NY Times declares war on the ultra-religious in Israel


Since the reestablishment of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel has largely managed to create a co-existence of sorts between its secular and religious communities. Israel is both a democratic state and a Jewish state, which requires a careful balancing act of mutual tolerance.   It's not always perfect, but when tensions threaten to get out of hand, political leaders and other opinion shapers have usually stepped into the breach to keep events from careening out of control and minimize sources of friction.

However, Israel, like the U.S., is afflicted by media that hype cultural and religious rifts to extreme lengths, stoking tensions to boost circulation and to advance their own political and ideological agendas.    And since mainstream media in both countries largely reflect leftist views, it's the other side that gets it in the neck -- be it secular conservatives or communities abiding by religious traditions.

Thus, several recent incidents in Israel that featured intolerant acts by some ultra-religious fanatics immediately got blown out of all proportion -- with all observant Jews demonized as a threat to the state.

 A conference on women's health barred women from speaking from the podium.  The chief rabbi of the air force resigned because the army refused to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers performed. Vandals blacked out women's faces on Jerusalem billboards.  And, most shocking of all, an ultra-Orthodox man spit on an 8-year-old girl deemed immodestly dressed.

There also were incidents on the other end of social spectrum, involving ultra-Orthodox families having stones thrown at them and ultra-Orthodox kids being spat at, yelled and kicked and cursed in Jerusalem.

But the Israeli press focused its wrath only on the religious sector, ignoring inexcusable intolerance on both extremes.  And from particular incidents, it quickly generalized to condemn and demonize all ultra-observant Jews.

So, no great surprise that the New York Times -- steeped in secular orthodoxy --  promptly took its cue from such stilted Israeli reporting and, in its Sunday Jan. 15 edition, with the highest circulation of the week, opened fire on the ultra-Orthodox in Israel with all guns blazing.

In a front-page article by Jerusalem correspondents Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, the Times informed its readers that secular anger is "building as a battle rages in Israel for control of the public space between the strictly religious and everyone else" ("Israeli Women Core of Debate on Orthodoxy")

"Israelis are discovering that an issue -- the place of the Orthodox Jews -- has erupted into a crisis.  And it is centered on women," they write, pointing  to separate seating of women on back seats of buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

They then proceed to find a few academics and  rabbis who also proclaim that the state is going to hell in a hand basket, even likening the fate of women in Israel to that in Islamist-ruled Muslim countries.  Talk about journalistic hyperventilating!

Bronner and Kershner, however, completely ignore denunciations of out-of-line religious fanatics by virtually the entire Israeli political establishment -- from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down.  Also getting short shrift in their article are many private-sector efforts to nudge the ultra-Orthodox into the labor market and into the military, some as to better integrate them into general Israeli society.

It is not until Paragraph 27 that Bronner and Kershner finally inform Times readers that "change has begun" to get the ultra-Orthodox into the mainstream -- "thousands of Haredi men are learning professions, more are getting jobs and a small number have joined the Israeli Army."   This all-too-brief and belated acknowledgement actually could have been used as an appropriate lead to point out that many individuals and groups are working hard to correct lingering discrimination against women, instead of burying  important, positive developments.

To get some real on-the-ground perspective, I consulted with a very observant cousin in Israel who lives in the area of Beit Shemesh -- the epicenter of the media-fed rage against the ultra-Orthodox, where the incident about the spitting on a young girl occurred.

"Any people who would harass, spit at, and curse an 8-year-old child are lacking either in sanity, intelligence, good sense or fear of Heaven -- or some combination thereof," she wrote back.  They are certainly not representative of any (Orthodox) group that I know of.  It is very saddening.  Our communities are far from perfect but we have very high ideals and most of us put a great deal of effort into performing acts of lovingkindness and creating peace between people of all kinds."

Sadly, this kind of balanced, objective perspective is not to be found in the pages of the New York Times.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers