Friday, June 25, 1999

Chasidim And Politicians: An Unhealthy Relationship

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

In a recent editorial, The New York Times lamented that the special election for an open state Senate seat in Rockland County “represents a new low.” While our newspaper of record was primarily upset that the commuter tax imposed on New York City suburbanites had been used as electoral bait, in fact the most sordid aspect of the contest was how chasidic communities were caught in the political crossfire and subjected to improper coercion, often because they rely more on government benefits than other groups.

This is a cautionary tale of what awaits chasidic groups if they do not exercise restraint in their involvement with public officials who are determined to win at any cost. Some of what happened is on the record already, as in the remarkable public threats against the chasidim made by Joe Holland, a Republican who had occupied the state Senate seat and who now is a local official. He was explicit in indicating what awaited Rockland’s chasidim if their leaders did not deliver the requisite votes for his designated successor.

Holland has not denied the comments attributed to him, although he has suggested that they were misinterpreted. In more private encounters, political operatives of Gov. Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno were brutal in the pressure exerted on the chasidim.

For all of their distinctive qualities and the attention that they get, chasidim are small in number, indeed, a miniscule proportion of even the Jewish electorate. They may seem to be more numerous because they stand out in a crowd and also because they seek out politicians who, in turn, seek their support. In the process, they and the politicians exaggerate the number of votes they have and can deliver. There are dozens of housing projects that have more eligible black or Hispanic voters than there are in entire chasidic groups. Those who doubt the accuracy of this observation are invited to examine election results in such presumed chasidic strongholds as Williamsburg and Crown Heights. Even in their own bailiwicks, their impact is diluted.

But to say that they are small and far less important than is often presumed is not to suggest that they are entirely inconsequential. Chasidim gravitate toward politics and politicians toward them. This is evident in the photo-op visits of yarmulke-bearing candidates to grand rabbis, as well as in the familiar picture of chasidic groupies who hang around political headquarters.

Much of this is quaint, probably childish as well, with little bearing on anything that matters. Chasidim have the satisfaction of seeing attention paid to their leaders, while politicians have the satisfaction of believing that they haven’t left a stone unturned in their quest for votes.

Occasionally, there is a darker side, as the Rockland County story illustrates. In some local races, clusters of voters amounting to no more than several hundred can make a difference, which is why Rockland’s chasidim were sought out and subjected to uncommon pressure. Their small numbers and discrete living patterns ensured that politicians could figure out — literally to the last man and woman — how many of them voted and for whom.

In short, they became prey, and politicians exploited their vulnerability. They had to vote for a specified candidate. Else, there would be a price to pay.

Campaign contributions are another danger spot. This is territory where other ethnic groups have made their ignoble mark, as we know from the recent Chinese experience. American Jews have been deeply involved in political fund raising for decades, giving the impression at times that these contributions are a surrogate for charity.

Chasidim are, at the most, in the minor leagues as political contributors, although here, too, their concentrated numbers and penchant for political involvement result in heightened vulnerability. They are now being pressured for contributions in a way that would have been unthinkable less than decade ago. About three months ago, a prominent person in one of Brooklyn’s chasidic groups came to me to complain that the Giuliani administration was twisting the arm of chasidim, the message being that unless substantial contributions were forthcoming there would be retribution in the form of reduced benefits and support for chasidic projects.

Shortly after, I spoke to a respected Orthodox leader. To my surprise, he confirmed the report of Giuliani administration arm-twisting and then justified it on the ground that since there are limited goodies to be dispersed by City Hall, it is only right that the rewards go to those who have added to the campaign coffers. Unfortunately, there are people, both inside and outside of government, who believe that the kind of behavior engaged in by the Giuliani administration is appropriate, that there is nothing wrong when tiny and vulnerable religious groups are made to feel that their well-being is dependent on campaign contributions.

Small wonder, then, that in recent weeks there was a major Giuliani fund-raiser in Borough Park, as well as a dinner in Manhattan that attracted large numbers of chasidim. It might not seem odd to some that chasidim now contribute inordinately to political candidates. I regard this development as unsettling, even frightening.

(I tried without success on three days to reach Bruce Teitelbaum, a key fund-raiser for Mayor Giuliani and perhaps his primary link with the Jewish community. My aim was to inform him of what I was writing and to ask for his comments.)

I know that the conditions that have forged the unhealthy relationship between the political world and the chasidic world will not at all be affected by my argument that this relationship is rotten to the core. My hope is that there will be a measure of restraint, perhaps from governmental and political officials who understand that the short-term fund-raising gains are likely to result in long-term problems.

More critically, there has to be a feeling of restraint on the chasidic side and on the part of those who connect them with government. The more that chasidim are enveloped in an atmosphere that requires them to dance to the tune of politicians, the greater the likelihood that the ante will be upped. Is it too much to expect chasidic and Orthodox leaders to recognize that abuse begets abuse and that unless the wrongful practices are stopped, substantial damage will be done to significant parts of the religious Jewish community?