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Is The Media’s Obsession With Hasidic Jews Anti-Semitic?

Our news feeds and Shabbos tables are abuzz with talk of ‘One of Us’, the latest Netflix film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (the creators of Jesus Camp), about the lives of those who leave the Hasidic community and are ostracized.

I confess: I will not be watching this documentary. This isn’t out of despair for the social issues faced in parts of our Jewish community, but rather, because I am tired and frustrated with the blatant prejudice shown in the media’s obsessively negative coverage of religious Jews, where they are purging all our communities for the sake of viewers and clicks. How many Vice, BBC and Netflix ‘specials’ — on the backwardness of Jewish groups — must we bear, before we plainly see that we are looking at another iteration of bigotry?

Let me be clear: It is completely abhorrent that any human should suffer extradition from their community for being different, whether it be difference in lifestyle, sexual orientation or perspective. No man, woman or child should ever be subject to abuse at the hands of their family members or leaders, as ‘One of Us’ portrays, while feeling that they have no one to turn to. It is vital that we come to terms with the abuse which people suffer in our community and that we tear down the systems which keep abusers in places of power. This complex issue requires us to create an environment where people can feel comfortable in speaking out against those who damage our society.

Yet films like these will never empower suffering members of the Orthodox Jewish community to speak truth to power – it will only inflame leadership more, and thus intimidate community members from voicing their fears.

These narratives do not seek to create positive change, but rather to exploit sensational stories, to put ‘weird’ Jews under a microscope for the world to see. Positive change can only occur between the individuals involved and the steps our communities take to improve our situation, from within. No number of cameras being thrust into our faces will stop victims from being taken advantage of or abusers exploiting them; it will only deepen our prejudices and ignorance we have of each other’s communities.

Each time I watch another one of these documentaries, it only adds to my feelings of shame over my identity as a Jew. And as an Orthodox Jew, I am frustrated by the one-sided perception of my larger community. My father is a baal teshuva, who came to Chabad Hasidism; I have personally only witnessed a community of deep kindness, charity and empathy, a kind of understanding that no secular society I’ve ever seen achieve. Surely intolerance, molestation and hatred exist in the darker segments of our society – but how tragic it is that we are allowing the media to define us by the latter alone.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out repeatedly that each iteration of anti-Semitism in our history has unified us, that each time an accusation has been made against the Jewish people, we united against each threat and supported one other. However, he points out that today is the first time in history where the rhetoric against the Jews has started to divide us internally, where we now accept the narratives against our own people; whether it be accusations made against Jews living in Israel or the demonization of our religious communities. We are becoming divided.

If Netflix’s ‘One of Us’ is anything like any of the other documentaries I have seen on the Jews, it’s not an honest portrayal of a Jewish religious society as a whole, but a sucker punch made against a religious group who they know will not fight back and will never have their story told with dignity. I can’t remember the last time I saw or heard a balanced documentary made about Jews or Israel by any non-Israeli media outlet. I dare you to type in ‘Jew’ or ‘Judaism’ into YouTube and see what disturbing videos come up first.

If you want to see some more balanced and more honest portrayals of the totality of the Hasidic Jewish experience, consider instead seeing Rama Burstein’s ‘To Fill The Void’, or Joshua Weinstein’s ‘Menashe’. They’ll tell you stories of challenges faced by Hasidic Jews, the rhythm of their daily lives, the beauty and problems of living in this community.

As Orthodox Jews, it is time we say “enough” to allowing the media to only show the worst in each other’s communities, only further deepening the rifts between our communities. It’s time for us to show another side of the story.

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