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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > USA: The rise of right-wing populism in Orthodox Jewish communities

USA: The rise of right-wing populism in Orthodox Jewish communities

Friday 16 October 2020, by siawi3


The rise of right-wing populism in Orthodox Jewish communities

Joshua Leifer
interviewed by David Klion


Today we have a new report online from Assistant Editor Joshua Leifer on the rise of right-wing populism in Orthodox Jewish communities. Josh begins with the recent anti-mask uprising in the Hasidic Brooklyn enclave of Borough Park, where a radio show host named Heshy Tischler was arrested on Sunday for inciting riots in response to New York’s attempts to enforce public health measures amid a Covid-19 spike in Orthodox neighborhoods in the New York area. The piece then goes deep on how and why many in these communities have come to embrace a distinctly Trumpian style of politics over the past few years.

For this week’s newsletter, I spoke with Josh about his background and experiences covering Orthodox communities, and about the wider context of Tischler’s political movement. This conversation has been edited.


David Klion

David Klion: Could you talk about your own Jewish background a little bit, in terms of religious observance and languages? What kind of insight has that provided you in terms of your ability to cover Orthodox communities?

Joshua Leifer: My Jewish background is a bit of a mishmash. I grew up attending a Conservative day school in New Jersey, which was more observant than the house I grew up in—my parents are members of a more liberal, unaffiliated synagogue. But I also grew up with close Orthodox family. My aunt and uncle were involved in Chabad of New City, and as a child I spent a fair bit of time around my cousins, who were in yeshiva. When my bubbie was alive, we celebrated Hanukkah together every year. There were weddings and bar mitzvahs. Chabad rabbis officiated my grandparents’ funerals. So while I didn’t grow up in an Orthodox community, it has always been familiar to me.

As far as languages go, my day school was an immersive Hebrew environment, and I also spent a year in an Israeli pre-military program after graduating high school, so I’m a fluent Hebrew speaker and feel comfortable dealing with religious texts. I do not speak Yiddish (yet!), but I know enough words that, with my Hebrew, I can get the gist of some posters and signs and tweets.

I also lived in Israel again after graduating college—this was when I worked at +972 Magazine—and during my free time, I would move in and out of more religious settings. For a while, I attended a weekly shiur, a class, on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, led by a charismatic rabbi in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot—stuff like that. I’ve always been conscious of being an outsider in frum spaces, but I like to think that the combination of being an outsider with a degree of familiarity has given me a useful perspective.

DK: What steps have you taken to develop this beat? Are you regularly immersed in Orthodox media now?

JL: When I moved to Brooklyn in 2018, I sort of fell into this beat. Jewish politics is everywhere here, so a combination of curiosity and accessibility brought me into closer contact with Orthodox media.

“Immersed” might be a strong word, but I do read Orthodox media regularly. There is a tendency among less observant or secular Jews to think that Haredi communities are completely cut off from the internet, but that isn’t true. Of course, there are some communities that oppose internet access, television, etc. But today there’s a vibrant Haredi mediasphere—blogs, news sites, radio, newspapers, a section of Twitter where intra-Orthodox debates are happening. I try to make sure I read both the Hebrew and the English sites, because they often have different perspectives, different orientations to communal leadership.

I think that to really understand what’s happening in Jewish politics in the US writ large—not to mention Israeli politics, where Orthodox parties hold significant power—you need to follow the stories in Orthodox media and the debates around them. The Orthodox right has become much more powerful over the last decade—to an extent that many outside the Orthodox world might not appreciate. As time has gone on, I’ve also developed more sources within Haredi communities in Brooklyn. Not a whole lot, but a handful of people I can ask to get an inside or more granular perspective for a story. I imagine that if this was a beat I covered full-time, I’d be spending a lot more time physically in these communities talking to people—though of course, the pandemic has made that much more difficult.

DK: Jacob Kornbluh, an Orthodox reporter for Jewish Insider, was assaulted by an angry mob and has faced intense harassment and threats from Heshy Tischler and his followers for covering Borough Park’s response to Covid. What’s your sense of the general climate for reporters trying to cover these communities?

JL: Jacob is a tenacious reporter, and anyone who follows Jewish politics should read his work. What happened to him was awful and terrifying, and I hope he’s finding a way to stay safe. My sense is that he faces a particular set of obstacles as someone from a Hasidic community covering his own and other adjacent communities. In many Orthodox communities, there is opposition to airing internal disputes, or bringing malfeasance to the attention of non-Jews. Of course, this is not so different from other Jewish communities. But in Haredi communities it takes a particular form in often exceptional hostility to those perceived to be putting the spotlight on bad behavior. So there is a natural tension with hard-hitting, investigative journalists.

For people from outside Haredi communities, the reporting obstacles are different. If you’re not from the community and you want to report on what’s happening, you need to find people who will be willing to talk to you. That is not always easy, especially when it comes to more insular, Yiddish-speaking communities. Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist for Haaretz, wrote a great piece early in the pandemic about the challenges of reporting on the Haredi world: As an outside journalist, many of the people who you end up talking to are journalists, or businesspeople or spokespeople in some way, or have some degree of influence, and therefore a different relationship to secular culture and society. The perspective that you get might not actually be what’s happening in the streets.

To me, the story of Heshy Tischler is really the story of the disjuncture between the streets and communal leadership, so perhaps the peril of relying on official or unofficial spokesmen (and they are almost always men) is more acute now.

DK: How do you see Tischler’s populism as differing from the older wave identified with Meir Kahane?

JL: As I was preparing to write this piece, I had a great conversation with the scholar Shaul Magid, who has written on Kahane, about this comparison. He pointed to a few important differences, which I agree with. The first is that Kahane had a very developed ideological program; he was a zealot, but one who laid out his case in a very deliberate, thought-out way. Tischler is the opposite of that: Aside from the anti-mask, pro-Trump stance, there’s not a lot of ideological weight there, and if you watch enough videos of Tischler, you can see that there’s a degree of ideological inchoateness to what he’s doing. He’s an opportunist trying to win a City Council seat.

The second is that Kahane, in part by being a product of a different time, had a different constituency. Kahane’s base was not in the Haredi world specifically, but in the generation of children of Holocaust survivors born in America. There were, of course, Orthodox followers of Kahane, but Orthodox Brooklyn was much different. The Brooklyn of Tischler is much more Haredi, and it’s also much more American. He’s also operating in a space left by a power vacuum. In the 1960s and ’70s, even into the ’80s and ’90s, many of the most important Haredi rabbis born in Europe who survived the Holocaust were still alive and active. Today, there are very few Orthodox rabbis with the kind of stature of that generation of rebbes.

Then, of course, there’s Trump. The idiom of Tischler’s populism is a product of some of the same forces that shaped Trump—outer borough racial resentment, conservative talk radio. But Heschler is also a product of Trumpism and the Trumpian media spectacle.

DK: At the root of Tischler’s uprising is the city and state’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you talk a little about why cases are spiking specifically in Orthodox communities right now?

JL: The incorporation of Orthodox communities into the broader right-wing mediasphere has, I think, played a major role in creating skepticism of and hostility to the Covid-19 regulations. In this sense, the rising cases, lack of compliance with mask-wearing, etc. is not that different from evangelical Christian communities that have also been incorporated into the right-wing mediasphere, where there was already an instinctual suspicion of the government and where disinformation is spreading.

But I think there are other reasons that are at least equally important. People involved with the city’s response who I’ve spoken to said that the idea that herd immunity was achieved is widespread in these communities, because so many people have had the virus—that has certainly played a role in non-compliance. There’s also a pervasive feeling that the social distancing restrictions pose a kind of existential threat to the traditional way of life. To a certain extent, that’s understandable, because of how central religious sociality is to Haredi communities—group prayer, study, and celebrations are the core of communal life, especially when other forms of leisure activity are not practiced.

But because of the purchase that right-wing narratives now hold, the Covid-19 restrictions, which at the end of the day are about saving people’s lives, have been assimilated into a narrative about how the Democrats—including those in charge of New York City—are trying to destroy the Orthodox way of life, as part of the wider war on religion. I think people outside of these communities underestimate the extent to which they feel besieged or under attack. Today, someone sent me a picture of a cover of a local Orthodox newspaper with the headline “Jewish Lives Matter.” Some of the loudest voices—which means they are not necessarily representative of entire communities—are framing the Covid restrictions as a form of anti-Jewish discrimination.