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Anti-religious prejudice – sadly, nothing new?

July 13, 2009 – 11:29 pm12 Comments

incognitoBy Rachel Sacks-Davis

I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that the (few) people that I know who have been victims of violent anti-Semitic attacks in Australia have all been religious. Religious Jews who dress in religious garb are more easily identified as Jews, so it makes sense that they would bear a disproportionately large brunt of anti-Jewish sentiment. A state of affairs which might leave those of us whose clothing is not obviously Jewish blissfully ignorant. I wonder whether it is really necessary to spend some time walking around with a kippa or equivalent before making any judgement about the prevalence (or otherwise) of anti-Semitism.

Of course, in all likelihood, frum Jews not only experience more anti-Semitic sentiment, but also experience a degree of anti-religious sentiment. My feeling is that a large segment of Australian society are willing to tolerate people of diverse origins but unfortunately remain hostile towards those that are perceived to be less integrated into mainstream Australian culture.

In this vein, I wonder whether those Indian-Australians who believed that Indian students were victims of violent crime because they were not integrated received more airtime because that view was shared by many other Australians.

In some cases these sentiments are masked in supposedly rational ideology. For example, sentiment against the hijab that claims to protect the rights of Muslim women. Does the convention of wearing a head-scarf (common in the Middle East) really undermine women’s rights any more than the convention of women covering their breasts?

Possibly as a consequence of an Australian predilection for integration, I wonder whether there are also some Jews who feel embarrassed by Jews who are less integrated than themselves. There are many stories about tension between anglo-Jews and post-war European Jewish immigrants, presumably due in part to cultural cringe on the part of those who were already well integrated into Australian society.

Is it possible that prejudice against frum Jews is simply another manifestation of this cultural cringe?

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  • subjewd says:

    Today I was thinking very similar thoughts, although in the context of anti-haredi sentiment in Israeli communities. Each weekend we buy the Jerusalem Post and I am amazed that each week there is yet another story discussing the haredi “problem,” namely the “haredization” of Jerusalem and the various repercussions for the economy, religious freedom and secular society. Whilst I do believe that these are important factors, and that Jerusalem faces problems relating to the growing haredi population, I am concerned that a lot of the views expressed by the media in relation to haredi society stem from ignorance, and sometimes anti-religious sentiment, rather then a genuine understanding of the issues. I think this is caused by the fact that there is very little interaction between haredim and more modern- religious and secular Jews. Haredim are also very unlikely to speak to the secular press, and therefore it is easy to write a story and point blame at a particular sector when they are unlikely to ever defend themselves publicly.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi subjewd,

    I don’t think that anti-religious sentiment is unique to Australia, but I wonder whether the anti-religious sentiment in Israel is different from that in Australia. In Australia, I think that a lot of it is tied to a hostility toward difference (not difference in origins but in life choices / values). In Israel, I think that it might be more political, with haredi, modern Orthodox, and secular Israelis each holding different positions in the Israeli political systems.

    Your thoughts?

  • TheSadducee says:

    One should also consider the prejudice exhibited by the religious towards Jews who do not conform with their views/positions in our respective communities, let alone towards the non-Jewish in broader society.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Sadducee,

    Thanks for your comment, we may explore some of these issues in the future.

  • The religious Jews remind the “integrated” ones of what their grandparents or great-grandparents looked like back in the shtetl. They left exactly that life to start again in Australia, and there it is in their faces. This reminder is confronting; for some there may even be a lingering guilt of having left it behind and not maintained the beliefs and practices of previous generations.

    In addition, there is the belief amongst many that the distinctive dress of religious Jews is a *source* of anti-semitism, and that is the reason for integration. My view is that there are no grounds for this whasoever.

    There certainly was a cultural clash between the Anglos and the post-war immigrants. This is why there were two large welfare organizations in Melbourne for many years – Montefiore and Jewish Welfare/Jewish Community Services. By the time the two merged this was all but gone.

    The anti-Haredi sentiment in Israel is something very different – because the country is Jewish, it’s a battle for control and direction of the country itself. Every week or so Ha’aretz bemoans the huge risks to the future of Israel of secular Jews not confronting the Haredis strongly enough.

    Of course you may well say that the divide between the positioning of SJ and the current right-leaning leadership of Melbourne is a microcosm of the same conflict in Israel.

  • JBentham says:

    rachsd, i think you are spot on about the jewish cultural cringe thing.

    but do you really think that “Indian-Australians who believed that Indian students were victims of violent crime because they were not integrated received more airtime”?
    i did not observe that in the press at all. and anyway, if anything, indian students in australia are far better ‘assimilated’ (for lack of a better word) into australian culture (whatever that actually is) than ultra-orthodox (or even moderately-orthodox) jews.

  • TheSadducee says:

    That is not entirely accurate. Not all descendants of Australian Jews came from the shtetl or even the Pale – there were plenty of assimilated Jews or non-Hassidic in Germany, France, UK etc who did not live lives remotely similar to that of those people. Consequently they don’t feel any guilt or even relationship to the folks who get around today dressed in their shtetl-chic.

    Incidentally, the shtetl-chic is not even consistent – take for example the Chabad-Lubavich who used to wear a different type of hat (a sort of Russian cap) but now wear a fedora (probably to be taken seriously btw). The dress is arguably a conceit used to publicly affirm their positions in the face of everyone else i.e. they dress that way to make a statement, not to adhere to any religious requirements.

    As to the Haredi in Israel – the Haaretz and others are right to bemoan their baleful influence. Your in Jerusalem aren’t you? Why don’t you tell us about the current Haredi riots and disorders? Its arguable to suggest that these people are becoming so fundamentalist as to resemble the Islamic fundamentalist outfits in the region and are intolerant of diversity and alternative expressions of Judaism which is harmful to Israel and Jewry.

  • Sadducee,

    I didn’t say “all”, however I would say that for a very large proportion of immigrants, you don’t have to go back too many generations to find Orthodox Jews.

    Shtetl “chic” differed/differs from one group to another. My late great uncle and several other of his peers continued to wear the “kasket” (cap) they wore in Russia. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe wore a Gerer-style spodek. But broadly, Lubavitch switched to the more mainstream (and non-Chassidic) Orthodox garb of dark suit and fedora. While wearing a hat and jacket does have religious significance, it is largely a “uniform” that publicly identifies one as part of a specific group. You use the term “conceit” in a demeaning way when in fact the more appropriate term is “pride”.

    I’m back in Melbourne now (Jerusalem was just a brief visit). I totally agree that some Haredi groups have indeed gone way too fundamentalist and intolerant. Their riots are a total Chillul Hashem. It is these loud 1% that give the rest of the Haredi/Dati community a bad name.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi JBentham,

    I noticed that in the week in which violence against Indian students had the most coverage, op-ed pieces appeared in the Fairfax (The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald), and News Limited (The Australian and others) newspapers that were written by established (older) Indian immigrants and blamed Indian students. These opinions also had airtime in non-commercial television news. I was quite surprised because I wouldn’t have expected these types of opinions to have such wide coverage in the higher brow media.

    I’m not sure what the second part of your comment is in reference to. I certainly don’t agree with the aforementioned views (that the violence was caused by the lack of integration of Indian students). I am just interested in why these views had the currency that they had, and think that it might be because there are enough Australians who agree with them.

  • Mendel says:

    Talking of prejudice against charedi Jews see the new blog
    AJN Watch which concentrates on this problem in the local Jewish News


  • Peter says:

    As an “Anglo Jew” I have to say that our initial discomfort with the Chassidic Jews partly came from fear that they will undo the work that was done to integrate Jews as part of Australian society. It also reflects a view that this group wants to deliberately separate itself from other Australians. It also makes a statement against integrated Jews, which includes all of the Anglo-Jews.

    I have been criticised as not really Jewish, by people who in truth are speaking a Germanic rather than a Hebrew based language. Apparently to absorb medieval German and Slavic customs is Jewish but to absorb English and Australian ones is not. I don’t think that the integrated Jews would be attacked, not because of their identity but because they show themselves as part of Australia. I doubt that a football club would even think of attacking a Reform Rabbi outside of a Reform Synagogue, their motives, which I find abhorrent, are against those who set themselves outside of their country’s customs, not against Jews per se. They would equally attack the Amish if they existed here.

  • chiribiri says:

    And as an “Anglo Jew” do you have any concerns or discomfort at all about assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity?
    For observant Jew separation is the price we are prepared to pay to try and ensure that Jews will still be around for a long time.

    What do you think is the reason that 2000 years after being driven out of the land of Israel, the Jewish nation still exists. Had Jews followed the Reform type of religion – we would have disappeared centuries ago.

    While you may not like the Yiddish language, that is what was spoken by our ancestors in Eastern and Central Europe for over 800 years (in addition to the use of Hebrew for religious services).

    And most importantly, in your defence of Reform, you have forgotten (or maybe never knew) that the Holocaust had its roots in Germany where there were very few Chassidic Jews. In fact non-chassidic religious Jews were a tiny minority there. The vast number of German Jews were Reform – who dressed, acted, spoke and in almost every way led the life of their German neighbors. And still, Hitler and his cohorts began the slaughters with them.

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