Sunday, June 10, 2012

On Stereotyping

(Something I didn't notice right away: it says "Can't Eat Pork," but "He Doesn't Eat Pork" or "He Won't Eat Pork" would be closer to the truth.  Keeping kashrut is a lifestyle choice.)

The image above has been making the rounds on Facebook, and I've been raising questions about it.

My first reaction was that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are too few in the US to have much political clout, but in Israel, where they are a significant political force, they do try to impose their beliefs and practices on others.  I've mentioned before riots by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel to try to get municipal parking lots to close on the Sabbath, and harassment and physical abuse of young women who don't dress modestly enough to suit them.  Ultra-Orthodox men have also harassed women for refusing to sit at the back of buses, which led some rich ultra-Orthodox men to propose a segregated bus line where they wouldn't run afoul of political correctness.  And don't forget Golda Meir's story of an Israel Cabinet minister, "a member of an extreme religious party," who in the 1950s proposed a curfew for women to "protect them" against rape.  More pervasively,
As a Jew, and a rabbi, and having lived in Israel for several years, I would have to disagree with the message in the poster. Perhaps in the diaspora Orthodox Jews do not/cannot impose their standard of kashrut upon the non-Jewish (or for that matter, non-Orthodox) community, yet, in Israel the lack of separation between religion and state allows for a certain amount of coercion and distasteful behavior from the government. For instance, the ministries that control weddings qualify only orthodox rabbis to perform those ceremonies. Burials are controlled by the government (under orthodox auspices). And a establishment cannot receive a cheksher of kashrut if they do not follow the "rules" that they set out. Just a few examples of how the fundamentalist orthodox Jews have managed to hijack the Torah and its commandments. :(
During the 1980s, some Holocaust Museums in the US were wracked by internal controversy over how, or whether, to handle the homosexual victims of Hitler's regime; in some cases, reactionary Jews were able to exclude such treatment altogether, arguing that sick, sinful homosexuals were trying to piggyback on the suffering of Hitler's real victims.  I gather this has changed, though I don't have any details; the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., does cover the issue.  I seem to remember hearing about Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in the US joining hands with reactionary Christians against liberalization of laws against homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. I don't have any sources on that, but what I have here should be enough to show that ultra-Orthodox Jews aren't poster children for living and let live.

On the other hand, it's possible that the man in the captioned photo is personally supportive of others' religious freedom.  Jesse Green wrote in his lovely book on gay fatherhood, The Velveteen Father (1999), that he and his partner put their adopted son into a "Modern Orthodox" preschool in New York without problems.  The teacher told Green and his partner,
"After you called," she said calmly, "I did some research.  I talked to some rabbis.  It's true that what you ... do ... is against our beliefs.  But many of the parents of the kids in our school also do things that are against our beliefs.  Some are unobservant.  They don't keep Sabbath, they don't keep kosher.  Some of the parents aren't even Jewish.  It's not our job to judge people or to change them.  Our job is to teach.  So yes, I think we could make Erez comfortable" (227).
Green didn't romanticize the Orthodox, being aware of their malign influence in Israel, but this preschool evidently had adjusted to being in an officially pluralistic society.  Not too adjusted -- Green notes with bemusement that the female teachers "were loath to shake our hands.  Not because we were gay; just because we were men" (ibid.).

But it's also easy enough to find ultra-conservative Christians with a relatively tolerant and open-minded engagement with the world.  I don't think that was the point of the graphic above.  I think it was generalizing about Orthodox Jews, even though it's unlikely that whoever added the caption knew anything about the beliefs or practices of the man in the photograph: rather, they took a stock photo and added their message to  it.  And I found that when I pointed out some of the other side of the story, my mostly Christian friends made it clear that they assumed that the graphic did express the man's views.  (So did many commenters on other postings of the same graphic.)  One, for example, wrote "It seems that the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel could learn something from our friend up there who is refraining from leading a war on the eating of pork and other non-Jewish folkways. :P"  A Jewish friend replied, "I do agree that the Orthodox have a lot of issues... and I mean Orthodox (read fundamentalists) of ANY religion."  (Fundamentalism doesn't equal orthodoxy, by the way, but that's another subject.)  Either she'd missed the point, or was trying to dodge it.  Another person accused me trying to tar all Orthodox Jews with one brush; I think this meme was trying to whitewash them.

The guy in the photo is just a stereotype: that's his function. I know that not all UltraOrthodox males are antigay, nor do all of them spit on eight year old Orthodox girls who aren't dressed modestly enough to suit them, nor do all them riot to try to shut down parking garages that are open on the Sabbath. (I guess rioting isn't a violation of the Sabbath? Sounds like work to me.) I wouldn't assume too much about the beliefs of any person based on their religious affiliation, but that image is doing exactly that, probably based on ignorance and even misinformation, and it does so in order to stereotype conservative Evangelicals, who "have a lot of issues" but aren't all antigay bigots either.

One person who'd posted the graphic and got some critical comments (including the one I quoted above) complained petulantly:
OK, should I just not post memes anymore? Do you all not like using memes to make points or is it necessary to accompany each image with several hundred pages of disclaimers?
Oh, I know, don't you just hate the way life is so messy and complicated?  Why can't we just stick to black and white, without any ambiguous shades of gray?  Memes can be entertaining, and they can be used to make good points.  I just think that this one is making a bad one, by romanticizing and exoticizing Orthodox Judaism, much as some people romanticize and idealize the Amish, or the Mormons.  The point of the caption is, of course, a good one, but it's confused by using a photo of a member of a sect that is not particularly tolerant.  And I think it's significant that so many people thought the picture spoke for its subject, about whose views we don't really know anything.  It isn't inevitable that devoutly and conservatively religious people (even some atheists, to my sorrow) will try to impose their views on others, but many do.

But maybe I'm missing the point.  Is the man in the photo supposed to be an individual, or does he represent all Orthodox Jews?