From the J-Vault: Censorship & Sensitivity

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Last month, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. Defenders of the law used various (unsuccessful) lines of reasoning, such as arguing that harm to children takes priority over other concerns, and arguing that minors do not have the same free speech rights as adults. None of the law's defenders, however, could be seen explicitly endorsing censorship, or even using the word "censorship".

But that's only because times have changed.

This week, from the J-Vault: Objectionable Films (1915)

This little report from the November 1915 Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities was obviously not particularly noteworthy at the time, but viewed from 2011, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when there was a "National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures".

The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures has just issued a special bulletin to all producers and directors of motion pictures in the United States. This is the first definite step taken by the Board to check the vilification of the Jewish race in the "movies." Acting in co-operation with the Jewish Community (Kehillah) of New York City, Maurice Simmons, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples, has been in constant touch with the National Board of Censorship. The libeling of the Jew in the "films" had assumed alarming proportions and was the subject of complaint all over the country.

Don't you wish we still had a "Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples"? Americans used to be much better at naming things. Also, isn't it quaint to reflect that there used to be a time when Jews were portrayed in "movies" and "films" as falling into a set of stereotypical roles? Oh, wait a minute...

On a more serious note, it may come as a surprise to modern American Jews, who are accustomed to seeing Jewish communal institutions stand generally on the side of civil liberties, that in 1915 Jewish community institutions apparently felt no tension about, or even any need to explain, appealing to the National Board of Censorship.

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On Digital Word Clouds, Ancient Manuscripts, and the Privilege of Living Today

I just stumbled across Sixty-Six Clouds: Visualizing Word Frequency in the Bible, a site that has generated a word cloud for each of the 66 books of the Christian Bible (39 "Old Testament", 27 New Testament).

In case you're unfamiliar with the concept, a word cloud is a computer-generated image of many words of different sizes, which gives you, at a glance, a picture of which words are used most frequently in any given text: a newspaper article, or a political speech, or an author's oeuvre, or -- in this case -- the Word of God. The more frequently a word is used in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud, allowing the viewer an instant and visceral appreciation of word frequency, and, one hopes, some new insight as to the content of the text. Sixty-Six Clouds (henceforth SSC) generated their Biblical word clouds using, a free online service that lets users enter any text to create instant word clouds. For their source text, SSC used the New International Version of the Bible.

I found the Old Testament section of SSC simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. On the fascinating side, it was neat to see prominent themes at play in various books of Tanach represented with such visual simplicity. For example, you can see at a glance that one or the other (or both) of the names "God" and "Lord" (standing for Elo--him and the Tetragrammaton, respectively) tends to dominate each book of Tanach, with the arresting and much-noted exception of Esther. You can also see the prominence of "father" in Genesis, of "Moses" in Exodus, of "offering" in Leviticus and Numbers, and of "land" in Deuteronomy. Less obvious themes also appear: I was surprised to see that "gold" seemed to be just as large in the Exodus word cloud as was the word "Israelites". And the enormous stature of the word "king" in the book of Esther, dwarfing all other words, lends special resonance to the famous midrashic view that instances of the word "king" in the megilla are hidden references to the King of kings, despite the lack of any plain-text reference to God.

On the frustrating end, seeing these images only makes one wish for a similar treatment of the Masoretic Hebrew text itself. For the record, does allow users to create word clouds using Hebrew text, but in quite a useless way. The same verb in different conjugations is counted as two different words. For example, I gave Wordle, in Hebrew, the famous verse Lamentations 5:21, "make us return/repent to you, God, and we will be returned/repented; renew our days as of old," and, sure enough, it created a word cloud that counts "make us return/repent" and "and we will be returned/repented" as different words. Prefixes and suffixes wreak similar havoc, rendering Wordle useless for Hebrew text. (Does  anyone know of some equivalent Israeli site for Hebrew text?)

Despite this limitation, I found SSC to be quite an interesting exercise. It got me thinking: what would Ezra, or the Rambam, or the Vilna Gaon, have thought of this kind of analytical technology and possibility? Would any of them object to the instant gratification factor, or to the surface illusion of instant understanding? Or would they have sanctioned the use of such tools as a supplement to (without being a replacement for) traditional study?

My own view is that, whatever drawbacks there may be to the digital age (and these drawbacks may be real), I feel profoundly blessed to live in it. The BJPA's resources on the topic of technology reveal that the Jewish community is expanding its capacities in many incredible new directions. Read, for example, this exciting glimpse into how the Center for Online Jewish Studies is making high-quality photographs of original ancient manuscripts available to everyone, everywhere. (And check out the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in beautiful photographic reproduction of the original.)

We at the BJPA aim to be part of this exciting and important trend ourselves, making available Jewish policy documents from across a great and growing range of time, space and topic.

Imagine what the great Jewish scholars of the distant past could have done with these tools and resources. If we who live today fail to become the great Jewish scholars of the present and future, it will not be for lack of tech support. This incredible good fortune should give us pause, and inspire us to take advantage of these opportunities.

Luntz on Israel Messaging: Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

Last month on this blog I mulled over the question of how Israel advocates should frame pro-Israel messaging. In that post I quoted extensively from a 2003 report by Republican pollster Frank Luntz: Israel in the Age of Eminem - A Creative Brief for Israel Messaging. Last Friday, an interview with Luntz was published in the Jerusalem Post discussing this very topic.

In the interview, Luntz presents many phenomenal communications guidelines he wishes Israel's leaders would follow. Reading them, I wish American Jewish Israel advocates would follow them as well. Some highlights:


And that is what I see missing from so much of the [Israeli] communication: the essence of empathy. If I believe that you have the right intent, then I will believe that you have the right policy. But if I perceive that the intent is wrong, then I will never trust you...


It is the order of communication that matters... What you say in your first sentence determines how everything else flows. The Israeli communications strategy is to declare a conclusion and then provide the evidence. And I’m asking [the Israelis I’m working with] for exactly the opposite approach: to provide all the evidence and then demonstrate the conclusion...

An example of effective communication: Shimon Peres doesn’t speak like a political scientist. He speaks like a humanitarian. And he speaks in parables that are easily understood and appreciated. And he uses stories that make the information compelling, because no one’s ever heard them before...

Another great line for Israel is to say, “We’re not perfect. Every nation makes mistakes and we have our share. The question you need to ask us is, do we learn from them? And when we learn from them, are we a better people? Are we a better country, having learned from those mistakes?” Once again, Hamas will never admit this...

The No. 1 thing that we recommend is the empathy. Every mom mourns for her child, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim. The loss of any children is the loss of humanity. And so the strongest line there is “Let us work for the day when we will not bury another child.”

I could not agree more with the necessity of demonstrating empathy. One quote in particular, bolded above, is especially interesting to me, and I think it is especially  important. Most people don't pay attention to the fine points of security policy, and I think most people know the limitations of their knowledge about complicated situations. But I think most people also make judgements based on their gut-level readings of who is acting with malicious intent. Too many Israelis, and too many Diaspora Jews, seem to take an emotional stance of defensiveness and hostility towards the world opinion. This only reinforces the image of Israel as a bitter, hostile fringe nation defying world opinion. This may be unfair, but what does that matter? As I said in the June post, it isn't enough to be right.

For more on the importance of the "why" over the "what," see this fascinating speech by Simon Sinek, who opines (at a TED conference) that "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."

All the World's a Sage: Do-It-Yourself Rabbinics

In this world of Wikis and Tweets, of Digging, of Stumbling, of Flickring, YouTubing, and of endless Facebookery, it is no surprise that Jewish text study is getting into the social media game.

To wit: The New Jerusalem Talmud, and the JPS Tagged Tanakh.

The NJT is essentially a discussion forum for hot-button religious, political and other issues. It describes itself as "a set of websites devoted to multi-dimensional presentation and commenting on the world’s biggest controversies... a better-than-wiki resource for you to discover the full and fair view of the most important issues facing our planet." While it does not begin from the traditional text, its format imitates the traditional layout and structure of the Vilna Edition Talmud. The NJT begins each "Daf" ("page") with a "Mishnah" (created by in-house scholars), and then collects input from readers on a blog, vetting and compiling these in order to create a "Gemara", which will eventually (says the NJT website) be printed. (Editorial scholarship that sorts and curates user-generated content makes this process "better-than-wiki", the NJT website states.) "Rashis" on one side of this "Gemara" are notes providing  background, support, documentation and context. "Tosafot" on the other side provide interesting side points and tangents. While the site seems quite new, it will be interesting to see if it manages to live up to its impressive aspirations.

The Tagged Tanakh, a project of the Jewish Publication Society, is also rather new, currently operating in a sort of beta-test. It defines itself as "a collaborative platform... that joins vetted content and user-generated commentary around the Jewish Bible. The words of the Torah create the foundation of this dynamic database. These words can be cross-referenced, annotated, and connected-tagged-to other forms of media, including videos, maps or games." Unlike the New Jerusalem Talmud, the Tagged Tanakh does center primarily on a traditional text. Like the NJT, however, the user-generated content is the main attraction being offered.

This is the feature which differentiates these sites from their counterparts in online Jewish study, and it is what makes them social media. Many sites provide traditional Jewish texts in a user-friendly online format, whether in Hebrew, English translations, or both. But these sites above hope to create new texts  / sources, presumably to be studied later by others. In a sense, the idea is to "democratize" text  study and religious deliberation -- to allow all comers to become, as it were, a Jewish sage.

But both these sites differentiate themselves from other user-driven social media platforms by vetting and curating content. This will (hopefully) prevent digression and co-option, and increase the quality of the product, while maintaining an open door for new ideas.

Is this kind of "democratization" a good thing? I have ambivalent intuitive reactions: positive, because it may cause Jews to become newly interested in Jewish text study; and negative, because there may be a danger that a focus on user-generated content will come at the expense of focus on traditional texts, and because this focus may confirm and legitimize my generation's narcissism.

Daniel Sieradski, an artist and cultural documentarian, would be disappointed in my views on "do-it-yourself-ism". Writing this February in the journal Sh'ma ("A Jew-It-Yourself Mini-Manifesto"), Sieradski wrote:

Through creative interpretation and experimentation, the "Jew-It-Yourself" generation has introduced a reframing of social, cultural, religious, and political views through a series of inter- and extra-institutional initiatives that are slowly transforming the Jewish world, making it accessible and relevant for new generations...Though it sounds selfish, self-indulgent, or narcissistic to some, this radical subjectivity is nevertheless a core tenet of our faith. Rav Kook wrote in HaOrot that "all our endeavors in Torah and scientific studies are only to clarify whatever comprehensible words it is possible to distill from the divine voice that always reverberates in our inner ear."

I am not sure I agree with Sieradski's reading of Rav Kook as endorsing subjectivism; if our studies in Torah, and in science (as Rav Kook mentions) can clarify our inner grasp of deep truths, then perhaps it is because these studies contain processes or content which are authoritative. Either read of this quote is possible, I think.

Writing in the same journal, Rabbi Steven M. Brown outlines a history of technological innovation in text study ("The Text and Technology"), likewise endorsing technological change:

The technology of learning has been changing throughout history, and its impact has been profoundly important in the democratization of learning and the access to knowledge by the masses. The move, for example, from parchment scroll to books was an enormously powerful intellectual change. It physically represented the change from linear, sequential narrative to random access. Rolling a Torah scroll quickly from Genesis to Deuteronomy to check a parallel passage is far more difficult than checking a bound Chumash.

But Rabbi Brown, writing in 1999, is dealing only with new platforms for the delivery of traditional texts, not the creation of new texts for religious study. Indeed, when defending new technologies, part of Rabbi Brown's argument seems to be that new delivery methods need not be feared when, and explicitly because, they do not offer new content: "In an age when the methods of delivery of knowledge and information are rapidly changing, we must not confuse the medium with the message, the technology with the content." It would be interesting to hear how Rabbi Brown's views may have developed today, since social media has so thoroughly transformed the concept of web connectivity from presentation to communication.

Ultimately, despite my reservations about these user-generated content projects, I think they deserve support. The Talmud (you know, the old dusty Babylonian one) says (Pesachim 50b) that a mitzvah performed out of an ulterior motive can come to be performed for the right reasons, in time.

What do you think? Are these user-generated text study tools the greatest innovation since the printing press? Pure narcissism? Both?

South Africa in the Narratives of Public Debate

Today London's The Guardian alleges that Israel negotiated with the government of South Africa in 1975, offering secretly "to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime." Three weeks ago Israel's Yediot Ahronot claimed that South African judge Richard Goldstone (eponymous of the Goldstone Report) "took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century."

These stories have in common an explicit linkage of the powerful historical narrative of South African apartheid to current issues involving the State of Israel: The Guardian claims the newly revealed documents "will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week's nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East" and, furthermore, "will also undermine Israel's attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a 'responsible' power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted." Yediot Ahronot quoted Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as saying: "'The judge who sentenced black people to death... is a man of double standards... Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists, who are not subject to the criteria of international moral norms.'"

Clearly the "news" in these articles is not news because of the historical facts being reported in and of themselves, but rather because of the rhetorical usefulness of the facts for certain opinion-holders on contemporary issues.

The South African narrative has intersected with broader themes relating to world Jewry in countless ways in years and decades past, touching a remarkable number of issues. A few examples (out of hundreds) from the BJPA:
  • Eugene Korn of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs noted in 2007 that liberal Christian churches have used "the model of apartheid South Africa" in seeking to pressure Israel with a divestment campaign.
  • Canadian government official Irwin Cotler, reflecting on the virulently anti-Israel activities of the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, noted with dismay the same rhetorical linkage, observing that "A conference to commemorate the dismantling of South Africa as an apartheid state called for the dismantling of Israel as an apartheid state."
  • Writing in The Reconstructionist in 1999, Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan saw the end of South African apartheid as a model applicable all over the world: "It is my belief that the miracle that has occurred in South Africa over the past few years can give us all a renewed hope that we may yet live to see healing throughout the world."
  • The AJC's Jennifer L. Golub, summarizing issues of antisemitism facing South African Jewry in 1993, found South African Jews in an uncomfortable corner of the black-white struggle, facing various types of hatred and resentment from both white and black gentiles.
  • In 1987, Cherie Brown (also of the AJC) noted that Israel's relations with apartheid South Africa represent one sticking point (among many) for dialogue between American Black and Jewish college students.
What makes the South African narrative such a powerful recurring theme in modern issues relevant to Jewry and Israel? One might answer: moral simplicity. After all, what could be more terrible than apartheid's hateful repression, and what more heroic than the struggle against it? This clear case of right and wrong makes linkage of players in other narratives to the protagonists and antagonists of the apartheid struggle a tidy shorthand for asserting similar moral clarity in other conflicts.

One might also answer, however, that the reason this narrative is invoked by so many sides of so many conflicts lies precisely in its moral complexity. Is genuine reconciliation with former enemies possible? Is it right? Does it work? What does it require of each side? How do diplomatic engagement and diplomatic ostracization affect governments? How much oppression obligates members of a society to rebel against that society using force? Are Jews (seen as and/or perceive themselves to be) insiders or outsiders to power?

How do you think the image of apartheid South Africa functions in current public debates, and for what purposes? Share your thoughts in the comments section.