Forget the bromides about how wrong it is to make snap judgements about people based solely on their physical appearance. Truth is, we -- by which I mean virtually every last one of us -- put enormous stock in appearances.
To narrow that generalization down some, I'm referring in particular to the world of religion and religious garb.
Spot a woman wearing a Muslim hijab on Main Street U.S.A. -- not to mention a niqab, or face veil -- and, invariably, we conjure thoughts about what this woman believes and how she practices her faith. Individual perspective colors our thoughts, for sure, but the larger point I'm making is that our minds are largely reactive, so react we will.
Which brings me to the following story that's been wending it way through Israeli and American Jewish news outlets. It is, as you may have guessed, a story about appearances and religious garb. And perhaps, also, the need for endless content in our 24-7 journalistic environment.
President Donald Trump -- despite the claims of critics that, at the least, he's willing to countenance anti-Semitic displays among core supporters -- has several self-identified Orthodox Jews in his entourage.
Most famously, his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, self-identify as Orthodox.
As does Jason Greenblatt, a long-time attorney for Trump's business organization who is now a presidential special envoy. Greenblatt made his first extensive visit to the Middle East on behalf of the president last week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Whether or not Greenblatt's effort will bear fruit in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, is undoubtedly the storyline that's most important here.
But then there's this sidebar: Orthodox Jewish males -- including the socially more liberal Modern Orthodox movement within Orthodox Judaism that the Kushners can be said to embrace -- normally wear a head covering as a sign of respect to God. Most of the time they wear a kippah, Hebrew for the better-known Yiddish term for skull cap, which is yarmulke.
Greenblatt was photographed being the public diplomat with an uncovered head.
That may sound like no big deal. However, in Israel and the wider Middle East, it takes on great importance among those Jews and Muslims who do not differentiate between politics and religion.
This piece from the liberal American Jewish outlet The Forward pulls the story together nicely. Here's the top of it:
President Trump’s adviser on international negotiations just concluded his first trip to the Middle East and won a round of praise from all sides, for his openness and inclusiveness in approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But some in the Israeli press and on social media noticed another fact: Jason Greenblatt, who is Orthodox, showed up to his meetings both on the Israeli and on the Palestinians side, sans his trademark black kippah.
“Trump’s Envoy, Bareheaded, Walks Into Lion’s Den” stated a headline in the Jerusalem Post. The article noted that, “While whether or not someone wants to wear a kippah in public is very much a private matter and his own business, it was impossible not to notice.”
Even Reuters could not ignore the fact, including in the news agency’s report on Greenblatt’s diplomatic mission, the note that “Social media commentators were quick to point out that Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, had shown a notable degree of religious flexibility during his visit that may reflect a desire to be open and diplomatic: He has not worn his kippah, a skull cap worn by religious Jewish men, all week.”
Makes sense to me. Why complicate an already near-impossible diplomatic dance by wearing your bias on your sleeve? Or head, when you're claiming to be a fair go between.
Greenblatt is far from the first Orthodox Jew operating in the public sphere to doff his head covering. Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, once a candidate for vice president, also went hat-less in his public political life.
Two other Orthodox Jews with recent White House ties -- Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and Jack Lew, who served as President Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary -- did the same.
(I've also known several Orthodox Jewish journalists, for what's it worth, who also left their heads uncovered while on the job. Not all Orthodox journalists look like Jake Turx.
Greenblatt's lack of religious garb and the assumptions it engendered pale, however, in comparison with the scrutiny that Ivanka and Jared Kushner have received for what what some critics regard as their disregard for outward displays of Orthodox piety.
Jared also does not cover his head. And Ivanka? Let's just say I've noticed few signs of the modest dress that Orthodox Jewish women normally display (how the Kushners dress disturbs me not one bit; some of their political actions, on the other hand -- but that's another post).
Criticism of the Kushners has reached the point that they are being defended by some journalists who otherwise oppose just about everything that they and the Trump administration -- remember, both Ivanka and Jared are presidential advisors -- seem to stand for.
Enough, with the religious police! is the general theme.
Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of JTA, the Jewish wire service, penned a piece back in January, following Trump's inauguration, that expressed this theme. His paragraph that appealed most to me follows.
We all should spend less time worrying about how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, or any of us, observe Jewish rituals and more time asking how we or they affirm Jewish values. Jared and Ivanka, as close advisers to her father, have an opportunity to make the world a better place, to ensure equal protection for people under law, to build a sense of common cause among a divided country, to raise up the fallen and encourage policies that lead all of us in paths of peace. If they can be forces for that, then it will really be a kiddush Hashem.
Of course it's not just Orthodox Jews who get judged for their appearance. I doubt any religious group that accepts people into its ranks manages to avoid the glass house syndrome.
My question for journalists: do such judgements inappropriately worm themselves into your work?