Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame

Hazon has numerous accomplishments to its name:  perhaps more than any other organization, it is responsible for bringing an environmental consciousness to the American Jewish community, from promoting bicycling as a green mode of transportation to making us think about where the food we eat comes from.  I have participated in a number of Hazon events (including the 2003 New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride, when we biked the length of Long Island), and have been proud to support it financially in the past.  So it has been disappointing to see Hazon fall so far so fast, and adopt positions that resemble the epistemological stances of the anti-environmental forces.

Like all Jewish environmental organizations, Hazon does programming around the New Year of the Trees.  As recently as 2010, they correctly referred to this holiday as Tu Bishvat.  Then, in 2011, they altered their written communication across the board so that it read “Tu B’Shvat”.  (This blog has  explained why that is wrong, and why it is indefensible.)

So last year, I replied to one of Hazon's emails, asking them why they had switched away from the grammatically correct spelling (and linking to the earlier post).  I received the following reply from a Hazon staff member:

Great question. We went with Tu B'Shvat because "bishvat" is too easily read as "beeshvat" among those who are used to reading foreign languages online. There was some internal debate on this matter and I imagine it will change again in the future.

I'm also personally (that is, I'm no long speaking on behalf of the organization) that when transliterating, there is no correct spelling as it's a different character set.

First of all, WHAT?  "Beeshvat" is the correct reading!  That's the whole point!  We're not being pedantic about how to transliterate a given vowel, we're being pedantic about which vowel it is!

So it's disturbing that Hazon is entrusting policy decisions (even about admittedly small issues) to people who lack even the most basic understanding of the issue.  I compared the Tu Bishvat moral relativists to climate-change "skeptics", but this doesn't even reach the pseudo-intellectual level of climate-change denial.  This is a more fundamental confusion, akin to confusing weather with climate, and using winter as evidence that global warming isn't happening.  (Yes, I know that congressional Republicans and Fox News actually do this.  Hazon, is that who you want to be?)

Do I expect everyone who works for a Jewish organization to be a Hebrew grammar expert?  No, and I don't expect every politician or journalist to be a climate scientist either, but I expect them to know the limits of their own knowledge, and to defer as appropriate to those who understand the issue better.

That's just last year.  This year, Hazon has gone from clueless to brazen.  After I posted "The War on Tu Bishvat" (and emailed the link to Hazon, noting that they used to get it right), they linked to it and tweeted:

Man, this guy is REALLY upset about how we spell Tu B'Shvat

In other words, they're making it about "this guy", and personal emotions.  (Did they even read the post?)  In their apparent worldview, there is no objective truth, just differences of opinion.  "Shape of Earth: Views Differ."

A few days later, I received the following reply to my email from the same Hazon staff member mentioned above:
Thanks for linking to the Hazon website!

Tu B'Shvat Sameach,
[Name redacted]

This was sent from a email address, with an official Hazon sig at the bottom.  This is deeply unprofessional.  Rather than even attempting to explain their new policy, they are now openly giving Hebrew grammar (and those who defend it) the finger.

This attitude resembles nothing so much as the Republicans' decision to replace the biodegradable containers in the House of Representatives cafeteria (instituted under Speaker Pelosi in 2007) with styrofoam when they retook the majority.  It wasn't even about the styrofoam (which will last forever); it was about pissing off Democrats and environmentalists.  Again, Hazon, is that who you want to be?

Hazon needs to realize that it is not operating in a vacuum; it still commands a great deal of respect as a leader in the Jewish environmental movement, and its decisions have larger consequences.  Just today, a smaller Jewish environmental organization switched over from "Tu Bishvat" to "Tu B'Shvat", and explained this as follows:

The reason we chose to publicize it as "B'Shvat" is because we are basing our materials off of Hazon, and their organization spelled it as such.

Will Hazon start demonstrating leadership again?


  1. Go plan a tree instead of wasting your time berating a fabulous organization over the spelling of one date. I can't believe I wasted 4 minutes reading this.

  2. @anonymous - BZ is clearly being parodic here, as no person could ever sincerely apply such intense rhetoric over such a meaningless and superfluous problem.

  3. Anonymous and invisible_hand, you are both completely wrong.

    As our sages expound regarding the Torah's laws of judicial fairness,

    דין פרוטה כדין מאה מנה

    The law (and procedure, and priority) of a penny is identical to the law of a hundred talents of silver.

    This is a case where Hazon deliberately changed a (minor) policy from correct to incorrect, where correctness is based on rules established by the oldest vocalized texts and continuing to the present day.

    Worse, they are not apologizing for their error, or trying to correct it, or even making excuses. They are saying that they don't care.

    Why should I (or anyone) believe what they have to say from now on? Maybe other things they say, such as factual claims (or even framing devices!) are simply incorrect, and can be disregarded. Unless I take the time to do the research myself, of course.

    I'm happy to grant a lot of leeway to people and organizations that make honest mistakes, even out of ignorance. I would even grant leeway to persisting in the mistakes after being corrected, if there were some greater justification (e.g. the prohibitive cost of re-printing literature). But here BZ sent respectful corrections which weren't even read! I think the least they owe everyone is an apology.

  4. It's an important issue because it shows that Hazon is not interested in their details being correct. And this reflects poorly on them - if they're willing to use incorrect transliteration, that means they won't mind being taken less seriously by those who know the correct way to say (and spell) the word. And that means they shouldn't mind if their credibility among Jews with higher levels of Hebrew education begins to decline.

    As an analogy, I dislike shopping at stores that deliberately misspell things in English ("Kids Korner") or don't think it's important to correct mistakes on their signage, because it communicates carelessness and/or incompetence.

  5. Your analogies are tortured and not explained well. Who is policing your work?

  6. This post, and these comments, make me so very, very happy. And it isn't even Adar yet.

  7. @BZ I'm curious whether you've sent similar missives to any of the
    numerous other organizations that use the same spelling, and whether
    you question their veracity on all other issues. A few readily found

    Rabbis for Human Rights-North America - - -
    Rabbinical Assembly -
    USCJ -
    Hebrew College -
    Mechon Hadar -
    UJA Federation of NY -
    Arutz7 -
    Jewish Agency for Israel -

    This is not to say that your initial point is wrong - they may all be wrong. I know the limits of my language knowledge and can't opine other than to say that the pronunciation if the characters "B'Shvat" are open to wide enough variation to probably make this a nonargument. I can as that extending an argument over transliterative spelling to all other substantive areas of an organization's work is probably a bridge too far.

    1. Marc-
      I've already included a number of those organizations in the Hall of Shame (though not all of them - I tried to focus on organizations that had entire pages about the 15th of Shevat, rather than just passing mentions). I haven't emailed any of those, because I'm not on their email lists (except for Mechon Hadar, but they haven't sent any emails about this holiday). But yes, when I get emails spelling the holiday wrong, I do reply (including to Hazon) with a two-line email including a link to this blog (not with a "missive").

      Given that so many organizations do it wrong (and are listed in the Hall of Shame), why single out Hazon with this dedicated post?
      * Hazon switched from the correct to the incorrect spelling
      * Hazon dismissively tweeted about Mah Rabu on this issue
      * Hazon is an environmental organization, which means 1) Tu Bishvat is a bigger part of what it does than what, say, the OU does, and 2) it should be particularly careful not to adopt epistemological stances that are being used in public discourse to threaten the environment
      * Hazon is influential enough that other organizations are following its lead.

    2. If Hazon is influential, then what does that make the Office of the Chief Rabbi or The Jewish Week

  8. Way to really, really miss the forest for the trees...

  9. From now on, I will refer to them as "H'zon".

    1. +1.

      I have to say, the ubiquitous presence of Tu B'Shvat has made this holiday a little less enjoyable, because I think it really does indicate a basic lack of Jewish literacy. If people were aware that the holiday is pronounced beeshvat, I don't think the B'Shvat spelling would be tolerated. No Jewish organization would let "Rash Hashana" or "Yum Kippur" stand.

    2. Dude, it's Yom haKippurim. :)

      Do people actually say "too b' sh' vaht"? I've always said and heard "too bee shvat". I know native Hebrew speakers says "too bee shvat". How often are do Israelis use correct grammar? And here we deny them full representation in our orthography!

  10. When do we start hearing about Lag Ba`Omer?