Where We Orthodox Jews Have Gone Wrong…
Jerry Haber, 18 May 2010
(Note to subscribers: you won’t understand the post without looking at the picture here.)
To: The President of Yeshiva University, the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union, and the Director of Public Publicy, Orthodox Union
From: Jerry Haber
RE: Recognizing the Sin of Bigotry, and Eradicating It
Gentlemen, I address this to you because I know you personally and admire you greatly. I have been members of the same synagogue as you, and one of you has been my rabbi.
Perhaps you saw this picture in the Wall Street Journal blog online The caption that the world read was, “A Palestinian woman whose house has been occupied by Jewish settlers argued with Israelis who came to celebrate Jerusalem Day in the mainly Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, Wednesday.”
But you knew that the caption was wrong. You looked at those faces. You knew that the laughing faces were not of Israelis, but of modern orthodox Jewish youngsters from the US, probably in yeshiva for their gap year. You may have even recognized some of them. You may know some of their parents.
So my question to you is very simple. It is the same question that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein posed a quarter of a century ago, when some of the best and brightest of Israeli religious Zionists were arrested as members of the violent Jewish underground. It was a title of an op-ed that Rav Aharon wrote for Haaretz:
“Where have we gone wrong?”
I remember how impressed I was by the question — then. For I thought that, finally, an acknowledged leader of modern orthodoxy/religious zionism recognized that deep hatred and racist attitudes towards the Arab had been allowed to fester in religious Zionist educational institutionists. (Of course, racism and bigotry are not the exclusive properties of modern orthodoxy. But the “in-your-face confidence” of the group of hooligans in this picture has religious Zionism written all over it.)
At first I was exhilarated by Rav Aharon’s hakarat ha-het, his recognition of the sin and its vicious consequences, and of the need to correct it. But time passed, and nothing was done. Rav Aharon went back to his yeshiva, and every time some modern orthodox Jew stunned the world with his indefensible actions — Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir — we were witness to the same hand-wringing among the moderates, as well as the old defense mechanisms:”Who are you to criticize?” “We condemn their actions, but not their intentions.” “Look at the hatred and bigotry of Islamic Fundamentalists.”
So let me tell you why your children — not all, but enough of them to get you worried — will continue to be in pictures like the one above, or in movies like Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana’s “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem.” Let me tell you why the bigotry will range from the not-so-genteel Islam-bashers that you find in every shul nowadays (when you were growing up, who knew from Islam?) to the “glatt kosher, mehadrin” bigots and hate-filled thugs in the picture.
The main source of Jewish hatred and bigotry against Arabs today comes from the orthodox, and especially the modern orthodox. This wasn’t always the case. The orthodoxy that sprung from European soil absorbed the best of West civilization, culture, and morality. The earlier generations of religious Zionists, Rav Reines, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, were European to the core. And the early generation of religious Zionists in America, though fed the prejudiced Zionist line about the Arabs, nevertheless was deeply influenced by liberal American values, and the American rejection of bigotry. Such moderates even convinced themselves that this was the message of the Torah.
No more. The Israeli religious Zionism that has produced the settler movement is unaffected by universal moral values. I don’t need to go into details here. You are familiar with their rabbis, you have read the articles and parsha sheets; you have recoiled at the message. Israeli religious Zionism today is insular, parochial, fundamentalist, and deeply, deeply bigoted. I know many American orthodox Jews who have come on aliyah, Jews with moderate principles, proud of American and universal moral values. They are terribly uncomforable when their children return from the religious Zionist yeshivot and ulpanot as racist bigots who view the Arabs as animals and underlings, “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
Modern orthodox educators in America should have worried less about the color of their children’s hats, and more about the color of their hearts. When they agonized over whether they would stay frum, they should have agonized over whether they would stay mentshen, humane individuals. For modern orthodoxy to reduce the likelihood of more pictures like the one above, it should take the following steps:
1. Day schools should develop programs against prejudice, and I don’t mean just prejudice against Blacks and Hispanics, although that is important, too. I mean programs to counter bigotry against Arabs and Muslims. Appropriate sources can be found in Torah sources to give this a Jewish cast, and the illiberal sources can be explained away, as they were explained away by the 19th and 20th century European rabbis. One can start with Rav Abraham Kook’s view that the land of Israel can be sold to Muslims because they are not idolaters.
2. Schools should invite Palestinian refugees to speak to the students about their experiences. That would be a kiddush ha-Shem/sanctification of God’s name in its own right, and the educational value would be enormous. I am not saying that equal time must be given to Palestinian spokesmen on the conflict. This is not about politics. It is about humanity and decency. Oscar Hammerstein wrote, “You’ve got to be taught to hate,” but in a particularistic, religious atmosphere, and in the middle of a conflict, you have to be taught to respect. I realize that taking any time away from the curriculum for “tikun olam” is controversial, and trying to humanize Arabs will be even more so. After all, it is not as if when you look over your right shoulders, you see any less bigotry and racism. But choose not to, and you will have more pictures like the ones above. And what decent human frum Jew would want that?
3. American Muslims should come to the high schools and talk about their religion — or if that is too much for you, then find Jews, frum Jews, who will try to provide a positive portrait of Islam. It is easy to cherry-pick sources to portray another religion in an unflattering light. But that is where bigotry begins, and when it is “supported by the evidence” it gets harder to eradicate. Do to the Muslim sources what we do to the Jewish sources in day schools — accentuate the positive while explaining away the negative.
4. Modern orthodoxy sees the Rambam/Maimonides as one of its great models. Make it known to your students that Maimonides was Islamic civilization’s gift to the Jews. Without the Islamic environment, there could have never been a Rambam. The influence of the golden age of Islamic civilization is written on every page of his works, and I mean his legal works as well as his philosophical ones. And, as you know, it is not just Rambam.
5. Don’t romanticize the history of Jewish-Arab relations, but don’t demonize it, either. Yes there was Muslim discrimination against Jews, but it has been the bon ton of late to exaggerate it and to fail to understand the problems of any traditional religion dealing with other religions when it has political power. I wouldn’t want to be a Christian living in the Land of Israel under a Jewish king, according to Maimonides’ law that condemned them to death.
6. Always draw parallels from other people’s bigotry to our own. Bigotry and xenophobia are universal phenomena. The same Jews who are revolted by what others have done to them should feel the same revulsion when they do it against others. Show zero tolerance for such bigotry.
7. Most important, give the proper preparation and training for students going to Israel in their gap year, a year with little supervision and with exposure to deeply racist and bigoted attitudes – all in the name of Torah. If they come back from Israel not wanting to talk to girls, you get nervous that they have fallen off the deep end. But what of their attitudes towards gentiles, especially Arabs? Aren’t you worried about that?
It is not enough to ask, where have we gone wrong. We have to take steps to stamp this out. Liberals, conservatives, democrats, republicans – all of us should work to eradicate the central illness with frum Judaism today – hate-filled bigotry.