Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Damage You Didn't See

Like many of my friends, when I heard that Israel had banned Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country, I saw this as a colossal mistake. What an utter PR disaster! True, Bibi might not have had much of a choice, given the pressure that Trump was placing. But, whether there was a choice or not, it was certainly a terrible course of action.

Then I started thinking about WWII fighter planes.

During WWII, the Allied forces had to figure out which parts of the plane most needed armor protection. So researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses studied the bullet holes which appeared on returning planes, and found that the bullet holes occurred in the following places:

Accordingly, the researchers recommended that the areas with the red dots should receive the armor plating. It's obvious!

But Abraham Wald, a religious Jewish statistician who had escaped Austria, pointed out that exactly the opposite was true. The planes with the bullet holes in these areas were the ones that had survived the missions and returned. It was the planes which had been hit in the other areas which had not survived the mission.

This is known as survivorship bias, and it is a form of selection bias. It's concentrating on that which is visible, without realizing that the thing which is not visible might be more significant.

I think that this is exactly the case with the Tlaib/Omar debacle. Yes, it was a disaster. But we're not seeing what the alternative would have looked like. Had they come, they would doubtless have used every opportunity to make some kind of PR scene that would demonize Israel. Starting confrontations with soldiers, making scenes at Temple Mount, inciting riots, etc., etc. And it would have been scenes with gripping photos and video, unlike the story of their not coming, which had no accompanying visuals. Stories with no visuals grab much less attention than stories with visuals.

It was a no-win situation for Israel. We can't assume that just because the situation is terrible, that the alternative would have been better.

It's kind of like Israel retaining control over Judea and Samaria.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Gates Vaccination Expose

The vaccination arguments can sometimes appear confusing for some people. How can a non-specialist know who's correct? True, virtually the entire medical community is in favor of vaccinations. But on the other hand, you have Marcia Angell writing that “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.” After reading that, even I was starting to wonder.

Fortunately, you don't need any medical knowledge whatsoever to decide if the anti-vaxxers are really onto something, or if they are tragically deranged. All you have to do is ask them about Bill Gates, who has invested great effort into having millions of children in poor countries vaccinated.

An anti-vaxxer who posted many comments on the previous post mentioned that Bill Gates's own family pediatrician said that Gates did not have his own children immunized - clear proof that he himself knows them to be dangerous!

The only problem? It's completely fabricated. There is no record of this unnamed pediatrician saying any such thing. It seems to have first appeared on some conspiracy website, then spread like wildlife among those who are happy to believe stories which fit their beliefs, even if there isn't any evidence for them.

This does not speak well for the ability of anti-vaxxers to evaluate factual truth.

But it gets much crazier than that!

It's easy to accept that lots of people believe that vaccines are harmful. But Bill Gates?! He gave a hundred million dollars to get millions of children vaccinated!

So according to the anti-vaxxers, this is entirely the point. Bill Gates deliberately worked at getting millions of children injected with harmful vaccines, in order to make them autistic and hopefully kill as many of them as possible.

It's hard to find words for how insane this is. You just have to read a little bit about the tremendous effort and care that Bill and Melinda Gates have put into helping children, to realize how preposterous it is to propose that they actually secretly want to harm and kill as many as possible.

But it gets much crazier than that!

According to the anti-vaxxers, it's not even a secret at all. Bill Gates has been completely explicit about his desire to kill as many children as possible with vaccines. He has publicly stated that it's necessary to do so in order to reduce the world population. The anti-vaxxers cite a quote from Bill Gates at a 2019 TED Talk, in which he said that, "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's heading up to about nine billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care and reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."

Of course, this isn't what Gates actually said at all. I knew that even before checking the Snopes article to see exactly how it was distorted. He wasn't saying that "if we do a really great job on killing children and health care (what a crazy juxtaposition!), we can lower the population." His point was that if parents in third-world countries can be more confident that their children will survive childhood (thanks to vaccines), then they won't have so many. As Melinda Gates said: “If a mother and father know their child is going to live to adulthood, they start to naturally reduce their population size."

But it's not just that the antivaxxers distort what Gates said. The point is that anyone who thinks for a moment that Bill Gates wants millions of children to suffer and die, and moreover, that he would openly state this in a public speech (despite at all other times arguing that vaccines are healthy), is clearly utterly out of their mind.

And you don't listen to medical advice from people who are out of their mind.

Further Reading: How Bill and Melinda Gates Are Transforming Life for Billions in the 21st Century

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

An Avoidable Tragedy

This is Rotem Amitai.

She was a 43-year old mother of three children who worked as a flight attendant with El Al.

Four months ago, after working on an El Al flight from JFK to Tel-Aviv, she contracted measles from someone on the flight.

Although Rotem had been inoculated as a child, she had only received one dose (which in those days was thought sufficient), which does not give the highest degree of immunity. As a result, she contracted measles from someone on the flight who had measles as a result of not being vaccinated. This led to her developing meningoencephalitis and she slipped into a coma.

This morning, she passed away.

What a senseless, utterly preventable tragedy.

The anti-vaxxers have a lot to answer for.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Fox News

"Foxes at Temple Mount: Prophetic Proof Jerusalem Returning to Glory"
"Dozens Of Foxes Seen Early Morning Near Kosel – Prophecy of Zechariah Alive and Well!"
"Sighting of Foxes on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Triggers Prophecy Theories about Third Jewish Temple"
"Foxes Seen Walking near the Western Wall, Fulfilling Biblical Promise"
A video emerged this week of several foxes cavorting around the Old City of Jerusalem, and caused sensational headlines in the world press. Is the presence of foxes on the Temple Mount really a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah? Is that really the message? And if not, what does the fox say?

First of all, a technical correction. There were not "dozens of foxes." The video shows four, and they must have been cubs of a single family. The reason why I know that there could not have been dozens, and that the four foxes were a family, is that foxes are solitary creatures. In fact this is one of the ways in which we know that the Biblical term shu'al does not necessarily refer to a fox, but rather often refers to a jackal; for more details, see my Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Still, for now, let us assume that the shu'al is a fox.

Now, let us look carefully at the famous story regarding Rabbi Akiva and the fox on the Temple Mount:
Once, Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar b. Azaryha, R. Yehoshua and R. Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem. When they arrived at Mount Scopus, they rent their garments. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: Why are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: Why are you weeping? They said to him: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (Numbers 1:51), and now "foxes walk in it" (Eicha 5:18) - shall we not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah” (Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple period! Rather, the verse established that fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah. In the prophecy of Uriah it is written: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field...” (Micah 3:12). (There is a rabbinic tradition that this was also prophesied by Uriah.) In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah (with regard to the destruction) was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled.
The Sages said to him, employing this formulation: Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.
Note that foxes are not part of either Zechariah's or Uriah's prophecy. Rather, there is a reference in Eicha to the desolation of Jerusalem, which mentions foxes walking through it. The Sages cite this when they too see a fox walking through the ruins of Jerusalem, since it is an example, an illustration, of the destruction. R Akiva says just as the destruction was prophesied by Uriah and came to be, so too Zechariah's prophecy, of the redemption, will come to be.

Seeing foxes today in Jerusalem is therefore just a case of observing the destruction, just as Rabbi Akiva did. The only prophecy that it demonstrates is that of the destruction, with which we do not have any doubts, because it already happened.

But here we get to the crucial point. Let's go back in time and think about how Rabbi Akiva's confident rejoicing would have appeared over most of history. What naive foolishness! The Jewish People have been decimated and spread over the four corners of the earth. They are an utterly downtrodden people. Jerusalem is desolate.

And yet look at the situation now! There is Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel! Millions of Jews have returned to the Land, from all over the world. Jerusalem is a city of beauty, and the country is thriving and prosperous. We take all this for granted, but for the last two thousand years, this was a virtually unimaginable fantasy.

Earlier this year I found myself sitting on a plane next to a British messianic Christian. Unlike American Christians, who are extremely friendly and positive to Jews, this person was as unpleasant as the youths who used to harass me on the streets of Manchester. He said to me, "How can you possibly not accept Jesus? How can you see the Jews as being loved by God? You've got no Temple, there's hardly any of you left - you've got nothing!" It was ironic that he was telling me this while sitting on an El-Al Dreamliner heading for the State of Israel. 

To be sure, things are far from perfect. There are great dangers from the neighboring countries. There is great hostility from the world. And the spiritual state of the country is sadly lacking. But what we do have is so incredibly, marvelously better than what was!
The truth is that foxes are not actually necessarily a sign of desolation (which is another reason why I'm inclined to think that the shu'alim of Eicha are jackals). London, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, is full of foxes. I regularly see foxes in my densely-populated suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

When we see foxes running around the Temple Mount, this deservedly does bring to mind the famous story with Rabbi Akiva. But instead of responding with theologically groundless proclamations of imminent miracles, the sentiment that we should feel is wondrous gratitude at how different things are now from Rabbi Akiva's time. Yes, we hope and pray that they will improve even more. But, like Rabbi Akiva, let us focus on the good!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Distorting Statistics about Charedim

As Mark Twain noted, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. You can quote a factually true statistic and use it to completely pervert the truth.

Some tragic examples of this can be seen in the article at JewishPress.com by JoeSettler, defending the Israeli charedi community. The falsehoods are so tightly interwoven into the article that I'm going to have to fisk it.
We’ve all heard claims how Chareidim don’t work, that Chareidim don’t go to the army, that Chareidim don’t carry their share of the national burden. Liberman’s supporters are saying Liberman is raising this anti-Chareidi / anti-religious flag for their own good and ours. The tone, the rhetoric, the Sinat Chinam is horrifying – and far too many people accept these statements/assumptions as fact. Here at the Muqata, we had a theory we wanted to test. What if these assumptions are not really true or not completely true, how would we prove it? And if these claims don’t reflect reality what do we need to look at instead? We decided to examine the data for ourselves, and discovered that everyone is comparing apples to oranges.
Actually, as we shall see, it is JoeSettler who compares apples to oranges. 

I. Army Service

True, if you compare the overall percentages of Chareidim that haven’t done the army to non-Chareidim, the difference is huge, and will remain huge.
But we asked ourselves, is that really the right way to look at the numbers and the situation?
Yes. That is exactly the right way to look at the numbers and the situation. 
A 30-something Chareidi man with six children will never be going into the army, so those statistics don’t actually tell you anything useful, other than he is never going to go into the army.
No, it tells you that this Chareidi man has made a lifestyle choice that prevented him from going to the army. That is relevant.
34% of Chareidi males obligated to enlist in the IDF or Sheirut Leumi in 2017 were enlisted, according to a 2018 IDI study... That percent that enlisted is up 5% from 2016, and that percent has been going up every year... Among the non-Chareidi (male) population, it appears that IDF enlistment is estimated at 85%.
First of all, writing as someone who lives in a largely charedi city, this figure of 34% of those obligated to enlist - around 4000 young men - is highly suspect. Where are all these charedim in the IDF? The so-called Nachal Charedi is mostly comprised of Dati-Leumi who want a higher standard of kashrut/tzniyut, along with some charedi dropouts. Who has seen 4000 new charedi soldiers?!

But even taking the 34% number, that is still only a third of chareidi young men who are supposed to be enlisted for the first time. And this in turn is an even tinier fraction of charedi men of army age - of which there are over 30,000 exemptions given annually.
When you look at the relevant statistics, you see a completely different picture than what is portrayed by Liberman and the media.
You see a society that is integrating. You see a society that is catching up to their non-Chareidi counterparts in terms of service. You see a society that is undergoing both evolutionary and revolutionary changes at a healthy pace that is non-destructive to their society.
You then realize that the argument that Charedim don’t go to the army is not only blown out of proportion, but is false and must be rejected.
No, the argument that Charedim, for the most part, do not go to the army, is still absolutely true, not withstanding the very small recent rise in charedi recruits. There are 30,000 exemptions and only a few thousand serving. You can argue about the best way to change that. You can argue that it's best to let the number gradually rise, rather than to force conscription. But it is false to make a general statement that Charedim go to the army.

II. Working

All the statistics we’ve seen until now separately compared the number of Chareidi men working, the number of Chareidi women working, and then compared that to their non-Chareidi male and female counterparts. It’s very Tzanuah (modest) of them to present it that way, but it doesn’t represent certain social and fiscal realities in Israel. Is that really a fair comparison? Is it even a relevant comparison? Why are we comparing individuals when we should be comparing households? In a household it doesn’t matter if the husband or wife is working (certainly not in a progressive household), only if they are making enough money to support their household unit and chosen lifestyle.
Actually, I think that it's definitely relevant to compare individuals rather than households, but let's accept his point for now. And let's see where this leads.
...The answer (based on raw 2017 survey data we received from Kohelet) to the question of how many households have at least one breadwinner is as follows :
Non-Chareidim: 80.1% | Chareidim: 84.6% | Arabs: 79.5%.
...In simple English what do these statistics mean?
It means that most Israelis households have at least one breadwinner who is working and supporting the family.
...What does this mean for the question as to whether or not Chareidim are participating in the workforce?
The answer is that when comparing household to household, there is no effective difference between Chareidi and non-Chareidi Jews. Both family household units work and support themselves.
The sleight-of-hand performed here is so subtle that I'm not sure if the writer even realized it himself. JoeSettler has gone from citing a statistic that most chareidi homes have at least one breadwinner, to arguing that this proves that there is no difference between charedim and non-charedim, and that charedim equally support themselves.

How on earth does this follow?!

The fact that someone is working does not mean that they are managing to support their family. And it most certainly does not mean that they are equally contributing to the economy!

A household in which there are one or two people working in high-income jobs, paying full taxes, contributes to the economy. A household in which the husband is in kollel, and in which there are one or two low wages, often in non-professional careers, and in which there is a resultant tax exemption, does not contribute to the economy (or contributes far less).
What becomes clear is that Chareidi households are not a drag on Israeli society and tax payers as Liberman and friends may claim. Israeli households and society are holding their own and doing their part.
Chareidim make less money and spend less money. Their purchasing patterns are also very different. And those are all valid lifestyle choices.
What becomes clear is that Chareidim are not economic burdens on society.
When comparing household to household – which is the only comparison that matters – Chareidim households are on par with the rest of Israeli society.
This is so obviously false that it boggles the mind to see anyone make such a claim. Even charedi apologist Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in Mishpacha that "We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment." Endorsing a speech by President Rivlin, Rosenblum noted that "20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks" (if you just consider first grade, it's over 30%). Leaving aside the question of who will serve in the IDF, the pressing question that he asks is: “who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” He also notes that “the modern economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.” How will the national economy survive, with such a huge proportion of society being uneducated and unemployed?

And then you have the staggering study that came out from the Finance Ministry a few weeks ago, saying that if the employment rate of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish men remains stagnant, it will cost the Israeli economy more than $100 billion a year over the next several decades.

Anyone who denies the reality of this problem is supporting its continuation. 

III. Sharing the Burden

The same unfair question can of course be turned around. Are secular Jews doing their share for Israeli society?
The data shows that when it comes volunteering and charity, Hilonim are not giving close to what their Chareidi counterparts are giving back to their fellow Israelis.

First of all, I don't know why he's comparing Charedim to Hilonim. Is that the standard that Charedim should set for themselves? Why not compare Charedim to non-Charedi religious Jews?

Second, the immense amount of volunteering and charity that occurs in charedi society is mostly to help other charedim - who are in dire economic straits!

Third, volunteer work done by charedim does not remotely compare to years of IDF service and milu'im and Sherut Leumi.

Fourth, charity to poor charedim does not remotely come close to outweighing the tremendous economic burden on the country by a rapidly growing population in which half the men don't work, those who do work are generally in non-professional careers, and there is virtually no secular education.
Hiloni households are also not doing their share in the demographics battle with the Arabs. It’s the Chareidim that are out-birthing the Arabs and maintaining Israel’s demographic balance, and it is the Chareidim that are bearing the financial burden of the demographics battle.

Increasing the number of Jews does not help the country if those increased numbers are dragging down the economy (which in turn encourages others to leave). And even if charedi families have two kids which become more "modern" and take a real job, that still leaves four more who don't.


JoeSettler concludes as follows:
The next time you hear Avigdor Liberman complain about Chareidim not carrying their share of the national burden and that drastic action is needed to fix the situation, you’ll now know that not only is Liberman completely wrong, you can ask him, why aren’t his Hiloni voters doing their share for their fellow Israelis?
In reality, neither question is fair to ask. Israel is a mosaic and every community is contributing in their own way to make Israel a dynamic, vibrant society. Everyone is shouldering the burden in their own way, but there are far too many false claims made against Chareidi society that simply aren’t backed up by the data – especially when you start to compare data points that more accurately represent real life in Israel.
In reality, while Avigdor Liberman may well distort some things, the fact is that charedi society does not remotely share the burden of military service, and is a dangerous ever-increasing drain on the economy. There can be reasonable disagreement about how to solve this problem, such as regarding whether it can be changed by imposing financial pressure. But denying that the problem exists is wrong and dangerous. It harms the nation of Israel, and it doesn't even help charedim.

For further reading: Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment

(I'm off to the airport now, so there will be a delay in moderating and replying to comments.)

Monday, August 5, 2019

Of What Is God Inordinately Fond?

We added a new small exhibit to the Biblical Museum of Natural History. The four inhabitants are called George, Paul, John, and Ringo. They are the beetles.

These are sun beetles - richly colored in burgundy and yellow, with wing-cases that have the consistency of velvet. I am enormously fond of them, and much to my delight, they have started breeding.

At the moment, I am intensively planning the new museum building, into which we will be moving in a few months. This involves some reorganization of exhibits, as well as adding many new exhibits. Currently, all our insects and invertebrates, dead and alive, are housed in the Insect section of the Kashrut Exhibit. But in the new building, it will be different. The Hall of Kashrut will only feature kosher insects - i.e. our locust colony - while the Hall of Small Animals will include an Insect Zoo, featuring the insects of the Torah (which will be a combination of live exhibits plus super-size models).

Now, the insects mentioned in the Torah include ants, bees, hornets, fleas, scorpions, lice, spiders (debatably), silkworms (indirectly), millipedes, Kermes echinatus (the tolaat shani), and worms. But no beetles!

But the beetles are too special not to exhibit. And so I was trying to think of a way that it makes sense to display them. Then I remembered something!

There is a famous story, possibly apocryphal, about the distinguished British biologist J.B. Haldane. Once, he found himself in the company of a group of theologians, and they asked him what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of His creations. Haldane is said to have answered that the Creator apparently has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

There's only about four thousand species of mammals, and 9000 birds. There's about 300,000 species of plants. But there are over 350,000 species of beetles that have already been identified - and it is estimated that the total number of beetle species may be one and a half million.

Whether one believes that God created every species separately, or employed creative wisdom to enable them to evolve from a common ancestor, the end result is that He seems to have delighted in there being a very, very lot of different types of beetles.

Thus, the perfect place in the museum to exhibit beetles is in the Hall of Wonders. That hall will exhibit awesome species such as the elephant, and extraordinary creatures such as the duck-billed platypus, but it will also include an exhibit on the sheer richness of the natural world. There is Mah gadlu maasecha Hashem, "How great are Your works," and there is Mah rabu maasecha Hashem - "How manifold are Your works." The wonder of God's universe is not just in its extraordinary creatures, but also in the sheer rich diversity of them.

And what better creatures to illustrate that richness than beetles?

The Damage You Didn't See

Like many of my friends, when I heard that Israel had banned Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country, I saw this as a colossa...