Refreshing, If Long Overdue
Several weeks ago, I wrote a short post providing an example of Israel’s media twisting the words of Charedi protesters, turning a quote from Torah and Halacha into a perverse call for the death of other Jews. The most frequent nay-saying comments said one of two things: “yes, but they did say such and so,” or “yes, but their behavior was abominable” — as if either justified the media’s bad habits — and why didn’t I criticize those?
It has become obvious by now that those “on the inside” in Israel, those with sufficient stature that their voice actually makes a difference, are coming forward and making the necessary and well-deserved statements of condemnation of the violent demonstrators. I did say their behavior was abominable and inexcusable, but also knew that Israel’s Torah leadership does not need the voices of American writers telling them what to do or the hooligans how to act [the idea of me sharing my opinion alongside that of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel or Rav Moshe Shternbuch is frankly laughable]. As I expressed in a recent comment, I concur that there is internal soul-searching to be done, and not just at the individual but the communal and educational levels, in the wake of events like these, but my voice is hardly necessary there. The residents of Meah She’arim are not the readers of Cross-Currents.
The internal soul-searching should also be largely irrelevant to anyone outside the Charedi community. In any other situation, a person expects the police to behave in a reasonable fashion, and in the absence of such, will be less interested in the behavior of individual demonstrators than police lawlessness. In any other situation, one expects the media to attempt an unbiased picture of the totality of a situation, neither, for example, underestimating the total size of a protest, nor overestimating the number who resorted to vandalism or violence. As I mentioned previously, to condemn the hooligans and overlook police brutality and lawlessness because these hooligans are Charedim is hypocritical and anti-charedi, and frankly indistinguishable from the way anti-Semites treat Jews in general. The fact that Charedim are supposed to behave better is no excuse. Jews are supposed to behave better, and — to use another, perhaps even sadder example — a generalization from five Rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn to all Rabbis is no different than a generalization from Bernie Madoff to all Jewish financiers. [There were five Rabbis accused of money laundering for the benefit of their charitable efforts, and sixteen mayors, assemblymen and other officials — all elected to serve the public trust — accused of abusing that trust by accepting bribes for their personal enrichment. Now which do you think got the above-the-fold photographs and dominated the headlines?]
What is remarkable is that a number of distinguished Israeli journalists have awakened to this reality, and are saying the same thing. Quoting Ruthie Blum Leibowitz in the Jerusalem Post: “the knee-jerk presentation of the haredim as hypocrites at best, and evil at worst, should be cause for pause. That such pause came this week from Yediot Aharonot‘s prime political pundit, Nahum Barnea, is as surprising as it is refreshing.” This is a double surprise, coming from a Jerusalem Post writer better known for her interviews with politicians and broadcasters than her defense of Charedim.
Concerning the allegedly mentally-ill mother, suffering from Munchausen-by-Proxy Syndrome, she criticizes the Israeli press — as a group — for failing to acknowledge “the presumption of innocence,” and then goes on to attribute this to anti-Charedi bias.
It certainly hasn’t been doing so. Every lead into every Hebrew news story this week has referred to “the starving mother” (“starving” as a verb, not an adjective), with additional features discussing Munchausen Syndrome — as though there has already been a diagnosis, a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence.
This is only partly due to the fact that child abuse is one of those issues that everyone feels strongly about, and which makes for sensationalist copy. More to the point in this particular case is its connection to a community toward which the bulk of the public, egged on by a largely secular press, feels a sense of schadenfreude whenever something dark emerges from its midst.
Let’s be frank — I’m sure that not a few readers were snickering that I would bother to insert the word “allegedly” in front of “mentally-ill mother.” Schadenfreude — “delight in the suffering of another which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate” — made real. The sad fact is that when it comes to the accusation, I think the evidence is very substantial. Munchausen-by-Proxy Syndrome is a very tragic mental ailment, doubly-so because it afflicts people who do not merely appear to be dedicated, doting parents, but often truly are with the exception of the one child visited with the most abhorrent “parenting” one could imagine. The mother in question has three (apparently) healthy older children, is carrying a baby, and — as the Court decided late last week, poses no apparent danger to her other children if placed under house arrest, especially under supervision. As Jonathan Rosenblum wrote last week, there is no “Charedi consensus” that the accusation is false. There is only a consensus that it is strange, to say the least, to see a woman jumped, shackled, and imprisoned with convicted murderers, in response to an accusation that she is mentally ill and needs urgent psychiatric care.
This is why it is so positive to see the media stop and reflect, if several weeks too late for this round of conflict. Besides Leibowitz’s opinion piece, the JPost also ran “Haredim Under Attack” by Peggy Cidor, a piece providing a far more nuanced picture of life in Meah She’arim amidst the demonstrations.
Two of the kids, one dressed in a black suit with a hat too big for his head, found a pile of ragged clothing and tried to set it on fire. Their third attempt succeeded, and suddenly the flames rapidly spread to a neighbor’s clothesline.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a van burst onto the scene. The [young haredi] driver jumped onto the sidewalk, leaving the vehicle’s engine running, … managed to catch the boy in the suit and, holding his arm firmly, brought him to his car, asking for his principal’s name. One of the women shouted in Hebrew, “His parents will have to pay for the clothes he burned; it’s a shame. And in the newspapers they will say that we’re barbarians.”
The reporter also took the dramatic and unusual step of actually interviewing the Charedi driver, who had this to say: “I feel that the secular press is too eager to put us all in the same basket. After all, they could see for themselves that it was mostly children and teenagers. I’m not saying that we should be indulgent, but hey, they’re kids, you know? It’s summer, they feel part of what’s going on, but the secular — authorities, residents and media — are too quick to accuse us of anything.”
The same article also quotes extensively from an interview with Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, a Toldos Aharon Chassid. Yes, this is the same Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim who spoke with Jonathan Rosenblum and expressed opposition to the demonstrations — even saying they delayed the final Redemption. To the Jerusalem Post, he had this to say:
“Who sends a pregnant — and presumably sick — woman to prison with her hands cuffed?,” retorts Papenheim. “If someone thought she could hurt herself or someone around her, well, that’s what guards are for, no? Nothing can explain the decision to send her to prison in her condition. And on top of that, I know about the cruel attitude she had to face there. They even took away her mattress, and she had to lie on the floor. Where does that cruelty come and for what purpose? What she is going through is a trauma. And we all know that a fetus feels his mother’s traumas while in her womb. Who will be responsible for the damage caused to that baby once he is born with some trauma?”
Asked if he was expecting the medical authorities to act differently once suspicions were raised, Papenheim says he expected the Hadassah authorities to establish contact with the woman’s community leaders. “We would have taken care of her in the most appropriate ways, and they knew it,” he says.
Papenheim, like [Zaka founder and charedi activist Yehudah] Meshi-Zahav, says that the whole haredi community, and more specifically the Eda Haredit, feels that the secular society and the establishment is after them out of hatred, ignorance, perhaps fear of their difference. “We feel that Israeli society considers us all as neglectful or abusive parents. We are judged by different criteria without taking into consideration any cultural differences to which we have the right like any other community.”
“They just don’t understand; with us it’s different. These people, the ‘primitives,’ the ‘not so well groomed,’ they ‘only’ know by heart the whole Babylonian Talmud, but then they don’t know who Madonna is. They may not even know that Michael Jackson is dead, who knows how? But that’s the way we are: primitive, but we love our children, even if our houses are small, not fancy and sometimes not so neat and tidy.”
Not only does Cidor quote Rabbi Papenheim, but she even quotes a fellow who “didn’t look like a member of the Eda Haredit” who nonetheless condemned the police for “indiscriminate” arrests of innocent bystanders — the same story the Post told me they were uninterested in pursuing less than 20 years ago. Something really may be changing.
But most stunning of all, without question, is to hear Rabbi Papenheim’s sentiments echoed in the words of Yediot‘s Nahum Barnea, who is secular and, as quoted below, in favor of opening the Carta parking lot on Shabbos. As translated and quoted by Leibowitz:
A hospitalized child is the responsibility of the hospital, not the mother. Before we turn her into a monster, perhaps we should look at what the hospital did with the responsibility given to it. Hadassah’s hospitals make a living from the haredim. They have extensive experience in treating them. Many problems, including mental ones, have been solved there discretely over the years, through dialogue with the rabbis… Many haredim truly believe that secular Israel is plotting to exterminate them, and if not that, then to humiliate them, disparage them and force them to betray their faith. A responsible Israeli establishment needs to disprove these suspicions, rather than reinforce them.
In no way am I suggesting that we mitigate the punishment of a haredi abuser, that we turn a blind eye to vandalism or that we capitulate in the face of the groundless campaign managed by elements within the Eda Haredit sect against the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.
What I am suggesting, however, is that the champions of secular righteousness wipe the drool off their face. We used to have a party, Shinui, which fed off hatred of the haredim. This party disappeared… The haredim, on the other hand, were there before, and will continue to stick around.
Stunning, I tell you, absolutely stunning.