Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Madness 2015: Guide to the Parties

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

There's a week left until the Israeli election, which means there's less than a week to enter March Madness 2015!  To aid in the process of making your picks, here is a guide to the 26 parties running in the election, as we have done in the past.  We include links to their websites if we can find them (English if available, otherwise Hebrew if available, otherwise Arabic if available).  The full candidate lists are available in Hebrew.  Again, we're using the translations of the party names from the official election website (whether or not these are the most accurate translations).

Those who have been following past Israeli elections might notice that, while 26 sounds like a lot, this is actually the fewest parties we have seen in a long time.  There are two likely reasons for this: 1) The new election threshold of 3.25% has forced smaller parties to consolidate.  2) It has only been 2 years since the last election, so there has been less time for new parties to form.

Parties represented in the current Knesset:
  • Habayit Hayehudi: This far-right party, with links to the (overlapping) settlement movement and Religious Zionist movement, first ran in its current configuration in 2013, with Naftali Bennett at the head, and he is running at the top of the list again.  Habayit Hayehudi was a key coalition partner in the current Knesset, and will likely be again if Netanyahu forms the next government.
  • Joint Arab List: An alliance of 3 Arab parties (United Arab List, Ta'al, and Balad), and the left-wing Arab-Jewish party Hadash.  It was forced into existence by the new election threshold, since Hadash and Balad each got less than 3.25% of the vote in the last election, and the combined UAL-Ta'al list got slightly more, so all the parties feared for their survival.  As a result, it is diverse, comprising factions from the Islamic Movement to the Communist Party (no, Fox News, those aren't the same thing).  At the head is the new Hadash leader, former Haifa city councilmember Ayman Odeh.
  • Likud: The Likud is led once again by (and strongly identified with) incumbent PM Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who hopes to become the first person since Ben-Gurion to be elected to a fourth term as prime minister. Whether he will succeed depends not only on how many seats the Likud wins, but on whether the right-of-center (and haredi) parties collectively add up to 61 seats.
  • Meretz – Israel's Left: Meretz is on the left with respect to both Israeli-Palestinian issues and domestic issues, and is led again by Zahava Gal-On.  They're hoping to block Netanyahu from forming the next government.
  • Shas: It's the first election since the death of founder R. Ovadiah Yosef, and the Sephardi haredi party has been beset by internal struggles, between Eli Yishai (who led the party through the 2000s) and Aryeh Deri (who led the party through the 1990s, went to prison, and returned to the Knesset in the last election).  Deri won out, and Yishai left to start his own party (see Yachad, below).  But then posthumous recordings were released in which R. Yosef said bad things about Deri.  Humiliated, Deri resigned from the lame-duck Knesset, but he's still at the top of the Shas list for the election, so he'll be back.
  • United Torah Judaism: In an election campaign filled with mergers, splits, and other excitement, the Ashkenazi haredi party is the island of stability.  They have 7 incumbent MKs, and those men (all men, of course) are filling the first 7 spots on the party list.  Yaakov Litzman is at the top of the list for the 5th time.
  • Yachad: After losing the leadership of Shas (see above), Eli Yishai started a new party.  While its platform shares some issues with Shas, Yachad is more of a right-wing party than a standard haredi party, recruiting candidates such as MK Yoni Chetboun (who left Habayit Hayehudi over their support for the haredi draft bill) and Baruch Marzel (of the far-right Otzma Leyisrael party).  Its platform calls for the annexation of the territories and for a greater role for religion in the state (but also for protecting the environment and reducing economic inequality).
  • Yesh Atid: This party, focusing on social and economic issues, was new in the 2013 election and came out of nowhere to win 19 seats (which actually makes them the largest party in the current lame-duck Knesset, following the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu split and some other shifts).  Party leader Yair Lapid served in the government as Finance Minister, but was fired by PM Netanyahu after public disagreements, leading to the collapse of the coalition and to this election.
  • Yisrael Beiteinu: This right-wing party with a Russian immigrant base, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, ran on a joint list with the Likud in the last election, but the two factions split last summer during the Gaza war (Lieberman was concerned that Netanyahu's response was not hardline enough).  In recent months, a number of senior party members have been implicated in a corruption scandal.
  • Zionist Camp: A center-left alliance between Labor (which leads the opposition in the current Knesset) and Hatenuah (which was part of the coalition until Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was fired from the government).  Under the agreement creating the joint list, if the Zionist Camp forms the next government, Labor leader Yitzchak Herzog will serve as prime minister for 2 years, followed by Hatenuah's Livni (if, of course, the government lasts 4 years).
Parties not represented in the current Knesset:
  • Arab List: Not to be confused with the Joint Arab List (whose name in Hebrew and Arabic is just the Joint List, but voters could still get confused), this party brings together other Arab Israeli factions that didn't enter the Joint List.  It was founded by former MKs Taleb a-Sana of the Arab Democratic Party (formerly one of the factions within the United Arab List) and Muhammad Kanan of the Arab National Party (a breakaway from the UAL).  However, a-Sana has since endorsed the Joint List.
  • Democratura: This party, founded by Doron Hakimi (author of Who is Muhammad? and other books), proposes a new constitution for Israel that would elect each MK from a geographic district.
  • Green Leaf: As usual, their signature issue is marijuana legalization, and their tag line this year is "Proud of my choice".  This time, their platform also emphasizes health care.  They broke 1% of the vote in the last election, but that didn't make the election threshold.
  • Green Party: The Green Party focuses on environmental issues, and has had some success at the local level, but it has never been elected to the Knesset.  This year, they originally submitted their party list under the name "The Greens Don't Give a [possibly untranslatable]", but this name was rejected by the Central Elections Committee.
  • Hope for Change: An Arab party that supports full equality and integration for Arab Israelis.  In the 2013 election, they came in second to last.
  • Kulanu: In almost every election, there seems to be a new party that exceeds expectations by attracting voters who are disaffected with the conventional left-right spectrum.  It was Gil in 2006, Yesh Atid in 2013, and Kulanu hopes to be that party this year.  Kulanu was founded by former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon, who served as Communications Minister and deregulated the cell phone market.  Prominent first-time Knesset candidates include Michael Oren (former ambassador to the US) and Rachel Azaria (deputy mayor of Jerusalem).  The platform focuses on economic issues and transparency.
  • Light: A secular party calling for separation of religion and state, and universal military or national service.
  • Perach: Shefa, Bracha, Chaim Veshalom: The name means "Flower: Abundance, Blessing, Life, and Peace", and it's a haredi party based in Beit Shemesh.  You can join the party as a Copper Club, Silver Club, Golden Club, or global Diamond Club member.  They're not aiming high: they have only 5 candidates on their list.
  • Protecting Our Children – Stopping to Feed Them Pornography:  A better translation, of course, would be "Stop Feeding Them Pornography"; amusingly, this sounds like the opposite!  The name sums up the platform.  UPDATE: The party has dropped out and endorsed Habayit Hayehudi.
  • Rent with Honor: This party calls for more direct democracy, including giving voters the power to recall Knesset members and to propose Knesset bills.
  • Social Leadership: It ran last time under the name "Moreshet Avot", and finished in last place.  Party leader Ilan Meshicha Yar-Zanbar has pledged to donate most of his Knesset salary to the needy, and has suggested that MKs should be paid minimum wage.
  • The (Temporary) National Team: They oppose corruption and economic inequality, and call for returning wealth and power to the people.  I think the "temporary" part of the party name is meant to indicate that they don't intend to be career politicians, but it's not entirely clear to me.
  • The Economics Party: This party was founded by American-born brothers Danny and Benny Goldstein.  This time around, the brothers have had some disputes, leaving Danny in the #1 spot on the list, and Benny all the way down at #5.  The platform focuses on economic reforms.
  • The Pirates: ARRRR!  They're not actual pirates, but they're connected to the Pirate Parties in various European countries.  The party leader, Ohad Shem-Tov, lives in New York and is not planning to return to Israel to vote.  This time they are calling themselves the "petek lavan" (blank ballot), suggesting that they are a protest vote.
  • Ubezchutan – Haredi Women Making a Change: No, that's not a typo for Uzbekistan; "uvizchutan" means "and by their (f.) merits".  This party was founded by haredi women to protest the exclusion of women candidates from the major haredi parties.  Not surprisingly, it has stirred controversy in the haredi world.
  • We Are All Friends: The Na Nach party is back!  Their campaign slogan this time is "Im tirtzu" ("If you will it"), and the platform is about the power of positive thinking.  (Since the name of the party in Hebrew is "Kulanu Haveirim", will some voters mix them up with Kulanu?)
Good luck!  One more week to enter!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Knesset March Madness 2015!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The Israeli election is around the corner, which means that it’s time for… MARCH MADNESS 2015!  From the people who brought you March Madness 2006, February Madness 2009, and January Madness 2013, we announce our fourth Knesset prediction pool!

How to Enter: Go to the Knesset March Madness link and put in your predictions for how many seats each of the 26 parties will win. (We’re using the English names of the parties from the official Knesset website, even though some of them are ridiculous translations and transliterations.)  All predictions must be non-negative integers (0 is allowed), and your predictions must add up to 120. (For reasons discussed below, it is impossible for a party to win 1 or 2 seats, and unlikely that a party will win 3 seats.  However, if you choose to hedge your bets and guess that a given party will win 1, 2, or 3 seats, that is a legal entry in the contest.) Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. (If you win, feel free to share which organization you chose and why.)  Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.

Prizes: The winners will get to choose from among several prizes:
In addition, the winner will be invited to make a statement to the world.

The Rules (for the real election): The 26 parties have submitted ordered lists of candidates. Here is the full list of candidates in Hebrew, and lists of the parties in Arabic and English (it’s possible that these links will be updated to include the candidates’ names as well). On election day (March 17), Israeli citizens will go to polling places in and near Israel, and vote for a party (not for individual candidates). All parties that win at least 3.25% of the vote will win seats in the Knesset, proportional to their share of the vote.  (This is a change for this election; the election threshold last time was 2%.)  For example, suppose The Pirates win 1% of the vote, Rent with Honor wins 33%, and The (Temporary) National Team wins 66%. Then The Pirates win no seats in the Knesset (since they were below the 3.25% threshold), and the other parties will proportionally split the 120 Knesset seats: Rent with Honor gets 40 seats (so the top 40 candidates on its list are elected), and The (Temporary) National Team gets 80 seats. If vacancies arise later in the term, there are no special elections – the next candidate on the party’s list (e.g. #41 on the Rent with Honor list) enters the Knesset. It is mathematically possible for all 26 parties to win seats in the Knesset; best of luck to you if you pick this outcome in the pool.

The Rules (for the March Madness pool): The deadline to enter is Monday, March 16, 2015, at 11:59 pm Israel Standard Time (4:59 pm EST). When the final election results are published, each entry will receive a score based on how many Knesset seats were predicted correctly. For example, suppose the results are as in the above example (The (Temporary) National Team 80, Rent with Honor 40). I predicted 60 seats for Rent with Honor, 50 for The (Temporary) National Team, and 10 for Perach. Then my score is 90, since I correctly predicted 40 seats for Rent with Honor and 50 seats for The (Temporary) National Team.  The entry with the highest score wins!

Ties will be broken based on two tiebreaker questions:
1) Of the parties that do NOT win seats in the Knesset, which will come closest?
2) Which party will get the FEWEST votes?

The tiebreakers will be resolved in this order: exact match on question 1; exact match on question 2; closest on question 1 (if you picked a party that DOES win seats, you’re out of consideration for this one); closest on question 2.

Sometime soon, we’ll put up a post with descriptions of all the parties and links to their websites.

Good luck!!!!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mid-decade update

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Now that we're into Cheshvan, it's time for a mid-decade update!

Four years ago, we noted that for the entire decade of the 2010s, there are only two patterns of Hebrew years:  Rosh Hashanah on Monday and on Thursday.  This means that most or all of the fall holidays are on weekdays for the entire decade, and 4 of the last 5 years have included a string of 3 "3-day yom tovs" for the 2-day yom tov folks.

We made the following prediction:  This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.

Now that the 2010s are half over (in regard to major Jewish holidays), it's time to assess whether this prediction has been accurate so far.

I'm not claiming that this is scientific data collection methodology, but I'm calling for anecdata.

In the last 5 years, did you switch from 2-day yom tov to 1-day?  If so, post in the comments.

And to be fair (and to assess, again unscientifically, whether there has been a real shift or just a dynamic equilibrium) we'll ask the opposite question too:  In the last 5 years, did you switch from 1-day yom tov to 2-day?

A few guidelines:
  • If you don't want to out yourself and post under your real name, that's fine, but then please use a pseudonym (not just "Anonymous") so that we can count unique individuals.
  • Switches to or from 0 days of yom tov don't count (that's measuring something different).
  • We're asking about what you do when you're outside of Israel.
  • We're not asking about Rosh Hashanah.
  • We realize that people aren't always completely consistent, and that practices can vary based on the situation.  Answer based on which practice you primarily identify with.

Thanks for your cooperation!  I'll ask the same questions in 5 years, if blogs are still around.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Internal monologue

Lonely (and whiny) internal monologue upon the latest of many recent widely discussed articles on streams of American Judaism:
"It's great that this discussion is happening, but why is no one writing about my form of Judaism?"
"Because I don't have time to blog anymore."

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

"Independent minyanim" in 1985

A late-breaking update has been added to this old post on the history of the term "independent minyan".  Scroll down to the bottom.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Notes on the Pew survey

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.

1) Orthodox Retention

There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.

This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.

To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.

The result was that the data fit the exponential very closely (R2 = 0.9932), with an attrition rate of about 2.4% per year:

Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.

2) Denominational Identification

First of all, the exact question asked on the phone survey was “Thinking about Jewish religious denominations, do you consider yourself to be [RANDOMIZE: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform] something else, or no particular denomination?” (Kudos to the survey writers for randomizing the order of denominations! Shame on the report writers, who did not randomize or alphabetize the order when reporting the results.) So the survey participants were asked about denominational self-identification. Any discussion of the results (whether by Pew itself or by the media) that references denominational affiliation is not accurately reporting the results; there was no question that asked about denominational affiliation.

This distinction is particularly important when it comes to the “Reform” label. Reform Jewish identity is complex and multifaceted, but there are many people for whom the “Reform” label doesn’t mean affiliation with the Reform movement or affinity to Reform Judaism as a system of religious belief and practice; it means “I don’t do anything; I’m Reform[ed].”

This phenomenon is supported by the survey data themselves: 20% of the “Jews with no religion” category (i.e. people who first described their religion as “none”, then answered in response to a followup question that they consider themselves Jewish aside from religion) identified as “Reform”. Of all the Jews who identified as “Reform”, only 34% are synagogue members (so this category does not represent URJ members), and 16% said that they never attend Jewish services (including high holidays).

This means that any results about the “Reform” population have to be taken with a grain of salt, and can’t be translated into generalizations about Reform Judaism or the Reform movement. This goes both for the results that make Reform look bad (e.g. low rates of Hebrew literacy or of seeing being Jewish as very important) and for the results that make Reform look good (being the largest denomination and having the highest “retention” rate).

What we can conclude is not that Reform Jews are likely to be Jewishly inactive in various ways, but that people who are Jewishly inactive in various ways are much more likely to identify as “Reform” than any of the other denominational labels.

3) Intermarriage

The intermarriage rates are based on the percentage of the “net Jewish” population, i.e. those who consider themselves Jewish. Now that there has been substantial intermarriage for more than one generation, there are many people who were raised by one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent and who have gotten married themselves. Such people may identify as Jewish or as non-Jewish, or may be on the fence. It’s probably fair to assume that people who are on the fence are more likely to marry non-Jews than people who identify unequivocally as Jewish.

Therefore, in the same way that unscrupulous school administrators can improve their average test scores and graduation rates by getting rid of students who are likely to lower those stats, Jewish leaders who want to lower the intermarriage rate may be motivated (consciously or otherwise) to alienate intermarried families so that their children don’t identify as Jewish (so that if those children go on to marry non-Jews, it won’t count as an intermarriage). This may explain the behavior of some parts of the Jewish community.

Note also that the intermarriage rates by denomination are based on current self-identification. If someone was raised Orthodox and then marries a non-Jew, it is unlikely that s/he currently identifies as Orthodox. Given that, the most surprising part of the 2% Orthodox intermarriage rate is that it’s so high – these are Jews who are married to non-Jews and continue to identify as Orthodox.

Finally, the intermarriage statistics are only for current, intact marriages. Therefore, the apparent rise in intermarriage over time may be somewhat misleading. The report notes that “some research indicates that “in-marriages” (marriages between people of the same religion) tend to be more durable than intermarriages; if this is the case, then the percentage of intermarriages in the 1970s and 1980s may have been higher than it appears from looking only at intact marriages today.”

4) Money

One result that raised some eyebrows was that only 76% of Ultra-Orthodox respondents refrain from using money on Shabbat (suggesting that 24% do use money on Shabbat). The explanation for this may be simple: The question wording was “Do you personally refrain from handling or spending money on the Jewish Sabbath, or not? [INTERVIEWER NOTE: IF ASKED, “REFRAIN” MEANS TO NOT DO SOMETHING]” This double negative may have been confusing (especially for respondents whose first language wasn’t English), and the clarification was only for people who requested it. Some significant number of Ultra-Orthodox respondents may have answered “no”, thinking they were saying “No, I don’t handle or spend money on Shabbat.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Response to H'zon

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

I hope everyone had a great New Year of the Trees! Several days ago, the Jewish environmental organization H’zon put up (and sent to their email list) a blog post defending their practice of incorrectly referring to the holiday as “Tu B’Shvat”. (h/t to commenter Joel for “H’zon”.)

A review of why this is incorrect: In Hebrew, a word may not begin with two shevas. (A sheva is the vowel that looks like a colon underneath the letter; depending on context, it is pronounced either not at all or like the English schwa.) Therefore, if one of the prefixes b-, k-, or l- is placed on a word beginning with a sheva, the prefix letter gets a chirik (the “ee” vowel, represented by a single dot under the letter) instead of a sheva. For example, the name of the month of Sh’vat (uniquely among all the Hebrew months) begins with a sheva, so when the prefix B- is attached to the month, you get Bishvat (or BiShvat or biShvat or Bi-Shvat or BeeShvat — however you want to write it).

To be clear, this is a Hebrew grammar issue; it is NOT a transliteration issue. The issue has nothing to do with the choice of which English characters are used to represent each Hebrew letter and vowel — the same issue would come up in vocalized Hebrew, in which בִּשְׁבָט is correct and בְּשְׁבָט is incorrect. (In unvocalized Hebrew, of course, the difference is invisible.) As a parallel, suppose your organization sent out an email (in English) around the new year (the tree one or any other one) saying “Shanah tov!” If someone then responded “Actually, it should be ‘shanah tovah’, since ‘shanah’ is a feminine noun, so it should take a feminine adjective”, you wouldn’t reply “Hey, you’re entitled to your preference, but there’s no right or wrong way to transliterate Hebrew into English characters.” It should be obvious that such a reply would be a non sequitur, since noun-adjective agreement is obviously unrelated to transliteration – nothing would be different if the email had been in Hebrew and said שנה טוב, and then was corrected to שנה טובה.

In short, anyone who says this is a transliteration dispute either doesn’t understand the issue (and should defer to those who do) or is intentionally obfuscating.

With that in mind, here’s the story so far:

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post, “The War on Tu Bishvat”, enumerating and responding to the top five rationalizations for “B’Shvat”/”B’Shevat”, and explaining why they are without merit, followed by a second blog post, “Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame”, which laid out who was on each side of the issue. I then had some unfortunate online interactions with H’zon, during which one of their staffers acted unprofessionally, and I wrote it up in a third blog post, “Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame”.

If you haven’t read those three blog posts (or even if you have), read them now before proceeding further.

H’zon didn’t read them before responding, and as a result, most of the points they make in their defense were already anticipated, and already responded to, a year ago in “The War on Tu Bishvat”. In fact, I think they managed to hit all five. So I’m not going to rehash all of those points again (only some of them).

They referred to me only as a “Jewish blogger”, and didn’t call me out by name (which I appreciate, since this isn’t about me), and likewise I’m not calling out the author of the H’zon post by name (even though the post was signed), because I otherwise respect this individual, and want to make it clear that this isn’t personal.

To be fair, I understand that H’zon may be under a lot of stress right now: they recently merged with the Is’bella Fr’dman J’wish R’tr’t C’nt’r, and it appears to already be a rocky marriage, since H'zon has just doubled down on “Tu B’Shvat”, while IF remains committed to “Tu B’Shevat” (which is even more wrong: while “Tu B’Shvat” may be marginally defensible as a transcription of how some people pronounce the name of the holiday, “Tu B’Shevat” doesn’t even have that going for it). Still, we’ll leave H’zon and Is’bella Fr’dman to work out their own differences; this post is targeted more at those who might be inclined to follow H’zon’s lead and change their style from the correct to the incorrect name of the holiday.

The first half of H’zon’s response is a long and irrelevant digression about academic transliteration, stating that “a certain kind of foolish consistency of academic transliteration can become the hobgoblin of little minds.” The opening paragraphs of this post (and item #1 in “The War on Tu Bishvat”) should make clear why this line of argument is a red herring. Those who are defending Tu Bishvat aren’t insisting on consistency in transliteration, or on any particular transliteration scheme, but only on the rules of Hebrew grammar. H’zon’s attack on the academic transliteration straw man suggests that either they don’t understand the grammatical issue (which is unlikely, because the later part of the post indicates that they do) or they are writing to appeal to those who don’t understand the issue.

H’zon then goes on to outline its reasons for spelling it “Tu B’Shvat”:
1. Finding a way in English to give a sense of the grammar/structure of the Hebrew. My problem with the “correct” transliteration in this instance is that “Bishvat” doesn’t in any way convey to a non-hebrew speaker that בשבט – b’shvat – is a prefix followed by the Hebrew month of Shvat. Tu B’Shvat is, to my mind, a much clearer conveying of what’s going on in the Hebrew than Tu Bishvat.
The idea that one must violate Hebrew grammar in order to convey the sense of Hebrew grammar is certainly a strange one, and one that we would never think of implementing in English. (“Yes, I realize that in a technical sense, ‘went’ would be more academically ‘correct’, but ‘goed’ helps convey that it’s the past tense of ‘go.’”)

And this violation is also entirely unnecessary. As mentioned in item #4 of “The War on Tu Bishvat”, there are plenty of grammatically correct ways to indicate that בשבט is a prefix followed by a month: BiShvat, biShvat, Bi-Shvat, bi-Shvat, Bi’Shvat (if you just can’t quit that apostrophe), Bee-Shvat, and many more. (All of these options, including the incorrect B’Shvat, go above and beyond what would be provided by Hebrew itself, which makes no indication that the bet is a prefix. But as long as English allows for capital and lowercase letters, and punctuation within a word, I agree with H’zon that there’s no reason not to take advantage of these features.)
In addition, properly speaking the first vowel in the word is a long e sound (bee-), although most Hebrew speakers slur that a bit in modern pronunciation. While the proper academic way to represent this vowel is the letter i, in spoken English bi- is never pronounced as bee (think about the words bit and bite). Furthermore, most words in English with bi- as a prefix pronounce it as a long vowel, such as in bilateral, which is not at all what is intended. Therefore, Tu B’Shvat represents a transliteration that a/ is easy to read, b/ visually sets apart the prefix, and c/ allows those not familiar with Hebrew grammar to approximate the typical Hebrew pronunciation.
H’zon can’t seriously think that English speakers outside of academia would have difficulty pronouncing “Bishvat”. Plenty of English words have the letter i pronounced as “ee”. Most of these are loan words from other languages rather than coming from Anglo-Saxon roots, but they have become common English words all the same. No English speakers have trouble pronouncing machine, radio, pizza, or bikini. (Ok, most of those words don’t have the string “bi”, but is there any reason to think the consonant b should make a difference?)

Furthermore, English-speaking Jews who are accustomed to seeing Hebrew transliteration (even if they don’t speak Hebrew) know that it’s a standard convention to read the vowels as in Spanish (or other languages with similar vowel sets), rather than as in English words of older vintage. H’zon knows this – on their own website they feature programs called Siach and the Shmita Project. They don’t feel the need to spell these as “S’ach” or “Shm’ta”, nor do they appear to be concerned that English speakers might pronounce the i vowels as “eye”. (And I’ve never heard anyone pronounce the commonly used nickname of the Israeli prime minister as “bye-bye”.)

Finally, if an English speaker doesn’t pronounce the i in Bishvat as “ee”, the next likeliest pronunciation would be the first syllable rhyming with “fish”, which would still be closer to (or at least no farther from) the Hebrew pronunciation than any reading of “B’Shvat” would be.

For all these reasons, H’zon’s claim that “B’Shvat” would lead readers to the correct pronunciation, while “Bishvat” is an ivory-tower affectation (like “qydwš”) that would baffle non-academic English speakers, is simply not plausible.
2. Common usage. On Google, tu b’shvat and tu b’shevat have between them 619,000 hits, whereas tu bishvat and tu bishevat have 431,600. (This may change over time: if ten years from now the grammar-police succeed in imposing bishvat or bishevat, then there would be some argument for us to cross-over; even then, I’d prefer not to lose a sense of prefix and month, as well as reflecting how a non-native Hebrew speaker pronounces English vowels.) Tu bee-shvat in comparison has fewer than 50 hits.
3. It’s how it was spelled when I was a kid. This last is of course the least defensible academically, and the most persuasive personally. I’ve been celebrating Tu B’Shvat since I was a kid, and I’ve been to or hosted Tu B’Shvat seders every year since 1986; and along the way, I’ve always spelled it – and mostly seen it spelled – Tu b’Shvat.
The idea that practices based on ignorance are justified because most people are ignorant, or because people have been ignorant for a long time, is a troubling epistemological stance for an environmental organization to encourage. Presumably H’zon generally wants its constituents to rethink widespread and longstanding problematic practices on their merits, rather than to leave those practices in place based on their popularity and longevity. But with this irresponsible blog post, H’zon has given its epistemological stamp of approval to anyone who might say “Most Americans drive everywhere and eat factory-farmed meat, and that’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. And ‘meat’ gets a whole lot more Google hits than ‘tofu’. So why should I even think about switching to anything different, when that would put me in the minority? If ten years from now the treehugger police succeed in imposing a carbon tax, then there would be some argument for me to think about biking or public transportation, but even then I’m not sure I’d do it.” The thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through H’zon’s response, from the “academic transliteration” straw man to the “grammar-police”, is also playing with fire: this attitude aids and abets those who say “Sure, a bunch of egghead professors may tell us that the climate is changing, but why should I believe them instead of Fox News?”

H’zon then has the audacity to quote President Obama on climate change: “The path will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.” Leadership, whether on climate change or on Hebrew grammar, means having the fortitude to do what is right (which includes admitting past mistakes) and to bring others along by example, rather than following the crowd. On this count, H’zon has failed. Rather than wait passively for others to correct themselves on this issue, H’zon has the power (and therefore the responsibility), as a pillar of the Jewish environmental movement, to lead that change. They have chosen to waste this power.

Perhaps H’zon will never evolve on this matter. If so, this post isn’t directed to H’zon, but to all of the environmentally-minded organizations and individuals who respect H’zon (even though this respect is unwarranted on this issue) and follow its lead. Think about the qualities that you want to embody in order to face this generation’s greatest challenges. If H’zon won’t provide leadership on this issue, you have the power to begin on your own.