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The Uncivil Servant: In Protest of Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Mitchell Abidor
April 1, 2014

Am I Being Anti-Semitic, or Do They Deserve It?

by Mitchell Abidor ultra-orthodox20jews1Some time ago, I spent several months translating the correspondence of the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a ferocious Jew-hater and Nazi collaborator. Reading his rants, I felt a certain unease. That unease returned while reading, for a future review article for Jewish Currents, David Nirenberg’s brilliant and dense Anti-Judaism, an analysis of the ways in which hatred of and opposition to Judaism — even in the absence of actual Jews — have been fundamental to Western thought. The unease was this: When reading these books and their expressions and explications of anti-Semitism, I was forced to recognize that some of the elements singled out were real. Clannishness, misanthropy, fidelity to the letter of the law to the detriment of the spirit, materialism, contempt for non-Jews — these all recalled to me events that have received coverage in the media. I thought of the anger, venom, and division generated in Postville, Iowa, when hundreds of khasidim moved into the town to run a kosher meat processing plant in 1987 and set themselves against the locals. This episode culminated in Immigration agents rounding up nearly four hundred illegal aliens working at the plant. I thought of East Ramapo, New York where ultra-Orthodox Jews dominate the local school board, although they don’t attend public schools, and from that position they have worked to undermine programs in the public schools, claiming they have the right to do so because they pay taxes but don’t profit from the money spent on schools. 6a00d83451b71f69e2015393fd8c7b970b-400wiI thought of the Jewish towns of New Square and Kiryas Joel, towns that live according to laws and rhythms set in another century. I thought of the current attempt to seize control of the town of Bloomingburg, NY, where a developer pulled a bait-and-switch in attempting to construct a development that would allow Satmarers to move there and turn it into yet another shtetl along the lines of New Square and Kiryas Joel. I thought of the area on the Lower East Side that has remained a vacant lot for four decades (with the support of State Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver, in cahoots with an Orthodox ally and convicted thief) for fear that its development would bring in non-Jews and forever destroy the remnants of “The World of Our Fathers.” Finally, I remembered the NPR radio documentary of a few years ago that was sentimentally titled, “A Shtetl Grows in Brooklyn,” about the conversion of Midwood, Brooklyn from a vibrant middle-class neighborhood to an Orthodox ghetto — a show with cloying D-Minor sentimentality that is typical of those who don’t live in a neighborhood that turns its back on America and modernity. I could continue and take this in other directions: There’s the old age residence in Park Slope that is in the process of expelling its residents so that it can be converted to luxury housing — a building owned by an Orthodox Jew. There’s the fact that when young Leiby Kletzy disappeared in Brooklyn in 2011 — it later being discovered he’d been kidnapped and murdered — his parents first went not to the police, who might have been able to actually do something, but to the local vigilante force, the Shomrim — as also happened when the Satmarer swindler Menachem Stern (about whom the New York Post famously asked, “Who didn’t want him dead?”) disappeared and was murdered in 2013. There are the reports of thugs for hire who will force husbands to grant gets to their wives. There are the cases of child abuse in yeshivas that are regularly covered up, or the victims vilified and smeared... Though many of these malefactors are brought to justice, the political clout of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox has caused hesitation about going after them. Charles Hynes, as district attorney of Brooklyn, was notoriously slow in following up on accusations of abuse in that community, and when he finally did, the rabbis, who had supported him for decades, turned on him, and he was defeated in a primary in 2013. Noting and drawing conclusions from all this is not an example of prejudice, which etymologically means “pre-judging.” Rather, this is a case of “postjudice,” i.e. judging based on actual acts. What all these events have in common is the ultra-Orthodox and khasidic love and need for ghettoization, their attempt to live in an alternative universe in which the non-Jew is excluded. The face they often show the outside world is one of unbridled self-interest and contempt for non-Jews, indeed, for anyone, Jews included, who is not like them. The ultra-Orthodox are not content, moreover, with living in their ghetto. They also do all they can to impose their vision of Judaism and Jewishness on the rest of the world, and have enjoyed much success. Reform and Conservative Judaism enjoy no rights in Israel, as the cudgel of Orthodox political might has been used to beat all of Israel’s governments into accepting their definition of Judaism. All of these traits have long been part of the anti-Semitic arsenal, and the acts and lifestyle of the Orthodox and khasidim bear witness to their kernels of truth. Perhaps the fact that has to be faced is that the closer a Jewish group is to traditional Judaism, unleavened with Enlightenment and secular values, the more that group resembles the image that anti-Semites project. wedding_hats_2139761iIt has to be said that ghettoization exists everywhere and in all communities. People tend to prefer to live with those most like them. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, take this to levels unmatched in the U.S., colonizing entire towns and turning them into religious enclaves. Just imagine what would happen if thousands of fundamentalist Muslims were to move en masse to a town and see to it that life was regulated according to Sharia law. These ghettoized communities even attempt to clamp down on the activities of “outsiders” in their neighborhoods, as when the people of Borough Park attempted to block a bicycle lane going through the neighborhood because the sight of women in bicycling shorts would offend their modesty rules. Perhaps they must live in a ghetto because as soon as their lifestyle is allowed to freely mingle with the greater society it crumbles. As a 2013 Pew poll demonstrated, this group might very well soon be the dominant voice in American Jewry, as the non-religious portion of the Jewish community moves deeper and deeper into American life, with 71 percent of them marrying non-Jews and jettisoning the mumbo-jumbo and fears of the Middle Ages. Like-what-youre-readingThe fact remains, however, that as more and more Jews distance themselves from Judaism, groups like Chabad manage to garner huge donations, not all of which come from their members. What we see is a syndrome similar to that which resulted in the ultra-Orthodox being given special privileges within Israel, like exemption from military service. When David Ben-Gurion granted these privileges, he did so thinking that he was dealing with a small community on the road to disappearance. Today we see people in America thinking like Ben-Gurion. They live light years away from Chabad and use them as a kind of guilt balm: “We have strayed from the old ways, but as long as these people exist the old ways will not disappear. (Just let it be far from us.)” Therefore millions of dollars flow to Chabad and their ilk, who are accepted as the voice and face of Jewish authenticity. All of this allows their defenders to say that yeshiva students shouldn’t be made to serve in the Israeli army because by studying they are also protecting and preserving Judaism. The tens of thousands who recently demonstrated against the lifting of this yeshiva exemption are nothing but advocates of the glories of the ghetto, which stood in the way of jewish progress for centuries. The excesses of the khasidim were once the subject of attacks by others within the Jewish community. The rise of khasidism in the 18th century evoked the appearance of the misnagdim, who saw in the new movement a recurrence of the messianism of Shabtai Zevi. So strong was the hatred felt by the misnagdim, who preached a heavy reliance on Talmud study, that khasidim were excommunicated. What is lacking today is a similar spirit. A shunning of the khasidim, of the ultra-Orthodox, is needed — in the spirit of the wissenschaft des judentums, the pioneers of the Jewish Enlightenment. The misngadim proposed rigor and lifeless study in opposition to khasidic messianism: we must propose values of inclusiveness, openness, and individual freedom drawn from all traditions. The deeds, lifestyle, and worldview of Jewish fundamentalists foment distrust and hatred, and follow a script written in the pages of the worst Jew-haters. Just as voices have long been raised in the African-American community about the ways in which some black behaviors confirm the racist claims, Jews should be confronting the ways in which ultra-Orthodox Jews provide confirmation to anti-Semitic stereotypes. With their uniform way of dressing and thinking; their hatred of women, the body, and individuality; their bloc voting, which drives politicians to avoid confrontations and builds tremendous local political clout — with all of this, such Jews are not just a; shande fur di goyim, they’re a shande fur di yidn. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.