Opinions & Commentary

Hasidic Jews as victims of segregation in New Jersey

By Daniel Osborn, Ed.D.
Advocate columnist

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D., a history instructor at Dean College in Franklin, is the author of the forthcoming, “Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness.” Daniel Osborn, Ed.D., a history instructor at Dean College in Franklin, is the author of the forthcoming, “Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness.” I never conceived of a scenario where I would be asked, “How do we keep the Hasidim out?” For this reason, I was caught off guard when this question propelled me into an unanticipated conversation about fears stoked in northern New Jersey by the specter of Hasidic Jews moving into town.

I fell down this rabbit’s hole of anxiety, anger, subtle prejudice and coded language directed toward Hasidic Jews during a recent trip to New Jersey with my wife to visit her family. At a gathering of extended relatives and their close friends, I was abruptly introduced to a dilemma that has been plaguing Bergin County towns since the summer.

In recent months, Orthodox Jews from Rockland County, N.Y. extended an eruv into Mahwah, across state lines into New Jersey. To some residents of Mahwah, this aspect of Jewish religiosity was cause for concern. It ignited fears of an impending arrival of Hasidic Jews. The use of local parks by Hasidic families also raised alarm.

In response to the eruv and use of parks, Mahwah passed two town ordinances. One prohibits the use of utility poles for non-municipal postings, as the eruv took the shape of markers placed on poles. The second ordinance prohibits the use of town parks by out-of-state individuals.

These newly implemented policies have resulted in a lawsuit by the state of New Jersey against Mahwah. The state’s attorney general has spoken out against the town’s actions. The Democratic candidate for governor has also condemned what he considers religious intolerance. The town may lose $3.4 million in state funding for its parks on the grounds that this ordinance is unjustly founded upon religious discrimination. The weight of this condemnation did not deter those who engaged me in the conversation. They still wished to strategize to safeguard their community.

I learned of these details after this initial conversation. I fielded this question from an in-law devoid of context. I live in Massachusetts. I do not follow town politics in New Jersey. I was being solicited for advice without any requisite knowledge of the contentious debate over the eruv, use of public space, and ongoing legal contests over the ordinances.

But I was a Jew speaking with non-Jewish in-laws. In the moment, I was cast in the role of expert, authority and token voice of a population who was being lamented and discouraged from entering into this community. I was suddenly thrust into the role of defending Hasidic Jews while assuaging the concerns of those who designated them as a threat.

I was asked the question as though it were innocuous. Yet, I could not receive it without a flood of stereotypical associations with Jews surging into my consciousness. Tropes of Jews as alien, backwards, menacing and insidious colored my impression of every argument I heard from in-laws and their friends. I could not disentangle historical suspicions of Jews from the purportedly sober complaints voiced by these individuals.

After the trip to New Jersey, I went home to research the situation. I consumed numerous articles, editorials and social media posts. I was struck by the disconnect between the list of concerns about a possible Hasidic arrival to town and my own impression that much of this rhetoric was tinged with thinly veiled language that demonizes, dehumanizes and casts Jews – and many other minorities – into the role of the other.

I read about New Jersey residents who voiced concerns over declining real estate value if there was a movement en masse. Yet I thought of redlining and actions that restricted African American’s access to property in the suburbs. Economic arguments have a longstanding history of perpetuating segregation. They privilege personal financial self-interest over the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to move freely without encumbrance.

I read about concerns over the “character” of the community. Article after article featured earnest pleas by New Jersey residents wishing to defend their community. I interpreted this as coded statements that Hasidic Jews are inherently corrosive. They were not discussed as U.S. citizens entitled to civil liberties. Instead, they were recast as subversive. They were discussed as infiltrators. Arguments hinged on cultural differences. It was implied that these differences are deficiencies.

These voices wounded me. They read as self-evident cries against a danger. Yet, I could not help but register them as characterizations of Hasidic Jews as deviant.

I never imagined being asked this question about keeping an undesirable community out of town. Yet it is a perennial, repeatedly asked question. Jews are not always the subject. Systems of segregation confine African Americans. The terms ‘redlining,’ ‘Levittown,’ ‘Jim Crow’ and ‘Whites only’ all speak to the history, legacy and reality of segregation. The controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” positioned Muslims as a community to keep out. The tenor of immigration and refugee debates and the chant “Build the wall” encapsulate this attitude of fear, misunderstanding and dehumanization. Each of these communities has been defined foremost as a problem in the efforts to hold them at bay.

As I researched the situation in New Jersey, I wished to read articles about this debate that presented Hasidic Jews as pious people with traditions who have withstood generations of assimilation and identity erosion. Instead, I read characterizations of Hasidic Jews as incongruent with the values esteemed in suburban New Jersey. Deficit statements eclipsed any recognition of this community’s redeeming aspects of their identities. Complexity dissolved in favor of simplistic characterizations.

As a secular Jew, I must have seemed approachable when I was asked about the Hasidic community. I do not keep kosher. I do not attend synagogue. I eat matzah on Passover and light a menorah for Chanukah. My advice for keeping the Hasidim out was coveted because I could offer a Jewish perspective. But I could offer an assimilated Jewish perspective. I was perceived as sensible. Hasidic Jews were being deemed exotic.

The lack of malice in the conversation I had with in-laws was troubling. As a child, I assumed prejudice was violent, irrational and overtly hateful. Yet, I listened attentively to shrewd economic arguments. I later read impassioned defenses of parks couched in language of character, safety and preservation of a community. I identified a civic mindedness in arguments that, ultimately, are aimed at excluding. Hasidic Jews were referred to by a number of names, but not U.S. citizens. Without this explicit recognition, arguments of infiltration, corruption and decline are viable. With this recognition, these arguments are no longer defensible.

The legal battle in Mahwah is still unfolding. The debates over Hasidic Jews are unresolved. Like the history of segregation and stereotyping of minorities in the U.S., this example is fraught with tensions and accusations, and has not concluded. But it is a microcosm of the experiences that continue to define the lives of many African Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, and, yes, Jews in this country.


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