Naomi Ragen: The Ultra-Orthodox’ PR Problem

By | Mar 05, 2012

By Naomi Ragen

The cultural divide in Israel between Haredi and secular Jews has reached new extremes. In December, Haredi men spat upon a terrified eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolese, as she made her way to a Haredi-opposed national religious girls school in Beit Shemesh—a school the Haredim claimed was purposely and provocatively zoned on land in their neighborhood. A few days later, a female soldier riding up front in a bus in Ramat Eshkol was verbally attacked by a Haredi father of ten who called her a “whore.” She replied that she was protecting him. He responded that his Torah learning was protecting her. Police were eventually called in, and the man found himself behind bars.

More recently, a female employee of Israel’s lottery putting up posters in Beit Shemesh found herself stoned, her car windshield smashed, her tires slashed.

The national backlash against Haredi extremists put Haredim on the defensive, some even complaining of isolated physical attacks they attributed to “media incitement.” In response, they chose to pour gasoline on the fire. Haredi activists held a demonstration in which they dressed their children in striped Holocaust garb to symbolize being targeted by Israeli “anti-Semitism.”

Although some would like to view this chasm as unbridgeable, the truth is not so neat. This was brought home to me in the most personal way on a family hike in Ein Gedi, an outing that, as fate would have it, took place the week that the outraged responses to the Holocaust-inspired demonstration hit the newspapers.

My daughter Rachel, a university graduate and translator, has five children and wears a wig. Her husband, Ygael, who wears a black velvet skullcap—as do my grandsons—works hard in a family-run business. My granddaughters wear long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. Both of them expressed their revulsion against the use of Holocaust garb to protest so-called incitement against Haredim. For my part, I had expressed my views about that protest in an article that day in The Jerusalem Post, in which I had angrily written that if “it was only a small number of Haredi extremists involved in the bullying and abuse of women,” then why didn’t the rest open their mouths?

As we were hiking the beautiful Nachal David trail, I suddenly noticed the distinct look of enmity from a nearby secular man as he viewed my daughter and her family.

The penny dropped. Oh no! I thought. He thinks that they’re extremists! And if he had read my article, then I was responsible for helping to inflame his distaste and disgust.

It was a shocking moment for me. Like it or not, I realized, we cannot rail in generalities against our fellow Jews, no matter how abhorrent their behavior, without harming our own families. I, and other journalists, by writing about Haredim as if they were all one homogeneous group, do harm to our country and our religion, not to mention individuals like my daughter and her family who outwardly seem to fit the mold but in reality couldn’t be further away from it.

What then are we to do? Surprisingly, I saw my own quandary reflected on the cover of a popular English-language Haredi publication called Mishpacha (family). On the background of Haredi children dressed as camp inmates were the words: “Intolerant? Fanatic? Solve Our Image Problem.”

Inside the magazine, members of the Haredi community openly discussed their dilemma with three PR experts. On the one hand, some said, to take issue publicly with their fellow Haredim over these extremist incidents would be to break ranks within their community. But David Nordell, a journalist, PR expert and CEO of New Global Markets, expressed a different view: “The mainstream Haredi community has to learn to break away from the attitude that the zealots seem to be ‘more holy,’ ‘closer to the source’ so we can’t criticize them because ‘they are better than us.’” The time has come, he wrote, for the community to “react with a greater degree of moral courage, both toward [their] own extremists and also toward the rest of the community. I don’t think the secular majority wants to hate Haredim. They want to see them as brothers.”

Or daughters.

It’s a complex problem. But I think the answer lies in the words of Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, senior rabbi of the Orthodox Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, who wrote in The Jewish Tribune that the “horrible distortion of misogyny and gender discrimination that is being justified under the pretense of religion” taking place in Israel must be met with a rabbinical message “loud enough…to drown out the extremists’ distorted message.” He was joined by Orthodox Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, who wrote a similar condemnation of extremist behavior in a January op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud.”

With rabbinical leaders like these speaking up for me, my daughter and her family, all of us—secular and religious alike—just might have a chance of joining forces to reform the black sheep in our family, instead of letting them turn us against each other.

Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright. Her latest book is The Tenth Song.

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