Sunday, May 17, 2009

Extremism Wins Again

I’m not sure what Agudah is thinking. It is almost as if they had a death wish. First they announce the closure of their magazine, the Jewish Observer - understandable in light of the diminished readership. And than in an inexplicable move they pull one of their premiere columnists from a paper that tries to appeal to a broad spectrum of Orthodox Jews.

An editorial in The Jewish Star has announced that their regular column by Rabbi Avi Shafran will no longer be published. Agudah has decided to instead give exclusive rights to another competing paper. If Agudah is trying to win friends and influence people, they have a funny way of doing it.

If the competing paper is a more Charedi one (and I have no way of knowing if it is) they will be preaching to the choir. What will they gain by doing so? Isn’t it more worthwhile for them to try and sell their message to a broader audience? Especially one that is Orthodox? That is the audience that Jewish Star is geared towards. And yet, Agudah is silencing its voice to them.

Some people may be pleased at this development. Rabbi Shafran is often vilified by them – usually in matters dealing with sex abuse in the Orthodox world. Undeservedly so in my view. While I do not necessarily agree with some of his views on this issue - which reflect the Agudah point of view - I nevertheless think that he firmly believes in the correctness of those views. He is a fine and decent man of high principle and not anti victim in the slightest. But that is the subject of another post.

The point is that his voice to Orthodox Jews other than Charedi ones has been stilled by Agudah’s own people.

To those who may rejoice at his departure, I would ask, what good is having a paper that publishes only what one wants to hear? Isn’t it better to know what the other side says directly from one of them. In this case one of their most articulate communicators? Very few Agudah writers are as talented as Rabbi Avi Shafran is in promoting the Agudah message.

One does not have to agree with everything he says. I don’t. But I certainly respect his views and even agree most of the time.

So it is a loss for the Orthodox community of the Five Towns where this paper is distributed. And to the rest of us who receive it via the internet.

Mayer Fertig, the editor of this paper indicates what he believes happened. Pressure – it seems - was brought to bear upon Agudah leaders to do this:

Last week Agudah claimed ownership of the column and, unfortunately, indicated that perhaps it doesn’t handle criticism too well, either from within, or from elsewhere. I was informed that at the insistence of unnamed local constituents of Agudath Israel, Agudah would henceforth grant exclusive rights to Rabbi Shafran’s column to the other local Orthodox paper, which I gather they deem to be more pliable and eager to please.

I suspect he’s right. Agudah does not have a good track record when it comes to their Askanim. And it seems they haven’t really done anything to change that.

I am reminded of the time many years ago when I asked a very fine Charedi rabbinic leader that I truly admire - why Rav Hershel Shachter was not ever invited to be a scholar in residence at one of his organization’s annual ‘scholar in residence’ weekends. His answer was basically that he would love to do it – but he did not want his organization to be boycotted by certain powerful Askanim in Agudah.

I guess that Agudah leadership itself is intimidated by those very same or like minded people. Rabbi Shafran’s weekly column has thus been pulled - seemingly due to pressure by Askanim. Extremism wins again. And Agudah, The Jewish Star, and all of its readership lose.