Monday, October 29, 2007

The Times Does It Again

Mazal tov! Syrian Jews have made it in America, thanks to a Sunday Times magazine article by Zev Chafets, another of the newspaper’s pseudo-experts on American Jewish life, and no less than in an issue devoted to money and wealth in New York City. Though talented, Mr. Chafets is lazy, apparently taking at face value what is fed to him by informants, without determining whether the information given to him is credible or accurate.

He is notably vulnerable to misinformation about statistics. The opening sentence on Syrian Jews reports that in Brooklyn, this community “is 75,000 strong and growing fast.” This is way off the mark, as he would have determined had he examined day school enrollment – nearly all Syrian children attend a Jewish day school – or analyzed census tract data. There is a familiar syndrome of ethnics exaggerating their number, at times by a great deal. Mr. Chafets should learn to take with a grain of salt some of the claims presented to him.

That didn’t happen in his previous article for the magazine on Lev Leviev, the billionaire Bukharian Jewish businessman and philanthropist who among a multitude of good deeds established the Gymnasia, a tuition-free Jewish school in Queens that primarily serves Bukharians. He wrote that Mr. Leviev provides the school with $18,000 per year per student, which is approximately three times the true figure. In the Syrian Jewish article we read that “an SY [Syrian Jew] in good standing can expect free K-12 parochial education and summer camps for the kids,” which is absurd and certainly news to the thousands of parents who are charged substantial fees for these services. Mr. Chafets took down what he was told and fed the information to Times readers who doubtlessly regard the misinformation as accurate because, after all, the Times would never publish something that is false.

I wonder why Syrian Jews were selected for inclusion in a theme issue devoted to money and wealth. No other ethnic group is given attention, although there is obviously enormous wealth in other ethnic quarters. Did the magazine’s editors decide that they could not publish a money issue without an article on Jews? Or was the topic Chafets’s idea? Whatever the explanation, the newspaper that we have come to love and hate – both for good reasons – demonstrated once more that it is afflicted with a serious case of Jew-phobia.

Whether the Syrian Jews are all that wealthy is an interesting question that is scarcely explored in the article which opens with a full-page aeriel photo of a nondescript neighborhood. If Syrian wealth is to be judged by housing, the inescapable conclusion is that they are upper middle class but far from wealthy. The article includes four small snapshots of private homes, two of them quite modest. In dozens of communities in the New York metropolitan area, there are thousands of homes that comfortably outstrip in luxuriousness and elegance what Syrian Jews have in Brooklyn. For reference, see Sotheby’s display ad in the same issue.

Syrian Jewish wealth is no more than a secondary concern for Chafets. The main story is the community’s strong opposition to intermarriage. As in the Noah Feldman piece that is still fresh in our memory, Orthodox Jews come out badly. Chafets rambles on about “the Edict,” it being the official communal decree proscribing marrying out. Eleven paragraphs – several of them zaftig – are devoted to the tale of a lawyer who violated this norm.

It may be that the Times or the editors of the magazine are on a pro-intermarriage crusade. Chafets has married out, which isn’t disclosed in the article. I do not believe that an intermarried Jew cannot write about the phenomenon with the requisite sociological or reportorial detachment. However, when intermarriage is not the normal outcome of background and upbringing but a transformative experience for the writer – something that has engendered inner turmoil – it is questionable whether he or she can deal with the subject in a fair manner. Feldman was writing about his own experience and he is entitled to do so. Chafets is writing about other people and his career includes fascinating zigzags, one of which was serving in the Israeli government as a top advisor to Menachem Begin.

It is a fair question whether Chafets’ personal transformation transformed an article on Syrian Jewish wealth into an article on Syrian Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage.

In the article’s final section, Chafets dredges up stories of misdeeds by perhaps as many as three Syrian Jews, most notably the antics a generation ago of Eddie Antar who is strangely identified as “for many years the most famous SY in the world.” Did Antar scream out, “I am Crazy Eddie, a Syrian Jew?” What was Frank Purdue’s ethnicity? Or Tom Carvel’s? Antar operated a small chain of appliance stores, committed fraud and went to prison. Now, many years later and because Chafets was writing an article about Syrian Jews, he went to his files or Googles and dishes out the irrelevant dirt. We also read of another retailer who sold his business on the verge of bankruptcy and of a New Jersey Syrian Jew who has been charged with serious wrongdoing.

The Times would not permit the inclusion of such material in an analytical article about another ethnic group. I am sure of this. What gives the newspaper the license to allow Chafets to descend into the foul zone of bigoted journalism? Is it because Jews and especially religious Jews are always an acceptable target?

There is no answer. We have come to accept the Times as it is. The newspaper and the Sulzburgers are, for sure, the most venerated names in biased journalism.