Category Archives: Orthodox-Bashing


Bias Ne’eman


By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias.  But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world.  Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.”  And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg.  The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” apartments “originally built as a senior housing development,” as examples of real estate purchases – and notes that “meanwhile, in Brooklyn… Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting” the new development.

The piece goes on to describe some local residents’ dismay at the notion of an influx of chassidic Jews; as well as accusations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.

There is a legitimate story here, and there are two sides to it.  People who have lived for years in a rural, bucolic setting are understandably concerned about possible changes to their neighborhood. Then again, neighborhoods change (as we “wandering Jews” have all too often experienced).  And upstate New York is a prime area for both business and residential development – which will yield the region economic benefits.

The JTA piece gives prominent voice to local residents who feel they had been “hoodwinked” by the Jewish developer, and seems to endorse that assertion (see “Step 2” above).  I have no idea whether the developer acted ethically.  The article, however, ignores his denial of any wrongdoing.

And is marketing a development to a particular community somehow offensive?  Would it be if the community at issue were blacks or Asians or Swedes?

What’s more, as if to ensure that readers not dare to think of harboring any good will toward the chassidim seeking a better life upstate, the writer takes pains to note the “cautionary tale” of the Ramapo school board in Rockland County, which “had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.”

The implication, of course, that the Ramapo school board cynically plundered public schools is the gnarled (and somewhat anti-Semitism-tinged) narrative of some local residents.

The truth of the matter is rather less exciting:  The state funding formula, and laws mandating the provision of textbooks, school transportation and special education services to all school children, simply left insufficient funds to maintain some extracurricular programming and teachers in the district’s public schools.  As to “selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices,” one (non-chareidi) real estate appraiser pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving the sale of a public school.

Were the JTA offering an opinion piece, its snark and disregard of objectivity would be, although distasteful, acceptable.  Op-eds, after all, are expected to be partisan.  But the piece is a news item.  And Journalism 101 requires fairness and the presentation of both sides of an issue.

JTA is generally a responsible news organization and the writer of the Bloomsburg piece is someone I think highly of; I don’t believe he was motivated by conscious ill will. But, as a non-chareidi Jew, he may share some of the subliminal negative feelings all too many harbor toward those they regard as backward or extreme in their mode of living.

When I contacted him to express my chagrin at his piece, he responded that he simply described things as he saw them.  Asked about his article’s cynical tone and lack of objectivity, he declined to defend it, writing only that “I know I’m right.”

Such things confirm my conviction that general Jewish media – and non-Jewish media – would be best served were their reporters on things Jewish to bear surnames like Johnson or O’Brian.  Distance is what best serves objectivity.

As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

© 2015 Hamodia

Ramapo School Board Bashing Spills Onto NYT Op-Ed Page

The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group.  And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.

The writers claim that the school board has “denied” public school children “their state constitutional right to a sound basic education”; that it “persistently failed to act in the best interests of its public school students”; and that it “slash[ed] resources in its public schools [while] vastly increas[ing] public spending on private schools.”

The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.

The facts:

  • State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers.  Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.
  • East Ramapo’s demographics – approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools – and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it is in fact one of the poorest.
  • The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

And providing those legally mandated services is precisely what the board has done, in accordance with its statutory obligations.

Unfortunately, after those expenditures were responsibly made, insufficient funds remained to maintain some extracurricular programming in public schools – thinks like music or sports teams.  Those are valuable activities, to be sure, but they are not part of students’ “constitutional right to a sound basic education.”  And with no money to continue the supplementary programming, the board had no fiscally responsible choice but to end them – until the state provides increased funding to the district.

As East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein (who is not an Orthodox Jew) noted, “You can blame it on Jews, you can blame it on yeshivas, but the flawed state aid formula and funding cutbacks are the real culprit.”

Thus, the school board’s following the law is what has earned it the opprobrium of Ms. Tisch, Mr. Sciarra and others. They seem unaware, or choose to ignore, the salient fact that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones in yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, need and are legally entitled to textbooks and a way to get to school.

The insinuation that imagined sinister charedi villains (some do indeed wear black hats) on East Ramapo’s school board have systematically plundered the pot of local education funds to favor yeshivos over public schools is, bluntly put, an invention.  And a deeply irresponsible one, to boot, as it has fostered blatant resentment of Jews in the local community. There have been outright anti-Semitic comments made in public places, including school board meetings.  One parent suggested that “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.”  Another compared the board to “the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

Indeed, with increasing national attention being focused on the East Ramapo school district, local anti-Semitism is going viral and metastasizing into something far more dismaying, far more dangerous.

When a newspaper like The New York Times features an op-ed provocatively entitled “A School Board that Victimizes Kids,” the text of which surrounds a prominently displayed “kiddush levana osyos” pull-quote announcing “In a mostly Orthodox Jewish community, minority students suffer,” the harsh glare of incitement envelops us all.

It is refreshing to discover that not all East Ramapo’ans are being hoodwinked by the rabble-rousers. Consider the words of Brendel Charles, a black councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, who admitted to Tablet Magazine that, while “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community,” she came to realize, after her husband joined the school board, “that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Would that Ms. Tisch and Mr. Sciarra reach such enlightenment.

© 2015 Hamodia


Much Ado About Shmita

The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “When Orthodox Jews boycott Israeli produce.”

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many farmers continued to rely on that “sale permission” or “heter mechira.” And when the State of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.

In subsequent years, however, a few farmers, seeing the heter mechira as a temporary measure, moreover a legally dubious one (unlike selling chametz for Pesach, which is a full and enforceable sale) and not enamored of the idea of even nominally selling tracts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews, opted to not rely on it. They chose to observe shmita in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (i.e. ultimately, on God), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land “rested,” as per the Biblical injunction.

This coming year, tens of thousands of acres will lie fallow, as more than 3,000 farmers (up from 2383 seven years ago during the last cycle) will be observing shmita, aided in their effort by an organization known as Keren Hashviis, and by their faith in the Torah.

Here in North America, every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency, including the centrist Orthodox Union, approves Israeli produce only if it hews to that stricter, non-heter mechira, shmitah standard. So there is little discussion here in the American Orthodox community about the heter mechira.

Seven years ago, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still validated the heter mechira, it would, for the first time, permit municipal rabbis in Israel’s towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on the heter or not.

From the reaction at the time, one would have thought that the Chief Rabbis had declared an extra Sabbatical year rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel’s agriculture minister at the time, Shalom Simhon, threatened to outlaw products from Arab-owned land in Israel in a bid to force Haredim to comply with the heter mechira. Media like the New York Jewish Week wrongly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition. (Even in cities hewing to the stricter standard in kosher certification, nothing prevented a vendor from selling lower-shmita-standard produce – or any produce – and more cheaply than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.)

But jaundiced eyes saw only Haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. Writer Hillel Halkin risibly asserted at the time that “There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community.” Only, he continued, “plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, God forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis.”

It was a strange picture: Observers otherwise enamored of ecological and liberal ideals were outraged at the prospect of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.

This shmita year, in the wake of the most recent Gaza war, an even-more-forlorn-than usual peace process and a growing worldwide boycott movement against Israel, the grousing, somewhat understandably, has been renewed.

Talking head David Weinberg, for instance, bemoans that “Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmita observance… get through the shmita year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. This summer, the various Badatz kashrut organizations of the haredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority farmers.”

Although he begrudgingly acknowledges that Haredim have the “right” to their choice (thank you kindly), he says it “infuriates” him. “Primary reliance on Arab produce,” he declares “is neither realistic nor acceptable, for health, nationalistic and religious reasons.”

No health problems, to my knowledge, have been associated with Arab produce (though all fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being consumed!) Regarding nationalism, Mr. Weinberg is entitled to his definition of the concept, although opposing business dealings with Arabs is a rather questionable defining element of Zionism. As to religious reasons, though, well, he needs to allow others their definitions too.

Truth be told, the contretemps is just a manifestation of the fact that Haredim live in a different universe from many of their fellow Jews. Yes, we’re all part of Klal Yisrael. But whereas people like Messrs. Halkin and Weinberg see Israel’s wellbeing as tied to economics and national pride, Haredim see things radically differently. To us, what protects, secures and supports Jews in the Jewish land, and everywhere, is dedication to the Torah.

Some see the thriving Jewish society on the ancient Jewish land as the result of military prowess and political acumen. Others, though, see it as evidence of subtle miracles. And while the former may regard shmita observance as a problematic relic of a long-gone past, the others perceive it as a key to the ultimate protection of all Jews.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).  

© 2014 Haaretz

Fresh Air Amid the Reek

Even more remarkable than the article itself was where it appeared.

Written by Elissa Strauss, an essayist and a “co-artistic director” of a “non-religious Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y” in New York, the piece – “What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!” – graced the pages of the Forward, where Ms. Strauss is a contributing editor.

The essay’s focus was the non-Orthodox Jewish media’s “fixation with Haredi Jews”; those organs’ “hunger for sensationalism” in their reportage on the Orthodox community; the “crude laziness” evidenced by such tunnel vision; and the reduction of “a whole community of Jews” to “a kind of caricature in stories that often traffic in stereotypes.”

Points well taken, and the Forward, of course, is a good example of such invidious ink-spilling.  It has some excellent reporters but also maintains a stable of writers and bloggers with chronically jaundiced views of the charedi world.  And so it deserves credit for publishing Ms. Strauss’ piece, which was essentially a rebuke of its own journalistic bent with regard to our community.

Ms. Strauss attributes the obsessive negativity displayed by some non-Orthodox writers for charedim to a desire to feel a “moral superiority” over their subjects, to “pat ourselves on the back for being so much better.”  But she also raises the specter of other “much more complicated emotions” involved, “possibly including envy…”

A second remarkable article appeared recently in a Jewish publication that doesn’t display any noticeable anti-charedi bent: the venerable politically conservative monthly, Commentary.  On the heels of Ms. Strauss’ piece, it published a lengthy scholarly historical and sociological overview of the charedi community, written by Jack Wertheimer, a respected professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Titled “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox” (although the latter term is eschewed in the text of the article, in favor of “Haredim”), it presents an impressively clear and unbiased picture of the American charedi world and its ideals, and demonstrates what the piece’s subtitle promises: “The least understood and most insular American Jews have much to teach us.”

Professor Wertheimer acknowledges various grievances and complaints some Jews voice about charedim; in each instance, though, he also explains the charedi viewpoint, and does so eloquently and well.

As in every community, there are, unfortunately, distasteful things and unsavory players in our own.  We do ourselves no favor pretending otherwise.  “The Haredim,” however, explains Professor Wertheimer, “are expected” by other Jews “to be free of vice because they are supposed to ‘tremble in fear of G-d’.”

How wonderful a testimony to the Torah’s truth such perfection would be.  Alas, free will is what it is, and living a superficial charedi  lifestyle cannot preclude bad behavior.  But generalizing from outliers to the community as a whole is wrong and indefensible.

As is the refusal Professor Wertheimer asserts “to acknowledge the good and not only the problematic or off-putting [to some outsiders] aspects of Haredi life.

Ms. Strauss puts it pithily: “We aren’t really interested in the Orthodox.  We aren’t willing to see a full picture, the good and the bad, the complexity of these many individuals living so differently than us.”

That’s a sort of unwillingness many of us charedim, too, are occasionally guilty of, whether the subjects of our opinionating are other groups of Jews, non-Jews or President Obama.  But it is particularly glaring, all said and done, in Jewish media reportage on charedim.

Not long ago we read in shul of how Bilam broke the news to his sponsor King Balak that Hashem has thwarted their plans to curse Klal Yisrael, the king responded: “Come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them, and curse them for me from there” (Bamidbar 23:13).

At first thought that puzzles.  Why would Balak think that having Bilam look at the Jews from a different place and in a limited way might facilitate a successful curse?

Things, though, can look very different from different vantage points.  And a focus can be chosen.  One can aim one’s sights at the negative in a people – or a community or an individual; or one can pull back to see a larger, more comprehensive, and thus more accurate, picture.

Perspective, in the end, is everything, and a skewed one can be a very misleading and dangerous thing.  Balak clearly hoped that a view from a different “angle” might reveal something negative about Klal Yisroel, some vulnerability into which a curse might successfully settle.  Boruch Hashem, he had no success.

Unfortunately, some Jewish media have succeeded for years in portraying charedim from a malevolent perspective, sullying our community and beliefs with selective vision, animus and unjustified generalizations.

Ms. Strauss and Professor Wertheimer deserve kudos for pointing that out, and for suggesting that those media aim to be accurate and fair.  May those writers’ words be taken to heart by those who so need to hear them.

© 2014 Hamodia

An Enlightened Letter-Writer Pinpoints the Ramapo Problem

A letter writer to the New York Jewish Week, although acknowledging that the state aid formula for public schools has wrought havoc on the East Ramapo School District’s ability to maintain important services to the district’s public school children, asserts that the formula “has little to do with the disaster that the East Ramapo School District has become, a fact that in itself is undoubtedly fostering anti-Semitism in the Hudson Valley and beyond.”

What fuels the Jew-hatred, the letter writer explains, is “that now one-third of the district’s children go to public school while the rest go to yeshivas. As the haredi population in the district increased, many middle class families moved…”

“There is a palpable fear,” he continues, “that the same thing could happen” in other nearby communities.  “With so many irrational reasons to be anti-Semitic throughout history, why does there have to be one that is arguably rational?”

So the problem, it seems, isn’t anything charedim have done.  The problem is that there are charedim.

Maybe deportation, or the relocation of the problem population to some sort of mandated area, might work.

Bias Vs. Backbone

A sports team owner’s base racism was all the talk of the world town last week.  But a more subtle – and thus more dangerous – prejudice has been on public display, too, of late.  It was largely ignored, however, likely because the bias revealed was against charedi  Jews.

The opportunity for expressing the bias was the situation in the Monsey-area East Ramapo school district, whose public schools service a largely minority population but where there are many yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs.  And a prominent salvo in the recent bias-barrage was fired by New York Times columnist Michael Powell, who pens a column in the paper highlighting people against whom the writer has rendered his personal judgment of guilt.

His villains in an April 7 offering titled “A School Board That Overlooks Its Obligation To Students” were the Orthodox Jewish members of that entity, which is charged with overseeing the workings and government funding of all schools in the district.  Of the approximately 30,000 school children in the district, roughly 22,000 are in yeshivos; the remaining 8,000 are in public schools.

Mr. Powell began his piece by lamenting the laying off of assistant principals, art teachers and a band leader at the district’s public schools, as well as the curtailing of athletics programs and the rise in some class sizes.

The problem, the writer informs us, began with the “migration” of “the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn – the Satmar, the Bobover and other sects” to the area.  Intent on “recreat[ing] the shtetls of Eastern Europe,” he explains, the newcomers have been “voting in disciplined blocs,” resulting in “an Orthodox-dominated board” that has “ensured that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars for textbooks and school buses.”  In case the bad guys’ black hats aren’t sufficiently evident, he takes pains to add his assertion that “public education became an afterthought” to the board.  The piece is accompanied by a photograph of a sad-looking black mother hugging her even sadder-looking son.

Then one Ari Hart, representing a Jewish social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek, jumped aboard the bandwagon with an opinion piece in the New York Jewish Week.  Insinuating that the school board members are contemporary Shylocks, he righteously invokes Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, who forbade yeshivos from taking government funds for which they do not qualify.  The article was titled “East Ramapo’s Children Are Suffering.”

What is really suffering here, though, is truth.

State funding to all school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers.  Wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

For most school districts, where the large majority of students attend public schools, the state aid formula accurately identifies districts that are poor and require more aid, and those that are wealthy and require less aid.

East Ramapo, however, because of its odd student demographic and relatively high property values, is funded, following the formula, as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state – when it is in fact one of the poorest.

The critics seem unaware (or choose to ignore) that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones, need textbooks and a way to get to school, and are legally entitled to both. School boards are thus mandated to allocate the funds necessary to meet those needs for both public and nonpublic school students; they would be in violation of the law were they to neglect that obligation.  Unfortunately, because of the state allocation formula and substantial budget cuts over recent years, insufficient funds have remained to support public school programs in the district than had existed in years past.

The East Ramapo School Board’s members have disbursed the funds entrusted to them the only way they could – the only way any responsible school board could possibly do so.

Why, then, their vilification?  Good question.  There are, I believe, two answers.  One is that a common, if mindless, conclusion when members of ethnic minorities level charges of wrongdoing against others is that the latter are guilty until proven innocent – in some cases, as here, even afterward.  Secondly, while there are crass bigots like Donald Sterling there are also more “refined” ones, who take care to hide their bigotries behind a mask of high-mindedness.

Something, however, happened this past week that should give pause to those intent on assuming the worst about charedi Jews and on trumpeting their assumptions.

At a press conference in Monsey, some 75 people gathered to speak, hear or report on a new initiative, “Community United for Formula Change,” launched by a group of local charedi, black and Latino activists, who are working together to address the problem of the East Ramapo school district’s inadequate funding.  Among those involved in the initiative are Chassidic rabbis, pastors of Latino and Haitian churches, and American-born black community members.

I was privileged to be present at the conference, as a representative of Agudath Israel of America, which is concerned with the acrimony in East Ramapo and is backing a bill in Albany that would allow an alternative state educational funding formula to be used in Rockland County.  I was struck by the friendship, unified spirit and determination among the multi-ethnic backers of the initiative.

One black speaker at the press conference, Brendel Charles (a councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, but who attended as a parent of two public school children), told Tablet magazine that “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community.”

“I thought that there could be a possibility that there was something wrong,” she said, “that there could be a prejudice of [their] thinking, ‘We don’t have to give them that [they felt], because it doesn’t really matter’.”

She recalled hearing another parent suggest that “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.”  Worse things were in fact said openly at school board meetings. One speaker compared the board to “Pontius Pilate washing his hands, or the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

But when Ms. Charles’ husband joined the East Ramapo school board, she recounted, he quickly “realized that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Ms. Charles, according to Tablet, “criticized those in her community who have allowed the situation to deteriorate” and is quoted as saying, “It’s been a war.  It’s become religious against non-religious, black against white, them against us.  ‘Their children are getting everything, our children are not.’  And that’s the wrong energy.  The color is green.  We don’t have enough money.  That’s the problem.”

Michael Powell, Ari Hart and others like them would do well to hear those words well, and to realize that people of good will and intelligence, of different colors and creeds, understand what needs to be done in East Ramapo.  And, rather than rabble-rouse or prance around on bandwagons, they have chosen the constructive path, and set themselves to the task at hand.

© 2014 Hamodia

The Secular Sky Is Falling!

(This essay appeared in Haaretz this week, under a different title.)

Well, it won’t be long now before Israel institutes penalties for watching television on the Sabbath and declares a religious war against the Palestinians. At least that’s what a cursory – or, actually, even a careful – reading of a recent New York Times op-ed might lead one to conclude.

In the piece, Abbas Milani, the head of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, and Israel Waismel-Manor, a University of Haifa senior lecturer, argue that Iran and Israel might be “trading places,” the former easing into a more secular mode, the latter slouching toward theocracy.

Whether the writers’ take on Iran has any merit isn’t known to me. But their take on Israel is risible, and the evidence they summon shows how clueless even academics can be.

The opinionators contend that the “nonreligious Zionism” advanced by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s is “under threat” today by “Orthodox parties” that “aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy.”

The irony is intriguing. It was none other than Ben-Gurion who pledged, in a 1947 agreement with the Agudath Israel World Organization, representing Haredi Jews, to do “everything possible” to promote a single standard, that of halacha, or Jewish religious law, with regard to “personal status” issues like marriage, divorce and conversion; to designate the Jewish Sabbath as the new state’s official day of rest; to provide only kosher food in government kitchens; and to endorse a religious educational system as an alternative to Israeli state public schools. Those concessions, which pretty much sum up Israel’s accommodation of religion, were seen as inherent to its claim to be a “Jewish State.”

The impression Messrs. Milani and Waismel-Manor seek to promote is that there has been some sort of sea change of late in the Haredi community’s influence and designs. The writers, like other “the secular sky is falling” oracles, point to demographics (the Haredi community considers children to be great blessings) and the rise of Haredi political parties (although they are not currently part of the government coalition and always at the mercy of the larger parties) as evidence.

But a closer look at recent religious controversies in Israel, whether the drafting of Haredi men, traditional prayer standards at the Western Wall, conversion standards or subsidies for religious students, reveals that Haredi activism, such as it is, is aimed entirely at preserving the “religious status quo” of the past six decades, not at intensifying the state’s restrained connection to Judaism – much less at creating a “theocracy.” Some outside the Haredi community feel that the religious status quo is outdated and needs to be changed. But Haredi political activism is limited to pushback against that cause; it does not aim to impose Jewish observance on any Israeli.

And on the infrequent occasions when individuals have sought to expand real or imagined religious values in the public sphere – like imposing separate seating for men and women on selected bus lines servicing religious neighborhoods – Israel’s courts have stepped in and conclusively quashed the attempts. (Separate seating on those limited lines remains voluntary, and anyone seeking to force it is subject to prosecution.) And when religious vigilantes have been reported to have done ugly things (see: Beit Shemesh), the reported actions have been broadly condemned, and have ceased. Messrs. Milani and Waismel-Manor presumably know that there have been no moves in Israel to compel synagogue attendance or to cut off criminals’ body parts, sharia-style.

They get totally wrong, too, what they describe as “the vast majority of Orthodox Jews” who they contend are “against any agreement with the Palestinians,” further contributing to the writers’ feverish imagination of (excuse the expression) Armageddon.

There are many, to be sure, in the “national religious” camp who agitate for annexation of the West Bank and shun the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (The New York Times op-ed authors quite erroneously conflated this community, represented in Israel’s government by Habayit Hayehudi, with the Haredim, despite their distinctly different religious, political and cultural positions.

But the vast majority of Haredim are famously deferent to their religious leaders, many of whom have maintained for decades that that land may, indeed should, be ceded in exchange for a meaningful peace with trustworthy adversaries of good will. The current Haredi (and much non-Haredi) opposition to the here-again, gone-again current peace process is due to the apparent lack of such an adversary. While Haredim await the Messiah’s arrival and restoration of all of Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish people and the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom, they do not consider it acceptable to try to push history forward.

Yes, Israel’s Haredi population has grown, and its growth has had impact on aspects of Israeli life – in Haredi communities. There has never been any attempt to insinuate religious practices into non-Haredi ones, and no one has ever put forth any plans to do so. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Haredim just want to be left alone and allowed to live their lives as their – and most Jews’ – ancestors did. That shouldn’t discomfit, much less threaten, anyone. And it certainly shouldn’t be portrayed as some looming catastrophe by sky-watchers in ivory towers.

© 2014 Haaretz

The (Almost) Rude Jewish Man

Time was when you saw a person talking to himself you assumed he was deranged or at least a little off.  These days, of course, prattling people wired up or Bluetoothed are commonplace.  The unhinged are well camouflaged among the masses.

The middle-aged woman in the elevator didn’t even have anything in or clipped to her ear; she was holding an actual, physical cellphone near the side of her face.  And so, when she said, once, and then again, “Which is the way out?” I wondered to whom she was speaking and what topic was being discussed.

It was the end of a workday in downtown Manhattan, and only the woman, whom I hadn’t ever encountered before, was in the elevator when it stopped at my floor.  I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but had little choice.  So I started to imagine what might have yielded her repeated, somewhat urgent-sounding question.  A tax problem? (April was imminent.)  A troubled relationship?  Some existential crisis?

Following elevator etiquette, I faced the door.  But, for some reason (in retrospect, probably siyata DiShmaya), I turned briefly in the woman’s direction. It was a good thing I did.  Phone or not, she had been talking, I realized, to me.  Her expression, telegraphing annoyance bordering on irritation, made that very clear.

After a moment’s speechlessness born of surprise, I managed a smile and said “I’m sorry.  What were you asking?”  And she explained that she wanted to know which floor was the way out of the building.  I told her that floor number “1” was the lobby, and apologized for not having realized that she had been speaking to me and for ignoring her question.  Her earlier chagrin seemed to evaporate.  When the elevator landed at the lobby and we left our temporary prison, I wished her a good night and she wished me the same.

During the trek home, I pondered several things.  First, self-defensively, how is it that one might assume, especially when one is holding a phone, that others realize that you are addressing them?  A simple, loud “excuse me” to get their attention would, to my lights, be in order.

Then, though, turning inward, I pondered how getting lost in one’s thoughts isn’t an indulgence one should choose when others are around, even other strangers.  I was reminded of the fact that Hillel Hazaken’s version of what society calls the “Golden Rule” differs from that of other cultures.  He framed it in the negative: “What is hateful to you do not do to others.”  That might seem a weaker version than “Do unto others…”  But just the opposite is true: It is both more challenging and more meaningful to be on constant alert to not, consciously or otherwise, do something objectionable to another person.

A third thought, however, quickly edged out the others: What had happened almost hadn’t.

Had I not for some reason turned around briefly, I pondered, I would never have realized that it was me my co-prisoner had been addressing.  She would likely have just judged me a boor for ignoring her, left the elevator when I did, and gone on her way, all the while angry at the rude man who wouldn’t answer her simple question. The rude Jewish man.

Many people tend to generalize when they feel they have been offended by a member of an identifiable group, be it racial, ethnic or religious.  But while a black or Mexican or Asian or Muslim may not particularly care whether others see his actions as confirming a negative group stereotype, a visibly Jewish Jew must care indeed.

So thought #3 was about how very careful we Orthodox Jews need to be to avoid offending others – even when we don’t mean to do anything of the sort.  Part of that carefulness involves being aware of those around us in public places.  That’s not so simple a matter for observant Jews, as our convictions usually point us in the direction of inward focus, and keeping the outside at bay.  But on the other side of the scales is, chas vesholom, the possibility of causing, even inadvertently, others to think of our people and our faith negatively.

It’s a delicate balance, but a most important one, all the same, to strike.

© 2014 Hamodia