Racist Religious Incitement for Purim

The latest issue (1264, February 16-17) of Torah Tidbits includes an article by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora Yeshiva, which discusses the themes of Purim and refers to modern-day Arab nations as “a sea of savages and darkness.”

This is just the latest in a series of unfortunate missteps, some of them involving Rabbi Sprecher, for the 50+-page leaflet/booklet in English about the weekly Torah portion that is distributed to synagogues throughout Israel and published online.

In February 2014, Torah Tidbits published an article by Rabbi Nachman Kahana that advocated the forced transfer of Arabs. Following the publication of a blog post I wrote for The Times of Israel about the article, Rabbi Avi Berman, Executive Director of the Orthodox Union (OU) Israel, wrote, “The article in this past week’s publication appeared as written due to a lapse in the editorial process, which the Orthodox Union and OU Israel regret.”

But later in June 2014, Rabbi Sprecher compared the J Street and Peace Now organizations to the biblical spies in the pages of Torah Tidbits.

…they brought their report to Moshe, Aharon and the entire Israelite community (13:26).” They did this with the intention of demoralizing and weakening the Jewish people, like some of the “Spies” of today (Peace Now and J Street). 

A month later, Rabbi Sprecher used the pages of Torah Tidbits to explain his theological rationale for why Arabs should be thought of as and labeled “savages” (his recent article obviously isn’t the first time he has pursued this line of thought and isn’t an accident, or a case of misspeaking).

Towards the end of 2014, Torah Tidbits editor Phil Chernofsky explicitly compared Arabs to Eisav and Amalek, the nation that the Biblical Nation of Israel was commanded to eradicate:

The question is who behaves like Eisav towards Yaakov, and who behaves like Amalek (Eisav’s grandson) towards Israel…we need to examine our situation in Israel vis-à-vis the Arabs who live in Israel, the Arabs who live in Gaza and other locations in Israel that have not been incorporated into the State of Israel, and the Arabs of neighboring countries.

Following this dangerous comparison, Chernofsky’s editorial ended rather ambiguously and ominously (the bold text is my emphasis):

we must see the truth of the HALACHA HI B’YADU’A that Eisav hates Yaakov. We must protect ourselves, and a lot more.

After I blogged about Chernofsky’s piece for The Times of Israel, he responded by noting “that OU Israel and Torah Tidbits do not endorse the political or halachic positions of its editor, columnists, or advertisers.”

He also attempted to distance the OU and OU Israel from the article by noting they hadn’t seen it in advance. This is a strange stance, considering Chernofsky identified himself in his response as “Educational Director of the OU Israel Center.” Also, both of those organizations’ names regularly appear on one of the front pages of Torah Tidbits editions, and TT is produced out of the OU Israel building in Jerusalem.

(It’s only fair to note that Chernofsky also claimed his article wasn’t racist or inciteful, but rather accurate).

In the latest example of anti-Arab racism, Rabbi Sprecher used last Shabbat’s installment of Torah Tidbits to include bigotry in his article about Purim. Here is his quote in full:

Israel is an oasis of goodness and light surrounded by a sea of savages and darkness. We shall persevere despite all of our enemies’ intention to destroy us because “the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (T’hilim 121:4).

“We” are apparently only good and light, per Rabbi Sprecher’s article; “they” are solely evil and sub-human (“savages”). His article is devoid of any nuance. There was zero attempt to find even a shred of humanity in “the other.”

Interestingly, Rabbi Sprecher’s article was reviewed by an editor, because it contains an “Ed. note.” No, not about its inflammatory reference to Arabs, but instead about whether a cited comment by the Rambam should be taken literally or not.

This latest edition of Torah Tidbits, like many previous ones, contains a note that Torah Tidbits is partially funded by a grant from Israel’s Ministry of Education. And as usual it contains an article from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who wrote a good book about tackling religious extremism.

When will the Orthodox Union and OU Israel finally tackle the problem of incitement and bigotry within the pages of Torah Tidbits? Will a proper supervisory structure be set up by these organizations to prevent future problems?

I hope this is my last blog post about incitement and bigotry in Torah Tidbits, but given the history, I can’t say I’m particularly optimistic…

About the Author
Eric Danis lives in Modi'in, Israel with his wife and three cute kids. Whenever possible, he tries to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about Israel and Judaism.
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