Adam Mansbach, the very busy author best known for his not-for-children children's book "Go the Fuck to Sleep." (Photo/George Barahona)
Adam Mansbach, the very busy author best known for his not-for-children children's book "Go the Fuck to Sleep." (Photo/George Barahona)

No to AI rabbi; We’re wrong on ethnic studies; How to talk about suicide; Etc.

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Keep ‘AI’ out of rabbi

J. reporter Maya Mirsky described how the Robo-Rabbi is programmed to provide text-based responses to questions regarding Jewish practice and belief (“Need advice for the High Holidays? Ask the Robo-Rabbi,” Aug. 31).

I take issue with the AI device’s creators, Lior Cole and Michael Fischer, who “came up with the Robo-Rabbi as a way to connect people … Jewish people … in a way that shows that technology is not just about profit.” Correct, AI technologies are not just about profit. Some AI applications detect disease, some predict catastrophes. And yet many are about addiction and manipulation to change our behaviors that also alter brain development in the very young and brain function of older youth and adults, and increase suicide rates among teen girls and boys. Moreover, they are polarizing our body politic.

My Jewish learning from human rabbis, reading and authentic relations with fellow Jews has taught me that our tradition values self-reflection and self-discipline. I hope Lior Cole and Michael Fischer can find the self-discipline to step back from what they find so compelling in digital creations to seriously consider the unintended consequences of AI applications in order to try and try again to create devices that truly do serve the common good.

In the case of Robo-Rabbi, how might the device undermine the value of I-Thou dialogue and the legacy of commentary in the ongoing interpretation of Torah, to be read “each time as if for the first time?” If, indeed, the device renders multiple interpretations of the text, with reference to different circumstances, that still removes the opportunity for I-Thou, so vital to experiencing the sacred.

Molly Freeman
Berkeley


Ethnic studies and trust

Your Sept. 29 editorial was short-sighted and, ironically, lacking in perspective (“Pitched debate on ethnic studies calls for perspective”). You opine that the ethnic studies mandate does not have existential implications for the Jewish people and that we should all take a deep breath and realize that we have friends in Congress and promising new relationships in the Middle East.

That may all be true today. But what about the future?

The ethnic studies debate is about the education of the young people who will become the leaders of the future. Will the leaders of the future think kindly of Jews, or will they see us as privileged members of the oppressor class? Will they think of Israel as the flawed but legitimate homeland of the Jewish people, or as a colonialist enterprise guilty of the worst crimes against humanity? Will the United States continue to be a safe place for Jews and an ally of Israel?

These are the existential questions that are at stake in the debate over ethnic studies — nothing less.

The present Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum includes excellent guardrails that have been put in place to ensure that ethnic studies does not teach students to hate Jews and Israel. But are those guardrails strong enough to hold? The organized Jewish community will need to monitor each and every school district to make sure that individual districts do not slip in toxic antisemitic and/or anti-Israel material. It will take a herculean effort, but there is no choice. Our future hangs in the balance.

Malka Weitman
Berkeley


Editorial missed 2 points

The J. editorial board is right that Israel is secure today and will not face any immediate threats from developments in U.S. public education (“Pitched debate on ethnic studies calls for perspective,” Sept. 29).  However, this analysis missed two crucial points.

First, antisemitism is rising across the U.S., including in public schools. At StandWithUs, we hear far too many stories from students about the hatred and ignorance they face from peers and teachers alike. A significant portion of these incidents happens when rhetoric about Israel and its supporters crosses the line into antisemitism. For example, in early September, we received multiple reports of teachers telling students that 9/11 happened because of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

As the editorial board acknowledged, there are significant players in California (and beyond) who are exploiting ethnic studies courses to promote similar hatred and bias even further. This is an immediate threat to Jewish communities right here in the United States.

Secondly, education shapes the future. While Israel continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress today, this will change for the worse if our community becomes complacent. With tens of millions of students potentially taking ethnic studies in California and other states, we have a right and responsibility to demand that these courses are free of bias and hatred against Israel and the Jewish people. We should also continue to push strongly and unapologetically for local curriculums to cover all forms of antisemitism and teach about the Jewish community in its full diversity.

If we want Jewish communities in both Israel and the United States to remain safe and vibrant, we cannot shy away from this fight.

Max Samarov
Redondo Beach


OK with indoctrination?

Regarding the ongoing ethnic studies curriculum debate, the J. editorial board encouraged its readers to maintain perspective. After all, Israel today is arguably more secure than ever, and the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to help Israel replenish its Iron Dome defense system.

But it is the J. editorial board that needs perspective. For comparison, the American people twice elected Barack Obama to the presidency, but that does not mean Black students and their families should be silent when subjected to a racist teacher.

It is often said that all politics is local, and so it is with educating our youth. Israel may be able to defend itself, and state-designed curricula may set lofty standards for ethnic studies, but school districts, administrators and teachers ultimately determine what is taught in the classroom. And this is where all of us must stand firm.

The J. editorial board might prefer to “take a deep breath, and look at the big picture,” but I will not ignore that many California school districts have already disregarded the currently proposed ethnic studies legislation, and, instead, adopted the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which you rightly oppose. Nor will I ignore a hostile environment in which Jewish students experience antisemitic incidents on campus and virtually, feel physically unsafe, and avoid expressing their Jewish identity and views about Israel.

If my head is in the trenches, as the J. editorial board implies, it is because that is where indoctrination happens. When I see it, I am not going to ignore it with the misguided hope that the guardrails will protect our students.

Charles Taubman
Cupertino


A battle we can’t ignore

J.’s Sept. 29 editorial urged us to see the big picture — “We would do well to maintain our perspective …” — but missed the perilously ever-growing bigger picture of the widespread increase in Jew-hatred throughout our country.

Anti-Jewish hate crimes comprise the highest percentage of such crimes in the U.S., and the number grows every year. For the first time in our country’s history, mass murders have been perpetrated in our synagogues. Colleges are experiencing the highest levels of antisemitism since the 1930s, with growing majorities of Jewish students experiencing antisemitic incidents, feeling unsafe on campus and feeling the need to hide their Jewish identity.  Many feel that this discrimination comes from their professors. For the first time in our country’s history, we have an active and growing segment of Congress that routinely spouts antisemitic tropes and sponsors anti-Israel legislation while receiving no rebuke from Congressional leaders.

And perhaps most frightening of all, there is afoot in our state a movement that seeks to demonize the Jewish state, to use that false and distorted image of Israel to promote the grotesque concept of intersectionality in order to blame Israel for worldwide discrimination, to indirectly make all Jews responsible for the crimes of which Israel is falsely accused, and to use our education system to inculcate these lies into our youth.

Most amazing, the J. editorial writers feel that we should be satisfied with our “wins” and “choose our battles carefully.” Are you suggesting that the battle against today’s pernicious, violent, vitriolic and lethal Jew-hatred, a frighteningly perilous hatred that is growing rapidly and spreading across much of our country, and penetrating many of our country’s political, social and educational institutions, is a battle that we should ignore?

David Meir-Levi
Palo Alto


No fan of explicit headlines

I was dismayed to find such language promoted even in the J. (”Adam Mansbach, the ‘Go the F*** to Sleep’ guy, is really f***ing busy,” online Sept. 29).

Call me out of date. I am 86, but my old editorial mindset is still active. Yes, swearing and fractured grammar are rampant everywhere, but I expected a higher standard from you.

Roz Aronson
Berkeley


Language matters

Thank you for your cover article in the recent issue on Adam Mansbach. I have followed Mansbach’s work for some time and have a signed copy of, arguably, his most famous book about sleep.

As a therapist and as someone who has been personally touched by suicide, I want to share with you that the preferred terminology is “died by suicide” or “killed themself.”

You and your readers can learn more about the importance of language, especially in the effort to destigmatize suicide, at reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations. For resources for those affected by suicide, visit afsp.org.

I was very touched that your piece included the trauma of Mansbach’s brother’s death, and it certainly brought a deeper and richer perspective on his experiences as a writer and recently published work “I Had a Brother Once.”

Thank you for honoring David’s memory and supporting all of us impacted by suicide.

Liora Abrahams-Brosbe
Berkeley

J. Readers

J. welcomes letters and comments from our readers. To submit a letter, email it to [email protected].