Bringing down a journalist, and bringing on trouble
In the spring of 2010 Rabbi David Nesenoff was, in his own words, “spiritually depressed.”
No longer practicing as a Conservative rabbi on Long Island, he was searching for something to do that mattered. After much contemplation, he decided to shift his focus to Israel — and to use the Internet to do it.
The premise, according to Nesenoff, was simple. “I would make video snippets about all aspects of Israeli life, not just the religious side, and upload them to my website rabbilive.com.”
But on May 27, 2010, at a White House reception for National Jewish American Heritage Month, he asked veteran member of the White House press corps Helen Thomas for a comment about Israel. Her response, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” and subsequent suggestion that Israelis go home to Germany and Poland quickly turned his idea for a new career into what has become a life-changing mission: fighting anti-Semitism.
Nesenoff related his story in a presentation, “To Catch an Anti-Semite,” at Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan on Oct. 21. About 100 people were in attendance, including Monmouth County Freeholder Serena DiMaso and Manalapan Mayor Susan Cohen.
During his talk, Nesenoff often poked fun at himself, as he related fallout from the video.
“Although I had been blogging for a few years, I had no idea how to upload a video. I had to wait a week until my then 17-year-old son Adam finished finals so he could do it,” he said. “Once the video was posted, we initially got 700,000 hits. The next day it was up to 1,000,000.”
And that was when the morning news shows picked up the story, followed by thousands of e-mail requests from all over the world asking him to appear on television. “It was ironic because I told a reporter at The Jewish Week about what Thomas said right after it happened, and he said, ‘That’s not news; there’s no story here.’”
Throughout his presentation, Nesenoff stressed that “divine intervention” enabled him to get through an experience that was totally alien to him. Although he had made some award-winning short films, this kind of exposure was unprecedented for him. For example, as he was preparing for television appearances, he realized he had to do more than just show the video. “At that moment, the phone rang,” he recalled. “It was Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, calling from his daughter’s bat mitzva. He had seen the video and wanted to help.” Fleischer advised him to have a message. “But, of course,” Nesenoff said, “I had to figure out what kind of message.”
Enter Adam, who besides being his father’s web master, arranged for them to go to the White House in the first place. He told his father he needed to get some advice. “Adam said, ‘Anyone will talk to you. Who do you want to speak with?’ I told him Elie Wiesel. Next thing I knew, Elie Wiesel was on the phone.” Wiesel suggested Nesenoff find out what the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson would have wanted him to say. After some research, he found the answer.
“According to the rabbis I consulted, the message would have been, ‘We are the children of Israel, and we cannot be disconnected from Israel no matter where we live,’” he said. “And that was when I realized it was no longer legitimate for people to say they were anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic.
“If you are anti-Israel, then you are anti-Semitic.”
Throughout this time, Nesenoff said, he received 25,000 pieces of hate mail, and a number of death threats. “We had a ‘safe room’ in the house to open the mail in case the letters contained any dangerous substances,” he said.
According to Nesenoff, the media were worse than the “haters.” He cited an instance when a reporter for the Jerusalem Post asked him “how it felt to ruin Helen Thomas’s career.” He said the liberal press went after him when a video of his Purimspiel from years before surfaced. “I was dressed as a priest and spoke with a Mexican accent. They accused me of being a racist.”
“Keith Olbermann called me the second-worst person in the world,” said Nesenoff; the MSNBC show Countdown host was particularly bothered, said the rabbi, because he was well known for his anti-bias work, including creating an anti-bias education program for the Nassau County, NY, courts in the 1990s.
Nesenoff’s devotion to his cause has taken him in many directions since he recorded Helen Thomas’s rant against Israel. He became a publisher of two newspapers, one in Israel and one in the United States. He shot a documentary film 3000 Miles featuring interviews with Jewish celebrities, known anti-Semites, and people on the street about Judaism, hate, and politics. In early 2011, he was named publisher and editor of the Jewish Star, a weekly paper in Garden City, Long Island, a position he held for some six months.
He said that the best way to fight anti-Semitism was to be “even more of a Jew.” He cited his son, who after years at Jewish day school transferred to public high school. “He still went to school wearing a yarmulka and tzitzis. He was not going to change himself just because the environment was different.” He also suggested “being a Jew during Heshvan, the one month without a holiday,” as a way of making Judaism a part of everyday life.
Nesenoff’s appearance came at a sensitive moment for the Jewish community in Manalapan. Last month, 10 days before Rosh Hashana, residents woke up to find swastikas painted on street signs and fences. Dorothy Jablonka, of the Monmouth Heights neighborhood, spoke at the beginning of the evening. She recounted her shock when she saw a swastika painted on a neighbor’s lawn. “I couldn’t believe it. I called my rabbi who suggested I call [the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County]. Soon after, the town cleaned everything up. But I’m still sickened by it.”
DiMaso said, “There are no words for what happened. We all have to do our part to make sure it never happens again.”