The Hucksters amongst Us

On August 14, 2015 the New York Times reported that ISIS was implementing a theology justifying the rape of non-believers and had a systematic program to separate them out and sell them to its followers. The opening of the Times article shocked me.

In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.

He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.

When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,”

Steve Maman Shaking Hands with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Steve Maman Shaking Hands with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

What revolted some of us was just a golden opportunity for one Steve Maman, a Moroccan Jew in Montreal. The very next day, the Toronto Star reported on his solicitations for months to ransom Yazidi women from ISIS. He claimed he had already ransomed 128 of these poor victimized women and appealed for more donations to sustain his efforts. His fundraising and narrative was months-old but till then he had only gotten attention in peripheral media outlets.

But now with the New York Times reporting on systematic sex slavery and rape, Maman’s “rescue effort spread like wildfire through major media including Fox News, Foreign Policy, France’s L’Express, Time, CBC, major Israeli publications such as Haaretz, Yediot Achronot, and the New York-based Jewish Press. With all this publicity his GoFundMe account was racking in the bucks and he was also getting private donations, especially from his Moroccan Jewish network.

And then the scam was exposed. Vice.com posted a story on August 26; Yazidi Leaders Want Proof ‘Jewish Schindler’ Saved 128 Women and Children from the Islamic State. Interviews with Yazidi leaders outside of the ISIS controlled areas were not able to confirm a single ransom. Early on the Jerusalem Post revealed that Gill Rosenberg, a woman supposedly working on behalf of Steve Maman in the conflict, spent four years in jail in the US for being part of a phone scam that bilked senior citizens out of more than $25 million. GoFundMe has since closed down Maman’s solicitation.

I am bothered because I smelled a rat and did not voice it publicly. I was not bothered so much by the idea of paying ransoms to ISIS, though I recognize the pros and cons of such actions. I just found Steve Maman’s claims improbable, even before Yazidi leadership spoke out. I did not understand how he was able to do it without an established connection in the area, how he was able to do it so quickly and in such large numbers, and with supposedly just a few million dollars. All existing accounts of ransoms paid to ISIS involved very large sums and protracted negotiations involving trusted intermediaries. Even then, many such efforts failed part way through.

A purported do-gooder has a sort of immunity from scrutiny. No one wants to be the party pooper.

I experienced that too with the recent announcement that 107 Haredi rabbis have signed a public proclamation endorsing going straight to the police about sex abuse without prior consultation with a rabbi. This seems to be great news, cause for celebration. But some aspects of the proclamation seem too good to be true. Some of the authors are known to be active in supporting cover ups of abuse. Even so, all in all, this is good news. But I have found myself hesitating to publicly post a detailed analysis of this development. But now I am committed to addressing it, sharing both my most optimistic reading and my doubts.

The lesson of le Juif Schindler is to go on hoping while also scrutinizing, even if others accuse you of raining on their parade. I hope to share my scrutiny of the rabbinic proclamation later this week.

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15 thoughts on “The Hucksters amongst Us

  1. I look forward to your post on the recent rabbinic pronouncement. I too have some reservations, though on the whole I agree that this is an encouraging step. More later…

    As for the Maman scam, it seems to me that you couldn’t have been certain about his bona fides from the publicly available information. But I’ll say this: it always makes sense to concentrate efforts where they’re most likely to be effective. Jews in the U.S. and Canada have precious little influence with ISIS. But collectively we can make a significant impact in Israel. Increasing abuse of Palestinian children by the IDF — including sexual abuse — has been well documented for several years now. A public campaign among North American Jews to put an end to such ugly practices by the IDF really could save many children and would cost the participants little or nothing. Or, for that matter, more of us could publicly campaign against warmongering over Iran. (The destruction of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies, urged on in its time by plenty of Israel-firsters, is the most important single reason for the rise of ISIS.)

    Bottom line: if we’re serious about doing good we can always find a worthy cause; riding a crest of popular hysteria is generally the wrong way to go about anything. Caveat emptor.

    • I have the same question as Stewart 2k.
      Michael Lesher has an insidious practice of writing about topics about which he is ill informed, but far worse, as a journalist his practices are unethical, as he has a practice of inserting non-sequitor subjects to suit his own political beliefs. His handling of such inappropriate context subjects is ill-informed and slanted. He does this also in his book on orthodox abuse, which I in the past praised, to my great regret.
      Re: the IDF complaint, his sources are highly suspect (and have been debunked multiple times in respectable news sources, not the Hamas Daily News). and the subject (as well as others in his comment) do not belong on this thread.

      But since he reads aljazeera, perhaps he should do far more balanced research/ homework.

      http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/11/26/exposed-us-media-outlets-daily-beast-and-international-business-times-publish-false-accusation-of-israeli-police-sexually-abusing-palestinian-children/#

      I will refrain from documenting this same sort of journalistic lack of ethics and lack of knowledge that is evidenced also in his Shonda book.
      Au contraire; the shonda is his.

      Thank you Stewart 2K for bringing this up. I was neglectful in letting it slide.

    • Michael, you write: “Increasing abuse of Palestinian children by the IDF — including sexual abuse — has been well documented for several years now.”

      Could you share your sources documenting this claim about sexual abuse?

      • Usually I don’t weigh down my comments with references, particularly when I assume the information is known to all reasonably well-informed readers. But since you asked, I’ll refer anyone who’s interested to at least a few relevant sources. Given the topic of this blog, I’ll focus specifically on reports of child abuse by Israelis that include sexual abuse. Each of the following is readily available on-line and has the virtue of being short.

        The well-known Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has reported that between November 2009 and July 2013 its field researchers collected 56 testimonies from Palestinians who were minors at the time of their interrogations by Israeli authorities. “The testimonies,” wrote B’Tselem, “described severe physical violence during the interrogation or preliminary questioning…include[ing] slaps, punches and kicks to all parts of the body…in twelve cases, they claimed that the interrogator had threatened them or female relatives with sexual assault, such as rape and genital injury.”

        For anyone who doesn’t think kicking kids in the groin and threatening to rape or castrate them amounts to sexual abuse, there’s more. In September 2010, no less mainstream a source than CNN ran a story (later picked up by Ynet in Israel) about several Palestinian minors who reported having been sexually abused during interrogations. CNN also cited the human rights group Defense for Children International/Palestine Section, which noted five Palestinian children who said they had been sexually abused by Israeli soldiers.

        In March 2013, UNICEF reported that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held in Israeli military detention centers is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” That report repeated B’Tselem’s earlier claim that children were being threatened with sexual assault during interrogation, along with other “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

        More recently (November 2014), a human rights NGO called the Palestinian Prisoners Club (PPC) reported that of some 600 Palestinian children arrested in Jerusalem in the previous five months, roughly 40% were, or may have been, sexually abused. This claim didn’t stand alone: in June 2014, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), a group with a very respectable track record – and buttressing its claims with the findings of Defense for Children International (whose work I’ve already mentioned) – had reported on 21 testimonies made by Palestinian children who had been arrested, interrogated, and tortured by Israeli authorities. In a press release, Adalah wrote: “The dangerous practices described in the testimonies constitute serious criminal offenses such as assault, damage, threat, sexual harassment and other unlawful activity committed by security authorities, ranging from soldiers, to GSS interrogators, and to prison wardens.”

        It’s true that spokespeople for the Israeli army deny all this. (They’ve denied torturing adults too, despite the mountain of evidence proving that they do it.) It’s also true that one of the reports I’ve mentioned (by the PPC) has been publicly questioned – though, since the criticism came from the Algemeiner, which cited only a hasbarah blogger as its source for the “debunking,” I’d take that with a pretty big grain of salt.

        The fact remains that numerous reputable organizations have repeatedly issued the same findings over a period of years, independently reporting the same conclusions based on a growing number of accounts. When that is true, and the reports cannot be disproved, the claims contained in the reports can be called “well documented” – which is what I called them.

        That really should end the matter. But I know that some people simply won’t believe anything reported by Palestinians (including Palestinian children), or by organizations that work with Palestinians, no matter how reputable, or even by international organizations (say, UNICEF) whose charters obligate them to take Palestinian rights seriously. The problem with the sort of logic such people employ is that, if one accepts it, no evidence contrary to one’s prejudices can ever be believed; anything that doesn’t carry the party label is false eo ipso. (Similar methods are routinely employed by holocaust deniers to explain away survivor testimonies, etc., and a moment’s reflection will show why their methods are quite useless for anyone who isn’t of a holocaust-denier mindset.)

        So I won’t waste time explaining why reports from multiple, respected human rights and international aid organizations, basing their conclusions on significant numbers of first-hand accounts, carry more weight than official propaganda. Nor will I ask – though the question often presses itself on me – why anyone should be surprised to learn that Israeli soldiers and interrogators abuse children, when so much of the occupation is necessarily grounded in terror, and terror necessarily involves violence against children. As the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy wrote in 2004:

        “According to data of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, 3,409 schoolchildren have been wounded in the intifada, some of them crippled for life. The childhood of tens of thousands of Palestinian youngsters is being lived from one trauma to the next, from horror to horror. Their homes are demolished, their parents are humiliated in front of their eyes, soldiers storm into their homes brutally in the middle of the night, tanks open fire on their classrooms.”

        Those of us who have lived through Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge hardly need expert studies to know, with bitter certainty, what Levy pointed out over 10 years ago. But I also know the dynamics of denial too well – the work I’ve been doing for twenty years has made it impossible for me not to know – to expect even the obvious to register with people who are determined not to see it.

        But I will ask a question, or rather, a few questions all stemming from one simple point. How can it be evil to cover up the abuse of Jewish children and good to cover up the abuse of Palestinian children? Why are denial and victim-blaming wrong when aimed at Jewish victims of abuse but not when deployed against non-Jews? Why is the rabbinate open to criticism for its victimization of children, but the Israeli government and military are not? Why is it good journalism to expose child abuse cover-ups among Orthodox Jews, but “unethical” – the word used above to describe my reporting – to ask whether tolerating violence against Palestinian children has anything to do with tolerating similar violence against Jewish children when their rights, too, happen to stand in the way of powerful interests within Jewish communities? Why is it appropriate to write, on this blog, about the merits of a venture supposedly designed to protect captured Yazidi women from ISIS fighters, but a “non sequitur” – another phrase aimed at me – to suggest turning the same efforts toward ventures to protect Palestinian prisoners from abuse by Israeli soldiers?

        It seems to me that honest consideration of these questions can yield only one answer. There isn’t, and can’t be, any conscientious way to make distinctions of that kind. Children are children; facts are facts, abuse is abuse. And people who decry cover-ups of abuse among one group of children, while encouraging (or tolerating) the same sorts of silencing, rationalizations and victim-blaming when those tactics are aimed at another group of abused children, have succumbed to a form of denial – one every bit as stifling and self-maiming as any other sort.

        I say this more in sorrow than in anger. As I wrote in my book, I’ve been guilty of such denial myself. And not so terribly long ago, either. I know that being stripped of one’s denial can be painful and deeply unnerving – it feels like a loss of innocence, though in fact it’s the royal road to a deeper and truer form of innocence, one informed by wisdom instead of blindness. Though the references to Palestinians in my book are few and scattered, and my related comments on this blog have been even rarer, maybe I’m asking too much of readers when I make them at all. Maybe it’s too hard for Jews who have been traumatically deprived of their faith in the rabbinate to sacrifice, along with that, their faith in the Jewish State.

        I don’t know. I only know that for me there can be no choice in the matter. I cannot be half-way against abuse, half-way for truth, half-way against cover-ups. I may make mistakes – anyone can – but I can’t compromise myself morally. If I conceal any cruelty of which I’m aware when I might, instead, have done something to help, I’m on the side of the deniers. If I allow myself to overlook violence or abuse against children anywhere because – well, because it would be politic not to notice it, or because there are “higher” priorities at stake, or because the powers that be won’t like it, or because my readers will be more impressed with me if I don’t… if I do that, how am I better than the rabbis I’ve criticized so closely, who also have their “higher” reasons for shoving abuse victims under the rug?

        I’ve offered this much comment because I think what is in question here is not a matter of documentation but of intellectual and moral honesty. As for me, I’m not looking to hector anyone – and I assume that people who read what I post are able to decide for themselves whether I’m making sense, or whether at any particular moment I’m pursuing a subject they prefer not to follow. I’m fully prepared to confine myself within the limits of length and topicality demanded by a blog like this one. But I do reserve the rights that I believe all contributors claim when they post – namely: the right to be honest; the right not to be publicly slandered; and the right not to censor myself, on grounds of political correctness, in my considered responses to what other people write. I extend those considerations to all, and I hope it isn’t asking too much to expect others to reciprocate.

        • Thank you for your reply. This blog is directed at those concerned to combat sexual abuse of orthodox Jewish children. To avoid distracting debates that would split those with such interests, the blog avoids taking positions on debates about Mid East policy whether the recent Iran deal or ongoing debates about occupation. After all this blog has passionate supporters who are in complete disagreement about the Iran deal or Bibi vs labor, etc.

          However, the focus on abuse of orthodox children definitely stands on a principled opposition to the abuse of all children, and to sexual abuse of any sort. On a number of occasions I have made it clear I am also offended and opposed to joking talk about prison rape of sex offenders. Once some sorts of sexual abuse are excused or denied it is a slippery slope to using the same denial and rationalizations in other cases.

          I do not want to have this discussion devolve into an extended debate about the particular sources, numbers of cases, etc. that is too far afield and given the passions of the parties, likely to be unproductive. I think a plausible case has been made that significant numbers of Palestinian children have been threatened with rape or castration. To the extent that it is true it is reprehensible.

          Whether or not others agree with Michael Lesher’s sources or conclusions, he has made a case that he has sources to plausibly justify his claim.

          I am appalled at the heat of the rhetoric around the Iran deal with words like kappo and Nazi “Republican Tool,” etc. being tossed around. At this moment, I am going to make it clear that I will limit further debate about Middle East issues to prevent the migration of the current food fight into this blog which would distract from the main focus.

  2. Pamela Geller (famous for the proposed anti-muslim advertisements on NYC public transport) continues to support Mamon and invoke Canon White’s connection (in spite of his disavowal. Today she wrote an email to somone inquiring:

    Date: Thu, 3 Sep 2015 12:34:36 -0400
    Subject: Re: Jew freeing Yazidis??????
    From: pamelageller@gmail.com
    To: xxxx

    CYCI’s work has been vouched for by Canon Andrew White, who is surpassed by no one in his knowledge of events on the ground in Baghdad and all of Iraq. I know from my own work rescuing girls in danger of honor killing that the nature of the work makes it counterproductive to release all the specific details: it could endanger the girls being rescued. The Yazidis have raised questions. They have not produced evidence of any wrongdoing.

    So who are you gonna believe about Canon Andrew White: Pamela Geller or Andrew White himself?

  3. Thank you, and as one of the suckers (?) I hope you will revisit this when more comes out. I don’t regularly read VICE News. Their story concerning Yazidi leaders’ demand for proof, https://news.vice.com/article/jewish-schindler-tells-critical-yazidi-leaders-to-stop-talking-about-him , quoted a “cease and desist” letter from Maman’s lawyer, which appeared to be pure, unprincipled, legally baseless intimidation. Scumbag lawyers usually are following the wishes of their scumbag clients.

  4. A trustworthy person has been deceived by Maman. I posted info including links to several articles. Steve Maman himself responded. Decide for yourself what sort of person he is by these words.

    Where do you find the energy to write up such a long text and find the 2-3 articles that attempted to shield CYCI. All the while there are thousands of incredible articles and testimonies all over Facebook etc. I am saddened to see people like you try to oppose the efforts of CYCI. It angers me to say the truth. I guess you will say that even Canada national global news was involved in the photo ops? You failed at being human in my eyes. You have basically done what Isis does. You take away chance at life for these innocents. You participate on making sure help doesn’t get to them. I am at ease as it is you against so many that support and are part of this amazing mitsva. Live with the judgements (sic) you have passed and the decisions you have made.

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