Monthly Archives: June 2011

Stay Salty, Smoked Salmon

by Theodore Samets

Growing up, I was scared of lox.

Well, at least I thought it was lox. Turned out, the slimy, pinkish orange, cold fish I abhorred—but have come to love—wasn’t lox at all, as my parents called it. It was nova.

As I grew older, I fell in love with the stuff. But in rural Vermont, where I grew up, it can be hard to find anything but pre-packaged “smoked Atlantic salmon,” $5.99 for a four-ounce package.

Then, a few weeks before my bar mitzvah, friends of my parents brought some fresh lox back from Montreal. It looked the same as smoked salmon, but boy was it different. I was a man; it was time to give up kids’ fish and move to the grownup version.

I had been introduced to belly lox, and life would never be the same.

Incredibly salty, bright orange, and full of flavor, belly lox isn’t smoked; it’s cured. Fold it over a half of a sesame bagel—with cream cheese, of course—and you feel like you’re eating the real deal.

There is no debate as quintessentially Jewish as “nova vs. lox”; experts move beyond this question to “Russ and Daughters vs. Zabar’s” and “Montreal vs. New York bagels.” (For me, there’s no question: If there was a way to get fresh Russ and Daughters lox onto a just out of the oven “white” Montreal bagel, I’d be in heaven.)

Fans of belly lox know one thing: We’re in a minority. Indeed, on a recent visit to Russ and Daughters, I ordered lox, only to be asked by the woman behind the counter, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Belly lox please.” Many people, it seems, order lox when they really want smoked salmon.

Despite the supposed Jewish affinity for either type of cold salmon, it seems accidental that lox is a Jewish food at all. Several years ago, a New York Times exposé looked at just how lox and a bagel became the stereotypical New York brunch.

In the essay, Erika Kinetz wrote that it was a feat of timing combined with the then-inexpensive costs that connected smoked fish to the Jews:

Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price—9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920’s and 30’s—and for its convenience. It was easy to handle — and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.

Today, lox may still be a staple of the Jewish diet, but it’s certainly not cheap. My lunchtime order (belly lox and light plain on toasted everything) at Ess-a-Bagel runs $10.75 before tax, and a quarter pound of fish there will run you $9.25. That said, it’s worth every penny.

Despite the differences between lox and smoked salmon – and let’s be clear, these differences are important – there’s something that makes the fish a unique connector between Jews all over North America.

Kinetz points out that, historically, lox is more of a New York phenomenon than a Jewish one. The claim is verified by by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, where he writes, “The luxurious practice of eating lox, thought to be so typical of eastern European Jews, actually began for them in New York. Lox was almost unknown among European Jews.” Still, the fish has taken on a life of its own among Jews. Lox’s natural partner, the bagel—according to Rosten, first mentioned in print in the 1610 Community Regulations of Cracow, which stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth”—has been part of Jewish cuisine for 400 years, making “lox and bagels” an appropriate alternative for expressing oneself as Jewish in the ever-complicated “religion” box on Facebook.

Bagels may have the more overtly Jewish history, but they’ve become part of the American culinary mélange. (It’s hard to imagine, but less than 30 years ago, only one in three Americans had tried a bagel.) Even though it’s the bagel that’s Jewish more than lox, the orange fish still has a Jewish air about it, as it’s intrinsically linked to the food with which it is most commonly served.

If recent musings in the Times and elsewhere are any indication, the assumed Jewish connection to cold, salty orange fish isn’t going anywhere. In an era where Jewish leaders are worried that future generations won’t hold on to everything from federations to Israel to kashrut, lox seems safe.

Just don’t tell those young people that what they’re eating might not actually be lox.

Arab Spring, Flotilla Summer

By Adina Rosenthal

‘Tis the season. Flotilla season, that is. Summertime marks a new tradition of groups gathering in boats and sailing to the Gaza Strip, with the alleged aim of providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, though many think the main objective is to test Israel’s resolve by breaking its naval blockade.

Last year, the flotilla made headlines when IDF commandos clashed with Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship sponsored by the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish NGO accused of having links to Hamas and al-Qaida. With nine killed and several injured, including Israeli soldiers, the aftermath of the conflict resulted in an inquisition and finger pointing that has torn holes in the alliance between Israel and Turkey and has given the international community another excuse to vilify Israel. Since the disaster, Israel has added the IHH to its terror watch list.

Keeping with tradition, the “Freedom Flotilla 2” plans to set sail at the end of June. However, there’s something different in the air this summer. World governments and the U.N. are pleading with participants not to sail to Gaza and elicit a showdown with the Israelis, even in the name of humanitarianism. Even more surprisingly, the Mavi Marmara, now seen as a symbol of the Gaza struggle, recently announced it would not be part of this summer’s brigade.

So what gives? Why has “Flotilla: the Sequel” lost the wind in its sails? While the IHH cites damage from last year’s IDF raid as the reason for the Mavi Marmara remaining docked, it’s possible that the overall initiative has lost steam due to the strong winds still lingering from the Arab Spring.

While the Arab Spring didn’t directly hit Israel, its implications have reverberated throughout the Jewish state, particularly from neighboring Egypt and Syria. With Hosni Mubarak pushed out of power and democracy trying to take hold, Egyptians reopened the Rafah Crossing, ending their participation in the four-year blockade of Gaza, which began in response to Hamas’ takeover. The combination of Egypt reopening Rafah and Israel allowing more aid into Gaza seem to have deflated the rhetoric and the apparent urgency of the mission.

In Syria, the Arab Spring uprisings against Bashar al-Assad’s government have spread to the Israeli frontier. After 37 years of quiet on the border, al-Assad allowed thousands of Syrians to protest, perhaps to detract from attention at home. One opposition group—Reform Syria—claimed on their website that the protesters were poor farmers, paid $1,000 by the Syrian regime to protest and promised $10,000 for their families if they were killed. Moreover, the Syrian chaos has spilled into Turkey, with thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing oppression across their shared border.  Perhaps Turkey is trying to hedge its bets, keeping Israel happy by discouraging flotillas as violence encroaches on its borders.

Despite clear differences from last year, flotilla advocates still believe there is work to be done. “While we wholeheartedly welcome the decision of the Egyptian government to regularly operate the Rafah crossing… Israel’s unlawful blockade remains in effect,” said a Greek coordinator of the flotilla. Bülent Yıldırım, head of the İHH stated, “In the past, we went there for Gaza, but now we are going for humanity and the law,” highlighting the flexible rationale behind the flotilla missions.

Clearly, the Arab Spring has shifted the playing field of the flotilla initiative. But what does it mean for Israel?

Despite this year’s more tamed rhetoric and the Mavi Marmara’s lack of participation, Israel has thoroughly prepared for any summer showdowns. According to one Israeli diplomatic official, Israel is “continuing to prepare for the flotilla as usual…We have not heaved a sigh of relief, but are continuing to prepare on all fronts, including the diplomatic front.”  Last year, Israel was arguably unprepared for the violence that ensued. Learning from past mistakes, the IDF has spent weeks preparing, training through simulations geared specifically toward a worst-case flotilla scenario. According to Israel Navy commander, Adm. Eliezer Marom, the Navy “will continue to prevent the arrival of the ‘hate flotilla’ whose only goals are to clash with IDF soldiers, create media provocation and to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

Though the flotilla summer is as full of uncertainties as the Arab Spring, Israel must remain vigilant in securing its safety and protecting its borders. In other words, business as usual.

A Video Game of Biblical Proportions

by Steven Philp

For three days earlier this month, the computer and video game industry madeits annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where the Electronic Entertainment Expo is held each summer.  The excitement promulgated by the expo, where video game heavyweights shows off new games, downloadable content and hardware for the upcoming year, will carry the industry through the next twelve months, causing fanboys and fangirls to save their pennies for the most anticipated products. Highlights from 2011 included the next installments in high-grossing series like Mass Effect, Uncharted, The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, as well as a new high-definition system from Nintendo called Wii U. But amidst all the excitement over high-profile projects, one game being developed by a small game publisher has caused a buzz of biblical proportion. Due to be released under Ignition Entertainment, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron loosely follows the Book of Enoch on a quest that engages with overt Christian and Jewish themes.

The Book of Enoch is an ancient Jewish text traditionally believed to be authored by the eponymous great-grandfather of Noah. Although not included in the Jewish biblical canon–even, surprisingly, in the Jewish Apocrypha, a collection that includes other extraconincal texts such as Jubilees and Sirach–it has survived as part of the Christian tradition. Written in Hebrew, stories like Enoch were largely preserved in the Eastern Christian tradition—in fact, the Book of Enoch is considered part of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox canon—but the influence of some of these works can be seen on rabbinical exposition. In addition, fragments of these texts – such as Enoch – have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first section of the Book of Enoch, from which the video game finds its inspiration, describes the fall of the “watchers,” heavenly guardians who would father the Nephilim with human women – the “b’nei Elohim” mentioned in Genesis 6:1-2 – and illustrates the travels of Enoch.

El Shaddai’s plot follows the journey of Enoch, a man so pure of heart that G-d has tasked him with the salvation of the world. He must redeem humankind from consorting with and worshipping seven angels placed on the earth as guardians. If he fails, G-d will unleash a flood that will destroy mankind. Enoch is accompanied by Lucifel, an archangel who will ultimately betray G-d’s mission and adopt his more infamous pseudonym: Lucifer. The seven angels have crafted individual utopias that span time and space; as a result, swords and magic meet cell phones and motorcycles. The resulting aesthetic is a blend of the modern, the historical, and the fantastic. The protagonist wields a sword to fight sprites and monsters while Lucifel wears designer jeans as he guides Enoch through his battles.

This twist is the result of a contract with several Japanese designers, who were tasked with creating the look and feel of the game. Shane Bettenhausen, director of business at Ignition Entertainment, explained this decision by saying, “These stories, these myths and legends, they used to be part of the oral tradition. For us to take this ancient tale – that a lot of people in the West don’t even know – and reinterpret it is really cool.” Premier among the designers is Takeyasu Sawaki, who is credited with the revolutionary aesthetic of games such as Okami and Devil May Cry. Bettenhausen explained that the designers were given a copy of the Book of Enoch and told to adapt it to a modern audience.

While El Shaddai: Rise of the Metatron is unusual in that it refers to an actual biblical text, narratives that deal with themes of good versus evil or the existence – or non-existence – of divine beings are not uncommon. Games with biblical themes have not always been received as well as their non-Abrahamic counterparts: Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a game that sparked controversy in 2006, was derived from a book series loosely based on the Apocalypse of John (colloquially, the Book of Revelation). The game instructed the player to convert or kill non-Christians; as a result of the ensuing controversy, large game publishers have shied away from overt biblical themes. An exception to this rule was the wildly successful Dante’s Inferno. Produced by Electronic Arts in 2010, this video game is an adaptation of the 14th-century biblically inspired epic by the same name.

When confronted with the possibility of poor sales, Bettenhausen responded positively. “I think when you see this game, there are lot of things about it that might prevent it from reaching a true critical mass audience,” he explained. “The art design is abstract – and that’s by design. The character design is very atypical… There’s a few things that make this left of center. We’re not expecting to get ‘Joe Wal-Mart.’” He continued, “Once the game is out, we may find a few people who are on the fringe who may be upset but having played the game through, I don’t think that will be the case.”

Shuttering Yale’s Center on Anti-Semitism

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Yale University announced yesterday that it is closing its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). According to Thomas Mattia, an official from the university’s Public Affairs office, the center is being closed down because it “was found in its routine faculty review to not have met its academic expectations.”

Faster than you can say ‘anti-Semite,’ Yale’s decision has launched a contentious debate.  Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called it “particularly unfortunate and dismaying” and a victory for anti-Jewish groups.  David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) said it would “create a very regrettable void” in anti-Semitism scholarship.

The trouble seems to stem from a 2010 YIISA conference entitled ‘Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity’ which focused on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.  According to the Jerusalem Post and other Jewish media, unidentified sources said that Yale closed down YIISSA because of pressure from outside groups who wanted to shut down discussions around Muslim anti-Semitism, not because of any academic failures.  Not everyone who made the link between the shuttering of the center were anonymous, however.  Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote a fiery op-ed in the Washington Post decrying Yale’s decision, placing the blame on pressure from Muslim students, activists and others because of the discussion of Muslim anti-Semitism.  “Why did Yale kill the institute?” Reich asks.  “The answer is simple,” he says.  “The conference provoked a firestorm,” and as a result, “Yale administrators and faculty quickly turned on the institute. It was accused of being too critical of the Arab and Iranian anti-Semitism and of being racist and right-wing.”

The left-wing blogosphere has responded by calling the conference “flawed by an ultra-Zionist agenda that compromises its academic integrity.”  While not going so far as to call the conference an exercise in hate-mongering—as a PLO representative to the United States did—many bloggers wrote that by focusing primarily on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, alongside other controversial topics like Jewish self-hatred, the conference became more focused on a certain political, rather than academic, agenda. Yet, like their conservative counterparts, many liberals have also argued against the closing of the center, advocating instead for a change of tone.

The bigger question is: Do we really need another institute that looks at contemporary anti-Semitism?  In the US alone, every major city has a museum dedicated to study of the Holocaust, which often sponsor lectures from professors and others on contemporary anti-Semitism.  Major American Jewish organizations from the ADL to the AJC to the Simon Wiesenthal Center focus significant time and energy on the topic.  Prominent American universities have Jewish studies departments, which tackle current anti-Semitism in academic fora.  A quick Google search will show that there is no shortage of conferences at any of these institutions with titles like “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives” or “Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe.”  And that’s just the United States.  We haven’t even gotten to Israel.

In his op-ed, Reich argues that if Yale stands by its decision, another university should welcome the center onto its own campus, but another conference or lecture hosted at yet another university with experts or activists speaking on contemporary anti-Semitism is not going to put an end to this type of hatred.  In its mission statement YISSA’s director Charles Small called for a center that would “explore [anti-Semitism] in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework from an array of approaches and perspectives as well as regional contexts.”   As important as that kind of forum is, it already exists many times over. It would be a better use of resources to have a center that focuses not on less visible topics rather than the well-worn themes of hatred and anger.  It could look at questions like, what is being done around the world to counter forms of anti-Semitism?  Who are the leaders and activists engaged in that work and what lessons do they have to teach us?  Where are Jewish communities growing and flourishing?  What does that mean for world Jewry?  How do these lessons apply to others?  And so on.   To create a center at a big-name university aimed at fostering those kinds of debates would truly be something different.  Who will be the first to rise to the challenge?

Israel and the Left

by Theodore Samets

In its consistent effort to commoditize political positions as “left” or “right,”“conservative” or “liberal,” much of American media has determined that to be pro-Israel is to be right-wing, to be anti-Israel is left-wing.

It exists even here on InTheMoment, when last week a blogger called CAMERA, a pro-Israel media monitor, “conservative,” without qualifying what she meant by that term. CAMERA itself claims to be “non-partisan.”

This equation of “right equals pro-Israel” is problematic on a number of levels, but each time a writer, pontificator or politician repeats it, it seems to gain ground.

Why is this concerning? Because the people who will be most hurt by making support for Israel a partisan issue are the Israelis; the country whose existence will be threatened is Israel.

Israel has long enjoyed high popularity among the American left, and that should be no less true today. What’s more liberal than supporting gay rights, women’s rights, and democracy in the Middle East? Israel is an environmentally conscious, universal health care-providing, equality-loving nation. Democrats and Republicans alike should be vehement defenders of the Jewish State and passionate believers in the vibrant US-Israel relationship.

Most Democratic politicians understand the importance of standing with Israel. At this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, for example, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said that with any future two-state solution, “Israel’s borders must be defensible and must reflect reality on the ground,” rebutting President Obama’s call for a return to 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps.

Nonetheless, Republicans are occasionally guilty of trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue, such as when the Republican Jewish Coalition exaggerated new Democratic National Committee chair and pro-Israel stalwart Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s minimal ties to JStreet. But some Democrats encourage this effort when they refuse to make clear that they stand with Israel.

When groups like JStreet defend Donna Edwards, a Maryland congresswoman with problematic positions on Israel, when Democrats allow voices that are not pro-Israel to claim that mantle, it hurts Israel, it hurts the Democratic Party, and it hurts the United States. Democratic leaders need to sideline JStreet and its allies and focus on recruiting pro-Israel candidates to run for office; if not, support for Israel will become an ever-more Republican issue, and the media will be correct when they equate pro-Israel with right wing.

We need more members of congress like Eliot Engel and Brad Sherman and fewer like Dennis Kucinich.

Which is not to say that Republicans never voice anti-Israel sentiment; but when they do, the Republican Jewish Coalition condemns it. It’s hard to imagine the RJC’s counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, doing the same thing, given their decision to stand with JStreet, an organization whose destructive policies put Israel’s security at risk.

Democrats need to turn their focus inward: Why is it that the far-left’s animosity toward Israel has found its voice protected by a contingent of the party leadership, when Republicans have successfully silenced much of the isolationist, anti-Israel rhetoric of past leaders like Pat Buchanan?

It’s time for Democrats to tell the president that his pressure on the Israelis to return to peace talks is misplaced; it is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who has avoided the table for the past two and a half years. It’s time for pro-Israel Democrats, who make up the vast majority of the congressional caucus and the party as a whole to do this in the open.

It’s easy to throw punches at your enemies in Washington; it’s much harder to tell a friend that they’re wrong.

If Democrats can’t stand up and do this, the ever-present warnings of the Jewish right – that Jews might start voting for and giving to Republicans in larger numbers – might just come true.

For a whole host of reasons, Jews remain loyal to the Democratic Party, as well they should. Democrats at the core represent the belief in tikkun olam that Jews embrace so strongly. Yet if the Democratic leadership can’t prevent the right from successfully making support for Israel a partisan issue, the loyalty of past generations may not remain.

Holy Foreskin, Batman!

By Adina Rosenthal

There is a new superhero on the block. In true Superman fashion, he spends his days as regular citizen Miles Hastwick, but when trouble is afoot, he transforms into a superhero ready to rescue the public from a pernicious danger that has afflicted society for thousands of years and must be stopped: circumcision. Yes, folks, he’s Foreskin Man. “Aided by his advanced plasma boots,” as his trading card states, Foreskin Man flies above San Diego “to hunt down criminals who cut the genitals of innocent boys.” Along with the trading cards, you can purchase two issues of Foreskin Man, where he protects the foreskins of baby boys from the likes of Dr. Mutilator and Monster Mohel. T-Shirts are also available for both adults and children, so you too can wear the symbol of Foreskin Man, which is similar to a phallic version of The Green Lantern’s logo.

The comic series creator, Matthew Hess, is president of MGMBill, a national organization promoting legislation to criminalize circumcision of boys under 18, such as the controversial anti-circumcision initiative that will appear on the San Francisco ballot this November. Proponents of the bill assert that this is a human rights issue, referring to circumcision as unnecessary mutilation. Those opposed argue that circumcision is not harmful and call the measure unconstitutional, interfering with their First Amendment rights. The law would slap a fine of $1000 or a year in jail to anyone who performs the ritual on boys under 18.  While Jews and Muslims are well-known for circumcising their sons, most families who choose circumcision in the United States do so apart from religious reasons. Though a recent study shows that fewer Americans are circumcising their baby boys than in the past, as of 2010, 80 percent of the American male population is circumcised, and Jews make up no more than 3 percent of the population.

Foreskin Man was created as part of the campaign to ban circumcision through legislation, and has taken the rhetoric to a whole new level and seems to have singled out Jews as the major culprits. Many are calling the comic series overtly anti-Semitic. While the first issue of Foreskin Man raises eyebrows about what the blond-haired, blue-eyed hero meant when he said the pro-circumcision lobby has “all the well connected doctors and lawyers,” the second issue, with its hooked nose, tallis-adorned villain, Monster Mohel, and his henchman, sporting peyos, black hats, and kippot, leave less to the imagination.

In a press release, Nancy J. Appel, the Anti-Defamation League’s Associate Regional Director, blasted the comic for going too far. Appel vilified Foreskin Man for portraying mohels as “rapacious, bloodthirsty, and bent on harming children” and noted similarities with the blood libel, the accusation that Jews ritually murder Christian children for their blood (which apparently gives matzah its flavor).  Appel also makes the final point that “No matter what one’s personal opinions of male circumcision, it is irresponsible to use stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda.”
This charge of anti-Semitism led Jena Troutman of Santa Monica to drop an anti-circumcision proposal for her city. She claims that the initiative has nothing to do with religion, but about “protecting babies from their parents not knowing that circumcision was started in America to end masturbation…You shouldn’t go around cutting up your little babies. Why don’t people [insert expletive here] get that?”

Obviously, the anti-Semitic label is a loaded, hot potato, not to be taken lightly. But is Foreskin Man hate speech, free speech at its ugliest, or simply a humorous social commentary? Where do we draw the line?

When asked if Foreskin Man is anti-Semitic, creator Matthew Hess responded, “A lot of people have said that, but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights.” But some historical comparisons may show that Foreskin Man’s kryptonite is similarities with anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Nazi Germany used comics as propaganda to paint Jews as dishonest, money-grubbing untermenschen (subhumans). For example, the 1940 Nazi film, Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) likened Jews to dirty rats that spread disease throughout the world.  Law enforcement like police and SS-units were required to watch the film in order to desensitize them to the maltreatment of Jews in concentration and extermination camps. The Jews depicted in this movie, as well as other examples of Nazi propaganda against the Jews, looks eerily similar to Monster Mohel.

At the end of the day, Foreskin Man is a strong, Aryan-looking hero who rescues the innocent baby boy from the clutches of the dark, sinister Jew, whose diabolical aim is to “carry out the holy covenant” through circumcision. This comic highlights the classic good versus evil trajectory, leaving little question as to which role the Jew plays.

It’s just not kosher.

Is NPR Anti-Israel?

by Symi Rom-Rymer

It’s practically impossible for a news organization, especially one like NPR, that is considered left-of-center, to cover the Middle East conflict and not to be accused, by someone, of being anti-Israel. A quick Google search shows that people across the spectrum have taken issue with NPR and its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In 2000, CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), a conservative pro-Israel media watchdog group, called the station’s coverage of Israel hostile, adding that it presented Israel as “morally reprehensible.” In May of this year, it criticized the Diane Rehm Show, saying that Rehm “stacked the deck against Israel” in a segment. Of course, it’s not only pro-Israel advocates who take issue with NPR’s Middle East reporting. In 2001, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a liberal media watchdog group, quoted Arab-American media critic Ali Abuminah saying that NPR’s coverage of Israeli attacks on Palestinians was, “cursory, inconsistent and wholly inadequate.”

NPR is no stranger to controversy. In the past year alone, it has been excoriated for firing Juan Williams and for remarks made by the now-former NPR executive Ron Schiller about the Tea Party. Congress, pushed by conservative Republican representatives, recently debated a bill that would eliminate government funding for its programming. All this contention has not escaped the notice of NPR hosts and reporters. In March, on the NPR show “On the Media,” host Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass, of “This American Life,” looked at the charges of liberal bias leveled against NPR by conservative lawmakers and commentators. They broke down certain segments and discussed, with input from self-defined conservative listeners, instances of suspected liberal favoritism.

In addition, Gladstone interviewed three different media analysts who had conducted studies on bias in the news. According Steve Rendal from FAIR, NPR did in fact have a bias: a conservative one. Tim Groseclose, a professor in the Economics and Political Science Department at UCLA, and Jeff Milyo, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, carried out their own study which showed that NPR did, in fact, have a liberal bias, but so did 18 out of the 20 media outlets it evaluated, including The Wall Street Journal.  Finally, Gladstone interviewed Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center. He found that NPR’s coverage was as neutral as or more conservative than other major American news outlets. The results, in other words, were inconclusive.

Although we might think of ideal journalism as a purely objective reporting of the facts, that is simply not the reality. Each individual reporter has his or her own biases, and so does each news organization. It’s impossible not to. These biases come not only from how we see the world as adults but from our experiences growing up. Our ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, our families, our friends, our education–formal and informal–all inform how we see the world.

How each media outlet chooses to handle that subjective reality, however, is a different matter. Seven years ago, NPR, perhaps in response to criticism it received from Jewish and Arab groups, asked John Felton, foreign editor at NPR and former foreign affairs reporter for Congressional Quarterly, to compile annual quarterly reports assessing NPR’s Middle East coverage. Each report breaks down the coverage into various catagories, including Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Voices. One of the most interesting findings in his reports is that while the critics on both sides seems to think that NPR’s coverage is too extreme on one side or the other, Felton feels that NPR does not push the envelope enough. In several reports he mentions that the commentators and analysts invited on various shows represent the milder opinions on the conflict and that a lack of radical views offers a limited picture of the mindset of many in the region.

In the “On the Media” piece, one of Gladstone’s conservative listeners commented that he didn’t so much oppose certain stories themselves, but rather took issue with the tone that was used, especially by some of the journalists. It wasn’t something concrete that he could point to, but rather a general feeling. As Felton points out in his reports, NPR, like many news outlets, occasionally makes mistakes in its coverage. Sometimes it misquotes a casualty figure or poorly translates an interviewee or misrepresents a situation. But on the whole, these actual errors are few. CAMERA, Abuminah, and others are, like Gladstone’s listener, likely reacting to an emotional feeling they get when comparing the broadcasts to their very particular point of view rather than to an objective shortcoming. For them, NPR may never get it right. But at least they’re trying.

 

Andy Samberg’s Semitic Appeal

by Amanda Walgrove

Andy Samberg is one of three geeky brains behind the comedy troupe, The Lonely Island, whose sophomore album, Turtleneck and Chain, was released last month. Along with Akiva Shaffer and Jorma Taccone, the trio is responsible for the hilarious Digital Shorts that interrupt the live performances of SNL. Some have even argued that the videos are the only remaining aspect of the thirty-six year old sketch comedy show still worthy of watching.

Since Samberg emerged on the scene in 2005, his curly hair and prominent nose have made him a Semitic sex symbol for tweens, twentysomethings, and possibly Cougars (Cameron Diaz’s SNL skit said it, not me.) Born David Andrew Samberg, the 32-year-old grew up in a Jewish household and his maternal grandfather, Alfred J. Marrow, served as the executive chair of the American Jewish Congress. Add to that his most charming quality, the one by which he makes a living—his sense of humor—and he’s quite the kugel-eating catch.

In an interview with MSNBC, Samberg noted that he was inspired by funny Jewish forerunners such as Adam Sandler, with his 1993 debut album They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!, along with Mel Brooks and the Marx Brothers. Back in 2008, Samberg told schmooze that he was saturated with Jewish comedy growing up and now, since he considers it family comedy, he tries not to let it inform his own routines: “I’m never laughing when the punch line is something like, ‘Oh, just a couple of Jews!’ To clarify, there’s Jewish comedy and there’s Jewish comedy. If it’s done the right way—it’s funny not just because it’s Jewish, but because it’s really funny—that’s great.”

Executive Producer, Lorne Michaels’ ability to see something valuable in Samberg’s talents prompted him to hire the young stand-up comedian as a cast member, while bringing Shaffer and Taccone onto the writing team. The digital shorts, which the boys produced as side projects without expecting a profit, quickly went viral, and SNL began to reach its young, digitally savvy audience in new ways.

Beginning with their 2009 debut, “Incredibad,” The Lonely Island churned out faux music videos, glorifying the awkwardness of sexual inadequacies and inabilities to impress females. Chock full of parody and self-deprecation, the comedic styling of Samberg and team tug strongly at the Jewish roots of comedy. Their ability to take something conventional, question it and stand it on its head through a satirical filter is the basis of aggadic midrash. Bring musical interludes into the mix and you’ve got yourself a full service.

Boosting their commercial value, the off-beat videos have developed a reputation of being star-studded, boasting surprise guests such as Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Michael Bolton, Rihanna, Susan Sarandon, and T-Pain, who are equally willing to make fools of themselves. Natalie Portman famously satirized her own goody two shoes, Jewish girl image in her video, “Natalie’s Rap,” where her SNL alter-ego dropped a few beats about engaging in criminal activities while at Harvard.

The Lonely Island has parodied rappers, hip-hop songs, Rastafarians, 80’s R&B, “Creeps” (aka John Waters), and E.T. on their debut album cover. While the structure of their creations pays homage to Samberg’s comedic ancestry, the young pop culture sensation has yet to take a direct comedic crack at the Jews—not even a klezmer parody. He’s not looking to overdo the stereotypical Jewish punch line.   Then again, Sandler debuted his acclaimed Hanukkah song on SNL; we trust that Samberg can find his own clever spin, too.

Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

By Steven Philp

It is a common fiction that Jews control Hollywood. Yet there are few more adamant about this misrepresentation—and no one less happy—than Orthodox Jew and conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. According to his new book Primetime Propaganda the producers, writers, and actors based in Los Angeles are, instead, a group of liberals using television to promote a “radical” agenda. Friends counters traditional family values, Happy Days took a stance against American engagement in Viet Nam, and M*A*S*H pushed the merits of pacifism. In an interview with The Independent, Shapiro promises that his book will illustrate how people in the industry have attempted to “shape America in their own leftist image.” The 416-page exposé utilizes interviews with approximately seventy media professionals; this includes what he characterizes as “gotcha” moments, in which those interviewed admit to using television to convey progressive themes. “I was shocked by the openness of the Hollywood crowd when it came to admitting anti-conservative discrimination inside the industry,” Shapiro explained to The Independent. “They weren’t ashamed of it. In fact, some were actually proud of it.”

Among the interviewees is Martha Kauffman—the Jewish co-creator of the critically acclaimed television series Friends—who explained her decision behind casting the sister of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich as the officiate of a same-sex wedding. “When we did the lesbian wedding, we knew there was going to be some flack,” said Kauffman, touching on the prevalence of homophobia in the mid-1990’s. “I have to say, when we cast Candice Gingrich as the minister of that wedding, there was a bit of a ‘fuck you’ in it to the right-wing, directly.” Newt Gingrich has been an outspoken opponent against equal rights for the LGBTQ community; in an interview with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly on November 14, 2008 he illustrated his fear of a “gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us.”

Shapiro is particularly critical of the influence television has had on American children; his vitriol reaches its apex when addressing Sesame Street. He accuses the series—which has received over 100 Emmy Awards—of brainwashing its viewers.  The show premiered in 1969, and featured characters like Oscar the Grouch to teach tolerance when one is faced with “conflicts arising from racial and ethnic diversity.” Shapiro touts his belief that the show has motivated minority groups toward civil disobedience, through its messages of equality and sharing.  “Sesame Street tried to tackle divorce, tackled ‘peaceful conflict resolution’ in the aftermath of 9/11 and had [openly gay actor] Neil Patrick Harris on the show playing the subtly-named fairy shoeperson.” What is intolerable to Shapiro is the series’ message of tolerance, and that it would encourage young Americans to stand up against the injustices of discrimination.

Shapiro admits that the people he interviewed may have been candid with him because they were unfamiliar with his conservative politics. “There was a certain amount of stereotyping on their part in granting the interview,” he explained to The Independent. “Many probably assumed that with a name like Shapiro and a Harvard Law credential, there was no need to Google me: I would have to be a leftist. In Hollywood, talking to a Jew with a Harvard Law baseball cap is like talking to someone wearing an Obama pin.” Shapiro has been critical of the progressive character of the Jewish American community. In an article posted to Townhall, he explained his opinion that Jews who vote for Obama are “Jews in Name Only,” placed in dialectic opposition to the Jewish community. Considering attempts by the Obama administration to push compromise on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and citing its affiliation with “anti-Semitic” government officials, Shapiro expresses his befuddlement that any Jew would vote for or support our current President. He concludes that these Jews must “not care about Israel. Or if they do, they care about it less than abortion, gay marriage and global warming.” For Shapiro only an uncompromising nationalism defines the Jewish people, while placing primacy on human dignity belies “true” Jewish values. Both his unwavering stance on Israel and his McCarthyism are anachronistic; the conclusion that pacifism, tolerance, and diversity are un-American speaks to an era that we have gladly left behind. Shapiro accuses liberal Jews of creating unnecessary divisions within our community, yet by characterizing them as “not authentically Jewish” vis-à-vis their political imperatives, he commits the same crime. Furthermore, by questioning the veracity of their self-identification with Judaism, Shapiro violates the halakhic mores that mandate our respect toward fellow Jews.

It is an imperative laid out in Deuteronomy that we treat strangers with respect, and the impassioned plea of the prophet Isaiah that we grant the widow and orphan kindness. Counter to Shapiro’s ethno-centric conception of Judaism, protecting vulnerable classes is also a Jewish value; that the television industry bears witness to the myriad facets of humankind—and that series like Sesame Street teach our children to accept these differences—even if characterized as a “liberal agenda,” is one that every Jew should be proud to stand behind.

The Emergency Committee for Israel on Obama

by Sophie Taylor

In May, President Obama gave a set of speeches on the Middle East, urging Israelto consider pre-1967 borders in hopes of making progress on the peace process. After Obama’s first speech on the situation in the Middle East, Commentary columnist and Moment contributor Noah Pollak tweeted that he found “Obama’s line on Israel/Palestine borders basically identical to Bush admin” and that there was nothing in Obama’s speech that “Netanyahu will find surprising or even disagreeable.”

Yesterday, however, Pollak’s organization, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), released an anti-Obama ad accusing Obama of having “sided with the Palestinians,” and thanking “members of Congress from both parties” for being “Israel’s true friends.” The 30-second ad, which is set to air on Fox, CNBC, CNN and MSNBC, shows Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) criticizing Obama’s call for a return to the 1967 borders and expressing a need to stand with Israel.

Although the ad makes much of thanking members of “both parties” for their support, releasing an anti-Obama ad as we approach election season feels distinctly partisan, and Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent points out that most Democrats (including those showcased in the ad) are criticizing “a position on Israel that Obama does not hold.”

A spokesman for the National Democratic Jewish Council told Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post that the ECI “is playing a dangerous game by continuing to politicize support for Israel at this critical time,” accusing ECI’s Bill Kristol of “exploiting any confusion [over Obama’s speech] for short term political gain.” (In a recent Moment column, Pollak explains how it is, in fact, liberals who politicized Israel.)

For more from Noah Pollak, read “How Liberals Politicized Israel” and  “The New War Against Israel” in Moment.