The New York Times’ unethical war on Chassidic schools

The newspaper’s 18-part assault on yeshivahs says more about the decline of journalistic ethics and comfort with antisemitism than it does about any alleged academic failings.

The New York Times distribution truck. Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.
The New York Times distribution truck. Credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Few members of the general public pay much attention to Pulitzer Prizes. Like most such competitions, they are subjectively decided and often say more about intellectual fashion than excellence in journalism and the arts categories in which they are awarded. They are also routinely dominated by the largest newspapers that, especially in recent years, tend to be the only ones with the resources to fund the large-scale and long-running investigations that are widely considered Pulitzer bait.

While having one is a highlight of any résumé, the Pulitzers that are most remembered tend to be the most controversial. The prestigious body may be about to start another scandal on May 8, when it is expected to announce that the Pulitzer for Investigative Journalism will be given to The New York Times for its 18-part series on Chassidic yeshivahs in New York state.

The conceit of this unprecedented deep dive into the network of ultra-Orthodox schools was, on its face, a legitimate avenue of inquiry. The series began with an article probing whether students were being deprived of basic secular education in subjects like English and math that might enable them to support themselves or function outside of the enclaves in which they live.

As I wrote when the series started last September, the question of adequate educational standards in these schools is a legitimate one. If they are truly failing their children, whether out of incompetence or a belief that non-religious subjects are unimportant, it would be a tragedy that might be contributing to the already troublingly high rates of poverty in these communities.

However, it soon became apparent that the Times was interested in more than just that narrow question. Even the initial broadside—to which the paper devoted enormous resources in terms of reporters’ time (two reporters spent a full year producing the report with the aid of who knows how many researchers), space and even the publication of a special Yiddish edition of the account—seemed unable to stick to that concern.

Instead, it introduced dubious accounts about corporal punishment in the yeshivahs as well as hints about possible corrupt behavior on the part of school officials and community leaders aimed at scamming the secular public. The headline of the front-page news article editorialized on the subject by proclaiming, “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.”

It was just the start of a campaign that would go much further down the road of alleging that Chassidic Jews were engaged in massive and ongoing fraud in which New York taxpayers were being robbed blind. In particular, another piece published last December alleged the same community was dishonestly reaping “a windfall of special education funding.”

Two agendas were at play from the outset.

One was the Times’ animus against private and parochial schools. The paper’s editorial position is one of unabashed support for the government school system and the teachers’ unions that seek to curtail any public spending on institutions not controlled by the state and local educational bureaucracy. The Times takes a dim view of charter schools and is adamantly opposed to school-choice measures that would allow parents of kids in failing public schools to move them to better private alternatives. The paper regards any money not poured into the government system as a form of theft, no matter how much good it might do or what parents actually think. It also takes the most restrictive position possible when it comes to funding any aspect of religious schools, even those that are specifically approved by the courts.

But as dubious as their steadfast championing of the collapsing public system, especially after its coronavirus pandemic failures and the teacher’s unions’ dereliction of duty in keeping them closed long after private schools were opened, there is something else at play in the Times’ yeshivah series.

While some of the articles might be defensible when viewed in isolation, taken together, the series revolves around a theme that would, if directed at any other minority group, be quickly denounced as bigotry. The Times’ series portrays New York’s Chassidic Jews as a scheming, dishonest group interested solely in advancing an obscurant religious vision, as well as willing to sacrifice their own children’s well-being and profit at the expense of their non-Jewish neighbors’ gullibility.

Part of that involves the demonization of efforts by Orthodox Jews to defend their interests in the public square. This was amply illustrated by the article titled, “How the Hasidic Jewish Community Became a Political Force in New York.” Here, the bias is shown partly by tone. What would be regarded as a normal, even laudable effort by an embattled and often misunderstood minority community seeking representation and influence in the political system was painted as a sinister effort. Had it been about community activists trying to help African-Americans or Hispanics, nothing about it would have been considered remarkable, since those groups are also often mobilized largely by their churches and pastors. But when Chassidic Jews and their rabbis played the same game, the Times depicted it as an effort to strong-arm politicians willing to corruptly sell favors for votes.

Just as bad was that article’s misrepresentation of the event that it said launched the effort to expand Chassidic political influence: The 1991 riots in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. In the Times’ account, it was a tragic misunderstanding that led to one unfortunate death. In reality, it was a pogrom carried out against Orthodox Jews that lasted for days until police finally stepped in to quell the spree of antisemitic violence.

As is so often the case, agenda journalism inevitably leads to unethical journalism. As The Daily Signal reported this week, the story in the series about the Chassidic Jews gaming the system to get undeserved funding for special-needs students was marred by deceptive reporting. In particular, the paper cited the anonymous parent of a student who was being wrongly labeled as autistic by a yeshivah. As it turns out, the anonymous parent was an activist who had previously been a named source for the paper’s reporting as well as the author of a Times op-ed lambasting Chassidic schools.

Agudath Israel of America, the organization representing the ultra-Orthodox community, has put together a 30-page report detailing the problems in the Times’ reporting. Anyone who has read the Times series ought to read the Agudath report and take its concerns seriously.

As much as the Times and its apologists, especially those secular liberal Jews who not only still accept the Times’ dubious claim to be “the newspaper of record” but also regard it as akin to holy scripture, may protest that its motives are pure, the context of the series is damning.

It was published at a time when antisemitism is on the rise not only around the globe but in New York City itself, where an epidemic of violence largely committed by African-Americans targeting Orthodox Jews is ongoing. But that subject holds little interest for a newspaper that has become notorious for its obeisance to intersectionality, and is thus loath to publish anything in which people of color are shown to be victimizing members of a group that is falsely portrayed as benefiting from “white privilege.”

Yet by singling out a minority group for scorn and charges of robbing the state treasury, it’s clear that the newspaper is itself guilty of fomenting and rationalizing Jew-hatred.

Jews are right to sound the alarm about the way a newspaper that has a long history of downplaying Jewish suffering, including burying reporting on the Holocaust and bias against Israel, is now waging war on Chassidic Jews and their schools.

This outrage must also be placed in the context of the decline of journalistic standards in corporate media outlets.

Reporters and editors at publications like the Times seem to have not just discarded the pretense of objectivity that was long observed in the breach. They now openly dismiss the entire notion that journalists should strive for truth or tell both sides of a story. They see the purpose of their work as political activism and justify the most egregious slanting of stories if it advances their point of view. That’s why it’s now rare to see a headline or a story in any section of the Times—from the news to the arts to sports—that doesn’t editorialize in one way or another to support left-wing interests.

This is shown by the way reporters are colluding with White House staff to help President Joe Biden answer questions in the rare instances when he does so publicly, or the willingness of liberal outlets to continue their refusal to report about the Hunter Biden laptop scandal that was effectively silenced in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign.

This has already been an issue for the Pulitzers.

In 2018, the staffs of the Times and The Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for their articles about former President Donald Trump and his campaign’s supposed collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, which was ultimately shown to be largely the product of disinformation spread by the Hillary Clinton campaign. If the Pulitzers had an ounce of integrity, an award that was the result of an elaborate hoax based on a conspiracy theory that transfixed the country for three years would have been rescinded, and the Post and Times forced to return their medals and prize money. Predictably, such accountability has never been seriously considered.

Nor have the Pulitzers rescinded the 1932 prize given to the Times’ Walter Duranty for his reporting from the Soviet Union. Duranty was a supporter of the regime led by mass murderer Joseph Stalin and his articles covered up the Soviet terror famine that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians.

Should the Times win a Pulitzer for its tendentious series on Chassidic Jews, it will deserve mention alongside the Duranty atrocity, as well as the Russian collusion smears. But in the current context, it will be particularly painful given the implicit permission it has granted to attacks on a community already besieged by antisemitic violence.

Mainstream liberal Jewish organizations still primarily see antisemitism as a function of far-right extremism that they never cease to try to link to conservative political foes. But the way in which their favorite newspaper has helped foment Jew-hatred remains largely off-limits for criticism. You don’t have to sympathize with the religious, social or political views of the people who send their children to Chassidic schools to be appalled by the Times series. Nor is it necessary to share their beliefs to understand that the media assault on them is tainted by contempt and loathing for Orthodox Jews and their faith, and ultimately for all Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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