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Let's Respect Haredi Life Whenever We Offer Criticism

June 7, 2012 By:
Kenneth Jacobson
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A recent article by Israeli journalist Yaron London headlined "We Need Fewer Haredim" and two major pieces in The New York Times about the haredi approach to sex abuse cases highlight the challenge of addressing serious issues emanating from the haredi world without demonizing an entire community.

Questions of avoiding stereotypes of large groups while not rationalizing bad behavior by some are constantly on the Anti-Defamation League's agenda. Moreover, when part of the Jewish community is under scrutiny, it raises particular concerns about that segment's relations with the rest of the community and the impact on broader views of Jews.

With the issues being discussed -- sexual abuse, service in the Israeli army, secular education in Israel -- criticism of the haredi goes beyond individual behavior and enters the broader haredi community's beliefs and policies. That, I would argue, does not automatically disqualify it as stereotyping an entire community. When it is the prevailing view of the group, and most of its members adhere to the view, it is acceptable to criticize from without.

On the other hand, there must be special care and sensitivity taken when addressing group behavior. It is too easy to go from speaking about particular issues to a broad-based attack on the very essence of a community.

Take the case of London's article, penned last month in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. He rightfully expresses indignation about the deleterious effect on Israeli society and the lack of fairness when haredi leadership insist on mass exemptions from military service, when they refuse to educate their youth in secular fields and, in a related sense, deny opportunities to their young to prepare to participate in the Israeli workforce.

However, rather than limiting his comments to areas where change is necessary and whether it can be made in coordination with haredi leadership, London embarks on a full-blown attack on the entire community, employing unfair and derogatory terminology in describing their society and culture.

This kind of approach must be condemned. It lacks any respect for the many positive values that characterize haredi life, including devotion to family and learning, commitment to transmitting Jewish tradition to their children, piety, the centrality of morals -- all of which contribute to Israel and the Jewish world.

Another area of concern centers on the potential conflict between the right of a group to observe its own religious values and mores and when they negatively impinge on the regulations and values of the larger society.

The fact that haredim turn to their rabbis as the arbiters of many matters is a way of life to which they are entitled, including instances in sexual abuse situations when individuals may want to speak first to their rabbis.

However, what seems clear from The New York Times articles on the sex abuse issue, the haredi leadership does nothing to educate people not to persecute those who go to law enforcement to report sex abuse crimes, nor do they condemn those who engage in such persecution.

Under these circumstances, this is no longer a matter of community mores. Individuals are being victimized twice, first by the abuser and then by a community that either stands by or tacitly encourages further abuse by persecutors. Intervention and condemnation from outside are warranted and necessary.

The line between respecting cultural differences and preventing abuse of rights that should belong to every member of society is not always easy to draw. When laws are broken or fundamental rights violated, the outside community must stand up. But there must be great sensitivity and civility in the approach so that it doesn't appear that a flourishing, successful and praiseworthy community is being told that its way of life is unacceptable.

Kenneth Jacobson is the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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