It's always hard, when you're the member of a community that's constantly in the news for things such as rioting, child abuse and financial corruption to whinge that you're being discriminated against. Certainly sympathy will be found lacking in most quarters.
However, that doesn't make it right. While the Chareidim have pulled in a lot of negative publicity since the Bein HaMetzarim began and even before, it's proper for us to remember that when they complain of being discriminated against, they do make a good case.
The latest example made the headlines a couple of days ago and, probably because it involves chilonim acting badly against Chareidim, didn't make a lot of waves in the predominantly anti-Chareidi blogsphere:
The Hebrew University in Jerusalem pulled a tender for the sale of two buildings owned by the university in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.
On Monday, a real estate company owned by the university decided to cancel the bidding on two buildings containing 64 housing units. Seven haredi groups and one secular group made propositions on the property.
According to some reports, the tender was cancelled after a Chareidi investment group provided the best offer. In order to avoid charges of overt discrimination by taking a less profitable non-Chareidi offer, Hebrew U decided to cancel the tenders and avoid the problem altogether. I don't doubt that somewhere along the line they will find a way to simply avoid such an open process and find a non-religious group to sell to. And that's wrong.
In a civilized country, the rule of law must apply equally to all citizens. If it is wrong for Chareidim to intimidate non-religious folks who want to live in their neighbourhoods or to try and limit the sale of such properties to families they approve of, it is wrong for Hebrew U to refuse to go through with a planned sale of a building because the process they chose led to the "wrong" party being chosen.
In response to the recent rioting and other scandals, many Chareidi writers have tried to point out their side of the story. This has been made difficult by the fact that they are defending a bunch of lunatics, but lunatics still have rights under the law. As a secular writer in The Jerusalem Post had to point out:
As horrifying as this story may be, it is no more so than many other examples of alleged abuse reported regularly in this country. What makes it distinct is its cultural-political nature. In fact, it has turned into an ideological battle, with spokesmen from the woman's community going after everyone, including Hadassah, the police, social services and the justice system - everyone, that is, except the woman herself. Peculiarly, she is presumed innocent by her clansmen, by mere virtue of her address, Mea She'arim. Still, in a twist of irony, it is the presumption of innocence, until proof of guilt, on which our legal system is based.
It is also a principle to which the press is supposed to adhere.
Well, it certainly hasn't been doing so. Every lead into every Hebrew news story this week has referred to "the starving mother" ("starving" as a verb, not an adjective), with additional features discussing Munchausen Syndrome - as though there has already been a diagnosis, a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence.
This is only partly due to the fact that child abuse is one of those issues that everyone feels strongly about, and which makes for sensationalist copy. More to the point in this particular case is its connection to a community toward which the bulk of the public, egged on by a largely secular press, feels a sense of schadenfreude whenever something dark emerges from its midst. The logic behind this is obvious. How, we wonder, dare the very same people who throw proverbial fits and literal rocks over our driving on Shabbat, criticize us for being unholy, when their own houses are made of glass?
Still, the knee-jerk presentation of the haredim as hypocrites at best, and evil at worst, should be cause for pause. That such pause came this week from Yediot Aharonot's prime political pundit, Nahum Barnea, is as surprising as it is refreshing.
"It's easy, too easy, to slam the haredim," he writes. "They are the classic candidates for xenophobia. Even liberal Israelis, who are outraged by patronizing remarks made by a judge to a young Ethiopian woman, by the expulsion of [illegal] immigrants or by the abuse of Palestinians, hate haredim with a clear conscience. It's commensurate with the bon-ton. The 'starving mother' affair is a clear example. The first incisive questions about her should have been directed to the hospital: Why did so much time pass before suspicions emerged that the problem had to do with the mother and not with the child? What sort of needless and damaging treatments did he undergo? What did the hospital's social work department do about the case? Was there an effort to handle this grave matter in cooperation with the community?
It is normal for people to give those they like the benefit of the doubt when they make a misstep while condemning their enemies without reservations for identical misdoings. In no way does that make it acceptable. The challenge of the human being having been created in the image of God is to rise above what is considered normal and think beyond that. In Avos Hillel tells us not to judge another until we have come to his place ("walked a mile in his shoes"). This advice would be well heeded by both Chareidi and secular Jew alike.
We are taught by Chazal that the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) was destroyed by sinas chinam which is usually translated as causeless or baseless hatred. There's only one problem with the translation: ask anyone who hates another and he'll happily tell you that it isn't causeless hatred he's feeling. He's got plenty of cause!
How much more does this apply to the current religious-secular conflict in Israel! The chilonim certainly have many legitimate reasons to despise the Chareidi Jews amongst them. But - and this is the important part - from the Chareidi perspective they have just as many reasons to hate the chilonim, as this incident with Hebrew U shows. They are discriminated against, treated differently than all other minority groups and subjected to a public level of hate that would be unacceptable against any other community. The truth of this removes any perceived moral advantage the chilonim think they have over the Chareidim. One can argue that it's their own fault but so what? Does that justify hatred?
Perhaps it is better to translate sinas chinam as free hatred. Instead of thinking rationally, both groups in Israel have given free rein to their hatred. Instead of remembering that everyone in the opposing camp is a human being created by God, they have decided to let their base emotions take over. This free giving of hatred is what led to the destruction of Yerushalayim 1939 years ago or so. It is also heading us in this direction today.
Perhaps with Tisha B'Av arriving imminently it's time for us all to take a step back and remember this.