The Jewish Week’s “Haredi Problem”
In a recent column, “Haredim: Underdogs or All-Powerful?”, the New York Jewish Week’s editor, Gary Rosenblatt, writes of a complaint he received from a reader, Chaim, about the paper’s coverage of, and commentary on, the haredi world. Gary, whom I have known for many years and consider a friend, defends his paper and explains how, among other things, the rise of the haredi community’s influence in Israel (citing its insistence on high conversion standards and “avoidance of army service”), its rejection of ideological Zionism and its support for the observance of Shmitta are all deserving of criticism.
I cannot speak for Chaim. But I think the real “haredi problem” at the Jewish Week is the dearth of haredi voices in its pages.
Because issues like those Gary raises (like most issues) do have two sides.
A strong case can be made that loosening conversion standards in Israel would have a devastating impact on whether any Israeli convert is regarded as Jewish by a sizable part of the Jewish community. And it is not hard, once the issue is fully explained, to come to realize that most haredim in Israel who choose full-time Torah-study are not trying to “avoid” army service but to serve the Jewish people (and, perforce, the cause of Israel’s security) in a spiritual way – the way they sincerely believe counts most. Or to understand how a Jew can disagree with the ideology of Zionism yet be fully committed (more so, perhaps, than some card-carrying Zionists) to the security and growth of the State of Israel. And even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the guiding light of the non-haredi Israeli Orthodox community, pined for the day when the law of leaving Jewish-owned fields fallow every seventh year might be observed as it was intended.
Yet all too often, only one side of each of those issues, and others, is regularly presented in the pages of some Jewish papers, including the Jewish Week. They tend to report and comment approvingly on any effort aimed at relaxing the Jewish bond to established halacha or to time-honored religious norms and convictions. Those who choose to hew to a more traditional Jewish path are commonly portrayed as obstacles to be overcome; their stances, as things to be “fought” or “undermined,” according to those chosen for quotation or offered column space. We haredim are accused of wielding influence beyond our numbers (even of being, as per Gary’s title, “All Powerful”) and of poisoning the wells of “tolerance.” (Sometimes I think the haredim have become the Jews’ Jews.)
There are a good number of haredi writers in English these days, each entirely capable of presenting haredi points of view for readers’ consideration. But none of them appear as regular columnists in the Jewish Week, and it is a very rare occasion for a haredi Jew’s byline to grace any of the paper’s op-ed offerings.
A newspaper, to be sure, is entitled to an editorial stance. But a paper aiming to serve the entire Jewish community best fulfils its mission by offering a variety of perspectives. Even the New York Times sees fit to include politically conservative columnists on its op-ed page.
Gary might reply that, well, haredi papers don’t exactly include non-haredi, and certainly not non-Orthodox, points of view. That is true. But haredi papers are very open about their mandate, which is entirely limited to providing the haredi community with news it needs and haredi views of current events. They are not, for better or worse, intended as forums for the broader Jewish community, and make no such claim.
I don’t think the Jewish Week sees itself in similarly constricted terms, as a paper promoting only the views of one or two parts of the Jewish community. As a Jewish Federation-supported paper, it is expected to cover and present the views of the entire community. And haredim are part of it.
Gary admits that “stereotypes abound” on both sides of the demographic divide in Israel, and he is right. But, in my experience, despite strong haredi feelings about non-traditional theologies and practices, the sort of personal anger and even animosity that is regularly aimed at haredim (and duly reproduced by the Jewish Week and some others) is not commonly expressed by haredim toward other Jews. All it takes is a little websurfing among haredi and other Jewish sites and blogs (especially their “comments” sections) to see that what ill will there is among the various sectors of the Jewish people tends to flow largely in one direction.
Some of that animus, sadly, seems hard-wired into some hearts, a tragedy of our time. But I wonder if some of it might result from the dearth of haredi points of view in important media outlets like the Jewish Week. Gary writes that he hopes to lunch with Chaim at some point, and that he will do his “best to hear him.” What he may hear is the pain of a Jew whose community is not only regularly portrayed negatively in some Jewish media but denied an effective opportunity to defend its perspectives. Should that conversation lead to a decision by Jewish Week’s editor and board of directors to consider the inclusion of a haredi viewpoint, what a wonderful gift that would be to the Jewish world – all of it.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]