The Jews’ Jews
Anti-Semites paint Jews as different and strange; many Jews do the same to the so-called ‘ultra-Orthodox’
The origin of anti-Semitism has confounded the best of minds. But how the demon, whoever his mother, spreads his noxious notions is no mystery: He harnesses the human readiness to generalize. To successfully broadcast a conviction that Jews are underhanded, avaricious, or rude, one need only present the evidence: Jews who are underhanded, avaricious, or rude. As a group, of course, the Jewish community includes no larger percentage of unsavory characters than any other population (and likely a considerably smaller one than most). But just as there are thieves and knaves among Methodists, Scientologists, Czechs, and Argentines, so do unpleasant and even criminal folks reside in the Jewish community. The anti-Semite’s art is gathering up Jewish bad apples and presenting the basketful as representative of the tree that produced them.
This sort of ill-intentioned generalizing is terrible, as nearly all sentient people—Jew and non-Jew alike—would agree. But disturbingly, a not-dissimilar tactic is employed by some Jews against a subset of their own: haredim, a non-judgmental term for those the mainstream media tend to call “ultra-Orthodox.” In a sense, the haredim have become the Jews’ Jews.
This has been a problem in the media for as long as I can remember. A decade ago, I wrote a lengthy article on this subject for Moment magazine titled “Open Season on the Orthodox.” It turned into a cover story, for which the editors created ingeniously hilarious art: It showed a stack of “Weekly World Inquirer” tabloids with covers trumpeting the imaginary weekly’s latest revelations, among them “Orthodox Rabbi’s Two-Headed Alien Love Child!” (with the subheadline “Offspring ‘Not Jewish’ Rabbinical Court Rules”) and “El Niño: Orthodox Plot!”
The article was of course more serious. It presented a crowded rogue’s gallery of what I believed to be biased reportage—examples of egregious suspension of journalistic norms, subtle media misrepresentations, and outright fabrications—about haredi Jews. Like any writer, I fantasized that my words might actually effect meaningful change. And like most fantasies, mine didn’t much penetrate reality. Haredim as a group continue to be unfairly maligned—and pilloried for their principles.
By defending halachic standards regarding conversion in Israel, we are portrayed as small-minded; for seeking to preserve traditional Jewish norms for public prayer services at the Western Wall, we are condemned as mullahs and women-haters; for taking Jewish law and custom seriously, we are sneered at as backward. When a group of haredim in an Israeli town try to preserve their particular style of education, they find themselves branded racists. A New York Times op-ed declares, without basis, that haredi rabbis in Israel have decided that “almost no one” is Jewish and calls unnamed haredi rabbis “demonstrably corrupt.” A respected Jewish columnist characterizes Israel’s religious courts as a “rabble of rabbis … a counterfeit product, pretenders to a piety they daily demean.”
There is nothing wrong with making a case for multiple conversion standards in Israel, for a variety of public prayer service styles at the Western Wall, for denying a particular community the right to mold a government-supported school in its own image, or for the separation of religion and state in Israel. Differences of opinion are fine. But vilification isn’t. Name-calling is not an argument.
The hardy weed of anti-haredi animus easily spreads to even more mundane reportage. When a social activist claims, without producing a shred of evidence or a single witness, that she was assaulted in a public place in broad daylight by a haredi man because of tefillin marks on her arm, the alleged assault was widely reported as established fact. When a group of Israeli teens on a school outing accidentally caused a forest fire, a well-known blog implied that the blaze had something to do with the fact that the school was haredi. A national Jewish newspaper publishes a comic strip featuring wild-eyed, grotesque depictions of religious Jews, cynically disparaging their desire to share Torah with other Jews.
I don’t believe that such things—well, the comic strip excluded—are done with conscious intent to demonize. The writers and editors who allow anti-haredi sentiment to inform reportage do not consider themselves prejudiced, even subconsciously. But, as Slate’s William Saletan has insightfully written, “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”
But, perhaps even more sadly, the media’s bias against haredim dovetails with—and encourages—individuals’ personal prejudices.
Truly objective observers of the haredi world—the fairest ones are, not incidentally, more often non-Jews—are often struck not only by haredi insularity and ritual observances but by the community’s refinement of spirit, generosity, and good will. If the previous sentence elicited a cynical smirk, that only testifies to the power of the misconception-mongering.
But cynicism cannot obscure facts. Whether judged by objective criteria or by simply observing life at street level, the haredi community is very different from the image of it that exists in many media and minds. Even a quick perusal of the pages of any haredi newspaper or magazine, of which there are several these days, should be enough to open minds. They cater to their readers, of course, ignoring most of contemporary popular culture that imbues the contemporary American scene. And they are empty of the sort of gossip and scandals that titillate readers of more mainstream media. But the window on the haredi world they provide opens on a scene very different from, in some ways diametrically opposed to, many people’s preconceived notions.
The percentage of haredi income donated to charity is formidable, particularly impressive in light of the many observance-related expenses (educational and otherwise) that Orthodox Jews shoulder as a matter of course. The number and scale of haredi efforts aimed at comforting the sick and bereaved, feeding the hungry, or providing other social services to Jews in need—haredi or not—is astonishing. No small number of non-observant Jewish New Yorkers have been introduced to the Satmar community, the large and influential Hasidic sect, when visited in the hospital by its ladies, bearing good wishes and hot kosher food.
Are there then no haredim who are miserly, insufficiently sensitive to the needs of others, or even—how shall we put it?—ethically or morally challenged? Of course there are. And we hear and read about them regularly. We have witnessed truly abhorrent behavior by members of the haredi community over recent years, from what law texts call “moral turpitude” to child molestation to financial shenanigans to outright thievery. And innocent, truly religious haredim are deeply shamed by the hypocrites and criminals among their population. Although not every ugly story turns out to be true, enough have passed the smell—and even the legal—test to convince us haredim that we have much work to do to impress on every member of the community the import of the fact that the Torah governs every aspect of a Jew’s life.
And we haredim can even understand, in light of the scandalous behavior of some, why other Jews view us all with suspicion, or even worse. But, as with Jews in general, the difference between prejudice and perceptiveness lies in whether one chooses to focus on a selected ugly sample or on the overwhelming majority of a group’s members, those we don’t get to read about.
I don’t believe that anti-haredi bias is truly analogous to anti-Semitism. The latter is visceral and evil; the former just misguided. Most Jews who assume the worst about haredim may be puzzled, frustrated, discomfited, annoyed, rattled, or embarrassed by us (or some of us). But they don’t really hate us. I believe that every Jew, in his or her heart of hearts, loves every other Jew. It’s just that—well, to reference a contemporary poet: Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you like them all of the time.
It would be nice if all Jews were always both lovable and likable. But in this imperfect world, that may not come to pass. What we can all do, though—and this applies to us haredim as well as others—is to resist, as best we can, the evil inclination to indulge in generalizations, assume the worst, or vilify our fellow Jews.
It’s a tall order but a timely, urgent one.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox organization.
Rosh Hashanah, a reminder of the cyclical nature of Jewish life, provides good lessons for parenting