Two topics I have periodically explored on this blog are, first, the need for a greater professionalism and a new leadership class within the Charedi community and, secondly, the imperative to challenge defamatory depictions of Charedi life and culture in wider society and media. My instinct was to see these issues as connected: a Charedi community with a larger pool of educated, articulate professionals would be less open to frequent attack and better placed to respond to attacks when it was.
However, as John Maynard Keynes once said, “when the facts change, I change my mind” and in this case, I have to admit my instincts were wrong. Not only do I no longer believe that reform within the Charedi community will render us more immune to libel, it has become clear to me that something closer to the opposite is the case.
The proof is the way that a few weeks ago the professional activists of Anglo-Jewry lined up to accuse Rav Zimmerman and the Federation of ‘male chauvinism’, ‘dysfunction and misogyny’, ‘straightforward sexism’, that is when they weren’t threatening them with criminal indictment. It should go without saying that reasoned criticism of the Federation’s halachic position is perfectly legitimate, and I should make clear that I am not talking here about those who engaged in it. It was striking, though, to see the wave of attacks that crossed the boundaries of taste and proportion. Many members of the Charedi community must be feeling bemused by the way that a Beis Din that embodies all the good qualities that the orthodox community needs – honesty, transparency, openness, and professionalism – is being attacked without any recognition of these qualities.
The reason that our expectations of fair treatment have been confounded is that large sections of the activism industry is fuelled above all not by justice, but impact. It is the degree of impact achieved that determines the relative status of individuals within the activist superstructure and – because people have to eat after all – who gets the biggest pieces of the pie when grants are being doled out. Impact means, in short, identifying an individual or organisation that is doing or saying something you don’t like, and making them do or say what you like instead. For that to happen, certain conditions have to be met. Of these, the most important is that the individual or institution being targeted must have some identifiable position or feature that can be measurably altered under activist pressure.
Now, let us take the example of a certain Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations where decisions are all made behind closed doors, which rarely publishes any statements, which doesn’t respond to complaints, and which can’t be bullied into anything by outsiders because the only thing that motivates it is maintaining street cred in Satmar 86. What our simple model predicts is that such an organisation would be practically immune to activist bullying, and that is exactly what we do find. While the Federation’s name was being dragged through the mud for the crime of openly and honestly stating their opinion about a matter of Jewish law (literally their job), the Union’s name never came up.
Those of us who would like the Charedi community to be governed differently need to understand that there are real structural reasons for the way things are. The wider cultural and legal environment is hostile to orthodox Judaism. Mostly that’s just collateral damage from wider developments in western civilization, though to some degree it is supercharged by secular Jews in the media soothing their own internal torments by maligning the religion they can’t quite leave behind. Trying to advocate for Charedi interests in such a situation is much harder than you initially think, because you find yourself boxed in by invisible rules designed to maintain the illusion of contemporary liberalism as a default, neutral form of social organisation. In response to this, Charedi leadership has stumbled on a local optimum that works pretty well on a day to day basis. Just present an image to the world of clownish incompetency and primitiveness which means that any form of change – good, bad, or somewhere in the middle – is out of the question and the bullies will get bored and leave you alone. In a hostile world full of malicious actors this strategy is adaptive and so it is widespread.
There is also another factor to consider here. At present, we still get a certain amount of slack by virtue of being helpless and oppressed primitives, with a range of cute indigenous traditions, who are waiting to be guided towards enlightened liberal modernity. The absence of articulate, or even just presentable, Charedi spokesman allows for activists to nurture their white saviour complex, which, though it may express itself in ways critical of our obscurantist, patriarchal systems of oppression, usually reserves a patronising sympathy for the Charedi rank and file. The more Charedim there are who can engage with the vocabulary of modernity and explain that they’ve seen what’s on offer, but, actually, they prefer their own counter-culture, the more this condescending pity will turn into undiluted hatred. Already, I think we can see the beginnings of this dynamic play out in the Anglo-Jewish press, where our image has become less Fiddler on the Roof and more Handmaid’s Tale, but I think it’s going to get worse the larger, the more sophisticated, and thus more threatening, our community becomes.
Does that mean, then, that those who are working to improve the way institutions are run in the Charedi community should just give up? Absolutely not, but it does mean they should go forward with their eyes open, aware that no good deed will go unpunished. The more professional, competent and, frankly, just plain honest you are, the more you will be attacked. Those activists who complain about this or that problem in the Charedi world will not thank you for ameliorating them, they will just conclude that you make a good target. That’s too bad, but you’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for us.