Last year, a Hassidic rabbi and son of Holocaust survivors did something noble. He dedicated his presidential election vote to the American Muslim soldier Captain Humayun Khan — who was killed in combat and about whom his father Khizr spoke movingly at the Democratic National Convention.
I’m an Orthodox Jewish Immigrant My vote is private. Dedicated in honor of US CPT Khan, his devotion makes (religious) freedom possible pic.twitter.com/httaaUspeM— Yosef Rapaport (@YosefRapaport) November 8, 2016
“I’m an Orthodox Jewish Immigrant My vote is private. Dedicated in honor of US CPT Khan, his devotion makes (religious) freedom possible,” he wrote.
The Hasidic rabbi serves as a media relations coordinator at the national Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America (full disclosure: I work there too). His tweet was liked almost 12,000 times and retweeted 5,496 times. J.K. Rowling herself shared it with her 13 million followers.
Political commentator Peter Beinart, however, must have missed it. In a piece entitled “The Orthodox Should Know Better Than To Embrace Hatred Of Muslims” in these pages, Beinart recently argued that “the inability to distinguish jihadist terrorism from Islam fuels American Jewish hostility toward American Muslims” and that such inability is “particularly true among the Orthodox.”
This point of view is all too common. Many believe that Orthodox and haredi Jews hate Muslims, or that we stoke hatred towards Muslims in our communities. It’s simply false, if widespread.
Take, for example, the story of the haredi director of a Brooklyn soup kitchen Alexander Rapaport. After the election, Rapaport rallied support within his community for Muslim Yemeni neighbors who were protesting the new president’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Rapaport also organized support for a beleaguered local Yemeni-owned bodega, complete with “Shalom/Salaam” posters.
But it’s not just the actions of a few good men. Indeed, Mr. Beinart correctly observes that Orthodox Jews uniquely understand the plight of our Muslim brethren in being both observant and American. “With its fealty to Halacha, Orthodox Judaism in the United States is built on the audacious insistence that Jews can both live fully in accordance with Jewish law and participate fully as American citizens,” writes Beinart. “Orthodox Jews are thus better positioned than any other group of Americans to help American Muslims — many of whom are immigrants — learn how to balance American citizenship with strict religious observance.”
Beinart then wrongly concludes that we Orthodox simply do not use our position to help our Muslim brethren. Indeed, it is this very unique identification that led Agudath Israel to issue a pro-immigration statement against President Trump’s travel ban. Agudath Israel was clear: Such a ban is acceptable only if intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country, only “if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees” and only if “its focus is on places… not on religious populations.”
Mr. Beinart might be forgiven for not knowing about the hassidic WhatsApp group that calls itself “Isaac and Yishmoel,” created to enable its members to defend unfairly maligned Muslims.
But some research on his part might have turned up the fact that Agudath Israel’s executive vice president serves on the Council for Private Education alongside the Islamic schools’ counsel. That Orthodox leader also chairs the Committee of New York City Religious and Independent School Officials, which includes representation from the Islamic School Association. This same vice president has worked with Islamic school representatives on a number of issues before the New York State Education Department. Agudath Israel has also partnered with Islamic groups on other issues of common interest, like school safety.
Is there wariness about Muslims among many Orthodox Jews thanks to the efforts of a few extremist jihadists? Of course, as there is among many other Americans. Is that fair to the vast majority of Muslim citizens, who have no evil designs? No.
But do Orthodox Jews hate Muslims or seek to harm them? Absolutely not.
Like so many have before him, Beinart also accuses Orthodox Jews of having voted in large numbers, and in contrast to the larger Jewish community, for the man currently occupying the White House, which Beinart interprets as the result of Orthodox anti-Muslim sentiment.
Might it be, though, that many haredim simply recognize that judicial appointments comprise one of the most influential powers any president has? As a person immersed in these communities, I can tell you that I believe this was the overwhelming reason behind many Orthodox people’s votes. They felt that Mr. Trump’s likely choices would prove more sensitive to our community’s concerns about societal issues and the potential erosion of religious rights in America.
We must plead guilty — forgive us — to the charges of being social conservatives and religious rights activists. But not to Mr. Beinart’s charge of hating Muslims.
Mr. Beinart, and those who agree with him, should visit one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods where Orthodox Jews and Muslim immigrants live side by side, day by day without friction.
Avi Shafran blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.