Of Rabbis and Alibis
Since several commenters criticized my fellow contributor Yonason (pardon the Hebrew!) Rosenblum for omitting an individual’s rabbinic title, I thought I’d post a recent correspondence of mine with a JTA editor on the very same topic.
To be sure, it’ll be a great day when omitting the title “rabbi” is the most egregious form of anti-Ortho bias in the secular Jewish media, and, in fact, as my correspondence below makes clear, I didn’t even see this as an instance of such bias.
Yet, I do find JTA to regularly exhibit what I term “passive-aggressive bias.” This means their slant is neither blatant nor particularly noxious (which is, sadly, not so of certain other media offenders);but over time, a perceptible pattern emerges in a variety of ways, of treating Ortho individuals and institutions more shabbily than others, dismissively or with bemusement. I therefore saw this “omission of rabbinic title” issue as a way to open a dialogue with JTA on the broader matter of their pervasive editorial attitude toward Orthos.
For years now, I’ve tried, as a private citizen, to engage various media players on their treatment of the Orthodox community, and I believe it would it would be great if other Orthodox “private citizens” would, in large numbers and with great frequency, do the same. At a minimum, it would signal to the media that what they write is being carefully read and evaluated by many of their favorite punching bags, even on as seemingly trivial issue as the omission of “Rabbi,” and all the more so on some of the truly bigoted stuff that gets sent our way.
The June 6 news item in question covered the ransacking of the grave of the Chozeh of Lublin, who was initially identified as Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz, but thereafter referred to only by last name.
Dear Sir or Madam:
I just fail to understand.
You’re a Jewish organization, serving the world Jewish community, and you’re discussing a distressing event that occurred to the grave of a religious leader revered by hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide. Surely you’re aware of the great reverence with which these Jews refer to such leaders, even going so far as to append phrases like “Zecher Tzadik L’vracha” (May the memory of the Tzadik be a blessing) after their names.
Wouldn’t common decency, then — not to mention sensitivity to fellow Jews’ sensitivities — dictate that you not refer to the rabbi in question as “Horowitz” as if he was just some cab driver?
I’d appreciate a response.
Thank you for your note.
I’m sorry that you’re distressed by the neutral tone of our syntax regarding that news brief. Our style is, as much as we can accomplish it, the Joe Friday model — the facts and just the facts. And part of our style is that a second reference to a person in an article just includes that person’s last name rather than restating their full name.
JTA, as a news agency that is read by Jews of many levels and traditions of observance, is also careful to avoid phrasing that is not universally used. We also avoid terminology that implies that JTA has an opinion (positive or negative) about any person, even a person who is widely revered within some segment of the Jewish world.
Again, I regret that this is problematic, but that’s our editorial style and has been for 90 years. We mean absolutely no disrespect by it.
Thank you for the prompt response.
I’d like to share a few further thoughts prompted by your response:
1) You write that “as a news agency that is read by Jews of many levels and traditions of observance,” JTA is “careful to avoid phrasing that is not universally used.” Had I been advocating for the use of “may his memory be a blessing” or similar denomination-specific honorifics, my request would be inane and your demurral appropriate.
My point, however, was that there’s a modicum of respect for rabbinical status which, I believe, the vast majority of, if not all, Jews agree upon; even Secular Humanists refer to Sherwin Wine as “Rabbi,” not “Wine”! Indeed, I wasn’t making a case for JTA to use “rabbi” throughout its news items only for Orthodox rabbis, but for all Jewish clergy, whose respective communities hold them in particular esteem.
This, despite the fact that my religious convictions lead me not to refer to heterodox clergy as rabbis, nor would I take any offense if, for similar reasons, a heterodox Jew was to reciprocate in kind. But JTA, as you noted, is not partisan, and thus ought to adhere to a universally-accepted standard of honorific reference.
My point, essentially, was that what you refer to as a “neutral tone” is not that at all. Where a tone of honor is called for, by tradition, social convention and, yes, religious dictate, and yet, such tone is not forthcoming, the resultant effect is dishonor.
2) In justifying the JTA’s style, you write that it “follows the Joe Friday model–the facts and just the facts.” But is that so? I’m a rather avid reader of the Daily Bulletin and have come across a number of items therein in which the writer included material that was extraneous, by any editorial standard, and thus effectively prejudicial.
For example, an item that appeared last July on the succession dispute within Satmar Chasidism provided the basic facts of that story, but then concluded with this paragraph out of left field: “The Satmars oppose the State of Israel because they believe Jews should not have political sovereignty until the Messiah comes.”
Relevance to anything in that story? Zero. Is the reader to reasonably conclude that this is anything other than a grauitous swipe at a group treated by many as anathema?
One more example from my — your — files: Also last July, a JTA news item reported that “a leading Israeli rabbi blamed local outbreaks of avian flu on sexual permissiveness.” Fair enough (although, at the time, I corresponded with someone at JTA — was it you, Andy? — about the prejudicial use of scare quotes in the item’s title “Kabbalist ‘explains’ bird flu”, which said person agreed was improper and would not occur again).
But the piece then concludes: “Basri is no stranger to controversy, and faces a criminal investigation for denigrating Arabs in a recent speech.” Relevance? Is it the notion of “no stranger to controversy” link, and, if so, do JTA items on public figures regularly provide a laundry list of every controversial matter they’re involved in, however unrelated to the story at hand? Methinks not.
I can only conclude that the JTA’s resolve to abide by the “Joe Friday model” is selective, and the criteria for its selectivity, well, I’ll leave that to you to discern . . .
3) Lastly, you write that “we avoid terminology that implies that JTA has an opinion (positive or negative) about any person, even a person who is widely revered within some segment of the Jewish world.” Two points on this: a) Again, I wasn’t asking for some special consideration for a particular figure or any indication of your positive opinion of Rabbi Horowitz, only for a baseline of respect to be accorded to Jewish spiritual leaders, to which I’d think all Jews would assent; and b) I’ve read many profiles, obituaries, etc. of various Jewish figures on your site, and I recall a fair number of them in which the writer’s affection and esteem, if not downright reverence, for the figure was as apparent as could be, from a simple perusal of the piece. I’d be happy to share examples of this at your request.
To conclude, we live in a time when there’s so much sensitivity — much of commendable — to the way others perceive what we say even when we didn’t intend it to be heard that way. This is true in matters of race, sexual orientation, religion, culture and many others. Granted that sometimes, one might say, this tendency veers into an excessive obssession with political correctness (see today’s WSJ editorial on judicial nominations for an example). But should a mechanistic “that’s the way we’ve always done it” really trump the sensitivities of a segment of the community you serve?
I thank you in advance for taking the time to read this lengthy response. I trust you recognize that my taking the time to write it reflects both the seriousness with which I approach these issues and my trust that the JTA is committed to high standards of journalistic ethics and open-minded responsiveness to its readers.
I do apologize for not having the time at present to engage in this kind of discussion, since I’m currently wrapping up my tenure at JTA and have a ton of issues to get resolved before the end of this week. I have always enjoyed a lively give and take with our dedicated readership.
I’m not sure who’ll be replacing me, but feel free to convey your concerns to them once my seat is filled.
I wish you best success where you’re heading. Where is that, if I may ask?
Can you share with me the name of your replacement at JTA, and, would you pass my comments along to him or her? If you agree I’ve raised issues worth discussing, I’d hope you’d agree to do so.
Hatzlacha to you in your new position,