The Kosel, Giyur and the Media

As the Orthodox community fights against the Reform and Conservative onslaught on Jewish tradition at the Kosel, in the conversion process and everywhere else, it must also grapple with a powerful ally of those groups — the media.

Without enthusiastic global media coverage of the angry reaction to the Israeli government’s decision to suspend a plan for an egalitarian prayer section at the Kosel and to advance a bill to restore the Chief Rabbinate’s sole authority over conversion, the impact of their anger would have been far less.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not have felt the extreme pressure that he does to rescind the decisions, and it is possible that he would not have sent state attorneys to ask the High Court for a six-month postponement of a scheduled hearing on conversion, a move that elicited the first kind words from Reform leaders since the issue erupted a week ago.

But the reality is that the coverage has been extraordinarily intense, both in Israel and the U.S. To a certain extent this is justified. The Kosel and conversion are highly sensitive matters and the response in America particularly has been unusually strong, even including threats of withdrawal of support for the State of Israel, which imparts a political dimension to what would otherwise be a strictly religious issue. But it is not the quantity so much as the quality of coverage that concerns us. The liberal bias in the mainstream media has been evident everywhere.

Since the issue erupted over a week ago, the huge headlines atop long, exhaustive articles and analyses have focused largely on the angst of liberal American Jews — and their vilification of chareidim. Their outcries of “betrayal” are quoted faithfully throughout, whereas chareidi and Orthodox leaders are almost left out. When the Kosel plan was initially endorsed by the Israeli government a year and a half ago, there were no headlines reflecting the anguish of the Torah community over the proposal to compromise the sanctity of the site.

For example, an article in the leftist British Guardian in response to the freezing of the Kosel plan was replete with quotes from Sali Meridor, former head of the Jewish Agency (“a slap in the face to world Jewry”), Women of the Wall founder Anat Hoffman and others, while one brief statement was allotted to Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the “ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party: ‘We are happy about this, and thank the Holy One, Blessed is He, on this great success.’ ”

True enough, but equal time it wasn’t. Indeed, framed as it was by all the hurt feelings and lament for unity from the Reform, it sounded smug, almost spiteful, as if he were thanking Hashem for making them miserable, which of course he wasn’t.

An Associated Press report Sunday began with the sentence: “A bill that would enshrine ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish conversions in Israel…”

The word monopoly is charged with negative connotations, of unfair business practices that harm the average person by keeping prices high. It’s not like there aren’t other, less negative words in the English language that could have been used, like responsibility for or oversight or authority.

No, they prefer to brand it a monopoly, like Standard Oil or AT&T, the kind of entity that’s best broken up for the good of society.

Further down in the AP story: “Leaders of the Reform movement also praised the decision, calling it an ‘important rebuke to the aggressive behavior of the ultra-Orthodox toward diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams.’ ”

Our behavior is styled “aggressive,” whereas the behavior of the Reform is not? Never in the history of U.S.-Israel relations has there been such an aggressive attack on an incumbent Israeli government by any segment of diaspora Jewry. Yet, the characterization was presented without challenge.

We are the aggressors? Which chareidi group barged into a Reform temple carrying a mechitzah and demanded to separate men and women? Or put up a chain around the temple parking light to keep congregants from driving in on Shabbos?

Or was it the Reform-backed Women of the Wall who invaded the Kosel with demonstrations that were deeply offensive to the vast majority of women in Eretz Yisrael who visit the Kosel and cherish its age-old traditions?

“Non-Orthodox streams” is also a precious locution. It conjures up a scene of pastoral tranquility, each stream flowing freely and democratically, doing no harm to its neighbors, while united in their non-Orthodoxness.

Etymologists are capable of tracking down the origins of words hundreds of years old, even to the very day a word first appeared in print. But the terms Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox defy the experts. These derogatory terms, which connote religious fanaticism, have become so accepted in identifying chareidim that many are unaware of their offensiveness. They seem to have arisen spontaneously sometime during the 19th century, concomitant with the rise of Reform in Europe, but the historians of language cannot pin them down to a particular culprit.

Reform, by contrast, is practically a term of approbation. The word is typically associated with the correction of some social injustice or bureaucratic inefficiency. Conservative is wholly misleading. While the word suggests one who upholds traditional values and institutions, in the context of Jewish history the Conservatives, like Reform, are actually wide-eyed radicals who deny the ancient fundamentals of faith and rewrite Judaism to suit their convenience.

When it comes to media bias against the state of Israel, the Foreign Ministry, pro-Israel media watchdogs and commentators are constantly on patrol for unfair coverage, and every retraction or apology from The New York Times or the BBC is proclaimed a victory over media bias. But there is no such sensitivity when it comes to reporting about chareidim.

May Hashem help us in this struggle to communicate the truth and to safeguard the holiness of Jewish tradition.