By Ben Hirsch (NY Post)
January 21, 2012
In Israel, an 8-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl is spit on and called a whore as she walks to school because she is perceived to be dressed "immodestly" by her ultra-Orthodox neighbors.
A female soldier is harassed by an ultra-Orthodox man because she refuses to move to the back of a public bus.
A Jerusalem bookstore is repeatedly vandalized because its owner stocks books not approved by religious authorities.
A women's clothing store is destroyed because it sells clothing that does not meet the most stringent modesty standards.
Thousands of protestors take to the streets — not in support of the victims of these crimes, but against the arrest of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, as they are known in Israel. And, even more disturbing, the protesters don concentration-camp garb and Nazi-era yellow stars emblazoned with the word "Jude," and shout "Nazis!" at the police as they gather alongside banners with slogans comparing Israeli officials to those of the Third Reich and the Jerusalem chief of police to Hitler.
“What the [Israeli] government and the media is doing to us is like what the Nazis did,” one man tells a reporter.
In Israel, Orthodox voters — representing 10% of the total population — wield power disproportionate to their numbers. Early on in the state’s founding, this group represented a small minority of the population and were granted special privileges, like army deferments and subsidies, on the assumption that this remnant would ultimately assimilate into mainstream society. But that didn’t happen and now, 60 years later, high haredi birth rates have turned this segment into a politically key demographic, able to make or break Israel’s coalition governments. This has in turn emboldened the haredim to push boundaries with little consequence, as taking them on can be politically costly for politicians — even when haredi behavior violates the law and infringes on the rights of others.
Israel now finds itself engaged in an ideological civil war. Is the secular state up to the task of reversing a dangerous trend that has been allowed to fester and grow for decades? At stake is the future of the country and whether it will maintain its status as a liberal democracy or, over time, be reduced to another Middle Eastern theocracy.
NOT JUST ISRAEL'S PROBLEM
Here in New York, there is also a thriving ultra, or strictly, Orthodox population. While, to be sure, the broader social context in which this group operates is quite different from that of their Israeli counterparts — the US is not a Jewish state, for one, and the ultra-Orthodox are a tiny minority of the overall US population — because they tend to vote in blocs, the strictly Orthodox wield considerable political clout in local and state affairs. And, as in Israel, there is evidence of growing extremism — and even violence — among some segments of this population here.
For example, in the upstate Hasidic village of New Square, where men and women are reminded by Yiddish signs to walk on opposite sides of the streets, last year a resident was set on fire (during an attempt to burn down his house) because he expressed dissent with the grand rabbi.
In Brooklyn, on public buses that run between the Hasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park, women have been instructed to sit in the rear of the bus. And in Williamsburg, city workers have had to remove signs on public streets urging women to step aside when they see a man approaching. In Midwood, a wig shop was forced to close because the dean of a nearby yeshiva found the female mannequin heads in the store window too provocative.
As in Israel, perceived government intrusions into the strictly Orthodox way of life generate angry reactions, including accusations of anti-Semitism.
One prominent example of this occurred in 2005, when then-New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden attempted to warn the strictly Orthodox community of the dangers of a ritual practice known as metzizah b'peh, wherein the mohel, or ritual circumciser, "cleans" the infant's wound by sucking the blood. This practice had been demonstrated to have been responsible for a fatal herpes infection in one local child, and Frieden mistakenly believed that the community would want to know about the serious health risks of this practice.
Instead, rabbis perceived Frieden's efforts as an attempt to encroach on religious freedom, and many whipped their followers into frenzy by convincing them that this was the opening salvo in a war that would inevitably end with a ban on circumcision. In their sermons, rabbis compared Frieden and Mayor Bloomberg — both Jewish — to Nazis and the Russian czars.
Using less inflammatory language, a spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, a strictly Orthodox lobbying organization led by a group of senior rabbis whose authority within these communities rivals that of the cardinals of the Vatican, insisted that this was a religious matter and that "the law allows for a certain degree of medical risk in order to accommodate religious practices."
Ultimately, Frieden backed away from his initial intention to ban the practice and instead issued an open letter strongly advising against the ritual. The state Health Department then issued virtually meaningless "guidelines" and the furor died down, with the practice ongoing to this day.
This was not the only example of the strictly Orthodox flexing their political muscle. In 2010, the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, in a blatant quid pro quo for votes, was able to get bike lanes removed from streets that run through its neighborhood. Their concerns included that the bikers posed a "safety and religious hazard" to the community as there were young female cyclists who "ride in shorts and skirts."
In July 2011, the head of the Boro Park Shomrim, a private community security patrol, told a reporter that his organization maintains a list of suspected child molesters that they do not report to the police because "the rabbis don't let you. It's not right." Yet, despite this, the organization continues to receive public funds.
SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL
Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of how the Brooklyn strictly Orthodox community has been able to get away with behavior that is a threat to public safety, and at times criminal, is the special treatment that community has received by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes with respect to child sexual abuse.
In March 2000, the Village Voice reported on Hynes' prosecution of a prominent Brooklyn rabbi for witness tampering. The rabbi was accused of threatening a couple who had filed a complaint alleging that the woman's father had committed rape and incest, telling them they would "end up in the cemetery" unless they dropped the charges. The Brooklyn Orthodox leadership called for Hynes' removal and held mass rallies in a show of support of the rabbi.
This incident marked a turning point in Hynes' prosecution of Orthodox criminals. His "liaison to the Jewish community," Henna White, cited Hynes' record of "culturally sensitive" treatment of pedophiles, apparently signaling that, in return for political support, he would allow this community to deal with certain issues, such as child molestation, "in house."
Hynes kept his word. Two months after a rabbi from the Bobov Hasidic sect in Brooklyn was arrested and charged with child sexual abuse, the DA dropped the charges and disbanded a grand jury hearing testimony on the case at the request of rabbis who informed him that a hastily called bet din (rabbinical tribunal) had found the alleged perpetrator innocent. One of the rabbis who served on the tribunal noted afterward: "We educated the DA on how to properly conduct a sex abuse trial."
In an October 2009 New York Times article, Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, was quoted as saying that "prosecutors should recognize 'religious sensitivities' by seeking alternatives to prison, to avoid depriving a family of its breadwinner" and warned that "The [Brooklyn] district attorney should be careful not to be seen as making a power grab from rabbinic authority."
Agudath Israel reasserted its position at a Continuing Legal Education conference in May 2011, where an Agudath Israel spokesmen instructed lawyers and mental-health professionals that reports of child sexual abuse must first be made to rabbis. Only then, if the rabbis agree, should the police be notified.
In recent years, in large part due to blogs and grassroots activism, strictly Orthodox victims have begun speaking out. The Jewish Week investigated Hynes' treatment of Orthodox abuse cases, calling him to account in a 2008 editorial titled "The Reluctant DA" for "a stance ranging from passive to weak willed."
Recently, Hynes' office seems to have been more aggressive, telling reporters he has arrested 85 Orthodox sex abusers since 2009. However, the fact that only 14 were sentenced to some jail time — and a shocking 24 have simply walked free, some, by the DAs own admission, because of intimidation — speaks to a serious problem, and one for which both the DA and the rabbinic leadership are at fault.
By instructing victims to obtain permission from rabbis before reporting these crimes to law enforcement, rabbinic leaders are in essence assigning themselves the role of law enforcement, obstructing justice and possibly even denying the civil rights of victims in the process. And because these rabbis have real power over the lives of community members, defying them is for most hardly a viable option. And yet Hynes remains bafflingly silent.
A DEMOGRAPHIC TIDAL WAVE
Woe unto anyone who dares criticize the rabbis. I did so and was accused in print of being an anti-Semite.
My accuser was Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America and the editor-at-large of Ami Magazine, a publication geared towards strictly Orthodox Jews. It was there that Shafran last month compared advocates for children, including me, to Nazi propagandists and blood libelers. The editorial was accompanied by a caricature, reminiscent of Der Stürmer, suggesting our opposition was equivalent to Nazi propaganda.
It would seem that here in the US, as in Israel, anyone exposing or addressing problems within the strictly Orthodox community can now expect to be labeled an anti-Semite.
And while there have been no mass protests by strictly Orthodox extremists in New York, their tactics here are no less insidious. Public statements in the media coupled with the sometimes irresponsible flexing of political muscle is, I believe, leading us along the well trodden path of the Israeli haredi extremists.
The reality of Jewish demographics is no different here than in Israel — the ultra-Orthodox birth rate dwarfs that of the general Jewish community. Thus, there is a real likelihood that this "Taliban Judaism" — that has women and men walking on different sides of the street and rabbis defending life-threatening practices — will in time become the dominant form of Judaism in the US.
But this is an issue for the broader Jewish community. Silence is acquiescence. It is incumbent upon major Jewish organizations and moderate Jews — and that includes moderate Orthodox Jews — to step up and condemn the creeping extremism of the ultra-Orthodox community.
The fact that these communities have been able to extract all sorts of special treatment has implications for the larger society. If this group can get a health commissioner to back down, bike lanes removed, NYPD officials deferring to unsupervised security patrols and, most troubling of all, the DA to allow rabbis to handle sex-abuse cases — what might be next?
The Brooklyn DA, our state legislators and, to the extent applicable, the federal government have a duty to enforce and strengthen the laws protecting our children regardless of political considerations or misguided appeals to "cultural sensitivity." Public safety, and the safety of all of our citizens, especially children, must trump politics.
And, when the strictly Orthodox rabbinic leadership's conduct falls to levels so deplorable that they begin to tarnish the credibility and reputations of the communities they're employed to serve, it becomes time to replace them.
And I don't think it makes me an anti-Semite to say that I believe that time has come.
Ben Hirsch is a co-founder and president of Survivors for Justice (sfjny.org) an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to sexual abuse and child safety.