Hurricane Sandy


BJPA offices are closed for the storm, but for those of you out of the hurricane's path--or for those of you who are homebound due to the storm but still have electricity and an urge to research the Jewish community--here is some interesting material on Jewish communal disaster management:

Browse BJPA for Emergency Management...

Stay safe.

Post-Irene: Intellectual Looting

I've been a culprit. Most bloggers have. Most of us have been a culprit in the most common post-disaster/mishap crime of opportunity: intellectual looting.

You know how it works. In the wake of some disaster or other, the airwaves, print pages, blogosphere and social media landscape are full of commentators on the rampage -- running hither and yon, eager to get their paws on any aspect of the story that will fit into their pre-existent narratives. Without any regard for sensitivity or dignity, without any regard for the fact that the stories they plunder might belong to Nuance and Complexity rather than to anyone with arms to carry them, the pundits stuff every vignette that isn't nailed down into the pre-fab frames they've been carrying for years -- no matter how ill the fit.

You can always count on Pat Robertson to get into this game. See his response last week to the earthquake damaging the Washington Monument:

It seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say ‘this is one nation under God.’ Now there’s a crack in it... Is that sign from the Lord? ... You judge.

Given his track record, I fully expect to see a story over the next few days in which Robertson comes up with a neat and tidy theological reason that New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachussetts and Vermont got it worse than New York.

But we don't need to wait for future intellectual looters to take advantage of Irene. It began before the storm even arrived.

Rabbi Lazer Brody knew on Friday exactly why the storm was heading for North Carolina:

When Jonah tried to run away from Hashem, he boarded a ship at the Jaffa port. At sea, the ship was tossed and turned by monstrous waves... Hashem doesn't do things at random. Why is hurricane Irene advancing toward the good and decent folks of North Carolina? It's simple - North Carolina has its own Jonah: Jonathan Pollard...

...The USA could save itself billions of impending damage and lives as well by freeing Pollard right now. There's no doubt in my mind or heart that Irene will just disappear if Pollard walks out of Butner.

See? Simple as that. We all bought water and batteries when we should have been staging a prison break. Of course, this Friday revelation to Rabbi Brody was a revision of the Thursday revelation, which explained the geopolitical-meteorological intersection we are witnessing:

In Israel, we have the constant threat of Iran. Now, the USA is being threatened with Irene. "Irene" and "Iran" are spelled with the same letters in Hebrew - aleph, yud, resh, nun. If you scrabble those letters, you get nun-yud-resh-aleph, which means we must fear.

Of course, if you rearrange the English letters in "Lazer Brody" you get "Dry zeal, bro." Also "Led by razor" and "raze by Lord." Is Rabbi Brody's own name a message from the Lord? You judge.

GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann has also been blessed with the gift of prophecy. "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians," spake the Congresswoman. "We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'"

Let us not indulge any fantasy, by the way, that only the religious, or only the politically conservative, play this game. Saturday's New York Times saw this Op-Ed by Frank Bruni, who sagely declared that "Nature hammered home the message that the Dow was sending as well. We had only so much control over our fates, and better hunker down."

Yes, Frank. Tell the families of nearly two dozen who have died that their loved ones have not died in vain -- no, they have died so that capital-N Nature can join the mighty god Dow Jones in endorsing ("hammer[ing] home") your summary judgment of the nation's summertime ills.

Timelines for these news cycles being what they are, I expect to see many more examples of post-Irene intellectual looting before this week is out. I expect to see them from left and from right, and certainly from Jewish communal leaders. Let's watch for them together, shall we? But as we do, let me stipulate that not every use of the storm as an opener to conversation is inappropriate. Sometimes there's a legitimate connection to be made.

For example: during the storm, a lot of Twitter users seemed angry that Fox News published this opinion piece stating that the National Weather Service is unnecessary. They may be right or wrong about the issue, but I must say this: it seems to me that this is a perfectly fair use of the storm to open a policy conversation which is genuinely and unambiguously related. Conversations about under- or over-preparedness in various locations, it seems to me, are likewise natural and necessary.

But for the most part, I fear we are in for an oratorical nightmare in days to come. Hide your anecdotes and lock your rhetorical doors. The intellectual looters are coming.

Tragedy as Fundraising Fodder

The Jewish Week reports on an email AIPAC sent following last week's terrorist attack in Jerusalem, treating the bombing as an opportunity to raise funds. Critics were quick to pounce: Matt Duss of called it "crass". “It is disgraceful," he wrote, "that AIPAC’s first response to this tragedy is to try and monetize it.” Within hours, AIPAC sent an apology, saying that "it was wrong of us to mention this terrible tragedy the same day it occurred in the context of this email."

What, in particular, was wrong with this email? As Steve Lear, founder of the Jewish disaster response organization NECHAMA, told the Journal of Jewish Communal Service in a 2009 interview, "When disaster strikes, people want to help, but they need an avenue by which to do so." Furthermore, it surely can't be the timing; as the Jewish Week notes, American Friends of Magen David Adom and ZAKA both created similar emails mentioning the attack, on the very same day. Was there any outcry related to their fundraising pitches?

The Jewish Week quotes Jeffrey Solomon as explaining the difference thus: "there must be a connection between the mission of the charity and the immediate reaction. … The response is usually to help those affected by the tragedy, and that is the disconnect in this situation.” But is there really a disconnect? Those who disagree with AIPAC may believe that AIPAC's lobbying activity does not provide immediate and vital assistance to the victims of this attack, but I imagine AIPAC and its supporters would say otherwise.

In fact, the text of the offending email itself included this sentence:  "This recent upswing in terror attacks reminds us why it is so important that we work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and help keep our ally Israel safe and secure." The assertion seems to be that the political work AIPAC does is just as necessary to help traumatized Israelis as is medical attention. One may agree or disagree with that assertion, but it is disingenuous to claim that AIPAC is not trying "to help those affected by the tragedy". The only matter of real debate is whether the kind of help they provide is really the kind of help that is necessary, and I doubt anyone's opinion on that question really hinges on the timing of an email.

Imagine a parallel situation: what if it had been J Street who sent out a fundraising letter that day, arguing that this attack makes it ever more urgent to pursue peace? AIPAC supporters would have gone mad criticizing them for crass opportunism, but one can easily imagine that many dovish Jews may have had precisely this reaction to the terrible news. Is there really any basis for declaring one pitch crass and the other vital, other than the observer's pre-existing political beliefs? And if both sides are thinking these "crass" thoughts anyway, are we just asking them to shut up about it? If so, for how long? One day? Two days? What, precisely, is the half-life of "crass"?

As David M. Pollock noted in 2007, Jews have always treated catastrophes as opportunities to build something of greater, transcendent meaning -- whether spiritual projects for the religious, or more earthly and political projects for Zionists, for example. Does good taste and sensitivity demand that our responses to these tragic events must not be controversial or divisive in any way? And if so, are we willing to extend this principle to our own side of these difficult issues, or only to those crass opportunists on the other side?

As always, these points reflect my own musings; the BJPA itself takes no position. But in addition to the two JJCS articles linked above, you can browse other BJPA publications on the topics of Disaster Management and Fundraising.