Attacking Yeshivas in Court Poses a Threat to Religious Liberty

Feb. 12 2019

Founded by graduates of ultra-Orthodox schools in the U.S., the organization YAFFED seeks to force these schools to provide a more comprehensive secular education. Its claims that many of these institutions’ curricula don’t meet the minimum requirements imposed by New York State law have led to increased scrutiny from the state’s department of education. But more important to the future of the yeshivas, and of religious liberty, is a court case recently brought by YAFFED that challenges the constitutionality of existing legislative carve-outs for religious schools. Michael A. Helfand comments;

So far, New York State has ruled to preserve the right to religious practice in areas ranging from schools to dietary laws. But that precedent is being slowly reversed in court cases and legal arguments that hinge on reinterpreting some of the Constitution’s foundational precepts and will have far-reaching consequences both for religious communities and for broader attitudes toward the freedoms to which they’re entitled. . . .

To get a flavor of the real-world impact of this argument, consider the following. Federal law currently requires all forms of animal slaughter to be “humane.” Under typical circumstances, that means before an animal is slaughtered, it has to be “rendered insensible to pain” by, for example, “gunshot or an electrical, chemical, or other means.” But on nearly all accounts, doing so would render the animal’s meat not kosher. Sensitive to this quandary, federal law also added the following: slaughter is humane if done “by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith” as well as any other religion that adopts the Jewish rules for ritual slaughter.

Traditionally, legislatures have been able to modify laws so that they express the religious tolerance and pluralism that form the backbone of America’s value system. YAFFED, however, argues for the antithetical view that granting religious exemptions is not an admirable application of the Constitution’s religious-liberty principles but rather, evidence of privileging one religion over others and thus a violation of the First Amendment. . . .

There is an old legal adage: hard cases make bad law. Ultimately, the YAFFED lawsuit pits two core commitments against each other—the autonomy of religious families and communities to control the education of their children, and the responsibility of society to ensure that all its citizens have access to a meaningful education. Casting these values, like gladiators, into a constitutional death match raises the prospect that the devotion to protecting religious liberty, so essential to the American project, will suffer as collateral damage.

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More about: American law, Jewish education, New York, Religious Freedom, Ultra-Orthodox, Yeshiva

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat