by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Just about two years ago, on February 28, 1999, 40,000 Orthodox Jews packed more than a mile of 4-lane wide Water Street in lower Manhattan in a bone-chilling rain to pray and recite Psalms. They were there to beseech God en masse to guide the hearts of Israel's leaders to preserve the Jewish State's Jewish character. While the immediate impetus for the gathering had been a series of Israeli Supreme Court rulings threatening the state's "religious status quo," there were no speeches and no slogan-chanting - only traditional Jewish prayers and verses.

The following day, The New York Times acknowledged the unusual event by publishing a photo in its Metro section with the caption: "20,000 Vent Anger Against Israeli Court." The newspaper might be forgiven for disregarding the official police estimate and undercounting the crowd by half. But "anger" was nowhere evident at the gathering. I was there. Not a single word spoken by the event's organizers or by any of the rabbis who led the crowd in fervent prayer, could have remotely been characterized as angry. The crowd itself was serene and serious, and they prayed in what any observer would have described as a heartfelt manner.

But they were visibly Orthodox Jews and the issue that had brought them together was a controversial one, so anger was, even if unwitnessed, presumed.

That photo and caption came to mind recently when several newspapers, including the Times, ran another photograph of Orthodox Jews, on February 9, along with a similar caption, both provided by the news agency Reuters.

The photograph, of a small part of a large crowd that gathered shortly after a car bomb exploded in a heavily haredi, or "ultra-Orthodox," neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem, showed a number of local residents. No one had been killed or even seriously injured by the powerful explosion, though the street where it took place is often filled with students from a large nearby yeshiva and needy Jerusalemites visiting a soup kitchen at the site.

Numerous personal accounts poured in to American friends and relatives of some of those present in the crowd that day, describing the jubilant and spiritual mood of those who had gathered, and how they sang thanks to God for frustrating the plans of the bombers to kill and maim.

In the published photo, a boy is holding up a piece of wreckage from the bomb-laden car; a smiling young man has his arm thrust upward; and, in the foreground, a pair of hands is clasped together in what seems a gesture of celebration.

The caption, in its entirety, reads: "A crowd of Israelis chanting anti-Arab slogans in Jerusalem yesterday as one held a piece of jagged metal from the explosion of a car bomb."

It was indeed reported by the Israeli paper Ha'aretz that a group of supporters of the outlawed anti-Arab Israeli Kach movement had joined the mostly haredi crowd, in fact that the very religious Jews had "clashed" with the ultra-nationalists.

It is conceivable that some haredim may have joined in anti-Arab chants. After all, though the overwhelming majority of haredim are neither very nationalistic nor "anti-Arab," Palestinian actions over recent months have certainly served to heighten fears of Arabs across all segments of the Israeli populace.

Perhaps the particular handful of men depicted in the Reuters photograph were even, against the odds, among such presumed haredi chanters. If they were, though, they were clearly not representative of the large haredi majority at the scene. Yet the caption (or choice of photo, if the caption is accurate) misled millions of readers into thinking that the gathering had been one of hatred, not thanksgiving.

It is highly unlikely that anti-Semitism or anti-Orthodoxy thrives in the Western media. But what is clearly alive and well in the hearts of some reporters - and, sadly, in one or another way within most of us - is the more subtle but still dangerous evil of stereotyping.

The Orthodox Jewish community is not perfect, but neither is it what the press and public so often assume. If Orthodox Jews gather to pray, it does not mean they are angry. If they celebrate, it does not mean they are hateful. If (to digress in a personal vein) they dare to raise important Jewish issues, it does not mean they are motivated by lack of love for fellow Jews.

Isn't it time haredim were viewed with true objectivity rather than through the smudged lens of stereotype?

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American director of Am Echad]

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