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Admit It: You Hate Religious Jews

What the latest outburst of anti-Haredi misinformation tells us about progressive notions of identity and power

Liel Leibovitz
August 23, 2023

Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Late last week, a 29-year-old Israeli reporter boarded a United Airlines flight from New York to Tel Aviv. A short while later, she tweeted a photo of several Orthodox Jewish men, with the following caption: “Haredis on my flight right now are trying to move me around from one seat to another. Because I’m a woman. By the way, United Airlines are doing nothing about it. They’re telling me that because of me, the flight won’t take off. For shame.”

It didn’t take long for the digital tongues to start wagging.

“The reason I fly United,” thundered Emily Schrader, an activist with a massive social media footprint, “is precisely to avoid these kinds of people who impose their ‘religious’ customs on others … Shame on them and shame on United.”

Ha’aretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Amir Tibon, addressed United directly, asking the company—and his 27,000 Twitter followers—whether it was company policy to “discriminate against women and force them to change seats due to the demands of ultra-religious men.” Journalist Noga Tarnopolsky thundered: The female reporter, she told her followers, “is being abused by a crew member yelling at her … United, have you lost your mind?” The drama quickly seeped into the mainstream press, with headlines speaking of shame and discrimination and conjuring a perfect storm of religious intolerance, corporate malfeasance, and misogyny at 30,000 feet.

There was only one minor problem with this grand guignol: It never happened.

Because the tried-and-true methods of journalism—suspend judgment, ask questions, corroborate facts—still work, it didn’t take long for aspiring reporters to do what aspiring reporters have always done, which is find the passengers involved and ... talk to them. When they did, a very different story emerged: A passenger wearing a baseball cap approached the young Israeli reporter and asked her to switch from one aisle seat to another so that his son might sit next to his friend. The reporter readily agreed. But then, the man took off his cap, revealing a large black yarmulke underneath. At this point, the young reporter became agitated, and accused the man of trying to force her to change seats because of religious discrimination. A confused flight attendant was summoned, and said that while she didn’t really understand what was going on, if there was indeed any proof of passengers engaged in gender-based discrimination, the flight may have to be canceled.

Once upon a time and not so long ago, people who should absolutely know better did take the time and the care to deliver an account of the world that went beyond the breathless ululations of hysterical propagandists. Why so many no longer do is a long and sordid story, but, in the case of the clash about the United flight, one less obvious reason jumps to mind: It’s open season on religious Jews.

Don’t believe me? Behold the following small sample of anti-Haredi bigotry: Earlier this week, a group of liberal Israeli women boarded a bus headed for the Haredi city of Bnei Brak and started chanting, a provocation against the halachic prohibition barring some stringently observant men from listening to women singing. In June, a young Haredi man riding the bus in the Israeli town of Hod HaSharon was accosted by a fellow rider who demanded to know if he had served in the Israel Defense Forces. When the man—who, as it happens, is a captain in the army’s reserve forces—asked what gave anyone the right to walk up to a stranger and demand that they answer personal questions, he was further demeaned and cursed out. Two Haredis taking the wrong turn in March and finding themselves in proximity to the anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv were beaten to a pulp. The list goes on.

For the most part, these stories receive little or no coverage in the press or on social media. No well-heeled correspondents are quick to decry discrimination, or speak of “these kinds of people.” With very few exceptions, when you finally do read about Orthodox Jews in the mainstream press, it’s as dark and benighted brutes everywhere menacing the dainty liberal order, putting women in particular at risk.

This is why The New York Times, say, fresh off its rabid and largely fabricated assault on Haredi education, continues to regale its readers with stories like this one, announcing that “growing segregation by sex in Israel raises fears for women’s rights.” It’s takes a pretty diligent and observant reader to scroll past the bloody headline, read down to the heart of the story, and learn that the segregation in question is almost entirely at the behest of religious communities where men and women alike wish to adhere to a way of life that requires the sexes to bathe at separate beaches, say, or study in separate schools. No one is robbed of any rights, and no one is compelled to live in a way that contradicts their values and the values of their community. But such nuance be damned: When it comes to religious Jews, the time is always five minutes to the Handmaid’s Tale in the “paper of record.”

You can spend a long good while meditating on why so many, including so many Jews, possess such a deep-seated hatred for our Haredi brothers and sisters. And, as always with corrosive and malignant bigotry, the prejudice reveals much more about the haters than it does about the hated. Haredi Jews remain the ultimate Other. They insist, by mere virtue of existing, that the cheerful song of assimilation is far from the only tune available to Jews; that there’s another, more ancient melody that has stayed resonant and true for millennia; and that while adherence to earthly empires and their shifting mores have always attracted some Jews eager to count themselves among the elites of the land, those who ultimately survived—and thrived—were the Yids who simply kept on doing what Jews have always done, which is pray and study Torah and thank HaShem for every day.

Such a worldview cannot be co-opted or explained away by the flattened discourse of identity and power that governs every corner of our political reality these days, which means it must be vilified. If the Haredi, an actual minority suffering from actual violence, can’t be co-opted into the rainbow coalition of uniform disenfranchised minorities that all wish to trade in their suffering for membership in good standing in the “righteous liberal order,” they must be made into villains, just another group of privileged men fighting the ongoing war against women that our most profound secular scriptures, like the Barbie movie, warned us about.

And so, the hatred goes on, uncurbed and unchecked, and those who lecture us night and day about tolerance and rights shot invective at the scared and beleaguered people who are only trying to catch a flight or ride the bus without being harassed. This foamy hatred of religious Jews isn’t just an affront to everything that Judaism demands of us; it’s an insult to true liberalism as well.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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