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Orthodox and Outspoken

A conservative political commentator who’s appeared on just about every national news network and author of four books, Ben Shapiro, says his black crocheted yarmulke is a welcome companion to his work



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It was January 10th, less than a minute into a debate over the hot-button issue of gun control. Already it was clear that CNN host Piers Morgan, the outraged speaker of those three words, was fighting a steep uphill battle. Morgan, a tall, sophisticated 47-year-old Briton and fierce critic of America’s gun culture, seemed stumped when his studio guest accused him of being “a bully … standing on the graves of the children of Sandy Hook” for invoking the horrific Newtown, Connecticut school shooting to denounce critics of certain gun control proposals.

Morgan continued debating the constitutional merits and crime-fighting effectiveness of gun bans for another 13 minutes, but he never seemed to be able to get the last word on any argument. When he implied that America need not fear a tyrannical regime rising in its midst and citizens don’t need guns to protect against that, Shapiro immediately retorted, “The fact that my grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t fear that in Europe is why they’re now ashes.”

After all was said and done, noted media critic Erik Wemple of the Washington Post explained that Morgan, a seasoned journalist, had “struggled to find the appropriate strategy” in the debate against a “foe of extraordinary polemical agility.”

A few weeks after this marquee debate that had conservatives cheering, liberals jeering, and pundits of all stripes taking note, it was this writer’s turn to speak to Morgan’s sparring partner: Ben Shapiro, a Los Angeles resident and Orthodox Jew who had just recently celebrated his 29th birthday but is already a successful attorney, widely featured political commentator, and accomplished author.

Shapiro’s most prominent political role comes in his capacity as editor-at-large of Breitbart.com, a top conservative news and opinion portal. The site was founded by trailblazing California journalist Andrew Breitbart, whose aggressive tactics uncovered several prominent scandals, including the one that led to the resignation of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.

I met Shapiro at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, during his brief hopscotch through the New York area following a weekend in Washington, DC. In an extensive conversation that included some very pointed questions, the modestly built, boyish-looking conservative media icon, who himself has a reputation for employing aggressive tactics, was cordial and polite; he never raised his voice or lost his cool. He did often flash a mild grin — perhaps that’s what Piers Morgan considered to be a smirk — and had a smooth answer at the tip of his tongue to every question, as if he had spent his entire morning preparing for them.

Shapiro explains that the anger and indignation he sometimes displays during media appearances are merely “clinical” and not genuinely nasty. “I don’t call people stupid or otherwise insult them,” he adds. “I just destroy their arguments.”

Bully Pulpit

Destroying arguments has been Shapiro’s forte throughout his life. Love him or hate him — and few who express an opinion about him fall anywhere in between — Ben Shapiro’s prodigious intellect and talent, hyper-ambition and unabashed aggressiveness have enabled him to have an impact on the American political scene that is unusual for someone so young.

“Ben is incredibly important to the conservative movement for many reasons, including the fact that he is utterly brilliant,” conservative commentator Matt K. Lewis of The Daily Caller told Mishpacha. “The conservative movement would be better off if we had more Bens. His future seems limitless.”

Equally powerful are the criticisms of the young star. Where his fans see sharp analysis, ideological and moral clarity, and courageous articulation, foes see baseless radical rhetoric.

One vociferous critic is Robert N. Watson, Ph.D., an English professor and Associate Dean of Humanities at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), Ben’s alma mater. In 2004, after Ben published his first book, which accused American university campuses of widespread liberal indoctrination, Dr. Watson penned a column in UCLA’s student newspaper accusing Shapiro of publishing “not debate … (but) sloppy bait” in a “carelessly edited compendium of obvious falsehoods and adolescent zingers.”

There were other public rebuttals, but close to a decade later, Dr. Watson says that he had stopped following Ben’s commentary in recent years. After a quick review of some of Shapiro’s most recent postings, Dr. Watson remains steadfast in his original assessment. “He’s chosen to continue to feed back superficial, media-friendly sermons to the right-wing choir instead of developing any more meaningful engagement with the complicated world out there,” says Dr. Watson. “That seems like a shame.”

For his part, Shapiro explains that he sees raising left wing ire as a plus. He cites one of his first public commentary experiments, in the UCLA student newspaper on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East, where he repeatedly sparred with opinions by Muslim and other anti-Israel students. Looking back, Shapiro takes pride that his columns (which he wrote after reading a column comparing Ariel Sharon to Adolf Eichmann) generated the most controversy on campus. “I don’t believe in not ruffling feathers,” he says. “If you’re not drawing fire, you’re doing something wrong.”

Shapiro’s views on effective political argument can be found in his most recently published book, Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America, which instantly hit the New York Times bestsellers list. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which says that Republicans have been suffering electorally in recent years due to shrill extreme rhetoric, Shapiro argues in Bullies that the opposite tends to be true. He contends that Republicans haven’t forcefully pushed their message because they’ve been intimidated by left wingers who accuse them of being bigoted and coldhearted. Meanwhile, liberals push their extreme rhetoric, such as when they linked 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to a woman’s cancer death.

Just recently, Shapiro told conservative host Sean Hannity that “We can’t be civil with (liberals),” but during our conversation he clarified that he is not advocating for vitriol. Instead, he says that conservatives must preempt what he sees as liberal bullying tactics, and not let them frame the debate on their terms; conservatives must push a confident, substantive conservative message. “There’s a difference between civility in manner and civility in content,” he says, stressing that he only opposes the latter.

Shapiro points to his now famous exchange with Piers Morgan as a prime example of how to take control of the narrative of a debate and put liberals on the defense, even on emotion-ridden policy issues. Conservatives, in the midst of soul searching over the movement’s future path in America, seem to agree. “It is especially rewarding to watch a young conservative so frustrate and outwit the left,” says Matt Lewis. “Shapiro’s debate with Piers Morgan should be used as a case study at PR seminars for conservatives.”

No Fear

No doubt, someone so successful at what he does — so fast — has the necessary passion and talent firmly rooted in his bloodstream.

Shapiro, who appears to have no fear or shy genes in his DNA, maintains that he generally does no specific prep for media appearances and debates. Instead, his lightning-fast mind is filled with a vast cache of facts that he constantly refreshes by spending a large portion of each day reading up on the latest information on topics of interest. A quick reader and writer — he types a jaw dropping 120 words a minute — Shapiro takes meticulous notes, and much of the information ends up in his books.

He says that even for his closely-watched debate with Morgan, the only prep he did was his opening debate-framing attack of “standing on the graves of the children of Sandy Hook” and placing a small Constitution in his pocket, which he pulled out while discussing the Second Amendment, the section of the United States Constitution that protects people’s right to bear arms. The substance of his gun control views, he says, was already down pat — something especially necessary for debates where surprise questions and arguments are often raised.

However, more than intellectual power, Shapiro says that his views and work reflect who he is as a person. It is ironic that a Jew from California, arguably America’s most liberal state, who is the child of two parents who work for the Hollywood entertainment industry (his father is a musician and his mother is a business affairs employee) turned out to be staunchly conservative, particularly on social issues and immorality in contemporary media.

Shapiro says that he recently discovered an essay he had written in seventh grade, where he argued that former President Bill Clinton should be impeached due to his moral failings. Though he has been on a comprehensive political crusade against social liberalism and secularism, he concedes that the related political debates are merely symptoms of a gradual, deep rooted deterioration of family, morality, and religion in America in recent decades. The true antidote, he contends, must come from the grassroots religious community, which must effectively counter the lure of secular values with an appealing, rational message to the young generation.

To that end, Shapiro sees the black crocheted yarmulke as a welcome companion to his work. “I don’t try to stick it in people’s faces, nor do I try to hide it,” he says. “This is just who I am.”

Shapiro says that he relishes his role as perhaps the only major political commentator in the mainstream media with a yarmulke, and has never encountered any hostility due to it. “Most Orthodox Jews tell me that they believe I’m making a Kiddush Hashem — even if they disagree with me,” he says.

But Shapiro acknowledges that his Orthodox image also places a responsibility on his shoulders. He says that he takes extra caution not to utter even commonly used profanity in the media, and, even more, to articulate views that he believes are in accordance with traditional Jewish values.

Shapiro has no qualms alluding to his religion during his political discourse. In addition to his Holocaust reference in his gun control debate with Morgan, he clearly identified himself “as an Orthodox Jew” when he confronted former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at last year’s Democratic National Convention over the party platform’s watered down pro-Israel language. When asked if his harsh media encounters may be out of line with the manner in which a Jew should comport himself in public, Shapiro brushes away the criticism. He says that Jews should remain at the forefront of political debate, and points to the fact that historically Jews have not been subjected to more persecution in countries where they were part of the political discourse compared to countries where they were precluded from such participation.

In order to bolster his activist view, Shapiro points to the prevalence of secular Jews — roughly 90 percent of America’s Jewish population — in the media and political sphere as distorting the image of Jewish values to the country’s population, leading to the common perception of Jews as universally liberal, even though the Orthodox community leans solidly conservative. “We shouldn’t leave it to the Christians to champion morality in America,” he says. “We are the light unto the nations and we should lead the charge.”

On the other hand, Shapiro believes strongly that Jewish political activism in America must be framed in a way that paints traditional religious Jewish values as being in accordance with traditional American values, as opposed to being a stand-alone interest. Similarly, he says that his strong support for Israel is not due to his placing the diplomatic needs of the Jewish State above the needs of America, but rather because the two nations’ interests go hand in hand. Shapiro points out, for instance, that he was only a lukewarm supporter of the Iraq War and says that he increasingly respects potential Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky, who has advocated that Israel become less dependent on both American funding and influence over its decisions.

Shapiro has his mind made up on his current public role, but has left ample room to consider future plans. Running for political office has crossed his mind, he says, but it doesn’t appear to be imminent. He does quip that since liberal California may not be the most fertile ground for someone like him, he might one day become “the Orthodox Jewish senator of Oklahoma.” He also says that he’s already working on his next book, but refuses to divulge what the topic will be.

Based on his track record to date, chances are that we will find out soon. Very soon.

Fast Track


he stage for Benjamin Shapiro’s current meteoric rise had been set long ago.

He attended a Los Angeles public elementary school for a few years, along with a bit of Sunday Hebrew school, but after his family moved toward Orthodoxy, Shapiro switched to the Sephardic Orthodox Maimonides Academy for fifth grade. The next year, which was only his second year of religious schooling, Shapiro was already attending eighth-grade Gemara classes. In 1996, when he was 12, he played on his violin a stunning rendition of the theme song from the Holocaust-related film Schindler’s List at an Israel Bonds dinner — while wearing a prominent yarmulke on his head and long tzitzis dangling down his side. CNN host Larry King introduced the young prodigy by quipping, “His goal is to become the first Orthodox rabbi to sit on the (US) Supreme Court — meaning the court will have to close on 3:00 on Friday.… However, before all of this, he will need to be ‘Bar Mitzvahed.’$$$separatequote$$$”

Shapiro inherited his musical talents from his father, a professional musician and composer who works for the entertainment industry, but his passion for law and politics would eventually reign supreme.

After attending Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles for just two years, Shapiro entered UCLA at the age of 16 and graduated with honors with a degree in political science degree. He then enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors in 2007. Shapiro became the youngest syndicated columnist in the US after he was hired by Creators Syndicate Inc. when he was just 17.

At the ripe old age of 20, it took him three weeks during a college break to write his first published book, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, which alleged that rampant indoctrination of liberal political and social values was taking place on American university campuses. The book made such waves that it prompted prominent conservative commentator Ann Coulter in 2005 to recommend the 21-year-old Shapiro as a US Supreme Court nominee in an exchange with an incredulous Alan Colmes, then a (liberal) Fox News host.

In 2008, Shapiro married his wife Mor (nee Toledano) — a native of Haifa whose family had moved to the US — in Akko, Israel.  Mrs. Shapiro is now a medical student at UCLA.

In the less than nine years that have passed since his first book, Shapiro has authored four more. One of them argues that immodest entertainment is corrupting America’s future, and another decries the influence of liberal social values on a cross section of the mainstream media, including children’s entertainment that promotes concepts such as unearned self-esteem. Shapiro also runs a legal consulting practice serving media clients, but he says that his focus nowadays is increasingly on the political commentary scene. By now, he has been featured on practically every major news network, from liberal MSNBC to conservative Fox News, and his columns have been widely published. He cohosts a popular California radio talk show each weekday morning, and is the editor-at-large of Breitbart.com.

Despite the dizzying pace, Shapiro comments that he’s regressed in one sense. “I spent the first part of my life speaking to 50 year olds,” he says. “It took me 30 years to have some friends my own age!”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 449)



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