Satmar Hasidism: a study in corruption

Forward (the English-language incarnation of the once-preeminent Yiddish-language פֿאָרווערטס‎ (Forverts), has a fascinating account of the transition of power within the Satmer branch of Hasidism.  So far as it goes, it’s pretty unsparing. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Forty-five years ago, Al Lowenstein challenged John J. Rooney for a Brooklyn Congressional seat in a district that included Williamsburg, then the Satmar stronghold. I was one of the hundreds of volunteers who moved to Brooklyn for the summer to work on the campaign. (Huge mistake from the campaign’s viewpoint, but that’s a story for another day.)

The Satmar leadership - in particular, Yoelish Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe - loved Rooney, for a slightly complicated reason. The Satmar brand of misogynistic patriarchy was so obnoxious that girls tended to walk out of the sect when they reached maturity. (That’s since been fixed by miseducating them in Satmar schools in the isolated and Satmar-dominated villiage of Kiryat Joel; the schools turn out girls not merely well-indoctrinated but so ignorant of everything but Talmud as to be unable to function in mainstream society, and the sect so far has managed to beat back attempts to ensure that Satmar children get adequate education. (No doubt Betsy DeVos will be their ally, in the name of “parental choice.”) But back then Satmar schools taught the girls  to read and write in English, giving them the option of leaving the community.

This was a problem for the Satmars; where were they to find brides for their young men?  The answer was straightforward: the community imported brides for arranged marriages from the remaining Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Rooney, as the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that handled the State Department budget, was able to makes sure that the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs didn’t look too closely at this (thoroughly illegal) practice.

Teitlebaum - never, in my hearing, referred to by name, but only by title - exercised a different kind of power locally. Forverts was the largest Yiddish-language publication in the country (it had once published stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and essays by Abba Lerner), and Jewish Williamsburg was largely Yiddish-speaking. But the Satmars were relentlessly anti-Zionist and anti-socialist, and Teitlbaum had put a ban on the sale of the newspaper. Newsdealers who challenged that ban tended to suffer from suspicious fires and other acts of vandalism, so in fact the newspaper was simply unavailable in what should have been its biggest market. And the police found it unwise to defend press freedom against someone who could reliably bring several thousand voters to the polls to vote however they were told to vote, especially given the difficulty of finding witnesses bold enough to testify. (The re-run of the Lowenstein/Rooney primary was on Yom Kippur; buses to the polls left directly from the synagogues.)

In Teitlebaum’s long dotage - thoroughly documented in the article - and under the leadership of his nephew and grand-nephew, who succeeded him, a variety of instances of Satmar misbehavior have come to light, including the usual scandal about clergy taking sexual advantage of children and having their crimes covered up by their superiors and a fairly wide variety of  financial scams, some of them rather creative.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Satmar Hasidism has many of the nastier characteristics of an organized-crime enterprise, including the abuse of political influence to acquire impunity. But don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone who has to run for office to speak out about it.






The crumbling of ISIS

ISIS nears its end.

Officially, the Iraqi government is still dampening expectations of an early victory in Mosul. But the news on the ground tells a different story.

  • General Stephen Townsend, commanding the US “assistance” mission, last week: ISIS is down to 2,000 fighters in Mosul, including those now isolated in Tal Afar.
  • Iraqi Federal police, 28 February:  since the start of the offensive on the West bank of the Tigris in Mosul, 900 ISIS fighters have been killed.
  • Unconfirmed local Iraqi report: 20 ISIS checkpoints in the semi-desert West of Mosul have been abandoned.
  • The Iraqi Army recaptured the large airport and the adjoining military base in about two days. In the earlier offensive on the East bank, ISIS held out in smaller districts for a week, and then counter-attacked with infiltrators.

It’s speeding up. In the time since I started writing this, the Iraqi Army has captured the west end of a second bridge over the Tigris, at the SE corner of the old city, and claims to have recaptured 60% of the whole of the west bank of the city.

Allies for now : Shia militia
It’s just possible that the weak resistance is part of a cunning plan to lure the Iraqi army into a costly house-to-house battle in the narrow streets of the old city. I don’t buy this. Fanatics don’t do tactical retreats. They are surrounded, low on ammunition, taking very heavy casualties, in a hostile population controlled by terror that will betray them at the first safe opportunity, and facing certain defeat. For Syrian and Iraqi ISIS fighters, melting into the civilian population only offers a slim chance of survival. For the foreigners, even that is nonexistent. They are stuck, like the French and Belgian SS soldiers who fought to the last in the centre of Berlin in May 1945 (source: Beevor). My guess is that they will be overrun in the next ten days.

Over the Syrian border, the Kurdish YPG militia (associated with Ocalan’s PKK and vehemently opposed by Turkey) has surrounded Raqqa on three sides, and cut the last road east on the north bank to Deir ez-Zor. The south is open, but the bridges over the Euphrates have been cut by bombing and the only crossing is by boat. There are unconfirmed reports that ISIS leaders have been evacuating their families from Raqqa into the countryside. That leaves ISIS holding three centres, cut off from each other, two under close siege.

The self-proclaimed caliphate will be gone in a few months. It may survive as a non-territorial conspiracy, a low-budget and even more extreme rival to al-Qaeda. But they don’t have the latter’s funding, organization, or experience. The attraction of ISIS to alienated young radical Muslim men across the world depended crucially on the caliphate claim, not just to statehood but empire. This absolutely required control of territory. I would not put it past them to pull a Jonestown rather than submit to shameful surrender. Not many of their enemies will be ready to leave them alive.

The end of the fake caliphate will be a victory for Obama’s proxy strategy, though Trump will surely claim it. In retrospect, it was bound to fail. A claim to universal dominion exercised by forced conversion, enslavement, and massacre of everybody in its reach cannot possibly work. The original expansion of Islam depended on the new religion’s exceptional tolerance for non-Muslim peoples of the book. The large numbers of converts from their new subjects were actually a problem to the Arab conquerors, and led to the Abbasid revolution. This contemporary bunch of millenarian crazies will leave nothing but an execrated memory.
Photo credit

A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not

Thoreau was not the only Yankee to be shocked by the naked imperialism of the Mexican War. The Unitarian pastor and abolitionist Edmund Sears wrote the great hymn It came upon the midnight clear in December 1849. I won’t say it’s my favourite carol – Mary MacDonald gets my vote for her gem-like Celtic lullaby – because, being an inhibited Brit, I am embarrassed to shed tears in public.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

As a Unitarian, Sears was unconvinced by the paradoxical orthodox view that the redemption has strangely already happened, in the birth, life and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, and in spite of his failure, martyrdom, and systematic betrayals by his followers up to our own time. Sears places his hope, as much as any Orthodox rabbi, in a remote eschatological future:

For now the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

But what if we are looking for a more immediate hope today? Savagery continues in Iraq and Syria, the Arctic melts, and another Herod moves into the White House to prepare a larger rerun of the massacre of the innocents, to the complacent plaudits of conservative Pharisees?

I give you an unlikely gold-bearing Mage in the form of investment bankers Lazards. They have been surveying levelized US electricity generating costs for years, and have just published the 10th version. It’s a fat report, but this is the key chart. (Sorry for the poor resolution, go to the report link for a better image.)

The major takeaway is that in the USA the cheapest new coal generation is no cheaper than the most expensive wind and utility solar. (Footnote 1) Continue reading “A merry Christmas 2016, or perhaps not”

Johnny Mathis vs. Al Jolson vs. Neil Diamond covering Kol Nidre

All three kindof rock. I like Al Jolson’s the best. But Johnny Mathis is pretty great, too. Plus Mathis has the best acting. Best to all my friends and families for an easy and reflective holiday. I always find the caffeine deprivation the most difficult part.
Continue reading “Johnny Mathis vs. Al Jolson vs. Neil Diamond covering Kol Nidre”

I’m (almost) glad for all that blatantly anti-Semitic hatemail

Over my career as a public commentator, I have always gotten the occasional anti-Semitic email. That was particularly if I wrote about abortion, (rarely) Israel, or some other hot-button issue. When the Journolist scandal broke, I got an especially high volume of hate-mail that focused on my name, appearance, and heritage. Of course I often get rough messages from people who disagree with me in the thrust and parry of presidential politics and the politics of health reform.It wasn’t always pleasant. It comes with the territory.

None of this prepared me for 2016.

I and many others who write for fairly broad audiences are being deluged with antisemitic messages from Trump supporters. They come mostly on Twitter, but on private emails and blogs, too. Many alt-right messages bracket our names like so: (((haroldpollack))), to indicate that we are Jewish. A message from this morning is one of the milder and more printable ones:


I’ve lost count of such missives, and many worse ones. Many include four-letter words and colorful vocabulary that is quite familiar to me from my experience working on public health interventions for high-risk adolescents and adults. I block everyone who sends me these messages. For all I know, there are hundreds more.

Then there was the long rambling email that recently landed in my box, whose highlights include:

….The 1960s feminism were led by jewish Marxists (Betty Freidan, mentally ill Gloria Steinem). Porn and the sexual revolution and anti-American propaganda came directly from the jews in Hollywood and media….

Every single detrimental social movement in the US came from utopian jewish Marxists.

Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Committee was absolutely correct. Most of the jewish community should have been shot or imprisoned…


I don’t generally share such missives. Why give hateful and sick people a larger platform? Besides, every commentator with a vaguely Jewish-sounding name is getting the same stuff. This isn’t exactly newsworthy. Yet if you’re not in the public eye, you should know this is going on.

In a strange way, I’m almost-almost-glad that these anti-Semitic messages are out there. They remind many of us on the receiving end of a few basic realities that hang over our contested, pluralist democracy. They should remind us of what many others are facing, who have so very much more to lose if our nation jumps off the political cliff this November.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Agora

This weekend’s film recommendation, Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora, is one of those films that’s so hard to sell to people that I’ve never successfully persuaded a friend to sink two hours into it. This is a terrible shame, because it’s a wonderful film. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Agora”

What FOX showed rather than inspiring speech by Muslim parents of American GI lost in Iraq

Good catch by Ben Mathis-Lilley at SLATE:

One of the most effective pieces of oratory at the Democratic National Convention was delivered Thursday night by Khizr Khan, a Pakistan-born immigrant whose son Humayun was killed in Iraq in 2004. (Humayun Khan, an Army captain, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.) Khan’s speech—which directly condemned Republican nominee Donald Trump—took place just after 9 p.m. and was aired in its entirety on CNN and MSNBC. As you can see above, Fox News made a different programming choice.

Watch it below. The Pravda-like mission of FOX news continues to impress.

Do Fatwas Against ISIS Matter?

A few months ago, 70,000 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against ISIS. All very well and good, great to see, important to notice, etc.

But whenever violence is justified by appeal to religion (regardless of which religion it is, see Baruch Goldstein), adherents of that religion have to take proactive steps to ensure that beliefs leading to violence are being rooted out. So here is one that I would be interested in discussing with these 70,000 imams:

How do you interpret Qu’ran 4:34?

That verse describes relations between husbands and wives, and in some interpretations allows husbands to beat their wives. Other interpretations suggest that men are superior to women. And yet other interpretations reject all violence or any suggestion of gender inequality. What do these imams think about that?

Now, one might wonder what that has to do with anything: this fatwa concerned ISIS and Al-Qaeda, not gender. But I believe that the two are linked. In male-dominated traditional societies, women can stand in for the ultimate Other, that which must be controlled and dominated. Hyper-masculinism means great propensity to violence, or as a professor of mine once put it, “when it comes to violent crime, women are just not doing their fair share.” The one thing that virtually all terrorists have in common is not their religion, or their culture, or their class background, but rather their sex.

Put another way, Islamic terror will not cease until women in the Umma are empowered and equal. And this applies to all terror. It may not be a sufficient condition — Communist China early on adopted formal norms of gender equality and Maoist rule might have been the most brutal of the 20th century, which is saying a lot — but it is a necessary one. For my own faith, it is surely no accident that the religious settlers who have committed the worst terror against Palestinians are also the ones who hold the most retrograde views on gender.

So while it is great that we hear condemnations of terrorism from imams, my follow up question is: how are you personally, in your practice and in your work, fighting for gender equality with Islam? What do you tell your followers about Qu’ran 4:34? Because if that answer is a shrug of the shoulders, or an uncomprehending stare, it isn’t good enough.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Dead Man Walking

I was spurred to pick this Weekend’s Film Recommendation by a recent trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which, if you haven’t been, is an exceedingly difficult place to describe. Perhaps you’re built to tolerate the humidity and the sweat that sticks to your neck no matter how fervently you waft the glossy brochure they hand you at the Visitor Centre. If you are, you’ll notice sooner than I did that there aren’t actually any walls surrounding the facility. 6,300 inmates are divided among innumerable clusters, each of which houses anywhere from a dozen to many hundreds of people, scattered across the prison’s 18,000 acre territory. But aside from the barbed fence surrounding those small clusters, the entire facility has no perimeter fence, no high wall, no barbed wire. “You don’t need ‘em,” the guard informs you, “when the bushes are filled with animals that’ll get the job done.” Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Dead Man Walking”