This week saw the announcement of a new development for UK Charedi Jews, the establishment of the Pinter Trust, dedicated, in its own words, to being a ‘point of contact for our community’s public affairs and public relations’. There is no doubt that this is an important step forward, one that has come not a moment too soon, and it is entirely appropriate that it be named after Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, a man who was a pioneer in community relations. It is also good news to see that Rabbi Pinter’s protege, Yoel Friedman, will be employing his capable hands in making sure this initiative is a success.
While managing the public affairs of a community is a noble task, my own personal calling is offering unsolicited advice on the internet so I hope it won’t be considered impertinent to do it here.
Though the concept of following in the footsteps of Rabbi Pinter is wholly positive, some of the promotional material has presented the Pinter Trust as ‘filling the void’ (or, in some cases, ‘partially filling the void’) that his untimely passing left. It may seem petty to quibble about language, but it is of the utmost importance to emphasise at the start, that if the Pinter Trust takes this message too literally, it will not be able to do what is necessary to ensure a hospitable environment for continuing Charedi growth in the next few decades. The context in which our community exists has changed significantly since the days when Rabbi Pinter acted as a one-man Charedi PR agency, and, as a result, the old methods will no longer cut it.
The nature of this change is twofold. The first is cultural and political. Twenty years ago, multiculturalism was the regnant orthodoxy, and politicians of all stripes were desperate above all to demonstrate their tolerance for, and warm relations with, minority communities, the weirder the better. It was entirely possible for a senior government minister to be photographed at an event in Stamford Hill with an ostentatious mechitza separating men and women, without anyone making a fuss about ‘gender apartheid’. Times have changed. The privilege pecking order (according to which the more privileges you get the less ‘privileged’ you are), has changed, and, now, being a member of a minority community is no longer an excuse for flouting the latest orthodoxies on gender, race, and sexuality; in some cases, it might even be an aggravating factor.
This shift was undoubtedly expedited by fears that autonomous minority communities were breeding grounds for terrorism, but it was going to happen sooner or later anyway. ‘Rubbing the Right’s nose in diversity’, as it was so eloquently put by Tony Blair’s speechwriter was not an ultimate goal, but a phase, of liberalism, that once it had achieved its purpose would inevitably give way to the imposition of liberal mores on these minority communities. Charedim rode the tiger, but now the tiger wants lunch.
The second shift is informational. The iphone was first released for sale in 2007, Facebook was launched in 2003, even Google only goes back to 1998, and all of these developments took years to achieve social saturation. There was a time, much more recently than it seems, where you could say more or less anything to a journalist and they had no real way of checking. Now, within a couple of minutes even a true statement can be easily ‘debunked’ through a few minutes searching the internet for exposes of the Charedi community written by hostile critics. Not only can we no longer keep secrets, any voice we have is just one among millions available through a simple click. Blatant apologetic and obfuscation will no longer cut it.
What is more, even scrupulous honesty won’t win the battle for public opinion, unless it is backed by something more than you just saying it.
What this means is that the model for Charedi PR in the 21st century must involve building up genuine intellectual and institutional credibility in the marketplace of ideas. Media and government organisations who want to know this or that piece of information, or are looking for a narrative that can make sense of it, must see you as the default place to go, and not National Secular Society or Humanists UK. This cannot be done by being nice, nor can it be done through building networks of influence in government and high society – though they both are undoubtedly extremely important in their own right. It can be done only one way: by earning it.
In practical terms this means three things. The first is to move away from the model of fire-fighting over the latest outrage or scandal that hits the press. It may help to smooth things over to claim that, in response to a busted wedding, that, actually, most Charedim really do try to comply with social distancing regulations, but its long term effect is to make people mentally bracket you as an apologist who is asked for a ‘balance’ quote rather than a trusted source of information. The second, related, point, is to refrain from any forms of apologetic that can easily be exposed as partial or misleading. It may be helpful for someone to muddy the waters, but your job is building up long-term credibility. Finally, it means identifying issues which will be thorns in our side in years to come, and building up a bank of research, analysis and arguments that are as good as anything our opponents have to offer. To take a pressing example, Nahamu’s position paper on ‘forced marriage’ in the community is a mess of non-sequiturs, concocted ‘case-studies’, innuendo, and illogic, but it is at present the only thing that relevant decision makers and opinion formers have that meets their standards of evidence. Outraged op-eds or personal anecdotes won’t do anything to change this, nor will a tour of Grodzkinki’s. Only a better publication, authored by a respectable organisation can do that.
This paradigm shift will not be easy for a community that is accustomed to looking at PR as an individual vocation that consists of window dressing, powered by personal charisma and charm. The Pinter Trust has the assets it needs to be the vehicle of that paradigm shift, but realising that potential will require a model of self-denial that can withstand the urge to spend capital for short term gain.
I look forward to, five years from now, seeing the Pinter Trust cited at a parliamentary select committee or in the pages of The Times. אם תרצו אין זו אגדה.