Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Being Intolerant of Intolerance

I sometimes wonder how people who worship at the altar of Political Correctness reconcile contradiciting priorities. For example, Political Correctness demands the complete equality of men and women in all things (except for access to jobs, promotions, public office, divorce settlements in which it favours women but let's not go there). It also subscribes to the concept of cultural relativism in which it is believed that no cultural practice, however odd or odious it might seem to secular liberal sensibilities can be judged as good or bad. It's just "different". But what happens when the Politically Correct are forced to interact with an ethnic group that has a practice that offends his/her egalitarian sensitivities? Does feminism or non-judgementalism take priority?

Well, we now have an answer, courtesy of Brenda Hogg, the deputy mayor of Richmond Hill, Ontario. For those familiar with the area, Richmond Hill is a prosperous bedroom suburb north of Toronto that is home to a relatively large Jewish community. And where one finds enough Jews, one will find Chabadniks lighting menorahs in public. It seems last December she was invited, in her capacity as deputy mayor, to attend such a lighting. After arriving, she was introdocued to the rabbonim running the event and, as is common in secular culture, tried to shake hands with them. If the account in the paper is accurate, one of the rabbonim visibly recoiled (although I doubt it was in horror as Ms. Hogg described in the article). The other, trying to defuse the situation, explained to her that it was due to respect for women that they did not shake hands with them.

Naturally, Ms. Hogg was disgusted by this explanation:

"If I am entering someone's temple, synagogue, church, their place of worship, if I choose to enter then I will conform to those traditions. But when this is a public event and this is held in a public building or a commercial building ... at that point it seems to me that you don't get to tell me how to dress. When did we start thinking that by accommodating that, we were maintaining or enhancing Canadian society? Canadian laws and traditions are based on acceptance and inclusivity."

The response from the "official Jews" at the National Post was predictable. Barbara Kay, who seems never to have met a Chareidi Jew that she couldn't hate without even getting to know him, offered this:

I’ll let some feisty Muslim woman columnist take on the Muslim men, and I will confine myself to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, or the "black hats," as other Jews call them.
Now these rabbis are entitled to their old-fashioned attitudes regarding women and the intermingling of the sexes. But they surely must have known that Ms. Hogg would be in attendance in her elected capacity as deputy mayor. Are they so hermetically sealed in their religious world as to be unaware that it is a convention in our society — a very Canadian convention — for people to shake hands when introduced

Now, I personally am one of those "crazies" who is shomer negiah. Having said that, in my day job I frequently come into contact with women who do not know that Orthodox Jews, both male and female, restrict their interpersonal physical contact to those of the same gender. I have therefore always applied a principle my father insists on, that "to be rude is almost always worse than to insist on having things your way" in these kinds of situations. If a hand is extended to me, I quickly return the gesture. Most people would be bewildered were I to try and explain Jewish custom to them and frankly, when one looks at the origins of these laws, non-intimate contact is seen in a far more lenient light that the alternative. In a perfect world, I wouldn't have to deal with this but this world is far from perfect and our challenge in following God's law is to overcome that imperfection the best we can while offendeding the least we are able.

So do I think the Chabadniks were wrong? Absolutely. Look at the results and see how much chilul HaShem has been publicized because of this. Did Deputy Mayor Hogg understand why they did what they did? No. Once it was explained to her, did she realize that no offence was meant? No. So what gain was there in upholding a minor custom in an awkward situation? Indeed, as others have suggested, Chabad should have called her office and let her know about the handshaking issue so that no feathers would have been ruffled.

Having said that, I also think that Deputy Mayor Hogg has to take a step back and look at her own statements. For example:

When did we start thinking that by accommodating that, we were maintaining or enhancing Canadian society? Canadian laws and traditions are based on acceptance and inclusivity.

Strictly speaking, that's not entirely true. Canadian laws and tradition since the Trudeau era (1968-1983) are focused on absolute, non-judgemental multi-culturalism. The objective of official Canadian culture is to take immigrants from around the world and encourage them to not adopt the norms of the majority around them but to maintain their culture as strongly as possible. If anything, the Chabadniks, by refusing to change their behaviour, were acting in the best spirit of Canadian multi-culturalism. How could Hogg think otherwise? And how dare she, in the name of Political Correctness, demand that they accept her views as "the" norms?

What's more, and this has been a peeve of mine for a long time, a deputy mayor is a public servant. Key word: servant. Yes, governmental philosophy in Canada for the last 50 years has been to act in the opposite manor (old quip: other countries have governments, Canada is a government with a country) but if you strip away all the liberal arrogance about the righteousness of the nanny state, Brenda Hogg is a servant of the people, amongst them these Chabadniks. Exactly what would happen to a butler who bad-mouthed his employers in such a way?

Finally, there is Ms. Kay. Contrary to her concerns, I would not call her a self-hating Jew. In fact, I've always had the impression she quite likes herself and is very fond of Reconstructionism, the religion she has confused with Judaism. I do think she is sensitive to those who would label what she strongly believes in as incorrect and, as a result, has developed a strong hatred for Chareidim and Chasidim in particular, as evidences in her writings. Thus her rush to write a hostile column about them with every chance she gets. No doubt she'll do the progressive radio interview circuit as well in the coming week and spew her vitriol as amply as she can.

No, there is no "code" not to criticize other Jews in the media. However, there is the matter of proper behaviour. I would challenge her to look at the pages of her own paper. In the article, Ms. Hogg describes being similarly discriminated against during a ceremony in a mosque. To date, The National Post has published two opinion pieces and several letters criticizing the Chabadnik rabbonim for their behaviour. I have yet to see one letter written by a Muslim explained why the officials who refused to interact with Ms. Hogg during the Eid ceremony she attended were primitive, self-centred or fanatic in their devotion to outdated rules. Perhaps she will note something about that.

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