In a letter to the editor about my previous column (“Beyond the Pale: the deplorable parochialism of Satmar chasidim,” May 7), a reader misinterpreted my comments about the Satmar community’s failure to adhere to social distancing regulations at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The reader’s assertion, that I used “the fact that social distancing was not followed at a funeral to condemn 75,000 Satmars as evil people” (Letters to the Editor, “Demonizing Satmar,” May 14), is untrue. On the contrary, I defended Satmar leaders’ efforts — though ultimately unsuccessful — to disperse the crowd.
I was, however, critical of Satmar leaders for calling Jewish leaders, who justifiably condemned New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tweet targeting “the Jewish community” writ large for disregarding social distancing, “reckless.”
For that I faulted Satmar leadership and expressed my wish that they would allow themselves to come closer to the rest of the Jewish community and Israel, while maintaining their traditions. Perhaps fanciful, but hope springs eternal.
The words the letter writer used, that it was my intention to “demonize” the Satmar community and that I was condemning an “evil” people, are loaded and uncalled for as they are similar to language used by anti-Semites to describe Jews.
The reader goes on to criticize me for giving “aid and comfort to those seeking justifications to hate our community” because of the narrow social distancing issue. This charge, which effectively accuses me of facilitating ant-Semitism, is ridiculous. The ADL’s just-released annual report on anti-Semitism showed that in 2019 incidents in New York and New Jersey rose 37 percent from the previous year; we must confront the true perpetrators, not insult those with whom we disagree.
In this week’s Letters to the Editor, my friend and colleague Wallace Greene honors Satmar for their good work, which is praiseworthy, but criticizes me for publicizing my differences with Satmar in a public forum (“Unnecessary criticism,” page 12). Yet my views are similar to those of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who criticized charedi Orthodox theology in an op-ed on njjewishnews.com last month (Opinion, “How charedi Orthodox theology failed its followers”). For example, Greenberg called out Satmar leaders for justifying their refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by stating that they rely on Torah study to protect Jews in Israel from external threats, thereby placing an added burden on the 90 percent of eligible Israelis who do their civic duty. Also, Greene explained that Satmar leaders defended the mayor because they did not wish to engage in a political fracas. Good enough. But did that justify their public attack of other Jewish leaders?
The Satmar community has every right to stay outside the mainstream, and if they lived in their own bubble that would be fine — in fact the TV series “Unorthodox” displays the richness of their communal life. But their actions aren’t confined to their own people, and they are choosing to push their views into the public sphere by raising millions to bribe Israelis not to vote in Israeli elections and by vilifying Israel in the press and elsewhere. Their public stance merited my concern and makes them fair game for criticism.
Regarding my old Bronx neighborhood of Pelham Parkway where many survivors lived, they loved Israel and raised millions for Israel Bonds, UJA, Magen David Adom, and other worthy causes. Those I knew and admired, including my father, a communal leader, looked askance at the self-isolation of fellow survivors, the Satmars.
My hope is that in their own deliberations the Satmar leaders consider how their decisions impact the larger Jewish community and Israel, just as we march by the thousands to help protect their rights, freedom, and
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.