Fiendish fables about Orthodox Jews

Damage undone, and damage that can't be undone.

UltraOrthodoxJews 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
UltraOrthodoxJews 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A major American publisher of educational texts recently showed impressive responsibility and resolve by pledging to destroy its inventory of a book because of its false characterization of Orthodox Jews' beliefs. The problematic passage - in a volume of Scholastic Library's Enchantment of the World (second series, published under Scholastic's "Children's Press" imprint) - asserts that, in Israel, "some ultra-Orthodox Jews want to limit the definition of who actually qualifies [for automatic citizenship as a Jew, under the country's Law of Return]. They believe that Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jews at all because they are not strict in their observance of all the religious laws." When the passage was called to the attention of Agudath Israel of America by a school librarian in Brooklyn, we immediately contacted Scholastic to point out the falsity of the contention that Orthodox Jews reject any Jew's Jewishness because of a less strict level, or even complete lack, of observance. Books like Enchantment of the World, we noted, are intended as reference material for grade school libraries. They help mold young minds. False and prejudicial assertions, unacceptable anywhere, are particularly objectionable in such works. TO ITS CREDIT, Scholastic agreed. After researching the issue and recognizing that the controversy in Israel relates exclusively to conversions that do not satisfy Halacha - not the Jewishness of any born or halachically converted Jew - the publisher rewrote the paragraph and pledged not only to rid itself of its current inventory of the books, but to reprint a corrected volume in April and replace customer copies. Where did the defamatory error originate? According to a Scholastic official, the publisher had relied on "a high-ranking member of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprises" for the original formulation. AICE is, in its own words, "a leading content provider for students and organizations interested in Jewish history, culture and politics." AICE probably does much good work and likely provides a good deal of accurate information. But that only makes the issue all the more troubling. How could a "high-ranking member" of the group have been so clueless as to have provided so egregious a misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews? Equally troubling is the fact that, entirely under-the-radar, many Jews are being taught other fiendish fables about Orthodox Jews. A NUMBER of such reports have come to my attention, but I recall one with a particular wince. It was several years ago, when a letter to the editor appeared in the magazine Reform Judaism. The letter had been written by a Jewish teenager in response to an article in an earlier issue of the periodical contending that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves. "Why," wrote the earnest young woman, "when there is so much anti-Semitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?" I was greatly agitated by the letter and simply couldn't concentrate, so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the teen's New Jersey town, which had been identified beneath her name. There would probably be many listings for her surname, I told myself, too many to sift through. There was only one; I wrote it down. Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle (as I'll call her). She came to the phone and, after identifying myself and apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue, I spoke my piece: "God forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! Our argument is with Reform Judaism - not Reform Jews. We have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you can evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are our precious Jewish brothers and sisters!" A pause, and then she responded. "You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I can't accept what you're saying." I was stunned. "Why not?" "Because I've been taught otherwise, for years." "But it isn't true!" "Maybe," responded Michelle, "but we've spent many classes in my Temple school discussing Orthodox attitudes, and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught." Dumbfounded and deeply hurt, I realized that there was nothing to gain by pestering the clearly sincere but resolute young woman. I begged her to take down my number in case she ever wanted to talk further. She hasn't called yet. Compelling a major publishing concern to correct a public mistake is relatively easy. How, though, to counter falsehoods quietly conveyed in classrooms? The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.