Wake Up and Smell the Bigotry

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Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies. And at other times, we can help our enemies when they are getting their just desserts — not quite as bad as “our own worst enemies,” but assuredly not beneficial.

Last week I posted that the US District Attorney is, once again, suing the Village of Airmont for anti-religious bias, specifically for keeping out Orthodox Jews.

Some of the responses — from Orthodox readers, mind you — were enlightening. “We ought not pretend that these people have no reason to be upset,” wrote Zev. “There is substantial merit to the claims of Airmont residents,” said Ari.

Both Zev and Ari appear to be good, thoughtful guys — there’s a certain subset of the Orthodox community that likes to snipe about what other Orthodox Jews who aren’t quite like them do, like in every society, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Rather, along with some genuine dislike for what some of the Monsey neighborhoods look like, there’s a desire not to see bias that goes beyond objective truth. And that’s a mistake.

The latter commentor later admitted that he was uninformed: he “did not know that their zoning currently doesn’t tolerate… religious institutions, while tolerating such entities as halfway houses, nursing homes, and the like.” That distinction was, of course, the very basis of the discrimination suit. But because Ari didn’t know better, he leaped to defend Airmont, assuming there must be a legitimate issue this time — despite the Village’s past.

Zev never admitted he didn’t know, he merely demonstrated it. I contradicted him regarding Monsey chassidim making a “mockery out of the zoning laws,” to which he responded: “evidently, you’ve never seen the multi-family homes across from Chareidim, or in the Vizhnitz shechunah.” My response on that point is worth duplicating here:

Not only have I seen the multi-family homes, I was at the public hearing that led to the zoning changes permitting their existence. Not one of the zoning officers, to my recollection, was an Orthodox Jew, and they approved an amended plan that permitted these dwellings only in the neighborhoods where the residents were in favor, rather than the wider boundaries initially suggested. I can talk about the zoning laws being enforced because I followed the process of their enactment. If you didn’t, this is a sorry excuse for accusing the developers of flaunting the very laws they worked hard to follow.

The existence of bias and animosity is told to us in the Torah. Although bias against Jews is known in the Medrash as the one halacha, the single Law which Israel would prefer to see excised from the Torah, it remains a fact of life. We do ourselves no favors when we see an instance of bias, and the medinah shel chesed, kind government that is the United States, acts to combat it — and we contradict the government and say, “no, you’re wrong, it’s really our fault and we deserve this treatment.”

Zev’s assertion that “there’s no reason to attribute [Airmont’s behavior] to anti-Orthodoxy” is simply mistaken. As I said in the comment:

The past history of Airmont, alone, should give any unbiased individual pause: the DA’s assertion that the Village was founded in order to foster unconstitutional interference with the rights of Orthodox Jews, the quotes from Village officials as abundant as they were vulgar, and the legal decision against the Village, finding the violations so egregious that the Village was forced to rewrite practically its entire zoning code and pay $1 million to cover the appellants’ legal fees.

To this, we add that the DA has most every reason not to sue this time around. In the current case, the DA is suing after the Village already agreed (under threat of a lawsuit) to allow the dormitory to go forward. The dormitory is going to happen in any case; it is the zoning law itself that the DA insists must be rewritten. The zoning laws uniquely prohibit religious use (as compared to nursing homes, motels, group homes, halfway houses, and similar enhancements to the residential character of the neighborhood).

These suits are usually initiated by the individuals injured by the law. Government offices (such as the DA) don’t sue other offices of democratic government all that frequently—even more rarely in cases where no one is currently being harmed (given that the yeshiva was already granted an exemption). Not only is the DA filing suit, but doing so under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act—which has yet to be tested in the Supreme Court.

“The enactment of zoning regulations that burden religious exercise and discriminate on the basis of religion cannot be tolerated,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney David Kelley.

“No reason to attribute it to anti-Orthodoxy?” Obviously the DA feels otherwise. Strongly.

The fact is that we do live in a country that demonstrates extraordinary kindness towards us, and does not tolerate bigotry of this nature. Perhaps it leads us towards an excessive focus on rights and “personal fulfillment” rather than responsibilities, as demanded by Judaism, but that’s another discussion. We could be living through a wave of anti-Semitism like the one cascading across Europe. Even in Israel, the police’s respect for Jewish religious institutions (as compared to mosques and churches, which they will not touch even when occupied by terrorists) is on display here (“money quote,” in translation: “one truly familiar with the history of interactions between the police and charedim in this city knows that what makes this event unique is, in essence, the fact that it was captured on video”).

I don’t think we should jump and shout “anti-Semitism” every time we see it. Quiet diplomacy is often better than loud, public confrontation. But I don’t think when the government acts on our behalf, that we should contradict them and defend the attackers.

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1 Response

  1. Zev says:

    “I don’t think we should jump and shout “anti-Semitism” every time we see it.”

    My point wasn’t that we shouldn’t shout anti-Semitism *when we see it*. My point was that not every instance of opposition to Orthodox Jews is a result of anti-Semitism. I believe that the opposition at Airmont is not an example of anti-Semitism. I have no doubt that the Airmontonians would re-act in precisely the same way if someone would try to open a seminary for Hare Krishnas, or an actively prosletysing church of evangelical, born-again Christians, or a mosque of Wahhabist bent, along with a large housing complex for its fundamentalist congregants. And you know what? You too would be against these people moving en masse into your neighborhood, and so (definitely!) would the chasidim who are presently marching under the banner of pluralism.

    Be honest. What Airmont is against is an influx of people who will bring radical, perhaps unpleasant, change to their neighborhood and their way of life. You may not like being grouped in their minds with Hare Krishnas and the like, but that does not make those who think of you that way into anti-Semites.