Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Caught, in the Headlights

I was appalled by the mad dash of rabbis to explain away the inexcusable behavior of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tzeitung when they altered the White House situation room (raid on Bin laden’s lair) photo removing Hillary Clinton from the picture. In their apology for violating the rules, which forbade the altering of the picture, Der Tzeitung said the following:

The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel…. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.

The fact of the matter is that their excuse/apology errors in several ways. For one thing, Der Tzeitung doesn’t represent or speak for the Jewish people. No allegation was made that “religious Jews denigrate or do not respect women”. The majority of the Jewish people do not denigrate women nor do they discriminate against them. This is evidenced by the fact that women in the broader Jewish community take their place as equals among men in the professions, business and communal / synagogue life. Der Tzeitung, and those whom they represent however, systematically discriminate against women as evidenced by the fact that they consistently cut women out from every facet of civil life except for housework, and bringing in the rent money, while their men sit in kolel. This time, however, they were caught, like a deer in the headlights.

Discrimination against women in the haredi (including Hassidic) community does exist and is systemic. They do discriminate and do denigrate women. Women have traditionally been treated as second-class citizens. While I can understand the use of a mechitza during tefillah there is no reason on earth why they should be ushered to the sidelines at public events, ceremonies and simchot, not to mention the fact that they cannot hold positions of public leadership within the community. I don’t recall seeing or hearing about haredi women in the free professions, i.e. medicine, law, engineering etc. Their dress is appalling, colorless and shapeless, nearly resembling Muslim women in their traditional burka. It would indeed be convenient to excuse it all by referring to modesty, as they do. But they would be hard pressed to find primary sources that would support the treatment of women as chattel.

The haredi community has every right to discriminate within their community assuming that this is consensual and doesn’t compromise civil law. Thus, one can understand them supporting the use of private bus companies that separate between men and women, boys and girls. One can understand the design of separate school systems along gender lines. One can even tolerate the conspicuous absence of women leadership in communal affairs. While these prejudices are based upon an erroneous understanding of Jewish law it is excusable, since they are consenting adults and are entitled to spin religion to their liking. No one is forced into their community; people have a right to join or to disavow them; to move in or move out. They do not however, speak for or represent the Jewish people. If anything they are an anomaly, an anachronistic leftover from the nineteenth century Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What I fail to understand are the rabbis trying to make excuses for a factious group of Jews who do not require anyone’s defense. There are no legitimate excuses and any given ring hollow. For example, Rabbi Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis explained that Hillary was removed along with Audrey Tomason because they were in close proximity to men. So what! They aren’t Jewish and laws of modesty aren’t incumbent them! Assemblyman Dov Hikind explained that the editorial policy of the paper is not to print photos with women. Therefore removing Hillary wasn’t disrespectful to her. He’s right – it’s disrespectful to all women and is discriminatory. I defy any rabbi to point to any primary sources that would indicate even remotely that women should be excised from public life as they are in the haredi community.