(JTA) — Back when Nikki Haley served as ambassador to the United Nations, someone close to her approached Mishpacha, a leading haredi Orthodox weekly magazine, about arranging an interview with the potential future Republican presidential candidate.
The interview would have been a get, the kind that most news magazines would feature with a cover portrait. And indeed, the magazine’s leadership discussed the idea, according to Yisroel Besser, a contributing editor. But there was one problem that needed to be discussed with the magazine’s rabbinical advisers: Mishpacha doesn’t feature photos of women.
Haley left her post as ambassador shortly afterward, and no interview with her appeared in Mishpacha. But Besser suggested during a podcast hosted by three Modern Orthodox rabbis this week that she had taken issue with the magazine’s policy, which he said was essential to preserve Mishpacha’s values.
“It was a deal breaker: She wanted her picture on the cover,” Besser said in the interview Wednesday night.
On Thursday, Besser told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he “misspoke” on the podcast and that the interview was tabled after Haley resigned.
“It wasn’t that exciting anymore when she wasn’t ambassador,” he said.
The refusal of haredi Orthodox publications to print photographs of women has been a controversial issue for years and one in which Mishpacha, considered one of the more moderate haredi publications, has previously found itself at the center.
In 2016, when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential candidate, Mishpacha featured an image of her and Donald Trump on its cover for the week of the election. The image was heavily processed so it did not resemble a regular photograph, but the magazine still faced a backlash, with an editorial in Hamodia, a haredi newspaper, condemning the decision and implying that Mishpacha was not part of the “true haredi press.”
Mishpacha’s publisher, Eli Paley, has attributed the decision not to publish pictures of women to what has become an industrywide standard that would make it impossible to cater to haredi readers without adhering to the no-women policy. The standard is seen as an outgrowth of a culture in which the modesty of women’s dress has become increasingly scrutinized, even if Jewish laws dealing with modesty do not extend to forbidding the printing of women’s photos.
But women have pushed back against that standard for years, organizing in Facebook groups and attempting to orchestrate letter-writing campaigns to haredi publications, including Mishpacha, to demonstrate that there is a substantial readership for a haredi publication that would publish photos of women’s faces.
“The erasure of women [is] unacceptable and unJewish and we cannot give it credence,” Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, an Israeli advocacy group, wrote in a tweet about the Haley episode.
In the podcast interview Wednesday night, Besser suggested that printing a photo of someone like Haley would eventually lead to a situation in which Mishpacha would be indistinguishable from a secular magazine.
“Then in five years from now, the right store in Borough Park comes in and says, ‘I need you to advertise a woman’s fur coat, but it needs to show the woman’s face because otherwise you won’t see the slope of her shoulders so you won’t appreciate it.’ And then five years after that we look like Vogue. Really? Is that where we want to go?” Besser wondered. “And who’s going to take responsibility for that?”
The podcast host — Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in South Florida — pushed back against Besser’s argument.
“I don’t think the slope needs to be that slippery,” he said.
Later Goldberg added: “If you want to really go there, one could argue that the advertisements, the level of immodesty in its ostentatiousness, Pesach programs, European trips, silver, what’s it called — charcuterie boards, the level of immodesty in the magazine in its consumerism and advertising — is worse than the slope of the shoulder of a woman who is completely covered. So it’s not entirely consistent all the way through.”
Besser told JTA that he had gone on the podcast to speak for himself, not the magazine, and said the point he was trying to make was that those who are trying to change the magazine’s policy should change their tactics.
“The rage tweets,” he said, “are counterproductive.”