Outmaneuvered by Two Young Women
For well over a decade, I ran a media relations office in Jerusalem on behalf of Agudath Israel of America. I used to think I did a pretty good job. Not any more.
For the past six weeks, I've been watching from the sidelines as Ronit Peskin and Leah Aharoni have run a multi-pronged response to the well-oiled publicity machine that is Women of the Wall. Despite spotting WoW a 24-year head start, they have managed in that brief period to completely reset the terms of the public debate. And they have done so while raising families and running their own businesses, and without taking a penny in salaries.
A successful campaign to change public opinion today is not a matter of writing op-eds at a stately pace or putting together a documentary of traditional women speaking about what the Kosel means to them – all of which I once did. It is more like a rapid-play chess game. There is no respite. One has to keep changing tactics, in response to shifts on the chessboard. An understanding of modern media and the ability it provides to reach large numbers of people quickly is absolutely essential.
After the Old City was closed down on their behalf, WoW complained that they had been "caged in" at the Kosel. Ronit Peskin countered immediately at the Times of Israel that placed in a "VIP lounge" would be a more accurate description. Peskin was denied entry to that "lounge" to talk to the reporters who were there with WoW.
Aharoni was able to point to videos of herself, Ronit Peskin, and a third member of the group, Jenni Menashe, telling chareidi young men at the Kosel to stay away from the WoW group. One of those videos had already been shown on Israel Channel 2 news and remarked upon by Shmuel Rosner, a prominent Israeli journalist.
Aharoni and Peskin have been able to exploit WoW's "Palestinian problem." Just as the Palestinians consistently present one message in Arabic and quite another in Hebrew, WoW have multiple, and often contradictory messages, depending on the audience they are addressing. At times, they present themselves as seeking to liberate observant women from the patriarchy and expose them to feminist religious practice; other times they are ethereal spiritual beings, deeply moved by the Kosel, and acting well within the bounds of halacha. To raise large sums of money and provide the American Reform movement with a cause around which to rally, WoW must present their worship as the civil rights struggle of our time and raise as much ruckus as possible; at other times, they proclaim their desire to be just be left alone
But contradictory messages can be a problem if someone else is paying close attention to everything you say.
My friend Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel's Director of Public Relations, enjoys recounting the circumstances of his first contact with Rabbi Moshe Sherer. In the wake of the defacement and destruction of a number of bus stops in Jerusalem, Rabbi Shafran, who was then a high school rebbi in the local yeshiva in Providence, penned an op-ed in which he showed through a variety of thought experiments that most people have certain images that they find so profoundly offensive they would destroy them.
The piece came to Rabbi Sherer's attention, and as was his practice, he immediately sent a complimentary note to the young writer commending his imaginative argument. But he appended to that compliment an admonition. He pointed out that Rabbi Shafran had implicitly assumed that chareidim were responsible for the vandalism, as was widely assumed. But that had not been proven, Rabbi Sherer insisted, and should not be conceded.
Later, the wisdom of Rabbi Sherer's caution became clear, when the perpetrators were caught, and turned out to be secular youth seeking to place chareidim in a bad light.
I was reminded of that story last week when Israeli police appeared to have solved a grisly crime. In the summer of 2009, someone attacked a counseling center for teenage homosexuals in Tel Aviv, killing two and injuring 12, three critically. Before the blood had even been wiped from the floor, various media outlets were rife with charges of chareidi culpability. And even those who weren't sure that the actual perpetrators were chareidi, insisted that chareidim bore responsibility because of their incitement against the deviant community.
Well, guess what? The police made arrests last week. And it turns out that the attackers were not motivated by any phobias. Rather they were avenging the victimization of a relative by someone whom they expected to find in the club.
Not exactly according to the script we've been read for the last four years.
Even a Stopped Clock . . .
President Obama is right.
There, I've said it. And I didn't turn into a bag of bones.
Responding last week to a reporter's question about government collection of megadata about the telephone records of every U.S. citizen – e.g., destination and duration of calls -- and of the Internet use of foreign nationals, President Obama admitted that he had come into office with a healthy skepticism about these programs – actually, as a staunch critic would have been more accurate. But after actually learning something about the programs, his assessment was "that they help us prevent terrorist attacks."
We don't have to take President Obama's word for it. Michael Mukasey, Atty.-General under President George W. Bush, pointed to at least one conspiracy to kill and maim New York subway riders thwarted by the monitoring the content of communications abroad.
I know I'd readily trade all my telephone information for being able to keep my belt in the airport, rather than being separated out for a special search because my pants fell down and became "baggy."
Before becoming too gushy about Obama's commonsensical balancing of privacy vs. security in the case at hand, however, I like to add three caveats. First, there would be a lot less concern about the government's collection of data had the IRS scandal not demonstrated that government agencies, with vast information collecting capacity, can be used for partisan purposes.
Second, had the President not spent so much time pretending that the terrorist threat has been significantly lessened on his watch there would be far less discomfort with the thought of the National Security Agency collecting vast amounts of data about citizens.
Finally, I only hope that the President's commonsense has, in fact, prevailed over political correctness. One news site claims that mosques have been excluded from the entire surveillance program, despite a number of terrorist plots have emanated from U.S. mosques. (FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI did not know that the mosque where the Tsarnaev brothers worshipped had been founded by a convicted terrorist (who had been until then treated as a "moderate Muslim voice" by politicians.)
Maybe that's why the algorithms used to connect the dots of all those billions of pieces of data collected did not succeed in flagging the Tsarnaev brothers.
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