What a shame

Joseph Aaron

I miss shanda.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Jews really cared about shanda. Shanda is that great Yiddish word meaning shame, used to convey a lot more than that, to mean this horrible reality where a Jew brings dishonor upon the Jewish people. And so the last thing any Jewish mother wanted was for her son or daughter to be a shanda.

We as a people don’t seem to care about that anymore. You really saw that of course with Jonathan Pollard, who betrayed his country and so betrayed his people. But somehow, for some reason, more and more Jews, didn’t feel shanda as they should have about a Jew working for the U.S. government who stole so many top secrets that presidents of both parties refused to let him out of jail, despite tremendous political pressure to do so and great political gain to be had by doing so.

No, instead of shanda we did two shameful things. One was to excuse his traitorous behavior away. For almost a decade, top officials of the Israeli government outright lied about Pollard, saying what he did was a rogue operation when, in fact, it was directed directly by the Israeli government.

American Jews furthered the shanda by making more excuses, such as that Israel was ‘entitled’ to the secrets Pollard gave Israel, that the United States should have shared them with Israel so what’s the big deal about Pollard taking matters into his own hands. Seeming to forget it was up to the U.S. and not Israel to decide what it would share. Imagine if you will if an Israeli stole some of Israel’s top secrets and, for money, gave them to the United States when the Jewish state had chosen not to.

Another excuse employed was that spies for Russia got lesser sentences than Pollard got, conveniently ignoring the fact that the damage Pollard did to U.S.  intelligence was far greater than that done by any Russian spy, and more importantly failing to understand that if your worst enemy does something bad to you, yes you’re not happy, but if your best friend, who you have done so much for, does something bad to you, it hurts far worse, is a far greater betrayal.

All that should have alerted us to the fact that the Jewish people are suffering from a serious shanda deficiency. And we’ve had a few more examples just recently that show how bad things are.

As we all know, sexual harassment has been much in the news of late, has become a major focus, a major area of concern, with many harassers paying very serious penalties, with many companies and organizations finally having some sense of how much they need to be more sensitive, respond to cases of harassment and those who commit them much more humanely.

And yet we have the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan doing something that would be appalling and amazing at any time, but especially at this time with all the #metoo awareness taking place.

It was about a year ago that Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, the author of the book ‘My Promised Land,’ which won rave reviews for its insightful look at both right and left in Israel, at how each misunderstands and mischaracterizes the other and how each actually has what to teach us and how each is actually a danger to us.

It was about a year ago that a Jewish reporter in Los Angeles named Danielle Berrin revealed that while Shavit was in that city as part of a book tour, he sexually harassed her. When she arrived at his hotel to do an interview, she says, “it wasn’t long before he lurched at me, grabbing the back of my head and pulling me toward his mouth. He urged me to come to his room, and when I refused, he pressed harder with the promise that we wouldn’t have to have sex, because — wait for it — he just wanted a hug.”

As so many of these creeps do, Shavit wrote it all off as a misunderstanding. “I sincerely believed that my advances were well received,” he privately wrote Berrin. And then he issued a public statement claiming their meeting had elements of “courtship.”

As happens with so many of these creeps, shortly after Berrin wrote about her treatment at the hands of Shavit, three other women, all of whom worked for Jewish organizations that had hosted him as a speaker, said he had done similar things to them.

And yet in a world where the likes of Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer have lost their careers in the span of 24 hours, been sentenced to banishment and shame, along came the 92nd Street Y, the premiere location for Jewish cultural events in New York, and invited Shavit to be the featured speaker no less at no less than its upcoming Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day celebration.

Someone who groped and forcibly kissed women being invited to give a prestigious lecture at a prestigious Jewish place on a prestigious Jewish holiday. Where was the shanda, where was the sense of decency, of Jewish values?

And it’s not like Shavit has sincerely apologized for what he has done. Sure, he claims there was a misunderstanding, that he thought it was courtship. But even now, a year later, the best he has been able to come up with is that he spent the last year in a “deep process of self-reflection” and said that this has been “a personal year of reckoning, humility and change.” He also expressed his “unequivocal commitment to women, gender equality and tikun olam,” the Jewish concept of repairing the world.

What exactly he means, if anything real, by self-reflection and reckoning and humility is, of course, not at all clear, are just buzz words you’re supposed to say but that signify nothing. And then, of course, he adds the obligatory but equally meaningless claim that he is now unequivocally committed to women, gender equality and that all-purpose Jewish chestnut, tikkun olam.

And yet despite all that, it wasn’t until two new women, both students, came forward in response to the news that he was to be the Yom Haatzmaut speaker, that the Y finally cancelled his speech.

And then we have Sholom Rubashkin, whose prison sentence Trump just commuted. Making it just two people who have received commutations from Trump, the first being Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an out and out racist convicted of failing to uphold the law because of his hatred of immigrants, and Sholom Rubashkin, an Orthodox Jew who acted like anything but.

I don’t have enough space to go into all of the disgusting crimes Rubashkin oversaw. Let it suffice to say that when he was CEO of Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Iowa, it was closed down after the largest single raid of a workplace in U.S. history, which resulted in nearly 400 arrests of immigrant workers with false identity papers who were charged with identity theftdocument fraud, use of stolen social security numbers, and related offenses.

And that was the least of it. When authorities inspected this kosher slaughterhouse they found appalling conditions, disgusting sanitary conditions, horrible mistreatment of animals, revelations of sex abuse, child labor law violations, a meth lab on the premises and so much more.

As one rabbi who toured the place after the raid said, “We spent hours hearing about appalling working conditions and the abuses that have taken place at Agriprocessors. We heard allegations of all kinds of abuses: underage workers, the poorest pay of any slaughterhouse in Iowa, supervisors who demanded payments and sexual favors in exchange for jobs or particular assignments. Workers consistently described being cursed at and screamed at to work faster and harder. We heard of people working in demanding and dangerous jobs with no training. We heard two stories of workers being struck. We repeatedly heard workers describe how a lead supervisor would demand that they buy a used car from him for more than its value in order to get a job at the plant, even though they were not eligible for a driver’s license.”

And yet shamefully, shandafully all kinds of Jewish organizations and prominent Jews, including the likes of Alan Dershowitz, pushed hard for Rubashkin to be let out of jail early and not serve his full 27 year sentence.

Trump, of course, without a shandah bone in his body, despite being the zayde of Jewish grandchildren, obliged. And the Orthodox Jewish world rejoiced, showering Rubashkin with accolades and gifts and special treatment at synagogues and being the honored guest at weddings. On one day, a prominent Orthodox website featured no less than ten stories about Rubashkin about what a fantastic guy he is and how fantastic it is that he is free.

What especially bothers me about the Rubashkin and Pollard cases is that so much of Jewish advocacy for these two lowlifes was based on the belief that somehow they were the victims of anti-Semitism, that because they were in jail and got very stiff sentences it couldn’t be that they were horrible criminals, couldn’t be that justice demanded that they receive harsh punishment, no, it had to all be ascribed to anti-Semitism. Evidently, we can’t seem to accept that we have creeps among us. No, it must be that the world is out to get us.

One would think we would have matured past that, one would think we’d look around and see how great the world treats us and understand that jailing Jewish creeps is not anti-Semitism and that the charge of anti-Semitism should not be used as a shield for us to drop any sense of shandah and make Jewish creeps into Jewish heroes.

One would think we would be better than that by now, that we would see that while Jews being jailed because of anti-Semitism may have been true in our past, it is not true in our present, and see that if we are to make the most of our future we need to reclaim and embrace the cherished value that has played such a vital role in our history — the ability to feel shanda, recognize shanda, not excuse shanda and only and always behave in ways that do not in any way result in shanda.

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