The New York Jewish Week/By David Bernstein
A few weeks ago, Politico published an article, “The happy go lucky Jewish group that connects Trump and Putin,” that suggested nefarious connections among Chabad, Putin and Trump. It failed to make its case and unfairly maligned the entire Chabad movement. While a few in the Jewish community criticized the publication of these unfounded conspiracy theories and absurd generalizations, most remained silent.
It got me thinking. When “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (a term many suggest is itself prejudicial) are targeted, do non-Orthodox Jews take it sufficiently seriously? And when other groups not traditionally viewed as protected minority communities face discrimination, do we stand up for them? And if not, why not?
When “ultra-Orthodox” Jews are targeted, do non-Orthodox Jews take it sufficiently seriously?
The article implies that Chabad has somehow played a role in the web of relationships between the Russian government and the Trump administration, currently under investigation. The article suggests that the ambitions of various shady characters led, “along with Trump’s future son-in-law, Jared Kushner—to build a set of close, overlapping relationships in a small world that intersects on Chabad.”
In placing Chabad at the center of these relationships, the article misleads the reader into believing that Chabad itself has “taken outsize importance” in the Trump – Russia scandal, as Ben Sales points out in a JTA article.
In drawing these connections, the article invokes guilt by association, with little more than a wink wink nudge nudge, where the reader’s prejudice will fill in the blanks: Putin knows Chabad, Trump knows Chabad, Kushner knows Chabad, Russian oligarchs know Chabad, thus Chabad “intersects” these players and must be somehow germane to the alleged scandal. This is a shamefully low standard of evidence for printing a story in a mainstream media outlet.
I doubt that if a series of players under investigation were loosely connected to, say, the Anglican church, Politico would have published such an article. Do the substitution: A top Anglican minister in Russia has ties to Putin. The U.S. President once attended an Anglican communion attended by that minister. The president’s son-in-law was active in the Anglican church in college and attends such a church now. And a panoply of suspect business leaders also maintains ties to said church. There’s no evidence that the Anglican church itself was involved in the business dealings. Would a mainstream media outlet be so quick to cast suspicion on the church with so little evidence? It would have never seen the light of day.
There are other problems in the article that do a disservice to the Chabad movement. Suffice it to say that it does not treat Chabad as a category of people worthy of respect or protection. Perhaps Politico can get away with such flimsy reporting because many Americans, including many non-Orthodox Jews, subscribe to the same underlying prejudices undergirding the article.
So what about these “other” groups that don’t fit neatly into the traditional protected classes of people? Why don’t we speak up when they are treated unfairly or face blatant prejudice?
Years ago I sat on a panel in Washington, D.C., of representatives from various religious and ethnic groups discussing how to make the D.C. area a more tolerant and respectful environment for all its citizens. The moderator, a trained multicultural facilitator, suddenly launched into a lengthy tirade against the Catholic Church. Apparently, she had been raised in the church and felt deeply alienated. I expected other panelists to come to the Church’s defense. I expected someone from the audience to angrily object. But no one said a word. Including me.
When it was my turn to speak, I noticed a woman crying in the audience. I asked if she would like to say something. She was deeply upset that someone had attacked her faith community and not one person on the panel had stood up for her. “If this is your version of a multicultural society, count me out,” she said as she left the room.
There have been other times I’ve felt this strange sense of dissonance in how people respond or don’t respond to prejudice when those targeted aren’t among the protected classes. It’s as if we can only publicly acknowledge the pain of those everyone agrees have experienced it.
In the wake of the presidential election, many of my friends said and wrote things that made my skin crawl. Words like “rednecks,” “white trash,” and “country bumpkins” were thrown around with abandon. If this is not prejudice, what is?
I am not suggesting that traditional Orthodox Jews, Catholics or poor whites have experienced the same histories of persecution as the more widely-accepted protected groups. Nor am I suggesting that any criticism of such a group is prejudice. But I do know that every pattern of oppression begins with insensitivity, prejudice, loose lips and double standards. Before we generalize about or implicate another group, we should always do the substitution and ask: what if we said this about people of color or Jews or women?
We may find that prejudice comes in many varieties.