Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where We Orthodox Jews Have Gone Wrong -- And How We Can Make Amends

(Note to subscribers: if you don't see the picture here, you won't understand the post. Check it out here.)


To: The President of Yeshiva University, the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union, and the Director of Public Publicy, Orthodox Union

From: Jerry Haber

RE: Recognizing the Sin of Bigotry, and Eradicating It

Gentlemen, I address this to you because I know you personally and admire you greatly. I have been members of the same synagogue as you, and one of you has been my rabbi.

Perhaps you saw this picture in the Wall Street Journal blog online The caption that the world read was, "A Palestinian woman whose house has been occupied by Jewish settlers argued with Israelis who came to celebrate Jerusalem Day in the mainly Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, Wednesday."

But you knew that the caption was wrong. You looked at those faces. You knew that the laughing faces were not of Israelis, but of modern orthodox Jewish youngsters from the US, probably in yeshiva for their gap year. You may have even recognized some of them. You may know some of their parents.

So my question to you is very simple. It is the same question that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein posed a quarter of a century ago, when some of the best and brightest of Israeli religious Zionists were arrested as members of the violent Jewish underground. It was a title of an op-ed that Rav Aharon wrote for Haaretz:

"Where have we gone wrong?"

I remember how impressed I was by the question -- then. For I thought that, finally, an acknowledged leader of modern orthodoxy/religious zionism recognized that deep hatred and racist attitudes towards the Arab had been allowed to fester in religious Zionist educational institutionists. (Of course, racism and bigotry are not the exclusive properties of modern orthodoxy. But the "in-your-face confidence" of the group of hooligans in this picture has religious Zionism written all over it.)

At first I was exhilarated by Rav Aharon’s hakarat ha-het, his recognition of the sin and its vicious consequences, and of the need to correct it. But time passed, and nothing was done. Rav Aharon went back to his yeshiva, and every time some modern orthodox Jew stunned the world with his indefensible actions -- Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir -- we were witness to the same hand-wringing among the moderates, as well as the old defense mechanisms:"Who are you to criticize?" "We condemn their actions, but not their intentions." "Look at the hatred and bigotry of Islamic Fundamentalists."

So let me tell you why your children -- not all, but enough of them to get you worried -- will continue to be in pictures like the one above, or in movies like Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana's “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem.” Let me tell you why the bigotry will range from the not-so-genteel Islam-bashers that you find in every shul nowadays (when you were growing up, who knew from Islam?) to the "glatt kosher, mehadrin" bigots and hate-filled thugs in the picture.

The main source of Jewish hatred and bigotry against Arabs today comes from the orthodox, and especially the modern orthodox. This wasn't always the case. The orthodoxy that sprung from European soil absorbed the best of West civilization, culture, and morality. The earlier generations of religious Zionists, Rav Reines, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, were European to the core. And the early generation of religious Zionists in America, though fed the prejudiced Zionist line about the Arabs, nevertheless was deeply influenced by liberal American values, and the American rejection of bigotry. Such moderates even convinced themselves that this was the message of the Torah.

No more. The Israeli religious Zionism that has produced the settler movement is unaffected by universal moral values. I don't need to go into details here. You are familiar with their rabbis, you have read the articles and parsha sheets; you have recoiled at the message. Israeli religious Zionism today is insular, parochial, fundamentalist, and deeply, deeply bigoted. I know many American orthodox Jews who have come on aliyah, Jews with moderate principles, proud of American and universal moral values. They are terribly uncomforable when their children return from the religious Zionist yeshivot and ulpanot as racist bigots who view the Arabs as animals and underlings, “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Modern orthodox educators in America should have worried less about the color of their children's hats, and more about the color of their hearts. When they agonized over whether they would stay frum, they should have agonized over whether they would stay mentshen, humane individuals.

For modern orthodoxy to reduce the likelihood of more pictures like the one above, it should take the following steps:

1. Day schools should develop programs against prejudice, and I don't mean just prejudice against Blacks and Hispanics, although that is important, too. I mean programs to counter bigotry against Arabs and Muslims. Appropriate sources can be found in Torah sources to give this a Jewish cast, and the illiberal sources can be explained away, as they were explained away by the 19th and 20th century European rabbis. One can start with Rav Abraham Kook's view that the land of Israel can be sold to Muslims because they are not idolaters.

2. Schools should invite Palestinian refugees to speak to the students about their experiences. That would be a kiddush ha-Shem/sanctification of God’s name in its own right, and the educational value would be enormous. I am not saying that equal time must be given to Palestinian spokesmen on the conflict. This is not about politics. It is about humanity and decency. Oscar Hammerstein wrote, "You've got to be taught to hate," but in a particularistic, religious atmosphere, and in the middle of a conflict, you have to be taught to respect. I realize that taking any time away from the curriculum for "tikun olam" is controversial, and trying to humanize Arabs will be even more so. After all, it is not as if when you look over your right shoulders, you see any less bigotry and racism. But choose not to, and you will have more pictures like the ones above. And what decent human frum Jew would want that?

3. American Muslims should come to the high schools and talk about their religion -- or if that is too much for you, then find Jews, frum Jews, who will try to provide a positive portrait of Islam. It is easy to cherry-pick sources to portray another religion in an unflattering light. But that is where bigotry begins, and when it is "supported by the evidence" it gets harder to eradicate. Do to the Muslim sources what we do to the Jewish sources in day schools -- accentuate the positive while explaining away the negative.

4. Modern orthodoxy sees the Rambam/Maimonides as one of its great models. Make it known to your students that Maimonides was Islamic civilization's gift to the Jews. Without the Islamic environment, there could have never been a Rambam. The influence of the golden age of Islamic civilization is written on every page of his works, and I mean his legal works as well as his philosophical ones. And, as you know, it is not just Rambam.

5. Don't romanticize the history of Jewish-Arab relations, but don't demonize it, either. Yes there was Muslim discrimination against Jews, but it has been the bon ton of late to exaggerate it and to fail to understand the problems of any traditional religion dealing with other religions when it has political power. I wouldn't want to be a Christian living in the Land of Israel under a Jewish king, according to Maimonides' law that condemned them to death.

6. Always draw parallels from other people's bigotry to our own. Bigotry and xenophobia are universal phenomena. The same Jews who are revolted by what others have done to them should feel the same revulsion when they do it against others. Show zero tolerance for such bigotry.

7. Most important, give the proper preparation and training for students going to Israel in their gap year, a year with little supervision and with exposure to deeply racist and bigoted attitudes – all in the name of Torah. If they come back from Israel not wanting to talk to girls, you get nervous that they have fallen off the deep end. But what of their attitudes towards gentiles, especially Arabs? Aren’t you worried about that?

It is not enough to ask, where have we gone wrong. We have to take steps to stamp this out. Liberals, conservatives, democrats, republicans – all of us should work to eradicate the central illness with frum Judaism today – hate-filled bigotry.


Y, Ben-David said...

I am surprised that, as a Jewish studies professor, you have misrepresented the RAMBAM's position. He certainly had no love for the Muslims and Arabs. Yes, he respected certain Muslim thinkers (I don't know how religious they really were), but he did not think much of Islam as a religion or the Arabs as a people. He wrote in either Iggeret L'Teiman or Iggeret HaShmad (I don't recall which) that the Arabs were the biggest enemies the Jewish people ever faced. He wrote in the Mishna Torah biting criticism of the beliefs of Islam (while at the same acknowledging it as not being "avodah zara"). Of course, he was driven out of both Spain and Morocco by Muslim extremists.

This use of the RAMBAM by "progressives" to supposedly prove how "tolerant" Islam was as opposed to Christianity ignores the deterioriation in the situation of the Jews in Muslim Spain once the Muslim conquest had been consolidated and that the first big massacre of Jews in Europe was NOT done by the Christian Crusaders, but over 30 years earlier by Muslims in Cordoba in the year 1066 and that there was a flourishing of Jewish thought and philosophy in Christian Spain during the perior of the Reconquista. In the end BOTH the Muslims and the Christians showed temporary tolerance to the Jews until they felt they didn't need them anymore and then followed massacre and/or expulsion.

Things like this and the horrors of the 20th centuries leave a powerful imprint in the collective memory, and added to the ongoing Muslim/Arab delegitimization of Israel AND JUDAISM itself (I have seen plenty on the internet myself) by Muslim/Arab extremists, it becomes all too easy to fall into the type of behavior you quite correctly denounce here. It is a delicate educational balancing act to, on the one hand remember history and confront the the difficult challenges of the present, while at the same time educate our young to respect the human rights of those who don't necessarily respect ours.

Jerry Haber said...

Y. Ben David,

I didn't misrepresent Rambam's position because I didn't present Rambam's position.

I said that the impact of Arab and Islamic civilization is on every page of his works. The entire Mishneh Torah was conceivable only in a civilization that produced similar law codes. And let us not forget the influence of Islamic law and political theory, as has been shown by Blidstein and Lebson.

None of this has anything to do with his position on Islam or Arabs or "the madman Muhammad".

Please read more carefully. The only thing I said about the Rambam and tolerance was that how he would not tolerate Christians in a Jewish kingdom but would put them to death. But not Muslims.

As for the rest of what you wrote, you know what they say about the flowers that bloom in the spring....

Anonymous said...

guten voch jerry,

let us say you are right, and the worst thing happening to frum kids today is that they are learning hate and prejudice as a result of their sojourns to did you want to deal with this again?

1) of course you know that rav kook, like all gedolim only hold that it is mutar to sell or give the land back in the case of pikuach nephesh...not sure why starting out with his example is going to teach anyone to list other sources

2) which reps from the palestinian refugees would you invite? the ones that stopped oren from speaking at uci? the same ones that refused to have a sit down with the jewish group from that same campus? oh i about the ones organizing the bds

how about getting the ones that took to the streets in sf, miami, los angeles, new york and a myriad of other cities, during the gaza incursion and screamed out jew hate epithets like "go back to the ovens"

btw, how many muslim institutions have ever invited any of the jewish refugees from arab lands to come to speak to them?

and which frum yidden would you like for institutions to invite to speak about the positive aspects of islam? you must have a name...i about you? of course, the institution would be wise to do a background check and would discover that you hang with straight out jew haters and apologists for hamas, like richard no, i guess you wouldnt do. i know, how about the nk...they can tell all the kids how wonderful it was to live in arab lands before there were evil zionists....oh shoot, they are all in cherem....that wont work either. i know, how about someone like my brother in law. a moroccan jew whose family emigrated to israel....oh shoot, that wont do either, cuz he didnt get his hate for muslims from living in israel, no that came from his family's experience actually living among muslims and being treated as second class citizens. but you must have names...would love to see a list.

4) oh yes, lets talk the rambam...and exactly how was it that he found himself and his family in egypt?

and are you saying that had he never left spain, he would not have become who he ended up being?

but sure, tell kids of the golden age...even though it has little resemblance to current islamic culture.

5. exactly how does one make worse the concept of being treated as a second class citizen. how can the fact that the north african muslims embraced the vichy and fascist italians and assisted in the holocaust be exaggerated? or that had hitler gotten as far as palestine, the grand mufti of jerusalem was ready, willing and able to build a death camp in nablus? care to elucidate? and with your last line, are you therefore excusing christian persecution of the jews in europe, the blood libels, the inquistion? for it was the catholics and protestants who had political i guess it was all very understandable.

6. on this point, i agree. bigotry is wrong.please tell that to the egyptian book sellers who still stock the protocols on their shelves.

7. do you honestly believe that kids go to israel, loving everything about muslims and learn to hate when they are there? especially the modern orthodox? you dont think they have access to newspapers, tv and the internet? you dont think they have a concept of what is going on in the world? do you really teach in a university?

btw, if you really choose ever to send such a letter to yu, i would suggest editing out the part about max blumenthal. there is a reason that video was banned from youtube, and the rest of his were not. and it has alot to do with the fraud perpetrated of going out of his way to speak to drunken college proved nothing other than max couldnt get the story that he wanted talking to kids who werent drunk.

i do think its cool that you admire rav aharon, especially since gush sits on stolen arab land.

Anonymous said...

oh dang...i posted before i even saw that there was a response.

so according to jerry, the rambam wouldnt have become the rambam had he not ended up in egypt.

pretty much a heretical statement if i do say so myself.

any gedolim agree with you?

think ill have to go back and listen to the shiurim given by rav yaakov weinberg (an actual expert on the rambam) to see if he agrees with your assertion.

hey jerry, he read plato too

you still have to explain what the golden age has to do with the current state of islamic culture

Jewlicious said...

I certainly support much of the sentiment contained in this post. Bigotry, racism and intolerance are ugly. They feed on one's heart, one's compassion and one's soul. Not that it matters but I was at Sheikh Jarrah when this pic was taken. The silly boys pictured here are Israeli. Not that it matters but they chanted and sang around the pictured woman in response to her clanging loudly on a tin serving tray. Their presence in Sheikh Jarrah was seen as a provocation and she sought to provoke them back. And clearly she did. I'm not excusing the boys - clearly they ought to have behaved with restraint, common decency and dignity rather than provide this unclear photo opp. Similarly, citing Max Blumenthal's "Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem" video in this context is kind of ridiculous. The kids pictured in that video were for the most part not Orthodox. At all. Proper frum kids do not hang out in Kikar Chatulot. They don't get "stoopid" drunk and the women they hang out with know who Netaanyahu is and don't wear low cut sleevless tees.

Other than that though, we can all benefit from a strong dose of derech eretz. The ability to express compassion and empathy ought not have to come at the expense of our security. I note that the fastest growing foreign language curriculum in Modern Orthodox educational establishments in the US is Arabic. That can't be bad, it's definitely a good start.

Unknown said...

Yasher koakh for speaking truth to power. Of course power in this case like most others wont listen. (Strangely the word one has to type to show one is a human not a robot commentator was Dachau

Jerry Haber said...

bacci40, let me tell you a story about Rav yaakov weinberg.

Once I heard him give a shiur on Rambam at Aish ha-Torah. He referred to a manuscript of the Mishneh Torah in Oxford. During the question and answer period, he was asked by a bahur, "Why would the goyyim care about Jewish manuscripts?" Rav Yaakov seemed genuinely perplexed by the question and said, "I don't know...maybe money."

At that point I realized that I had nothing else to learn from Rav Yaakov.

bacci40, I am always saddened when Jews justify hatred and bigotry by pointing fingers to Muslims, Christians, blah, blah, blah, and saying "Hey, they're not any better." I can't think of a more immature response than that. There is intolerant Islam and there is tolerant Islam, and there are many shades in between. There are almost a billion Muslims, most of whom are not Arab. So since you know very little about that, let's talk about things you know more about.

As for Rav Kuk's teshuvah and selling to gentiles, I plan to discuss that later.

Shabbat Shalom

Jerry Haber said...


One look at those pictures tells me that these are Americans -- at best, American Israelis. Obviously, I cannot tell if they are here for the gap year. If somebody can identify them, let me know. What makes you say they are Israelis? Their accents? Did you talk with them?

As for Max's video, well obviously the non-orthodox kids in the video were not the subject of my post, were they? But there were also orthodox kids interviewed and they were not drunk. In fact, most of the people interviewed by Max and Joseph were not drunk. But it is convenient to claim that they were.

You also know that there are orthodox kids that drink, smoke grass, and do drugs here, and that kikar tziyyon is a meeting place. That, of course, is a separate problem. But again, some of the kids in the video looked perfectly "normal".

Once again, if you give me more details about the Sheikh Jarrah crowd, I would be much obliged.

I would like to mention that I heard some pretty bigoted things about Arabs said by orthodox Jews when I was on a major Ivy league campus last fall. And, no, the guys weren't drunk.

Jerry Haber said...


Re Arabic in day schools.

Actually, it is a horrible start.

Frum Jews are learning Arabic not to understand Arab culture, but to "know the enemy," Islamofascism".

I have talked with a quite a number of these students. They are thrilled about protecting the US from Al Qaeda and Israel from all the Arabs who talk one way to each other (in Arabic) and another to the world.

I shudder to think that those modern orthodox Jews are going into defense, security, and foreign policy positions. We will have a whole bunch of little Daniel Pipes with kippot, rahmana litzlan.

Jewlicious said...

The kids were totally Israeli. I know the difference between Israelis and Americans. Their Hebrew accents were flawless and some of their clothing was from Castro. I heard their small talk. They are 100% Israeli, born and bred. What other details do you want to know?

As for the kids in Blumenthal's video, recall how originally, ignorant viewers thought they were Israeli. Most of those kids were American and the ones that made the most glaringly offensive or painfully stupid statements were not what I would call mainstream modern orthodox. You ever see a regular attendant at your shuls wearing a faux hawk? Really? If you're going to try and pin the idiots in Blumenthal's video on Modern Orthodoxy, you're really barking up the wrong tree.

That having been said, I too have heard sober Orthodox people say dumb and offensive things. Orthodoxy is no guarantee against bigotry, stupidity and narrow mindedness. Neither is being a progressive liberal. I've heard them say bigoted, dumb and offensive things as well.

And yes, all kinds of kids, spanning the religious and ideological spectrum get high and drunk all the time in Jerusalem. So what?

As for Modern Orthodox kids "getting to know the enemy," again, I don't think it's a bad idea. I myself am multi-lingual and every language learned is a window into another culture. One of my acquaintances, an MO kid with right leaning tendencies, moderated his views significantly after a protracted period of Arabic study. Anyone that really wants to learn Arabic or any foreign language, needs to spend a period immersed in that language. My friend spent time in Jordan and Egypt, got to know the "enemy" and now has a far more nuanced position on the matsav, going from hard right to center, center/left. You'll certainly never hear him say that Arabs are animals or anything idiotic like that. Just sayin' Jerry... Anyhow, shabbat shalom, gotta pull the kugel from the oven...

moti said...

Thank you for your blog post, although I don't think there's much chance of it having much effect and I have only feelings of vague dread about the future.

If I have kids at some point, I I would send them to public school and teach them alef-beyz, etc., at home. Day schools, shuls, "yeshivos" for gap year (I don't think they're actually exposing kids to real ameilus be-torah, the spirituality they offer seems masturbatory)--they all seem deeply contaminated with a lot of dangerous and stupid nonsense.

The scary thing is that we are not really in a position to have the luxury of being stupid.

Jerry Haber said...


I have talked with other people who where there. There were Israeli and Americans, and you may have heard Israeli accents

But these guys are definitely Americans. Look at their faces, the black kippot (lo serugot), their clothes -- they are not hardal, benei akiva, or Israeli haredi. And that has been the reaction of everybody who saw the pictures who have written about it on Israeli blogs except you.

Find out their names and I will be happy to talk to them and print a retraction.

I grant you that mitokh she-lishmah, people can have a positive experience learning Arabic. I have spent most of my adult life since college learning Arabic -- for me it is a difficult language -- and I am glad you feel that this is a moderating influence.

Anonymous said...

The picture is of Americans from Reishit. My friend (who goes to Reishit, an American Yeshivah located in Beit Shemesh) mentioned that kids from his yeshivah made the news under the story line of "Israelis yell at Palestinian lady" (or something along that line). He said that they were actually singing to drown out some racket she was making, and not yelling at her.

Anonymous said...

I read your materials and can never keep track of the inconsistencies and illogic. You write:
"he earlier generations of religious Zionists, Rav Reines, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, were European to the core. And the early generation of religious Zionists in America, though fed the prejudiced Zionist line about the Arabs, nevertheless was deeply influenced by liberal American values, and the American rejection of bigotry. Such moderates even convinced themselves that this was the message of the Torah."

you also invoke Rav Lichtenstein rosh yeshiva of an institition on the other side of the green line.

Yet in your writing on beinart you write that

"...he accepts the liberal Zionist dogma that there was a humane, universalistic Zionism embodied in the State of Israel, via the Labor party and the Zionist left. This is false. Yes, there was a humanistic Zionism -- the Zionism of Buber, Magnes, Einstein, Arendt, Kohn, Ernst Simon -- but it died with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948"

well someone as well versed in history as you would know rav kook's view of zionism had far more in common with labor zionists with whom he worked constantly and saw their settlement of the land and establishment of the state as an event of profound religious significance.

So which is it Hannah Arendt's zionism or Rav Kook's and Rav Lichtenstein's that you want followed by today's orthodox.

Inquiring minds would like to know before taking your advice to heart.

eli said...

By the The Rambam was the Sultans personal physician but the muslim advisors were jealous iof the honour this "jew" was recieving, so they had many attempts to kill him. And yes, there Are many great muslims out there who should be brought to the schools and yeshivas but you musn't forget the extremuists and phanatics who won't hear of it and will most likely plot a terrorosit attack. And he was driven out of spain because he didnt want to give in and be forced to convert to Islam.

Jerry Haber said...

there is no historical evidence for either of your assertions. Of course, there are many popular legends about the Rambam. What's your source?