Wednesday, July 30, 2003

One of my favorite hobbies is writing letters to the editor. In free societies, particularly in the United States, the exercise of our freedom of speech is one of our most sacred civic duties, and writing letters to the editor is a great way to fulfill that obligation. It is also a great way to develop the ability to be concise and to the point. I write letters on a lot of different topics; many of them are related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a couple address topics in international relations, and occasionally I write about legal issues.

As you can see, many of my letters have been published in newspapers outside of the United States (in fact, outside of several letters I've gotten published in the Jewish Press in New York and my hometown newspaper, the Nassau Herald, the only letter I've published in an American newspaper is a letter two summers ago in the New York Post in response to a brutal hatchet job the Post did on a teacher in the high school where my dad worked in Brooklyn. I haven't cracked the New York Times just yet, but you'll see it here when I do.

A few people who know about my success in publishing letters have asked me what my secret is. Here is my advice:

The key to writing a good letter to a newspaper is to keep it short, concise and to the point, making your argument in the first sentence. Eschew long strings of adjectives; what you can say in five gushy descriptive words can usually be summed up in one dynamite word.

If you feel the urge to pile on the superlatives, remember this: all the passion in the world means little if the audience loses your message. Remember that letters in a newspaper are for the readers, not for you. Passion in service of a cause is vain if you subjugate the cause to your passion for it.

Here's a word of advice, though; even if you can't do it concisely, write the letter anyway, because it's a great way to blow off the stress that led you to write the letter in the first place, and if your usage if especially unique and smooth, you might get lucky.

Where the letter and article that triggered the letter is available on the web, I've included the link.

I've had five letters published in the Guardian newspaper of Great Britain over the past 16 months. Here they are:

This first letter is in response to a wonderful piece on anti-Zionism and antisemitism written by the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland in response to antisemitic comments made by Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House of Common (longest serving member of the ruling party). Dalyell had claimed, among other things, that Tony Blair was being overly influenced by Jewish advisers, naming people who were not Jewish but had Jewish ancestry.

Guardian, May 8, 2003

· Jonathan Freedland's critique of Tam Dalyell and the response of the left in Britain is right on the money, but I reject his distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. I believe that anti-Zionism, which opposes the Jewish right to self-determination, is fundamentally discriminatory in nature.

Self-styled anti-Zionist anti-racists face an internal contradiction: if discrimination is abhorrent, why should a right of self-determination apply to everyone besides the Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom believe in the basic Zionist principle of a Jewish democratic state and desire its continued existence?

Michael Brenner
New York

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,951290,00.html


  • Jonathan Freedland's original article of May 7, 2003 can be found here:

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,950536,00.html


  • This is letter was in response to a piece by South Africans Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to South Africa's experience with apartheid. I find this a false comparison for the reasons I state in the letter.

    December 23, 2002

    · Like Desmond Tutu, your writers make a false equation between South African apartheid, for which one party was responsible, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where the blame is shared and where there were 10 years of negotiations before the current violence. Israel does not have a settler population which raped the land and enslaved the natives. It allows its ethnic minorities to vote, worship and learn freely. And it does this despite the terrorism it has faced for decades.
    Michael Brenner
    New York

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,864589,00.html


  • See the original piece by Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain here:

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,864034,00.html


  • This letter was in response to an idealistic piece by George Monbiot, a coumnist in the Guardian, promoting a UN Security Council shorn of veto power and the creation of a global parliament. I suggest other ways of reforming the UN. I participated in Model United Nations for seven years, three in high school and four at Vassar, where I served as a TA to the Model United Nations program as a senior. The class, taught by the great Richard Reitano, is now being studied by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching along with 20 others as part of a study on the political engagement of American college students.

    December 12, 2002

    A better idea than George Monbiot's call for a veto-less security council and a global parliament (Who guards the guards, December 10) might be to recalibrate the security council by extending veto power to India, an African state (perhaps South Africa) and a Latin American state, and removing the veto from France in order to achieve a regional parity. Removing the veto altogether is an unworkable idea that would allow dictatorships like Syria and China more say in world affairs and would do nothing to advance a democracy that does not exist in UN bodies even where there is no veto.

    Indeed, lack of a veto may force the US to resort to more sinister methods of enforcing its will; taking away the veto will not change the elemental truth that the US is the world's sole superpower.

    The devolution of power away from the security council and to regional organisations like Nato, the EU, the African Union, and Asean may represent another solution. Regionisation of international affairs, with the UN serving as the umbrella organisation and the court of final resort, could be the answer. Indeed, it is the lack of any such organisation in the Arab world, save the impotent dictator-dominated Arab League, which necessitates UN and US action today.

    Michael Brenner
    New York

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,858257,00.html


  • See George Monbiot's original piece here:

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,856994,00.html


  • This letter is similar to one I wrote in response to the Kasrils and Brittain piece, but is in response to a disturbing piece by Archbishop Tutu himself. I have great respect for Archbishop Tutu, and understand why he finds common cause with the Palestinians, but am disappointed in his one-sidedness and in his devaluation of antisemitism.

    April 30, 2002

    · Unless Archbishop Tutu believes that European colonialists and the indigenous black population bear equal moral responsibility for apartheid, his comparison of Israeli occupation with South African brutality and European colonialism is invalid. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a two-sided conflict which would likely have ended had Yasser Arafat accepted, or at least debated, the proposals by former Israeli Prime Minister Barak for a state that closely patterns the archbishop's recommendations.

    Michael Brenner
    Woodmere, New York
    mbrenner@fordham.edu

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,707416,00.html


  • See Desmond Tutu's piece here:

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,706878,00.html


  • This letter was in response to a piece by Guardian writer Ian Buruma calling for repeal of Israel's Law of Return.

    March 20, 2002

    · The Law of Return is not a device only to be used when times are bad. It is intended to serve as a bulwark against any possible hatred that may arise. Certainly the Germany of the 1920s was a place where Jews thrived, but that didn't stop the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s. Jews are a people of 13 million. After two millennia of hatred and bloodshed, they cannot afford to rely on the goodwill of Europeans and others who assure them that the relative tranquillity experienced by diaspora Jews will continue.

    Michael Brenner
    Woodmere, NY, USA
    mbrenner@fordham.edu

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,670529,00.html


  • See Ian Buruma's piece here:

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,669785,00.html


  • This letter was in response to a Robert Fisk column in the Independent. Fisk is unfortunately a world-renown journalist, a man who has made little secret of his antipathy toward Jews who stand for Israel's existence. The column which sparked this letter was one of many disingenous pieces Fisk has written trying to cast all Zionists as extremists who want him and other like him dead.

    May 15, 2002

    Letter - Hated for telling the truth.
    By Michael Brenner.

    Sir: Robert Fisk quotes from some nasty e-mail he received and cites it
    as proof that anyone who criticises Israel is labelled anti-Semitic. But
    what happens when someone criticises the Palestinians and takes a
    pro-Israeli stand? They are sure to receive, as I did, letters from
    pro-Palestinian advocates calling him a "Zionazi Pig", or an
    "Islamaphobe racist" or neo-Nazi hate mail calling for the destruction
    of the Jewish people.

    Mr Fisk seems to view John Malkovich's expression of anger at his
    reporting as an example of Jewish bloodlust, rather than one partisan's
    view of an old conflict where both sides have fanatics who take all
    criticism as an affront to his people. Am I to conclude that the hate
    mail I receive from Muslims and Westerners alike means any criticism of
    the Palestinians results in accusations of neo-Nazism?

    MICHAEL BRENNER

    New York.

    This letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, which is sort of the New York Times of Australia. I favored the war in Iraq based on humanitarian and moral grounds. Many others, however, see the war as a strategic gambit conducted solely for the benefit of the United States and Israel.

    Though Amin Saikal ("Welcome to Bush's new Middle East order",
    Herald, April 9) writes that the war in Iraq will serve the interests of
    the US and Israel, he fails to note that the most direct beneficiary
    will be the people of Iraq and the other peoples living under
    totalitarian regimes which undergo reform because of the US invasion.

    Michael Brenner,

    New York (US), April 9.


    Here are some letters from the Jewish Press, a hard-right Jewish newspaper in New York in which I often offer dissent. The Jewish Press, in my view represents the best and worst of right-wing opinion. Some of the writing is well-argued, but a large amount of it is frighteningly extremist, calling for Arab expulsion from Israel and promoting evil ideas like murdering the families of Palestinian terrorists, and devaluing the Jewish experience of those who are not Orthodox. Perhaps the paper's greatest weakness is its tendency to equate conservative politics with Judaism, republishing too much conservative boilerplate from other sources when it should rely more on homegrown talent. These columns get redundant pretty quickly, and some columnists tend to write the same column over and over again. Many of the letters I've published in the Press have been accompanied by editors' notes responding to my ideas, which I think is a childish practice meant to enforce an ideological control that is not necessary. Nevertheless, under editor-in-chief Jason Maoz's stewardship, the newspaper has grown tremendously, and, perhaps because of its muckraking nature, is sometimes out in front of other Jewish newspapers on issues of importance, if too often alarmist. As childish as the practice of editorial responses to letters is, the overall idea, which I have seen in too few places, of setting aside a section of the letters to the editor to publish letters of differing viewpoints on burning issues from how best to support Israel to vegetarianism to derech eretz standards in the Orthodox world, makes the paper an invaluable document. This is the Jewish Press' greatest strength. Opening up the letters page is a good way to avoid falling into a trap of allowing well-known talking heads to dominate every debate, a trap which many newspapers, particularly those in the mainstream fall into, and I believe that it constricts debate and makes things predictable and boring. The op-ed page is for informing the public; the letters are the public. Sometimes I think that editors think that the op-ed page is the public.

    This particular letter was about New York's Kosher Law, a law which was held unconstitutional last year.

    May 14, 2003

    Needlessly Divisive` Kashrut Standards?

    Though The Jewish Press, in its recent
    criticism of Jeff Wiesenfeld, is correct in stating
    that the kosher laws were overturned on grounds
    that they impermissibly endorsed an Orthodox
    standard, it is misleading for you not to recognize
    Mr. Wiesenfeld`s main point, which is that the suit
    challenging the law never would have been brought
    had those in charge of its enforcement not exceeded
    their authority by targeting non-shomer Shabbos
    owners.

    Contrary to many other judicial systems,
    where courts can undertake review of legislation at
    their own discretion, our system requires someone
    to actually challenge laws as unconstitutional.
    Though the impetus for such challenges are often
    ideological and not based on any particular
    incident, it is safe to say that in this case, the First
    Amendment legal reasoning of the lawyers was
    secondary to the basic grievance of the Commack
    butcher, which was that the law was not fairly
    enforced as it had been for many years. This suit
    would likely never have been brought if certain
    elements in the Orthodox community had not tried
    to force their divisive brand of ultra-Orthodoxy on
    others through enforcement of the Kosher Law
    that went far beyond the law`s actual
    requirements.

    Those living in the Five Towns know very well
    the similar turmoil many of us went through when
    the Vaad of the Five Towns merged with the Vaad
    of Far Rockaway a few years ago, and suddenly the
    observance level of the owners and the manner in
    which waitresses were dressed became elements of
    kashrut.

    It is not for nothing that among many people
    across the observance spectrum, Rabbi Rubin and
    his ideological allies in certain Vaads have come to
    be known as the "Kosher Nostra." Recently, at a
    forum on the lawsuit held at Fordham Law School
    organized by its Jewish Law Students Association,
    attorney Nathan Lewin suggested the real
    intention of some of those defending the law when
    he said that the questionnaire system that he has
    proposed to replace the old law should be
    accompanied by a two-tiered system of kashrut
    which would allow, depending on the answers
    given to the roster of questions distributed by the
    state, for applicants to be certified as
    kosher-Conservative and kosher-Orthodox (as
    opposed to simply "kosher").

    Let us accept Mr. Lewin`s questionnaire
    system as a viable new paradigm for enforcement
    of the new Kosher Laws when they are
    promulgated, but let us not accept a needlessly
    divisive two-tiered standard of kashrut that works
    to shame people in the Jewish community for
    things that have nothing whatsoever to do with
    kashrut. At times like these, we can ill afford to let
    such pettiness distract us from the far more
    important issues that require our unity as a
    community and a people.

    Michael L. Brenner
    (Student, Fordham School of Law)
    New York, NY

  • http://www.jewishpress.com/news_article.asp?article=2395


  • Here's Jeff Wiesenfeld's original letter:

  • http://www.jewishpress.com/news_article.asp?article=2295


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