Sunday, February 10, 2019

Anti Charedi Bigotry - Undeserved but, Sadly, Understandable

I am ambivalent. In a Forward op-ed, Rabbi Avi Shafran recently lamented the prejudice directed at Charedi Jews - both here and Israel. I am sympathetic to his concern. Surely no group should be identified by the worst people among them. And yet that is what so many of us do. All the time. We generalize without knowing all the facts. In the case of Charedim the media focuses on the bad while rarely reporting about the good. So that the average reader who knows little about them might say, ‘They are all like that.’

That of course is simply not the case. Take for example the constant charge that Charedi women are oppressed, passive, and restricted to the home. As secular JC columnist, Rosa Doherty notes that is simply not true.

I can personally attest to the fact that the vast majority of Charedim I know are among the finest people I know. They live modestly within their means and are scrupulously honest. Generous to a fault. Studies have for example shown that the Charedi world gives a greater percentage of their income to charity than any other subgroup in America.  In fact I am personally aware that free loan societies in Israel (of which large numbers of the poorest of Charedim avail themselves) is funded by their very own. 

Many Charedim that have any discretionary money at will ‘deposit’ it in the free loans society so that it can be loaned to those who need it. Those who deposit money there see it as a bank, where they can withdraw those funds any time they wish. The ‘interest’ earned is the Mitvah they get for helping any fellow Jew in need with an interest free loan.

It is also true that Charedim are often accused of being lazy and not wanting to enter the workforce. (More about the work ethic later.) But lazy they are not. Those who are for example dedicated to full time Torah study and are serious about it, are the hardest working people I know. Spending many long hours doing so each day – far more that the 9 to 5 workday of the average worker.

While there is much to be concerned about in this world, including how many actually do study Torah at that level - I do not believe the bigotry against Charedim is because of those things. (Those familiar with my concerns are well aware of what they are – and are beyond the scope of this post.)

So why is there such prejudice about which R’ Shafran rightly laments? He alluded to it with respect to the recent display of antisemitism in Lakewood. Some of the politicians there let loose there latent antisemitism in reaction to a legitimate complaint - as noted by Rabbi Sharfran: 
No doubt, overdevelopment in rural areas is a valid concern and an entirely proper subject for discussion. But no valid concern should ever serve as an opportunity to vilify another group of people. 
I agree that the antisemitism he refers to exists and should not have happened. But he glossed over the cause of it too quickly. As I have noted in the past - the concern about over-development is shared by many of the very Charedi Jews that those antisemitic politicians have smeared.  It would have been far more prudent if those politicians whose concerns matches the the of the above-mentioned Charedim could have joined forces to stop that ‘over-development’. That they did not do that makes their antisemitism obvious.

Adding fuel to anti Charedi animus is the fact of negative media coverage of this community. When a Charedi Jew is caught publicly doing something illegal, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why the entire community is painted that way. It is precisely because they look religious that they are focused upon. The conventional wisdom is that religious people don't do such things. Hence, making it newsworthy when an identifiably religious person does. Fair or not - that reflects on all of us. 

And that is why it is such a major Chilul HaShem when it happens. And it is why not only antisemitic politicians generalize, so too do many Jews – sometimes even religious ones. Thereby additionally feeding the antisemitism of the world with ammunition to throw against us all. Especially when there is not enough of us condemning that Chilul HaShem publicly. (Something I do here all the time!)

Why is that public condemnation so lacking in the Charedi world? Let me suggest the following.

It may be in part because they don’t want to pile on to the troubles of the convicted and their families. Or maybe because they also think that we shouldn’t be airing out dirty laundry in public. Perhaps they might even see it as Lashon Hara. But they could not - in my view - be more wrong.

By not being more strident in their condemnation it makes them seem to be more accepting of it. Even though I am sure they absolutely do not accept it. 

The occasional public statement condemning any kind of bad behavior is just too generic in light of the media focus on a specific Charedi Jew that perpetrated it. The Charedi leadership needs to come out forcefully and condemn not only bad behavior generically but the guilty individual himself. Every time it happens. No matter how ‘esteemed’ that individual might otherwise be. Maybe especially when he is.

I am reminded of the response to a Chasidic Rebbe who was caught in a tax fraud / money-laundering scheme for purposes of funding his institutions. Instead of a public condemnation, a dinner was convened where that Rebbe sat on the dais and publicly (and perhaps even tearfully)  ‘apologized’ for what he did – pretending that he didn’t realize just how criminal his behavior was. And then advising anyone in similar circumstance that there were legal ways to fund their institutions - adding that lawyers should be consulted to advise them about the legality of any fundraising effort. 

That Rebbe spent some time in prison and I’m sure he will never do anything like that again. But I have to question whether he didn’t realize that tax fraud and money laundering were not a crime... and that he didn't realize it because he did not have legal counseling. He probably thought he would never get caught and get away with it. Much the same way any white-collar criminal does. Besides, he probably rationalized that it was for a just cause from which he would have no personal benefit. 

The rabbinic leaders that hosted that event just let it pass as though the so-called apology was all that was needed. Never once did any rabbinic leader simply say that what was done by that Rebbe was a Chilul HaShem of major proportion. And that it could not be smoothed over by a watered down apology. 

Now it is true, as Rabbi Shafran suggests that Charedim look different. They have beards and are black-hatted. But I do not believe that is the reason for the prejudice. It is the fact that they stand out as religious Jews when they commit a crime. There are modern Orthodox Jews that have committed similar crimes.  But they do not stand out as much. Charedi Jews do and that is why the media covers them.  Why? Because as noted above - it is counter-intuitive for religious looking people to be criminals. Thus making it newsworthy. 

It also doesn’t help matters that so many Charedi Jews almost glorify poverty. These are not my words, They are the words of  Rabbi Berl Wein in his weekly post on the Parsha.

If there are so many able bodied beggars floating around who might otherwise work for a living, that too adds to the negative image of Charedim. How many modern Orthodox looking Jews come into Shuls every morning asking for a handout. I’ll tell you how many: None! They virtually all look Charedi. True they may be needy, But in too many cases it is of their own doing and unwillingness to get a job.

That poverty also makes it more likely to abuse the system. If you can’t make enough money to feed your family, you will use whatever legal means available to you to help you do that. All too often that has led to fraud. Some of it unintentional, some of it intentional; some of it minor and some of it major. All of which are wrong. All of which makes Charedim look bad when stories are done about them in the media.

These are some of the reasons Charedi Jews are singled out for prejudice. 

There is a lot more to say on this subject which is noted by Rabbi Shafran. His concerns are legitimate in each case. But there is a reason why things are as they are. The sooner we fix ourselves, the less opportunity the antisemites of the world (including the ‘Jewish antisemites’) will have to be antisemitic about.