Barukh Dayan Emet–Harold Diftler

We learned of the passing this last weekend of a dear friend, Dr. Harold Diftler. Harold and his wife Joyce were among the first people to welcome us to Knoxville.
Harold was one of the most prominent dentists in the region and there are many accolades from his professional colleagues. But nothing tells the story of Dr. Diftler better than the simple fact that he turned no one away over his entire career, and never complained when his patients could not the afford the care.
 
Harold was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a member of the Knoxville Track Club he ran marathons all over the USA. His collections of antique clocks and watches are renowned. He was able to converse about many subjects because he so valued education that he never stopped taking courses–in recent years University courses in history, film, political science, anthropology and music.
 
Harold is pictured above from our Passover Seder in 2015. May his memory always be counted as a blessing. May his memory be entwined with ours so that he lives on forever through us.
 
Blessed is the True Judge.
 
 

On the Term Shiktza Goddess

Two of my Facebook friends raised some issues related to the joke I posted on that platform and focused on the issue of the term “shiktsa* goddess” used in the joke. The first thing I want to say is that I am glad and grateful that my friends would indicate sensitivity to the issue. It is good to reflect on language and the nuance of words, and the fact that words can be painful or harmful. Others of my friends will take the other side–presumably most of them since the joke seemed to work for them–and most of them would take offense at being labeled something like a misogynist for using that term.

*Note: there is no standard English spelling for the Yiddish word shiktza and I have no intention of making my own practice standard. OCD folks will just need to grin and bear it.

Both of my friends demonstrated their point by looking at another Yiddishism, namely the word “shvartze” which can be the rough equivalent of what we call these days, “the N word.” Let me start with that term. Jews from Eastern Europe referred to people of color by the term “Shvartze” in their Yiddish language. In that language, it simply means “black.” In normal Yiddish usage, it is not a pejorative and carries no more hateful intent than the English word “black.” But–and this is a big but–when that term is used by an English-speaking Jew, at least in my experience it is always used as a racial epithet. If one of my Facebook friends referred to a person of color by this term, I would first ask that they edit their post, then if they did not, delete the post and privately ask that person to refrain from using racial epithets on my page. If they repeated the language, I would block them. There is no place on my page for racism.

Now, I said this could get complicated. What happens if the person using that word is actually a native speaker of Yiddish? They might very well refer to someone as a “shvartze” with no pejorative intent–no more than if an English speaker used the term “Black.” In that case I’d have to look at the context, and I might have to add a note of my own explaining the issues. But I might not censor the comment (and let’s face it, we are talking about censorship here) if I believed the intent to be innocent.

With that background, let’s turn to the issue of the word shiktza. There is not even the slightest doubt that the term began as a pejorative, and a nasty one at that. It is Yiddish, but derives from the Hebrew which means “insect” or “vermin.” At some point in the long history of ethnic conflict and hatred, Jews began referring to “gentiles” or non-Jews with this sobriquet.

My attitude to this word when used by an English-speaking Jew is precisely the same as my attitude towards the term shvartze. I would never use it, and if someone used it on my page, I would first ask them to rewrite the post, if they did not I would delete it, and if they persisted with such offensive language, I would block them. And this is not just an intellectual exercise–I have in fact blocked at least half a dozen people for this behavior.

But the word used in the joke was not “shiktza.” It was the term “shiktza goddess.” This is a term whose origin we know and understand. It was coined by Lenny Bruce, a man who literally went to jail to defend the right of free speech. And he meant nothing offensive to the woman in the term. If anything, he was casting aspersion on the Jewish men of his acquaintance who he saw as chasing after non-Jewish women as a way of denying their Jewish heritage. In the meantime, as often happens with such expressions, not a few women have adopted the term as a badge of honor. I don’t have any good statistics for this, I can only say that I know many non-Jewish women, and a few women who became Jews, who think it’s great that their Jewish friends or partners regard them as “goddesses.” Personally, I have a big problem with calling a woman like Ivanka Trump a shiktza goddess, although it doesn’t surprise me to hear others do so. But Ivanka is now a Jew, so IMO that term is inappropriate for her. Steve Mnuchin’s wife, on the other hand…well, I digress.

Louise Linton, Steve Mnuchin's wife, deletes post in support of Greta Thunberg

It might startle some people to learn that for most of the 19th and a large part of the 20th century, many Jews regarded the word “Jew” to be a pejorative. That’s why Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called the organization he founded in 1873 and which has become the largest religious organization of Jews “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the organization voted to change its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Interesting, to me at least, is that they still avoided using the term, “Jew.” In like manner, the Orthodox Jewish organization which was founded to provide no-interest loans to Jews (because interest is forbidden by Jewish law) is called The Hebrew Free Loan Society. HFLS was founded in 1892 and has not changed its name. One prominent Jewish publication which began in 1879 called itself The American Hebrew. Through a variety of changes over the decades it retired that name in 1956 and now survives as The Washington Jewish Week. Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, was first published by The American Hebrew.

I want to finish on a positive note. I think it is great that some of us care enough about these issues to raise objections. They are acting honorably, and it is good to remind ourselves that we need to look at ourselves and our language to ensure that we are actually communicating what we want to say. Not every issue has a resolution that will satisfy everyone. I never use the term shiktza goddess in my own writing other than to quote others. I see that it is problematic. But it’s not a term of ethnic or religious hatred, and it does convey nuance that is difficult to convey otherwise. I’m glad I had this opportunity to think about it.

 

On the Use of the Pardon

The soon-ex-president held the traditional turkey pardon yesterday which was followed by pardoning a metaphorical turkey, Michael Flynn. Earlier pardons in Trump’s administration include letting a racist murderer off the hook.

The news media are filled with speculation about how many more pardons will be issued and whether and how he might try to pardon himself. Several conservative commentators noted that Democrats have also issued controversial pardons. Omitted from their observations is that none of these pardons were actually designed to protect the president himself from prosecution.

In fact, even Richard Nixon declined to use his power to pardon those who were convicted of helping him by committing crimes. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean all served their sentences and never received pardons. Nixon may have been himself a criminal, and certainly needed Ford’s pardon in order to avoid his own prosecution, but evidently as corrupt as Nixon was he understood that pardoning his abettors would be an inexcusable abuse of power.

Consider that despite all the shouting of “Lock her up” for five years now, Barack Obama did not choose to issue a pardon for Hillary Clinton. I think he had two reasons for this. First, as a fine constitutional scholar in his own right, Obama would have regarded such an act as an abuse of power. Second, he certainly didn’t consider her guilty of any crimes and thought there to be no possibility that she would ever be charged. Indeed, the lack of charges against her, even from arguably the worst Attorney General in US history, proves that point.

What we are seeing now, like so many other deplorable things associated with this administration, is an unprecedented abuse of power. He is literally paying off those who assisted him in multiple criminal offenses and defrauding the citizenry.

There is rampant speculation that Trump will resign shortly before January 20 in order to allow Pence to pardon him. While that would not surprise me, I don’t think it’s all that likely. First, I’m not sure Pence would do it. Pence is one of the few people in the administration who probably has not committed a crime. I disagree with him on almost every political issue, but I don’t think he’s a crook. And second, that would require Trump to resign–and I don’t think he’s mentally able to do that.

Another strategy that is the subject of speculation is the possibility that he would try to pardon himself. So far every constitutional scholar I’ve seen comment on this has argued that such a pardon would be unconstitutional on several different grounds such as the technical definition of the term “grant.”

This issue is one of the most important reasons that Mr. Biden should not pardon him. It will probably take some sort of constitutional amendment to fix the possibility of abuse of power via the pardon and we all know how difficult that process can be. So we need other ways to caution a president against such abuses of power. The obvious remedy is impeachment, but we have learned from Mitch McConnell that that remedy can be politically unavailable. Since we have learned that the remedy the Founders provided to end public corruption can be flouted, we need presidents to understand that they may still be subject to prosecution.

One aspect of this issue that is interesting is one that I thought Trump understood, but perhaps not. Many commentators argued that the reason why Trump commuted Roger Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning him was that had he pardoned him, Stone could no longer plead the 5th amendment against self-incrimination in any subsequent court actions against Trump. That also implies that Michael Flynn, pardoned yesterday, loses that protection. In other words, Flynn can be summoned to court and compelled to testify. If he refuses, he can be charged with obstruction of justice, impeding a prosecution, etc If he lies, that’s a new crime he can be prosecuted for. So there is at least a chance that could lead to more factual revelations about Trump’s guilt in his official duties.

Finally, it is crystal clear that that one reason Trump is so desperately trying to cling to power is that he does understand that indictment in State court is imminent, and no one believes he can pardon himself for the multitude of crimes he has committed in NY State. Recall that he had to shut down his charity and pay a $2M fine because he ran it as his personal piggy bank. Sadly, he ran the entire US Treasury as his personal piggy bank, and it is long past time that we prove that no one in the US is above the law.

Leadership in the Age of the Virus

A friend often likes to compare what happened in New York to other states, and specifically blames Andrew Cuomo for the devastation that New York has experienced. This has now come up several times–and not just with this one friend. I’m suspicious that this is part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect from the massive culpability of the Federal government for the now more than 2 million infections in the USA and 118,000 fatalities.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that my friend is deliberately taking up a disinformation campaign. We know that the Trump re-election campaign and various allies periodically seed the news and social media with misinformation, people who like those sources (eg, Fox News) pick up on these things, and many of them simply don’t know that they have become the agents of tricksters.

We know that Trump and his administration received numerous warnings about the pandemic beginning in December 2019. We know that Trump not only ignored these warnings, but actively discouraged the agencies which are responsible for protecting our health–for example, by telling the CDC that they could not have any public news conferences. These are undeniable facts. The Trump administration took no public action on the virus until the drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average seems to have informed him that a problem did indeed exist. After that, for most of the month of March, the Administration committed blunder after blunder engendering chaos throughout the country, and completely failed in its most important obligation: to protect the citizens of the United States from this disease.

Without question, New York State, and the New York Metro area has experienced the worst effects of the pandemic in the USA so far. I don’t have the expertise to judge whether State or local governments did everything that could have been done, but each time this issue has come up, I have tried to avoid the fog of the political cloud by asking a couple of simple questions. Every state in the USA is dependent on national resources. In this case, among the most important are the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and FEMA. And so my most basic question is: which recommendations issued by these organizations for the prevention of COVID did New York Metro Area governments fail to follow? Given that I have been asking this question for more than two weeks now, and I’ve received exactly zero replies, my conclusion has to be that Cuomo and the governors of NJ and Connecticut, as well as local authorities followed all guidelines and instructions they received from the relevant health authorities.

It is, of course, an understandable and rational question to wonder why New York suffered so much more intensely and with so many more fatalities than other areas of the country. Is that because governors in places like my state of Tennessee, Florida, Nebraska, etc were more competent than Cuomo? It’s going to take months and maybe years to get the complete story on this question, but the evidence is already pretty clear that New York’s fate was sealed a month earlier than Cuomo could possibly have acted. Genetic markers for COVID have demonstrated that the West Coast (California and Washington State) illness was brought into the country via Asia, while the source of the New York infections were from Europe. Without a Federal shutdown to all travelers from these places, the virus was going to hit the New York Metro area because it is the primary recipient of air traffic from Europe. No governor and no mayor had that authority. That was the responsibility of the US federal government, and for the months of January and February, no part of that federal government was actively considering preventative measures.

New York and the West Coast were hit the earliest, and the population density of New York, the reliance on mass transit (some quibbling over this, but I think it’s just basic logic), and the delay in shutting things down to control the spread of the virus meant that New York couldn’t avoid the worst any more than it could have if an atomic bomb had been detonated there. That delay is where a lot of the complaining is sourced, but it’s always great to be able to argue from 20-20 hindsight. Back when Cuomo and the other authorities were moving to get things shut down, there was significant reaction. We can talk about the strained relations with Hasidic Jews who were at first reluctant to abide by the restrictions some other time. The fact is that tens of millions of people were not going to give up their livings and their social lives overnight. As for the mortality rate, no secret there either. Because New York was the first, and because the virus was strong and concentrated there, it took a long time for medical authorities to develop protocols, triage, and treatment. The rest of the country is now benefitting from the knowledge developed in New York and Seattle.

The essence of the question of the culpability of actors like Trump and Cuomo is a variation on the theme that we heard over and over again during the Watergate era, first uttered by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The clear answer to this question is that Trump was told about the issues months before he chose to act but detractors cannot cite a single instance where Cuomo did not act in accordance with his executive duties.

Now we are in a different phase of the crisis. Those who would like to deflect from Trump’s culpability are pointing to and lauding states (mostly) led by Republicans where there have been far fewer infections and fatalities than New York. All over the world, the overwhelming majority of western democracies are beginning that same return to normal life—and every, single one of them has done immensely better than Trump’s feeble response to the crisis. Only the dictator of Brazil is giving Trump a run for his money.

As I write this, the virus is spreading with increasing speed through several Republican stronghold states. The worst case for the moment seems to be Arizona where the governor, Doug Ducey, lifted restrictions two weeks ago. Ducey is refusing to consider reimposing restrictions even as dozens of restaurants in Phoenix have voluntarily closed their doors because of the many cooks and staff who have become ill.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the state to which Trump is moving the Republican convention, the state is reporting its third consecutive >2,000 new cases per day. Governor Desantis is apparently unconvinced that this is any sort of a problem.

In Arkansas, a very small state, restrictions were never seriously imposed and have now been entirely lifted. I wouldn’t have expected a dramatic increase since things really haven’t changed that much there, but I would have been wrong. Apparently, people see the restriction easing as an excuse to go back to pre-virus behavior which I’m surmising because the cases in Arkansas have spiked up. There are now active cases in every Arkansas county (save one), and the state experienced its worst single-day increase (761) since the epidemic began.

After all this, which governors are doing their jobs and acting to safeguard the health of their citizens?

 

 

Of Cuomo, Trump and Trolls

This weekend I saw a topic mentioned on Facebook several times and it looks suspiciously like the work of Trolls to me. The basic notion is that President Trump handled the Corona virus situation very well for the United States as a whole, but incompetent Democrats like Andrew Cuomo caused most of the epidemic and fatalities because of failings local to their states.The tactic is devilishly clever because New York is obviously lost to Trump, but he can take advantage of the prejudices against New Yorkers which remain pervasive in other parts of the country. I doubt that Trump is aware of this, but the origin of most of those prejudices is some sense that New York is a place for Blacks and Jews. And ironically enough, because some Jews, particularly in the Orthodox community, have misgivings about both Cuomo and New York City Mayor de Blasio, they can be counted upon to help spread these kinds of falsehoods.

The notion that Andrew Cuomo is somehow more culpable in allowing the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the world spread in the USA than Donald Trump is an absurdity. It is undoubtedly true that Cuomo might have taken steps that would have prevented things from getting as bad as they did–if he had the kind of intelligence that we know was being given to Trump. There is not a scintilla of evidence that that is true.

Here is what I would suggest asking anyone peddling this story.

      • Please show me Andrew Cuomo ignoring a single recommendation of the CDC or the NY State health authorities at any time or failing to promote any such recommendations.
      • Please show me Andrew Cuomo dismissing any public official in the State for disagreeing with some point Cuomo was making.
      • Please show me a single instance of Cuomo castigating a health department official for attempting to do their duty.
      • Please show me a case where Cuomo has walked off the podium rather than reply in full to a reporter’s question.
      • Please tell me if the press in New York State has had anything less than full access to State medical authorities.
      • Please show me a case where Cuomo touted unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.
      • Has Andrew Cuomo advised, against competent medical authority, an early return to pre-virus behavior?

I’m guessing it would be pretty easy to add to this list. And I think you all know that Trump has done every single thing I’ve listed above. So my point is this: while it is certainly true that Andrew Cuomo is the governor located where the epidemic in the USA has been the fiercest (along with others in the NY Metropolitan Area), and while I’m sure he and the others might have managed things better, there is not a shred of evidence that he did not try his best to protect the citizenry. Donald Trump was told in January about the virus, and he denied it was important. He refused to take any notice of it even as the CDC was warning him that it could be serious. You can watch him say that it’s only one “Chinaman” and “believe me” “we’ve got it completely under control.” The most scathing criticism I think you can make against Andrew Cuomo is that he did take Trump at his word for too long a time.

But let me conclude where I began–Trump and his minions will be attempting to use Cuomo and other Democrats as punching bags for his own failings. Watch for Trolls spreading this kind of propaganda–and just ask a few questions as I did above. You’ll find out soon enough how much truth there is in any of their claims.

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Passover 2020

As most of us will doing this year, Terri and I will be celebrating a limited Seder. There may only be four (or two) of us, but we hope that many of our friends will be joining us via this marvelous technology (Zoom).

Please note that there have been security concerns with Zoom. We are using the zoom server provided by the University of Tennessee; we can therefore say we are safe at our end of things. This cannot guarantee that your own computers are completely safe from hackers.

If you would like to follow along with us, you can find this year’s version of my Haggadah here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3rt0g8tay87r9kq/AACgIyAbQJUp5TpyuxYgCvXja?dl=0

In addition to the Haggadah, there is a short document which explains the people mentioned in memoriam on page 2 of the Haggadah.

If you would like a printed copy of this Haggadah, you’ll need either a laser printer or an inkjet printer, preferably one that can print “duplex” (both sides of the page). You will also need either the full Adobe PDF program, or a good clone of it. In the print menu, use the setting for “booklet.” If you don’t have that setting, your printer might not be able to handle this job. But ideally, that’s all you’ll have to do. Printing duplex, you only need 10 sheets of paper which will then become the 40 pages of the booklet.

If you would like to join us for Passover, here is the Zoom information you will need. If you have access to via the Internet:

https://tennessee.zoom.us/j/760146144

If you live in an area with no Internet, or poor Internet, you might be able to dial-in with your phone. These are the numbers for that, but be aware that your phone company might charge you for this connection:

Telephone:
Dial:
+1 312 626 6799 (US Toll)
+1 646 876 9923 (US Toll)
+1 253 215 8782 (US Toll)
+1 301 715 8592 (US Toll)
+1 346 248 7799 (US Toll)
+1 669 900 6833 (US Toll)
Meeting ID: 760 146 144

The link should become active about 6:45pm both evenings and we are planning to begin at 7pm.

Have a Happy and Kosher Passover!

Jack and Terri

Antisemitism and Politics

A good friend chastised me for declaring President Trump to be a racist and antisemite recently.That he is a racist need not detain us long here, he not only participated in his father’s discriminatory business decisions, but publicly railed against his father when his father decided to accede to Federal anti-discrimination statutes. Later, he famously put up billboards demanding the executions of five Black children who ultimately turned out to be innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted–sexually assaulting a white woman. And later yet there was his obsession with declaring Barack Obama’s USA citizenship to be false. The citizenship issue leads to the manner in which has obsessed over Hispanic undocumented workers while ignoring the fact that his current wife was exactly that. Trump’s supporters raise obfuscatory claims such as his dating a woman of color, as if it is somehow odd that a racist might have a sexual interest in a woman of color. Really, the evidence that this man is a racist is deep, long, and incontrovertible.

The evidence for Trump’s antisemitism is more difficult to explain, but within that explanation some profound truths may be discovered. During his first three years in office, Trump has been seen as a staunch supporter of Israel. The two most fiercely supportive segments of America’s religious population have been white, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews (which is not to imply unanimity, both of those populations also have significant numbers of opponents to his policies and personality). Within his family, his daughter converted to Judaism and married a man who professes a commitment to traditional Judaism and is raising their children, Trump’s grandchildren, as Jews. The chief operating officer of Trump’s business is Jewish, and his legal interests represented until recently by an obviously Jewish attorney.

One reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that people have lost the meaning of the word antisemitism lies in the person of Adolf Hitler and the historical fact of the Holocaust. Thanks to the copious, and often excellent, media exposure of the destruction of European Jewry almost everyone (at least in the cultures of Europe and the USA) understands that Hitler was the embodiment of evil and the Holocaust the incontrovertible evidence of where that evil leads.

The problem with this is that it also results in the logically fallacious notion that one cannot be an antisemite if one agrees that Hitler was evil and the Holocaust awful. The bibliography of writings, both scholarly and popular, describing the history of antisemitism over two thousand years is immense. And despite the ready availability of good information about the topic, most people are convinced that if they do not favor burning Jews alive, they cannot be called antisemites no matter how many other stereotypical ideas they might express about Jews and Judaism.

My father was not a deeply educated man, at least not in academic western civ, but he did have a thorough understanding of the nature of antisemitism as it is expressed in America. He owned a small shop in mid-town Manhattan and several of his most important customers were among the business and cultural elite of New York City. He was dependent on them directly for their business, but more importantly because they also referred their friends telling those friends that they could trust him, that he was an honest Jew.

At home, my father would comment bitterly on such things. I can vividly recall him saying, “These people think they can say things like ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ as if that means anything.” He understood that many if not most of these people did not really care if Jews lived or died, didn’t want them as neighbors or as members of their private clubs. In the early ’70s I was introduced to the world of business clubs when a good friend took me to the Concordia Argonauts Club in San Francisco. The membership was almost entirely composed of Jews of political importance and wealth, but the raison d’être of the club was that the wealthiest club in the city, where the most important business was transacted, did not accept Jews.

Long before WWII, waves of antisemitism swept through the USA. In a blog post I can’t provide lengthy descriptions, but let me just mention the curious case of Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El (San Francisco), himself an immigrant to the USA, who supported legislation barring additional immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe because he feared that enlightened Reform Jews might be overwhelmed by the primitives arriving from the East. That too is antisemitism. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrates some important aspects of this issue. Regarded as a great savior because he led America out of the Depression and during the most important conflict of the era, and through his efforts millions of Jews did indeed live to celebrate anew. Nevertheless, he was also an antisemite. He was steeped in stereotypical beliefs such as that Jews are “good with money.” This is, of course, an echo of tropes made famous by Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock. More recently, there has been significant conversation about whether Roosevelt’s antisemitism contributed to a lack of actions which might have ameliorated the Holocaust. That is, in my opinion, overstating the evidence. Roosevelt did not hate Jews, and I believe if he understood that he could have chosen to save lives, he would have.

But let’s look at one piece of direct evidence. In 1939 there was the (in)famous incident of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees. The vessel was bound for Cuba, and the passengers had legal visas to disembark there, but most were refused because Cuba had abruptly changed its laws. The ship next tried to dock in Miami, and frantic efforts ensued to allow them to enter the U.S. Some of the passengers sent cables directly to Roosevelt begging him to allow them to enter, but no reply was heard. High level officials including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (himself a well known Jew) made efforts to find a place for the refugees. Ultimately a large number of the passengers did find refuge, but more than 250 were killed in German death camps.

This brings me back to the point I would like to make in this essay. Antisemitism of this “kinder and gentler” sort, just the notion that “we don’t hate Jews, but they’re really not us” can lead to a deadening of the senses. It is easier to allow Jews to die in death camps if you don’t think of them as being of your own tribe.

And that brings me full circle back to our current president. Ultimately, the problem with his various forms of expressed racism is that his sensibilities are deadened towards large numbers of people who are suffering. All this talk and wasting of resources on the “wall” is simply a manifestation of racism, in this case directed at perceived “brown” people. No one is claiming that the USA can serve as a refuge for everyone who might want to come here, but we can certainly find ways to admit more people than we have, and we can certainly avoid the harsh and hostile rhetoric and awful treatment meted out to those who do arrive.

 

Of Trolls and the History of the Internet

In recent days several of my friends have urged me to block a contributor to my Facebook page arguing that he is a troll. That was a catalyst to my thinking about the meaning of the term troll. The phenomenon of trolls is as old as the earliest posts on the Internet, in fact they go back to a period before the Internet as we now know it did existed. I owe my first exposure to social media to my dear friend Ari Davidow who urged me to participate in conversations on a network called The Well which I believed was a computer housed in Sausalito. At the time I was the Associate Director of Berkeley Hillel Foundation and I had recently purchased my first personal computer, a Kaypro “lunchbox.”To reach The Well I needed to use something called a “dial-up modem” which younger folks might only know by watching now ancient movies about the dawn of the computer age. But using this device, I could connect to the computer owned by the Well community and converse with folks about all sorts of things. Truly revolutionary!

A few years later we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the cradles of the Internet and I was soon using much larger social networks and in particular something that was called in the style of the Unix computer community simply “News.” These “news” groups are still around today, but they have been subsumed by Google. When you search or contribute to a group on Google News, you are actually interacting with these old Usenet group conversations.

Usenet news groups, like The Well, struggled to cope with the specific issue of what had become known as “trolls” from the earliest days of these communication media. So what exactly is a troll?

Since there are no guardians of the English language empowered to enforce definitions, I can’t claim to have the authoritative control of terminology. I can only speak to the way we used (and still use) the term in the context of social media groups.

At the core, a Troll is a person who obtains self-gratification by introducing chaos into group discussions. The Troll is a disruptor, an instigator whose mission is not to contribute to the discussion, but rather to stop it. Trolls get pleasure from the discomfort of others in the group. One important characteristic of a Troll is that they don’t really care what the issue at hand might be. They might personally favor or oppose a given political stance or some opinion, but they will write whatever they feel will most divert the conversation. Again, their purpose is disruption rather than  convincing anyone of a particular case.

To accomplish their goals, Trolls must preserve their anonymity. They register for the group under pseudonyms (which can be part of an elaborate charade creating a fake persona) or just outright false IDs invented for the current moment. In the oldest period of UseNet there was no effective way to limit or ban Trolls, but eventually UseNet introduced the concept of a moderated group. If a Troll managed to infiltrate the group, a moderator could delete their posts and revoke their permission to add comments. In current Social Media such as Facebook, Trolls will often steal someone’s identity and post under the name of someone who has died or left Facebook until someone reports them to moderators.

Trolls often amass large libraries of Internet links to materials which they insert into their posts. Then they watch as participants waste time going through the links. They are especially delighted when those participants start side-arguments based on some issue raised in these links. There are, of course, reasonable people who also collect links and materials which they can use to support their arguments, but the difference is that they will post materials that are precisely on point. Trolls aim to disrupt, not to clarify.

To summarize, an Internet Troll is a fictional character invented for the purpose of creating emotional, angry conversation which minimizes the ability of a group to have productive conversation. The Troll is entertained by the chaos they create, and when identified as a Troll, they will move on to some other group to continue their behavior.

Returning to my opening paragraph, the person who engendered this conversation fails to conform to the definition in several critical ways. First, he contributes under some form of his genuine identity. Anyone can click on his Facebook name and see that he has been posting for years and has a known community of his own. Second, he has a single consistent agenda in the offending posts: supporting Donald Trump. In almost every other way he is a reasonable and often jovial person. He posts videos of himself, for example, blasting the Shofar at the Jerusalem Wall on the holidays. No Troll would sacrifice his anonymity this way.

The very specific message he conveys about Trump leads me to guess a different cause of his behavior. I think he may be a paid or perhaps even volunteer operative for some sort of Trump-supporting group. A Republican local group chairman or a representative of a Trump business would operate in precisely this fashion.

On the Passing of David Koch, Shr”i

It’s a funny thing–I write my posts and often do not have a clue about what my friends will like, dislike or even bother to read. Yesterday I posted an article about the passing of someone I consider to be a villain. I didn’t expect much if any response. Most of my friends already disliked him, and I figured those who didn’t probably wouldn’t bother to reply. But I was seriously wrong. Quite a kerfuffle erupted over my comments.

One of the reasons for that is that I stepped on a bit of modern Jewish tradition–basically a superstition, and apologies if those who hold by this think that’s offensive, for me it’s a term of art from my profession–teaching Religious Studies at a secular university. The tradition I mentioned is that “One does not speak ill of the dead.” And one reason I use the term superstition to describe this is that I think it hearkens to a notion that the dead might return to take some sort of revenge. I’m not sure–I’d have to do some research on that. But the point is that there is such a notion within Judaism today.

That’s actually one reason I went out of my way to introduce my comments with an explanation that the acronym “Shr”i” is one I took from Medieval Jewish literature. It stands for “shem r’sha’im yirkav” (שם רשעים ירקב). I believe the first time I read it was in Sefer haQabalah which describes the schism between rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. The rabbinic author used it to describe the Karaite founder (of course long dead by then).

That there is no such notion in our most sacred scriptures is patently obvious. Not only do we condemn the memory of Amaleq, but technically we are commanded to seek out and kill all of his descendants. One of the most difficult commandments of the Torah to figure out is the one that tells us to blot out the name of Amaleq–just how do we extirpate his memory by reminding ourselves about him every year?

The Book of Esther celebrates the hanging of Haman together with his sons, and Jews have turned this into the original Mardis Gras. By rabbinic ordinance we are commanded to celebrate this hanging, and it is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to drink until they cannot tell the difference between “Cursed” be Haman and blessed be Mordecai.

The author of the Book of Kings, writing long after the deaths of those kings, had no problem with speaking ill of the dead:

וְנָדָ֣ב בֶּן־יָרָבְעָ֗ם מָלַךְ֙ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בִּשְׁנַ֣ת שְׁתַּ֔יִם לְאָסָ֖א מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיִּמְלֹ֥ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנָתָֽיִם׃ וַיַּ֥עַשׂ הָרַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אָבִ֔יו וּ֙בְחַטָּאת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶחֱטִ֖יא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Nadab son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of King Asa of Judah; he reigned over Israel two years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit. (1 Kings 15:25-26)
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One of the people who complained about my comments made the point that the person had a good side, that he made large contributions to charity. In recent years we’ve seen several examples of why charity cannot be a reasonable response. Bernie Madoff is rotting in prison where I hope he will remain despite having given large sums–as it turns out of other people’s money–to charity. More recently, Jeffrey Epstein (Shr”i), a convicted pedophile who also trafficked children, committed the Jewish sin of suicide. Are we not supposed to speak evil of him? But he contributed enormous sums to Jewish charities! Funny thing–there was actually a controversy over whether he could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I wonder how you can engage in a controversy over such a subject without “speaking ill of the dead.” Personally, I wouldn’t want my ashes near any place where his foulness might linger.

I’m sorry, but there is no quantity of charity that can compensate for destroying our planet. So I think we get to the crux of why my comments ruffled a number of feathers. The problem is that in some circles–mostly those populated either by people who are deeply committed to religious views bordering on fundamentalism, or those who support Trump (and obviously there’s some overlap there)–there is skepticism about the seriousness of climate change.

It may not seem like it is so, but Israel itself is in a very precarious position with regard to human created climate disaster. You can get a visceral sense of this by the view from Masada. When I toured Masada in 1973, the Dead Sea lapped the shore just a mile or so from the mountain. Today, it is bone dry. The Dead Sea’s southern basin would be completely empty were it not for a pipeline Israel laid to deliver sea water for the needs of the resort hotels that bring in large tourist revenues. Back in 1973, I had to worry about being flooded out of a trip through “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” but no more, there isn’t enough water to cause a problem. True, this is not because of “global warming”–rather, it is caused by the diversion of fresh water inflows to the Dead Sea which have also reduced the Jordan River to a trickle.

But if the climate scientists are right–and the opinion is nearly unanimous–Israel’s agricultural industries may soon be confronted with a Judean Desert that will move steadily north. And while Israel is in a good position to manage such issues, let’s keep in mind that regional instability is not good for Israel, and climate change will probably be contributing to large amounts of regional instability all over the world, and in the Middle East in particular.

Lots of people share responsibility for this disaster. But the person I called out yesterday bears an enormous personal and direct responsibility. He and his brother have donated huge sums in an effort to wreck every attempt to control the carbon emissions that are the single greatest contributor to the planetary crisis.

Although I will likely be gone before the worst of this becomes a reality, I feel a deep responsibility for my children and my grandchildren. I want to do what I can so that they can enjoy the world as I have been able to do, not inherit a sandbox.

Regarding the passing of the man yesterday, I echo the author of Kings, “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit.”

On Racism and Antisemitism

A short while ago a small kerfuffle erupted on my FB page. The cause was quite innocent–I made the mistake of replying to one of those constant annoyances of FB life, some sort of survey. The survey question was “Do you think Donald Trump is a racist?” and it promised the results of the poll today. If those results have been posted, I haven’t seen them.

I didn’t understand that when I answered the question that my answer would be posted on my public page, and then of course many of my friends began to interact about the topic. This is not the way I would have like to have had a conversation about this topic, but there it was.

The Sabbath allowed me to take a breather from the fray, and as I contemplated the stars, tea leaves and the meaning of life, it dawned on me that many of my friends have lost the knowledge so wisely provided over a decade or so starting in the 1970s in the brilliant sitcom, “All in the Family.” Week after week and year after year, this amazingly popular TV show explored the nature and definitions of phenomena like misogyny, antisemitism, and above all, racism. And it did it all with a wonderful sense of humor.

One of the frequent topics on the show was demonstrating how people could be prejudiced without any self-awareness or evil intent. The phenomenon of “Some of my best friends…” was explored with regularity.

I don’t want to reignite what I hope is now a dead issue on my page, but I think it’s important to understand things like the fact that you don’t have to want to put Jews in death camps and annihilate them in order to be afflicted with antisemitism. Perhaps we have done such a great job of educating the public about the horrors of the Holocaust that people think the Holocaust is synonymous with antisemitism. It is not.

Some folks are amazed when I mention that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who surely did as much as anyone on Earth to eliminate the scourge of Adolf Hitler, was an antisemite. But he was. He wasn’t a Nazi, he didn’t want to kill Jews, and yes, some of his best friends were Jews. But not in his country club. Not among his neighbors. He was an antisemite exactly in the ways that Archie Bunker was played so well by Carroll O’Conner. And perhaps that more subtle antisemitism allowed him to escape some of the guilt he might have felt when he turned away (literally) boat loads of Jews vainly trying to escape the Holocaust.

It’s no accident that All in the Family was based on a British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part. In that British version, the family patriarch is a working-class character named Alf Garnett who frequently spouts racist views, but in his case, it’s the socialists who are one of the frequent targets of his bigotry.

Last night, Terri and I had the immense pleasure of viewing a beautiful little film called “Blinded by the Light.” It tells the story of a working-class immigrant Pakistani family in 1980s era England whose high-school age son finds an almost religious revelation in the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. At one point the exasperated patriarch of the family scolds his son and tells him to forget about poetry and music and concentrate on math and economics. “Find the Jews in your school” he says. “Follow the Jews and emulate what they do–they can show you how to be successful!” His son looks at him and says, “Father, that’s actually a racist thing you’re saying.”

Exactly.