Guest post: Tea Partiers and Orthodox Jews

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis, a Jewish cyber-outreach organization based in Baltimore.

The Passover break gave me an opportunity to catch up on some reading, and I came across an article in Commentary Magazine (by Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard) about the NY Times' Caricature of the Tea Party Movement. It is an interesting read, exploring the methodologies employed by a purportedly unbiased media to subtly -- and not-so-subtly -- discredit, and even demonize, a wave sweeping across the American political landscape.


This is a particularly compelling topic, because the media's campaign has apparently been surprisingly effective -- and come to think of it, I haven't been immune. I acquired a dim view of these Tea Partiers through media reports, and still don't know enough about them. So please don't come away thinking I am a supporter of anything other than accuracy and impartiality in the media.

There is a strange disparity between how people perceive the views of the Tea Partiers, and how they perceive the movement itself. In a recent Rasmussen poll, respondents were asked whether the views of the president or the average tea party member were closer to their own. 48 percent went for the Tea Partiers, vs. only 44 percent for the president.

Especially given that 44 percent is within a couple points of the president's approval rating, one might expect that roughly half of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Tea Party movement -- and one would be wrong. In fact, whereas in December a WSJ/NBC poll found the Tea Party movement was held in higher esteem than either the Democratic or Republican Party, a recent Fox News poll shows just the opposite is true today.

It wasn't until the ninth paragraph of the Commentary piece that I recognized how relevant all of this was to the Orthodox Jewish community, which, though relatively conservative politically, is not well represented at the tea parties. That's when I encountered this sentence: "It was difficult to find a story mentioning the Tea Partiers in which the words fear or anger didn't figure prominently." That sounded all too familiar -- after all, when is the last time you read an article about a conflict involving Orthodox Jews, especially charedim, "in which the words fear or anger didn't figure prominently?" Typical are these words from a Conservative Rabbi: "Since the death of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Haredi community has become more radicalized because of their hatred and fear of modernity in general and especially egalitarianism." Revisiting Ferguson's list of the methods used to discredit the Tea Party Movement, I was struck by the parallels.Accusations of Bigotry: For the Tea Parties, it's ABC reporting that they are "driven, in part, by a refusal to accept a black president." The Charedim are portrayed as racist (against blacks, hispanics and Sephardic Jews), anti-women, and as believing that non-Orthodox Jews are not Jews at all.

The fringe "nutcakes" are deemed representative of the group. For the Tea Partiers, it's the fellow with a sign portraying Obama as Hitler. For the Orthodox, it's Bernie Madoff, Niturei Karta, hooligans in Meah Shearim, and a chassid selling kidneys out of his house in Brooklyn.

Associations with violent extremists: Orthodox Jews would be lucky to "merely" be grouped with Randy Weaver, the John Birch Society, and Lyndon LaRouche supporters. Instead, Rabbis are bunched together with Muslim Jihadists. To cite but one example, "Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East" covers Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Hizbullah, Radical Shi'ites, Hamas, and "the group of Jewish rabbis who appear to have inspired the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin." Not only is the myth that Yigal Amir operated under rabbinic guidance or "inspiration" taken as fact, but his insane act licenses the inclusion of Orthodox Rabbis in what is otherwise an encyclopedia of Islamic terrorists and their supporters.

Staged Provocations, in which the media is invited to witness attempts to elicit a violent or otherwise inappropriate response, seem to be a common tactic as well. As Andrew Breitbart pointed out, having the Congressional Black Caucus wade through a "majority white" Tea Party protest -- rather than using the tunnels built to convey congressmen to Capitol Hill -- was a media stunt that more than likely was intended to draw a reaction that they didn't get. During the massive protest against the Israeli Supreme Court several years ago, a woman in revealing dress was similarly sent through the crowd with the media watching, and no one reacted. When women boarded the separate-gender bus lines, specifically to deny others the service which they had requested, the media even noted that "contrary to expectations, the protest did not provoke a violent response from the haredi public" [emphasis added]. Apparently, it takes provocations at a holy site (i.e. the "Women of the Wall") to draw a reaction -- perhaps the media will remember that the next time a Tea Party group gathers near a church.

Mythology brings up the rear -- when you can't find a sufficiently incendiary fact, you make it up. Breitbart has offered a $100,000 reward for anyone, whether TV cameraman or citizen with a cellphone, able to prove the claim that the N-word was tossed at the CBC as they walked through. No one seems able to claim the cash. Similarly, we have been informed by an "unbiased" media that excrement was thrown at the Western Wall, that Rabbis refuse to believe an observant Jew might commit a crime, or even that a disabled Jew was assaulted for using an electric wheelchair on Shabbat.

Have I missed anything? Or have we found a common arsenal of media tactics? It is something to keep in mind when reading any "news" article about either group -- or any other that a liberal-leaning pool of journalists might be predisposed to dislike.

The conclusion of Ferguson's article, at least, provides the glimmer of hope. He claims that there has been "a discernible shift in tone and attitude" as the Tea Party groups have become more and more mainstream. He concludes: "sure, those right-wingers are raging lunatics, volatile, out of control, a threat to law and decency -- until they start to win."

Has anyone else read the latest Jewish demographics?