Shammai's recent columns

The Kashuv controversy: A cautionary tale (published June 28, 2019)

The Kyle Kashuv story is an important cautionary tale and all of us, our children especially, must take note of it.

Kashuv, 18, is Jewish and the son of Uzi and Vered Adam-Kashuv, émigrés  from Israel. He also is a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, in which 17 people were killed and another 17 injured. Kashuv hid in a closet during the massacre. Yet two months after that shooting, he posted a video on Twitter showing him practicing shooting with an AR-15 rifle, the same type of weapon that killed some of his schoolmates. The posting was so upsetting to many of his schoolmates that Parkland police questioned him about his motives.

Kashuv became a politically conservative activist after the massacre. Unlike most of his fellow schoolmates, however, his activism was geared to staunchly opposing restrictive gun control legislation. In March 2018, he appeared on the CBS program Face the Nation. This past April, he was one of the speakers at the annual “leadership forum” hosted by the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association.

In 2018, Kashuv lobbied Congress in favor of the STOP School Violence Act, which anti-gun activists describe as mere “window dressing” when it comes to stemming gun violence in schools. His efforts even brought him to the White House in March of that year, where he met with the First Lady, and even spent a brief time in the Oval Office. She tweeted afterward that his “message of unity is one we should all share.” Kashuv later became the high school outreach director for Turning Point USA, “a conservative group with ties to the Trump family,” according to the Washington Post. He recently resigned that position.

Kashuv described his political activities in his admission essay to Harvard College. In March, the picture he painted of himself in that essay, coupled with a grade point average of 5.4 and an overall score of 1550 on his SAT exams, won him acceptance to Harvard.

In a letter dated June 3, however, Harvard rescinded that acceptance—not because of Kashuv's conservative activism, as some, including Kashuv at times, claim, but because of what he wrote two years earlier in a Google Docs study guide chat with other students. Among other comments he made then were “[expletive] the Jews” and “kill the “[expletive] Jews,” which is bizarre considering that he himself is Jewish and, as he says, his family lost relatives in the Holocaust. At one point in that chat, he used the “N” word 11 times in a row, then joked about how he was practicing his typing (“like im really good at typing,” he wrote, adding that “practice makes…perfect”). Kashuv also alluded to a violent computer shooting game, “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” and said he would “[expletive] make a CSGO map of Douglas and practice.”

Kashuv reportedly used other racist slurs at other times, as well.

Harvard's decision was prompted by protests from some of his former schoolmates after a video was posted online in May by one of them, Ariana Ali, which contained screenshots of the offensive Google Docs chat.

The issue, of course, is whether Harvard acted correctly in rescinding its acceptance of Kashuv. Jewish law has much to say on the matter. While Kashuv subsequently admitted writing the offensive material “two years ago,” he also insists that was then and this is now. “What I said two years ago isn't indicative of who I am,” he told the New York Times.

He was thoughtless and immature then, he says, but has matured a lot since then.

In a letter to Harvard, Kashuv apologized “unequivocally” for his comments, adding that his “intent was never to hurt anyone.” In a follow-up letter, however, Harvard's dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, said the decision to rescind stands.

Maimonides, the Rambam, sums up Jewish law on the subject in his volume on repentance (t'shuvah). He begins with this introductory comment: “A sinner should repent from his sin before God and confess. This [is a] mitzvah and [one of] the fundamental principles [of faith]….”

He elaborates on this in the next paragraph, Mishneh Torah, Repentance 1:1.

“If a person…repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be, He as [Numbers 5:6-7, which we read two weeks ago on Shabbat] states: 'When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man…, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done.' This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.”

While Rambam, however, says that it “is very praiseworthy for a person who repents to confess in public and to make his sins known to others,” he also adds this: “Anyone who, out of pride, conceals his sins and does not reveal them will not achieve complete repentance….” (See MT Repentance 2:5.)

Kashuv forcefully states his regret for the things he wrote when he was 16, and insists that he is “no longer the same person.” Rambam, in MT Repentance 7:8, says “it is an utter sin” to hold a repentant sinner's misdeeds against him. This would suggest that he should be forgiven for what he did and Harvard should reconsider its decision. His confession, however, came only after his former schoolmate posted the video exposing those heinous remarks. It is fair to wonder, then, how sincere were his confession and his stated regrets. After all, he had two years to “repent,” but did so only when his “sin” became public. He did not “make his sins known to others,” as Rambam put it, but confessed only after others made his sins known.

One test of a repentant sinner's sincerity is his demeanor, says Rambam. “The manner of a repented person is to be very humble and modest…,” he notes. (Rambam, ibid.)

An answer he gave to a Fox News interviewer, Ed Henry, seems, at least, to have lacked either trait. It also raises questions about his sincerity. “How do we know that?,” Henry asked, referring to Kashuv's stated regrets. “You certainly sound heartfelt, but you want to get something—you want to get into Harvard or get into another school. And how do we know that you're not just saying 'Oh, I didn't mean it?'”

Kashuv at first repeated that what he did was immature and unthinking. It was all part of a game he was playing to be more outrageous than the others involved in that chat. A few moments later, however, he said this: “Harvard was founded in 1636 by slave owners and has a long history of racism, sexism, and misogyny.” (He made similar comments in an interview with Time magazine, arguing that Harvard had a “checkered past.”)

Henry, during the televised interview, soon called him on that remark. “You're mentioning that they had slave owners in the 1600s,” he said. “You using the N-word was…a little more recent. I go back to my first question: How do we know that you've really changed? What specifically…has changed in you the past two years where you would no longer write the N-word or say the N-word?”

“It's because I matured tremendously…," Kashuv replied. " It's the fact that I have condemned racism in every opportunity that I can in this public life that I didn't really ask for."

It is proper to question Kashuv's sincerity, but is it also proper to give him the benefit of the doubt? Rambam, it seems, adopts a wait-and-see attitude. “[Who has reached] complete t'shuvah?” he asks rhetorically in MT T'shuvah 2:1. “A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his t'shuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.”

Time will tell. For now, Harvard's decision appears to be the correct one.

As for the cautionary tale, it is about consequences. It used to be said that one should not write down anything he or she does not want to later appear in a headline. That is exponentially true today. Parents need to tell Kashuv's story to their children, and then they need to forcefully bring home the message that what one writes in a letter, an essay, or an e-mail, or posts on social media today, or what photographs are posted on the internet may come back to haunt him or her for ever more.

All of us need to tell ourselves that, as well. Electronic postings are permanent, and negative or questionable content will come back to haunt us, just as Kashuv's objectionable chats and tweets will follow him for years to come.

War is hell—but which side is God on? (to be published July 12)

“I've seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies,” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman told the Michigan Military Academy graduating class in June 1879. “I tell you, war is Hell!”

The Civil War general, who is considered one of the earliest advocates of “total war,” in which everything is fair game including attacks on civilian infrastructure and resources, surely could not have imagined how hellish war would become 140 years later. He also could not have imagined how widespread war would become in the world.

In his world, wars happened, but they were not ubiquitous in any sense, did not run concurrently, and did not go on for interminable periods of time.

Today, war is a fact of life in the world and “thousands of men lying on the ground” has been replaced by millions, and includes women and children, as well as men. Some 600,000 people died in the war Sherman fought in. Over 100 million people—civilians as well as military—died in the 20th century's two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam combined. Wars are being fought today in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and Ukraine, with over a million dead so far and with no end in sight on any front. Civil war may break out at any time in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Venezuela. War between the United States and Iran remains a looming possibility, and could involve other nations, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as several U.S. allies in Europe. If Hizbullah ever succeeds in carrying out a terrorist attack here, we could expect the United States to bring that war home to Lebanon. And, of course, Israel is in an unending war against Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

In virtually every conflict, God is invoked by those who start the war, and by those who claim they are merely carrying out God's will by fighting to stop it. Either way, everyone, it seems, knows God's mind when it comes to war. They have no interest, however, in actually following what God actually has to say.

Those who “know” that God “opposes” war are quick to note that all humans are created in God's image (see Genesis 1:26-27). Thus, to maim or kill a fellow human is to commit sacrilege against God's very own likeness. God said as much to Noah after the Great Flood (see Genesis 9:6).

After Cain kills Abel in Genesis 4, God confronts Cain with the words, “your brother's bloods cry out to Me,” rather than “your brother's blood.” From this we learn that one who destroys a single individual it is as if that person destroyed an entire world (see Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

God, in fact, hates killing so much, so the argument goes, he even tried—unsuccessfully—to keep humans or animals from killing for food (see Genesis 1:29-30). This changed after the Great Flood, but only because God recognized that human nature is baser than He hoped, forcing him to make some concessions and set new rules.

God's aversion to killing for food, however, never changed. This is brought home in Leviticus 17:3-4, where we are told that a person who kills an animal for food without some kind of sacred justification, ”blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood….” The late 19th century founder of rabbinic moralist moralist, Samson Raphael Hirsch, put it bluntly. Killing an animal for no “sacred” purpose, he wrote, “is to be taken as murder.”

As for killing animals with a sacred purpose, the Torah suggests that sacrifices were yet another concession on God's part. His preference, we are led to believe (and as Maimonides, the Rambam, argues in several places), was prayer.

To all this, add God's aversion to killing in general. We see this in the laws God gave prohibiting murder, severely restricting the taking of human life in general, and otherwise protecting the sanctity and dignity of the human being. Thus, “there can be no doubt” where God stands.

It is a pretty persuasive argument, but only if we disregard everything in the Torah that says the opposite.

For example, while God said “You shall not murder” (see Exodus 20:13), He did not issue a blanket ban on killing. Only moments after proscribing murder, God makes clear that a distinction exists between murder and manslaughter (see Exodus 21:13). Then, in Exodus 22:1-2, He asserts that a difference exists between justifiable homicide and cold-blooded murder. God does not like violence and bloodshed, that is true, but He also is a realist.

As for war, it was God, after all, who literally sank the advancing Egyptian army at the Red Sea. “The Lord is a man of war,” Moses declared at the time (see Exodus 15:3-4). Only weeks later came the war against Amalek, an unbelievably cruel enemy. When it ended, we are told that “the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” (See Exodus 17:9-16.) Later on (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), we are told that God's war with Amalek was ours to carry out: “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.”

God also tells the Israelites of the Exodus that they must make war on the seven nations that populated Canaan at the time, although this law was limited to those nations and no longer applies. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 54a and Rambam's Mishnah Torah The Laws of Kings and Their Wars 5:4.) Nevertheless, it is hard to make a case that God is anti-war when He Himself mandates some conflicts.

Based on all the Torah says on either side, Jewish law deduces that only two kinds of war are acceptable: the obligatory war and the discretionary, yet divinely sanctioned, one.

The discretionary war that has no sanction is an “illegal war.” David's war of conquest against Syria may have been one such (see Sifre to Deuteronomy, Piska 51). At least some of the wars currently being fought fall under this category, no matter what its combatants claim. There are no “rules of engagement” for an illegal war because there should be no engagement at all. Any deaths that occur in the course of such a war are considered to be outright murder.

The Talmud explains the two legitimate categories (see BT Sotah 44b) in this way: “The wars waged by Joshua to conquer [Canaan] were obligatory…, [while] the wars waged [with divine sanction] by the House of David [to complete the conquest of Canaan which Joshua failed to do] were discretionary….”

Regarding the obligatory wars, the eternal war against Amalek is also included, since it is mandated by the Torah. That would seem to shut down the possibility of obligatory wars in our day, since neither the Canaanite nations nor Amalek exist any longer. Rambam, however, includes as obligatory a war waged to fend off an attacking army (see MT Kings 5:1). Elsewhere, he refers to the defensive war as a “commanded” one, in an effort to distinguish it from the “obligatory” war. Ostensibly, he bases this on Numbers 10:9, which recognizes the need to “go to war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you.”

Pre-emptive strikes against an enemy who poses a credible and somewhat immediate threat falls under Rambam's definition of a defensive war.

That leaves us with the halachic rules of engagement. Rule No. 1 requires that the enemy be offered more than enough serious chances to “make peace,” as required by Deuteronomy 20:10. Rambam, in MT, Kings, 6:1, claims that this is a requirement in both sanctioned wars, but others disagree with him as far as obligatory wars are concerned.

The second rule, as Rambam formulates them, is that once an enemy is surrounded, there must be a way left open for innocent civilians and even faint-hearted combatants to escape (see MT, Kings, 6:7), something severely lacking in modern wars and even, perhaps, in Sherman's idea of “total war.” Sadly, Rambam offers no suggestion on how such a rule can be made practical.

The third rule is to leave standing the fruit-bearing trees of the enemy, as demanded by Deuteronomy 20:19—a law violated when “scorched earth” is part of the war plan. Says Rambam, “anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a stream, or ruins food with destructive intent (derech hash'chatah) transgresses the command….” (See MT Kings 8 and 10.) Obviously, only that which is used as cover for aggression is fair game. There is no question, however, that this rule is being violated in every current war as in past ones.

“War is hell,” Sherman said, without understanding just how hellish war can be. Even though some wars are necessary, however, it should be obvious that, at least the way wars are fought these days, God would agree with him.

Remembering to act against hate

This spring, we observed the annual “season” of remembering Jew-hatred. It began on the Shabbat before Purim, which is known as Shabbat Zachor, “the Sabbath of Remember.” On that day, we were bidden to “[r]emember what Amalek did” after we left Egypt, how “he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the  stragglers in your rear….Do not forget!” (See Deuteronomy 25:17-19.) Purim followed, when we reminded ourselves of the genocide a descendant of Amalek, Haman, planned for the Jews of the Persian Empire.

This “season of remembering” concluded with Passover, during which we remembered the evils done to us by a pharaoh and his minions, and how they were finally defeated at the Red Sea. The end of Passover, however, was marred by the hate-inspired murder of 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye at the Chabad House in Poway, Calif., and the wounding of three others during services. The attack came six months to the day after the massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in suburban Pittsburgh.

In all three instances, we also reminded ourselves that while Amalek and Haman and the Egypt of the pharaohs are gone—as are all our other tormentors of the past, Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany included—we are still here. So God promised, and so it is.

God, however, helps those who help themselves.

Amalek was defeated—with God's help, certainly—because Joshua took an untried army of former slaves into battle. As for Purim, God's Name does not even appear in The Book of Esther (at least, not directly). Perhaps that was to highlight the fact that the Jews of Persia—with God clearly helping in the background—were saved by their taking action against their attackers. And at the sea, when Moses complained to God about the advancing Egyptian host, God's response was, “Why do you complain to Me? Tell the people to go forward,” meaning into the sea. (See Exodus 14:15.) Only when they were prepared to save themselves did God part the waters for them.

As much as we may want to convince ourselves otherwise, Jew-hatred is not a thing of the past; in fact, it has become front-page news in the general media, and even serves as grist for the cable news mill. Just days before Shabbat Zachor, a poster in a Brooklyn subway station was vandalized. The poster promoted the book, “The Unstoppable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: American Icon.” On Ginsburg's forehead and down her face were written the words “Die, Jew [expletive],” followed by a swastika.

Compared to other acts of Jew-hatred (anti-Semitism is too mild a word) we have seen recently, especially the murder of the 11 worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue and the shootings on the last day of Passover in Poway, this incident seems almost innocuous, but it was not. It was yet another reminder to us that Jew-hatred is alive and thriving, here in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world.

Here in the United States, Jew hatred suddenly exploded in mid-2015, going up 34 percent in 2016, and another 57 percent in 2017. In 2016, the FBI says, there were more acts committed against Jews and Jewish institutions than were committed against all other religious groups combined—and, that trend continued in 2018, says the FBI, even before it has completed assembling the statistics for that year.

Anti-Jewish acts here are coming more from the right than the left, but the left clearly is escalating. Although President Trump, including his anti-immigrant rhetoric, have helped spur on the hatred from the right (not just here but, as the horrific massacre in New Zealand and the murderer's so-called “manifesto” show, around the world, as well), elements within the Democratic party are giving license to the left to make their hatred heard. The anti-Jewish rhetoric coming from Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar is a case in point. It resulted in a tepid “kitchen-sink resolution,” as House staffers called it, because the Democratic majority could not bring itself to outright condemn anti-Jewish speech.

New York and New Jersey are right up there when it comes to a rise in Jew-hatred.

According to the New York Police Department, that city saw more hate crimes against Jews in 2018—up 22 percent over 2017—than for all other religious groups combined. In fact, more than half of all hate crimes reported in 2018 and so far in 2019 were anti-Jewish, the NYPD says. According to recently released figures, of the 145 hate crimes reported in January through April 2019, 82 incidents—nearly 57 percent—were anti-Jewish

The situation is no better here in New Jersey. In 2017, incidents of Jew-hatred statewide rose 32 percent over 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That put the Garden State in the number three spot nationwide for reported incidents, right behind New York and California, and right in front of Massachusetts.

The picture is even bleaker elsewhere in the rest of the world. It is bleakest in Muslim countries, as worldwide statistics show, sparking this comment from CNN host and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria: “Anti-Semitism has spread through the Islamic world like a cancer.”

It is not just in the Muslim world, however. Jew-hatred is breaking out all over.

In France, government statistics show a 74 percent rise in the number of incidents in 2018 over 2017. In Paris, postal boxes with the face of another Jewish icon, the late Holocaust survivor and French politician Simone Veil, were recently defaced with swastikas, while a Jewish-owned bakery in the city's center had the word “Juden” spray-painted on its window.

In a Paris suburb, a tree was chopped down. It was not just any tree. It had been planted in memory of Ilan Halimi, the Moroccan Jewish youth who in 2006 was tortured over a three-week period before he was killed. Halimi's murderers chose him because they hoped for a huge ransom, since, “as everyone knows,” all Jews are rich; Halimi's family, like most other Jewish families around the world, nevertheless are not. “Anti-Semitism is spreading like poison,” said the French interior minister, Christophe Castaner.

There is a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in Germany, as well, albeit at a  “mere” 10 percent over 2017. Nevertheless, that raised the number of incidents in Germany to its highest level in over a decade. Violent acts against Jews and Jewish institutions, meanwhile, rose 60 percent, wounding 43 people.

Then there is Merry Old England, which is decidedly not very merry for its Jews these days. The Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 727 anti-Jewish incidents across Britain in the first six months of 2018. That was the second-highest total the group ever recorded in any January-June period, and it was just eight percent lower than the first six months of 2017, which was the highest total CST ever recorded. Those six months foreshadowed a record-shattering 1,414 incidents during all of 2017.

“We are seeing British Jews increasingly talking about leaving and also seeing signs of people actually leaving, not just to Israel, but also to the United States and Canada—and Australia is a destination as well,” Gideon Falter, chairman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, told CNN in August. “Some of our volunteers from the coalition have become aware of so many incidents through their work with us that they have decided to leave and have moved with their families.”

The anti-Semitism in Britain is being fueled not by hate groups, but by the leader of Britain's Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who stands a fair chance of being the country's next prime minister.

The Labor Party's own internal statistics confirm the trend. According to Labor's general secretary, Jennie Formby, 673 complaints of anti-Semitism by Labor Party members were received between April 2018 and January 2019—a Labor spokesman tried to minimize this by claiming it represented a mere 0.1% of the membership. Of this number, 96 members were immediately suspended, 12 were expelled, and another 211 cases are now being investigated.

When some Labor MPs attacked Formby for attempting to smear the party and its leader, she said: “I totally reject the suggestion that the existence of anti-Semitism in our party is a smear. I have seen hard evidence of it and that is why I have been so determined to do whatever is possible to eliminate it from the party.”

So pervasive is this anti-Semitic bent within the Labor Party that some of its members of parliament are quick on the trigger to attack Israel before checking their facts.  In the middle of Passover, a Labor MP tweeted a video with this message: “Marvellous [sic], absolutely marvellous [sic] the Israeli Army, the best financed, best trained, best equipped army in the world caught on camera beating up Palestinian children for the fun of it. May God forgive them.” The MP, Grahame Morris, was quick to pounce on the video and share it with his followers, but in the end, he had to apologize. The video did show troops beating up children “for the fun of it,” but they were Guatemalan troops beating up Guatemalan chidren.

That is the picture—in brief.

God promised to protect us, but that only works if we show Him we are prepared to help ourselves. Only, that does not seem to be the case.

On April 26, 1970, thanks to the effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, 20,000 people marched from the Soviet Embassy on Manhattan's East Side to the United Nations for a rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry. The following year, on December 13, almost as many people showed up at Madison Square Garden for yet another Soviet Jewry rally. On December 6, 1987, 250,000 people showed up on the National Mall in Washington on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Is it not time for a rally to combat anti-Semitism; a rally for us to shout out loud that we are mad as hell and we won't take it anymore?

Other people rally. Last June 30, more than 30,000 people came to downtown Washington to protest the administration's immigration policies. On March 24, 2018, nearly two million people rallied in Washington and around the country to demand strengthening the nation's gun laws. That was double the number of people who turned out for the same reason on Mother's Day 2000 for the Million Mom March.

Is Jew-hatred of any less concern?

Does more Jewish blood have to flow before we act?

“Anti-Semitism is spreading like poison,” as the French interior minister said, but it is spreading the world over, including here at home.

Remembering is not enough. It is time to act.

1. Remembering to act against Jew-hatred

2. The Kashuv controversy: A cautionary tale

3. War is hell—but which side is God on?