Wednesday, January 31, 2001


This article is the start of an experiment. Over the years, my column has appeared about once a month. I now plan to write a weekly column under a paid-for arrangement along the lines pioneered in the New York Times by Albert Shanker of the Teachers Union.

Persons I respect tell me that this is a bad idea, that what is paid for is regarded as less credible, perhaps also less likely to be read. They may be right. Time will tell and down the road I will decide whether to continue. I expect to write on subjects that have always interested me – the billion-dollar mountain of waste that is the Jewish establishment, social developments in Jewish life, our political involvement and, for openers and probably quite often, Orthodoxy-bashing.

This is a form of bigotry that has taken root in a community that is smugly convinced that it is tolerant and relatively free of prejudice. The phenomenon was on display in the nasty reaction to President Clinton’s reduction of the sentences given to chassidim convicted of fraud in governmental programs. What they did was wrong, terribly wrong, but this does not justify the extraordinary stereotypical language used by the lead prosecutor throughout the case or the hostility shown to Mr. Clinton’s decision. The guilty people will continue to serve a rather lengthy term.

Like other socially accepted forms of bigotry, it’s difficult to challenge the moral disease that is Orthodoxy-bashing or even to find the right response. There’s always the risk of sounding too shrill, of perhaps seeing enemies where there aren’t any. Worse yet, there’s the danger of becoming too predictable. Most Orthodox Jews I know are resigned to the attacks, their attitude being, “They hate us and there’s nothing that we can do to change this.”

I cannot claim that efforts to counteract Orthodoxy bashing have yielded beneficial results, certainly not if the media – Jewish and general – are the barometers. Distortion, half-truths and stereotypes have become standard fare for writers who out of ignorance or bias deprecate religious Jews. Here are two fresh examples from respected writers and respected publications.

In a Sunday Times book review of Yehudah Bauer’s new book on the Holocaust, Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor at CUNY writes acceptingly of Bauer’s “debunking” of “Orthodox religious thinkers like the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson who compared the Holocaust to a surgical amputation resulting from the sins of the Jews past and present.” The sentiment is entirely antithetical to the Rebbe’s teaching and outlook. But we now have Bauer and Dickstein and a defamatory comment that will be cited by others who regard it as authoritative.

Then there is this from Yossi Klein Halevi in The New Republic on the Israeli elections: When ultra-Orthodox rabbis “endorse a candidate, community activists ensure near-total voter participation, emptying out the nursing homes on Election Day and even sometimes ‘resurrecting’ the recently deceased by recycling their identity cards.” This is inane, false and, in the context of the article, gratuitous. Politics and people being what they are, I can’t say that this has never happened, although this pales in comparison to the well-publicized electoral abuses of Likud and Labor. In any case, Klein does not pretend to convey the story of isolated abuses; rather, he implicates an entire community in electoral fraud. As Klein knows, because of class and theological considerations, there is relatively low voter turnout among the most Orthodox.

Too many Jews accept uncritically, even happily, the worst that is said about the Orthodox. Too many Jews want to believe the worst because stereotypical thinking has become the accepted way of describing this small community. Each distortion and half-truth – and there are plenty of them – add bogus credibility to what is false. It matters little that fellow Jews are being shamed and pained for no reason other than their religiosity. It also matters little that what passes as legitimate journalism, and, at times, scholarship, would be rejected as deeply bigoted if similar language were used to describe other ethnic groups.

In 1943, Justice Felix Frankfuter began his emotional dissent in the Second Flag Salute case by saying that he was a member of the most persecuted and vilified race in history. The Orthodox are a tiny minority of the small minority that are known as Jews. They also are by far the most vilified, if not also the most persecuted.