Last Shabbos, we had over a young ba'al teshuva couple for lunch. The wife came to Israel filled with egalitarian zeal, and with the intention of studying in an institution in which men and women learn together, even as "chavrusos." Before the new semester opened, she somehow found her way to the home of a close friend of ours, who teaches at a ba'al teshuva seminar for women.
She lived for three weeks in our friend's home. Over that entire period, our friend did not say one word about the institution where this young woman was planning to study, or even about the egalitarian impulse that lead her there. At the end of the three weeks, the young woman decided that she wanted to learn in the seminary in which her hostess teaches. In my opinion, she realized that she wanted to be someone like our friend one day. (A year later, our friend was her shadchan.)
Our Shabbos guest was not yet fully committed at the end of her three weeks living with a religious family. At her first meeting with the head of the seminary, she told her, "Please, don't try to turn me into an Orthodox Jew." The seminary head replied, "I'll have to hold you back." She was right.
What struck me most about this story was our friend's restraint. Most of us would have felt compelled, even obligated, to show our guest the truth and to explain how wrong-headed her choice of places to study was. Yet if our friend had done so, her guest would have felt compelled to defend her decision. Any attack on the institution would have been perceived as an attack on her, and, as such, fiercely resisted. She would have become personally invested in the decision.
Those who seek to convince others, rather than just win debates, know that it is always better to leave those with whom one is arguing a means of escape. Doing so allows them to feel that they came to the right conclusion of their own accord. If one makes mincemeat of someone with whom one is debating, that person will be left with great resistance to adopting your position.
Avoiding confrontation is almost always a more effective way of achieving the desired result – at least in the long-run. That is particularly true with respect to child-raising. Coercion and fear may provide the illusion of parental victory, especially with younger children. But such victories usually turn out to be pyrrhic ones, and often trigger full-scale rebellion later.
Wise parents learn to choose their battles carefully, with a heavy presumption towards avoidance, especially with teenagers. Turning a blind eye to all the ways that a child is not yet living up to parental hopes is often the best way to help the child eventually reach the desired goal. The fewer negative comments we make the less the child feels "labeled" by his parents, and the less likely he is to use that his parents negative view of him as an excuse for further sliding downhill. The more we make an issue of things the greater chance that a teenager will come to hold onto those issues as a means to assert his emergent individuality.
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schecter tells the following story from Poland nearly a century ago. At that time, there was a certain type of collar that was all the fashion. Though the collars did not raise any halachic questions, wearing them signaled a desire to be "in-style," and often preceded much greater breaks with tradition. A father saw his son had borrowed such a collar from a friend and was trying it on in the mirror.
On his return from his next business trip from Lodz to Warsaw, he presented his son with not one such collar but a dozen. The son testified decades later that from the moment his father handed him the collars, he never again experienced the desire to wear one.
Keeping our mouths shut is one of the most difficult challenges in life. But precisely because it is so difficult is it so well-rewarded, both with regard to ourselves – fewer opportunities to say stupid things and the greater chance to absorb the wisdom of others – and in our role positively influencing others as well.
Martin Peretz is a bright guy, who has many sensible things to say on a variety of topics, and often breaks with the liberal orthodoxy of The New Republic, the magazine he published for decades. He is also an outspoken defender of Israel.
Last week, however, he published two rather vile blog entries urging President Obama not to consider clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. The two blogs consist entirely of imprecations against Pollard – "repellant," "a sleazebag transmogrified into not only a hero but a saint," "a spy, who got paid for his work, [whose] career reeks of infamy and is suffused with depravity." In addition, he asserts, without offering a shred of evidence, that Pollard spied for Pakistan, and charges, quite wrongly as it happens, that the movement for his release has completely eclipsed that for captured soldier Gilad Schalit.
But what really exercises Peretz about Pollard is his supporters, "who originate in the ultra-nationalist and religious right." Give them Pollard, he claims, and these "fanatics" will be arguing the justice of racial discrimination against Israeli Arabs and pressing for suppression of civil liberties." It's a good thing that no chareidi MKs have been at the forefront of the Pollard campaign or Peretz would probably seek his execution.
Peretz does not even address the two major arguments made by those seeking clemency for Pollard. The first is that his sentence of life imprisonment is grossly out of line with those of others convicted of the same offense. The average sentence for those charged with passing information to an ally is seven years, with four years the average time actually served. No spy not charged with treason – which Pollard was not – has ever received a life sentence.
Among those who have urged President Obama to grant clemency are past CIA director James Woolsey and former Senator Dennis DeConcini, who was on the Senate Intelligence Committee when Pollard was arrested and later its chairman. Without denying the seriousness of his offense, both have argued that he has served long enough. DeConcini has publicly said so since 1996. Both men had access to every bit of information about Pollard. Neither are right-wing Israeli settlers.
Former Attorney-General Michael Mukasey has also written President Obama that in view of the fact that Pollard did not intend to harm the United States and passed secrets to a U.S. ally his "life sentence can only be considered utterly disproportionate." An important recent addition to the chorus calling for Pollard's release is Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The latter's secret sentencing memo to Judge Aubrey Robinson is primarily responsible for Jonathan Pollard's life sentence. According to Korb, Weinberger told the judge that information from Pollard had made its way into Soviet hands and cost numerous American agents their lives.
It is now known, however, that it was Aldrich Ames and Richard Hanssen who passed that information to the Soviets. Weinberger admitted in a 2004 interview that the Pollard case had been a relatively minor matter, and did not even mention it in his memoirs. Woolsey has confirmed that none of Pollard's information reached the Soviets.
In the government's sentencing memo designed to make the strongest possible case for a lengthy sentence, the worst alleged about the impact of Pollard's actions is that they harmed relations with Middle East Arab allies and removed America's ability to extract a quid pro quo, in terms of intelligence information, from the Israelis for the information transmitted by Pollard.
To all this, Peretz responds matter-of-factly, "There are multitudes of such miscarriages [of justice] in both the United States and Israel, [and] very few are rectified." Besides, Pollard's crime and "his character even more" merited a stiff sentence. These are all unworthy arguments. Does Peretz mean that no miscarriage of justice should be rectified until all are? Only totalitarian regimes lock people away for life on the basis of deficiencies of "character." Finally, 25 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, would meet the definition of a "stiff sentence" for most people.
Peretz does not even touch the other gross injustice in the Pollard case – the government's violation of its own plea bargain. Pollard agreed to plead guilty and thereby spared the government an expensive and potentially embarrassing trial that would have revealed much about information withheld from Israel. For his plea bargain, the government agreed not to seek a life sentence, to confine itself to the particulars of the crime itself, and to inform the court of Pollard's cooperation. Weinberger's memo was an almost explicit demand for a life sentence, and the government breeched the other two promises as well.
One member of the three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled on Pollard's habeas petition, found that the government's conduct resulted in a "fundamental miscarriage of justice." The other two judges agreed that had Pollard appealed his sentence directly he would have been entitled to a new hearing before a new judge, but found that he had not met the higher standard of a fundamental miscarriage of justice required for collateral attack on a sentence through habeas corpus petitions. And why had he not appealed? Because his attorney failed to file a notice of appeal and apparently wasn't aware that appeal of a sentence was possible. That same attorney also failed to object to Weinberger's inflammatory memo as a breach of the plea bargain or even to ask for time to study it to prepare a response.
Jonathan Pollard continues to excite strong passions more than a quarter of a century after his arrest. I have heard of frum Jews in the intelligence community who will never forgive him for placing all Jews working in security areas under scrutiny. But there is no need to paint him as a paragon of virtue, much less a saint, in order to argue that he has paid in full the price for his actions. Nor does that argument advance any political agenda.
The one thing, however, that no Israeli government should do is to offer concessions to the Americans on fundamental security issues in return for Jonathan Pollard's release. If the government has already decided to respond affirmatively to particular American requests, it is acceptable to seek Pollard's release to sweeten the pot. But matters that affect the short and long-range security of seven million Israelis should not be determined upon the basis of the humanitarian desire to see Jonathan Pollard free.
I say that not to diminish the humanitarian case for Pollard's release, but to emphasize the government's paramount responsibility to judge security matters on their own merits. My conclusion would be exactly the same with respect to the wholly blameless soldier Gilad Schalit, who, contrary to what Peretz believes, remains at the forefront of Israeli consciousness. Most Israeli Jews have enough room in their heart to care deeply about the fate of two fellow Jews at the same time.