On Jewish Assimilation

On Jewish Assimilation

As the pandemic ramped up early in 2020, it was the hasidim that really made people angry. Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and the rest of New York State were amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic, with thousands rapidly infected, making them amongst the most severely impacted in the U.S. That string of early cases derived, in part, from Purim, the festival held across March 9th-10th where Jews celebrate the Israelites’ defeat over the hostile monarch Haman, and the subsequent vengeance taken on those who tried to wipe out the Jewish people. Jews around the world tend to dive into Purim because, unlike austere holidays like Yom Kippur, it’s a carnival: you are commanded to dress up, eat cookies, get drunk, and generally be merry. This is how hasidim indulged, with “Torah true” Orthodox practice connecting them to massive parties and drunken revelry despite a pandemic cresting around them.

The reactions to the fact that hasidim were seeing waves of immediately high death tolls were hardly sympathetic, including from other Jews and liberal political leaders. “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” said DeBlasio, directing his frustrations at the haredim who were flouting social distancing, shelter in place orders, and mask mandates. Things escalated, as a burgeoning far-right and Trumpian influence inside the Orthodox world bloomed, resulting in public mask bonfires and attacks on reporters and critics.

The Coronavirus measures were prudent, if however late, and so the disdain for regulations occurring in hasidic communities were clearly cause for alarm, if not condemnation. But as news reports, viral tweets, preachy Tik Tok videos, and middle-class denunciations piled up, the actual experiences of hasidim seemed completely ignored. The hasidic world, built up around a stricter observance of halakhah, does not just encourage in-person community, it requires it. Jews must be in contact with other Jews to take part in minyans, hold weddings, participate in shabbat services and Torah study, which is all to say that they have to be in close proximity to each to engage in any of the elements that they believe a joyous Jewish life demands. For the outside world, the situation was obvious: stay home, hop on Zoom, binge watch Netflix. But for haredim, these changes effectively severed their entire lifeline, telling them that the most basic commandments of God’s law were not to be followed and that they had to break up the bonds that have held their communities together for centuries. Staying at home may have been the most efficacious choice, but as the world looked at hasidim with overwhelming contempt, the struggle of these Jewish strangers was considered completely irrelevant to most outsiders.

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For liberals around the world, it may not seem like much to miss worship services for a few months or to assimilate to the common sense medical norms because those potential sacrifices are simply not that significant for them. The profoundly anchored shul life of most hasidim is anathema to modern society, so when their “way of life” is threatened, they find few allies outside of their fray. The rest of the world was aghast at the hasidic response precisely because they cared little for hasidic particularities: you should be flexible just like the rest of us. This sends a message that has been consistently provided to visibly observant Jews and most others of “foreign” religions and folkways: we will let you live differently, until it causes us any problem. Our collective disinterest in the plight that hasidim were facing was so intense that it is no wonder that the Orthodox spit it back at us. If we don’t care at all about what it takes to maintain their daily lives, why should they care about ours?

The question about the future of haredi/hasidic life in the U.S. is part of a larger historic debate about how Jews can, or should, assimilate to the norms of their surrounding community, which itself is just one flashpoint in the larger experiment of building a mass, multicultural society. While it is incorrect to assume that Orthodox Jews are closer to the “authentic” experiences of Jews and Judaism throughout the century, there are certain analogues between modern hasidic communities and the shtetls of centuries past. Jews live in two worlds, communities that exist aside one another but are not fully aligned. Hasidic Jews today maintain perhaps the most distinctive version of this, least assimilated from one world into the other, but this also represents a series of choices that has historically been forced on all Jews: to become like your neighbors or remain a people apart. The vast majority of Jews today can be considered nearly fully assimilated into the American project (the frantic responses to “intermarriage” in some corners of the Jewish world is a testament to that) and Jewish life is often seen as simply a part of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric of our liberal democracy. But for hasidim, their Jewishness has been oil to the water of their neighborhoods, and so a level of tension remains that seems arcane to non-Orthodox Jews.

Two recent books take a look at this question through the story of perhaps the most distinct, and growing, sect in the hasidic world. Satmar is currently the largest hasidic movement globally, with huge enclaves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel, a town in Orange County, New York that has created constant waves of controversy as they fight to increase their autonomy to build a religiously pious enclave. For many, it's actually surprising to hear that Satmar dominates hasidic numbers because they are rather extreme even by ultra-Orthodox standards. Built along the teachings of founding Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, they are virulently anti-Zionist, exhibit ultra-conservative politics around gender and sexuality, and have a general hostility to the wider world and technology that goes far beyond the letter of Talmud. So it makes sense why Satmar would be a good anchor point for questions about the boundaries of multicultural tolerance and what it means to build a truly diverse society.

Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper’s book A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg focuses on the Brooklyn based Satmar community, their relationship to issues like gentrification, real estate, and the demographics of the once poor and now unlivable expensive Williamsburg neighborhood. American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York by Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers moves us upstate to focus on Kiryas Joel, and, particularly, how the Satmar have used the legal system to fight for their interests on issues like housing, education, and social services. The two books are remarkably different, a testament to how much there is to say here, and their separate geographies speak to some of the different contentions that the community is facing. In Brooklyn, where the housing crisis is accelerating, hasidim were a part of the fight against gentrification (and sometimes gentrifiers themselves), just as they were a part of the racial conflicts that marked the 1970s and 1980s. In Kiryas Joel, the battles with surrounding Gentiles took on a different tone, often marked by legislative measures, political candidates, and lawsuits, where the hasidim fought to make space for their growing community in a way that met the dictums they read in Torah. Satmar’s population is growing at a rapid rate because of the large families and the lack of cultural exchange with non-Satmar groups, so the conflict over zoning and space is nowhere close to concluding.

Part of the conflict that both books chronicle is that the hasidic way of life, particularly for Satmar, simply does not blend with any society that does not intentionally allow for it. This was particularly true in the conflicts based on modesty laws in Brooklyn, where a remarkable amount of tone deafness was on display from non-Orthodox residents as they challenged their socially conservative cohabitants. As gentrification reshaped Williamsburg, bike lanes became a proxy battle as many new residents demanded access for non-car transportation, while hasidim saw it as a bridge too far. Beyond simply acting as one of the most established tools of gentrification (first come bike lanes then coming rising rents and affluent new residents), people also, typically, violate tznius (Jewish modesty laws) when riding. A local group, pushing back on the hasidim, decided to protest with a “topless march” through their neighborhood. This is a clash to be sure, between women who don’t want regressive gender politics forced on them, and Orthodox Jews who don’t want to be compulsively shown another person’s nude body. But whether or not tznius offends you, the right to live differently is a trenchant part of a multicultural society, and demonstrating and disrobing can be an attack on those rights for the halakhah observant. At the same time, Satmar men have been far from supportive of their neighbor's and safety, which has lent to a reputation for anger, organized pressure, and even violence from hasidic groups who feel threatened.

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Modesty is one thing, but it reveals conflicts over many other issues as well: hasidic educational expectations, public transportation rules, housing zoning, and more. The reality is that hasidic living necessarily clashes with the liberal norms of the surrounding community. The members of that surrounding community may argue passionately for a diverse society, until that diversity wants to put up a curtain down the aisle of a public bus. While the haredim are a radical example of Jewish particularism, they also help to define what that particularism actually means: their Jewishness is markedly different from the gentiles around them, and that difference is the source of the conflict. There is a reason that the highest rate of those facing antisemitic assaults are haredi, they are visibly Jewish in ways that assimilated Jews simply aren’t, and the apparentness of that particularity is the nexus point by which violence occurs. While the opposition to them may be framed in terms of hasidic behavior, there is a gray area when the objectionable behavior is anchored by an essential part of an identity of difference since the only offered solution is to assimilate to the norm of the dominant group. Those fighting the haredim on public modesty rules don’t care much about what the Orthodox want, and offer them few solutions that respect their lifestyle.

The argument from liberal corners is that it is not the Jewishness that is the issue, but haredi conservatism (or in the case of COVID, simply bad behavior, manners, and protocols), but this should reveal a breakdown in the logic of liberal egalitarianism. Similarly, around Europe, an anti-immigrant revolt is taking place as groups like PEGIDA and the English Defence League storm through towns demanding an end to refugee resettlement and the “Islamization of the West.” Their arguments are not only based on clear cut white nationalism, but instead will often employ “liberal” objections, such as suggesting that Muslim immigrants treat women poorly and are violent towards the LGBT community. But as antifascist and antiracist activists have shown, the use of liberal branding does little to cloud the reality: it is the visibility of the Muslim Outsiderness that is being targeted, no matter what excuse is used to justify the bigotry. A society that is welcoming of difference does not do so simply when it is convenient or agreeable, if it did then it wouldn’t be protecting diversity in the first place. Instead, equality depends on the notion that people get to be who they are and treated as a welcomed part of what makes our society distinct.

Part of the conflict here is along what Stolzenberg and Myers list as a “difference model of equality,” which they note was at the heart of the Black power movement and has marked the modern political left. They cite popular author Ibram X. Kendi, in saying that “assimilationist ideas are racist ideas” because they compel minorities to conform to the white, heterosexual, Christian, and otherwise homogeneous norm. Difference is to be respected and celebrated, even amongst cultural disagreement, which presents a mixed message to hasidic Jews: are they allowed to be different, or only until it becomes a problem for those who disagree? There is not a clear answer to this question because many haredim do actively campaign for, and enact, regressive gender politics, sub-par access to education, and other problems (though we should avoid generalizing since the haredi are incredibly diverse). So the relationship between cultural sensitivity and the surrounding social contract is one that has to be balanced, particularly since the Satmar themselves are open about their community’s priority.

The actual story of the Satmar community does break the simplicity of this portrayal by the fact that they are, even by haredi standards, incredibly extreme. In a recent story published at the New York Times, haredi schools in New York were put under a microscope. Inside you find haredi students receiving some of the worst education in the country, often facing physically abusive environments, and with English levels potentially intentionally suppressed to shrink the ability for dissidents to exit the community. Amongst these, Satmar was one of the most severe offenders, an allegation that is not new. Around New York State it is common to see Satmar fighting over school rights, where objectors are often alleging that Satmar leadership does not care about stripping the public school district of funding since they do not send their kids to public, secular schools. More than this, scandal after scandal marks the Satmar for the diversion of educational funds, often receiving tax funding for sub-par secular education. The Satmar are not simply running a parallel society in the backyards of non-Orthodox Americans, they go on the offensive to take what they need from a society they feel disregards them. And, in a sense, they are correct: the surrounding communities feel little regard for the Satmar, and so the Satmar see little reason to negotiate, collaborate, or compromise.

Dissidents are treated harshly by the Satmar, and a good portion of both books deals with the internal splits that have fractured the community (the prominent separation is between Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg), but also the increasing alienation from modernity, the tight hold they have on gender relations, the limited access they allow to technology, professional skills, and, ultimately, choice. Kiryas Joel is a flashpoint not just because the Satmar want to live there, but because they want others not to. The battle over zoning is about their intentions to expand as their families grow and their need to have a space where certain kinds of rules are followed that are not respected in the surrounding world (like tznius). The level of Satmar extremity is so profound that it puts them at odds with other hasidic communities, like the notorious disagreements between the Satmar rebbe and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the final rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty.

These problems are real, and the Satmar willingness to push into the outside world to stake their claim makes them unavoidable. But they are also a profound sign of difference, a lifestyle that runs in direct contest to some of the values that American liberal democracy holds as sacred. The reality is that a conflict between the two is unavoidable because pluralism requires an effort to include those who deny the value of pluralism themselves. This is the distinction highlighted by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who continues to be a favorite on the far-right, who argued that one of democracy’s fundamental flaws was that it had to go outside the bounds of democracy to protect itself. If not, then radicals who do not believe in the liberal assumptions of a democratic society would use its openness to destroy it. The Satmar do not believe in the organs of liberal democracy, but they have learned to wield its tools, particularly the courts, to get what they need. It seems that their opponents are dedicated to doing the same thing, and both are leaving the proposition of multicultural democracy in the trash.

Jewish assimilation is one of the most contested terrains in Jewish discourse, particularly as it relates to continuity. Whether or not you define Jewish lineages in terms of halakhic regulations on parenthood, part of what allows for Jewish identity to continue is its refusal to assimilate. Traditionally, antisemitism was a response to Jewish disassimilation, not Jews as an ethnic body, and so when Christians raided shtetls they demanded conversion, for Jews to totally and completely assimilate. Part of what scholars of antisemitism like Bernard Harrison argue is the central "why" of antisemitism is that Jews, over the centuries, refuse to assimilate, they continue to remain who they are despite what the changing surrounding society demands of them. Over the years, particularly in the U.S., Jews have increasingly been invited into the larger American project, and whiteness (at least amongst white Jews), sharing in the performatively named “Judeo-Christian civilization.”  But it’s not uncommon to see some Jewish philanthropy sent to haredim, including Satmar, perhaps out of a little nostalgia: what could have been if we had gone our own way.

Both A Fortress in Brooklyn and American Shtetl talk about what happens when (a type of) Jews refuse to assimilate, and it is not easy. The battle to create their enclave requires a certain poisonous erosion of difference from within their own community. Antisemitism was historically a piece of what inspired the boundaries placed around the Jewish community, for safety and security, and now those boundaries have to be enforced in some other ways. The Satmar have used a number of means to do this, such as lawsuits, court injunctions, legislation, and real estate markets as a method of creating some degree of insularity. This is, perhaps, their ultimate concession to assimilation: they really are Americans after all.

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The strength that comes from a multicultural society only comes when there is enough allowed for diversity that its members can live dramatically different than the norm, without that it simply compels the assimilation of minorities into the overarching mean. America’s history as a settler colony was devised entirely through the eradication of those who came before, both through genocide and ethnic cleansing and the compulsive cultural erasure of indigeneity. This mentality of “sameness” pervades much of contemporary American discourse even in ostensibly left-leaning areas, where those falling well outside the cultural middle are demanded to assimilate if they want to be included in the protections and benefits of Americanness. Even amidst some of the most well coded liberal pragmatisms there is an entitlement to the perpetuation of the dominant experience as the standard and the belief that those deviating from it do so because they are dangerous reactionaries. This complex reality opens more questions than it answers: how do you respond to communities whose standards deviate so profoundly from what you feel are the core “American values?”

This is part of what has driven some of the reactions to the New York Times piece on haredi education, with some divisively claiming antisemitism, while others decrying it as mostly unhelpful. Former Satmar member and Brooklyn tour guide Frieda Vizel debated this with Naftuli Moster on the Jewish Currents podcast, suggesting that internal reforms to the problems inside the yeshiva system are a better approach since those don't rely on people coming in from the outside and forcing a change to a community many in the non-yeshivish world have no stake in (Moster took a different position). More acutely, she takes issue with the idea, raised in the NYT piece and echoed amongst other critics of hasidim like the Satmar, that they are essentially parasites on the welfare system because they voluntarily engage in a life of non-work and are creating a cycle of poverty because of their poor educational priorities. “The argument that Hasidim are all unemployed rabbis is blatantly false on its face,” writes Vizel, who has noted that the suggestion that hasidim are essentially “welfare queens” is simply a repackaging of far-right talking points, this time directed at the Orthodox. The reality is that generational problems in education are also the fault of the secular public school system, and reframing hasidim as voluntarily poor parasites is a sign of the unwillingness to allow difference be honored: their generational disenfranchisement is allegedly due to their difference and therefore supposedly chosen. Public assistance is then unearned, and the haredi are grifters.

Interestingly, Stolzenberg and Myers did weigh into the yeshiva controversy with a piece at The Atlantic saying that religious schools do, in fact, have a responsibility for secular education and we cannot let the pendulum swing so far in the direction of religious liberty that we lose sight of the purpose educational institutions actually hold in the U.S. This seems largely reasonable, few should tolerate the Satmar’s assault on the education their own kids or their attacks on the public school system. But putting aside the obvious problem with their approach, the underlying narratives of these criticisms is one that can replicate problematic assumptions about “Outsiders.” In a rather unnecessarily frantic piece from Liel Leibovitz at Tablet Magazine, he raised one point that deserves consideration: if the goal of schools is to raise kids towards adulthood in a way that lets them continue their community, manifest their values, and generally become happy and productive (according to their own metrics), then isn’t the yeshiva system actually successful? To assume that the haredi school system is failing kids is to assume that those graduating from yeshivas don’t have the kind of education for the lives that they want. In the same way that Vizel suggests, this mimics a colonial imprinting of Western liberal values onto a population who simply does not want them. There is certainly a middle ground in this argument, and the abuses raised by the NYT piece  are serious and egregious, but the assumption that hasidim need to be measured on the yardstick created by non-hasidim is based on the idea that their difference is acceptable only when it meets our standards. If differences cause a problem, if we see these particularistic strangers using a food stamp card, then enough is enough.

The problems in the yeshiva system should be undone so that each generation of hasidim can choose for themselves if they want to stay, but at no point are yeshivas likely to become the educational twin of secular public schools. This is part of the dynamic that both books dive right into, refusing to let easy answers permeate in a growing conflict that shows no common sense path for resolution.

The haredi are likely to become an even larger political force in the U.S. (and Israel) due to their increasing size, as well as their growing affiliation with Trumpism. This reality predicts that hasidic enclaves inside progressive political pockets will continue to have clashes, particularly along the lines of social issues. This has been most made most recently visible with the case of Libs of Tik Tok, a far-right Twitter account that was revealed to be run by an Orthodox woman with some association with the Chabad-Lubavitch sect. The question we will have to ask is how you can live up to the promise of an inclusive democracy even when some of your motivating values are called into question by those who you are trying to share your society with. It would seem easy to have black-and-white rules about how to do this, but this is part of what makes mass politics an experiment. We have yet to know if we’re on the right path, and we may not even know if we get there.

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