News and Commentary

STEINBERG: Attacks On Orthodox Jewish Education Ought To Frighten Everyone

Over the past few weeks, the stories of how visibly Orthodox Jews have been getting physically assaulted with regularity on the streets of New York have finally broken through, and people are now becoming aware of what these people have been contending with for no other reason than the fact that they are identifiable people of faith.

As disturbing as these stories are, and as much as they should horrify all Americans, there is another part of this saga that does not get discussed quite as often — a part that should concern people deeply. Not just because of what it has meant for those Orthodox Jews, but for what it means on a practical level for the rest of America — specifically, religious America.

Beyond the physical attacks have been the sustained attacks of other varieties that Orthodox Jews have been contending with from both the media and the government. For living their lives in defiance of the progressive values of modern society — and, specifically, the extremely progressive values of the societies of their home state — these people are targets.

Writing at The Federalist, Alliance Defending Freedom’s Kristen Waggoner makes this point in the context of the violence:

It is not only religious “nones” who are susceptible to the resentment and divisiveness of identity politics. This toxic cultural movement has made it more difficult for every American, religious or non-religious alike, to engage with people who look or feel different than us. As a nation, we are becoming less tolerant. As the recent violence showed us, that puts people who hold unpopular views — like Orthodox Jews — in danger.

Waggoner is undoubtedly correct in connecting the more general growing lack of tolerance for religious people — and religious views and beliefs — with the way it is manifesting in violence against visibly Orthodox Jews. Furthermore, she is also right that it should concern all people of conscience across the United States, regardless of whether they personally know any Orthodox Jews.

The blunt reality, though, is that few other religious groups proclaim their religious affiliation the way Orthodox Jews do with their dress. Therefore, few others are in the same danger of being targets for people who want to take a swing at them.

But physical violence is not the only method of swinging at Orthodox Jews.

Over the last few years, and under the guise of a call for “reform,” progressive activists have been waging an all-out assault on the entire private school system, starting with the educational system of Orthodox Jews. These activists — mostly formerly Orthodox people who are intent on destroying their former community by tearing down their institutions — have found willing allies among the liberal intelligentsia and media elite.

And so, in late 2018, the state of New York announced a slate of regulations meant to ensure that all private schools followed a curriculum which was, as the law says, “substantially equivalent” to the one public schools offer.

While this gets messaged as a “fix” for the failing Jewish schools, the proposal would have local school boards across the state dictate to all private schools precisely what they must teach, how they must teach it, and who must do the teaching. Furthermore, the school boards would also have the authority to inspect those schools and determine whether they are passing or failing.

Virtually every single non-public school educated child is at risk here. Do you send your child to a yeshiva (Jewish school)? The government wants control. Send your child to a Catholic school? Control. Any other religious school? The government will get involved. Irreligious private school? They’ll be there.

One can only imagine what they think of homeschoolers.

The roots of the words “substantially equivalent” themselves are rooted in religious animus. As Menachem Wecker points out in Education Next, they were added at the New York Constitutional Convention in 1894 with intent to target a religious minority, albeit a different one. And while over a century has passed since then, its original purpose is finally being realized:

In reporting the legislation’s passage, the New York Tribune wrote that “the measure has been defeated in former years, owing to the fears of Roman Catholics that a compulsory education law would interfere with their parochial schools.”

To be clear, the real issue up for debate here is not whether the state should have the ability to ensure that every child receives an education. What is, however, is whether parents should have control over how they educate their child.

This war on Orthodox Jews’ religious educational underpinnings is as much an existential threat as the madmen who storm their grocery stores with guns and rush their homes with machetes.

It’s not a secret why they are doing this. The man at the forefront of this campaign in New York, Nicholas Moster, is formerly Orthodox and openly despises his former community so deeply he once told a reporter that his drive to change the educational system in the Orthodox schools is akin to “someone who becomes an advocate for cancer cures as he is battling the disease, but then is cured.” He has publicly ridiculed the religious practices of the Orthodox as  “unhealthy and crooked” and tweeted that it is a “crazy religion.”

What Moster and his organization represent is a first step in a broader war on religious and traditional values. As Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in his New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann dissent, every “[s]tate may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

In this case, New York is the laboratory and government over-entanglement in education is the experiment. The Orthodox Jews happen to be the lab rats in this scenario, and if the experiment on them can succeed, there is no reason to believe it won’t be implemented all over the country next.


Eli Steinberg lives with his wife and five children in Lakewood, New Jersey. They are not responsible for his opinions in any way. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.

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