"…Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won. But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.…"
Haredim stoning police in Mea Shearim in July 2011
Jay Michaelson writes in the Forward:
“…[T]he entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox power rests on gaming the system.…
We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this [haredi-fundamentalist] hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them.
And pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or “yeshivish”). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary. Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.
The good news is that since we are propping up this system, we have the power to weaken it.
First, mainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy — must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.
Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won.
But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.
And then we can begin to act.… We…have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist.…”
I've been fighting this battle for almost a decade, and for a big chunk of that time – especially since Jane Eisner became the Forward's editor-in-chief – the Forward was almost an enemy, not an ally in that fight or even an honest broker reporting on it.
A tort was committed against FailedMessiah.com by someone using one of 5 computers in the central administrative offices of a worldwide haredi organization.
No computers at that location are public. Only the group's leaders and their secretaries have access. And I had absolute proof.
Because the victim was me (and you), I did not want to write about what happened myself. Instead, I gave the story to a reporter at the Forward.
The reporter wanted to pursue the story, but allegedly Eisner killed it.
Because, she allegedly said, it only happened one time. If Shmarya can bring us proof that it happens again, well, maybe then we'll do the story.
Can you imagine Eisner saying that if the victim was the liberal Talking Points Memo and the criminal was a conservative republican in a conservative think tank in Washington?
I can't, and no journalist who has ever heard the story can, either, and none of them understand why Eisner killed the story or agree with her decision to do so.
Eisner also barred me from writing news reports even when they had nothing to do with the haredi community or anything I could conceivably be biased about. She did so, I was told, because she didn't want to anger haredim by allowing me to report for the Forward.
Op-eds, another editor there told me in her name, would be okay, though
Much later, another editor encouraged me to write op-eds for the Forward, and I agreed.
My first piece was about serious problems with the Tea Party's behavior and outlook. There were no problems in the editing of that piece or in the process.
Then I wrote about violent haredi gangs and then about their financial ties to Satmar, also pointing out that every package of Osem and other Israeli food products carrying a Badatz Yerushalayim kosher stamp was helping to fund that violence.
But these two op-eds (especially the one on financial ties to Satmar) were put through tortuous and repetitive fact-checking (and extreme delays) op-eds written by others were not.
My work stood up to those tests. My facts were true, accurate and reported in context exactly as Ihad sid they were.
The time involved in writing these op-eds – and then the incessant, repetitive nitpicking and fact-checking that easily doubled and even tripled the time I had to put into each op-ed – combined with the and very small payment the Forward gave made it impossible for me to write them – a result the Forward clearly wanted.
This, Abraham Cahan, is what the Forward Association and Jane Eisner have done to your life's work.
(To be fair, Eisner is much better when the stories are about women being wronged by haredim or her beloved Conservative Movement being wronged by haredim. But when the story is the average haredi being wronged by haredi leaders, ex-haredim being wronged by haredi leaders and by the Jewish community itself, or the average Jew being wronged by haredi crimes like Pell Grant fraud or, in Israel, yeshiva grant fraud, Eisner is much less interested.)
Meanwhile, this blog has been a constant – and often lone – non-Israeli voice documenting haredi crimes and the haredi community's rapidly increasing radicalism.
Michaelson doesn't mention that, of course – even though I made every point Michaelson made long before he made them. After all, why acknowledge a decade of hard work by someone else?
You can see how Michaelson views the hard work of others by how he treats Footsteps:
"…[P]erhaps most important, we can publicly and financially support those struggling to escape from the oppression of ultra-Orthodoxy. For example, the organization Footsteps does wonderful work to help ex-Haredim transition to the modern world. But it is tiny in comparison with what we need. We need a Giant Footsteps —a major federation initiative to support those who leave and communicate to those trapped outside that there is vibrant Jewish life beyond the ghetto wall.…
Footsteps would be much larger if it had the money and the resources. The Federation could ensure that. Instead, Michaelson advocates creating a new "Giant Footsteps" under the auspices of the Federation, not funding the existing Footsteps, which has almost a decade of good work behind it.
Haredi extremism and fundamentalism is a real threat, and Michelson calling attention to that is welcome.
But this is a wheel he did not invent and that the paper he regularly writes for was ambivalent about fighting.
And lets be honest.
Doesn't FailedMessiah.com deserve financial support for exposing many of the haredi abuses that now so anger Michaelson?
Of course it does.
But that, I suspect, would take away some funding from Michaelson's friends, and perhaps from Michelson himself.
A Forward editor, Gal Beckerman, wrote a wonderful book on the beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement.
Beckerman documented three very important things:
1. The movement was started by outliers, not by mainstream community figures like Michelson or the Forward's Eisner.
2. When the mainstream community saw the movement was not going to fade away,and realized that its message resonated with the community and, more importantly, with US politicians, it used its money and power to take it over. The founders were largely pushed out or marginalized. Some continued their work in poverty.
3. The mainstream community later claimed credit for all the successes of the early movement they had no part of.
As we used to say, "the Jewish community eats its young."
But it isn't a matter of age, really – it is a matter of money, nepotism and cronyism.
The Jewish community 'eats' its outliers, the people who take stands when they are unpopular and who work to right wrongs – and help the victims – the mainstream Jewish community ignores.
So, yes, it's good to see Jay Michaelson championing the cause and the Forward giving him the space to do so (even though Eisner 'balanced' Michaelson's op-ed with an insipid op-ed by haredi mouthpiece Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum and followed that with an attack on Michaelson's piece she herself wrote).
Just don't forget who came before you.