Monday, March 12, 2012

Crying Wolf

It always upsets me when someone on the religious right tries to make points for his side with a story about bad behavior from the secular left. Or vice versa for that matter. As if one bad story would justify the other.

Rabbi Daniel Eidenshon’s Daas Torah blog features a story by an anonymous student at the Mir who experienced one such incident. If it happened the way he claimed it did, it was indeed terrible behavior.

Briefly - he was on a bus late at night going from Bnei Brak back to Jerusalem when some secular women sitting in the back started giggling, then singing out loud, and eventually using foul language in an obvious attempt to disrupt atmosphere of that bus.

Long story short after unsuccessfully trying to get them to stop, the driver ended up driving to the police station whereupon the women attempted to accuse the driver of sexual harassment. There was of course no sexual harassment. The story ends with an observation by the writer that there are always 2 sides to every story and that next time someone hears one of these sensational harassment stories, to keep this story in mind.

Although his anonymity gives me cause to suspect the veracity of his story - I will take this student’s word for it.

But does this mean that other harassment stories shouldn’t be believed? Should we be skeptical of the story by a non Charedi but religious woman that was severely beaten for sitting in the front of a non Mehadrin bus by a few Charedi thugs a few years ago? I don’t think so. Yes there are evil people on both sides of the religious fence. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

But more than that, Rabbi Micha Berger, owner of Aishdas - the Avodah/Areivim e-mail list - makes a most intelligent observation in a comment there:

The flaw here is their provocation would make no sense if the other kind of story hadn't happened first. There would be no desire to make the headlines by violating Mehadrin bus conventions if it weren't the pre-existing knowledge that headlines could be made.

Things like this - even if true - cannot be judged in a vacuum. One must see them in context. Had these women provoked the bus driver out of the blue , with no pre-history of the current Mehadrin Bus controversy, it would be one thing. But in light of the numerous negative incidences recently and over the years with respect to these buses, it should be no surprise that something retaliatory might happen. That doesn’t make it right of course. But let’s not forget what very likely motivated such disgusting behavior in the first place.

If it happened. I’m not even sure I buy the story.

One may accuse me of being biased only against a Charedi story – never having suspected that a media report about the bad behavior of Charedim was false. Looking at that by itself one might be right. Except for the fact that this isn’t the first time a Charedi Jew made up a story just to improve that the image of Charedim.

There was a story by Rabbi Lazer Brody that circulated the internet last January. It is still located at the website. It involves a similar story of a group of secular women getting on a Mehadrin bus just to make trouble and show up Charedim for the “mean and nasty” people they are. They brought a camera so that they could film what they believed would be a stereotypical negative response. They proceeded to try and provoke a Chasidic passenger. Try as they might, that Chasid kept coming back at them with modesty, civility, and kindness, totally disarming them in the end.

Wonderful story. Except that it was a lie. The author later admitted that he made it up but that it was based on a conglomeration of personal experiences that he and his friends have had. He was simply trying to paint what he thought was a more positive and according to him a more realistic picture of how Charedim handle this kind of story – instead of the way it is often portrayed in the media.

Had it really happened, he may have succeeded in his goal. Instead his lie gives way to skepticism. It has casts doubt on any anecdotal story reported by the religious right. This is why I wonder whether the story of that Mir student is really true. Did it really happen? Who knows?

If the right wants these kinds of negative stories to stop, they have to stop the people in their midst doing negative things. They will not improve their images with counter negative stories. Especially if those stories are suspect in the first place.