On the record

Dudi Zilbershlag takes aim at the press and condemns violence in the haredi community.

DUDI ZILBERSHLAG 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dudi Zilbershlag has reached the end of his tether. After two decades in which he was one of the outspoken voices of the haredi community, he announced that he has decided to cut his ties with the secular media. "It was wrong to be nice to the secular media," Zilbershlag says bitterly. "It didn't help and, frankly, today I understand that it was a mistake." Zilbershlag, a Vizhnitz Hassid who is a successful PR person, famous for his commitment to haredi-secular dialogue, points a finger at what he describes as the outrageous way haredi society has been treated in the secular press in recent weeks. Firstly with regard to the "starving mother affair" and then the backlash aimed at the haredi community following the murder of two members of the homo-lesbian community in Tel Aviv. In an exclusive interview with In Jerusalem, Zilbershlag takes aim at the press, lambastes the reemergence of the "religious demon," condemns violence and homophobia within haredi society and reveals some surprising facts about his personal history. "It is very sad to see how easily the Israeli secular press is ready to accuse us of the most horrible things by making vicious comparisons and the use of abhorrent terminology. I sometimes wonder if these reporters and their editors are aware of the use they make of the most typical anti-Semitic terms and expressions," he says. Zilbershlag invited IJ to his home, located in Ramat Shlomo. After many years in Tel Arza, one of the most ancient haredi neighborhoods in the city (also known as Gush 80), Zilbershlag, like many other relatively well-to-do haredim, moved to the recently built neighborhood. "Here it is quieter, there's more privacy and, in general, haredim who moved here pay more attention to environmental issues or quality of life - something that is also gaining more attention in our communities." Zilbershlag sits at a big Shabbat table, surrounded by bookshelves full of religious books. In the hassidic way, he wears his tzitzit over his white shirt, with a black vest on top. During the entire meeting, he will twist his sidelocks again and again. One thing is certain: There can be no feeling of embarrassment of any sort in his presence. Zilbershlag talks very openly, both with men and women, Jews and non-Jews, religious, secular or his haredi peers with the same mixture of vivid interest in his interlocutor and the same extraordinary capacity to talk about almost anything, moving easily from one topic to another. As he recalls various situations he has been involved in, one cannot ignore the fact that he indeed is well acquainted with the who's who of Israeli society. On the table is a new cellular phone, which rings constantly during the interview - although he just checks to see who's calling and never answers once - and a laptop, on which Zilbershlag intermittently checks the news sites to prove how unfairly haredim are being covered by the media. At one point, the news breaks that Mayor Nir Barkat has been attacked on his way back from a meeting in Mea She'arim with one of the haredi leaders. "Look at this!" he exclaims. "This is so typical. Barkat was attacked by a bunch of bullies, extremist zealots from which we, the haredim, are the first to suffer all year long. I appreciate that in the press release from the municipality it was clearly stated that some 'extremist haredim' attacked Barkat. They are just a bunch of people. My son has a clip shot there in real time - about six or eight haredim who make our daily life a hell - but if you check the stories about the incident, you will find terminology like 'haredim brutally attacked the mayor' and such things, as if these guys represent us, despite the fact that there is no reporter on police or haredi affairs who is not aware of that particular fact. Yet nothing of this will appear in the reports! Is it innocent? Of course not!" IJ: What makes you feel so bitter right now? Zilbershlag: All the reports go to the same place. Take for example the guy from the Nahal Haredi, who sent threats to members of the homosexual community attending a rally in Tel Aviv. Nobody in the press pays attention to the harsh criticism aimed at him from inside haredi society. All the haredi Web sites have vilified him and his actions, but you will find no evidence of it in the secular press, though all the reporters surf these sites. Personally, I am totally opposed to this. Why should we condemn ourselves? We shouldn't publish such condemnations about our people. The secular press condemns us automatically anyway; we shouldn't volunteer, too. Listen to this: I had a blog on a Web site of one of the dailies, and sometimes I wrote, in a very respectful way, things that some people evidently didn't like. I once wrote a piece on the compassion and mercy that we Jews have always shown in our tradition. Someone wrote a talkback that I should get a bullet in my head. And there's more. A friend of mine, totally secular, told me that he found out that the talkbacks to my blog were not filtered, as they should be. I couldn't believe it, but he convinced me to test it, and I had to admit he was right. I wrote in the past on many Web sites. We all know the amount of violence that can be found in talkbacks, but if you compare the nature of the talkbacks to a haredi writer or a haredi issue to any other issue, you will see the difference. It's as if all the psychos of Israel have gathered there and are allowed to say and do whatever is on their mind. As you know, it is the editor's job to check and to filter the talkbacks. Well, for my blog there was apparently no filtering at all. I received the worst reactions, usually not even connected to what I wrote, like this one. Though it is no secret that I lost two sons: "We will assist joyfully in the burial of your children" and such horrifying things. Or like this one: " You, the ayatollahs," and all the linkage between haredim and the Iranian regime. I was not given the minimum any blogger is entitled to - a filtering of the most vicious talkbacks, and nobody cared. I decided to stop writing this blog. And now this young man, he wrote a few nasty words, and immediately he was arrested for two days. The investigation was immediately handed over to the press. Look what they wrote: "Here, we got him. He was preparing such-and-such acts. Thank God, we have arrested the person who threatened all the homo-lesbian community." Nobody mentions that he is an IDF soldier. What matters is that at the opening of the "dancing-rally" of the community, they could announce that a haredi was arrested! As for that horrible murder in Tel Aviv, why do the haredim have to apologize? Yes, we have a serious and deep problem with this issue. We live according to a very ancient code which, regarding this issue of homosexuality, doesn't allow us to be "liberals" on it. I myself, with all my will to act with consideration toward this community, can't - what can I say? I can't be liberal on this. Our sages issued the most rigorous warnings on this. It is written that the land will vomit us out because of such acts - what can I do? I am committed - nobody can expect me, a haredi Jew, to say, as did some former ministers of education, "we embrace you." Are we short of any other communities in Israel that should be embraced and empowered? And let's not forget, with all due respect, for the last 20 years this community has achieved an impressive improvement in its status. So for Heaven's sake, why should this murder be attributed to us, the haredim? Is the haredi community famous for its many cases of murders? How did it happen that as soon as the news on the murder began to be aired, all the commentaries, with an unbearable facility, pointed at us? How many haredim have been arrested and convicted of murder in Israel since its creation? You know, like because of a parking place, an argument in a pub? How many records do we have about young haredim caught with knives at school? This is a community that can easily be accused of various things - but murder somehow just doesn't fit in! IJ: Well, you can't ignore the vicious tone of MK Nissim Ze'ev on homosexuality issues. Zilbershlag: I cannot tolerate it either. I think it is foolishness the way he talks. I personally feel very bad about it. I think he is causing us great harm. My position is that haredim would be better off avoiding any commentary or statements on this issue. It is well known that large segments of the haredi community were opposed to the demonstrations and riots surrounding the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. I organized meetings between leaders of our community and representatives of the Open House to seek peaceful ways to avoid riots. We witnessed then a genuine effort to find reasonable solutions, such as avoiding areas of synagogues and so on. But in any case, my position is that the less we talk about it, the better it is for us - after all, this terrible thing is also happening inside our community. We shouldn't be involved at all. The demonstrations were a mistake. And look at what happened this year: it went smoothly, without any violence or problem. After all, there is no more satisfaction to that community than to be exposed and in the center of attention. It is well known that the exposure of their situation and their problems helps this community, but what does that have to do with us, the haredim? Why do we have to be dragged into that? Perhaps there are some youth, what we would call a new generation, who are more violent. But let me tell you, this will hurt us first; I have no doubt about that. I am very sorry for these recent outburst of violence. First and foremost for the harm it causes us because there is no doubt that this strengthens the most extremist factions in the community. This use of violence is the worst thing that could happen to us. Remember the struggles of the Eda Haredit and Natorei Karta in the previous century, with its historical leader Amram Blau. Well, we all know that since he died, Natorei Karta faded out; they lost their hegemony. And now again, there are indications that this group, the Sikarikim, are gaining power again. They were responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple, and now they are trying to cause the destruction of the Third Temple. IJ: Does that mean that for you, a haredi hassidic Jew, the State of Israel has the status of the Third Temple? Zilbershlag: I call this actual destruction, coming after a long period of calm, which has given us the feeling that even in the press there was a positive change in its attitude toward the haredi community - and now all of a sudden, with this outburst of the "religious demon," this phobia against us - something that endangers our mere existence here, absolutely endangers our chance of survival here, all of us. Because if there is a whole generation of haredim, which have managed over the years to develop a sense of trust toward the establishment and the administrations of the state, and now this same generation finds itself thrown back 20 years in time, well yes, this is a genuine danger. We all know that the haredi women's womb is seen as a threat to Israeli secular demography, although - and this is good news - even the birthrate of secular Israelis is growing, and for me, though my fellow haredim don't like to hear that from me, I say loud and clear this is good news because I don't think that Israeli society should become exclusively haredi. We need this blending; it is of the utmost importance. If we want to see haredim integrating into Israeli society, it has to take place in a large and strong Israeli society. As for Jerusalem, there's no question that it is dependent on a successful blending of different communities. IJ: You are probably aware of the argument that you need secular Jews in Jerusalem to finance your living. Zilbershlag: I hear that, but today this is a lie because if you look carefully at the data, you will find that today in most haredi families, both spouses work. We already see it in Bnei Brak, according to the national insurance reports. I am very sorry that inside the haredi society there is still a high level of under-the-table work - for many reasons. First of all, because they cannot serve in the army, so they are not allowed to work openly. That is why I am so in favor of the Tal Law because it brought a real message of hope for the future. Not only for us haredim but for the whole of Israeli society, to allow people to work lawfully and to pay their share of taxes. My credo is that the key to coexistence goes through sustainable existence. We have witnessed this in the US, where rich haredi Jews help and work together with Muslim Pakistanis in Flatbush and created some associations to improve their quality of life and ensure their civil rights. To my regret, a part of the Zionist ethos here is based on the ideal of "It is good to die for our country," which is totally anti-Jewish, immoral. After all, the story of Masada has been for years a founding ethos, while in our Jewish heritage it is written that we should always seek and choose life. Over the years, for haredim the Masada ethos was blasphemy, and it is curious that the Zionists, who consider us as obscure, choose an ethos of death. And what does it say? It says that Zionism, which represents most of secular Israeli society, chose such a radical zealot kind of ethos, while we faithfully kept the tradition of life. IJ: Tell me about your upbringing. Zilbershlag: My father was a teacher and made aliya from Romania in 1947 (more precisely, Bukovina). In his youth he was a member of the Bnei Akiva youth movement. We lived in a a very hassidic home, but with a strong Zionist orientation. My parents had the blue Jewish National Fund box, and my grandmother spoke fluent Hebrew. They were Rugin Hassidim, well known for their connection with the renaissance movement in the framework of the Zionist awakening. Most of the rabbis of the Rugin Hassidic court also had the blue box at home. It was not easy to keep a haredi way of life. They were surrounded by the German culture, the secular Zionist movement; nevertheless, it was a very strong Hassidic home. When my father and his brothers made aliya on the Knesset Yisrael ship in 1947, they took an oath to keep their Hassidic tradition even in Israel, and they understood that the usual Zionist path upon landing here would jeopardize that pledge. Upon arriving here, they joined a group of Tzeirei Agudat Yisrael. Some of their rabbi leaders ruled that they should all say Hallel on Independence Day, but they asked the Hazon Ish, who ruled that they shouldn't. So in their first year in Israel, they were beaten up by a group of youth from Poalei Agudat Yisrael because they left the synagogue to avoid saying Hallel. Still, my father and his brothers lived a strict Hassidic haredi way of life, with very large families, but they all served in the IDF. IJ: Did you also serve in the army? Zilbershlag: Yes, I did my army duty. It was part of my father's faith and legacy because he made a clear distinction between the attitude toward the state and toward Zionism. He used to say, "I came to this country naked and barefoot. I owe it my life." He used to tell us about his feelings in the first years. In those days, the young and successful here were the secular Sabras, and they looked so old-fashioned with their black outfit from the Diaspora. When my first son got married, and he is his first grandchild, he told us that the fact that he succeeded in having a grandchild who looks and behaves exactly like his grandfather back in the old country was a guarantee that we could now start the healing process from the Shoah. We were saved, preserved, and it was the time to take care of this. IJ: How did you live with the memory of the Shoah on one side and your status facing the ethos of the new Jew, the Zionist movement? Zilbershlag: I grew up on all these issues. I grew up on the stories told to me about what was done to the Yemenite children, on the stories of my father, who was an outstanding soldier but nevertheless was forbidden to keep his tzitzit out of his trousers in the Hassidic way. I heard about the stories of young Sabras from the kibbutzim who arrived by organized trucks to beat haredim with iron chains who were demonstrating against Shabbat desecration on Rehov Shivtei Yisrael in Jerusalem. I grew up on all these haredi myths and stories. I myself was arrested three times for participating in haredi demonstrations. IJ: It's hard to believe: Dudi Zilbershlag, the man dedicated to instilling peace between brethren, arrested for rioting. Zilbershlag: Yes, it happened. I was arrested the first time for demonstrating against the first international book fair because they allowed a group from the mission to have a counter. The second time was against the opening of an Eros sex shop in Tel Aviv. The third time was in 1978, two weeks before my wedding. The last demonstration was against the opposition to close Rehov Hashomer in Bnei Brak on Shabbat. We lived there then. A policeman ran after a woman, and my brother and I jumped from the first floor of the building and fought with him to prevent him from touching the woman. A group of policemen came to rescue him and we were arrested - on Shabbat! I was photographed upon arriving at the police station, making a V for victory sign. We were released and returned home, but my father didn't appreciate it, to put it mildly. He said to us harshly, "Did I come to this country so that my own sons would be a part of this thing to call policemen Nazis?" He couldn't accept it; it was too much for him. "You have to look for the things that unite us, not the things that tear us apart," he said. From that day on, I began to see things differently and to work in that frame of mind. IJ: Yet you feel these days that perhaps it's hopeless. You're hurt. Zilbershlag: I couldn't stand this verdict of the press against this woman [the mother accused of starving her child]. I was getting ready for an interview and the journalist, one of the most respected and well known here, said to me, "Dudi, why are you getting yourself involved in this? So what, another woman from Mea She'arim. Don't do that; you're ruining your image. Israeli society appreciates what you've done, don't jeopardize it now!" I told him that another one had said to me, "Dudi, how did you let yourself get caught in this trap? It's not for you." When I helped the Beduin, she applauded me; she thought I was doing the right thing. When I created with that person a clinic for the Darfur refugees, it was okay. And someone who is part of a community so close to me, I am prevented from helping and supporting her? I am ready, today as before, to help an Ethiopian woman, a Beduin woman, anyone who needs support, but a haredi woman? That's not acceptable. Not one of these beautiful people sees it through my eyes, from where I belong. After all, I am not making any diagnosis. I'm not looking into the criminal aspect. I just don't think that a woman who, according to what has been said and published, is sick with this syndrome should be in prison while she is pregnant, and after two miscarriages. She has her rights, like everybody else, and these rights were trampled. I went to the court. Journalists that I know personally, whom I talk with on a daily basis, treated the family with rudeness, attacked them as if they were dangerous criminals, used crude words toward her family, herself. Who allowed those journalists to address her that way? To write such incitement? IJ: She was interviewed. Were you satisfied with the results? Zilbershlag: That was the peak - totally unbelievable. The interview was set up with a certain journalist. From the moment it was known, and these things work quickly, we were under a blitz from the other newspapers. Phone calls, threats, pressures, phone calls from ministers' offices, MKs, SMSs - I can show you one, particularly nasty which I haven't erased - unbelievable: "My newspaper will cause harm to her cause this weekend, so you will not gain anything from breaking the obligation toward us. It will be very bad for the cause you're representing," and so on. And they did harm her with some nasty allusions. And then in another one they published damaging stills from some film footage. In all my experience with the media, nothing prepared me for that. IJ: Did you feel that the press, after so many years of closeness, betrayed you? Zilbershlag: The worst were the correspondents for law and police affairs - they showed no restraint. The reporters on haredi affairs saved the situation a little bit. After all, they need us too much. It broke me. I felt as if every part was against us, against that woman. She was just trying to protect herself and her child, as she understood it. Facing this, the media, as if it was something organized, acted to the contrary. If, for example, she came out better from that short interview, the next day the same newspaper would publish pictures of her taken at Hadassah [hospital] that showed her in a bad light. IJ: The attitude of the press, running after sensational headlines is not so new. Perhaps it bothers you because so far, you have enjoyed a very gentle press. Zilbershlag: I have already been attacked, when I began to be involved in the managing of Bikur Holim [hospital]. There were some accusations, but the truth came out quickly and meanwhile I was not hurt, I got the same aliyot to the Torah on Shabbat, and the shidduchim of my children were not ruined. I always took such an option in consideration, but don't forget I'm not building my image in the media, I am doing what I am doing out of a sense of shlihut [mission], so I'm not really hurt. IJ: Using the media as you have been doing can be risky. The rules are that once you use and once they use you. How do you react? Perhaps you're spoiled by the media. Zilbershlag: No, I have always received a fair attitude. And when I feel the need to, I know how to say to an offensive reporter. "Enough, you're crossing the line," or when pre-arranged agreements are not respected. I know of quite a few journalists who still do a dignified job, but once their articles reach the editors, things change. I am aware of it.