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What Happened: October 6, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: A Taiwan mini-crisis, the end of a Tel Aviv icon?, surviving the WhatsApp crash

The Scroll
October 06, 2021

The Big Story

Today’s edition of The Scroll is guest-edited by Armin Rosen

President Joe Biden spoke to Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping amid an upswing in tensions between the communist-controlled mainland and the autonomous, democratically governed island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers to be part of its sovereign territory. China launched 148 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air-defense zone during a four-day period earlier this week, a development worrying enough in Washington, D.C., to necessitate the call to Xi, a nationalist ideologue whose violation of long-standing agreements on Hong Kong’s autonomy last year could be an ominous sign of his intentions across the Straits. Biden said that he and Xi decided to “abide by the Taiwan agreement,” though it’s unclear exactly what “agreement” the president is referring to. The United States has an official policy of supporting Taiwan’s self-governance, aiding in its self-defense, and opposing any violent resolution to any alleged dispute over the island’s status—though Washington also follows a “one-China policy” that explicitly refrains from recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state. Xi already knows all this, and Biden probably restated all of it to him, but the word “agreement” implies some kind of more or less reciprocal action on China’s part. Will there be any? I guess we’ll find out. A mainland invasion of Taiwan is one of the world’s more plausible World War III scenarios and something that would almost certainly devastate a prosperous and generally very successful U.S.-allied democratic project. By now, though, maybe the more reasonable worry is that Beijing is opting for a long and patient process of escalation and simple attrition to dominate its freedom-loving neighbor, the way it did in Hong Kong.

The Rest

-Understanding what’s going on with the whole debt ceiling/infrastructure bill/filibuster reform/budget reconciliation thing that’s threatened the Biden domestic agenda and consumed Washington, D.C., this week requires an advanced degree in political science and a greater appetite for American political ephemera than I personally have right now. But if you want to try to understand what’s going on, please be my guest, and read more:

-It’s one of those classic, even heartwarming New York stories. Yesterday the FBI raided the offices of the NYPD’s sergeant’s union, leading to the resignation of union chief Ed Mullins. Mullins, who gleefully tweeted about the arrest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter during a Black Lives Matter protest last year and once called the pro police-reform Progressive Rep. Ritchie Torres a “first-class whore,” is something of a local character. Read more:

-The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street, an agenda-setter on the foreign policy left and within the Democratic Party coalition more generally, is hosting a fundraiser tonight for one of the nine members of the House of Representatives who recently voted against $1 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Read more:

-Israeli transportation minister Merav Michaeli announced that Tel Aviv’s iconically terrible central bus station will be replaced by 2024. The existing complex is a cavernous and allegedly crime-ridden netherworld, home to a Yiddish library, a bat colony, a Sudanese marketplace, and honestly who even knows what else, given that there are entire floors where seemingly no one has set foot since the mid-1990s. Could it be that we’ll actually miss the place? Read more:

-Francis Collins is stepping down after 12 years as director of the National Institutes of Health, though he insisted on a Fox News interview that the move had nothing to do with renewed scrutiny over NIH’s past funding of potentially dangerous gain-of-function research in places like Wuhan, China, a policy that the United States’ leading medical lab and its leadership, including Collins, hasn’t been all that transparent about. Read more:

-The State Department announced yesterday that the United States has 3,750 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, in case anyone was wondering. Read more:

-Folks, we did it. In what’s either a sign of restored normality amid a pathogenic hell or evidence of the planet’s rapid and inexorable ecological degradation—take your pick, though they’re not really mutually exclusive—carbon emissions are back to pre-pandemic levels. Mazal! Read more:

-Quick follow-up from earlier newsletters: The City of London Corporation has opted not to authorize the construction of a high-rise complex that would have cast the Bevis Marks synagogue, built in 1701, into permanent shadow. And the United States appears to have rejected Iranian demands that it unfreeze $10 billion in regime assets as a condition for continuing Vienna-based negotiations over the future of the 2015 nuclear deal. Read more: and

-Unfathomably important and mind-blowing ’90s pop-punk-themed Jewish numerology update:

-In unrelated Judaic rock news—or related in, like, the cosmic sense?—Phish bassist Mike Gordon and his daughter surprise-performed with a Jewish-themed bluegrass band during a show at Burlington, Vermont’s Temple Sinai this past Saturday:

-Students of the Sha’alvim yeshiva in central Israel returned to Mount Meron for the first time since their classmate, 19-year-old Donny Morris of Bergenfield, New Jersey, was killed in the stampede during the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai this past Lag B’Omer, which claimed 44 other lives. “We miss you Donny,” tweeted Rabbi Ari Waxman. “And Rav Shimon Bar Yochai reminds us that things are always deeper than they seem at the surface.” More:

The Back Pages

How did America’s Orthodox Jews cope with the Monday outage of WhatsApp, by far the community’s leading means of staying connected online? Former Tablet fellow David Spinrad reports.

For around five hours on Monday, Facebook and other sites in the web giant’s empire went dark. The rest of the world started freaking out about things that are relatively minor: Boomers couldn’t see the latest pictures of their high school friends’ kids or conduct vaccine “research” on Facebook; millennials were denied a glimpse of the pumpkin spice latte fall aesthetic on Instagram. But for America’s Orthodox Jewish communities, the momentary loss of WhatApp created a profound and even terrifying communications vacuum.

Why is WhatsApp, a common messaging app overseas that has something of a light footprint in the United States, so popular in the Orthodox world, even here? It starts with Orthodox Jews being an internationally dispersed community, spread between Israel and the United States and numerous points in between. A decade ago, as WhatsApp took off, it was very difficult to communicate with friends and family between Israel and the United States. With standard domestic cell phone plans largely unable to call Israel, the only way to reach the Jewish state by phone was through a landline, like the one my grandparents still have, as do many Orthodox Jews who choose to live without smartphones.

But with the arrival of WhatsApp, anyone with Wi-Fi and even a very basic smartphone could easily shmooze with Jews globally. Importantly, even those who, for religious reasons, eschew smartphones that have access to the internet were able to buy special kosher models that came preloaded with WhatsApp yet blocked most of the rest of the internet.

Today the WhatsApp group chat function is a major part of American Orthodox life. Every family has their own chat—my extended family has four—and there are groups for everything from arranging rideshares to breaking community news to setting up marriages and finding employment. I myself am part of about 25 groups and active in seven. But that’s a small number. I know people who receive thousands of messages a day from over 200 groups.

For a community that shuns many forms of social media out of habit or religious obligation, WhatsApp statuses exist in a sort of gray area, functioning as a news feed within a platform whose use is widely accepted. Some users post snapshots into their personal lives, the casualness of which has invited blowback from more anti-internet hard-liners. But there are also plenty of Orthodox WhatsApp’ers sharing the times for candle-lighting, or calling for charitable donations, or asking contacts to recite Tehillim in times of tragedy. And for people who don’t go on the regular, non-kosher internet, WhatsApp is just about the only way to see memes and funny videos.

Orthodox businesses use WhatsApp to reach customers, announcing promotions using WhatsApp influencer statuses that can reach hundreds of people a post. I myself only average about 120 views per status update, and I’m still awaiting my big corporate buyout from the Lakewood kosher-industrial complex.

On Monday, the messages all stopped. I use WhatsApp for about an hour and a half a day, according to my phone’s screen-time monitor, and thus noticed the outage immediately. A glance at Twitter revealed the crash to be global. My dad rebooted his phone, thinking it was broken. Many of my friends found out WhatsApp was down through a regular text. Some, astonishingly, found out from real, live human beings, in real life.

How did the Orthodox community deal with this? I posted a few questions on my WhatsApp status, to see how people coped with the crash. Some liked the peace and quiet. “Y’know what, it’s great that you’re off of this,” Shira G. of Lakewood said she realized. “If you really need someone, you call someone.” Reminders of WhatsApp’s appeal still cropped up even during this much-welcome downtime. “iMessage does not have fast-forwarding for people’s recordings,” she noted.

Most users spoke about how convenient WhatsApp has become. Maybe it has become too convenient, some realized. Those five hours without WhatsApp only made some users feel more beholden to it, since the pause highlighted how much of their lives unfolds on the platform. Those that used WhatsApp more for work spoke about the time and effort needed to adjust to the service not being there. “I had to call everyone for work, which wasted a lot of my time,” said Dave, who manages a business in Lakewood. “And now people have my personal number, so they will bother me all the time.”

In contrast, Dovid H, also in Lakewood, actively enjoyed the outage. “It was great,” he texted. “My boss couldn’t get through to me.”

“It felt good,” recalled Shmuel from Detroit. “It’s the biggest time-waster on my phone. When I know I don’t have WhatsApp, I barely look at my phone. I leave WhatsApp notifications off all of the time. That was a game changer.”

For many, Monday was a reprieve from the endless notifications. Some mentioned wryly that when WhatsApp became operational again, the whole world finally felt what it’s like for Jews after Shabbos ends, when messages from the weekend pour in as the observant turn on their phones.

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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