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Orthodox Media May Not Be Ready for Biden
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Between The Lines

Orthodox Media May Not Be Ready for Biden

Local news outlets test the limits of truth-telling in a fraught political moment.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

(Jewish Week Illustration)
(Jewish Week Illustration)

How is the Orthodox community, much of which enthusiastically supported President Trump, dealing with his defeat – and his refusal to concede?

Post-election, it’s difficult to gauge such reactions statistically. And of course, there is a wide range of outlook and behavior within Orthodoxy, from charedi to Modern Orthodox. But based on conversations I’ve had this week with several influential rabbis and lay people, and my own observations, it seems that while Trump was heavily favored by Orthodox Jews, in large part because of his forthright support for Israel, his loss generally is being accepted as a political reality, however disappointing.

But there are pockets of ardent supporters for whom Trump is still seen as an historic hero, if not savior, who symbolizes both religious and personal freedom. For them, the president’s defiant reluctance to wear a mask, or encourage others to do so, underscored a welcome reliance on God alone to protect us. And they believe the election was rigged.

For Orthodox media, known for avoiding controversy in covering their local communities, the toxic political climate of the moment finds editors and publishers caught between facts and sentiment.

The most recent and dramatic case in point involves a column published last week by The 5 Towns Jewish Times, a robust, free-distribution weekly primarily covering the Orthodox community on the South Shore of Long Island. Though the community is seen as a bastion of pro-Trump support, a piece caused an outcry when it appeared to promote baseless beliefs that the media and the public health community –including the CDC —  conspired with the Democrats to exaggerate Covid-19’s dangers to ensure the election of Joe Biden as president.

Gary Rosenblatt

“A suspicious virus coming out of China was utilized by the Democratic Party as a means of mind control and behavior control before an election,” wrote columnist Gila Jedwab, a local pediatric dentist. “A weapon of fear that was used to terrify a nation and accomplish one agenda: to create enough chaos to get their candidate elected.”

She also appeared to question the science of epidemiology itself, writing, “Stopping the spread of something invisible had always been an endeavor bereft of common sense, the absolute height of futility.”

Jebwad’s column was too much even for many members of a community where a pro-Trump rally was held before the election and for readers who had tolerated the writer’s previous criticism of mandated masks as an assault on freedom. All but one of the 37 online responses to her piece on the publication’s website expressed outrage at the writer for her baseless claims of widespread fraudulent ballots, and at publisher Larry Gordon for giving her the forum.

Rabbi Heshie Billet, who recently retired after more than 40 years as rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, said he complained vigorously to Gordon about Jedwab’s columns, which he felt were “very, very troubling and went against mainstream medical advice” in her criticism of face masks. The rabbi said publishing such columns was irresponsible.

Other critics called out Jedwab’s use of a false conspiracy theory, attributed to QAnon, that asserts that Trump secretly water-marked ballots before the election to expose them as fraudulent.

QAnon, which employs anti-Semitic elements, claims that liberal celebrities and politicians operate a secret cabal to kidnap children and harvest their blood. It believes Donald Trump is their savior.

Gordon responded in his column this week to the criticism by asserting that as publisher, he shouldn’t be expected to agree “with every word and idea” that appears in the paper.

To me, and I’m sure many others, that wasn’t the point of the complaints. Rather, it’s that a publisher should be expected to refrain from printing known falsehoods.

I called Gordon, who told me that Jedwab submitted a column for the current issue, but he decided not to run it. “Things were very hot this week,” he acknowledged, referring to numerous complaints, and he said he hopes to “cool down” the situation. He said Jedwab’s future as a columnist in his paper “depends,” but he did not elaborate.

I also asked Gordon about a column written by his son, Yochanan, that appears to endorse the idea that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris should be compared to Amalek — traditionally, the biblical personification of anti-Jewish evil.

Gordon dismissed it as “just a cute little thing” — a meme on various pro-Trump websites that puns on the spelling of her first name. “It doesn’t mean she’s Amalek.”

He believes that many of his readers “are resigned” to Joe Biden becoming president, but he’s not one of them. He advocated allowing state legislatures in this instance to choose electors to elect the president, in effect choosing Trump by nullifying the voice of the American people.

“It makes the most sense and is moving in that direction,” he said.

Covid has brought out the worst in some people. The extremes are louder and more challenging.

In Teaneck, NJ, the local Jewish Link, a widely distributed free publication that focuses on the Orthodox community, had a tumult of its own last month.

A long essay, displayed as a full-page ad, was titled “Sacrificing Our Children On The Altar Of Covid Fear.” Written by a local day school lay leader, it argued that communal leaders should ignore medical advice and government-approved regulations calling for masks and social distancing in day schools. A number of Orthodox rabbis in the community had earlier urged The Link not to accept the piece as an opinion article, an earlier draft of which was titled “Our Heads Of School Are Child Abusers.”

The publisher, Moshe Kinderlehrer, noted a definite deepening of polarization within the community over the past year. “Covid has brought out the worst in some people,” he said. “The extremes are louder and more challenging. It’s not all about Trump. It’s about this weariness” over the pandemic, and how to deal with it, from masks to social distancing to the debate over in-person schooling.

“As a publisher, I worry,” he said.

He’s not alone.

Gary Rosenblatt (Gary@jewishweek.org) is the editor at large of The Jewish Week.

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