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September 5, 2016 10:45 am

New York Times Column Smears Satmars as Ignorant Welfare Sponges

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn. Photo: wiki commons.

Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn. Photo: wiki commons.

The latest salvo in the New York Times’ one-sided campaign against traditional Jewish education comes in the form of a column by Ginia Bellafante that is one of the nastiest and most unfounded attacks on a Jewish group published by the Times in recent memory.

The Times columnist accuses Satmar Hasidim of being welfare sponges:

Politicians who might otherwise feel free to lecture black and Hispanic communities on the importance of grit, self-reliance and the sacred path of higher learning express remarkably little outrage over the habits of a group that essentially enshrines its own dependency on the system. According to a 2011 study by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish philanthropic organization, just 11 percent of Hasidic men and 6 percent of Hasidic women in and around New York City hold bachelor’s degrees, while the poverty rate among Hasidic households stands at 43 percent, nearly twice the figure citywide.

A reliance on public assistance is remarkably common among the Hasidim, explained Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, an organization begun in 2003 to help those who decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox world.

This is problematic on at least two levels.

First, the hypocrisy and double standard of which the Times accuses the politicians applies just as equally to the Times. Times columnists feel free to accuse politicians of racism or callousness when the politicians deplore welfare dependency in the black or Hispanic community. But the Times columnists lead the charge against welfare when the targets are Hasidic Jews. (The column doesn’t mention that many such Jews pay taxes to support public schools that they do not use.)

Second, the statistical basis on which the Times makes its argument is erroneous. The Times cites the 2011 UJA-Federation of New York study to claim that that “the poverty rate among Hasidic households stands at 43 percent, nearly twice the figure citywide.” But the UJA-Federation study, as the first footnote in the poverty chapter makes clear, uses 150% of the federal poverty guideline to define “poor.” It’s an apples to oranges comparison; the UJA-Federation uses a different and far more expansive definition of poor than the one the Times uses as a comparison.

The same UJA study that found the 43% “poverty” — actually, up to 150% of the federal definition — rate among hasidic Jews also found an even higher 71% poverty rate among elderly Russian-speakers and a 48% poverty rate among those with disabled people in the household. Yet there’s not a peep of complaint from the Times columnist about welfare dependency in those communities. It’s almost enough to make a reader suspect that what the Times columnist really dislikes isn’t welfare dependency but religiosity, particularly when it is of the fervently Orthodox Jewish variety.

Likewise, a Times news article from 2011 reported that “Among Hispanic single mothers in the Bronx, the poverty rate was nearly 58 percent.” That’s using the federal definition, not the more expansive 150% of the federal poverty rate UJA-Federation definition. The Times columnist doesn’t mention that, perhaps because it would undercut her effort to portray Hasidic Jews, or Satmars in particular, as especially shiftless.

The rest of this column is marred by similar tendentiousness and errors of judgment. The Times quotes one “exile from the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn” complaining about her education: “They didn’t teach us anything in high school so I didn’t know anything, no Shakespeare or anything like that.” Nothing against Shakespeare, but how many Hasidic Jews are going to become Shakespearean actors or English literature professors? The odds of professional success in such careers are extremely long even if one isn’t a Hasidic Jew. The apparent success of the “exile” in finding her way to such material on her own itself undercuts the claim that the failure of her school or parents to force-feed it to her amounts to some kind of abuse or insuperable obstacle.

The Times column begins, “In the mid-1940s, Joel Teitelbaum, an eminent and charismatic rabbi, immigrated to the United States, colonizing a section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn for his Hasidic sect, the Satmar, its name taken from the Hungarian town of Szatmar, where Rabbi Teitelbaum had fought to resist the encroachments of a modernizing society. Subsequent decades have seen virtually no retrenchment in the sect’s mistrust of the larger world.”

Well, what possibly was happening in 1940s Hungary that might have engendered “mistrust” of “modernizing society”? The Times doesn’t say, in a remarkable exception to the newspaper’s usual post-Holocaust Holocaust obsession.

“Encroachments of a modernizing society” is Times-speak, an Orwellian euphemism for the Nazis who sought to exterminate Jewry — and who nearly succeeded in doing so in Europe. With their rockets and Zyklon B, the Nazis were plenty “modern” and knew all the science that the Times is complaining that the hasidic schools in New York don’t teach. But the Nazis, like this Times column, lacked any concept of the limits of modernity, or of the importance of traditional Judaism and its enduring values in understanding the proper and improper uses of science.

I’m not a Satmar. But on the basis of this particular piece of work — and, for that matter, the recent coverage of Jewish education — for closed-mindedness and ignorance, the Times metro section and its columnist are well down there below the worst that any Jewish religious school has to offer.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.  

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