Below is my original draft of a piece I wrote for Forward. The article as it appeared there, though, was substantially edited, and several sentences that I think are important were omitted. So I share the original here. The Forward piece can be read here.
Well, in case anyone for some reason may have been wondering, Peter Beinart, who recently wrote a piece titled “The Orthodox Should Know Better than to Embrace Hatred of Muslims,” doesn’t follow J.K Rowling on Twitter.
Because if the Forward senior columnist and former The New Republic editor did, he would have seen Harry Potter’s creator’s retweet last year of a haredi (or in the Forward’s pejorative preference, “ultra-Orthodox”) rabbi’s message.
The rabbi shared the fact that he had dedicated his presidential election vote to the American Muslim soldier Captain Humayun Khan – who was killed in combat and about whom his father Khizr spoke movingly at the Democratic National Convention. Then-candidate Donald Trump, of course, was then touting his “Muslim ban.”
The Hasidic rabbi, who serves as a media relations coordinator at the national Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America (full disclosure: I work there too), shared a photo of himself holding his ballot, alongside a photo of Captain Khan and his gravestone. He wrote that he wanted to highlight how Captain Khan’s “devotion makes (religious) freedom possible.”
The tweet was liked almost 12,000 times and retweeted 5,496 times, including Ms. Rowling’s sharing of the photo and message with her 13 million followers. Not one of whom, apparently, is Mr. Beinart, who wrote recently here that “the inability to distinguish jihadist terrorism from Islam fuels American Jewish hostility toward American Muslims” and that such inability is “particularly true among the Orthodox.”
Mr. Beinart must have also missed the story of the haredi director of a Brooklyn soup kitchen who, after the election, rallied support within his community for Muslim Yemeni neighbors who were protesting the new president’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The haredi also organized support for a beleaguered local Yemeni-owned bodega, complete with “Shalom/Salaam” posters.
Agudath Israel, moreover, issued a pro-immigration statement about the ban asserting that such a move is acceptable only if intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country, only “if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees” and only if “its focus is on places,… not on religious populations.”
Mr. Beinart could be forgiven for not knowing about the hassidic WhatsApp group that calls itself “Isaac and Yishmoel,” created to enable its members to defend unfairly maligned Muslims.
But some research on his part might have turned up the fact that Agudath Israel’s executive vice president chairs the Committee of New York City Religious and Independent School Officials, which includes representation from the Islamic School Association. And that he has worked with Islamic school representatives on a number of issues before the New York State Education Department. And that, on the national level, he works with Islamic school groups under the umbrella of the Council for Private Education.
Agudath Israel has also joined with Islamic groups in amicus briefs in religious liberty cases, and, along with the Orthodox Union, another major national group, has opposed “anti-sharia” laws.
Is there wariness about Muslims among many Orthodox Jews? Yes, as there is among many non-Orthodox ones, among many Episcopalians, Catholics and Hindus too. Is that fair to the vast majority of Muslim citizens, who have no evil designs? No. But, unfortunately, the proclaimed world-conquering designs of Islamists and the malevolent acts committed by extremists exist. The distrust that results is, unfortunately, the responsible Muslim’s unfair burden to bear.
But do Orthodox Jews hate Muslims or seek to harm them? Mr. Beinart should visit one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods where Orthodox Jews and Muslim immigrants live side by side, day by day without friction.
The Forward columnist compounds his slander of Orthodox Jews by engaging in some Orthophobia, in effect accusing haredim of preventing women from marrying, touting genocide and killing babies. Yes, you read right.
There isn’t space here to rebut such outlandishness. Suffice it to say that it is a high haredi ideal to find ways to compel a recalcitrant husband to agree to divorce his abandoned wife; that no people today can be identified with Amalek, and so the biblical injunction to destroy that evil nation cannot be applied; and that metzitza bipeh, the oral suction practiced by some haredim as part of the Jewish circumcision rite, has never been proven to be related to, much less the cause of, any infection in an infant, as three medical/statistics experts have affirmed (http://forward.com/opinion/letters/194118/no-conclusive-evidence-on-circumcision-rite-and-he/) in these very pages.
The Orthodox community’s final crime, in the Beinart courtroom, is having voted in large numbers, and in contrast to the larger Jewish community, for the man currently occupying the White House. Judge Beinart chooses to interpret that fact as the result of Orthodox anti-Muslim sentiment.
Might it be, though, that many haredim simply recognize that judicial appointments comprise one of the most influential powers any president has? And felt that Mr. Trump’s likely choices would prove more sensitive to our community’s concerns about societal issues and the potential erosion of religious rights in America?
We must plead guilty – forgive us – to the charges of being social conservatives and religious rights activists. But not to Mr. Beinart’s ugly and incendiary charge.
In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”
It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.
More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement. The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened. Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.
The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.
The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers. And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there. A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.
And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an Ameican Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish. Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.
To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.
The description of the scene fairly leapt off the page: Shabbos at the Kosel, people davening, a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair, a group of Orthodox Jews approaching…
“…like a big-league pitcher [one religious Jew] cocked his arm and flung the rock at the man in the wheelchair. The rock hit him in the middle of his forehead, his neck reeled back and blood oozed down this face… Then the adorable little children, who only seconds ago were throwing candy [at a bar-mitzvah boy] turned into savages and started picking up rocks and hurling them at the man. Two of them grabbed the brightly colored prayer shawl from around the man’s neck and cracked it like a whip in his face.
“Some Americans tried to intervene but were themselves stoned. Nearby guards stood by, apparently assuming that the man was getting just punishment for his crime: using electricity on the Sabbath.”
That report appeared in the November 15, 1994 issue of the Arizona State University daily paper, The State Press; it had been recommended for publication by the chairman of the university’s journalism department and the director of the school’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. It was, after all, compellingly written and important.
Only one problem: what it described never happened.
Eventually (although after being read by thousands), the report was retracted, when a law student dared to demand corroborating facts and none were found. Pressed for the truth, the aspiring 24-year-old senior journalism major who had penned the piece admitted that the entire account, from start to finish, had been the product of nothing but her own fertile imagination.
It was a particularly gross, but far from singular, example of journalistic malpractice in the realm of reportage about Orthodox Jews. In Moment Magazine’s February, 2000 cover story, which carried the title of this column, I detailed a number of more subtle, but perhaps even more disturbing for the fact, journalistic “liberties” taken by media when “reporting” on the Orthodox community. And in the years since, countless others have come down the pike.
Only last week, a video by an Israeli broadcaster, Reshet TV, depicted reporter Guy Hochman walking around Bnei Brak holding an Israeli flag. The video showed two chareidi motorcyclists grabbing the flag and breaking it.
Another news organization, however, Kol Hazman, reported that the video had been orchestrated by Mr. Hochman himself. And an eyewitness recounted that, before the depicted incident, the reporter had walked “for four hours on the streets of Bnei Brak without being attacked.”
Then a man claiming to be one of the motorcyclists claimed he had been asked to break the flag as part of a “satirical skit,” and just wanted to be of assistance to the reporter.
At first, Reshet TV denied that the video had been manipulated. Several days later, however, the respected Israeli business newspaper The Marker reported that, apparently, it had been, and that the broadcaster had dismissed both Hochman and his editor.
Are there chareidim who act indecorously? Of course there are. But what does it say that media seek out misbehavior, and even, when they can’t find any, fabricate it?
Depressing, no? But we must remain hopeful that, even after so many years of anti-chareidi animus, haters might one day come to their senses.
Just before Pesach, a CNN program depicted Israeli chareidim as a threat to the country, as potentially doing to Israel what the mullahs did to Iran. I wrote an article for a secular Jewish publication pointing out the ridiculousness of that contention.
Most of the responses I received were positive. In the opposite category, though, was one from someone I’ll call E. S. (he signed his full name), a self-described Conservative-turned-Reform Jew. He called chareidim “an abominable blight upon world Jewry and an absolute curse within Israel,” and wants “the entire detestable bunch” to be driven out of Israel “with bayonets and bullets.”
There was more, too, but I’ll spare you. The degree and illogic of the loathing, though, seemed familiar; I remembered something, and decided to write him back.
After politely responding to various accusations he made, I wrote: “I’m heartened, though, by my knowledge that no less a luminary than Rabbi Akiva once remarked that, back when he was an ignoramus, he would have viciously bitten any Torah scholar he came across ‘like a wild donkey’.”
“So I retain hope,” I concluded, “that one day you, too, may have your mud-covered glasses wiped clean.”
His, and others’.
© 2017 Hamodia
Reza Aslan, the host of the modestly named “Believer With Reza Aslan” on CNN, has rendered his verdict: “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews in Israel are to the Jewish State what the mullahs were to Iran in 1979.
To read my comments on that verdict, please visit:
In an enlightening example of how the rush to publish “juicy” stories without doing the requisite research can lead media to propagate falsehoods, a New Jersey radio station, NJ 1015, broke a story recently that was, well, itself broke – bereft, that is, of fact.
The news station, the flagship broadcasting arm of the Townsquare New Jersey News Network, apparently taking its “information” from a blog, described what one of its personalities, Jeff Deminski, called a “truly disgusting situation,” one that, he asserted, “most will be afraid to talk about because they want to be politically correct” – i.e. uncritical of Orthodox Jews.
Lakewood, New Jersey, as is well known, is home to a large and growing Orthodox population. A large mall is being considered by the local township’s planning board. Some Orthodox residents are in favor of the project, others opposed (so much for the image of a solid Orthodox bloc).
The blog and the radio station asserted that 1,200 Orthodox Jews had signed a petition opposing the mall, on the grounds, among other things, that it might include stores owned “by goyim.”
Another commentator on the station, Sergio Bichao, quoted the petition further as fretting that “the presence and influence of non-Jews,” should the mall be built, “is terrifying.” Mr. Bichao took the opportunity to reprise other alleged local Orthodox nefariousness, like the community’s utilization of the school board to spend “tens of millions of public dollars on tuition and transportation for students to attend out-of-district special-education and religious schools,” to the detriment of “black and Latino” public school students; and accusations against “Lakewood developers and religious leaders of promoting ‘blockbusting,’ the practice of scaring off homeowners with the specter of an invading ethnic minority — in this case, Orthodox Jews — in the hopes of driving down real estate prices in order to spur a buyer’s market.”
Never mind that the law requires school districts to provide special education in appropriate settings to all its school children (even Orthodox Jewish ones), and that insufficient funding is available to the Lakewood district to maintain its current educational needs; or that the actions of one of two individuals acting on their own who aggressively offered to buy Lakewood-area homes were attributed to the entire Orthodox community – or that their methods were widely condemned by other Orthodox residents and leaders.
All that matters is that the bad guys be the ones with the black hats.
But what also matters, or should, is truth. It turns out that the blog had it wrong (and has since removed the post and issued a correction).
The “petition” that contained the offensive language was an open letter created by one misguided fellow. The actual petition that had garnered 1,200 signatures consisted of two lines of text, reading, in a medley of Hebrew and English: “We are requesting from Cedarbridge Corporation [the developer promoting the mall project] to withdraw from their involvement in making a shopping center in our town.”
The signatories to that petition have reasons to oppose the mall project. Aside from traffic issues and such, there is the fact that among the values held dear by the Orthodox community is a rejection of materialism – the sort of excess on which shopping malls are arguably predicated.
Smaller commercial projects, aimed at providing material necessities rather than enticing people to buy stuff they don’t really need abound in the community. And their proprietors include both Jews and non-Jews.
What’s more, the sort of businesses that inhabit malls nationwide include some, owned by Jews or by non-Jews, whose advertising and storefront displays are far from consonant with the Orthodox stress on modesty.
But whatever side of the “mall in Lakewood” issue anyone may be on, there is – or should be – only one side worthy of backing on the issue of news organizations’ responsibility to do due research on stories they provide the public – particularly when an inaccurate story is likely to engender animus toward an identifiable racial, ethnic or religious group.
Re “Everybody Into the Pool” (editorial, June 1):
Far from being “unmoored” from the Constitution, offering sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools that service traditional communities is well within the bounds of both the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law.
Orthodox Jews, moreover, are not the only New Yorkers who hew to a different view of modesty than the contemporary one. Traditional Muslims, many Christians and women of no particular ethnicity or faith have similar convictions. Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying “No people with traditional values allowed.”
The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion. It is simply a laudable recognition of the multicultural nature of our city.
Concern for the needs of others unlike ourselves is another religion-based but universal ideal. It is one that your editorial board might consider embracing more consistently.
(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement. In Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.720279), he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.
That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990 , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews. In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.
Some excerpts from his essay:
“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”
“The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”
“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”
“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”
“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold… And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”
That’s a rich field to mine. Let’s do some digging.
If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.
Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform. Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues. And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance. And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.
No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.
As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate. “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”
And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population. Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews. More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.
If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.
Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero). But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place. Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.
As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”
How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades? That’s not a hard question to answer. The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid). Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.
Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.
The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future. The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure. What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.” It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.
Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing. And it is. Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise. What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel. That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.
Some politicians and pundits – including several writers in Haaretz – seem misguidedly intent on extending blame for Jewish terrorism across Orthodoxy, even to the charedi community and its Torah educational system. And several have pointed to a song played at Jewish weddings as Exhibit A.