Friday, March 25, 2011

I Wish I Was Special

This story about citizens in Westhampton Beach, NY (including many Jews) opposing the creation of an eruv within the town limits rings very odd to me. Religiously speaking, an eruv refers to a sort of enclosure which allows observant Jews to undertake various activities on Shabbat they otherwise would be unable to do (because of rules governing the carrying of burdens across property lines). In modern times, the eruv typically a sort of religious-legal fiction -- as I understand it, it usually is comprised of some wires hung on utility poles to demarcate the borders of the "enclosure". I don't think it entails anything more substantive than that.

Reading the story, then, I really had trouble grasping the substantive nature of the town residents' objections. There was a lot of gesticulation against "special rights" and giving into to a special interest pressure group (that would be the Orthodox Jews). But it didn't sound like that maintenance of the eruv would cost more than a trivial sum, if anything (and I imagine it would be the Jews who funded it). The only reason they need permission is to hang the wires from the utility poles, as I understand it. An eruv is something that requires virtually nothing out of the surrounding community -- it is a near-costless accommodation.

The real motivator seemed to be that allowing an eruv might make the community too Orthodox-friendly, risking "changing the town." The residents were worried about the wrong sorts moving in, the wrong sorts being observant Jews. There seemed to be a lot of preexisting tension between the Orthodox community and the rest of the town (some of the residents accused the Orthodox Jews of being isolated and reticent to support other community institutions), and it seemed pretty obvious that many wished they would just go somewhere else ("If he [the local Rabbi] doesn't like the way things are, he can leave.").

There's a lot here that reminds me of the Incantalupo case (also in NY). It seems quite possible that the Orthodox Jews haven't been the warmest neighbors, and that's a contributing factor. But ultimately, even if that's true (and the evidence is much weaker than it was in Incantalupo), there's something unnerving about the way a ton of classic and modern anti-Semitic tropes ("hidden agendas", Jewish provincialism, half-formed dreams of forcing them out, worries about being taken over by observant Jews) are floating around in this story. Religious accommodation isn't (or shouldn't) be a grace bestowed by the beneficent majority upon its favored supplicants. In America, in a land built upon religious liberty (and religious pluralism), I think it ought to be assumed as of right. That assumption can be rebutted, but it would need stronger evidence than what appears to be going on in Westhampton, which is that much of the community simply doesn't like the local Orthodox community.


chingona said...

Did you see the Daily Show bit on this?

It seems that A LOT of the opposition is coming from other Jews. Based on, ahem, personal experience, I think a lot of liberal/more secular Jews think that Orthodox Jews look down on them (and, you know, they very well might), and the eruv in some ways symbolizes what secular Jews see as hypocrisy - they string up some fishing line, carry on Shabbos, and think they're better than the rest of us who just carry on Shabbos. There's also the "We're not weird, and those other Jews are making us look bad" thing.

So the objections might feed into anti-Semitic tropes, but I think it's more complicated than that. At the same time, having these intra-group identity things hashed out in public is always awkward.

David Schraub said...

The Daily Show bit is fantab, thanks!

It doesn't really surprise me that more secular Jews are playing a role in the opposition -- from my vantage point, it just shows (a) the community isn't monolithic (obviously -- and I know you don't think it is, but many seem to) and (b) being Jewish is hardly a bar to treating other Jews poor on the ground of their Jewishness.

I mean, I have my tensions with the Orthodox too, but this isn't the way you fight that battle. It's not just the airing-dirty-laundry thing. It just seems spiteful -- it's not above resolving differences, it appears motivated by the belief that the presence of Orthodox Jews is inherently detrimental to the community, and that's discomforting. And while I think you're right that there's a degree of embarrassment over the "weird Jews" -- and this is hardly the only context where this has (historically or contemporaneously) been an issue -- I think that mentality is not exactly salutary. It's very "good Jew"-y.

chingona said...

The best line definitely was, "You must be doing something horrible. You made a 73-year-old Jewish man complain."

This isn't a perfect analogy, but I was thinking about public accommodation recently because my son's preschool is serving fish every Friday during Lent and Passover is coming up, which requires that I explain all these things he can't eat, and while it's easy to explain bread, it's hard to explain pasta and crackers. (And of course, the Easter party - with lots of cookies - will be right in the middle of Passover.) And as long as I can remember, the public schools I attended always served fish on Fridays. Public accommodation of Christian religious practice is so ubiquitous that it's invisible.

Of course, it wouldn't be reasonable to expect a public school to clear out its hametz during Passover, but the eruv doesn't really affect anyone.