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When Haredi Rhetoric Turns Victimhood on Its Head

The Internet can be a nasty place. Whether due to the replacement of visceral human relationships with a cold, lifeless screen, or because people have learned to type faster than they think, something about Internet conversation seems to bring out the worst in human discourse. As my Forward colleague Jay Michaelson pointed out in his column last week, “the immediacy and anonymity of the Comment feature on the Internet encourages one to respond in the heat of the moment, and with as much fire as possible.”

That said, there seems to be a particular fire in talkbacks relating to religious Judaism. Michaelson noticed this as well, what he called, “rage…dressed up in religious rhetoric.” In my writings on topics of gender and religious life at the Forward, in The Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere, I’ve been called a “man wannabe,” an “anti-Semite” and other names. It’s intriguing to me that essays about cultural trends often merit one or two comments while comments about gender and religion can get 20–30 comments. There is an ire around religious issues (especially gender) that begs explication. Michaelson calls for collective anger management, but I think there is something else at work here.

This trend took a rather vile turn recently when my daughter Avigayil wrote a column here about her experience being attacked by haredim at the Kotel. The confluence of attacks — in-person attacks, in which she and the women with whom she was with were called “ ‘men,’ ‘lesbians,’ ‘devils,’ [and] ‘Christians,’” followed by talkback attacks questioning her entire life, her family, her integrity, and whether or not she actually wrote the article — made for some particularly creepy moments. One memorable talk-backer called my daughter a “provocateur in victim’s clothing,” evoking some very dark imagery, and making me doubt the wisdom of sending my daughter out alone into the dark and treacherous alleyways of the Internet.

Although virtual vitriol abounds, I think it is worth conducting some narrative analysis of talkback texts in these locations, which I believe shed important light on the rhetorical dynamics endemic to contemporary Orthodox culture.

For one thing, language of absolutes — with unbending black lines demarking absolute “in” and absolute “out” — condemn to illegitimacy ideas of equality and, of course, feminism. In a recent debate about gender in the “Jewish Professionals” group on LinkedIn — one that, by Internet standards, was entirely civil — a man named “Reuven” commented that:

It is not proper for women to have leadership roles in Judaism. … There are those who wish to rebel against the old-fashioned gender roles assigned by the Torah, and that is their choice, but please don’t call your feminist views Judaism. It’s simply not true.

According to this view, there is absolute Torah, and absolute truth, and any change to “old-fashioned” gender hierarchies is by definition outside of those truths and therefore not Judaism.

In an essay I wrote here about obsessive gender segregation, some of the 31 comments highlighted not only that those who believe in equal rights are “out” of the community, but also that outsiders are by definition “provoking”. As Jacob wrote:

In these particular religious communities, BOTH the men AND THE WOMEN want to sit separately from each other. …The only reason that a secular woman would be on a bus from Meah Shearim to Bnei Brak, for example, is to provoke a battle with this religious community.

The assumption is that “everyone” in the community feels the same way, and that anyone who does not is being intentionally provocative – as opposed to say, simply wanting to take the bus. A woman who wants to take a mixed bus is perceived as not only “outside” the norm but trying to attack.

There is a temporal absoluteness to these perceptions as well. On another blog post about the Bnei Akiva boycott of a mixed-gender choir, some talkbacks claimed that gender segregation has “always been” — Joe, for example, ignoring Miriam’s and Deborah’s biblically recorded songs, claimed that the “prohibition of Kol Isha goes back several thousand years.” Jo Guy remarkably continued the revisionism with his anti-“pshat” claim that Miriam and Deborah “were singing with the women, in a separate event with a large mechitza no doubt.” Connected to this revisionism are absolutist pseudo-prophecies, in which all “others” are not only less legitimate but also doomed to extinction. Mordechai wrote that, “Secular/Reform Judaism has failed as a movement and clearly sees its death in the coming 20 years.”

Perhaps this is expected; after all, haredi culture is built on absolute rules and boundaries, and anyone who challenges those lines will feel the sting. However, the idea that “outsiders” are “provoking” haredi culture turns an entire society into potential attackers. This is a convenient rhetorical tool that turns haredim into victims of those whom haredi culture has excluded from its midst. Thus, for example, in the discussion on women’s simging, Mordechai writes, “Why should religious Jews be marginalized and forced to violate their principals?” This reasoning – as if democratic society, in its desire to treat women fairly, is a threat to haredi culture – is completely distorted. Haredim who reject basic values of human decency marginalize themselves.

The comment that pulled together all these troubling rhetorical trends came from a guy named Gary Hess, responding to my daughter’s post.

You went there to be provocative and disturb the “regular” worshippers there! Be honest! Everyone knows what that little group wants and the hundreds of thousands of “regular” people who go to the Wall, don’t want that! Are offended by that! Why are you playing the victim? You instigated the entire incident!

How about a little honesty here?! Groups of women go to the Wall all the time and have no problems. non-Jews go, secular go, local Arabs go by, they have NO PROBLEMS – because they don’t go there to bother everyone! You don’t want what you do to bother them – too bad – it does! It offends us terribly. How can you be so insensitive to the feelings of the overwhelming majority?!

This group is selfish, self-righteous, self serving – basically only into themselves. Try thinking about others for a change!

Notice how this guy talks about “everyone” and “us” as “regular people” and the “overwhelming majority,” and my daughter as part of a “little group” of “you” and not “us”. With a few little words, he tries to create black and white boundaries and accompanying acceptable behaviors and determine who is “in” and who is “out”, making claims on who is the “norm”, excluding those who challenge social hierarchies, and ultimately accusing the singing women of being the attackers. “You instigated,” he writes, as if the women held a gun to the men’s heads and forced them to do what they did. He is attacking a group of praying women and claiming to be under attack by them. It’s perverse.

The language of haredi culture embedded in victimhood brought out the most outrageous attack on my daughter: “We overcame the Romans, we overcame the Greeks, we overcame the Holocaust, but you are the worst!” The narrative according to which the Jews are under constant threat from external enemies seeking our destruction informs the entire way they approach women. This language astonishingly conflates women seeking voice and equality with the ultimate threat of attack. This misplaced projection of victimhood and fear that ultimately leads to haredim calling women “Nazis” is at the root of this troubling rhetoric.

This underlying fear of women needs to be addressed. Instead, the haredi community, built as it is around text and mountains of language, self-propagates the fear through rhetorical tools that turn women’s voices and passions into the ultimate evil.

The problem here is not “anger,” as Michaelson claimed. Anger, after all, can be a good thing, such as the anger of a parent in witnessing her child being abused and hurt. The problem is misplaced anger, and turning that anger into a manipulative rhetoric that creates unbending, hurtful boundaries between people — a rhetoric so violent in its attempt to delegitimize and silence others that it ultimately dehumanizes us all.


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