In February, the New York Times ran a feature highlighting successful efforts to integrate Muslim immigrants into Canadian society. The thinly-disguised editorial agenda of the piece was to rebuke those Americans who were then raising questions about calls from liberals for the acceptance of large numbers of Syrian refugees despite the government’s stated inability to adequately investigate how many were members of ISIS, as some who have moved to Europe have proved to be. But leaving aside the politics, the piece was a bright and cheery rhapsody to the virtues of welcoming and accommodating a population whose customs might differ from some of their neighbors in Toronto. Among the most memorable images from the piece was its paean to a decision by the municipal pool in the Regent Park neighborhood to set up hours where it would be open only to women, which gave Muslims a chance to enjoy the facility without violating their concerns about modesty.
But flash forward a few months to a different venue closer to home, and it turns out that the Times doesn’t think that accommodating the needs of religious believers with their own ideas about men and women bathing together is such a hot idea.
Yesterday, the Times published a scathing editorial titled “Everybody into the Pool,” which blasted the decision of a New York City municipal pool on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn to set aside hours for women-only bathing. The practice, which locals say dates back to sometime in the 1990s, was initiated in order to allow Orthodox Jews, who make a considerable percentage of those who live in the area, to enjoy the facility. In a different place involving a different religious group, the Times clearly thought there was nothing wrong with such a practice, but when it comes to Jews in New York the newspaper of record in the city with the largest population in the world considered the accommodation for Orthodox women to represent “a strong odor of religious intrusion into a public space.”
As far as the Grey Lady is concerned, if Orthodox Jewish women want to swim without men looking at them, they can just build their own pool.
Let’s concede that if a government-owned institution were to adopt practices that excluded a particular faith or non-believers that would be troubling. But that is not what happened on Bedford Avenue. Rather, it was a constitutionally protected practice to allow a reasonable accommodation to a not inconsiderable portion of the population. Just as public schools close on some religious holidays if enough students and teachers would be absent (a custom that now affords protections to Muslims in New York as well as to Jews and Christians), letting members of a community use a pool for a few hours a week they might otherwise not be able to enjoy is no hardship to anyone else. Nor does it constitute an illegal establishment of religion.
Nor does the Times have a history of opposing single-sex institutions. As Ira Stoll points out in the Algemenier, the paper doesn’t favor withdrawing federal aid funds that might go to Barnard College. And in 1997, the same editorial column opined that “offering quality single-sex education as part of a diverse menu of voluntary choices available to all public-school children could pass muster under Federal civil rights law and the Constitution.”
What then is the problem with the Metropolitan Recreation Center creating an opportunity for women to swim without men being around? If the Times’ rigid separationism doesn’t think segregating swimming in Toronto is so terrible and, as far as I know, hasn’t condemned Barnard for sticking to their women-only policy in an era when other comparable institutions of higher learning went co-ed.
The issue here seems to be the odor emanating from New York’s Jewish community. The women’s only hours at the pool were restored via intervention from a Jewish member of the State Assembly after it was halted after the city’s Commission Human Rights received an “anonymous complaint.” According to the Times, that intervention wasn’t in the best interests of the “diverse community” of Brooklyn. Which means that, when it comes to accommodations for different faiths or communities, some forms of diversity are less equal than others.
The debate over how far the state may go to accommodate diversity, especially when it comes to faith, is increasingly controversial in our time. The rights of gay Americans are not only to be protected, but they can also be allowed to supersede the religious freedom of other Americans, even to the point of compelling them to participate in ceremonies that violate their beliefs. Again there, diversity is in the eye of the beholder. That is an issue over which honest people may differ, but does the Times really expect us to take seriously their argument that men who want to swim during the few hours set aside for women only are having their rights violated? But if that is the principle they are upholding, perhaps at a time when efforts to accommodate transgendered people has won the Times’s fervent support, the next step is to outlaw separate sex bathrooms in municipal buildings.
It also cannot be overlooked that the Times’s choice of language in condemning the desire of Orthodox Jewish women to bathe without men was redolent of anti-Semitic smears. It is impossible to believe their editors would have allowed such a broadside against a different religious minority. Nor is it imaginable that they would have allowed a reference to odor when it came to Muslims or any other minority. Again, the contrast to their praise of accommodating Muslims at a Toronto pool cannot be ignored.
To speak of “the odor” of Jewish influence in New York was at best insensitive by the Times’s own standards of sensitivity when it comes to speaking about minorities. At worst, it was, as liberals like to say, a dog whistle for intolerance against a specific group. As Stoll reminds us, recently a Harvard Law student attacked Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli Foreign Minister, by asking why she is so “smelly” prompting a heated controversy the Times chose never to acknowledge in its pages.
Whatever one may think about where the line should be drawn when it comes to a public accommodation of a minority faith, the idea of “smelly Jews” is one that is a staple of anti-Semitic invective. In an era when, as the U.S. State Department has noted, “a rising tide of anti-Semitism” is spreading around the globe, it ill behooves the New York Times to be using that kind of language when virulently attacking one part of what they normally like to refer to as the rich mosaic of a diverse New York.