Sunday, November 17, 2013

So, this National Religious guy walks into a bar...

I’m disturbed by a trend, or actually two phenomena that point to the same trend: the use of the terms “national religious” and “Zionist rabbis” when the distinction (presumably between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox) is irrelevant. Three recent examples (though this has been going on for decades):

2.     The disgraceful annual back-to-school ritual of Ethiopian schoolchildren being barred from schools

3.     A rabbi stating that a woman’s place is in the home

In all three of these accounts, the term “National Religious” (in the first two) and “Zionist rabbi” (in the third) are used, even though none of the subjects discussed in the articles have anything remotely to do with serving in the IDF or hanging onto the settlements. Because what does this newly coined term “National Religious” mean, anyway? What happened to simply distinguishing between secular Jews and Jews who adhere to a Torah-based lifestyle? Well, Israel happened, and along with it our obsession with the military and what it means to serve or not serve. “National Religious” has become code for “We serve in the IDF. Not like those others over there in Bnei Brak who learn full time and live off the state”. (“We” meaning “men”, by the way, as today fewer and fewer Orthodox women serve in the IDF, favoring the year of community service known as sheirút leumì). And commensurately, a “Zionist rabbi” is presumably one who preaches supporting the state, i.e., serving in the IDF and working for a living.

Now it’s not working or IDF service that I’m having a problem with; it’s that the distinction is used even when the topic being discussed is completely unrelated thereto. It’s as if the Orthodox are so anxious about distinguishing themselves from the ultra-Orthodox that they feel the need to use these labels even when it’s not the least bit relevant, and the rest of us follow, without being aware that we’re all perpetuating, through the use of words, the militarization of Israeli society. Because words matter: a society’s values are reflected by its language. Let’s take each of the above three cases one by one.

No. 3 - a rabbi, who by default in the Israeli press is always Orthodox, as evidenced by the fact that only Conservative and Reform rabbis get referred to by those “qualifiers”, states that too much education isn’t good for girls. Having written a treatise thereon, does it really matter that he advocates serving in the IDF? Is it not enough of a disgrace that any cleric, regardless of faith or denomination, preaches such a belief? What difference does it make precisely which shade of backwardness he’s advocating, or where his yeshiva is located? And yet we blindly accept that the fact that he’s a “Zionist rabbi” has significance.

No. 2 - Funding of schools that bar Ethiopian pupils is cut. The reporter of the article cited above, presumably trying to elucidate the situation, even goes so far as to explain to us about the schools in question, explaining that “some [are] religious Zionist, some Orthdox”. Try puzzling that one out. And yet we don’t blink an eye at this semantic pretzeling, even though it shouldn’t make a darned bit of difference if schools engaging in discrimination are Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, or hipsy-dipsy humanist alternative. It’s a news item about minority members not being admitted to a publicly funded institution. Now I allow that it is of interest that the institutions in question are faith-based, but who cares whether their graduates serve in the IDF or not? Again, irrelevant — yet it’s so ingrained, we don’t even notice.

No. 1 - Orthodox parents, believing that their children will not engage in sex unless married, are averse to the idea of vaccinating their children against STDs. Fair enough. So how come the article makes a point of distinguishing that the vaccine opposition includes both Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parents? Do they not all adhere to a Torah-based lifestyle? Yes. Does that lifestyle forbid sex outside marriage? Yes. So, for the purposes of the topic, then, that’s all that matters. Why, then, is it important that the would-be vaccinees’ brothers will or won’t serve in the IDF?

In addition, this going-to-the-trouble to distinguish Orthodox from ultra-Orthodox reflects what’s going on in Orthodox society, which appears to be an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox. When I arrived in Israel in the early 1980s, we still referred to [chovèsh] kipáh srugá, or what in North America would be called Modern Orthodox. Nowadays, while the term isn’t extinct, it’s an on the endangered species list. The Orthodox are preoccupied with getting ever more extreme in religious practice while being meticuously careful to not cross over the line to ultra-Orthodoxy, while we non-Orthodox unwittingly reinforce their compulsive tightrope walk by adopting their compulsive terminology. Because we non-Orthodox have been just as brainwashed into believing that serving in the IDF is the be-all and end-all of being Israeli: the secular religion if you will.

Besides the trend reflected in language, its misuse is just plain bad journalism. Just as reporters are admonished not to refer to someone’s race or gender unless it’s relevant to the story, they shouldn’t bother with whether an individual or institution is Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox (or secular) where irrelevant. That means not printing headlines like “Arab baby girl injured in accident” or “Immigrant stabs wife”. We are supposed to have evolved to the point where headlines should read “School refuses to admit Ethiopians”; “Rabbi decries education for girls”; or “Parents oppose HPV vaccine”. A headline should tell us the facts; any qualifying information – which “National Religious” rarely is – should appear only if relevant. Test it: Next time you read “National Religious” or “Zionist rabbi” (or “ultra-Orthodox”, or “Haredi”), substitute “Orthodox” and see if the information remains correct. Let me know your results!

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