By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
So why do you think people act this way? There is a belief that you are allowed to steal from non-Jewish people. It's a kind of a sickness that these people have. I had a recent case. I said to a guy, "You're taking money from a bank." And he said, "What do I care?"
A distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College, where he holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies. Focusing on Orthodox Jews, he has written books including Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (co-authored with Steven M. Cohen) and Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.
Why are there so many Orthodox slumlords? First of all, let's be clear, we're talking here about Orthodox Jews, not religious Jews. And the question we need to ask is not, "Does their Orthodoxy lead them to be a slumlord," but rather, "Why doesn't their Orthodoxy prevent those of them who become slumlords from acting in this way?" We know that, overwhelmingly, people who are Orthodox and Jewish, and people who see themselves as religious, do not become bad landlords. It doesn't lead to that. The real question is, when you find that many Orthodox Jews are slumlords, why hasn't his Orthodoxy, or his being religious, why hasn't it prevented him from becoming a slumlord?
But first, we need to make clear that Orthodox Jews are not overwhelmingly slumlords. I think the distinction is subtle, but nonetheless important.
Would you extend that to people who may not be as religious but are extremely charitable towards religious causes? I would frame that in the same way. Most people who are charitable and philanthropic are not slumlords. But the question is how can people who are slumlords continue to be so charitable. . . . Most Orthodox, and most Jews who view themselves as religious, do not do these kinds of bad things. But the real question is, How does it happen that, among the people who do these bad things, there are significant numbers of people who are perhaps charitable and also Orthodox? How is it that Orthodoxy doesn't prevent it when it happens?
So what's your answer to that? Well, first off, I'm not familiar with every example.
OK, here are a few in Brooklyn, especially in the Williamsburg Bushwick area. [Some of the most neglected buildings are owned by Hasidic Jews in those areas.] OK, well, first, we can agree that Satmars—the Hasids that live in Williamsburg—are not representative of most Orthodox Jews. But there is something that characterizes their culture—it's more than their religion—that allows this to happen.
Satmars were always a more insular group, even within Europe. Keep in mind that Orthodox Jews in general—and Satmars, in particular—suffered much more from persecution than other kinds of Jews. In part, it was their own fault, because their rabbis told them not to change anything. So they really stood out. They looked different. And their behavior fit perfectly into those xenophobic attitudes that Europeans harbored against Jews.
Although most victims of the Holocaust were not Orthodox, Orthodoxy took a bigger hit than any other group of Jews. The Hasidim in particular were totally shell-shocked after the war. They took big hits, and they had to reconstitute themselves. The Satmar in some ways became stronger after the war since they were one of the only groups of Hasidim to survive.
So is this religion, or culture, at work? Some of the things I said to you are true for all Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews]. That the only way they can keep their own—in a modern pluralistic society, where boundaries are easily crossed—is by persuading them that the world outside is dangerous and threatening, is worse in every way, and that "you wouldn't want to be like these people."
I think the us-versus-them mentality is very important. It's always painted or coated with a religious veneer, but it's not fundamentally religious. To add to that, there are real financial issues in Williamsburg. If you look at the posters people put up, it gives you a strong idea of what's on people's minds. And what are the posters about? I've written about them—if you look, they are all about money. If you look at Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community in Orange Country, it has the highest poverty rate in the country. If you look, you get an economic picture of the Satmar. . . . There's a big sense of financial insecurity, whether justified or not. And so some people can pull this all together and see it as a kind of justification, even of victimhood. It's a view that allows them to say, "Religion is religion, and business is business."
If you look at Orthodox Jews who have gone through university education and have picked up some of those same humanistic attitudes, that newly acquired worldview makes it difficult for them to justify these behaviors. Keep in mind that the folks you are talking about, their education is completely insular. It is by them, for them. They have no exposure to anything else. It's not like other religious, even Orthodox communities, where there is more contact, even in the workplace or among everyday people, with non-Jews. So they don't pick up any of the other values. Some of these values are embedded in Judaism but are so overladen with other values that they have become lost.