Op-Ed: Respect haredi life while offering criticism


NEW YORK (JTA) — A recent article by Israeli journalist Yaron London headlined “We Need Fewer Haredim” and two major pieces in The New York Times about the haredi approach to sex abuse cases highlight the challenge and the need to address serious issues emanating from the haredi world without demonizing an entire community.

Questions of avoiding stereotypes of large groups while not rationalizing bad behavior by some are constantly on the Anti-Defamation League’s agenda. Moreover, when part of the Jewish community is under scrutiny, it raises particular concerns for us about that segment’s relations with the rest of the community and the impact on broader views of Jews. Finally, when the behavior of a sector of the Israeli public has an impact on the larger Israeli public, that too is a matter of deep concern to us.

On the face of it, criticism of individuals, if accurate, would seem legitimate. Generalizing that criticism to a whole group, on the other hand, would not.

But with haredim it is not so simple. As one can see from the issues discussed — sexual abuse, service in the Israeli army, secular education in Israel — criticism of the haredi world goes beyond individual behavior and enters the realm of the broader haredi community’s beliefs, attitudes and policies. That, I would argue, does not automatically disqualify it as stereotyping an entire community. When it is the prevailing view of the community, and most of its members adhere to that view, it is acceptable to criticize from the outside.

On the other hand, there must be special care and sensitivity taken when addressing group behavior. That’s because the phenomenon of spillover from speaking about particular issues to a broad-based attack on the very essence of the community is too easy and too common.

Take the case of London’s article. He rightfully expresses indignation about the deleterious effect on Israeli society and the sense of fairness among the Israeli public when haredi leadership insists on mass exemptions from military service in Israel’s mostly citizen army, when they refuse to educate their youth in secular fields and, connected to that, deny opportunities to their young to prepare properly to participate in the Israeli workforce. These matters affect every Israeli and emerge from decisions, in effect, of the whole haredi community. 

However, rather than limiting his comments to areas where change is necessary and whether it can be made in coordination with haredi leadership, London embarks on a full-blown attack on the entire community, employing unfair and derogatory terminology in describing their society and culture — even suggesting, as in the title, that we need “fewer of them.”

This kind of approach must be condemned, as it should be in an all-out assault on any community. More specifically, it results in a diminution and near absence of respect for the many positive and wonderful values that characterize haredi life. Devotion to family, commitment and rigor in transmitting Jewish tradition and heritage to their children, piety, devotion to learning, the centrality of moral values — all of which in their own way contribute to Israel and the Jewish world — don’t seem to matter here.

The line between characterizing individual and group behavior is important to draw, but it is not sacrosanct. Yet great care must be taken to avoid group stereotyping when it is necessary to express concerns about group behavior.

Another area of concern is between the right of a group to observe its own religious values and cultural mores and when those values and mores negatively impinge on the rules, regulations and values of the larger society.

The fact that haredim turn to their leading rabbis as the arbiters of all kinds of matters is not only a way of life but one to which they are entitled; surely it brings many benefits to families and the community. There even may be instances in sexual abuse situations that individuals would want to speak first to their rabbis.

However, what seems clear from The New York Times articles and others on the sex abuse issue, the haredi leadership does nothing to educate its people to prevent persecuting those who go to law enforcement to report sex abuse crimes, nor do they condemn those who engage in the persecution of people in their community who do go to the police.

Under these circumstances this is no longer a matter of community mores. Individuals are being victimized twice, first by the abuser and then by a community that either stands by or tacitly encourages their further abuse by persecutors. Intervention and condemnation from outside are warranted and necessary.

Of course, the line between respecting cultural differences and preventing abuse of rights that should belong to every member of society is not always easy to draw. When laws are broken or fundamental rights violated in the extreme, it is not difficult to say that the outside community must stand up. Here, too, as with individual and group condemnations, great sensitivity must be exercised in not telling a flourishing, successful and praiseworthy community that its way of life is unacceptable.

There are no simple answers here. Calling attention to problems is necessary if it is done with civility and respect for a way of life that is well serving hundreds of thousands every day.

(Kenneth Jacobson is the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)

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