Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Why the Negative Stereotype?

There is an article in the Times Herald-Record about Kiryas Joel, the Satmar enclave in New York. This is a town consisting almost exclusively of Satmar Chasidm. They –like many who have extreme views about Tznius issues - have requested that people who enter their community dress and behave according to their community standards. They have erected signs much like those in Meah Shearim in Israel. From the article:

"Welcome to Kiryas Joel," it reads. "In keeping with our traditions and religious customs, we kindly ask that you dress and behave in a modest way while visiting our community."

The main congregation in this community of 22,000 Satmar Hasidim recently posted identical notices near two village entrances to ask outsiders to respect their ways while visiting, which includes "covered necklines," "appropriate language" and "gender separation in all public areas."

The wording is polite, and there is no threat of enforcement.

This sounds like a reasonable request. But is it? I’m not sure. I understand the reasons behind it. They have certain Tznius standards and as explained in the article:

Modest dress is strictly observed in Hasidic communities for the same reason that unmarried men and women stay apart and risque images are shunned: to block sexual impulses. Women can't wear provocative clothing. And men aren't supposed to see anything that may inspire inappropriate thoughts.

As long as they make no law about it - I suppose it is a fair request. Just like it is fair to completely ignore it. How is anyone not familiar with Satmar to know in advance of arriving in town what they should wear? Can these people be expected to run back home and change into clothing that meets the town’s overly strict standards when they see that sign? I don’t think so.

Additionally Kiryas Joel is an American city. Not an Israeli one. It is subject to the laws and customs of the United States and the State of New York. It is a public place -an American town and not private property. Making requests about how to behave in the public square based on personal sensibilities is not in keeping with the freedom this country is all about - even if the request is polite and compliance is voluntary. Furthermore it smacks of a disregard for the social mores of this country. It is not in the spirit of the law to ask for anything more than - at most - generally accepted American standards of modesty in the public square.

Besides it is probably counterproductive to post signs like this. By doing so they are in fact daring some people to violate them… as some of the commenters to that article have indicated they will do.

But that is not what is so troubling. It is the content of many of those comments. One might be tempted to say that those commenting are just a bunch of anti-Semites. That’s possible I suppose. But if one reads what is actually said there – it tends to show exactly what image Satmar type Chasdim project to the world.

They do not project at all their high level of modesty. Or their high level of ritual observance. Nor do they project their legendary dedication to Bikur Cholim – visting the sick. Or their general kindness to fellow Jews. Instead they have created an image of themselves as abusers of the system. Here is one comment which is typical:

How about they obey our rules like no littering, recycle your garbage, drive like a human being, take a bath once in a while, don't cut the lines in stores and the list goes on. These people really have a loot of nerve, take welfare and claim they are poor yet drive expensive cars and shop 6 days a week.

This is definitely a pejorative comment by a biased individual. As are many of the other comments. But the observations and accusations are not entirely founded on falsehood. There are far too many cases of abuse of the system which is often noted in the media. I recall one case from a few years ago where a large amount of government funding was authorized for one purpose and was diverted to another purpose entirely unrelated to it.

And there does seem to be attitude in the way some of them behave that lends legitimacy to other points raised by those comments. I am reminded of a flight to Israel I took aboard a national carrier where the behavior of a group of wealthy Chasidic passengers toward the flight attendants embarrassed me to the point where I felt the need to apologize to one of them after the flight. To my surprise she said she was used to it from them and to her credit (and my relief) she assured me that she knows that not all Jewish people behaved that way.

If I were a member of Satmar I would do everything I could to disabuse the media of the negative images they have projected of themselves.

If the Satmar Chasidim of Kiryas Joel want people to respect their Tznius sensibilities it would help if they would behave in a manner that would preclude the way they are reported upon by the media that causes negative public perceptions about them. They should act in a manner that is a Kiddush HaShem rather than a Chilul HaShem.

I have said in the past that I strongly believe that a lot of the negativity that Satmar type Chasidim have for their gentile neighbors stems from the extreme persecution their parents and grandparents faced in anti-Semitic pre-holocaust Europe. They transferred their animus to this country intact and transmitted it to their children. Their tendency to insulate themselves from non Jews has perpetuated this attitude. There is therefore no counter balance to their preconceived notions about gentiles learned from parents and grandparents. The result is behavior that is the basis for the negative stereotype many people have of them.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the next article about Kiryas Joel have comments that praised the way they interact with the general culture? Wouldn’t it be nice if they eschewed the welfare system instead of taking full advantage of it – and in some cases even cheating it?

I would love to see the following comment in the future: Wow. Kiryas Joel is such a wonderful light unto the nations. Their community is something we should all emulate. I wish we could measure up to their standards.