Sunday, January 29, 2012

Anti Charedi Media Bias - Paranoia or a Reality?

In this week’s edition of Ami Magazine - editor Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter takes the ADL’s Abraham Foxman to task for not tackling the issue of anti Charedism in the media. As the director of the premier organization that combats anti- Semitism he feels that this an outrageous omission on Foxman’s part. Rabbi Frankfurter had written Mr. Foxman several e-mails challenging him as to why he and his organization seems to at best be indifferent to this problem. He awaits a response (other than a more or less formal ‘thank you for your concern’ type response).

I am neither a supporter nor a detractor of Abe Foxman. There have been times that I have whole heartedly agreed with him and other times that I thought he was almost paranoid in what he saw as anti-Semitic.

But I do not think this is a legitimate issue at all. It is certainly not one that Mr. Foxman should be criticized for. I for one do not see the kind of anti-Charedism in the media that Rabbi Frankfurter does. Certainly it does exist in some cases. Most recently in an article in Ha’aretz where among other things columnist Gideon Levy sees Jewish belief in the chosenness of the Jewish people as arrogant and destructive.

But more often than not what Rabbi Frankfurter sees as anti Charedi bias is nothing more than citing facts about the Charedi world – like Charedi poverty, the lack of secular education, the unwillingness to serve in the army, and the fact that Charedim in Israel by their very growth are increasingly taking larger pieces of the budget pie in the form of welfare. These things are real and not pejorative… things that many Orthodox Jews have noted and criticized too, including yours truly.

Rabbi Frankfurter is not alone in this feeling. It exists primarily in the Charedi world. (And lately in the extreme right of the religious Zionist world although they are not the subject of this essay.) Much of the criticism is based on a paranoid perception of reality. They see a world against them that does not really exist. A lot of this attitude is a carry-over from the battles of the past dating back to the 30s. a phenomenon eloquently described by Dov Krulwich in a Cross-Currents article. That era had some anti religious leaders that may have done things to undermine religion or to spite Charedim. Whatever the case then, this is not the case now.

What has generated the recent ‘anti Charedi’ attacks by the media stems from the fact that some of the most disgusting behavior comes out of their community. There is no point in denying that.

Rabbi Frankfurter and many like-minded people in the Charedi world go to great pains to separate themselves from the miscreants of Bet Shemesh and Meah Shearim – going so far as to say that they cannot be real Charedim because real Charedim would never do what they do. Some Like Yehuda Meshi Zahav have even compared these extremists to Palestinians who throw rocks at us. What difference - asks Meshi-Zahav - is there between the Jewish rock throwers in Meah Shearim and Palestinian rock throwers in the West Bank?!

But you can’t run away for the fact that these people are indeed Charedim. The “No true Scotsman’ argument does not work. There are Scotsman who do not eat haggis! You cannot define non haggis eating Scotsman out of being Scotsman.

Of course the vast majority of Charedim are disgusted by these people. Even members of their own Meah Shearim community do not support their means. But no one can deny that their motives are shared by their own more civilized members. Nor can anyone even question that even more moderate Charedim outside of Meah Shearim that condemn that behavior - still support their supposed objectives of Tznius. This was evident in the Agudah condemnation of those extremists.

The secular world does not necessarily understand the nuances between one type of Charedi and another. They see what looks like a duck - and they call it a duck. Those disgusting extremists look like any other Charedi. To many secular Jews all Orthodox Jews look like that or something close to it. And certainly think like that.

When the media is filled with images of Charedim spitting on women, or even roughing them up, or calling an 8 year old a whore, what does Rabbi Frankfurter think is going to be the reaction in the media? Furthermore condemnations that contain the word ‘but’ in them do not help matters. Nor does the constant paranoid refrain about how anti Charedi the secular media is.

Puff pieces on communities like Squaretown where the devout nature of their residents; their joy and elevated level of their observance of Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom does not detract from the underbelly of violence that is done in the name of God by some of its members. It is their distorted belief in what God wants of them that leads to this kind of behavior. A religious philosophy like that of the Satmar Rebbe that glorifies the haters of the State of Israel and vilifies its supporters can only fuel such activity.

The fact is that many religious Jews, myself among them have made the same observations and criticisms of the Charedi world as have secular media outlets that he criticizes have. But in my case and in the case of most of the secular pieces like that – we are not motivated by an anti Charedi bias. We just see the reality, we are disgusted and angered by it, and make our feelings known.

I do not believe for a moment that there is any intrinsic bias by the secular Israelis. At least not yet. Although if the kind of thing going on in Bet Shemesh isn’t stopped Rabbi Frankfurter’s accusations of innate bias may become a self fulfilling prophesy. The fact is that a recent survey (cited by Marty Bluke on his blog The Jewish Worker) shows that to be far from the case. The vast majority of Israelis actually believe in God, observe at least some of the Mitzvos, and are not anti religious even if they don’t observe any Mitzvos. According to this survey only 3% are anti religious!

The issues facing the Charedi community are real. Especially in Israel. The criticisms I mentioned earlier are legitimate. In fact many of those criticisms are corroborated by Charedi columnists like Jonathan Rosenblum who has written many articles about these problems – although even he seems to be somewhat paranoid from time to time.

If Rabbi Frankfurter really wants to stop what he perceives as an Anti Charedi bias he would do well to stop writing editorials like this one. And he would also do well to not try and counter negative stories with irrelevant puff pieces about a Chasidic city.

Instead he should urge the same thing I urge. And that is for the entire Charedi world to join in unequivocal condemnation of the extremism without any ‘buts’. He should not divert attention by calling media reports anti Charedi bias. He should be supporting Charedim like Rabbi Dov Lipman who has championed the cause of religious Zionists in Bet Shemesh even though he is not one of them. He should be urging all Charedi rabbinic leaders to join together with the religious Zionists in that neighborhood in protests when they are called.

And finally he should recognize that much of the problem is generated by an over-all anti secular bias based on obsolete attitudes still attributed to secular leaders. There is a reason for all that criticism and 97% of the time – it isn't anti Charedi hatred.