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?