Sunday, April 29, 2018

Stereotyping Jews – How Much of it is Our Own Fault?

A Chasidic man in an Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood (NY Daily News)
Chilul HaShem should be one of the most important things any Jew thinks about when in public. No matter what the circumstance. It a biblical level law that is in this week’s Parsha of Emor (Vayikra – 22:32): And you shall not desecrate My Holy name; and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel. 

This Halacha is so important, that one is supposed to give up their lives before violating it.

I try to think of that and to my own great dismay and regret after the fact, I sometimes I fail. I wonder though how many of us don’t think about it at all. And how much damage is done because of that. 

I want to be clear. I don’t think people go out of their way to make a Chilul HaShem. That would be pure evil. But I do think that being self-centered is most often the primary cause. When  an identifiably religious Jew thinks only of himself in the public arena, it will often inevitably lead to a Chilul HaShem. Our behavior in public is not ignored – whether that behavior is good or bad.  

When it is good, then the opposite is true. It ends up as a Kiddush HaShem –sanctifying God. There have been many stories like that. Some of them reported here.  Unfortunately I think there are more of the former than the latter. No where is this better illustrated than in an article in the New York Daily News written by Eli Reiter, a Chasdic Jew. He talks about the prejudice he encounters every day in New York City. Here is an excerpt: 
It’s not surprising. As a member of that community who has ventured to places around New York that we don’t often occupy, I am often forced to answer for my people with biased allegations. I’m a guest in their environment, a minority visitor, and people seem to believe they have the license to approach me with abhorrent claims. To them, I can always return to Williamsburg or wherever they think I come from.
Once, I was standing in a West Village bar and a friend’s husband cornered me, handing me a beer he bought me.
“Let me ask you this. A year ago, a Hasidic man in a van side-swiped me and drove off. What do you think about that?”
To me, the most obvious visual parts of my identity are of least import; to him, they seemed to be all that mattered.
These were ostensibly liberal New Yorkers who were — at least in theory — sensitive to vulnerable populations, citizens who have it far worse than me. They see my straggly beard and messy white shirt as an invitation to approach with complaints about my people, as I’m viewed as someone without agency, free will, or any sense of individualism…
At another bar, recently, I had a similar run in with a tale of a hit-and-run. A middle-aged couple asked me to defend a Hasidic driver’s rudeness after a fender bender on a late Friday afternoon close to sundown. I apologized and downed half a Guinness in disgust, dropping a huge tip for my beer to counter the stereotype that we’re bad tippers. 
While some of the other incidents he described were various different forms of prejudice, it is clear that at least in the two cases involving automobile accidents, that it was the actual bad behavior they experienced from obviously observant Jews that generated their comments. It shoud not be too surprising that we are all painted with the same broad brush when a personal experience corroborates a stereotype associated with us.

And it is the religious Jew that is at fault. Not the secular Jew who looks no different than the non Jew. There would have been no reason to assume that a hit and run driver was necessarily Jewish unless he had some identifying characteristic.  Like wearing a Kipa, or having a long beard and Peyos. When bad behavior is done by an obviously religious Jew, that makes it a Chilul HaShem.

It is not that I am excusing antisemitic behavior or even negative stereotyping. I am only suggesting that when we misbehave in public, it fuels the negative stereotype and reinforces the pre-existing prejudice. Which is why I believe that Eli couldn't properly respond in those instances.

As bad as it is when we reinforce negative stereotypes about us to prejudiced non Jews, it is even  worse is when secular Jews are the ones experiencing it. Instead of inspiring them, we make ‘Jewish antisemites’ out of them. They will end up repeating all the negative stereotypes - only they apply them to religious Jews instead of all Jews. That’s why in a post last Thursday the behavior I described (of the observant Jews in their Shul towards a woman that was not observant) was so bad. Not only was a self centered Chilul HaShem, it was a lost opportunity to turn things around.

I know too many people that are like this. They could not care less about the world outside of their own. Their attitude is they are going to hate us no matter what we do, so why should we care how they see us?! Might as well ignore them. They believe that what these others think about them is irrelevant and instead they believe in focusing completely on elevating their own spirituality. They are oblivious to the fact that they might be causing a Chilul HaShem which does the opposite of elevating their spirituality. 

That attitude contributes mightily to how people see us. Making it far more difficult to defend against the negative stereotype illustrated and experienced by Eli. It’s almost impossible to counter it by saying ‘We aren’t all like that!’ Or by saying ‘There are people in all segments of society that behave this way, Orthodox Jews are not immune form it.’

While that is certainly true, that isn’t going to change the hearts and minds of people that had those  excerpted experiences.  The only way to even hope to counter a negative stereotype is to make sure that our public behavior is exactly the opposite of what happened there. If you get into an accident, stop. Don’t flee. And if you do stop, don’t come out of your car angry - blaming the other guy. Get out of your car and ask if anyone is hurt. And if it IS your fault, ADMIT IT! That will go a long way towards changing how we are seen by others, whether they are secular Jews or non Jews. That is what making a Kiddush HaShem is all about.