Remaining in Exile
Sociology professor Samuel C. Heilman’s fascinating—albeit limited—study of the half million Orthodox Jews living in the United States, Sliding to the Right, asks an important question: Why has this community become increasingly observant and rigidly bound to Talmudic principles over the past three decades?
The book centers on New York City because one-quarter of America’s Orthodox population lives there and, Heilman writes, standards set in New York influence Orthodoxy in the rest of the country. He describes two groups, the Haredi Orthodox who eschew contact with the secular world—think black-coated Hasids from Williamsburg, Boro Park or Crown Heights, Brooklyn—and the modern Orthodox, who keep kosher and dress modestly, but typically pursue education and work outside the Jewish community. The latter group, he writes, “now finds itself losing the ideological battle for survival. Frum [religiously observant] is giving way to frummer” (p. 13).
The question is why.
Heilman’s exploration touches upon the political conservatism that dovetails with devotional conservatism, but he does not linger there. Instead, he seeks to deconstruct how a population that once planted its feet in both Jewish and secular America has given way to one that prizes insularity.
He begins by assessing the impact of the Holocaust on both the native-born and those who immigrated to the United States post-war, and reports that while some Jews turned from a God who allowed Hitler’s atrocities to happen, others concluded that “no culture, however attractive or open, could be trusted. Judaism, especially Judaism in its most traditional form, was the only reliable treasure” (p. 26). What’s more, this faction argued that by holding fast to this treasure, the Jewish community was collectively thumbing its nose at those who wished to exterminate it. That is, surviving—or better, thriving—was proof positive that Jews were neither passive nor easily defeated. Traditional garb—from married women donning wigs, to men displaying previously hidden ritual garments and covering their heads with yarmulkes—became marks of defiance.
Clearly, the impulse under girding these behaviors was a profound discomfort with the non-Jewish world. As the 1940s and 50s gave way to the 1960s, Heilman reports that “Orthodox estrangement seemed to grow and…doubtful about the wholesomeness of America, looked for continuity with its traditionalist rightwing” (p. 47). Similar to those who embraced Christian conservatism, the Orthodox community bristled at liberalized sexual mores and protest movements that questioned gender and race relations. Those who had previously straddled both Orthodoxy and worldliness began to fear that the latter would send them onto dangerous turf. As a result, many Orthodox people—especially those who attended Orthodox synagogues on holidays but otherwise lived in secular society—retreated. While a small number opted to leave Orthodoxy completely, the bulk hunkered down into the security and rules of an ordered Jewish life.
Once there, they had decisions to make regarding the degree to which they’d interact with mainstream New Yorkers. Should their kids go to public schools, or should they send them to a yeshiva or private Jewish day school? If they chose the latter, what did they want their kids to learn?
Heilman’s chapter on Jewish education is particularly insightful since he sees the schools as essential players in the community’s rightward shift. As he tells it, families’ relinquishment of responsibility for the education of their kids to Judaic authorities, coupled with the increased religiosity of teachers, and the emergence of virtually mandatory post high school study programs in Israel, contributed to the increasing conservatism.
Factor in National Jewish Population surveys that documented high rates of intermarriage and assimilation, and you get a sense of the survival panic that enveloped the already uneasy community. The revelation that young college grads were among “the most assimilated and prone to intermarriage” made the idea of sending offspring to far-off colleges seem risky (p. 98). The culture wars had invaded the Orthodox village square.
For their part, Heilman writes, Jewish day schools and yeshivas began to dwell on religious doctrine, as if sacred texts alone would keep community members from secular temptations. On top of this, since the late 1980s, the majority of teachers have come from the Haredi sector since few modern Orthodox students are opting to become educators. Small surprise that Torah, Talmud, and Midrash have taken precedence over reading, writing, social studies and arithmetic.
Worse, writes Heilman, Haredi teachers promote passivity: “When [pupils] established a relationship with a rabbi they had to subordinate themselves, accepting the rabbi’s opinion as superior and nullifying their own opinions before him. Democracy and autonomy, values that modern Orthodox at least claimed to hold dear, paled in the face of da’as Torah” (p. 109).
Then there’s the year in Israel, deemed a “booster shot of Torah life,” (p. 113) that reinforces the idea of a necessary separation from all things goyish.
Upon their return to the States, decisions loom. In addition to finding a suitable opposite-sex mate, still-teenaged returnees can attend a nearby college or find work. In addition, males can enter the community-supported “scholars’ society” and devote themselves to prayer and study.
For those who opt for the work world, avoiding sin—from non kosher food, to rock and roll, to Internet porn or exposure to feminists, queers, leftists or atheists—remains paramount. As Heilman writes, “They look for a place that will minimize their exposure to what they consider the seductions of sex and seek to avoid environments where contact between men and women is free and easy, particularly where women are ‘immodestly’ dressed” (p. 168).
It’s a tall order.
Yet for all this, Heilman’s explication of Orthodox fears and the retreat into dogmatic spirituality as away of maintaining Jewish cohesion fails to fully explain the Jewish community’s support of Republican politicians or the alliances they’ve made with Christian conservatives. Polls showed three-quarters of the Orthodox voting for McCain, while the Jewish community as a whole reported that level of support for Obama. Sliding to the Right would have been a better book had it more thoroughly interrogated these trends. At the same time, it is an enlightening, if introductory, look at New York’s Orthodox population, from the Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg, to the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights, to the modern Orthodox of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Flatbush, Brooklyn.
And it explains the shift an Orthodox friend has described to me. Growing up in the 1970s, she remembers that everyone watched movies and ate non meat entrees in restaurants. Now a mother of two, she complains about her sons’ increasing dogmatism and expresses shock at their contempt for television, secular music, and films. Still, she feels unable to challenge pervasive community norms and sees the slide to the Right as already complete.
Heilman isn’t as sure and concludes that while the ultra-observant agree that being aware of “boundaries between themselves and the proverbial other” is important, the question of whether the boundary can be traversed remains unresolved. “The Haredi group is certain that to be Orthodox means recognizing that one remains always the stranger, always holding onto a sense of being in exile, and that lines remain that can never be crossed,” he writes (p. 296).
At the same time, he continues, the community is practical and, in order to support themselves and their families, both men and women have little choice but to become mired in a multicultural workforce. Indeed, financial realities—especially for families boasting seven to nine children—may ultimately trump remaining cloistered. In the end, economic survival may push the community outward, no matter the demons that lie in wait.
Images of Hope, Images of Fear
Adem Carroll is director of the New York-based Muslim Consultative Network.
With relief and some surprise, much of the nation has been congratulating itself on finally electing an African American president, even one with a “Muslim middle name.” As the cathartic images of hope begin to fade from our screens, however, let us pause to reflect on those image-makers and image destroyers who worked hard to incite voters’ fears about Barack Hussein Obama.
In the course of the campaign, infomercials and speeches circulated depicting Barack Obama as a terrorist sympathizer, a socialist, as well as a secret Muslim. Viral political messaging and mobilization on the internet energized that 12 percent of Americans who insisted up to the election that the Democrat was a Muslim and hated him for it. In response, the Obama campaign worked to distance their candidate from controversial associates— and from the vilified Muslim and Arab communities.
As part of the early fall election season vilification of Muslims, 28 million DVDs of a documentary called Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West were distributed free inside more than a dozen major newspapers across the country. Cleverly framed as a pseudo-scholarly report on radical Muslim movements, together with sensationalist imagery, the Obsession DVD is actually misleading and hateful in its messaging. It is also fairly effective as propaganda, well paced and visually engaging. One must really pay close attention to note its many misrepresentations and conflations.
After a gentle beginning, the DVD argues that there is a vast Islamic conspiracy to dominate the world through violence and trickery. Warning that failure to see the situation in these apocalyptic terms constitutes appeasement, speakers in the film repeatedly suggest links between Nazi and Muslim ideologies. And despite a brief disclaimer, the film implicitly and explicitly depicts all Muslims, including the five million U.S. Muslims, as a threat to the United States and to Israel.
Distributed by the Clarion Fund, a spin off of a well-known organization called Aish HaTorah, the video seems intentionally designed to appeal to the fears and concerns of American Jews as well as Christian Zionists. Twenty eight million is obviously an enormous number of DVDs, and advocacy groups noted that a majority of them were distributed in battleground states, apparently to influence the election. (This possibility prompted the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to lodge a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission that a foreign-registered group underwriting the DVD was interfering in U.S. politics.)
A few months earlier, the web site Jews on First reported that the Republican Jewish Coalition apparently teamed with Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a conservative evangelical group, to send thousands of Jews the Obsession DVDs tucked into a book by the CUFI director.
Despite its evident failure to sway Jewish voters in the presidential election—78 percent supported the winner, according to Pew—it may have helped the Obama/terrorist/Muslim storyline take hold among some conservative Christian voters. Rightist interests will almost certainly continue to use this video to incite fear, marginalize Muslims and Arabs, and influence national discourse on national security and international relations.
Indeed, the producers of the Obsession DVD are planning future films (such as “The Third Jihad”) targeting Muslim American community institutions like the CAIR and Islamic Society of North America. One is left to wonder if the largely immigrant communities the group’s serve will continue to be marginalized under a new administration, as a result.
Images and Message
Obsession begins with a disarming disclaimer that not all Muslims are terrorists. This may allow newspapers distributing the DVD to say it is not hate speech targeting all Muslims but the statement is consistently belied by sensationalistic images of violence, children training for martyrdom, concentration camps and other horrors. National independence movements among Iraqis, Chechens, and Palestinians are conflated with religious zealotry. Frequently, important context is missing. Many of the examples of so-called Islamist propaganda deplored in the film are actually footage of the war in Iraq or videos including such news material. As noted, the images also conflate widespread Muslim hostility to Israeli occupation with the massive crimes of Nazi antisemitism.
Obsession builds its argument concerning the Islamic Threat with a thread of statements from “academic” commentators— producing at least the illusion of scholarly consensus. Yet speakers like Dr. Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University and Imam Ahmed Dewidar have complained that their remarks were put into false context.
For the most part, however, the film relies on right-wing favorites like the professional Christian convert Nonie Darwish, author of Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror, whose remarks follow a standard neoconservative line; neoconservative academics like Itamar Marcus, the founder of Palestinian Media Watch; and the infamous Walid Shoebat, a Muslim-born Palestinian convert to Christianity who claims to have been a Palestinian terrorist— a claim found not credible by the Jerusalem Post. Shoebat introduces the term Islam o fascism to amp up the invective—and claims that with 55 predominantly Muslim countries in the world, they “could have the success rate of several Nazi Germanys.”
Shoebat also undermines the argument that the word “jihad” has many meanings by remarking, “Jihad may mean self struggle… but so does Mein Kampf.”
Infamous pundit Daniel Pipes tries to sound “reasonable” and talks about empowering “moderate Muslims” towards the end of the film. He speculates that that radical Muslims may be about 10 percent or even 15 percent of the over one billion Muslims worldwide, without telling us what “support” for radical Islam means or what evidence backs this statistic. Instead we are left with the idea that hundreds of millions are a clear and present danger to our existence.
As noted in www.changethestory.net, the vast majority of Western Muslims—the same percentage as other Americans or higher—reject terrorism altogether. Predominantly Muslim nations around the world have varying understandings of terrorism, but studies have shown that only in Nigeria did a majority show sympathy for terrorism. However, negative views about the U.S. government have increased among Muslims and in most nations around the world.
Negative speech or views should not be equated with support for terror—opinion must be dealt with through dialogue, not military drones and cluster bombs. This type of conflation, however, occurs throughout the DVD—and as a depressing catalogue of Muslims behaving badly, the film can indeed seem effective.
As a Muslim, I am aware of the unhelpful, reactionary, and irresponsible rhetoric one can come in touch with in the Muslim world. Racist, class, and tribal distinctions may hide themselves in the green flag of Islam as well as in the red, white, and blue. But as Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center has observed, “Obsession does not address this tug toward violence as it infects all our communities. It pretends that only Islam is infected, and all Islamat that. And by doing this, it distracts us from addressing the real changes we need to make to wash away the bloody streaks in each and all of our traditions.” (www.shalomctr.org/node/1462)
For more information on the DVD, visit Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Smear casters web site which discusses some of the experts interviewed (www.fair.org), and a faith-based critique at www.obsessionwithhate.com.
End Notes Here
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