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)

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.”


We have a problem, Houston!

Hi Everyone.

First of all, thanks to those of you who are following my blog, and especially us aging folks who have fond memories of JHS 44, the Bronx–as far as I know this is still the only place on the Internet to talk about that!

You may have noticed a drop-off in my posts. It’s not for want of writing more–but I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the new Gutenberg Editor that WordPress introduced. I understand the basics (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!) but as many of you know, I use several foreign language typefaces in my posts and so far I have not been able to get the new editor to display those characters properly. Apparently I have to learn some more about the new editor before I can resume regular posts.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to soldier on, and we’ll see what the future brings!

— Jack Love

Well, It’s That Time – Social Security

Next month my Social Security payments begin. I chose to start them because I have reached what the Social Security Administration calls “full retirement age.” This is not the same for everyone. Until a few years ago it was 65, for people in my bracket it is 66, and Congress has increased the age even further for younger people today.

No matter what one’s “full retirement age” is, we can start Social Security at 62. This is absolutely necessary because there are so many people with jobs that involve physical activity they can no longer perform, people who have lost their jobs and left the job market (these are not included among “unemployed” in case you’re wondering), and always a special concern to me, people with mental disabilities. Whatever the reason, Social Security can begin at 62. The issue is that benefits are reduced for each year one takes them prior to “full retirement age” so benefits at 62 can be much lower than a person anticipates. By pushing the full retirement age higher, Congress also punished people who need it earlier.

The SSA is also willing to reward people who delay accepting benefits past the full retirement age. The increase is currently in the range of 6% to 8% per year. If you have most of your money in interest bearing savings accounts or bonds, that looks like a great rate–substantially higher than what you can earn in such investments. A national investment newsletter recently published an article lauding the strategy of waiting as long as you can.

But the advice strikes me as incorrect. The SSA is not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They have actuarial tables and they know when we will no longer be needing Social Security, at least in aggregate. In other words, whenever we die, we stop receiving Social Security. Forever.

What that means as far as I can figure out is that the rate increase of even 8% is phony. Because while it is true you will start off with that increase, you will also lose all the money you would have received while waiting. A strategy of investing the Social Security you are receiving might not reap 8% over those years, but you (and your heirs) will not lose whatever that amounts to at your passing–and that strikes me as a much better deal.

If my math is correct, I suggest that people should not wait beyond their full retirement age. Start collecting it then. If you don’t need it, invest it. Or give it to charity. But betting against actuarial tables is, in my opinion, a sucker bet.

On “Private” Email Servers

First a brief explanation of why I am writing about this topic. For about 20 years I was employed by the Information Technology services of the University of Michigan. I arrived just as email was taking off as a communications medium. A person who was first my colleague and later my supervisor actually contributed to the sendmail protocol, the messaging component that lies at the root of practically every email, messenger or tweet that has ricocheted around world. My role was, of course, trivial. I was a minor player as a programmer and subsequently I was “kicked upstairs” to be an administrator. But my role as an administrator was to help formulate policy which guided the use of messaging systems and this does make me something of an expert in this forest of confusion about “private” email servers.

The first thing we have to understand is that the word “private” is a misnomer in the context of current events. Most of us have employers. We might work for a corporation, a closely held corporation, an agency of the government, a family business or even be self-employed. In our role as an employee, we have to communicate with our colleagues, employers, and customers. What happens when we want to apply for a job somewhere else or cemailommunicate with a friend on something other than what might be considered appropriate business matters? Chances are, and especially if we are savvy about business and privacy issues, that we will use a different email system than we use for work purposes. We might use Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail or any of a large number of other services. Any of these would be “private” in the sense that they separated from our “public” (work) persona.

A few of us might have good reason to go even further than one of these widely known email services. To support the Blog I am writing on, I have leased space on a private server. This provider would be willing to lease the entire server to me for an additional fee. And some people just put up their own server and run it themselves.

From what I understand, Hillary Clinton (hereafter HRC) did that last thing. And I also understand that she did it following the advice of her (Republican) predecessor Colin Powell and also following the practice of Condoleezza Rice. By using an email server she owned and controlled, she was told by her employees that this would be safer and more secure than writing messages on commercial services.

Why would HRC (or Colin Powell, or any other politician) want to write and receive messages on anything other than her governmental account? As I suggested above, there are very simple reasons for this. But one of the most obvious is that politicians are involved in politics, and personal politics should not be supported by governmental resources. A congressional representative can use their “franking privilege” to send out newsletters to their district, but they would cross a line if they turned that into a fundraising appeal. Employees generally try not to get in hot water with their employers by using their company resources for personal gain, and I think it is pretty common these days for people to communicate with their customers over corporate systems, but shift to Yahoo or Gmail if they want to ask their spouse if they want them to bring home any groceries. The reality today is that almost of all us use both an employment and a “private” email service.

There is a problem which afflicts almost everyone who divides their messaging between employer and non-employer (“private”) systems. Can you actually succeed in keeping everything that needs to be separate separate? The truth is that even the most careful person probably makes mistakes in this regard. I would suggest that unless some tangible harm arises from mistakes of this sort we have to let it go. I think that is exactly the situation FBI Director Comey found himself in. HRC was not violating the law by having her own server. Did she make so many mistakes by using that server to transmit messages that might rightfully have belonged on the government server that she compromised national security, revealed state secrets, etc? I suggest his inability to indict is a direct reflection of the fact that he could not.

Recently a faculty friend raised this subject with me. He was troubled by the national security issue and was considering a vote for one of the third party candidates. As it happens, I knew that he commonly wrote to his students using his AOL account and Facebook rather than his institutionally supplied email account. I noted to him that he could easily be guilty of exactly the accusation against HRC and possibly subject to institutional discipline up to and including dismissal despite the fact that he had tenure. His eyes widened. How? There is a federal statute which mandates privacy for teacher/student interactions. It’s part of FERPA, an acronym every teacher comes to understand. I pointed out that if he “shared” communications or if even the student “shared” some of those communications he could easily stray into disseminating federally protected information. Of course he protested that nothing he had written could be construed that way–and I just said, “How can you be sure?”

As an administrator I know that it is impossible to impose full conformity with laws and institutional procedures. And I know that on occasion an employee is going to stray so far that they risk discipline or other legal remedies. Money and sex seem to turn up as the usual suspects in these sorts of problems. So the point is there has to be balance. We need training to teach people how to be sensitive to all these issues. Privacy is important. Behavior is important. Respect is important.

Hillary Clinton is a highly trained attorney with a long public record. She has served with distinction as a legislator and as a Secretary of State. There is not the slightest suggestion that any of her activities has compromised national security. Despite the innuendo about “private email server” there is nothing inappropriate about it. In fact, I’m quite sure it was her sincere attempt at considerable personal cost to ensure that she would be conforming to law and proper practice.

So it amounts to nothing unless HRC’s political opponents are able to capitalize on it. A few elections ago we experienced the infamous “Swift Boat” attack which may have sunk (sorry about the metaphor, or maybe not) another honorable politician’s campaign because of fallacious innuendo. I do hope that HRC does not suffer the same unjust fate.

On David Broza, Pete Seeger and Other Musings

In my life I have been fortunate to have had close encounters of the musical kind with people imbued with immense musical sensibility and talent. In the early Spring of 1971, I was part of a student effort at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) to discover “future alternatives for America.” This Symposium was a direct result of the loss of a student’s life when a group of anti-war activists set off a bomb in the University’s Sterling Hall, home to the Army Math Research Center.

Each of us on the steering committee were charged with inviting speakers who could address the theme. My dear friend Shelley Falik chose to invite Pete Seeger, and to the astonishment of many of us, Pete accepted.

In order to avoid problems with his record label, Pete’s appearance was labelled “Pete Seeger Speaks” and the nothing in the description suggested that he would be giving a concert. But no one was fooled by that.

The night before the concert arrived and Pete Seeger arrived (in my fuzzy recollection by bus carrying his guitar and banjo). At some point, Shelley picked him up in his beat up jalopy and brought him to his student dive of a house where his girl friend and Symposium helper had made a pot of beans. The rest of us came with the simple offerings of students in those “counter culture” days. Pete pronounced the meal as good as any he could recall.

I don’t remember where he spent the night, but the next day at around 10am, Shelley and I were on a makeshift stage with him at the University of Wisconsin Stock Pavilion which could hold around 2,000 people. It was full. Pete Seeger “spoke” for about two hours.  It was broadcast by UW’s public radio station and I have a recording of that event but no idea whether I can legally post it or not. Perhaps some day.

All this came rushing back to mind yesterday when I had another close encounter with musical greatness. A few days ago my friend Mary Linda Schwartzbart noted in her Facebook page that David Broza’s new film would be screened at our Scruffy City Arts Festival here in Knoxville. Scruff City is a rather odd place–part bar, part performance venue. It sits on Knxoxville’s Market Square in a building dating to about 1900. These days, some enterprising and artistic minded folk have purchased it and use if for things like the Scruffy City Arts Festival.

Imagining that there would be a mob scene immediately prior to the event, Terri and I went over there the day before to buy our tickets. For those of you who do not know, David Broza is one of Israel’s most famous musical artists, a celebrity who can fill stadiums. As I bought the tickets, the manager told me that David Broza would be at the event and might perform a few songs after the movie.

As the event was getting under way, Terri headed off on a brief errand and I handed the ticket taker my stub–and I as I did so I glanced back. Standing right next me, close enough that I could have tapped him on the shoulder, was David Broza. Since I couldn’t actually think of anything to say to him, I gawked for a brief minute and then headed for a seat inside. When Terri joined me I said, I’m pretty sure David Broza is here.

The movie is called David Broza: East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. It is a small study in the ways that music can enlighten people and contribute to peace. A wonderful surprise for the Knoxville crowd is the presence in the movie of Steve Earle. In this film he could pass for a Hassid.

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

David Broza at Scruffy City, Knoxville

For reasons I can’t imagine, no one seems to have informed the Jewish community of Knoxville that this would be happening, so the audience consisted of Mary Linda’s friends and the usual suspects who turn up for every musical event in Knoxville–which is a wonderful, motley crew. Fortunately that meant enough people to mostly fill the small auditorium, and the crowd made up for its small size in vocal enthusiasm. Knoxville’s Appalachian residents welcomed David Broza into the fold. They clearly appreciated the film, and even more the songs that Broza played at its conclusion. Those songs included two wonderful pieces from the film: Jerusalem and my personal favorite, The Lion’s Den. He also played a song inspired by the music of the Mughrab and concluded with his most famous tune called Yiyeh Tov, a Hebrew song whose title means something like “It will turn out OK.”

On the “Open Hillel” Movement

A two-year old initiative called “Open Hillel” is once again in the news. For those of you who aren’t particularly interested in Jewish politics, much less the emotional stirrings of Jewish students on college campuses, this probably feels like “much ado about not much.” But it is important to me, and I hope you’ll indulge me for a bit.

When I arrived as a young college student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, the campus was in almost constant tumult with events related to the Vietnam War. Madison (Wisconsin), UC-Berkeley and the U of Michigan (all campuses where I had or would have strong connections) were among the most active, but the uproar was everywhere. There were even students shot and killed–which left an enduring legacy in the form of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Four Dead in Ohio.”


Berkeley’s Hillel House as it looks today.

At Berkeley, Jewish students opposed to the war formed a collective they named “The Elders of Zion” and published a campus newspaper called “The Jewish Radical.” The newspaper and the group received support and a home in the local Hillel Foundation. At Wisconsin, Jewish students created an ambulance brigade to provide first aid to demonstrators (or anyone else) who was injured in the demonstrations. That operation, likewise, was housed in the local Hillel Foundation.

Lest you think this was all the exaggerated antics of over-enthusiastic youth, let me provide a very personal anecdote. In the late Fall semester of my second year at Wisconsin, I left a mid-term exam in Geology, got on my bicycle and started pedaling towards my next class. When I turned the corner of State and University Avenues, an unmarked police car pulled up beside me. I glanced at it just long enough to see someone pointing a grenade launcher at me. The grenade hit me in the leg and detonated a tear gas canister. I skidded to the side of the street enveloped by the gas. Suddenly a middle-aged, matronly woman bolted out of the closest building (Chadbourne Hall). She grabbed me under my arms and hauled me into the building where someone else dumped a bucket of water over me.

First aid was important in those days. And no, I had no idea what was going on (it turned out that a band of demonstrators had passed that spot a few minutes before I turned the corner), and I had absolutely nothing to do with whatever the officers were reacting to. Not that I was innocent of participation—I did attend demonstrations. Just not that day.


Neither this lovely facade nor the photo of Berkeley’s Hillel resemble the buildings of my era. As nice a statement as these facades may make, no one should be surprised that it took major fundraising to transform the old edifices.

At Madison the rabbi of the Hillel allowed the facility to be used for the makeshift first-aid center. At Berkeley, the rabbi supported the student efforts to create a journal for vigorous debate of the issues of the day—particularly the issues that stirred the minds of young, Jewish students. And similar activities were supported throughout the country wherever there were enough Jewish students who desired to use the Hillel Foundation as a home base for their discussions and activities.

A decade or so after the Vietnam War had ended, Berkeley’s students were involved in another cause. Refugees were arriving from Central America. Many campus religious organizations offered these refugees a place to stay and eat. No one at these churches was particularly concerned about the legal status of these obviously beleaguered people. Berkeley’s Hillel Foundation was not directly involved in most of this activity, but there were occasions when there was overflow (too many guests) or a church needed its full facility for an event–and on such occasions the Jewish students would take the refugees over to Hillel for that time.

This was the Hillel of my college and early professional years. Sensitive to the issues that motivated Jewish college students and willing to take small risks (there were never any serious consequences to any of these activities) to assure those students that compassion is an important component of the Jewish faith.

Today, these sorts of things seem to be a thing of the past. Hillel Foundations avoid even the slightest controversies like the plague. Hillel directors shun any sort of activities that cannot be directly connected to matters of interest to Judaism, and even in that smaller arena, the official Hillels are places where any sort of criticism of Israel cannot be countenanced.

What happened? As an historian I like to say, “Whenever anyone says it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money.”

The Hillel Foundations have an interesting history. They were not created by a religious community but rather a fraternal organization called B’nai B’rith (the Jewish version of organizations like the Shriners and Masons). B’nai B’rith was also the home of an international youth association and most-famously the Anti-Defamation League. B’nai B’rith’s status as a fraternal rather than religious organization allowed their affiliated agencies to be non-denominational: all Jewish students should feel equally at home no matter whether their background was Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, or for that matter secular. In order to foster the widest degree of participation, most Hillels tried to serve kosher food and adhere to standards of Sabbath observance that would satisfy all but the most Orthodox of students. Essentially it was a matter of serving the students who would come.

The central office for the Hillel Foundations didn’t have much time to deal with local issues and most local directors (some but not all of whom were rabbis) were given wide discretion. Most of the Foundations were given funds to cover the directors’ salaries and a bit for programming, and needed to raise the rest locally. Oddly enough, this arrangement gave the local foundations a bit of cover which freed them from too much concern about petty local politicking in much the same way that Roman Catholic congregations are sometimes shielded from local politics by the central control of the Vatican.

All this came to a rapid demise in the late ‘80s. Fraternal organizations in general, and B’nai B’rith more than most, saw huge declines in membership and fundraising. Those Hillel Foundations which had received significant funding from the national office were told to make friends locally. That meant dealing with the sources of local Jewish communal funding which generally go by names such as the “Jewish Community Federation of…” Eventually, the situation deteriorated to the point that B’nai B’rith and the Hillel Foundations found it necessary to separate into completely independent organizations. Today, B’nai B’rith has nothing to do with the hundreds of campus Jewish organizations it founded.

One of the casualties of this process was intellectual freedom within the Hillel populations. That may seem like an extreme statement, but bear with me and I think you will understand that it is no exaggeration.

Jewish Federations are not democracies. They were designed to raise the maximum amount of money possible, and to do that they learned to cater to the biggest donors. In most communities those donors are rich, politically conservative, and often vigorously pro-Israel. Of greater importance, they often feel strongly that they do not want their contributions funding any activity that might be perceived as “bad for Israel.” And as the Israeli government has become increasingly conservative in recent years, American Jewish federations have moved along that path as well.

To illustrate how this can affect the academic environment, consider the case of Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin is among the most important scholars of early Jewish religion and history. He holds the Taubman Chair of Talmudic Culture within the Near East Studies department at UC Berkeley. His scholarship is unquestionably of the highest caliber, and he has important things to say about the history and evolution of Judaism in its critical and formative period. Despite his stature in scholarship, he is persona non grata in most Hillel Foundations and Jewish communal institutions such as adult educational forums sponsored by those communal institutions. Why? Boyarin has been an outspoken personality on the progressive or if you will left-wing side of Israeli/Zionist politics, and that irks many of the big donors.

In response to these donors, Hillel has posted guidelines which at first glance might seem innocuous, but contain clauses that can be used to exclude scholars such as Boyarin as well as prominent rabbis and other Jews who are unwilling to commit to what ultimately comes to a matter of restraining free and unfettered speech. The guidelines can be found here:


Without turning this into a lengthy study of these “guidelines” let me say that I think most would agree that the single most difficult part of these guidelines is the bullet point which excludes anyone who supports: “… boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”


This is more like the scenes that I recall…

Personally, after careful consideration, I cannot support what has become known as the “BDS” approach. But I find it completely unacceptable that Jewish students should be prevented from learning why other Jews believe this is the correct approach.

Boyarin’s academic methods and conclusions are not universally accepted in the community of Jewish scholars, but none would deny that his claims are credibly based on profound analyses of the sources available to us. To exclude a scholar such as Boyarin is to make a mockery of the idea of scholarship and to deprive Jewish students of one of the most creative minds available to them. But that is exactly what has happened in Hillel Foundations around the country. And this is directly a consequence of the conversion of institutions such as Hillel Foundations into creatures of the local Jewish communal organizations.

I have used Boyarin as one example of this issue, but he is hardly unique. As those of you who have read him might expect, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most renowned public intellectuals would not pass muster under these guidelines. My dear friend Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a tireless warrior for peace and the scion of one of the most prominent rabbinic families in the world would likewise be excluded from Jewish audiences if the national Hillel organization had its way.

What is lost in this haze of politics is that students suffer (and this is true whether we are speaking of Jewish students or any other such groups) when they are denied the ability to hear the wide range of opinions that is a significant feature of higher education. Imagine denying Arab students the right to hear an Arab scholar speak about the positive relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle Ages because some sponsoring Arab communal organization is concerned about looking too pro-Jewish.

And so we come to the “Open Hillel” movement that seems to be gaining traction at many universities these days. As the term suggests, Jewish students on several campuses have declared an interest in hearing from all sides in the fractious environment of the Middle East. They are not willing to exclude voices such as Boyarin’s. And perhaps even more serious from the perspective of the organized Jewish community, they are willing to listen to speakers and organizations which represent pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist schools of thought.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if I were a college student today, I would be part of the Open Hillel movement. I strongly suspect that if things were then, when I began my career with Hillel Foundation at Berkeley, as they are now that I would not have been considered an acceptable role model and probably would not have been hired.

The irony in that is that I am neither anti-Israel nor anti-Zionist. While I do have serious reservations about the policies of the current government of Israel, I continue to believe that Israel serves an important purpose in providing refuge for Jews who become the subject of persecution. In a world in which many countries provide special status to their ancestral peoples, I do not see any reason why Israel cannot do so for Jews. But because I am unwilling to declare loyalty for the Israeli policies which I happen to oppose, I would not be considered an appropriate hire for most Jewish communal organizations including most Hillel Foundations.

All of this would be the sad ruminations of an aging curmudgeon if it weren’t for one fact I mentioned above. I believe strongly that the policies I have mentioned here are damaging the ability of Jewish communal organizations to reach college-age Jews. We should all be celebrating the “Open Hillel” movement because it, far more than the regular Hillel Foundations, has a chance of reaching that critically important population sector and perhaps retaining some of these motivated, highly educated Jews for the future of the community.

Life in These States of UTK

Lots of construction going on. What’s missing is anything resembling decent signage or consideration for pedestrians–especially disabled folks. With my bum knee, I guess I now belong to that category. But this, I understand, is pretty normal around these parts. Come to think of it, it reminds me a lot of Tel Aviv. A few years ago we rented an apartment there and discovered that they were tearing up the sidewalks having made not the slightest provision for disabled folks.

Last Wednesday I needed to journey to the ends of the earth. Well, at least the campus. A class I was taking was scheduled for a room inside and at the far end of the football stadium. Normally to get to the stadium, I would walk down a long valley that leads directly from Cumberland Ave to the stadium. And that’s what I set out to do. But halfway there I discovered that that route was blocked by construction.

The only way out of the construction (other than turning around completely and returning the way I had come) was to enter a campus building. I was confident that the building would have an exit to an alternate path to the stadium and so I entered the building. A sign was posted which read “Exit on 3rd Floor.” I was on the first floor, so I looked for a staircase.

Just a few steps along a corridor I came to an Exit sign and a stairwell. I entered the stairwell and climbed a flight of stairs, which would put me at the 2nd rather than the 3rd floor. There was no flight up from there, just a door to what I thought would be the 2nd floor of the building. I went through the door, and this is what I saw:

UTK Construction02The door closed and locked behind me. I was on a grassy hill. Below me was a ledge, about four feet higher than the corridor running along side the building. Looking up the hill I could see a fence, about 5 feet tall. I walked up the hill and down the hill. The gates at the top were padlocked, the ledge at the bottom was continuous, there were no stairs or other means of getting off the hill.

For a New York minute I contemplated calling 911 to get me outtathere. I walked up the hill to the fence and thought about climbing over it. Nah. Then I went down the hill and contemplating jumping down four feet to the concrete path below. Nah.

Finally, the solution came to me. I went back down hill and sat my behind down on the ledge, draping my legs over. About two feet to drop, but by holding both arms on the ledge I could let myself down easy and only drop the last six inches or so. Success! (You may be wondering about all this fuss, but let me say that if you have a knee without cartilage you’ll know exactly what motivated all that care.)

Of course, this now put me exactly where I was before! I still had to enter the building and find a way out further up the hill. This time, however, I took the elevator to the third floor and found the public exit. That did indeed lead to the football stadium and to my class.

On the way back, I took a few photos of the area of my confinement. I think this is the best summation of the experience:

UTK Construction01Yes, that wheelchair entrance sign is indeed located behind the fence I would have needed to climb to exit that direction.

Slight Admin Change…

As most “friends and family” know, I’ve been a little slow posting to this blog lately. The culprit is simply the load imposed by grad school, and I do hope things will improve soon.

I’ve been getting a huge number of “guest registrations” on the site which is obviously bogus. Much as I’d love to think I have all those friends out there, obviously most of these are spammers hoping to find a way to use my blog to set up some sort of spamming operation. Therefore I’ve disabled new subscriber registrations–most of the people interested in us (for real) will simply subscribe via RSS or bookmark the blog. If I write something substantial, I’ll announce it on our Facebook page and link it back to here.

Best regards,

More News on the Death Penalty

The New York Times and the Jewish Daily Forward reported this week that David Ranta had been freed from prison having spent 23 years there for a crime he did not commit. That crime was the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger in 1990.

Rabbi Werzberger was a member of the insular but influential Hassidic sect known as Satmar.

At the time, the New York City police department went “all out” to find the killer. The Times reported that 40 detectives were assigned to the case. But in spite of that (or perhaps because of it), they wound up charging the wrong man.

In a litany of civil liberties abuses that have become commonplace in our newspaper readings these days, the investigating officers solicited perjury, subjected Mr. Ranta to abusive questioning, and made bargains that resulted in sweet deals for people who should have been spending their own long terms in prison.

Mr. Ranta was perhaps no angel, but neither was he a murderer, and as it has now been shown–beyond a reasonable doubt–that he did not murder Rabbi Werzberger, he is at long last a free man.

But none of that is actually why I am writing. A detail in the story in the Times caught my attention. At the time that Mr. Ranta was arrested, perhaps because of the sensational nature of the case, the arrest was conducted in a highly public fashion. Large numbers of Satmar members turned up and were seen banging on the roof of the car transporting Mr. Ranta shouting “Death penalty!”

The Bible does (of course) list the death penalty for a number of infractions. As most students of the Talmud know, Judaism in subsequent centuries has made it very difficult to enforce a death penalty for any crime. The modern State of Israel has executed only one person in its history: Adolph Eichmann for his role as an architect of the Holocaust.

The Talmud has a myriad of mechanisms to avoid enforcing a death penalty statute, but Jews have long recognized the primary reason we have shunned that ultimate penalty. Simply put, when a State can inflict death, it has all too often been wielded against Jews.

The Satmar should have been aware of that. Thank God the justice system paid no heed to the throng. Mr. Ranta spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but at least he is alive to tell the story.

As for the person who did kill Rabbi Werzberger, thanks to the zealous police department and Satmar’s own rush to judgment, that person will probably never be identified, much less prosecuted.