Responses to Jack Wertheimer’s “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox.”
To the Editor:
In reading Jack Wertheimer’s “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox” [July/August], I was struck by the thought that many of us, myself included, aren’t so easily categorized or generalized. To wit: I currently live in the Ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic enclave in Lakewood, New Jersey, and my closest friends are Hasidic Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and hold a B.A. in molecular biology from Princeton University.
Based on living in Lakewood and being a rational, scientific observer of my surroundings, I can’t help but think that what the Hasidim and the Ultra-Orthodox have in common vastly outweighs the small details that make them distinct from each other. The Lakewood Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox communities in Boro Park, Monsey, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, etc. are much more internally integrated than segregated. There is a tremendous amount of social intermingling and spiritual brotherhood between the groups. We all believe in and learn one Torah and one Talmud. We all believe in one and the same God. We all pray the same prayers three times a day. We all value hesed (acts of loving kindness), visiting the sick, giving charity, keeping kosher, and observing a restful and rejuvenating day of Shabbat. We attend each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs, we talk to one another on the street and in stores and at the gym and in the park.
In Mr. Wertheimer’s article, Ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic communities come across as downtrodden, unhappy, repressed, and impoverished. But from experience, I know we are not these things. At least, no more so than average Americans. If anything, we are more joyful, in the deep sense of the word, than your average American, because we live a life of spiritual meaning, brotherly care, community involvement, and mutual support.
Of course, individual members of the community may be unhappy or repressed or lacking pecuniary resources. But on the whole, the atmosphere in Lakewood and other such communities is one of social harmony and joy. There are many simchas to attend. Every night there are weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, vorts (engagement parties), vacht nachts (singing at a baby boy’s bassinet the night before his bris), sheva brachos (seven dinner parties on seven consecutive nights following a wedding). Every morning there are brissim. We have to pick and choose which happy occasions we can attend, because there are so many. And at these occasions, we see friends, connect with our community members, sing, dance, eat, and celebrate.
This is not to say we are a community of Pollyannas. It’s just that a life of meaning and community engenders a calm contentedness and happiness.
I have never understood why Jews would separate themselves from one another at all. We are all brothers and sisters. This was especially so over this past summer. In thinking about the young Jewish men of all walks of life fighting for our Jewish homeland, I believe we owe it to ourselves to reach out to a fellow Jew we think is different from us and engage in a relationship—or at least engage in a conversation—until we find common ground.
From my eclectic experience in the Jewish world, I guarantee that common ground is much more fertile and expansive—and closer to home—than you think.
Lakewood, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer’s article is excellent and generally accurate—except the author attempts to portray Haredi integration into society at large and the entry of Haredi women into the workforce as recent phenomena. They are not.
In the yeshiva world, most kollel graduates enter the general workforce; only a small minority become yeshiva teachers. A high percentage of those who work are degree-holding professionals; the rest enter the trades or become business people. In the Hasidic world there are fewer college graduates, but nearly all men and most women enter the workforce and interact with non-Haredim on a regular basis. This is not a recent development; it has been the norm for at least 50 years.
It is true that interactions between Haredim and the population at large, outside the work environment, is limited. This really is the only way to preserve the integrity of the Jewish lifestyle. The alternative is the rampant assimilation that is prevalent in every other strain of Judaism, including modern Orthodoxy.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
I read with interest Jack Wertheimer’s article about the Haredim. I have to take issue with one point. The Haredim in Israel make up approximately 10 to 12 percent of the Jewish population. To support them, the rest of society, Jewish and non-Jewish, must assume that a portion of their income taxes will be given to those who are perfectly healthy and able work. Those of us who are fluent in Hebrew have read in the Israeli papers that some rabbis are slowly coming to the realization that national service is going to happen. This process has begun. Furthermore, there is a need to integrate Haredi males (the females already work) into the workforce. Along with Arab females, Haredi men have among the lowest workforce participation rates in Israel and Israel has one of the lowest overall workforce participation rates among Western countries.
It is not too much to ask that Haredim support their own families.
To the Editor:
As usual, this is an outstanding piece of work by Jack Wertheimer. However, it fails to note one major objection many Jews have to the Haredim. While it is true that Haredim focus on Jewish studies alone, these studies are additionally of a very limited, albeit traditional, kind. Haredim do not really study Jewish history, or even Jewish thought. They focus on Gemara learning to the exclusion of almost everything else. This, combined with the general avoidance of secular studies, means that they provide an extremely narrow education and produce an extremely narrow kind of Jew.
This narrowness, and the anti-Zionism of the Satmar sect and others, threatens the future of the Jewish people.
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer lists many worthwhile services that the ultra-Orthodox community provides to its members. Yet he never once mentions domestic abuse. His message is clear: The Haredim take care of their own. If only that were more broadly true.
Arranged marriages of 18-year-old girls in closed communities may work out fine, but they are a setup for violence against women. Such women have little recourse. They are trapped in a community that rarely helps them and are among families who would sit shiva for them if they chose to leave their violent situations. There may be no more domestic violence in the Haredi communities than in others, but their closed nature makes getting help (already difficult for most women) even harder.
Given the extensive services listed by the author, one can only assume that services for spousal abuse are absent. Characteristic of the communities themselves, he sweeps the problem under the rug. Mr. Wertheimer missed an opportunity to shine light on a dark problem.
Elisabeth A. Keller
Jack Wertheimer writes:
Haredi communities, as some of these letters suggest, are complex and variegated. Indeed, the main point of my article was to complicate the conventional wisdom about the “ultra-Orthodox.” In adding fresh nuances, though, a number of these letters hinder, rather than advance, understanding.
Lauren Roth read my article as a portrayal of Haredim as “downtrodden, unhappy, repressed, and impoverished.” I have no doubt she is correct about the many occasions for joyous celebrations in her community, but that was not the focus of my article. I was interested in stressing the remarkable achievement of Haredi communities in rebuilding themselves after the Shoah, a task requiring vision, hard work, perseverance, and mutual aid (hesed).
Ms. Roth certainly is correct in observing how hard it is to categorize or generalize about Haredi Jews. It would do a world of good were she to spread that same message within her community about non-Haredi Jews who also do not fall into neat boxes.
One observation of hers I cannot let pass unchallenged: expressing her incomprehension over “why Jews would separate themselves from one another at all,” Ms. Roth reminds us of the events of this past summer when “young Jewish men of all walks of life” fought “for our Jewish homeland.” Is she truly oblivious to the massive under-representation of Haredim in the Israel Defense Forces and the deep resentment this has engendered toward Haredim? I refer her to Rafi Marom’s letter, which directly addresses this issue and also the culture of dependence prevalent within much of Israeli Haredi society. Until the Haredi world confronts its failures to contribute its fair share in Israel, the “common ground” both she and I yearn for will be hard to find.
Eli Willner’s letter contains two major points: 1) It has been normative for “at least 50 years” for Haredim to enter the labor force; 2) social isolation from non-Haredim “is the only way to preserve the integrity of the Jewish lifestyle.” I take exception to both analyses, albeit for different reasons. On the first point, American Haredi Jews have tended to enter the labor force, in contrast to their Israeli counterparts. What is novel today is that the customary occupations of Haredi Jews—e.g., small shop-keeping, the diamond industry—are not sufficient to sustain the community. And most other occupations require a college, if not professional education. Some Haredi rabbis understand this new reality and are permitting their students to pursue advanced training in secular fields. Their receptivity to what had been banned in the past represents a shift in direction.
Shalom Freedman addresses the educational implications of Mr. Willner’s second point. Like Mr. Freedman, I wonder whether “an extremely narrow education” is good for the Jews or a form of miseducation. But I also ask: How realistic is it, in an age of great mobility and fluid social interactions, let alone the free flow of information on the Internet, to imagine that self-isolation will work even for Haredi Jews? And what does it say about “the Jewish lifestyle” if it cannot survive in an open society?
Elisabeth A. Keller is concerned about domestic abuse in the Haredi community. She allows that “there may be no more domestic violence” among Haredim than in other communities but asserts without offering a shred of evidence that the “closed nature” of these communities “makes getting help” difficult. She then goes on to charge me of “sweeping the problem under the rug.” Before resorting to such stereotyping of Haredim and unfounded accusations against me, would it not be the decent thing to do to demonstrate that Haredi women are without recourse when domestic abuse occurs?
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Understanding the Haredim
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.