The Tolling of The Forward’s Bell of Hatred
Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
So begins Forward contributing editor Jay Michaelson’s extraordinary appeal for the development of a New York yevsektsia to thwart, as his piece is entitled, “the creeping Jewish fundamentalism in our midst.”
That fundamentalism is responsible for a variety of vices and sins, claims Michaelson, reciting a litany of real and imagined haredi crimes. He does not make it so clear how those sins impact the lives of non-haredi Jews, but the thought that haredim of various stripes will take over is reason enough for panic. After telling us that he has their well-being in mind, he launches into his action plan:
We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them….Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or “yeshivish”). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary. Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians … now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists. The good news is that since we are propping up this system, we have the power to weaken it.
What we need, then, is Jews going on the offensive against other Jews. What the Uptown Jews of early 20th century New York couldn’t accomplish by benign neglect against their poor cousins of the nether parts of Manhattan, Michaelson advocates doing through direct action against the haredim of Brooklyn:
We don’t have to compel anyone to change his or her religious beliefs. We just have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist. For example? We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life. We can oppose all Jewish-fundamentalist efforts to take advantage of government or Jewish communal largess.
The sweeping generalizations, the incitement, the demonization make the piece a study in evil – and poor judgment on the part of The Forward’s editorial staff that allowed the piece to be published under their imprimatur. Allowing Jonathan Rosenblum to respond (setting off a literary subway series between the two submissions) does not compensate for that lapse. (Jonathan, bless him, wisely decided not to debate Michaelson on the (de)merits of his screed, but used the opportunity to convey truths about the haredi community to the readership of the paper.)
What is really behind this piece?
We fail to act because, I think, deep in the hearts of non-Orthodox Jews there lingers the belief that the Haredim are the real Jews, or the safeguards of our future, or perhaps the sweet, cuddly Tevyes of our imagined Yiddish roots.
Not really. What lingers is the reality that non-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel are quickly disappearing, and are more self-conscious of becoming irrelevant to the entire Jewish enterprise. The Orthodox are not the safeguards of “our future,” anymore. There is no real “our” that remains. If a Jew is someone who identifies with the history of the Jewish people, past, present and future, the non-Orthodox are beginning to realize that they don’t have a shot at the last of those three. The effects of a devastating cocktail of forces are now obvious to all. The non-Orthodox are plagued by intermarriage, late marriage, small families, declining affiliation, and embarrassment – rather than exuberance – about Israel. To the Orthodox will go the future not because of any wrongdoing on their part (although we certainly ought to recognize too much of that to make any of us triumphalist), but abdication on the part of the non-Orthodox. (Michaelson himself is triply challenged in regard to any link to the future. He is a champion of “alternate spirituality,” sour on Israel, and a gay activist.)
And so we get to the point of this short essay. My guess is that many who read Michaelson’s piece thought to themselves, “Yes, it’s offensive. But he doesn’t really mean me, even if he includes the “yeshivish.” He just doesn’t recognize the difference between us and the benighted Chassidim.” Alternatively, “Yes, it’s offensive. But he certainly doesn’t mean me. I am Modern Orthodox. He even says he sees them as allies in his struggle against the primitives.”
Think again. The rage burning in Michaelson is like the candle whose fuel is spent, described by the Netziv at the beginning of Vezos HaBeracha. Just before its final moment, it manages one last flare-up. He is not disturbed so much by the problems of extremism in the haredi world as by the fact that he will have no connection with the future of New York Judaism – in the short run, at this point, not the long one. Haredim make easy targets at the moment to a journalist. It is, however, the triumph of Orthodoxy that he resents, and it matters not which variety. He is equally distant from all of them.
Those of us who saw the piece as directed at “others” shouldn’t delude ourselves. Get used to the idea of a growing resentment towards everything Orthodox by the non-Orthodox. As John Donne put it, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”