Speaking to the Other: Recent Bad and Good Examples on Fox and in Mishpacha
The recent Fox News three-part series on NY hasidim did little to endear Jews to our fellow citizens – not Satmar (and it could have been any of several other groups without changing the effect), and not other Jews who might very well bear the brunt of any hostility generated.
Elizabeth Llorente had the luxury of telling it like she saw it. She did not have to be subtle in depicting her subjects. There was no reason to think that people would resist finding fault with a strange-looking group of people who had flown under the radar for decades. Nonetheless, I can’t say that I detected any animus or bias in Elizabeth Llorente’s handling of her topic. As an outsider looking in, she was not unfair. Some in our community will yell – as they always do – “anti-Semitism” whenever crimes and misdemeanors are discovered – oblivious to the fact that everyone today is fair game. The screamers have convinced themselves that the core goodness of our community is so obvious and manifest, that only a hater would fail to see it. How we wish that were true!
To be sure, she got some things wrong. She cited a host of people whose tell-all autobiographies cashed in on their experiences in hasidic communities. Some of those are serious people with compelling stories. Others are troubled souls who deserve our sympathy – but not our faith in their veracity. They spun tales that were ludicrous, and cynically took advantage of a readership that thirsted for scandal, whether true or not. Llorente failed to distinguish between the serious writers and the self-promoters.
The charge that the election of frum members of local school boards allows them to steal money from public school students and divert it to yeshivos has been adequately belied elsewhere. Parents of non-public school students are also stakeholders in school boards, because the law entitles their schools to compensation for certain mandated services, textbooks, and transportation. The frum members cannot do more for their constituency than make sure that they are not cut out of the picture when there are budgetary shortfalls. To an extent, that is defensible. (More on that later.) It certainly isn’t theft.
Dropped into a new universe, she seems to be a bit too accepting of what some people told her. I don’t know anyone who believes that Williamsburg is non-wired. Informal estimates are that 70% have internet access. These estimates may be just as wrong as Llorente, but the degree of insularity she describes is greatly exaggerated. One commenter to the Fox website put it this way (punctuation moderately cleaned up):
#FAKE NEWS I live in Kiryas Joel New York we have a Jewish cell phone store selling the latest and greatest smartphones, and I do IT. I help people with their computers all the time here, and I cannot find one street in the entire Kiryas Joel area where there isn’t lots of Wi-Fi hotspots, and lots of people don’t put content filters on their phones and they still send their kids to the school, and I watch TV with my friends here all the time, and all my friends are on Facebook, the only thing the rabbi can do he can say he doesn’t want you in his school, but you can send your kids in a more modern Jewish School which I would recommend anyway, it is their private school if you don’t like the rules there are many other schools other than that they can’t do anything
On the other hand, the leader of the campaign in one community against eruv presented as a fool. It was as simple as that. Llorente did nothing to make him look less foolish. And Llorente did concede, as did others who did exposes on NY hasidim, that most members of the community were quite happy to be there, and had no interest in trading places with anyone else, something acknowledged even by those who left it.
Some of the positions attributed to hasidim in this three part series of both text and video clips are troubling and problematic. I use the word “attributed” deliberately. What you hear/read was not necessarily offered in response to the questions linked to them. Editors do lots of nasty things – sometimes innocently, sometimes deliberately – by cutting and pasting. It has happened to me – on multiple occasions! Keep in mind that any quote that sounds awful may be perfectly acceptable if it was given in response to a different question than the one used in the published version.
Be that as it may, what viewers and readers saw and read contained some disturbing sequences, regardless of how they got there. This series was not just another article in one of myriad journals. Fox News is big. It is where a plurality of this country is most comfortable getting their news. The images it creates will linger. The airing of extremely harmful ideas about part of the Orthodox community in the most public of forums leaves the rest of us with unenviable choices: either defend the indefensible, or declare that they are not us. One strikes at our sense of truth; the other at our connection to other observant Jews, with whom we disagree about many issues, but with whom we share the most important things in life – our commitment to Torah and mitzvos.
At least three destructive notions emerged:
- The best defense that the Hasidim came up with against the charge that they are gaming the system of government entitlements is that it is entirely legal. This is true. It is a deeply flawed system, and many groups take advantage of it, all staying within the limits of the law. There is nothing illegal in doing a better job than most groups in filling out the documents, so that yours get approved. But there is also nothing illegal in those others learning to hate you – in feeling that they have become patsies whom you are conspiring to divest of as much of their money as you can. Are they expected to simply accept that it is their tax dollars that are keeping your system afloat, and feeding its growth, generation after generation? Have we Jews forgotten that we are more vulnerable than all of those other groups who are doing the same, but are not going to pay the same price?
What do we think happens when the following is projected on the screen in bold, large font letters, are allowed to linger?
The average yeshiva graduate: •speaks little or no English, •has few or no marketable skills, •earns a household income well below the average Brooklynite’s, •marries young and has many children, and •is forced to rely upon public assistance to support his large family.
50-70% of Hasidic Jews are on public assistance.
Especially the last line. Do we think they are going to love us for this? Interestingly, the first Fox segment mentioned that the Vizhnitzer Rebbe zt”l was against frum people taking over local school boards, thinking it too provocative. What is everyone else thinking? Have we forgotten to be mindful of what others think? Are we shallow enough to believe that what is legal is necessarily ethical – or wise marketing for ourselves?
2) Hasidim were portrayed as dismissive and contemptuous of everyone else. They acknowledged their isolationism as justified by the threat of the alternative: a world of drugs, crime, and no values. Now, some of us would debate whether or not the problems they point to – arguably present in parts of the non-hasidic world – are the only colors on the palette that should be used to paint a picture of what is outside. Can anyone, however, think that it is a good idea to tell millions of people, “You are worthless failures at conducting yourselves like human beings. Only we have it right. That’s part of the reason you shouldn’t object to supporting us. Pretty obvious, sucker, no?”
Viewers saw absolutely no minimal regard or respect for people outside the community. Here is how the on-screen spokeman dismissed opponents of the expansion of eruvin to new areas: “If these little towns want to putz around with racism, no problem. We have and we shall overcome them. … They’ll be running for cover, because the lawsuits will be coming…These are none other than racist low-life bastards.”
3) The contempt that the spokesman showed for others included casual racism – the very racism he attributed to others. He reported on an attempt to mix Jewish kids with non-Jewish kids at an event in the same school district. He pointed with pride to the fact that none of his kids had ever heard a particular four letter word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet. On the other hand, the “Latino” kid kept liberally describing things he didn’t like with a different four letter word, prompting the spokesman to pull his team after a half hour, declaring that the game was over. Our side was not going to run the risk of being contaminated by the other . But any point he scored in showing the innocence of the Jewish kids was offset by attaching a label-of-origin to the offending party, displaying animus for an entire group.
The Fox series was no cause for celebration. It displayed much that we would have preferred to stay hidden. This is not to say that we should not openly speak of our problems. There are better ways to deal with flaws in our own precincts. Noticing the title of a recent piece in Mishpacha, the needle of my worry-meter immediately crashed into the right margin. Here we go again, I thought. Another cover up by members of our community who never seem able to own up to major problems within our hallowed walls. I was dead wrong. Shlomi Gil’s piece (“Over the Green Line,” June 6) on charedi smuggling was no whitewash. If anything, it was a study how to deliver a troubling message to people without them tuning out before you make your point.
I hear the complaints often enough. People, full of righteous indignation about why some of us writers don’t display more righteous indignation regarding problematic personalities, attitudes, and activities in the charedi world. The answer – obvious to me; totally unappealing to them – is that spilling your gut can be satisfying emotional release, but is a poor way of influencing behavior and motivating change. At best, readers become defensive. At worst, your credibility vanishes because you are perceived as having bolted from the Group of Faithful and joined ranks with the “others.”
The author could have pleased some readers by excoriating customs officials around the world for targeting Orthodox Jews, thereby showing their anti-Semitic bias. He didn’t.
Alternatively, he could have zeroed in on fault lines in the charedi community, real or imagined, as others would have done. He could have charged that the culprit for the smuggling scandals (including one in which the grandson of a charedi MK was implicated in smuggling drugs in his tefillin) is wholesale disregard for dina de-malchusa. He could have pointed to the failure of a one-size-fits-all system of chinuch to provide options for those who don’t fit, turning them into easy marks. He could have blamed insularity so complete that the mules have no idea of what they are carrying, or why. He didn’t do any of that.
Gil was more clever, more balanced, and more subtle – and therefore came up with a piece that worked. He wrote with sympathy for those caught up in smuggling operations, neither absolving them of guilt, nor demonizing them. He left room for the more open-minded reader to search for the ultimate causes for the behavior, without spelling them out. He conceded that many in the community find a thrill in “getting away” with breaking rules that are not organically part of codified halacha. Doing this, he did not accuse an entire community of being above the law, but at the same time asked them to contemplate whether they were not, in many cases, prepared to take liberties that they should not be taking. He directed the wrath of the readership to a place that can go some genuine good – the handlers and highers-up in the smuggling operation, who operate within the charedi community, and think nothing of putting the lives of others at risk. He provided facts and figures about the number of people who are caught, and the efficiency of customs personnel, which are certain to raise the eyebrows of those who believe that people who don’t look like them are easily deceived.
Those who think that the best way to influence people is to compose a tweet in caps, or to join the Robert De Niro/Samantha Bee school of rhetoric, should study this piece to find a better way to communicate a lesson that the audience is not so eager to receive. And, between the pieces in Mishpacha and Fox, all of us are going to have to find ways to magnify kiddush Hashem before the chilul Hashem sweeps us, in time, into a vortex of Jew-hatred.