We Couldn’t Make Any of This Up

Gershom Gorenberg

Since Purim is past, I can put up a brief compendium of news stories that should be satires. Well, actually, if we made this stuff up, you would accuse us of third-degree cynicism. But we’re innocent. This stuff really happened.

  • In Maryland, the Washington Post reports, a Muslim woman was told to leave a line in a bank and be served in a back room because she was wearing a scarf over her hair. The bank said it had a “no hats, hoods or sunglasses” policy, intended to prevent robberies and identity theft. Giving the bank the benefit of the doubt, the clerks did not believe that she was hiding an assault rifle under her scarf. So apparently, they found it absolutely impossible to verify a person’s identity when her hair was covered. Perhaps this is part of an “all those people look the same” policy, which may apply equally to Muslim women and Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair.Update: The bank has apologized. Readers are invited to let us know as soon as Daniel Pipes attacks the bank for imposing sharia law by allowing headscarves.
  • A Jerusalem rabbinic court ruled that the adopted* son of the late, famed Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim was not Jewish, and had never been Jewish, even though he had undergone an ultra-Orthodox conversion at age 2 and was married under the auspices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in 2001. Ha’aretz reports that the court made the decision when Yossi Fackenheim and his wife went to the court for a religious divorce. You don’t need a divorce, the court told him, because you were never really married under Jewish law, because you are not a Jew, because you do not observe halakhah.Under halakhah, however, someone who has converted remains Jewish even if he or she ceases to observe halakhah. Therefore, the court was not observing halakhah. Therefore, if one of the judges was actually a convert, he should by his own logic declare himself not Jewish, thereby negating the court’s decision and reinstating Fackenheim.
  • According to a report in Yediot Aharonot yesterday (not on line), the Foreign Ministry has requested 8 million shekels from the Finance Ministry for a PR campaign to improve Israel’s image after Operation Cast Lead. The report did not state how much money the Foreign Ministry would request for improving Israel’s image after Avigdor Lieberman is formally appointed foreign minister.

I fear that the Onion will soon go belly up. How can it compete?

*Correction: My apologies for misidentifying Yossi Fackenheim in the original post (see comment below).

10 thoughts on “We Couldn’t Make Any of This Up

  1. Gershom, are you sure that the halacha is so straightforward in this case? My understanding (limited that it is) is that conversions of minors, no matter how ultra-orthodox, can lead to problems later on.

    I think the minor in question is supposed to confirm the conversion once he becomes bar mitzvah. I’m not sure if that’s strictly halakhically necessary. Maybe ‘zachin l’adam shelo befanav’ negates the need for such a confirmation.

    Still, though, this is exceedingly strange. My understanding was that, for obvious reasons, retroactive nullification was to be avoided at all costs, and a five minute ‘get’ interview does not seem the proper forum for such deliberation.

  2. The bank’s actions make sense to me. If by “scarf” you meant that she was wearing a hijab, then that’s physically about the same as a hood, right? So assuming the bank was telling the truth about their policy, they were just applying it equally to this woman. You snarked on the policy, fine, maybe it was excessive, but apparently it’s got nothing to do with Muslims per se. Talk about a non-story!

  3. Richard – There are, naturally, uncountable formulations of the rules on converting a child to Judaism. But the common denominator is that upon reaching the age of majority (12 for girls, 13 for boys) the person could opt out – declare that she or he doesn’t want to be Jewish. Some authorities require that the person be informed explicitly of this possibility. But “continuing identification with Judaism at the time of… bar/bat mitzvah shall preclude any possibility of undoing the conversion in the future” – so says the Rabbinical Council of America’s recent policy statement on conversion, a document that takes a fairly stringent view on conversion.

    Yossi Fackenheim clearly did continue to identify as a Jew after reaching the age of responsibility. According to the news item linked above, a rabbinic court in Israel had affirmed the validity of his conversion in the past – and he’d been married here by the none-too-lenient rabbinate.

    However, as I’ve written before – in Moment, Hadassah and the NY Times – the Israeli rabbinate is increasingly taking a radical position of casting doubt on Jewish identity. Breaking utterly with Jewish tradition, some rabbis on the state payroll now hold that if a person is not currently observant, his/her conversion is retroactively invalid.

    On the absolute absurdity of this position, see Prof. Zvi Zohar at http://tinyurl.com/abk9t3

  4. there is a photo exhibit at b.u. about religious womens’ head coverings. i did not get to see it but it obviously includes ortho jewish women and muslim women.

  5. Here is another example on an unfortunate truth from the University of Chelm (UC) Berkeley

    Hillel Student Leaders Participate in Israel Apartheid Week!
    Anti-Israel Hate Group’s Presence at Hillel Has Already Had Disturbing Consequences:

    Berkeley Hillel’s Valentine’s Day invitation demeaning Orthodox Jews, which was posted on Facebook by Hillel staff, was exposed and reported on in the Jerusalem Post The fact that Berkeley Hillel staff has been denigrating Jewish heritage in the past year became international news.

    While we might be tempted to dismiss this latest occurrence as borderline trivial, it is important to recognize that it is indicative of a significantly more egregious pattern of conduct. Although Hillel apologized for its latest “mistake,” the situation continues.

    Since Ken Kramarz, Hillel’s N. California regional head, took office in June 2007, under his leadership and guidance, a troubling situation has developed at Berkeley Hillel: Hillel has welcomed leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine (”SJP”), an extremist anti-Israel group (see here), into its student organization meetings (see here).

    By allowing SJP into its facility and groups (see here), Hillel has allowed itself to become a breeding ground for anti-Israel extremists and activists. Impressionable Jewish students have fallen prey to SJP and have been closely cooperating with this organization.

    Ken Kramarz himself has been discouraging pro-Israel students from rallying for Israel (telling them it makes Jews look “bloodthirsty”) and from displaying Israeli flags (saying the star of David “represents militarism”). This gives an insight into the source of the problem at Berkeley Hillel.

    Kramarz’s “leadership” of Hillel is having its natural effect: Hillel’s student group leaders and members are participating in SJP’s “Israel Apartheid Week,” an annual anti-Israel hate-fest taking place this March 1-8, 2009 (see here). This is just the latest negative effect of the Hillel leadership on the future Jewish generation.

    Rather than acknowledge the problems and trying to rectify them, those who are content with the present situation at Hillel are distributing a disingenuous letter trying to deflect from Hillel the responsibility for the offensive Valentine invitation. They are also ignoring the larger issue of a disturbing pattern of misconduct. The actual letter authors are implying that the invitation was not placed by Hillel staff. This is not true! The “administrators of Hillel’s Facebook invitation” are Hillel staff.

    The people who wrote this letter could not refute any of the facts revealed in the Action Alert distributed recently; indeed each fact has evidence to substantiate it. They simply swept the serious problems of the Hillel leadership under the rug. Rather than confront this troubling situation, they are concealing the facts from the community and maintaining the status quo. Thus, they fail the students and the Jewish community.

    The Hillel regional head is an important position. The person who fills it should reverse course and inspire and encourage students to develop pride in their Jewish heritage and stand up for Israel!

    Under the leadership, guidance and advice of Ken Kramarz, Hillel’s N. California regional head, an alarming situation has emerged!

    The following are just a few examples of an increasingly dire situation( for background see also the eye-opening links):

    Hillel Denigrates Jewish Traditions

    On Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Hillel held a dance party. When students complained about holding a party on that solemn day, they were told that “most students don’t really care.”

    On Yom Hazikaron, memorial day for fallen IDF soldiers and terror victims, Hillel held a Cinco de Mayo BBQ celebrating Mexican heritage and pride.

    Ignoring repeated student requests, Hillel has not held Passover Seders for the last two years. Rather, last Passover, Hillel’s walls bore signs that said “matzah sucks.”

    Hillel Cooperates with Anti-Israel Hate Group (SJP) and Marginalizes Pro-Israel Students

    Hillel has welcomed leaders of the extremist anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine (”SJP”) into its student organization meetings (see here). SJP leaders Allison Deger (see here) and Yaman Salahi (see here) who attend Hillel meetings, have been at the forefront of anti-Israel activities, including violent demonstrations at Israel’s SF Consulate (see here and here) and Berkeley’s divest-from-Israel campaign (see here). This SJP divestment effort is part of internationall Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns against Israel (see here, here and here). In their continuing effort to demonize Israel, those SJP leaders organized an “Israel Apartheid Week” (see here) on campus. Several of Hillel’s student group leaders and members participated in SJP’s annual Israel-bashing ritual known as “Israel Apartheid Week.”

    Hillel has tacitly given SJP a platform to proselytize Jewish students and convert them to its anti-Israel cause.

    In allowing SJP into its facility and groups, Hillel has allowed itself to become a breeding ground for anti-Israel extremists and activists.
    Rather than support the pro-Israel students, Hillel, its affiliated students groups, and Kramarz have echoed SJP’s smear campaign against pro-Israel students. Kramarz has done so in statements to media, to the Jewish community, and in a national conference call — without soliciting the pro-Israel students’ response to the SJP’s false allegations.

    These highly damaging and irresponsible actions of Kramarz and Hillel have helped the extremist SJP legitimize itself and marginalize the pro-Israel students at Berkeley – so much so that the SJP not only thanked notorious anti-Israel organizations such as the Muslim Students Association (MSA), but first and foremost thanked Hillel and its Jewish Student Union (JSU) for their solidarity and cooperation.

    Ken Kramarz and Hillel Discourage Pro-Israel Students and Activities

    After the recent Israeli operation in Gaza, Kramarz urged students (on January 16 and 21) not to rally in solidarity with Israel or to carry Israeli flags, saying they would make the Jews look “bloodthirsty” and that the flag’s Star of David represents militarism.

    When a pro-Israel student asked Kramarz on February 3 for Hillel to take a public stance against anti-Israel speakers such as Hamas/Hizbullah advocate (see here) and obsessive anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein, whom the SJP presented in October 2008, Kramarz said he does not consider Norman Finkelstein to be anti-Israel (see here and here).

    When pro-Israel students protested the Finkelstein event, moderated by the notorious Hatem Bazian (see here), by briefly making noise while walking out, they were banned from using Hillel facilities unless they “publicly and formally” apologized to the SJP (Kramarz personally advocated this outrageous demand). But the SJP leaders who invited the Israel demonizer and their friends are welcome at Hillel.

    Berkeley Hillel, under the advice and guidance of Hillel’s regional head, Ken Kramarz, and with his direct involvement, has repeatedly failed Jewish and pro-Israel students. There are already serious consequences!

    These students are the future leaders of the Jewish community. They will determine the American Jewish community’s future attitudes toward, and support for, Israel. This year’s sophomore is next year’s shaper of public opinion, congressman or senator.

    Kramarz, who is funded by the S.F. Jewish Federation and Hillel International, has known of, and cooperated with, Berkeley Hillel’s reprehensible conduct. Kramarz has whitewashed and concealed Hillel’s misconduct while attempting to discredit those who spotlight the problems.

    If we fail to act and Hillel’s leadership remains unchanged, we should not be surprised when more and more Jewish students join the ranks of anti-Israel activists on campus. Last year’s anti-Israel youth protest at the SF JCC on Israel’s Independence Day (see here and here) may serve as a troubling example of what the future holds. The growing number of anti-Israel Jewish activists will eventually constitute the mainstream.

  6. Gershom,

    The .pdf file you provided seems to go further than you suggested. In 7b(i) it reads

    “In cases of conversion of minor children it is essential that the regional Beit Din ensures that children converted as minors be informed prior to becoming bar/bat mitzvah that they were converted, and that they have the opportunity at such time either to renounce their conversion or demonstrate their commitment to Judaism by continuing to practice a fully committed Jewish life.”

    That seems to be the definition of the “continuing identification with Judaism” to which you refer. While there is indeed no need for a formal declaration of observance, there does seem to be a need to continue the praxis of Orthodox Judaism, presumably the only Judaism worth practicing (to at least Orthodox institutions like the RCA). The phrase “continuing to practice a fully committed Jewish life” is admittedly ambiguous, but I’m pretty sure that, in context, it refers to following Halakha. Do you know if Yossi Fackenheim fulfilled that criteria?

    Of course, there does still seem to be evidence of some serious inconsistency with the Beis Din’s approach. If they had serious doubts as to his Jewishness before his marriage (which they obviously didn’t), why let him marry in the first place? It’s apparent, as you suggest, that the Rabbinate has veered sharply to the right in the interim.

    I concede to you the larger point that subjecting past conversions to review is, in general, an untenable proposition, but I think that the conversion of minors has always been treated atypically, as a minor is not a bar daat. (Which is why I’m not sure how relevant Dr. Zohar’s article is to this case.)

  7. While the examples of Hillel programming cited by Melvin Schnell are distasteful, I don’t think Jewish students can be “inspired to stand up for Israel” if they object to Israel’s policies. I don’t know the answer, but am I glad I don’t live in the States: What a schizoid existence vis-a-vis Israel.

  8. I know that it’s been a while since this story broke, but I thought I’d correct a minor error here: I was not adopted by Emil Fackenheim, I am his biological son.

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