Ridiculing Israel’s Religious Establishment
On June 12, 2004, NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Richard Ben Cramer on the topic of the latter’s newly released book How Israel Lost: The Four Questions. Though panned by numerous critics who faulted its deceptive depiction of Israel’s security needs, Simon chatted appreciatively with the author, urging him to repeat from his book an anecdote about religious Jews that was evidently apocryphal and meant solely to ridicule the religious establishment in Israel. Having Cramer reproduce his derisive story on air was so important to Simon that, by his own subsequent admission, he overlooked another insult by Cramer, this one directed at American Jews. Responding to listeners’ comments on air a week later, Simon admitted:
I was so intent on getting him to tell his story about Swedish meatballs at a kosher buffet in Tel Aviv, I did not appreciate how listeners could be offended by Mr. Cramer’s observation [that American Jews were “unburdened by fact”] and call on him to qualify it.
What then was the fascinating story that Simon was so intent on publicizing? Cramer’s account of rabbis ignorant of Jewish law being hoodwinked by the food and beverage manager of a Tel Aviv hotel was a caricature of bumbling buffoons. (See June 12 transcript below.). Simon, however, presented it as serious analysis, introducing it as a story to “instruct” the audience on “the question of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and the tension between secular Israelis and religious Israelis.”
(A refutation of the story exposing its fraudulent nature follows the transcript below.)
Questioning Israel’s Legitimacy
Simon did not stop at ridiculing religious Jews. He concluded with a remarkable question posed to the guest that may be a window on NPR attitudes about Israel.
Anticipating that his outrageous question would prompt criticism, Simon nevertheless pressed on, asking: “Is there still a need for the state of Israel?”
Inundated with complaints (critics noted NPR would never have asked such a question about any other country in the world), a week later Simon offered a weasel-worded apology claiming he’d only wanted listeners to hear Ben Cramer’s account of “the circumstances under which Israel became a nation.” He claimed the author had replied saying: “Israel is still necessary so that anyone who is Jewish anywhere in the world has a safe place to avoid persecution.”
Ben Cramer said no such thing; he claimed Israel was necessary because of a “need in the breasts of the people.” Jews, he inisisted have a “national imperative” to experience fear” because without threats to Jews, without the need to protect Jews, then Zionism itself needs a new rationale.” That is, Jews have no actual reason to feel fear, only a psychological need.
The two terror attacks killing 25 Turkish Jews (Instanbul synagogues, Nov 15, 2003), the bombing of the Jewish Cultural Center in Morocco (Casablanca, May 17, 2003), the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue killing 15 (April 11, 2002), the numerous arson and vandal attacks against synagogues and other Jewish institutions in France, Belgium, Canada and England…all of these are evidently no cause for rational fear according to Cramer. (Simon, unsurprisingly, never challenged Cramer.)
Simon too has a long track record of disregard for the facts about Israel’s daunting challenges. In a 1993 broadcast about Jerusalem, he declared that “The Jewish quarter of the Old Walled City was respected but neglected during the years of Jordanian rule.”
This “respectful” policy of Jordan in 1948 and afterward included reducing much of the Jewish quarter to rubble, destroying or desecrating scores of synagogues, burning tens of thousands of religious books, expelling all the Jews and denying them access to their holiest sites.
The NPR host even found in the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin an opportunity for derogatory distortion. In a mean-spirited dissection of the late leader, he wrongly charged that Rabin had called for the breaking of children’s bones, and he referred to the biblical David as a “brute and a bandit.” Simon described the Bible as a chronicle of “cynics, rogues and recovered scoundrels.”
Given Simon’s penchant for sneering at Israel and the Jewish religion, NPR would do well to find another host to cover these subjects.
Host: Scott Simon
This is “Weekend Edition” from NPR News. I’m Scott Simon.
SIMON: Richard Ben Cramer has written a short book that tries to redefine one of the great consuming problems of the past 50 years, a dispute that’s cost thousands of lives and seems to recede even further from any kind of resolution. His new book is “How Israel Lost: The Four Questions,” in which he tries to take up some of the great vexing issues of the past two generations between Israelis, Palestinians and much of the rest of the world. Mr. Cramer is best known for his previous best-sellers that include “What It Takes: The Way to the White House” and “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.” But he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Middle East reporting in 1997 when he covered the region for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Cramer joins us from our studios in New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
RICHARD BEN CRAMER (Author, “The Four Questions”): Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: Let me throw one of your first questions to you right off. Why should Americans care at all about this?
CRAMER: Well, you know, over the years the Israelis have convinced us somehow that they are like us or, even more, that they are us, or standing in for us, a bulwark of democracy and Western values in the Middle East. And what sent me out to do this book was suddenly I got the feeling that maybe they aren’t like us or maybe we don’t want to be like them. So that’s what I went back to find out: What happened? How was it that Israel and the Palestinians were treated in moral equality by big newspapers in America or by the networks? How was it that the story of a suicide bomb would be played exactly equal to the story of what the Israeli army did in the territories?
SIMON: Well, talk a bit about the differences between when you covered the region in the late ’70s and when you return now in the early part of the 21st century.
CRAMER: You know, if I had to sum up what I thought I knew after seven years as a Middle East correspondent, in and out of Israel a hundred times, I would have called it a nice little socialist country with one problem, and the problem being, of course, its relations with the Arab world. But what I found when I went back this time was, number one, the country wasn’t so li ttle. The policies of annexation and settlement had made it a much bigger place, a place of superhighways. Number two, it was no longer a socialist country. While they cast themselves as America’s little buddy, mostly during the Reagan years, they changed over to a very hard-edge capitalist system. And as for the one problem, it seems to have eaten up everything. You know, the conflict, the occupation, the ongoing terror war with the Palestinians has become the–not just the central preoccupation of Israel, but it has become the mission of the state of Israel. And everything about you is really about where do you stand on the conflict, hawk or dove, left wing or right wing. If you’re on the other side, I don’t listen to you about anything, not just about the conflict, but about anything.
SIMON: You take up in this book the question of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and the tension between secular Israelis and religious Israelis.
CRAMER: Yeah, they come in all sizes.
SIMON: Maybe I could get you to instruct us in this, the buffet story.
CRAMER: Oh, God. You know, Israeli readers are very interesting on this book because they don’t tend to argue the facts like the American Jews who are largely unburdened by fact. But the Israelis really love this story. There was a Sabbath buffet at all the big hotels in Tel Aviv. And the way they would operate these buffets, which had to be strictly kosher, of course, was that you would come and present yourself to a hostess, who would ask you ‘Milk or meat?’ and you would have either the milk dishes or the meat dishes and the milk glasses or the meat glasses and everything was according to hora(ph). Well, everybody was happy, and the hotels were making a ton of money until this fellow from Cleveland, a religious tourist from Cleveland, was heard to complain that the steam from the Swedish meatballs was drifting over the hall and landing on his blintzes, befouling them with the steam of meat.
Well, a terrible crisis ensued. And the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv knew that the question would devolve to ‘Is the steam food?’ because the prohibition, of course, is against mixing milk food with meat food. So he had to consult the Council of Torah Sages, and they met and they discussed, and they found the test for what is food. And it is this: If a dog will not eat it, it is not food. So the hotel was commanded to set up the buffet, and a full chafing dish of Swedish meatballs was wheeled from the kitchen. And over this chafing dish a tent was erected and from the top of the tent a tube issued; and then down toward the ground wh ere it–the last couple of feet of it were wrapped with wet washcloths so that the steam would be condensed and it dripped into a bowl on the floor.
And then the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv commanded ‘Bring in the dog.’ And the dog came out of the kitchen doors, sniffed around everywhere. The whole dining room must have smelled to him of food. And soon enough, he wandered over to this bowl of water on the floor. He took a sniff and pursued his sniffing elsewhere. Well, there was great handshaking all around and invitations to come back to the buffet that Saturday, and everybody was thrilled. Of course, what they didn’t know was that my friend, the food and beverage manager at that hotel, had put Pine-Sol in the bottom of the chafing dish. So, of course, the dog sniffed it and walked away. But, you know, they make a lot of–you have to go a long way to live around the kosher laws in Israel.
SIMON: Yeah. You suggest–and ‘suggest’ is too weak a word–that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are epically corrupt and brutal to the point of torture. How do you explain–I’ll just refer to it as Yasser Arafat’s endurance. Maybe I should be careful about a word like ‘popularity.’
CRAMER: Well, you know, Arafat is the key to the status quo, and there are powerful interests on both sides that want the status quo to remain. But when you look at the leadership classes of the two societies, every man among them, in the Arab men, earned his spurs in the conflict, and most of them are running big careers and getting very wealthy in the status quo where the conflict endures.
SIMON: Now you suggest this obtains on both sides, for the most part.
CRAMER: There’s no question it obtains on both sides because every item that a Palestinian in the territories must buy comes from a monopoly which is controlled by Arafat’s cronies. And where do these monopolies get all their stuff? From Israel.
SIMON: You’re eloquent in this book on the subject of the shortcomings, if you please, of Yasser Arafat. You are, if anything, even more fulsome on the subject of Ariel Sharon, who you’ve known for a long time.
CRAMER: Yeah. I have a history with Sharon. He has been in hot water a dozen times. He has presided over the worst massacre in Israel’s history where the–their Christian Lebanese allies went into the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the war in Lebanon in the early 1980s.
SIMON: And was upbraided by parliament for that by a special commission and, I believe, government.
CRAMER: Special national commission. That’s right. Said he could never be defense minister again. So, of course, he didn’t. He got elected prime minister instead. When I was in the siege of Beirut in 1982 and living in the city which was ringed by Israeli guns which pounded the city to smithereens every day, it was horrendous. And I used to tell people as we miserably drank through another night in the cellar–I used to tell people ‘Well, Sharon is finished after this. The Israelis will string him up by his thumbs.’ It was God’s humor to send me back just in time to witness Sharon’s prime ministry, you know? It shows you how wrong I can be about the Middle East.
SIMON: You were a kid who grew up putting coins into little paper slots to plant trees in Israel.
CRAMER: That’s right. We had to bring dimes to plant pine trees in Israel.
SIMON: When the idea of the country was to be a refuge for people who had fled not just the Holocaust, but centuries of oppression.
SIMON: Knowing this question’s going to invite some e-mail, let me throw it to you anyway. Is there still a need for the state of Israel?
CRAMER: I think there is a need, Scott, and the need is in the breasts of the people, where the fear never goes away. It’s almost a national imperative that they fear because without threats to Jews, without the need to pro tect Jews, then Zionism itself needs a new rationale, and that’s more than most countries can think up for themselves.
SIMON: Richard Ben Cramer–his new book, “How Israel Lost: The Four Questions”–thanks very much.
CRAMER: Thank you, Scott.
Cramer claims that a halachic question was raised by a tourist regarding the kashruth of a Sabbath buffet in a large hotel in Tel Aviv, in which both dairy and meat meals were served. (Although not impossible, it would be highly unusual for a kosher hotel to serve both dairy and meat at the same time.) Specifically, the question was raised as to whether the steam of hot meatballs would render dairy blintzes across the room non-kos her. According to Cramer, “a terrible crisis ensued” and the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv personally got involved and consulted with the Council of Torah Sages.
This situation strains credibility, even accepting the highly unlikely premise that the hotel served both meat and dairy meals at the same time in the same place.
1) All kosher hotels are required to have rabbinic supervision, which includes the presence of an onsite kashruth supervisor (mashgiach). It is highly unlikely that if the situation Cramer describes were indeed problematic, it would go undetected and unaddressed by the supervisors until a lone tourist from Cleveland noticed it.
2) The issue raised is a straightforward halachic question of what constitutes a mixture of meat and milk and whether steam or vapor can be considered substantial. This is dealt with in the Jewish Code of Law and does not require the deliberation of the highest rabbinical councils. Questions of kashruth are dealt with by the hotel’s kashruth supervisor or the local religious authorities charged with responsibility over kashruth affairs. They are not dealt with by the chief rabbi or the Council of Torah Sages who rule on policy issues. To suggest that the highest rabbinic authorities were asked to grapple with a simple question of kashruth is akin to having the Supreme Court directly adjudicate a simple legal question, bypassing the local authorities and lower courts.
3) Not only does the concept of meat steam drifting across the room to render a far-away dairy dish non-kosher seem rather implausible, but Cramer’s description of the resolution of the issue is based on false premises—something that could only be contrived by someone who knows nothing about Jewish law or kashruth. The answer to the question raised is determined according to the halachic principles of how taste is imparted.. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the principle of whether something is fit for canine consumption. (That is a completely different theoretical halachic concept. pertaining to the consumption of items, such as medicines, containing non-kosher ingredients.) Cramer’s anecdote mixes up two different halachic concepts that any kashruth authority would be able to differentiate.
5) Finally, Cramer’s description of the actual experiment is preposterous. The halachic determination of whether an item falls under the heading of “unfit for canine consumption” is not based on a farcically staged “experiment” with a single dog, just as any modern day poll would not draw any conclusions based on interviewing only one person.
Scott Simon’s “Correction”, June 19, 2004
NPR, Weekend Edition, June 19, 2004
Host: Scott Simon
SCOTT SIMON: Time now for your letters. We were engulfed with e-mails over our interview last Saturday with Richard Ben Cramer about his book, “How Israel Lost.” Toward the end of that interview, I asked Mr. Cramer, ‘Is there still a need for Israel?’ Many listeners were offended and called the question unfair, illegitimate or simply stupid. Martin J. Giddrone of Salisbury, Maryland, wrote, ‘Substitute the name of any other country and the absurdity will become obvious. The very fact that such an existential question is routinely raised about the Jewish state proves that the fears of its residents, which Mr. Cramer seems to fit to sneer at, are fully justified.’
Jim Bellas of Falls Church, Virginia, wonders, ‘With respect to what other country would you ask such a question? Why not ask why the need for a Palestinian state at all, when there are already 22 other Arab countries in existence?’
I thought the question and Mr. Cramer’s answer might remind people of the circumstances under which Israel became a nation. I regret that the question prevented many listeners from hearing his answer. Richard Ben Cramer said he believes that Israel is still necessary, so that anyone who is Jewish anywhere in the world has a safe place to avoid persecution.
But earlier in that interview, I should have challenged Cramer’s characterization that American Jews are largely unburdened by fact. Seth Witner of Portland, Oregon, writes, ‘NPR listeners know that such a remark, if made about any other segment of the population, would be taboo in an NPR broadcast.’ I was so intent on getting him to tell his story about Swedish meatballs at a kosher buffet in Tel Aviv, I did not appreciate how listeners could be offended by Mr. Cramer’s observation and call on him to qualify it. I apologize for my mistake.