For better or worse, I'm as Jewish as any of your GetReligionistas. (In a Jewish sense I fall well short of my predecessor here, Ari L. Goldman; I also fall short as a journalist.) Thus, I'm often the guy who gets called upon when there is a bit of Jew news that needs some scrutiny. For example, yesterday one of my colleagues sent me a story by Isabel Kershner of The New York Times. It was titled "Some Israelis Question Benefits for Ultra-Religious," and, in light of past discussions here, the question was one of lingo.
As I also discussed last summer, there has long been a perception in Israel that the Haredim -- what those outside the group consider Ultra Orthodox Jews -- freeload off the Jewish state, primarily by escaping compulsory national or military service and by studying Talmud instead of earning a living.
But this New York Times piece was not just revisiting trodden ground. (I mean, it was, but the soil was still pretty fresh.) Kershner opened with:
Chaim Amsellem was certainly not the first Parliament member to suggest that most ultra-Orthodox men should work rather than receive welfare subsidies for full-time Torah study. But when he did so last month, the nation took notice: He is a rabbi, ultra-Orthodox himself, whose outspokenness ignited a fresh, and fierce, debate about the rapid growth of the ultra-religious in Israel.
"Torah is the most important thing in the world," Rabbi Amsellem said in an interview. But now more than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work, compared with 15 percent in the general population, and he argued that full-time, state-financed study should be reserved for great scholars destined to become rabbis or religious judges.
"Those who are not that way inclined," he said, "should go out and earn a living."
Kershner is right. It was pretty surprising to hear Amsellem say that. But was it appropriate for Kershner to refer to Amsellem and the men he spoke for and about as ultra-Orthodox?
That depends. See Brad A. Greenberg, Hollywood doesn't get Jews, GetReligion.org, June 7, 2010; specifically, look at comment four:
I debated whether to use the term "ultra Orthodox" because, as BC noted, it's not commonly used. However, in this case, I wanted to give a little attention because the NYT used it in an otherwise well-done story last month and one of our readers found the expression a bit odd. While it can have a pejorative connotation, it doesn't implicitly and it is a descriptor broadly used in the Jewish community.
JTA, which has an audience more highly knowledgeable of the contours of the Jewish community, once preferred "fervently Orthodox," but has moved away from that moniker. It now uses Haredi Orthodox on first reference. Why does JTA avoid "ultra-Orthodox?" Because members of that community object to the term and using it doesn't help readers understand the group being identified than the term Haredim, which is what the Haredi call themselves.
For JTA, it's a matter of respecting the wishes of the Haredi, but I think it's based on the faulty premise that "ultra" implies extremism.
There is, however, another twist when using ultra-Orthodox: It's a bit of a linguistic fallacy. Anyone who believes they are orthodox does not accept that someone else is living in a more orthodox manner.
Haredi is not, as Kershner notes, Hebrew for ultra-Orthodox. It means "fearing God" or "in awe of God." Ultra-Orthodox is merely the term most members of the Jewish community use to distinguish the Haredim from Modern Orthodox Jews without having to use Hebrew.
This, then, seems to be one of those circumstances on the Godbeat where, like with the pastor of a Messianic church who considers himself a rabbi, reporters refer to members of a group as others perceive them, not as they see themselves.
Whether it is appropriate is a separate issue. If "ultra-Orthodox" is being used pejoratively, then it's not. But in the vast majority of cases, that term is being used with no more or less derisiveness than "Haredim."
VIDEO: Regardless of identification, Haredim don't look good in the above clip from "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?"