The Myth of Free Literature

Response Article To "A Faithful Mirror? On Charedi Literature"

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Chaim Walder

Charedi literature is censored. But censorship is no expletive. Every society chooses which content it wishes to expose, and filters out those elements that don't suit its dispositions. The idea that liberal society does not censor is nothing but an illusion. Yes, Charedi society censors content it deems inappropriate to its educational vision. It takes pride in doing so.

Elul 5778, August 2018

I carefully read Ruthi Kepler’s article on Charedi newspapers and literature, and I found myself agreeing with almost every word. Having written for Yated Neeman for almost three decades, I can certainly attest that the Charedi press does, indeed, critique, censor, and even entirely reject stories or articles which do not fit its agenda. I also agree that sometimes the price of this censorship is that the publication presents an incomplete description of what goes on in Charedi society. Charedi press does omit events and phenomena, both inside Charedi society and outside. In large part, the omissions are rooted in educational policy. Thus, Charedi press avoids covering criminal acts. In a small number of cases it does this to protect the Charedi image. In greater measure, however, it refrains from mentioning even crimes committed by secular Jews and Gentiles due of educational considerations. It does so intentionally, without apology or excuses. It does so because it thinks that is what should be done.

Charedi press does omit events and phenomena, both inside Charedi society and outside… but It does so intentionally, without apology or excuses. It does so because it thinks that is what should be done.

Thus, Yated Neeman once reported that a baby who was crushed to death by an “electrical device.” Clearly, the baby was not killed by an mp3 player or an air conditioner remote-control, but rather by a falling television set. Yet, Yated Neeman cannot report this, because the word “television” doesn’t enter Charedi press. Yated Neeman will report the death of the baby, because this is unfortunate news which must be reported. However, it will not sacrifice its principles. On that basis they will not report the actual device, just as they do not mention the name of the animal they call the “other thing” – pigs. Yated Neeman trusts its intelligent readers to understand what killed the baby, and it has no problem with someone making fun of its ostensible close-mindedness.

Another example of conscious self-censorship is how Yated Neeman reports on killings carried out by ISIS. For reasons of values, the newspaper chooses not to tell its readers how the organization kills its prisoners, even though it is likely that most of them have heard of their cruel methods. The Charedi press espouses values of gentleness and modesty, abhorring that which the rest of society accepts with equanimity.

I am proud of this censorship, even if it annoys and angers others, and I believe that deep thinking underlies it. In this I am not alone. Outsiders to Charedi society, those who can appreciate the nuances that non-Charedim find hard to grasp, also praise the sensitivity of the Charedi press. Avishai Ben Haim, a secular reporter on Charedi affairs considered to be fair and understanding (in contradistinction to others who write about Charedi affairs) often expresses in open admiration of the way Yated Neeman handles sensitive issues.

Below I wish to argue that not only is this censorship proper, it’s not even unusual in and of itself. Every paper in the world censors contents in accordance with its values and ideological line. What makes the Charedi press stand out is not the fact of censorship per se, but the values that inform that censorship.

***

The domestic secular papers and even the international press critique, censor, and even reject content deemed incompatible with their beliefs. Moreover, they also persecute, humiliate, and ban anyone who dares say anything counter to their agenda. I experienced this myself while writing this article. Searching for examples of subject matters that the secular press would refrain from raising, I found myself self-censoring, for fear of the powers-that-be. I feared that bringing up the examples that came into my head would lead my books to be banned by the Cultural Ministry and secular libraries, and cause me to be the subject of persecution and attacks. In other words, the fear of being banned because of an opinion or story is not just the lot of Ruthi Kepler and Charedi authors, but of all authors in the world. The only difference between different groups is the subject matter to be censored.

the fear of being banned because of an opinion or story is not just the lot of Ruthi Kepler and Charedi authors, but of all authors in the world. The only difference between different groups is the subject matter to be censored.

What I write is no secret. Just see what the press and the artistic establishment did to singer Ariel Zilber for daring to deviate from the line of political correctness. The same is true of Meir Ariel, an ostensible Israeli cultural hero, who once expressed himself in a manner unbefitting of the regnant ideological mode, upon which he become irrelevant overnight. It is not just in the field of culture, but also in science, which is supposed to be objective, where secular society censors findings which do not fit its beliefs. Thus, a scientist who wished to investigate racial differences in intelligence was virtually boycotted by the scientific establishment.

Does the secular press not give preferential, agenda-based treatment to people and events, protecting those it wishes to protect and attacking those it wishes to destroy?

Consider two articles published by the esteemed journalist Sima Kadmon. In the first, she waxed lyrical about the figure of Barack Obama, in words which are hard to describe as “objective”: “He has the qualities of a movie star, a professor at a university, and a guru at one and the same time.” A few years later, during the visit of Donald Trump, the same Sima Kadmon made fun of Israelis acting like excited provincials when it comes to any president who comes to visit: “We melt like some primitive tribe which suddenly sees a white man land in the middle of a jungle,” Kadmon wrote.

The secular press presents matters based on its agenda, and censors and rejects news, events, and articles that don’t fit its worldview. However, like I said above, there is justice in censorship. If society considers the harm caused by publishing the “truth” to outweigh the its benefit, then its right and perhaps moral duty is to keep the damaging information away from the public eye. In other words, “not reflecting reality” is not always a bad idea.

The Hypocrisy of Pretended Liberalism

The response to the arguments against the self-censorship of the Charedi press is adequately provided by left-winger Uri Misgav in Haaretz – a paper that prides itself as the symbol of liberalism.

Haaretz recently published a column by author Irit Linor, with the headline “What’s So Liberal About Abortions?” Linor is bewildered at liberal organizations seeing abortion as a value and a symbol. “Abortion is first and foremost the ending of a human life. Even if it is sometimes necessary, it cannot become a liberal and feminist symbol,” Linor wrote.

Toward the end of the article, Linor made an ingenious connection to a 2001 campaign in which famous women like Micky Haimovitz and Orna Banai were photographed with cute-looking chicks in protest of the egg industry’s cruelty toward male chicks. The participants were women alone, forming a mental association between chicks and motherhood. The campaign received broad and positive coverage; even those who didn’t identify with the moral attitude appreciated the advertisement’s elegant articulation of compassion and conscience. Linor ended her article with a question: “If they had participated in a campaign against the parallel grinding up of healthy fetuses — would they have been considered compassionate and conscientious, or rather primitive?” To sharpen the point, we could add the often-passionate struggle of animal rights organizations against the very consumption of eggs and milk, which hammers home the horrific hypocrisy of supporting abortion.

In response, Misgav published a column entitled “Excuse Me, But Why is Irit Linor Getting a Platform in Haaretz?” He wrote as follows:

Haartz is supposed to be committed first and foremost to its loyal readers, its fans, its true friends. The very employment of Linor, with all her history, is an offense to their feelings. … There is no need to publish the opinions of enemies and smearers of Haaretz in Haaretz. There is a thin and elusive line between the altruism and generosity of winners and being a sucker. It must not be crossed, certainly not when you are fighting for your very existence in the face of an ugly wave of fascism, McCarthyism, and populism….

Charedi Jewry is fighting for its very existence. For this reason, it will not allow opinions it considers to be heresy or a danger to Jewish education to be introduced into its schools or establishment press. To the same extent, secular schools and the secular press will not grant entry rights to opinions that may lead the public to return to observance – especially the youth.

Charedi Jewry is fighting for its very existence. For this reason, it will not allow opinions it considers to be heresy or a danger to Jewish education to be introduced into its schools or establishment press.

Speaking in front of secular audiences, I often receive complaints about how we “isolate our children” in Charedi education. My response is simple: “And do you not do the same? Do you allow rabbis to come to your schools? Do you allow that your children be exposed to a lifestyle of observing mitzvot?”

“It’s true that we Charedim fear secular culture. But you are also Charedim. You are Charedim – fearful of – the Charedim. And just as you may close off your children from a religious way of life, so we have the right to block our children from the possibility of leaving that world behind.”

Those who foolishly follow the “openness” of secular society are falling victim to a sophisticated fraud. Secular society is no more open than Charedi society. It’s just that each society prods in its direction. Everyone censors; everyone rejects opinions they don’t like, and everyone silences the other. We all present ourselves as smart and right, and the others as injudicious and wrong.

***

Despite the above, there is room to address the criticism of Charedi literature that arises from Kepler’s article. The argument is that limitations imposed by Charedi censorship on literature harm our ability to create “good Charedi literature.” According to Kepler, there are subjects that simply cannot be dealt with, and the principal loser is the public.

Charedi press and literature provide all the information children and adults need to live their lives properly and with refinement, including ostensibly sensitive subjects that are in tension with the educational goal of maintaining purity and innocence.

My personal opinion is that this criticism is incorrect. Charedi press and literature provide all the information children and adults need to live their lives properly and with refinement, including ostensibly sensitive subjects that are in tension with the educational goal of maintaining purity and innocence. I can attest that all subjects I wished to write about were ultimately approved in one way or another, while adhering to the principles of Charedi education. These include protecting children from dangerous strangers, the ability to say “no” to an adult, how to deal with dropouts, and giving specific direction to parents in all kinds of delicate situations.

True, concerning divorce – concerning which there continues to be something of a taboo – I’m only succeeded in writing adult literature; Charedi censorship has yet to allow me to present the subject in children’s books. Yet, I am certain that after recent increases in divorce rates I will receive approval to write about the matter even in children’s literature.

Note that I do not write “I will receive approval” as a complaint. As a religious author, I am proud of having my literature critiqued and censured. I accept with understanding and respect the community right – even the community duty – to censor my books.


photo: Bigstock

One thought on “The Myth of Free Literature

  • I know this is moving the discussion away from the focus of Ms Kepler’s original article, but to buttress Mr Walder’s point about “liberal” media being equally suppressive, the leading article on Breitbart right now is about a leaked internal Google document in which Google openly embraces its (new?) self-image as “The Good Censor” of the entire internet

    A few excerpts from the article:

    An internal company briefing produced by Google and leaked exclusively to Breitbart News argues that due to a variety of factors, including the election of President Trump, the “American tradition” of free speech on the internet is no longer viable.

    Despite leaked video footage showing top executives declaring their intention to ensure that the rise of Trump and the populist movement is just a “blip” in history, Google has repeatedly denied that the political bias of its employees filter into its products.

    But the 85-page briefing, titled “The Good Censor,” admits that Google and other tech platforms now “control the majority of online conversations” and have undertaken a “shift towards censorship” in response to unwelcome political events around the world.

    Examples cited in the document include the 2016 election and the rise of Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) in Germany.

    The briefing labels the ideal of unfettered free speech on the internet a “utopian narrative” that has been “undermined” by recent global events as well as “bad behavior” on the part of users. It can be read in full below.

    It acknowledges that major tech platforms, including Google, Facebook and Twitter initially promised free speech to consumers. “This free speech ideal was instilled in the DNA of the Silicon Valley startups that now control the majority of our online conversations,” says the document.

    The briefing argues that Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are caught between two incompatible positions, the “unmediated marketplace of ideas” vs. “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility.”

    The first approach is described as a product of the “American tradition” which “prioritizes free speech for democracy, not civility.” The second is described as a product of the “European tradition,” which “favors dignity over liberty and civility over freedom.” The briefing claims that all tech platforms are now moving toward the European tradition.

    One of the reasons Google identifies for allegedly widespread public disillusionment with internet free speech is that it “breeds conspiracy theories.”

    The document also bemoans that the internet allows “have a go commenters” (in other words, ordinary people) to compete on a level playing field with “authoritative sources” like the New York Times.

    Google-owned YouTube now promotes so-called “authoritative sources” in its algorithm. The company did not specifically name which sources it would promote…

    The article is here:
    https://www.breitbart.com/tech/2018/10/09/the-good-censor-leaked-google-briefing-admits-abandonment-of-free-speech-for-safety-and-civility/

    The leaked Google internal document is here:
    https://www.scribd.com/document/390521673/The-Good-Censor-GOOGLE-LEAK#from_embed

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