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Denying Extremism, Dismissing Hooliganism
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs at Agudath Israel of America, just published an article, in response to an earlier column by Shoshana Keats Jaskoll, with the title: "Why Do Some Fellow Jews Scorn The Ultra-Orthodox?" Now, that is a question with several reasonable answers, none of which are adequate on their own, but all of which undoubtedly play a role. Some of them are the fault of charedim, such as the ever-painful IDF issue, and the under-contribution to the professional workforce. Others are no fault of the charedim and are due to innate bias against people who present themselves as being more religious.
But Rabbi Shafran does not acknowledge that there might be any good reasons to disapprove of the charedi community. Instead, he addresses just two potential reasons, which he denies.
The first is Ms. Jaskoll's report that "Increasingly, images of women are disappearing from publications, billboards, bank and health clinic brochures in Israel." Rabbi Shafran claimed that this is false: "Many haredi publications, in the interest of the Jewish idea of modesty, have always refrained from including photos of women; that’s no new or ominous development." Rabbi Shafran is perverting the truth here, and he surely knows it. To be sure, there are certain hassidic groups which have always refrained from including photos of women. However, the Litvishe world - that to which Rabbi Shafran belongs - used to have no problem including photos of women, and it is only recently that they have stopped doing so. So there is indeed a major new development, and Rabbi Shafran is being dishonest to claim otherwise.
Rabbi Shafran then argues that it is intolerant to object to this practice: "Ms. Jaskoll is welcome to find the position extreme, and I would tend to agree. But we differ in that I don’t disparage people for making choices I wouldn’t make. The word for that is 'intolerance.' ” Another lot of nonsense. Rabbi Shafran certainly disparages people for making choices that he believes to be wrong - he does so in this very article! And this is all the more true when these choices harm others. Removing women from publications is deeply upsetting and harmful to many women in those very communities (as well as often being imposed on media outside of those communities). Calling it "intolerant" to try to stand up for them is as absurd. It's like praising Madoff and disparaging Sully. It's like claiming that charedim believe in female empowerment. It's like claiming that a lack of critical thinking is a greater problem outside of the charedi world than inside it. (Okay, I had better stop giving examples of absurd things, since Rabbi Shafran has argued for each of these.)
Rabbi Shafran then moves on the second criticism that Ms. Jaskoll leveled against the charedi community: the fact that hooligans are not merely a group of outliers, distant from the rest of charedi society, but rather they are part of a larger phenomenon of increasing extremism. Rabbi Shafran expresses extreme skepticism at Ms. Jaskoll's reports about ongoing hooliganism in Beit Shemesh. Well, as a resident of Beit Shemesh, I can also attest that these reports are entirely true. My relatives and friends have often been cursed at or had things thrown at them by extremist charedim of all ages. These incidents mostly take place in and around an area called RBS-B, where hundreds of charedi adults will be standing around watching and not doing anything as teenage girls are harassed. During the municipal elections, such behavior extended to the more mainstream charedi area of RBS-A, where activists for the non-Charedi candidate were called Nazis, by both street youth and certain charedi public officials.
Rabbi Shafran claims that the blame for such behavior should not be extended to anyone outside of group of hooligans themselves. But this is patently false. Communal responsibility is a theme that runs throughout the Torah. And as I pointed out in a post two years ago, there is no sharp disconnect between the hooligans and other charedim with regard to religious zealotry.
There is a continuous spectrum ranging from physical violence to verbal abuse towards outsiders which exists throughout the charedi world. Furthermore, while the people at each level do not agree with the level of hostility coming from people to their right, there is near-constant refusal to condemn it. And even people who are horrified by the violence nonetheless produce inflamed rhetoric which creates an atmosphere that allows it and contributes to it.
At the extreme right you have a group of Meah Shearim and RBS-Bet hooligans who will commit physical violence against people. Less to the right are others from those communities who will not commit physical violence, but they publish the chardak campaign which portrays soldiers as pigs and evil beasts out to seize innocent charedim. Then less to the right are the Rav Shmuel Auerbach faction and suchlike, who describe Israel as a terrorist state and hold riots against conscription. Then moving left into the right wing of the mainstream Litvishe world, there is regular talk of people who are pro-equal army service being "Amalek" and suchlike. Then people across the board in the charedi world attended the notorious selfishness and ingratitude rally in which Shefoch chamascha was recited against the Israeli government. Then even supposedly "moderate" charedi rabbonim in RBS-A tacitly endorse newspapers which paint non-charedi politicians as Nazis.
Each of these groups does not approve of the actions of those on their right. But, with rare exceptions, they will never condemn them. During the peak of violence against the children and parents of a religious Zionist school in Beit Shemesh, there was a rally to show empathy and support for that community. It was attended by a broad cross-section of religious Zionists from across Beit Shemesh - and by virtually no charedim.
Why are they so reluctant to acknowledge and condemn violence? Sometimes this is because they are afraid of not appearing frum/ right wing enough, and sometimes it is because they see it as more important not to break ranks with other charedim than to condemn violence. Whatever the reason, as long as matters are this way, non-charedim are correct to consider verbal/physical violence as a charedi problem. The problem is not the attackers, per se; it is that the attackers are part of a larger community which exudes hostility and ingratitude to Zionist Israel at every level and which almost never condemns verbal and physical violence from the right.
Who should condemn charedi extremist violence? Everyone. And the further you are to the religious right, the louder you should be condemning it. The fact that the charedi community is so reluctant to do so is part of the problem.
Rabbi Shafran concludes his article by claiming that criticism of charedi society is like antisemitism - logically and morally wrong. I think it's time for him to check his logical and moral compass.