(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)
The point to be understood about racism or other forms of bigotry is that, as hateful as they may seem to others, these views are regarded as truthful by those who express them. So it has been regarding what is written about Orthodox Jews. The term “ultra-Orthodox” — innocent to those who use it — is meant to convey fanaticism and worse, yet it has been incorporated into the vernacular as the appropriate way to describe a great many religious Jews whose main sin is to live according to the dictates of their religion.
Bigotry is a dynamic social and emotional force. Left unchecked, it feeds on itself and grows and becomes uglier. While anti-Orthodox bias has become routinized, it escalates as it takes on ever-nastier overtones.
An example is the remarkable New York Times review of “Kadosh” (Hebrew for “sacred”), a movie by Amos Gital, an ultra-secular Israeli.
Movies are a form of expression, therefore also protected speech. Amos Gital has the right to make whatever movies are conjured up by his disturbed fantasies. But the right to speak does not mean that what is spoken is right, as is evident in the nearly universal condemnation of hate speech. Mr. Gital can go about bashing the Orthodox, but we should recognize his hate for what it is.
Stephen Holden, the Times’ reviewer, knows that “Kadosh” is a work of fiction, at least in the particular story that is being told. But he takes the ugly incidents depicted in the movie as reflections of what life is like among the very Orthodox. After telling us about rebellious Rivka, who is forced to marry Yossef, “a boorish, rabble-rousing fanatic who rattles around Jerusalem in a sound truck broadcasting millennial screeds, “Mr. Holden writes:
“Their wedding night scene would be the stuff of grotesque comedy if it weren’t so cruel. After hastily removing as few clothes as necessary, Yossef climbs on the bed, pulls the covers over them and without so much as kissing his bride, or even looking her in the face, brutally lunges at her as she screams in agony. Later, when he suspects her of infidelity, Yossef goes ballistic and viciously beats her with a belt.”
This is fiction, of course, just a movie by someone who doesn’t like the Orthodox, except that the reviewer continues: “The sort of oppression endured by the women in ‘Kadosh,’ of course, is not limited to ultra-Orthodox Jews. It is just as virulent among Moslem fundamentalists and extreme sects in other religions. At its heart is a fear and loathing of sex that originates largely from a primitive notion of women’s bodies as essentially unclean.”
So the fiction is reality because Orthodox Jews — or at least the “ultra” variety — rape their wives, beat them with belts, etc. We Orthodox can perhaps take a measure of comfort in that we are in the company of other religions.
Stephen Holden doesn’t have data to support his remarkable assertion, as there isn’t any. I would bet 10 to 1 that if a study was conducted, the incidence of spousal rape and abuse would be 10 times greater among the non-Orthodox. But the truth would hardly matter, for a network of stereotypes about the Orthodox has been formed and it has become embedded in the way that these religious Jews are described.
While Mr. Holden breaks new ground in the viciousness of his words, his path has been well prepared by a stream of articles in the general press and nearly every Jewish newspaper in the world. It is easy to believe the fantasy, as devoid as it is of any reality, because the myth has been transmitted via so many presumably reliable publications. When our own media stop regarding Orthodox Jews — or many of them — as fanatics who engage in bizarre, abusive and wrongful behavior, we might expect that outsiders will have a more balanced view. Until then, as a reviewer wrote in, of all places, Israel’s daily Haaretz, “We have become our own anti-Semites.”
As I have noted often, the Orthodox have problems. They are not entirely immune from the pathologies in the world around them. Because there is a high degree of intra-communal awareness and a heightened sense of responsibility, the tendency is to address internal problems, as is apparent in the large number of Orthodox-sponsored voluntary groups that provide an impressive array of social services.
In a way, this candor backfires, as when the media focus on a problem area — drugs are the current favorite — and make the situation seem worse than it is.
There are difficult spots, to be sure, but more than any other group I know of, the Orthodox attempt to deal with what is painful or aberrant.
It is now acknowledged that population surveys systematically undercount the Orthodox. Reports of their deviance or wrongful behavior invariably are exaggerations. If we accept as credible all of the statistics, it appears that at least 150 percent of all Orthodox Jews are dysfunctional. Happily, this statistical anomaly is readily explained when we recognize that many Orthodox exhibit multiple behavioral disorders.