By Rabbi Avi Shafran
At a bus stop the other day a woman wearing a large button proclaiming “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs Tefillin” looked me over and asked me if I thought women can be Orthodox rabbis. When I politely answered no, she proceeded to stomp on my toes with her heavy boots and then tried to asphyxiate me with her purse-strap.Just kidding. Never happened. I’ve been on the receiving end of some sneers here and there but the attack described above didn’t take place.
What would have happened, though, had I taken my “account” to the media?
Surely I would have likely been asked if I could produce any witnesses to the alleged assault, any record of medical treatment for my injuries and trauma, any corroboration at all for my claim. And if I couldn’t, the press, understandably, would have wished me a good day and moved on.
Consider, then, what in fact transpired a few weeks ago when an Israeli woman, Noa Raz, claimed that she had been viciously attacked on a weekday morning in a public place, Beersheva’s Central Bus Station, by an Orthodox man who asked her if the marks on her arm were from tefillin. When she responded in the affirmative, she told police when she decided to file a report the next day, the man screamed “women are an abomination” and “began to kick and strangle” her.
Ms. Raz, a social activist who is a social activist and a member of the feminist group Women of the Wall, may have been telling the truth. There are certainly crazies in Israel, as elsewhere, and violent acts have been perpetrated on both sides of the haredi/feminist divide.
Still, considering the dearth of any corroboration, one might be forgiven for wondering if Ms. Raz’s account is entirely factual or perhaps exaggerated, maybe even fabricated.
Not that it makes any real difference. What is outrageous here is the reportage. No responsible journalist outside the Arab world and North Korea would ever dare report an unsupported allegation as fact. Yet the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s headline read “Woman attacked for tefillin imprint.” And although a careful reading of the report eventually yielded the fact that the sole source of the story was Ms. Raz herself, not only did the headline omit that fact but the story itself opened with the words: “A Jewish woman was attacked in Beersheva…” Eventually (almost three weeks later), the news service corrected the headline and first sentence on its website, but of course by then the original version had long been published far and wide.
Over at the Forward’s website, a blog called “The Sisterhood” continues to report the allegation as fact, and includes the alleged victim’s urging of Jews to “keep supporting… the Conservative movement and the Reform movement, all the hard work we do to try to create a better society [in Israel].”
Whether that hard work includes making less than truthful claims is nothing anyone but Ms. Raz can really know. But, again, the veracity of the story, while an intriguing question, is not the main one. That would be the Jewish media’s attitude toward haredim.
The JTA story in its original form and Reform movement press releases reporting Ms. Raz’s claim as fact were reproduced as news stories in scores of Jewish newspapers and on countless websites and blogs, with predictable results. One individual’s unsupported claim, in other words, was nonchalantly presented as truth to countless readers, fanning the flames of hatred for haredim far and wide.
Leave aside that the claimant has a record of pre-existing animus for Orthodox Jews and in her account referred to her alleged attacker as a “black” – a pejorative for haredim. Leave aside her assertion that as he moved in close she could “smell him.” Note only the aroma of the reportage itself. Were a Journalism 101 student to present a less than disinterested individual’s claim as fact, a failing grade would quickly follow. Precisely the grade deserved by many Jewish media here.
Their greatest sin, though, is not abject journalism; it’s assuming the worst about other Jews and fomenting hatred for them. “The disrespect shown by the haredim to women… is intolerable,” pronounced an ARZA press release, reproduced in temple newsletters nationwide. “We must… insist that the Government of Israel not be held hostage by those who claim to be the only ‘legitimate Jews’…”
And a Conservative rabbi, Gerald Skolnik, writing in the New York Jewish Week about how Ms. Raz “was physically assaulted” (“This really happened” he sagely adds), characterizes haredim as “feeling that violence against Jews who are different from them is… warranted.” The spiritual leader goes on to juxtapose a comment allegedly made by an unnamed haredi Jew to words of Adolf Hitler, yimach shemo.
Recent days have shown us how malignant the world media can be when their biases show. But our own Jewish media, too, harbor ugly prejudices of their own.
Whether or not some unbalanced haredi in Beersheva is guilty of a hate crime remains an open question. But that the crime of spreading hatred was recently committed in the Jewish world seems painfully clear.
Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.