Yes, Jewish Lives Matter

Yes, Jewish Lives Matter

Like those in every other mainstream newspaper, Zachary Evans’s article recycled many tropes about Chassidim. More concerning is National Review’s institutional response.
Moshe Krakowski
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Last week, National Review published an appalling article by Zachary Evans about the recent wave of antisemitic violence against ultra-Orthodox Jews in and around New York City. It claimed to provide context for these attacks but was inadvertently (I hope) an exercise in victim blaming.

In response to many readers’ outraged replies, both the Review’s editors and several staff members made matters worse by refusing to acknowledge any problem with the article. The worst was this screed by Kevin Williamson accusing critics of reading the article in bad faith simply to attack National Review, as if the only thing at stake here was a petty media squabble.

It seems clear that National Review’s leaders truly don’t understand why this article was offensive, and that this is at least in part thanks to their ignorance about ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. Their responses reflect basic misunderstanding of the context in which Evans’ article was published, and thus of its potential effects.

An Existential Issue for Orthodox Jews

That this is genuinely an existential issue for Orthodox Jews, not a debate over high-speed rail or corporate tax rates. Orthodox schools no longer leave their doors unlocked. People walk with their necks craned in neighborhoods they have lived in for years, looking for an escape route should someone suddenly attack. My family is not Chassidic, but we are nonetheless terrified: because we are visibly Jewish we feel at risk whenever we leave the house.

The second point requires more explanation: the article played into a long-standing media bias against ultra-Orthodox Jews in general, and Chassidim in particular, that would seem shocking if displayed against any other minority group. For years, the press has written about Chassidic communities in terms that would be hard to imagine being applied to other groups.

Not only are Chassidim routinely presented as the quintessential other—foreign, incomprehensible, hostile to outsiders—but they are routinely described as wealthy slumlords, cheats, and crooks, while paradoxically also all poor, uneducated, and living off government assistance. These contradictory narratives agree on one point: Chassidim move into neighborhoods, take them over, and so create “tension” with the original residents.

None of this is unique to Evans’ article. This form of bias has been a serious problem for years—so much so, that when BuzzFeed recently ran an article about Orthodox Amazon Marketplace sellers that treated Chassidic Jews as ordinary people with ordinary ambitions and needs, its author received an outpouring of effusive from Chassidim.

Evans’s article, in contrast, did precisely what every mainstream paper has done, and recycled many tropes about Chassidim. More concerning is National Review’s institutional response. Here are some responses to their major defenses of this article.

Yes, Jews Can Stereotype Other Jews

It doesn’t matter that the article was written by a Jewish IDF veteran. What many people who don’t know much about this issue fail to understand is that not all anti-Semitism takes a single form: anti-Chassidic animus is a special flavor of its own. In fact, a great deal of the toxic narrative about Chassidim commonly forwarded by the media comes from other Jews.

Most people—even modern Orthodox Jews!—are ignorant about Chassidic life, but many Jews believe falsely their shared ethnic background gives them insight others don’t have. Moreover, as Jews, they feel free to indulge in some of the vilest stereotyping of Chassidim imaginable, using language and tropes that have justified antisemitism throughout history.

When Williamson touts the fact that Evans is Jewish, and has served in the IDF no less, he only betrays his ignorance. Evans likely knows as much about Chassidim as Williamson does—which is to say, nothing.

That Williamson thinks that an article by a veteran of the Israeli military could hardly have been antisemitic is beyond laughable. A minute’s Google search would have revealed to him that the IDF hates the Haredim (of whom the Chassidim are a sub-group) and that the Haredim hate the IDF right back.

This Isn’t About ‘Community Tensions’

The article’s central mistake begins with its headline. It isn’t true, as the headline asserts, that the anti-Semitic attacks shine a spotlight on long-simmering communal tensions. The two have nothing to do with each other.

To the extent that one can call one-sided antipathy a conflict between “local” communities and Chassidic communities, those conflicts are a product, rather than a cause of, antisemitism. In any event, they have nothing to do with a man driving 30 minutes from his home to machete a bunch of Chassidim in a neighborhood that Orthodox Jews have now lived in for 70 years.

The key rhetorical move on which Evans’ article hinges (and Jason Lee Steorts singles out in his defense of Evans) states “the attacks have rattled ultra-Orthodox in those areas nonetheless, owing in part to preexisting disputes between some ultra-Orthodox communities and the neighboring non-Jewish population in those areas.”

It’s not clear exactly what this means—it hazily implies a connection between the attacks and the “disputes” without actually pinpointing what the connection is—but to the extent that it means anything, it simply isn’t true. Haredim (indeed, all visibly Orthodox Jews) are not rattled as a result of zoning disputes. They’re rattled because they are afraid they are going to be hacked to death with a machete.

The entire article is slanted by this flawed connection. As Evans describes—in his own voice, not in quotes—how Haredim move into rural neighborhoods and develop them, live in close proximity to each other, vote as a bloc, and take public benefits, he is reproducing the very anti-Chassidic and yes, antisemitic, claims that so otherize the Haredim in the public eye.

It’s not that any of these things are false. It’s that they are completely unremarkable activities that all Americans engage in. But in highlighting them as relevant to anti-Chassidic violence he validates the notion that they represent a real source of conflict with their neighbors.

Details That Appear Negative Without Context

Finally, National Review editors seized on the fact that the article’s most-cited quote, “Many in the community look at the Hasidim as locusts, who go from community to community . . . just stripping all the resources out of it,” was not Evans’ own statement. Surely we all know that writers quote sources to document them, and not to agree with their content?

But this misses the point. Of course Evans didn’t say this himself, and reporting a quote is not the same as endorsing it. But this quote caps a series of paragraphs that suggest he likely does believes that some less extreme and more nuanced and charitable version of the sentiment is true—if not an excuse for murder.

But here’s the problem. If you knew anything about the Haredim, you wouldn’t pick those features of Haredi life to report.

What does bloc voting have to do with antisemitism? Why is it even in the article?

Someone who knew the community might have written an actual description of Haredi life: The degree to which violent crime falls to near-zero in Chassidic neighborhoods, property values shoot up when they move in, tax rolls are filled (every Chassidic kid enrolled in a Yeshiva rather than public school saves the state about $25,000), and communal services such as ambulance corps (available to all) flourish. Evans might have pointed out that Chassidim in Kiryas Yoel (an all-Chassidic town) make perfectly average incomes, despite a near common-consensus by outsiders to the contrary.

Instead, inflammatory questions are raised without any explanatory context. Why do Chassidim get to sit on the school board when their children don’t go to public school? There are many possible answers to this—beginning with the fact that they pay taxes that support public schools—but the article provides none of them, leaving the reader with the impression of Jewish control of non-Jews.

What does bloc voting have to do with antisemitism? Why is it even in the article? Why is Shulem Deen—an ex-Chassid who is a known vocal critic of Chassidim—quoted representing the Chassidic experience, and wondering whether the antisemites might have a point after all: “Do others have a right to settle in a certain vicinity, in a region, and make that place their own?”

The ‘tensions’ provoked by Chassidim are in many respects the same as the tensions historically provoked by African Americans when they moved into white neighborhoods.

Well, do they? Last time I checked we lived in the United States of America, where the answer to that question is an unequivocal “Yes, they do.” Was he quoted as an example of the animus Chassidim have to deal with? If so that was a particularly subtle point that may have benefited from expansion.

Evans seems to believe Chassidim make life challenging for their neighbors. They legitimately provoke tensions with the people they settle among. Sometimes these tensions have boiled over into antisemitism. This is one of the contributing factors to attacks on Jews and their fear of being attacked.

In fact, the “tensions” provoked by Chassidim are in many respects the same as the tensions historically provoked by African Americans when they moved into white neighborhoods. That is to say, they aren’t so much tensions as prejudice.

When someone drives like a maniac on the New York streets, people shrug and say, “Well, that’s New York for you.” When a Chassid does it, it represents a legitimate concern about his community’s lack of respect for secular law. This perception of Chassidim has its roots in a type of antisemitism that has historically been the most damaging to Jews: the constant portrayal of Jews as “other” and of their ordinary human behaviors as threatening.

The problem with Evans’s essay is not its uncritical repetition of a source who calls Chassidim “locusts,” but its attempt to connect—in any way—ordinary Chassidic behavior, disputes over zoning and finances, and political clout, to horrifying antisemitic attacks on Chassidim. The “tensions,” such as they are, do not contribute to rising antisemitism, they are rising antisemitism.

Stop Blaming the Victims and Start Blaming the Murderers

If nothing else, NR’s editors should perhaps have considered this: across the board, Orthodox Jews who live with the fear provoked by these assaults were horrified and terrified by the article. It was reported with alarm in nearly every Orthodox publication that appeared this week.

Conversely, it was gleefully endorsed by neo-Nazis and the alt-right, who circulated it. But instead of reconsidering their stance, National Review gave the Principal Skinner response: “No, it’s the rest of the world who is wrong.”

But there’s something even more alarming about this conflict, for Jews and for the conservative movement more broadly, which Williamson’s two screeds brought to life. Besides betraying his ignorance on all matters Chassidic, Williamson also betrayed an unwillingness to treat his Jewish readers with a presumption of good faith. The article’s critics didn’t fail to understand how quotes work; they recoiled at the false and distorted narrative laced throughout the entire essay.

I confess to having enjoyed Williamson’s writing in the past. It was a shock to watch him lash out at vulnerable people—among them, friends and former colleagues—accusing them of petty political bad faith when they are afraid for their physical safety.

Yes, Jewish Lives Matter

Beyond a very Inside Baseball punditry dustup, why does this matter? It matters because in the past few decades otherizing rhetoric of the kind found in Evans’s essay has become endemic in mainstream and progressive publications. Ultra-Orthodox Jews’ migration to the conservative political camp has been at least partially the result of their perception that at least in the conservative movement they would be treated as human beings.

Williamson’s response, which National Review saw fit to print (twice!), gives the lie to that notion. Instead it is clear that just like the conditional accommodation of Jews on the left, for the right, as well, Jewish lives are contingent.

It’s shouldn’t be so hard to say “Sorry, we got it wrong.” Being able to reconsider one’s actions is a mark of principle, of good faith, and of the best conservative values of truth, charity, humility, and loyalty.

Williamson owes the article’s critics (particularly Bethany Mandel) a public apology. National Review should have done its research before publishing that article, and should have responded to criticism in good journalistic fashion by allowing someone to pen a response in their pages.

Moshe Krakowski is a professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. His primary field of research is Haredi education, culture, and worldview.

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