Last week’s release of a new demographic study of Jewish life in Greater New York created an understandable stir, as it revealed that the Orthodox are forming an increasingly large percentage of the population. Assimilation, intermarriage and negative population growth are reducing the number of liberal and secular Jews while the Orthodox, and in particular the Haredim, are experiencing exponential growth. Though the implications of this trend will potentially alter virtually everything about Jewish life in the region, given that Orthodox Jews tend to be far more conservative than the rest of the community, the political implications of this pattern are inescapable. In a city like New York where 74 percent of all Jewish school-age children are Orthodox, there is little question the traditional dominance of secular and liberal Jews is not likely to persist in the long run.
That this would upset liberals is understandable. But that ought not to excuse the willingness of the editorial page of the Forward when discussing the Orthodox community to engage in the sort of language it would never excuse were such words directed at non-Jews. The impending dominance of non-liberals has caused the newspaper that began its life in 1897 as an advocate for socialism to vent its spleen in such a manner as to label many Orthodox Jews as the “undeserving poor,” whose inappropriate life choices ought perhaps to render them ineligible for government assistance if not the aid of the rest of the Jewish community. While the decision of the Forward’s editorial board to belatedly join a decades-long discussion about the merits of the welfare state is welcome, the piece makes it abundantly clear this shift is motivated more by open distaste for the Haredim than any misgivings about liberal ideology.
The conceit of the piece is that the Orthodox growth is being fueled in large measures by that community’s belief in the value of large families. The Forward, speaking in a voice that drips with upper and middle class condescension for the poor as well as contempt for the Orthodox often heard in liberal Jewish circles but rarely published, implies that most of these children probably shouldn’t be conceived, because their religious parents may not always have the material resources the Forward’s editors think they should possess before adding another soul to the community’s numbers. To their way of thinking, if some of these Orthodox families are not entirely “self-sufficient,” their voluntary choice to reproduce should push them to the back of the line when Jewish agencies are doling out aid to the poor and also calls into question the wisdom of so much government aid being given to them.
The problem for the Forward is not just that the Orthodox are having more children than liberal Jews and this rejection of middle class “materialism” that values Torah study over economics is religiously motivated. What really bugs them is that the majority of the Orthodox seems to have little sympathy with liberal political positions even though some of them are recipients of government assistance. Like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? which vented liberal impatience with Midwestern conservatives who vote their values rather than what the author believes is their economic interests, the Forward thinks it’s downright hypocritical the Orthodox don’t all vote for the Democrats.
A close examination of Haredi voting patterns may not exactly bear this out, as the Hasidic sects who vote as a bloc do tend to barter their votes in elections in return for government largesse in a manner that perhaps the Forward thinks is rational or at least consistent. But there is little doubt that most Orthodox Jews, including the vast majority who do not get any government aid, don’t share the paper’s affection for liberalism. And that is what has apparently goaded the Forward into publishing a rant whose only real purpose is to stigmatize Orthodox Jews as an expanding horde of lazy welfare cheats who ought to be denied assistance as they out-reproduce more responsible liberal Jews.
Suffice it to say the Haredi community has more than its share of problems. The growth of Jewish poverty is troubling, as is any sign that Americans are starting to copy the unfortunate pattern of Israeli Haredim in which employment, not to mention national service, is regarded by many as beneath the dignity of the male population.
But while it is one thing to express concerns about the future of that community, it is quite another to write in a manner that speaks of the rising Orthodox birth rate as if we would all be better off if those children were never born. That is a shocking argument that would be quickly labeled as racist by the righteous liberals at the Forward were it aimed at inner-city blacks or Hispanics. A desire to comfort liberals about their impending political decline is no excuse for launching a kulturkampf against the Orthodox.
We believe the principles of economic freedom ought to apply to everyone. The unfortunate consequences of government dependency know no religious barrier and can devastate Jews as well as non-Jews, Israelis as well as Americans. But when a critique of the welfare state crosses over into prejudice against specific groups or language that resonates with bias that sounds more like eugenics than political analysis, a line has been crossed. That the Forward has done so is an indictment of their judgment and of their commitment to the value of all Jewish lives.