why is it that when such an authority says cheating the government is kosher, at least some colleagues would say his reputation must be defended?


But There Is No `Palestine’

Friday, June 5th, 2009

It may seem churlish, in the wake of President Obama’s lofty speech to the Muslim world yesterday, to note that despite his references to “Palestine,” there is no such entity.

There is the Palestinian Authority, of course, whose president is Mahmoud Abbas, and there is the belief, shared by many, that its goal is the creation of a Palestinian state, though its actions in recent years indicate otherwise.

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Various attempts, including Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s overly generous offer at Camp David in 2000, rejected outright by Yasir Arafat, indicate that Palestinian leaders may find the dream of a state more appealing than its reality.

In any event, the fact remains that while President Obama and his staff crafted the Cairo speech with great care, thought and devotion to detail, its references to “Palestine” were inaccurate. One must conclude that their inclusion in the speech was deliberate, and sought to make a political point that trumped historical fact.

The point, in a talk that mixed rhetorical eloquence, painstakingly calibrated equivalency and a heavy dose of pragmatism, is that Obama views the plight of the Israelis and Palestinians on an equal plain. Both groups have suffered, both deserve a state, let’s put the past aside and make it happen, soon.

Obama would see it as nit-picking and unproductive to point out the historic flaws in such an argument that equates the suffering of the Palestinians to the Nazis’ annihilation of six million Jews, or to note that the primary cause for Palestinians suffering over the years is their leaders’ refusal to eschew violence and make any compromises in light of Israel’s repeated offers and attempts to resolve the crisis.

Perhaps it’s seen as diplomatically practical to jettison the past and move forward, but no meaningful resolution of such an emotional and deep-seated dispute can have traction unless and until the grievances of both sides are articulated, heard and acknowledged.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute can’t be papered over, no matter how good the intentions of those who want it ended. And while the President can make specific demands on what Israel has to do - stop the settlements, whatever that means - his attempt at balance in calling for the Palestinians to end the violence remains hollow, abstract, and less than convincing.

Bottom line, this pragmatic President, and those who advise him, must come to grips with the reality that no Palestinian leader is prepared to accept the permanent presence of a Jewish state in the region, and to say so publicly.

Until that happens, all the concessions squeezed from Israel will not add up to a peaceful and happy ending to the standoff between an Israel that refuses to commit suicide and a “Palestine” that does not yet exist.