Think Again: Measure for measure

I am struck by an eerie parallel between the treatment of Israel by the international media and the treatment of haredim in the Israeli media.

One of the fundamental principles of Jewish thought is that God relates to us according to our deeds – mida k’neged mida (measure for measure). That rule is not the only one governing divine providence nor is discerning its application always possible. Nevertheless, when something bad happens to us, we are enjoined to search our actions employing the principle of mida k’neged mida.
In that spirit, I am struck by an eerie parallel between the treatment of Israel by the international media and the treatment of haredim in the Israeli media. European reporting of Israel often appears impervious to factual refutation. Videos of the naval commandos who rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara deck being set upon with metal bars and knives and the well-documented jihadist connections of the ship’s organizers have barely registered. Prominent journalists continue speaking of Israel’s wanton murder, as if they had never seen the videos and knew nothing of the Islamist IHH organization, which organized the Gaza flotilla. Reuters took a particularly creative approach to uncomfortable facts: It simply Photoshopped them out of existence. The knife in the hands of one of the jihadists, which had been used to stab the commander of the Israeli forces, disappeared from the Reuters photo.
Moreover, the international press turned the flotilla into a huge public relations success by writing about the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza as an established fact. Few of those reporting on that crisis seemed the slightest bit interested in actually visiting Gaza to witness the crisis firsthand. Had they done so, they would have found new luxury shopping malls, markets teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables, elegant restaurants with haute cuisine menus. (For those not inclined to visit, the photographic evidence is readily available online.) And they would have learned that the life expectancy in Gaza is higher and infant mortality far lower than in Turkey, from which the “humanitarian” flotilla was launched.
A SIMILAR obliviousness to facts permeates much of the reporting of the haredi world in the Israeli secular press. Thus Amotz Asa-el describes “the racist parents” in Emmanuel jailed for contempt of court, knowing full well that nearly one-third of those racist parents were themselves Sephardi. Employing his trademark conceit that there is a large group of Middle Israelis who, mirabile dictu, all think just like him, Asa-el informs his readers that “not one Middle Israeli bought the sanctimonious cries that the issue at stake was rabbinic authority or a particular student’s level of observance.”
Well, at least one presumed Middle Israeli did: Mordechai Bass, a non-religious former high official in the State Comptroller’s Office, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to inspect the Beit Ya’acov in Emmanuel. He concluded that differing religious standards, not ethnic discrimination, lay behind the division. He also wrote that no girl of Sephardi origin who agreed to the more rigorous standards of the hassidic track was rejected. Asa-el knows of those findings, but prefers to ignore them.
THE PARALLELS go much deeper. Both the Europeans’ misrepresentation of everything connected to Israel and the secular media’s treatment of haredim derive, in part, from an effort to assuage past guilt. Europeans love to portray Israelis as the new Nazis and Gaza as a concentration camp. At anti-Israel rallies in major European capitals, after the alleged shooting of a Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, at Netzarim junction in 2000, a favorite poster juxtaposed the terrified boy cowering behind his father to the famous photo of a frightened Jewish boy with his hands in the air in front of a Nazi soldier. (The only major difference: The footage of the Dura “shooting” has since then been proven to be a hoax.) French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut describes an entire theory that has enabled European elites to “prove” that the Jews are the new Nazis.
According to the theory, a new Europe was born in the ashes of Auschwitz, a Europe so horrified by the Holocaust that its most fundamental lesson was that never again must any people be treated as “the other,” as somehow less human. While Europeans born since 1945 have all thoroughly internalized the lesson of Europe’s failure during the Holocaust, the theory goes, one people has not: the Jews. Because Jews were the victims and not the perpetrators, they never felt that need to learn the lesson. From there it is but a short step for European elites to conclude that Jews have assumed the role of the new Nazis and the Palestinians the role of the Jewish other.
The beauty of the Nazi-Jew analogy is that it absolves Europeans of their guilt for what they did to the Jews by telling them that the Jews are no better than they are, and do not hesitate to act in an equally genocidal matter toward other peoples.
A SIMILAR element is at play in the Israeli media’s obsession with haredi racism. Asa-el writes that ethnic discrimination “exists nowhere else” beside haredi society “[because] it is antithetical to the most basic Zionist quest.”
Surely, he is joking. Israel can rightly take pride in the sacrifices that a small and poor nation made to absorb 600,000 refugees from Arab lands. But part of that absorption involved systematically stripping those refugees of their 2,000-year-old religious-cultural heritage – all in the name of that “most basic Zionist quest,” the negation of the exile. Israeli society is still paying the price of that cultural destruction today.
(While that cultural destruction was taking place, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a Lithuanian-born Torah giant, made the creation of Chinuch Atzma’i – whose mission was the preservation of that 2,000-year-old religious-cultural tradition – the highest priority for a still impoverished American Orthodoxy. Until today, 60 percent of the students in Chinuch Atzma’i are Sephardi.) Surely Asa-el is old enough to remember how the Ashkenazi elite rent its garments and lamented the takeover by the lower orders, the chakhchakhim, when Menachem Begin came to power in 1977 on the votes of Sephardi supporters eager to reclaim their lost honor.
There is no institutional racism in Israel today, Asa-el claims. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is his prooftext. But surely he is familiar with the huge gaps that remain between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in society, in academia (over 90% of tenured university faculty are Ashkenazi); in the judiciary (over 90% of Supreme Court justices have been Ashkenazi); in the upper echelons of the IDF. Here Asa-el finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma. If he follows the methodology of the Supreme Court in the Emmanuel case – disproportionate outcomes prove discriminatory intent – then he has to admit that society is also racist.
And if he rejects that approach, and claims, like former court president Aharon Barak, that the differential outcomes are solely the result of meritocratic decisions, then he is forced to claim that Sephardim are inferior, either innately or culturally.
Now, who is the racist? And why is he unwilling to admit that cultural differences also play a role in haredi institutions? AT THE end of the day, however, the primary application of the principle of mida k’neged mida is not to point fingers at others. It is first and foremost a tool for self-examination. So if we find distortions in the reporting about haredim in the secular press, haredim must ask whether there is something in our own media that could explain that phenomenon. Is the objectivity of the haredi media above criticism? Or is even news coverage of events dealing with the haredi community itself often highly distorted by partisan agendas? I don’t know anyone who would give the haredi media a high score on objectivity (just as I don’t know any haredi who would claim that our society is untainted by any ethnic discrimination, even if that is not what happened in Emmanuel). Various party organs are perfectly capable of omitting mention of eminent figures with whom they have ideological differences, even when reporting events in which those figures took part, or of ignoring major events, involving tens of thousands of haredim, if they have a gripe with the sponsoring group.
None of us is perfect, or even very close. But if we employ the principle of measure for measure to examine ourselves, we can all improve.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.