Strong And Subtle Slanders

An influential weekly publication was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from 1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many … towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis. He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the publication contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and rabbi-bashing.”  And then he referenced Der Stürmer as another paper “that dealt a lot with Jews,” drolly adding that the latter periodical is “bad company to be in.”

The Jewish weekly editorialized that the invocation of the Nazi publication was “outrageous,” leading Rabbi Pruzansky to subsequently write that he intended “no comparison” between the two publications, and that he “certainly regret[s] if [that publication] misconstrued my comment and anyone offended took offense …”

Whether the publication has accepted that apology isn’t known to me.  But one hopes that the paper’s umbrage won’t obscure what it was that so exasperated a genteel, intelligent Modern Orthodox rabbi that he would invoke, however rashly, a noxiously anti-Semitic tabloid.

After all, it has never featured lurid fabrications about Orthodox Jews killing children to drink their blood, or offered gross caricatures of bearded, hook-nosed, slobbering rabbis in its pages.

But if the paper’s editor and reporters are interested in turning an insult into a learning moment, they might pause to consider the fact that subtle innuendo and generalizations can be even more powerful than gross, horrific fabrications.

Contemporary counterparts to Der Stürmer are rife in some Arab and Muslim sites (the word used in both its old and newer meanings).  And there are surely hateful simpletons who, as many Germans did during the Holocaust, accept the risible slanders against Jews those evil media serve up. But don’t we all recognize that a greater danger may be posed by mannerly and reasoned “critiques” of Jews (or Israel, as a stand-in) that more subtly communicate slanders?

This particular publication cannot, unfortunately, so easily huff away charges of that sort of more delicate, oblique defamation.

It is a paper, after all, that, while it harbors some fine, unbiased columnists in its stable, has evidenced an inordinate amount of negative “reportage” about Orthodox Jews, largely chareidim, and their institutions; and even seems to have assigned a reporter the beat of real or imagined scandals in the Orthodox community. A reporter, it might be noted, who wrote a book that portrays communities like those in Boro Park and Williamsburg as small-minded, constricting, suffocating environments, and has characterized Orthodoxy, in the eyes of Jews she admires, as having “become little more than social control.”

The paper’s pages have included an assertion that “Some Orthodox label secular Jews Amalek”; a report about violent nationalist extremists in Israel that featured a large photograph of Har HaBayis in the background and a looming, ominous silhouette of a chareidi man’s head in the foreground; a blatantly false assertion that a major chareidi group “is opposed to … background check legislation” for Jewish schools. It has, moreover, repeatedly portrayed a decidedly non-Orthodox Jewish congregation as Orthodox (in order to promote certain “innovations” as halachically acceptable).

There is also the disturbing but telling fact that, despite the abundance of top-notch writers in the contemporary traditional Orthodox world today and the unparalleled growth of the Orthodox community, this publication, which claims to represent the gamut of the Jewish world, does not feature, and never has featured, any chareidi columnist.

So, rather than sleep tightly after taking its righteous offense at an intemperate comment, its editor and staff might do well to stay up a bit longer, to wonder at what evoked the rash comment, and to do some serious introspection.