Baseless charges of antisemitism do not belong on billboards–or anywhere else
Rising antisemitism in the U.S. is a serious problem and a source of rising concern throughout the American Jewish community. At a time when we need to come together as Jews and as Americans to combat it, our ability to do so is undermined when unfounded charges of antisemitism are made in an effort prevail in debates over otherwise difficult issues in the court of public opinion.
I saw a most unfortunate example of this last week, in a high-traffic area next to the Lincoln Tunnel. Before me was a new billboard along the adscape that lines the wall leading into the tunnel. On the left half, the billboard displays “2X”, representing that the number of antisemitic incidents in New York doubled in November 2022, over the same period in 2021. On the right half is the number “12”, representing the number of articles that have been published by the New York Times about issues arising at some New York schools for ultra-religious (Haredi) Jews that have been published by the New York Times. The articles span a 3-month period beginning in September 2022.
As reported by the Times of Israel’s Luke Tress (“Orthodox group launches campaign against New York Times yeshiva coverage”), the billboard, one of several now appearing in New York City, is part of the KnowUs.org campaign led by Agudath Israel, the leading advocacy group for the Haredi community. And their intended message is that the Times’ coverage of the Haredi schools caused the increase in antisemitic incidents.
The antisemitism charge is key to the effort to discredit the serious and substantive articles that appeared in the Times over the past 3 months, articles based on years of investigation and hundreds of interviews conducted by the articles’ authors. The articles reported that at some Haredi schools in New York, students do not receive substantially equivalent education in secular subjects that the schools are required by law to provide. They reported on verifiable allegations that some children have been physically abused by instructors. And they reported that there are widespread instances of the schools and the service providers they work with receiving federal funds that are intended for special education and are being diverted improperly for other purposes.
The detailed reporting revealed improprieties occurring within the Haredi community and avoided using a broad brush to suggest that the reporting encompasses the entire Haredi or broader Orthodox communities. In fact, the articles recognize that many Jewish day schools from all parts of the Jewish community, including Orthodox and Haredi schools, provide excellent educational instruction to students.
Many readers of the articles from the New York Jewish community have applauded the Times for its work to shine a light on issues that have for too long avoided broad public scrutiny.
By contrast, many of the articles’ detractors have responded by charging that their very publication is antisemitic, and the articles will contribute to antisemitic beliefs or actions by others.
Agudath Israel has led advocacy efforts to oppose proposed new regulations designed to ensure that non-compliant religious schools follow the law for years and pressed elected officials to avoid looking into the issue. They have every right to take issue with the articles on their merits, but suggesting they are antisemitic by relying on a spurious correlation is irresponsible, especially at a time when antisemitic attacks and incidents are on the rise and there is a demonstrated need to address the actual incidents and expressions of antisemitism that are occurring.
There is nothing in the coverage suggesting that either the Times or the article’s Jewish authors, who are themselves Jewish, were motivated to report them out of antisemitic bias. Nor is there anything in the articles explaining the problems that were identified that rely upon stereotypes or conspiracy theories that demonstrate antisemitism. Finally, there is no evidence that the rise in antisemitic attacks–or any individual incident–occurred in response to the articles or were carried out by perpetrators who read them.
In fact, during the same three-month period identified on the billboards, the Times published some 50 articles and op-eds that focused on aspects of antisemitism, compared to 12 similar articles or op-eds during over the same three months in 2021. Here, the increased number of articles does correlate with the uptick in antisemitic incidents and attacks, and the increased concerns being expressed about the issue in our public discourse. Rising antisemitism is a problem that needs to be thoroughly covered in the media, and the Times has followed through in articles reporting on a wide range of recent alleged antisemitic incidents and in pieces exploring why the rise in antisemitism is happening now.
In our ad-saturated culture, we are used to billboards making claims that rely on simple and clever messaging, such as using a certain whitening toothpaste will make my teeth 10X whiter overnight. But when it comes to an issues like antisemitism, the bar of truth must be higher. We expect Jewish community leaders to condemn antisemitism when it occurs, and they do themselves and the broader Jewish community no favor when they weaponize antisemitism in response to fact-based coverage of difficult issues. They divert attention and resources away from efforts to responsibly recognize, understand and respond to the actual antisemitism that exists.