Retirement in These United States

My annual “Would you like to review your retirement account” message arrived from one of my retirement plans today. This is my cue to post a reflection or two on the state of retirement in these United States. The first thing anyone should know about retirement is that if you’re not dirt poor, you need to have a reliable, as unbiased as possible, financial advisor. For me, that means a person in the employ of my investment company who does not earn a penny in commission from servicing my account. He also happens to know a lot.

The second thing is to wonder why you should pay any attention to anything I have to say. Quite possibly you shouldn’t. But I do have more expertise than most folks. Some of you might recall that when I left grad school at UC-Berkeley, I entered the full-time employ of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation (Berkeley). They hired me to teach biblical Hebrew part-time, and to fill out the rest of a full-time job, I became their accounting assistant. To do that, I enrolled in courses at a local community college so as to be at least one level better than flat-out ignorant.

The retirement program at Berkeley Hillel was a joke. And not a very funny one. To be fair, it was not unlike programs offered by many non-profits and small businesses. The folks that designed the program operated on the assumption that few people would actually spend their careers with Hillel or B’nai B’rith, so they used a plan where the employee paid nothing and pretty much received nothing in return. Among the exceptions to the notion that employees would not stay for their careers were the Foundation directors, many if not most of whom were rabbis, and that presented a number of problems to the administration because in the USA, clergy who wish to take advantage of tax breaks offered solely to clergy must be independent contractors. B’nai B’rith created a plan which took good care of these “independent contractors” and the rest of us got the sense we should look elsewhere for a career.

My solution to this problem was to create for our local staff our own retirement plan separate from that of the national organization. I received many communications from the national office telling me I couldn’t do this, but as it turned out I could and I did. As part of my job I needed to deal with the fact that our building was not owned by national Hillel, but rather by a local corporation. At the time that I started working on this, the corporation had become inactive. There was no one on its Board of Directors, and I suggested to our Director that this was dangerous because if it were discovered, we could be the subject of a hostile takeover. We repopulated the Board, and then the Board passed a resolution authorizing us to create our own retirement program. The plan we created did not conflict with the one run by the national office, it was supplemental to it. All of our contributions were voluntary to the maximum permitted by law.

As I mentioned, the national office plan was quite generous to the rabbis and a few other long-term employees. So generous that it was forced into bankruptcy in the 1990s and taken over by the Federal government agency which manages bankrupt retirement plans. I left Hillel in 1988 after 9 years of full-time employment. I was “100% vested” in the national retirement plan. To see how little that means, on my separation the pension plan offered me a “buyout.” They would give me $500 in return for releasing them from their obligation to pay me a pension. That’s what 9 years of full-time employment was worth to me. Please keep in mind that 9 years is about 25% of what most people will spend in their work lives. My response was, “Keep your $500, I’ll see what the pension is worth when I reach retirement age.” I actually didn’t expect to collect a dime once I learned of the bankruptcy, but as it turns out, I am receiving that pension. Since I turned 66, I’ve been getting $39/month from the federal agency that bails out bankrupt plans. Now, it’s practically nothing, and it’s subject to income tax even so, but I have already collected a lot more than $500!

In the meantime, the other retirement plan I helped design is doing very well. On separation from Hillel, I turned it into an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) and the principle is sufficient to pay me about $1,000 a month now. That’s because unlike the B’nai B’rith program, my nine years of contributions were allowed to grow like any other investment. And again, in the context of employment that represents about 25% of my work life, that’s a reasonable return on my investment.

When I left Hillel, I became an administrative employee of the University of Michigan, an organization with a very good retirement plan for every employee. As a department manager, among my responsibilities were training new employees and helping existing employees choose the retirement options that would best serve them. Of course that often meant referring them onto the University offices that specialized in employee education, but over my 25 years in administrative service, I did make it a point to stay current on retirement issues.

That brings me (at last!) to the reason I am writing today. One of the most common pieces of advice you will hear about collecting Social Security is that you should wait as long as possible before you file for it. However well-meaning the advisors and columnists might be, this can be very bad advice.

Social Security is a form of annuity. What most people don’t understand about this is that that means it has an end-point—usually when we die. When we die, Social Security pays out a pittance to (partially) cover funeral costs and the following month, it simply ends. This is different from many other types of savings, investment, and retirement accounts. Of course, you are free to purchase many sorts of annuities which, like Social Security, will terminate on death. But most other types of investment have no such end point. For example, if you own a rental property and make use of the rent you receive to supplement your retirement income, when you die, your heirs receive that rental property. If you have your retirement invested in the stock market, you receive both the interest and any gains the stock might earn and again, those shares pass to your heirs if you have not spent them before death.

Social Security rewards you for delaying accepting payment by increasing your monthly check for each year you delay. But the part they and many advisors don’t tell you is that should you lose the lottery and die before your mid-80s, you will actually collect less than you would have had you declared earlier. Suppose your Social Security check would be $2,000 when you turn 62. If you delay to the “full retirement age” of 67 (say), the check will rise to something like $2,500 per month. But remember that you have not collected $120,000 you would have received between ages 62 and 67. The additional $500/month you receive will not equal that $120,000 you have given up for 20 years! Now these are all round numbers and guesstimates, you have to do the math that precisely applies to yourselves to see when you will cross that finish line.

The first clear and convincing reason to take your Social Security at the earliest possible time is if you have good reason to believe that you will not live into your 80s. Possibly a serious cardiac or cancer diagnosis, perhaps just your knowledge of family longevity.
The second obvious reason is because you are unemployed or underemployed and simply need the money to live on. That is unfortunate because that is a case where delaying would give you a better retirement, but in the words of the great sage, “It is what it is.”

The third reason to begin accepting payment, even if you think there’s a good chance you’ll make it into your 90s and even if you don’t need immediately need the funds, is if you have good self-discipline and are capable of investing rather than spending the money. In most scenarios, if you take your Social Security and use it to invest in the markets or perhaps purchase rental property, you will do better—and maybe far better—than if you allow the government to hold on to it.

This is how I reasoned things for myself. My parents both lived into their 80s. I’m not a smoker and other than a bit of high blood pressure I have no significant health issues. Although there are no certainties in this life, those factors argue that I am likely to make it into my mid-80s. Therefore I decided against taking my Social Security when I first became eligible. I figured it would be nice to get those enhanced payments by delaying it. When I reached my mid-60s, I revisited this decision. I had now arrived at what the Social Security Administration terms “full retirement age.” (That was 67 for me, I believe it has now moved up to 68 for people contemplating retirement now.) Still, if I wait even longer (up to age 72) those monthly checks would grow even larger. And because I and my spouse are still working, we didn’t need the money.

But at that point, doing some math, I decided we’d be better off if I started to collect. The reason is not because we need the money for current expenses, but rather because I believe I can find better investments than the annuity represented by Social Security. We already had the usual spectrum of investment accounts held by middle-class Americans, so I bought rental property and I use Social Security to pay down the principle on those rental units. What that means is that when I do finally retire, we will own the rental units which will then be providing a steady income on their own. And as I said above, when I pass on, I’ll have something to pass on to my children.

The proverbial “bottom line” here is not that I made the best possible decision nor that you should do what I did. The advice I am giving you is to set aside simplistic answers from places like the Social Security Administration itself, or your H and R Crock tax adviser. Make sure you find a real expert, and carefully vet the advice you receive. There is no “one size fits all” solution—so make sure you understand the many alternatives that lie before you.

Abortion Rights in the News Again

This is a topic I had hoped to avoid writing about, but it seems that the old saw about forgetting history—that we are doomed to repeat it—is apropos once again. As I write today, the Supreme Court appears likely to severely curtail, if not eliminate, the right of a woman to control her own body. This issue has been important to me for most of my adult life. The first time I ever marched in a demonstration was in Madison, Wisconsin in the Fall of 1969 soon after arriving at the University for my freshman year. A female friend asked me to accompany her to protest the Wisconsin law which prohibited abortion. We marched with coat hangers to symbolize the extremes to which some women had gone to avoid childbirth. While I had not thought much about the issue before I got to college, this event sparked an interest which has continued throughout my life. And while I did not know it at the time, something that turned up a little bit later in my life brought it front and center to my attention.

As I made my way through graduate school at UC-Berkeley, I started to get notices from my contacts at the Hillel Foundation about the availability of testing for Tay-Sachs disease. And because of this notice, I looked into the nature of this disease. I discovered that it is an ailment so horrible as to truly be described as evil. It afflicts children from birth, and those children rarely survive their fourth birthday. Their every day is filled with misery and pain, and usually by the age of two they require 24 hour a day care. Few health plans cover all the needs that parents face. One parent will likely have to give up any idea of work and both parents (if indeed after some of this there are still two parents living with the child) will face lives filled with the screams of their child complicated by financial ruin.

The reason the program was being run out of Hillel was that this is a disease which is heavily concentrated in exactly two populations: the Cajuns of Louisiana and Canada, and Jews of Ashkenazi descent. It does also occur outside these populations, but extremely rarely. Hillel was a logical place to target testing for Jews of marriageable age.
I took the test and it came back positive for the gene that causes Tay-Sachs disease.

What that means is that if my spouse also carries the gene, we have a one-chance-in-four of having a child with the disease. Although Terri’s Irish/Danish/Dutch background suggested little chance of the gene, she underwent the test as a matter of caution, and both our children (since they might have inherited the gene from me) have been tested.

This also clarified a matter from my family history. My paternal grandmother Yetta, of blessed memory, brought 6 children into this world. Three of them survived into adulthood and immigrated to America. Three of them died in childhood. None of those survived to their second birthday. My father, being the last child, had no memory of his siblings, but the oldest sibling told me that she recalled unrelenting pain and horror they experienced. While there is no way to be certain that all three had Tay-Sachs, that does seem to be the likely conclusion here.

What does this have to do with the current abortion controversy? I hope most of my readers will understand that knowingly bringing a child into the world with a sentence of agony and certain death by age 4 would be an act of unbelievable cruelty. It is possible to test for Tay-Sachs in utero. But the earliest that can be done is via chorionic villi sampling in the 11th week of pregnancy. This is a somewhat risky procedure because it involves removing a part of the placenta. A much safer test can be done sampling amniotic fluid, but that cannot be done before the 16th week of pregnancy.

In the case of the new laws in Texas, for example, this means that the State is essentially demanding that parents of Tay-Sachs children forego abortion and bring those children into the world, to face unrelenting agony for essentially every day of their short lives.

We need to find a way to make people understand that intruding the State into personal decisions like this is a violation of human rights.

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.


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:

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:

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:

+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.