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Israel’s Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice

Israel’s Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice

In a country where political correctness regarding minorities abounds, charedim are somehow an exception.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

In New York, London or Berlin, it would have been a major story. Police make a payout to a charedi man who claims that an officer attacked him, yanking at one of his payes, and pulls out a handful of hair. The officer’s police colleagues have charged him with assault.

Here in Israel, it’s a non-story.

In pretty much any other civilized country, the claim of such an act by police would have been widely discussed as an alleged assault on cultural diversity, an insult to religious freedom, an insensitive act of cruelty. But in Israel, nobody really batted an eyelid.

The Israeli police have just agreed to pay $4,000 of taxpayers’ money plus costs to the plaintiff, a young charedi man, and a court has approved the settlement. The officer is due to face his charges in court in September.

The plaintiff was at a demonstration against the draft of charedim in 2013 when he was detained by police (though subsequently released without charge). He alleged that the attack on his side curl came “suddenly,” while he was handcuffed in the police station, where, he said, the officer also pushed him with force.

For anyone with an iota of historical knowledge, hearing the claim of a Jewish man that one of his payes was violently desecrated is chilling. And even without the historical context, such a claim against a country’s law enforcement body is deeply troubling.

But it didn’t interest the Israeli media. It hardly got a single mention in the newspapers and on news sites — with the exception of charedi outlets. The national police force is writing a check, using public money, following alarming allegations of contempt for a sacred symbol — and a citizen — and it doesn’t merit coverage. And don’t think that this is because only major security stories make the media here: this is the country where the fate of the deposit money for glass bottles in the prime minister’s residence dominated a large part of this year’s election campaign.

Simply put, the story of this charedi man’s claim doesn’t fit the mold that people want to read about. When charedim are extremist aggressors, now that’s a story. Nobody here can forget the (justified) national fury in 2011 when zealots in Beit Shemesh spat on a girl for dressing immodestly. Yet stories where charedim are the victims — they just don’t work.

Charedim are the “other,” and there is a set repertoire of stories to tell about them. There’s the story of the extent of their otherness, comprised of reports of hardline religious rulings and practices that are foreign to the majority population. There’s the story of when they defy their “otherness” and take on roles or stances that surprise the majority population. There is the battle for political and religious power, and the whole composite subject of national service, charedi poverty, and charedi education. There are a few others contexts for media coverage of charedim, but alleged injustice towards them fails to make the cut.

Sometimes, it can feel in Israel that anti-charedi prejudice is the last socially acceptable prejudice in enlightened society. Even where political correctness abounds with regard to other minorities, charedim are somehow an exception. 

I watched in shock on a flight from Tel Aviv recently as an Israeli passenger shooed away, as one would with an insect pest, a charedi man who dared to stand in the aisle near his seat. Just as there are nice people who turn angry and aggressive behind the wheel of a car, there are too many normal Israelis who, in contact with charedim, adopt completely different standards of behavior — and fail to regard charedim as deserving of the same respect that other people are entitled to. 

Towards charedim it’s OK to sneer — and one doesn’t need to worry for their rights. This is the mindset in which the media outlets that serve the population of the Jewish state, which rightly cover racism towards Arabs, Ethiopians and other groups, can ignore the alleged side curl attack.

Compare the reaction in Israel with a case in India when the turban of a Sikh man was removed during a protest, back in 2011. The media was up in arms. The Punjab government ordered the immediate suspension of two police officers. Punjab’s deputy chief minister opened a criminal case based on the crime of causing hurt to religious sentiment, and he demanded an inquiry. A state spokesman said: “There is absolutely zero tolerance for any such act of this nature committed by anyone, regardless of the position held by the guilty. No one will be spared in this regard.” 

The relationship between charedim and others in Israel is one of the greatest internal challenges facing the country, especially since high charedi birth rates mean that a larger and larger proportion of Israelis will be charedim over the coming years. The causes for tension are many, and there are very real clashes over values, over civic duty, and over allocation of resources. Many charedi leaders make things more complicated by trying to consolidate religious and political power. 

Frustration by non-charedim is understandable, but that doesn’t explain away an Israel where 37 percent of employers surveyed by the government last year said they prefer not to employ charedi men, where prejudice towards charedim abounds, and where alleged abuse towards one of their sacred symbols by the nation’s police force fails to trouble the population. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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