Sunday, January 17, 2010

Biased Perspectives

I'm pleased to present, for the first time ever, a guest post from a loyal reader, and most talented writer, Bethany Berger. The following post is in response to a comment thread generated on a different blog, one that is definitely worth your time to check out - the new collaborative chassidic writing venture known as 'Unpious'.


It's easy to utter blanket generalizations about ethnic/religious/racial groups. (Not because they are true - stereotypes are often complicated - but because they ring true.) What is difficult, however, is pinpointing the finer points of that generality, taking it beyond the general, opening it up, unpacking it, fleshing it out, so that we uncover the complete scope of that sweeping statement.

I was reminded of this when reading Bar Maravashi’s post, "Pious Encounters." The subject of race is always provocative, and I silently applauded Bar’s daring in choosing it as his topic. As I read the post and accompanying excellent (some!) comments, it struck me that nobody found it important to analyze the issue of hasidim’s alleged racism by separating thoughts and speech from action. Since the big evil of racism is the actions it leads to - namely, discrimination and hate crimes - it is, I believe, reasonable to expect a discussion of this matter to segue into, or at the very least, touch upon, hasidim’s discriminatory acts or lack thereof.

Actually, it’s lack thereof. Hasidim, as a rule, do not discriminate against Blacks. Well, not more than they discriminate against other non-Jews, and to a lesser degree, against anyone non-heimish. They may talk the shvartzes-are-cursed talk in the mikvahs and shuls (and for the record, I am not condoning it), but they won’t not hire someone because he’s black. If the guy works cheap, he will be hired. If the neighbors used a black painter and said he did a nice job, that painter has it made. If a black family applies as a tenant to a hasidic landlord, as long as the hasid perceives the family to be "bessere," people who are likely to pay the rent and not ruin the apartment, that black family will get a lease.

Sure, the talk about cursed races is horrible. But it’s not much worse than what an uneducated, unsophisticated person (at least 65% of the U.S. population, in my opinion) says about hasidim. So there’s an ironic, unintended tit for tat in the equation. I’m not trying to say that "two wrongs make a right"; rather, I want to show that while one is condemning hasidim for racism, she/he should simultaneously praise them for their dearth of discriminatory practices.

I anticipate two arguments against my statements and will address them before they can be made. The first is that ideology and action are intertwined, one impacting the other; consequently, we shouldn’t separate thoughts and speech from action. The second is that talk of the type quoted in Bar’s article is evil in its own right.

To the first, I can only hold up history as an example. Although hasidim (in general; I know there are countless exceptions, myself included) have been speaking derogatorily about Blacks for years, they have generally not discriminated against them and certainly have never, as far as I know, committed hate crimes against them. (As an aside, this linked ideology/action theory is a pet peeve of mine, specifically in the case of women’s place in Hasidism, and I intend to post about this in the future.)

To the second, I somewhat agree. Yet the difference between talk and action is too vast to be placed on a level of parity. Think about it: if the Nazis had left it at hateful talk, would the world have remembered them at all?


Photo credit: flickr user PhiNAPHantaSY

If you like this blog, please support it by clicking on some of the ads, or if you're feeling particularly generous, feel free to check out my wish list.


The Hedyot said...

> Although hasidim have been speaking derogatorily about Blacks for years, they have generally not discriminated against them...

I think this is highly debatable. Take for example, the recent B&H kerfuffle. Yes, that's just one incident, but there's no doubt in anyone's mind that it's a result of a long standing policy, one which I myself have witnessed at other chassidic workplaces, whereby non-Jews, women, and probably even other Jews who weren't chassidish were treated less fairly.

tit and tat said...

"So there’s an ironic, unintended tit for tat in the equation."

Well, there is a general truth that I had to learn, as an open, naive cosmopolite:
Being discriminated against does not mean that you will not discriminate.

(See for example muslim migrants and their wives, arabs and racism against blacks, russians olim and racism against arabs, and, as you pointed out, hasidim and "shvartze" or hungarian refugees and their opinions about their Swiss host-country.)

The Hedyot said...

I think another reason I find this perspective a bit odious is that it's too reminiscent of the way things were in the deep south during the Jim Crow era. Of all the millions of southern whites, probably a very small percentage were actually involved in a lynching or any such violent activity. Most people probably were average folk who didn't actually treat blacks that much worse than other lower class people of the time were treated. They simply kept their bigotry to themselves most of the time, letting out their ugly views in the private conversations between friends, or in the opinions they expressed to their families. For the vast majority it was probably quite similar to how it is in the chassidic world, mostly just thoughts and words.

Without the "soft" prejudice of widespread derogatory perspectives setting the stage, the hardcore bigots who committed acts of utter cruelty would never have gotten away with the depravity they did.

JK from KJ said...

Bethany, how fitting for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Awful as it feels to condone this argument, I tend to agree, so long it's discussed in the context of "what type of bigotry is prevalent within the Chasidic community?" In other words, we must - and you did - recognize racist thought and speech as bigotry.

To broaden the scope of your point: Non-violence, in my uncientific opinion, is actually the strongest attribute of Chasidim, which spans across all sorts of physical abuse, far beyond hate crimes. If violence exists within the community (and it does exist), it’s so little in proportion that one could dismiss it as almost non-existent. But I’m only referring to the Chasidim that I know, generations of Chasidim in the areas of Brooklyn, Spring Valley and Monroe areas – in other words, heimishe mishpaches. And there you have my prejudice.

Thanks for so eloquently making the inconvenient, nuanced argument. I’ll let the readers decide whether that’s a distinction worthy of praise. But it’s a true distinction nevertheless.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

Bethany, you've made an argument based on an entirely faulty definition of discrimination. Actual manifestation of discrimination in one's actions is *hardly* as simplistic as financially profitable contracts. If hasidim put their prejudices aside to get a good income, they are automatically atoned of the sin of discrimination and racisim? Does discrimination simply have a dollar value, and if the "shvartzeh" is given to paint while the kids string oh-so-funny jokes in yiddish about the origin of the monkey-painter, is this not discrimination?!

Discrimination is this according to the dictionary: it's unequal treatment. It's not as narrow as unequal opportunities. It's unequal treatment of humans based on one's race or gender [etc.] If chassidim verbally discriminate against blacks, that is AN action. The action of treating a fellow human like a primitive, brainless being is the action of discrimination not against work, but against ones very identity. The attack on the latter is an attack of something of a lot greater value.

Did you really give credit to chassidim for being able to get what they can from blacks while holding them in such painfully inhuman regards? Do you know your description of being emotionally degraded and given work is synonymous with slavery?

And there's no comparison about the way chassidim are being treated. Chassidim discriminate against themselves, which is why they're treated differently. They ask for it.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

JK of KJ: Non-violence, in my unscientific opinion, is actually the strongest attribute of Chasidim

There is no scientific opinion because of the impenetrability of chassidic reality. We're left to make an educated guess, and I would agree with you and Bethany that violence is significantly low among chassidim. Although I doubt we can claim to be the brains to first have this epiphany. Last (first, middle) I heard every erlicha yid could tell you dis with 'forsore': "no drogs, violence, teenage pregnancy, notting!"
A bit tired.

Yes, it is an honorable advantage of the strongly inhibited lifestyle.

Pen Tivokeish said...

Thought provoking, but, I cry foul here. "Ideology and action are intertwined, one impacting the other; consequently, we shouldn’t separate thoughts and speech from action." and I couldn't agree more.

You answer that by pointing to history highlighting that we have never perpetrated hate crimes. OK, but not all negatively impacting actions are hate crimes. Tenant selection criteria is up for discussion too, right?, and you do not address that aspect sufficiently with your retort.

OK fair you can say that we are culturally a passive and non aggressive bunch, true, and so our potential for racially motivated physical harm is drastically reduced. But that is it and you cannot extrapolate.

But how can you sensibly argue, that our words have NO consequence, I am 100% certain that they do have. They must have.

Anecdotal though it may be, I DO know of someone who categorically states that he does not rent to blacks where he has a white alternative, and I did witness a Jewish man at the doctor surgery shooing the sweetest deadlocked black toddler away from his seat, telling me "וואס פאר אן עקעל האפטיגער בשאשפעניש".

I remember witnessing a Black guy in our street being beaten up by vigilante's who thought he had attacked a Jewish child with whom he was at play. I can carry on... racist language translates into actions. Always.

JK from KJ said...

אונזערע חכמים האבן ערענסט געצווייפעלט און העפטיג דעבאטירט צו עקימת שפתים הוי מעשה אדער נישט, און דא קומט שפיצעלע, נישט מיר נישט דיר, און פראלאמירט מיט א זיכערקייט:
If chassidim verbally discriminate against blacks, that is AN action.

Jokes aside, I think, Shpitzele, the author and you agree that hate talk is racism, too. For better or worse, the author was providing context and nuance to the – accurate – claim that Chasidim are racists. I’m sure certain people reading the claim without context are left to speculate on its degree; does it mean institutionalized segregation? Do they have on Lee Av. separate water fountains for ‘colored’ people?

Perhaps someone researching the topic, and acquainted with contemporary racial attitudes across certain sections in the US, such as in certain rural areas, would find it troubling but not that much different.

Anonymous said...

Pretty nice place you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. BTW, why don't you change design :).

שפיצל שטרימפקינד said...

I didn't hear the author take the position that chassidim are racisit (I heard her argue to the contrary) but אז די חכמים האבן געזאגט אז עקימות שפתים איז אפשר נישט א מעשה ווייסט מען שוין בכלל נישט וואס ס'איז געשטויגן און וואס געפלויגן, וואס געזאגט און וואס נישט..

The Hedyot said...

Although I think its true that in general chassidim are less prone to violence, I'd suggest that the recent activity in Israel, where there are frequently violent protests by chassidim (and other ultra-orthodox, of whom the same claim is made), demonstrates that the capability for their "hate speech" (of which there is plenty directed at secular society) to turn to "action" is really not as far fetched as much as some would like to believe.

And its not just protests. Reports of attacks on women in buses sitting in the wrong sections, or even violence against women on the street for not dressing modestly enough, or even attacks in their own home, have become far more frequent in recent years.

I really don't think we'd be witnessing such behavior if not for the dehumanizing way which they are taught to look at people who violate torah.

(Just to clarify, this doesn't have any bearing on whether their speech is racist or not, only that their "non-violent" character might not be as innocuous as Bethany would like us to believe.)

Bethany said...

Pen: I am 100% certain that they do have. They must have.


Pen: racist language translates into actions. Always.

Show me. If you can give me enough evidence (I don't expect empirical evidence; anecdotal is fine) to prove this, I will cede my argument. If, indeed, there is a general movement of hasidim to not rent to blacks, then my argument is flawed and I will admit it. But I have not yet seen this to be true.

Bethany said...

Shpitzele, I appreciate your participation in the discussion, but I suggest you read the post and try to understand what it says. Thank you.

Bethany said...

Hedyot: whereby non-Jews, women, and probably even other Jews who weren't chassidish were treated less fairly.

My post was specifically about discrimination against someone because of his/her color. I said that chassidim don't discriminate against blacks, at least not more than they discriminate against basically everyone who isn't chassidish. I'm not actually suggesting that there's widespread discrimination by chassidim, but I do believe that they will generally be favorably biased toward one of their own, and they'll show it. So we're not disagreeing.

Bethany said...

tit for tat: Being discriminated against does not mean that you will not discriminate.


JK: Awful as it feels to condone this argument, I tend to agree,

Neither you nor I are condoning anything. I'm simply stating what I believe is a fact (inasmuch as anything can be called a "fact"). I'm not trying to say that hasidim are great or horrible or anything. I'm merely pointing out that if we criticize them for racist speech, we should explore that criticism further and realize that their speech is basically harmless. My argument is an example of the cliched "bark is worse than bite" quip.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...


My comment towards your fallacious definition of discrimination is directed towards this use of the term:

she/he should simultaneously praise them for their dearth of discriminatory practices.

In which you made a shtikle reverse chollent of racism and discrimination and a managed to actually pull the two apart in order to find something to praise chassidim for.

If there's verbal discrimination that's discriminatory practices.

Discrimination is one thing, the topic at hand. Violence is a whole other topic altogether which isn't specific to racism or extracultural relationships. You brought this in.

I think the fallacy in your argument isn't that there isn't discrimination (as you challenge Pen to prove) but that a discriminatory attitude is inseparable from subsequent behavior.

And I'm sure Pen is right, there is employment/housing actual discrimination. But that is only the egg of the chicken you acknowledged.

Hasidic Rebel said...

And I can't help wondering why no one brought this up yet... Some here might remember the chaptzems in the 80's when vigilante justice would drive Chasidim to beat black would-be criminals to a pulp -- even a death or two, if memory serves. Now, the obvious argument might be that those blacks were in the process of committing crimes. But a) that argument was made for many a lynching in Jim Crow South (i.e. street justice w/o due process can never be justified), b) even if true, it's hard to claim that the same sort of violence would be committed against whites. The prejudices are ingrained, and while it may not lead to routine violence, when the occasion presents itself it does so in all its ugly glory.

Bethany said...

HR, this is actually the first argument I'm giving serious consideration. I'm not convinced, though, that they didn't/wouldn't give white muggers the same treatment. As much as I am able, I will check this out today and see what I can find out.

Btw, I believe many people would disagree with you regarding street justice. Bernie Goetz had loads of fans.

aryeh said...

You all have piled up on Bethany for what in my opinion is a quite accurate portrayal of the Chasidic mindset regarding race (and similar “controversial” subjects).

I think that in order to get a better grip on the issues of race and racism, you must take into consideration the historical and prevailing political and social order such as majority/minority status; ruling class and economic elites. The reason why race is such a sensitive issue in the U.S. is because there is a history of discrimination by the ruling white race against the minority and disadvantaged black race. Otherwise you are getting into a rather bland discussion about personal and class prejudices that is as ancient and moot as the belief in Moshiach or in Hare Krishna (or which of the two Bobov Rebbes, the two Satmar Rebbes, the five Spinker Rebbes is a bigger tzadik/sheigets).

What Bethany tried to convey was that racist ideas within the Chasidic mindset is not much different than their (rather “amusing” than “abusing”) often provincial tradition-bound views on kdushe, timah, gan eidem, geihenom, creation, olam habah, and much more, which is just an instinctive expression (usually with not much of a thought process) about their general place in this world (and the world to come, and the world that was, and so forth and so forth).

The Hedyot said...

Please see today's post at DovBear for how the prejudiced attitude of frum people (not necessarily of chassidim) translates into hurtful actions.

To say that it's "only thought and speech" is entirely wrong. These thoughts translate into discriminatory actions in so many different ways.

However, I would tend to agree that this prejudice is not directed solely at blacks; it's probably aimed at all non-Jews, but there is still an extra measure of derision for blacks compared to the average white non-Jew.

JRS said...

it's funny---no, it's very disturbing, actually---how the same bunch of smart-sounding folks, on the same blogs, that generally exhibit and take pride in their fearless intellectual honesty when ripping apart, I mean, 'exploring' aspects of orthodox Judaism, reflexively lurch into emotionally-charged liberal boilerplate on the subject of race, completely ignoring Bethany's stated attempt at NUANCE.

To wit: she did NOT deny that some of the views widely held by chassidim are racist.

She DID try to put it in perspective, in the context of chassidim's general attitude, on a sliding scale, toward everyone outside their community (an attitude that surely makes them unique in the annals of human history!)

Point is, I can parse her statement; some parts I agree with, other not. Is that so hard? Must the sum total of thoughts about race be no more measured than "Anyone who ever says, thinks or imagines anything less-than-laudatory about blacks is totally a racist, and harbors an essentially evil worldview!"?

JRS said...

I didn't totally agree with Bethany's thesis. For example, I don't much hold with the notion that chassidim, as a group, are just as likely to rent an apartment to blacks as to whites; that sounds rather naive to me. Also, notably, the whole question would only come into play with an apartment remote from their own, heimishe, neighborhood---not the upstairs flat in their own duplex. Goes without saying.

BUT---the idea that there's a very big & noteworthy distinction between people who carelessly spout offensive comments (whether they truly believe them or merely express them mindlessly, a bad practice, sure, but common to our species) and people who deliberately commit harmful acts to other people, based on racist views.... this is an important point that is all but overlooked in most discussion about race, in the fear that it's one step from condoning racism.

Bottom line, whether or not they make derogatory remarks in yiddish about their painters, chassidim (Israels' chareidi thugs notwithstanding) are and have always predominantly been, a very non-violent group. Moreover, they are not at heart cruel people----if a chasid saw a black guy lying in the street, victim of a car accident, he'd call 911, as quick as for a white guy. And let's face it, no black guy feels fear passing a bunch of chassidim on the street.

All this DOES count for something, and any fair & comprehensive evaluation of a group attitude needs to acknowledge that.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...


I think Arye most eloquently pointed out the distinction of "abusing or amusing" and I think our labeling racist attitudes as either is a matter of a perspective that defines how seriously we take the attitude.

Perhaps my perception of the naïve talk by chassidim as a form abuse is tainted by my own biases, my own disgruntlment. Perhaps those that disregard the prevalent racist attitude as "amusingly naïve" in light of lack of hate crimes (as Pen says, we're a passive bunch, so what?) do so based on their own biases.

It is a valid question, which I acknowledge. Our views are interrelated with our experiences and beyond being bitter or blind, the reality isn't black and white. Some people maintain a yiddish hartz beyond the dogma, others maintain a yiddish hartz beyond the dogma :) Different thing.

I readily agree to the lack of violent actions in a hassidic community.
Question: what do you think causes this lack of discriminatory hate crimes, if that's indeed the case?
Is it the nature of the racism or is it something else altogether?

Bethany said...

Aryeh, exactly! It's like you've crawled into my mind. Thanks for getting it.

JRS, I'm glad you chose to put the word *nuance* in caps. For some reason, really intelligent people sometimes have difficulty in getting the subtle nuances of an issue. A friend once told me that though his views are mostly liberal, he admires an educated person with conservative views. Since most educated people tend to be liberal, those who still hold conservative views must have really thought through the issues. Whether their views are misguided or not is not the point. The point is they did not just follow a party line; they thought!

Hedyot, give me a few minutes to check out dovbear. I'll respond to your comment soon. And HR, I have something to report on your comment, too. Soon.

Bethany said...

Hedyot, re dovbear. I share the writer's disgust and frustration. It's true, chassidim as a rule only give to their own. In their (somewhat) defense, not many goyim would send money to chassidim if they were to meet with disaster. So it makes a sort of darwinian sense to preserve their assets for their own rainy days. Regardless, there's a difference between not sending money and actively doing harm. And of course, I do not have to reiterate, as you said it yourself, that chassidim generally do not give to any charities other than their own, black, white, or yellow making no difference in this decision. In fact, Katle Kanye (Yiddish blogger) wrote a post about this precise phenomena after the tsunami disaster.

Bethany said...

Shpitzele: I readily agree to the lack of violent actions in a hassidic community.
Question: what do you think causes this lack of discriminatory hate crimes, if that's indeed the case?
Is it the nature of the racism or is it something else altogether?

Shpitzele, if you readily agree that there's a lack of violence in the hasidic community, why do you qualify your first question with the clause, "if that's indeed the case"?

The answers to the two questions can be found in Aryeh's comment. Hint: chassidic mindset regarding traditional issues.

Chaim Chusid said...

I think Shpitz's view is 100% a valid one, racism is a mindset and not the action it leads to. Are the KKK and the likes less racists simply because there's a strong police force in cities these days?

The last comment sounds like a little racism toward people of black and white(hasidim) to me. I wonder how well the author of this piece knows Hasidim.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

Bethany, well, I put that disclaimer in upon the lack of scientific support to that asertion, being as it’s merely personal assumption (and is pending your own research, while you’re at digging up data from who-knows-where :).

Re violence: think about it- when did a Chusid last own or use a gun? To use it on his wife, his parents, his boss, his politician, his prostitute, his neighbor, his…cleaning lady? What does this lack of violence have to do with racism?

You say “he/he should simultaneously praise them for their dearth of discriminatory practices.” What you were trying to say is ““he/he should simultaneously praise them for their dearth of violent practices.”

Talk about nuances.

kisarita said...

chasidim (and other Orthdox) may not be discriminating against black goyim but they've put black jewish kids through hell

in any case racism is dying, and it's dying among the frum too, just a bit slower

Bethany said...

Kisarita, I have not yet seen any evidence that racism is dying within mainstream hasidism, but this post was about discrimination, not racism. Mar Baravashi's post on tackled the issue of racism among chassidim; this post was a sort of addendum to that.