Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What is the Clarion Fund? - Extreme Right-Wing Zionist Front Smeared Muslims & Obama to Boost Votes for McCain

Edited by Alex Constantine

Note: The topic here is right-wing (blindly nationalistic, pugnacious, deceitful) extremism, not religion. "Zionist" does not necessarily mean "Jewish," because many right-wing Zionists are Christians (eg. loony TV minister John Hagee), and all relevant criticism applies equally to them. - AC

" ... the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a complaint against the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit organization that distributed an anti-Muslim film to 28 million households in swing states." — OMB Watch

CAIR Filed an IRS Complaint Against Clarion Fund for Anti-Muslim Film
November 06, 2008

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed an IRS complaint on Sept. 30 against the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit organization that distributed an anti-Muslim film to 28 million households in swing states during the presidential election season. The DVD, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West," was distributed in papers in at least 10 states.

CAIR wrote to Steven T. Miller, commissioner of the IRS's Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, that, "[I]ndependent observers have suggested that the distribution of the DVD was an obvious attempt by the Clarion Fund to participate in campaign activities and intervene in the 2008 presidential election."

According to a CAIR press release quoting the Springfield News-Leader, "Those interviewed in "Obsession" constitute a veritable who's who of Muslim-bashers. Speakers include Walid Shoebat, who once told a Missouri newspaper that he sees 'many parallels between the Antichrist and Islam' and 'Islam is not the religion of God -- Islam is the devil'."

Clarion Fund Puts Lipstick on Terrorism Pig Documentary

Who is the "Clarion Fund" and why is it paying for placing 28 million copies of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West DVD's in swing state newspapers?

The Clarion Fund, who's website only identifies the group as "a 501(c)(3) organization. We are independent and do not accept funding from the U.S. Government, political institutions, or foreign organizations." It does not identify who it's board of directors are, but says it's "mission is to educate Americans about issues of national security." Their focus "is on the most urgent threat of radical Islam. By utilizing the following three mediums, Clarion Fund is helping Americans understand that the mainstream media is not adequately conveying the reality of radical Islam."

Through some web digging, I was able to identify three players, Raphael Shore who is a Canadian citizen who is the producer/co-writer of the film and founder of the Clarion Fund, Wayne Kopping, a South African national, the director and co-writer and Gregory Ross, who is the communications director of this New York based non-profit group. Ross was "originally from Los Angeles and have lived overseas for many years. I moved back to LA from New York after 9-11, and a stint on Wall Street, and started working in the Hollywood Entertainment community." Ross does not disclose how the film was produced, but is quoted as saying "The film was financed by a concerned citizen who has a long standing relationship with our organization. The cost was under $500k and it took over a year to complete." Something about this group doesn't pass the smell test, particularly when no information is available about its donors and board of directors.

Maybe most concerning about this film is that, according to Ross "I know that the U.S. Department of the Navy uses the film and that it has also been shown on Capitol Hill on many occasions in order to education politicians. We have also screened it at countless universities and colleges. However we are unsure as to if it is being used in their curriculums – we certainly hope it is." A film that

By law, 501(c)(3) organizations are not permitted to engage in political activity, endorse or oppose political candidates, or donate money or time to political campaigns, so it was surprising to learn that there was an article on the group's new Web site, www.radicalislam.org, that backed Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The article discussed both candidates and concludes:
"McCain's policies seek to confront radical Islamic extremism and terrorism and roll it back while [Barack] Obama's, although intending to do the same, could in fact make the situation facing the West even worse."

According to Clarion Fund director of communications Gregory Ross, the article "crossed the line" and was removed.

Gregory Ross also said in an interview with Frontpage magazine, a right-wing online publication, "we are just a few weeks from [completing] our next documentary, The Third Jihad - though it is not a sequel. This new film will take a look at radical Islam’s activities here in the U.S. We should be releasing the film in early October. So stay tuned."

Stay tuned indeed, as this group tries to scare voters with their own form of psychological terrorism.
Aish HaTorah

Muslim group asks IRS to investigate 'Obsession' DVDs

By Ashley Gipson, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has urged the IRS to investigate the distribution of more than 20 million "anti-Muslim" DVDs. ...

An investigative report from the St. Petersburg Times tied the Clarion Fund to the Israel-based group Aish HaTorah. The report claimed that the Clarion Fund's address was the same as that of the fundraising arm of Aish HaTorah. The group that produced the film, HonestReporting, had the same address on its 2006 tax return.

Aish HaTorah has also posted a link to the controversial film on its website.

" ... Aish HaTorah denies any direct connection to the film ... "

Senders of Islam movie 'Obsession' tied to Jewish charity

By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
September 26, 2008

... There are a number of connections between the Clarion Fund and a well-known organization called Aish HaTorah, an international charity founded in Israel in the 1970s.

Ronn Torossian, spokesman for Aish HaTorah, said that his group would in "no way be involved with Clarion Fund or Obsession because Aish HaTorah is a charity and must remain apolitical."

Ross, the Clarion spokesman, was listed as an Aish HaTorah international fundraiser on a federal election donation form in June 2007.

Elke Bronstein is the name written on the mail permit for the bulk mailing of Obsession DVDs in mid September from Freeport, N.Y. Reached on her cell phone, Bronstein said she worked for Clarion, but would not provide more information.

The receptionist at Aish HaTorah in New York said Bronstein worked for Aish Discovery, which produces high-tech programs and films for Aish HaTorah. Torossian said Bronstein could easily have separate jobs.

"What? You're going to find four, five or six people who work for Clarion and Aish and claim a worldwide conspiracy? I don't think so," he said.

Clarion's address, according to Manhattan directory assistance, is the same address as Aish HaTorah International, a fundraising arm of Aish HaTorah. The Clarion Fund and Aish HaTorah International are also connected to a group called HonestReporting, which produced Obsession. Honest Reporting's 2006 tax return uses the same address.

"It's news to me," Torossian said.

Two of the three Clarion Fund directors at the time of its incorporation in November 2006 appeared as Aish employees on Aish Web sites at the same time. The third appeared on the Aish executive committee. Torossian said the overlap meant nothing.

Aish HaTorah's main purpose is to "broaden the knowledge of individuals to their Jewish heritage." Barbara Walters, Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton have praised the charity.

A June 15, 2001, article in the Jerusalem Post said that Aish HaTorah provided $150,000 in "seed money" to create an organization called Media Watch International that took over HonestReporting, the group that made Obsession four years later.

"This is true," said Torossian, "but that association ended" before Obsession was made.

The Aish Web site offers information on Jewish heritage and religious issues, as well as links to numerous videos on Mideast politics. One of the links is to Obsession.

"Aish also tells about a woman meeting Paul McCartney. Does that mean we're connected to him?" Torossian asked.

Washington tax attorney Marc Owens, who was IRS director of the Exempt Organizations Division for 10 years, says that if IRS investigates and finds a link between the film and Aish, it will ask: Was the film designed or distributed to have an impact on the election? Is this film an inflammatory hate message instead of a charitable, educational message?

"If the answer is 'yes' to either question," said Owens, "the involved charities could lose their tax-exempt status."

Despite a disclaimer by the filmmakers that Obsession does not represent all Muslims, the 2005 film has been criticized for unfairly portraying the religion as violent.

In the film, men in traditional Middle Eastern dress burn an American flag. The planes fly into the twin towers. Peaceful scenes of Muslims at market and prayer are interspersed with violent scenes and commentators critical of Islam.

Clarion disputes there is any political motivation for distributing the film now. However, about a week ago, a Clarion Web site linked the film to the presidential candidates.

"McCain's policies seek to confront radical Islamic extremism and terrorism and roll it back while Obama's, although intending to do the same, could make it worse," said the site. This statement was later removed.

"We are not telling people who to vote for," Ross, the Clarion spokesman, said in an Associated Press story. "We're just saying no matter who gets in office, the American people should know radical Islam is a real threat to America."

It is not clear who paid for the extensive mailing of the DVD from Freeport, N.Y. The permit number belongs to Clarion Fund, but Clarion Fund had no money in its bulk-mail account, according to postal administrators.

"The bulk mailing of this was made possible by a third party, other than Clarion," said U.S. Postal Inspector Debbie Waller. "We're looking into it."

Jeffrey Goldberg at Jewish Journal on Aish HaTorah: "Ronn Torossian, who represents Aish ... last made the news when he employed sock-puppetry in defense of one of his many indefensible clients, Agriprocessors, Inc., the Luvavitch-owned kosher slaughterhouse that treats its employees nearly as badly as it treats its animals, which is saying something, because Agriprocessor slaughterers have been filmed ripping out the tracheas of living cattle.

But I digress. It’s said of Ronn Torossian that he represents “right-wing” Israeli politicians, but this description does not do his clients justice. “Right-wing” is Bibi Netanyahu. Torossian represents the lunatic fringe. Several years ago, in one of my only encounters with him, he introduced me to Benny Elon, a rabbi and settler leader who was then Israel’s tourism minister, and who, at various points in his career, has more or less advocated the ethnic cleansing of Israel of its Arab citizens. At one point, when Elon had gone to take a telephone call, Torossian and I started talking about Israel’s right to reprisal for terrorist attacks. I was arguing in favor of some sort of proportionality (this was after Jenin, in which the Israeli army chose to root out terrorism block by block rather than bomb the city from the air) but Torossian interrupted: “I think we should kill a hundred Arabs or a thousand Arabs for every one Jew they kill.” I was somewhat taken aback, of course, because this is a Nazi idea, rather than a Jewish idea. I asked him to explicate: “If someone from a town blows himself up and kills Jews, we should wipe out the town he’s from, kill them all. The Israelis are suckers. They should have destroyed Jenin.” He went on like this for some time. I would only note that Torossian, to the best of my knowledge, never volunteered for the Israeli army, so he seemed to me by definition a chickenhawk.

Torossian’s attitude toward Arabs and toward the peace process are echoed in the approach of Aish HaTorah, which is just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today. Its operatives flourish in the radical belt of Jewish settlements just south of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, and their outposts across the world propagandize on behalf of a particularly sterile, sexist and revanchist brand of Judaism. Which is amusing, of course, because “Obsession” is meant to expose a particularly sterile, sexist and racist brand of Islam.

The tragedy of “Obsession” is not that it is wrong; the tragedy is that it takes a serious issue, and a serious threat—that of Islamism—and makes it into a cartoon. Its central argument is that the “Islamofascism” of today is not only the equivalent of Nazism, but worse than Nazism. This is quite a thing for a Jewish organization to argue. One of the featured speakers in “Obsession” is a self-described “former PLO terrorist” named Walid Shoebat, who argues on film that a “secular dogma like Nazism is less dangerous than Islamofascism is today.”

This is lunacy, of course. Islamism isn’t Nazism. It’s bad enough without being labeled Nazism. Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Churchill, shows up in the film as well, and doesn’t cover himself in glory: “History has an unfortunate habit of always repeating itself,” he says. Always? Does this mean that the Arabs are right now constructing death camps for the Jewish citizens of Israel?

Just unbelievable, but the most unbelievable part of the “Obsession” campaign is its timing: What does this film have to do with Barack Obama? The film is meant to suggest that Obama will provide aid and comfort to Islamism, or is an Islamist himself. There is not one shred of proof on this planet that Barack Obama is anything other than an Israel-supporting Christian. Yes, he went to party with Rashid Khalidi. So did I. Does that make me a member of Hezbollah?
Jewish Right Woos Left

From: "Playing with fire: Are young, thinking Jews being targeted by a new Jewish fundamentalism?" Clifford Singer investigates

... The breezy prose on Aish's website, with its tales of personal growth and acts of kindness, suggests an organisation that is liberal and broadminded, with a dash of Californian self-help therapy. But the values that guide Aish are not those of Liberal, Reform, or even Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its credo is that of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi movement. Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah) insists on the inerrant truth of the Bible, which it believes was dictated by God to Moses.

However, Aish differs from traditional Haredi groups in three ways. Firstly, its outreach work, which aims to convert secular Jews to Orthodoxy, is its overriding priority, not merely a spin-off. Orthodox converts – or ba'alei teshuvah (those who have repented) – make up most of its membership, and its yeshiva programs combine traditional Talmudic studies with intensive training in outreach and leadership skills.

Secondly, it has hitched its social conservatism to an aggressively neoconservative stance on the Middle East. Its donors and well-wishers may include liberals and conservatives, but the political voices on its website extend from the right to the far right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, Natan Sharansky, Melanie Phillips and Charles Krauthammer.

Third, it advocates a 'one step at a time' approach to Judaism, allowing members to develop their observance at their own pace. For Aish, this is testimony to its openness and tolerance, and it has certainly succeeded in attracting those who would be otherwise repelled by the 'black hat brigade'. But critics say Aish uses this approach to hide its true aims from prospective recruits. Aish's outreach work is focused mainly on the under-30s, who it attracts with slick advertising and hip graphics that give little hint of its ultra-Orthodox agenda. Some parents have accused it of having a cult-like influence on their children.

How has Aish overcome such controversy to become a multi-million dollar operation, occupying a prominent place in Jewish life? The organisation began life as a small yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1974, founded by US-born Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Weinberg came from a non-Hasidic tradition – known as Lithuanian Judaism or Mitnagdim – but was influenced by the success of the Hasidic Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who pioneered Orthodox outreach in the 1960s.

Schneerson was part of a generation of Orthodox Jews that had fled to the US to escape the Holocaust. At first, the community was inward-looking, keen to insulate itself from the 'treyf' (unkosher) state that was now its home. But as it grew in confidence, Schneerson's followers began to recruit among other Jews. At the same time, there was increasing concern among Jewish leaders over out-marriage and assimilation rates. By the late 1960s approximately one in six US Jews were marrying non-Jews, a three-fold increase on the previous decade. And many Jews were leaving the community, in some cases to join new religious movements like Hare Krishna and the Unification Church (Moonies), which had disproportionately high Jewish memberships.

For some Jews influenced by the counterculture, Schneerson's Hasidism, imbued with celebration and mysticism, provided an alluring alternative to the dreary ritual of mainstream Judaism. Others took their spiritual search to Israel, where they found a welcome in institutions such as those run by the charismatic Weinberg. Four years before founding Aish HaTorah, Weinberg had established the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, which was also dedicated to kiruv (orthodox outreach). But his split from Ohr Somayach heralded a more far-reaching vision. Adam Ferziger, Fellow in Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University, writes:

Ohr Somayach felt that success was determined by whether a newly observant student dedicated himself to a life of learning. Rabbi Weinberg, in contrast, hoped that once a student had adjusted to religious life, he would either become a kiruv worker or join the secular workforce. Through his interaction with other Jews, he would have the ability to help the weakly affiliated become observant.

Aish Hatorah has developed an entire ideology and system of outreach. In order to make sure that its approach is properly implemented, its leaders foster an 'Aish culture' among their students, who are viewed as the future of the institution. It is, indeed, this 'Aish culture' that is the most distinctive characteristic of Aish Hatorah’s Rabbinical Ordination/Leadership Program (ROLP). Even the more traditional classes on subjects such as Talmud and Jewish legal codes focus on that which one needs to know in order to become an effective outreach rabbi.

Ferziger adds:

A particularly unique aspect of ROLP is the significant amount of time spent training the students to deal with questions that they will be asked when they are out in the field. The students practice simulation games in which they debate their position against rabbis who assume the roles of non-affiliated Jews, reform rabbis, potential donors, and so on.[2]

Underlying Weinberg's zeal is his belief that 'if 20,000 Jewish kids were being killed each year, you'd be jolted into action and launch a movement to save them. Today, we're losing 20,000 Jewish kids each year through assimilation.' [3] Aish rabbi Daniel Mechanic is even blunter: 'The Jewish people are currently experiencing a spiritual Holocaust. That is why Aish HaTorah stands at the front of the battle against rampant assimilation and intermarriage.' [4]

The Aish armoury of tools to reach the uninitiated includes: Discovery seminars (one-day crash courses offering 'scientific' proof of the Torah's divine origins), Shabbatonim (Friday night discussions hosted by a rabbi), subsidised trips abroad (destinations include Israel, Australia and South Africa), and the Aish website (www.aish.com) translated into five languages.

The organisation tailors its message to niche audiences. Its New York website has the slogan 'Adventures in urban Judaism' and is full of attractive, clean-cut twentysomethings who look like a Gap advert. The UK site uses rave-type graphics and music to advertise its summer trips, entitled 'Ozzy Hip Hop', 'Israeli Trance' and 'New York Vibe'. 'Israeli Trance' promises white-water rafting, quad biking and beach barbecues along with an opportunity to 'thrash out' major issues such as 'Judaism meets science', 'Does God exist?' and 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'

Aish Los Angeles targets 18-22 year olds with a $99 'Paradise Adventure Tour' to Costa Rica. It is a tempting offer but the devil is in the small print: 'This program is heavily subsidized. Participants agree to participate fully in all events and activities on the schedule to receive the advertised price... Failure to attend may result in the participant forfeiting his or her subsidy for that day (up to $250 per day).'

Like the evangelical Protestant Alpha Course and Catholic Opus Dei, Aish has a particular penchant for the young and affluent, and restricts many of its activities to 'YJPs' – Young Jewish Professionals. New Yorkers can join the Aish MBA Community, a 'group of Jewish business leaders and students who are exploring their heritage while advancing their business acumen,' while London professionals can attend Aish in the City lunchtime meetings, hosted by media and telecoms corporation IDT.

Aish also offers an Executive Learning Program, providing personal tuition by a rabbi. Participants have included corporate executives and Hollywood stars. 'Learning one-on-one with a rabbi is what's "in" these days in the States,' Rabbi Ephraim Shore, a former Aish HaTorah executive director, told Ma'ariv in 2000. 'Celebrities will come, learn for an hour a week and then visit Israel – and they become our international ambassadors. Some may donate to Aish HaTorah and help the organisation with forming further contacts.' [5]

Following a flattering full-page profile of Aish in the Jewish Chronicle in 2003, one mother wrote to complain: 'Aish prides itself on being dedicated to preventing intermarriage, something which I uphold. What I do not uphold is the way in which it attracts young Jewish men and women to take part in a cheap holiday and then, little by little, as they attend their events and educational study groups they become "Aished". My son did exactly that... Aish has completely changed his life and mine.'

She added: 'I agree with [Aish UK joint executive director] Rabbi Schiff that "God would prefer 50,000 proud Jews" to "50 frum [religious] Jews". My son was a proud Jew and has now become a frum Jew. Many would applaud that, but not me. His life is ruled purely by the Torah. He will not eat in my house and adheres to every single mitzvah.'

Another parent wrote: 'Despite Aish’s modern marketing methods, and what Rabbi Schiff claims... in reality Aish has no regard for the 21st century. It takes people born Jewish and turns them into extreme Jews, with no thought for their families. Aish would argue that its mission is to stop assimilation, but the reality is that it creates fanatical Jews, with little regard for the fallout effect.'

Similar views are expressed by a mother on Rick Ross's cult-watch website: 'Although I am resigned to my son choosing a very different lifestyle than mine, I feel it is a loss. My child can never travel with me, eat in my home – or really be a part of the rest of our family and friends. The hardest part is now I know that this is not what my son actually planned for himself, but rather the direct result of how he was influenced through what began as a vacation trip to Israel.' [6]

In his 2002 paper for the Jewish Journal of Sociology, Aaron Tapper concluded that Aish exhibited each of the characteristics of a new religious movement (a term he preferred to 'cult'). He defined these characteristics as:

a charismatic leader; submission to authority; a rigid ideology, including a fundamentalist approach to theology; a promotion of apocalyptic beliefs; a communal lifestyle; isolation from one's family; hate and/or fear of outsiders; active missionary work, including attempts to convert outsiders to its way of religious life; an an excessive focus on fundraising.

Noting the contrast between the organisation's public and private face he added:

Aish HaTorah is much more open and candid about its ultra-Orthodox perspective in the environment of its yeshiva, whereas in other venues – such as in its outreach centers and the programmes offered there – Aish HaTorah advertises itself as a pluralistic, all-inclusive environment.[7]

In Aish's defence, many former members testify to having benefited from their time in the organisation, and Tapper possibly overstates his case when he compares the Unification Church's strategy of 'love-bombing' (enveloping recruits in feigned love) to the 'extremely warm environment, in both [Aish's] outreach centers and its yeshiva'. However, Tapper should be commended for asking the right questions when so few others have. Mainstream Jewish institutions and media outlets have fawned over Aish HaTorah while failing to offer any scrutiny of its outreach methods. Even if Aish's activities have divided only a minority of families, that is a troubling record for a 'pro-family' organisation, and at the very least community newspapers like the Jewish Chronicle have a responsibility to follow their readers' concerns.

One reason Aish is given such an easy ride is that many Jews share its obsession with 'marrying out'. Even the mother who despaired of her son's transformation felt compelled to preface her letter by proclaiming her opposition to intermarriage.

But there are cracks in the veneer. While Aish has made great use of the internet, so have its critics. At Ba'al Teshuvas Anonymous (www.offthederech.blogspot.com), former members discuss the kiruv movement, where, in the words of the site's editor, 'the ends justify the means'. One contributor writes: 'Ohr Somayach and Aish have really bad reputations not just because the world is anti-fundamentalist but because many of us who spent time in their hallowed halls have told our survivor tales to the world.'

Contributors are particularly critical of Aish's claim that the Bible contains hidden, divinely-inspired codes. This notion forms the centerpiece of its Discovery seminars, which use 'scientific methods of research to explore the authenticity of Judaism and its relevance today'. Aish claims more than 200,000 people have attended the seminars, and guest hosts have included actors Ed Asner, Kirk Douglas and Elliot Gould. Ominously, the seminars employ a system called Failsafe, 'based on analytical techniques used by the Mossad'.

In 1994, the respected journal Statistical Science published research by three Israelis, Doron Witztum, Eliayahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg, which appeared to show that the names and dates of birth or death of important Medieval rabbis were encoded in the Hebrew text of Genesis. They used specially written computer software to look for equidistant letter sequences, in which words are formed by taking, say, every 50th letter within a certain passage. The theory was championed by Harold Gans, a former US Defence Department cryptologist and Aish lecturer, who claimed to have found evidence of other codes.

Aish had no doubt about the significance of these findings. Its Discovery blurb states: 'The Torah Codes definitely exist. They foretell names and places of events throughout human history: Holocaust, Sadat, AIDS. Torah Codes cannot tell us information we don't already know. But what they do tell us is that the author of the Torah knew minute details of world history, to our very age.' [8]

Unfortunately for Aish, most experts thought otherwise. Mathematicians Dror Bar-Natan and Brendan McKay uncovered similar 'codes' in War and Peace and Moby Dick. They later co-authored with Maya Bar-Hillel and Gil Kalai a detailed refutation in Statistical Science, and were among more than 50 mathematicians and statisticians who signed a public statement that declared: 'The almost unanimous opinion of those in the scientific world who have studied the question is that the theory is without foundation. The signatories to this letter have themselves examined the evidence and found it entirely unconvincing.' [9]

Meanwhile, Menachem Cohen, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, rejected the theorists' textual reading of the Bible.[10] And Barry Simon, an Orthodox Jew and IBM Professor of Mathematics at California Institute of Technology, criticised both the theory's science and its use within outreach: 'Can one tell a lie to non-religious Jews to get them to keep Shabbos? Everything that I regard as central to Judaism tells me that the answer is "no". Not only do I, a halachic [religious] layperson, think this, but also rabbonim [rabbis] that I’ve consulted say unequivocally that something you even suspect may be false should not be used as part of outreach.' [11]

Aish was particularly galled by the opposition of Orthodox experts and tried unsuccessfully to silence them – not with science but with a rabbinical ruling that warned: 'It is clear and certain to me that all those who fight against the issue of hints at equidistant skips do a very great injustice, and even those who fear God’s word who join these fighters and become, God forbid, partners in this impure construction are destined to be brought to account.' [12]

Meanwhile, some Christian writers seized upon Bible codes to find evidence for their own beliefs, leading Aish to further tie itself up in knots as it attempted to defend the concept while denigrating many of its proponents. But still Aish clings to the theory. Perhaps it fears that to let go now would undermine the whole edifice of Bible 'proofs'. Or perhaps it just cannot resist the power of an outreach tool so seductive to an audience brought up on The Matrix, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.

Aish is less reticent about sharing ground with the Christian fringes in its enthusiasm for intelligent design – the concept that evolution is not a natural process but is directed by a supernatural 'designer'. Most other Jewish organisations, left and right, religious and secular, see it for what it is: an attempt by a Christian fundamentalist organisation, the Discovery Institute (not linked to Aish's Discovery seminars), to impose a creationist agenda on US schools and institutions – an agenda that is spreading to Britain and other countries.[13]

But Aish is a keen proponent. An article on its website, 'Rationality vs Randomness', by nuclear physicist and Discovery lecturer Gerald Schroeder, concludes: 'randomness cannot have been the driving force behind the success of life. Our understanding of statistics and molecular biology clearly supports the notion that there must have been a direction and a Director behind the success of life.' [14]

When a judge ruled against forcing high school science teachers to teach intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, the Anti-Defamation League, showing uncharacteristic insight, stated: 'For Jews and other religious minorities, it's an important issue because the religious freedom we have through the separation of church and state has allowed us to flourish as communities and has enabled us to be equal partners in this country.' [15]

Aish takes a different view. One website contributor writes: 'Jewish leaders should stop worshipping at the wall separating church and state, and stop trying to be more pious about that separation than the US Supreme Court. Let them focus their energies instead on the preservation of a 3,500-year tradition.' [16]

Ironically, Aish's attempts at reconciling science with God have proved too much for some of the Haredi rabbis it follows. In 2005 another article by Schroeder, 'The Age of the Universe', was withdrawn from the Aish website. Schroeder uses relativity theory to argue that each of the Bible's six days of creation equates to a segment of the universe's real age of 15 billion years. When the article was reinstated, the following passage had been added: 'Let me clarify right at the start. The world may be only some 6,000 years old. God could have put the fossils in the ground and juggled the light arriving from distant galaxies to make the world appear to be billions of years old. There is absolutely no way to disprove this claim.' [17]

Aish shows no such vacillation in its stance on the Middle East. Despite traditional Haredi antipathy towards Zionism, Aish has adopted a right-wing brand of Israeli nationalism that mostly manages to avoid the Z-word. Many articles on its website are reproduced from American conservative journals such as The Weekly Standard and National Review, and the themes are depressingly familiar: the Palestinians are solely to blame for their predicament; the territories are 'disputed', not occupied; the Gaza pullout is a reward for terror; the illegal settlers are heroes and patriots.

According to its statement of policy, 'Aish is an apolitical organization, takes no political positions, and endorses no parties or candidates.' Some of its articles carry additional disclaimers such as 'Aish.com is non-political, and the ideas expressed here are those of the author alone.' Yet web visitors will search in vain for counterbalancing views.

A section of Aish HaTorah's website is devoted to Jerusalem's spiritual and historical importance for Jews – and why it is of less significance for Muslims. Aish's Old City yeshiva remains the focus of its activities, and it is currently building a spectacular outreach centre opposite the Western Wall, on land sold to it by the Israeli government for the token price of one shekel. Aish supporters are invited to donate to a $40 million fund to help build and equip the high-tech centre. Its highlight will be the 'state-of-the-art Kirk Douglas Presentation Theater' which features a '15-minute multi-media extravaganza that will put Aish HaTorah on every tourist itinerary'.

In 2001 Aish set up two pro-Israel lobbying groups. Hasbara Fellowships, launched jointly with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains university students to be 'effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses', and supplies them with speakers and resources. But it has stepped beyond mere 'advocacy' to defend Israel's expansion of West Bank settlements, even arguing that such 'activity may be a stimulus to peace because it forced the Palestinians and other Arabs to reconsider the view that time is on their side'.[18] Like Aish, it plays host to the controversial right-wing polemicist Daniel Pipes, who argues that Israel 'must achieve a comprehensive military victory over the Palestinians'.[19]

Aish also founded Honest Reporting, a web-based operation that monitors the media for 'anti-Israel bias'. Honest Reporting has claimed to be independent from Aish for several years, but its UK branch, launched earlier this year, boasts an Aish-registered website domain name and contact address. Honest Reporting is particularly critical of the British media and last year gave its annual 'Dishonest Reporter' award to the BBC, which it accused of 'naivete, dishonesty, forcing facts to conform to a narrow worldview and, arguably, a desire to inappropriately influence events'.

A favoured tactic is to bombard reporters who have criticised Israel with angry emails. Journalists Robert Fisk and John Pilger have both reported having their in-boxes swamped with abuse following censure by Honest Reporting. The Guardian's David Leigh told a similar tale: 'Emails clicked in to the letters page by the hundred, all making the same weirdly alliterative points. This followed publication of a Guardian article trying to understand the motivations of the Palestinian bus driver who ploughed into a queue this month, killing eight Israelis. The mysteriously similar emails – from all over the world – started coming in, too, to our foreign editor; to our website; and to the personal email address of our Middle East correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg. They were inconvenient, and also sometimes a bit scary in their violent tone – "The bloody Guardian... Have you killed a Jew today?... Are you anti-Jewish?"' [20]

Aish HaTorah's increasingly hawkish stance on the Middle East mirrors American Orthodoxy's rightward drift. Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, writes:

Orthodox organizations have forged political alliances that are anathema to the organized Jewish community, with some courting Evangelicals and others on the religious right. The just-completed 2004 presidential election campaign illustrated how out-of-step Orthodox Jews were with the mainstream of the American Jewish community. Pollsters have put the overall Jewish vote at 75% for John Kerry and 24% for George W Bush. The Orthodox vote is believed to have gone in the reverse proportion, with three quarters of Orthodox voters supporting the candidacy of Bush. (By contrast, one pollster has claimed that Reform Jews went for Kerry by a margin of 85% to 15%.) Some have dismissed this sharp disparity as an aberration caused by the desire of Orthodox Jews to reward Bush for what they perceived as his strong support of Israel. But this begs the question of why Orthodox Jews should have looked at things this way, whereas other Jews had entirely different interests or perceptions. It is far too early to tell whether the Orthodox vote, which in previous elections conformed to the strongly Democratic tilt of the Jewish community, will continue to favor Republican nominees. But for now, the divide within the Jewish community suggests a very different political mind-set operating in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox camps, and it is unlikely to change anytime soon.[21]

One reason for this right turn may be that organisations like Aish do not simply reflect Orthodox Jewish opinion but help to shape it. While an often rancourous debate has taken place on the political influence of America's pro-Israel lobby, little has been said about the influence of lobby groups on the Jewish community itself. Perhaps Hasbara Fellowships has less impact on campus life than it does on the Jewish students it recruits as its ambassadors. They are inducted into a political culture in which the voices of hardline neoconservatives take centre stage while even moderate voices for territorial compromise are sidelined.

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, Aish's joint UK executive director, told the Sunday Times last year: 'Up to 150, 200 years ago, you had no secular Jews. I don't know when the rot started, but the Enlightenment brought in this concept of humanism, telling Jews they could live secular lives. The floodgates opened. And all these hitherto Orthodox kids just ran.' [22]

If the way back to Orthodoxy is through Aish, then today's young Jews would be wise to keep running.



Adam S. Ferziger, 'Between Outreach and "Inreach": Redrawing the Lines of the American Orthodox Rabbinate', Modern Judaism, 2005
Ma'ariv, 7 April 2000, reprinted at www.aish.com/aishint/about/press2.asp
Aaron J. Tapper, 'The "Cult" of Aish HaTorah: Ba'alei teshuva and the new religious movement phenomenon', Jewish Journal of Sociology, 2002
See Menachem Cohen's account at www.talkreason.org/articles/cohen.cfm
See Lenny Flank's history of intelligent design and the role of the Discovery Institute at www.talkreason.org/articles/deception.cfm
The Forward, 20 January 2006, reprinted at njdc.typepad.com/njdcs_blog/2006/01/the_antiscienti.html
See Shmarya Rosenberg's account at failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2005/01/the_times_they_.html
Schroeder's original article is at www.geraldschroeder.com/age.html
Jack Wertheimer, All Quiet on the Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdemoninationalism in the United States, American Jewish Committee, 2005
Sunday Times Magazine, 6 February 2005, reprinted at www.davidrowan.com/2005/02/sunday-times-magazine-jewish.html


1 comment:

DK said...

The comment from the Ba'al T'shuvahs you quoted was mine.

I have written extensively about Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah. See: